I was assigned to review this book. How many people really want to go over the history of the Weather Underground? No one? Well, I’m going to do it anyway. After all, I’ve been assigned.
Ron Jacobs says he was a political activist who ‘floated’ through various left organizations during the period in question. His word, not mine. He found “Weather’s” positions on racism, imperialism and sexism ‘influential.’ Jacobs calls the organization “Weather” in this book, which seems a bit much, so I’ll just use “WU.”
Full disclosure. During part of this period I was in SDS and the Worker/Student Alliance, Committee Against Racism, and the Progressive Labor Party (“PL”). I later quit them to join the anti-ultra-left OCIC or “Trend” in the mid to late 70s, and then moved through several Trotskyist organizations like the Global Class War Tendency and Socialist Action, entered into the Communist Party, and then the Labor Party of the late 90s. Now I am an independent Marxist, and have absorbed all that.
First off Jacobs attacks PL, as every good RYM member should – even though he was never in RYM. PL was the main pro-Maoist organization in the U.S., and had split from the Communist Party in the 50s. “RYM” stood for the people in SDS who wanted to start a “Revolutionary Youth Movement,” which is sort of a new left formulation. This is what the RYM factions held up in 1969 at the SDS convention against the old ‘working class crap’ that PL was pushing. Bernadine Dohrn made a hysterical speech expelling PL and the WSA from SDS at that convention – but not by a vote. They took their minority of 500 delegates (out of 2000 attendees) and just left. (Does this smack of another Russian minority we might know about?) Unspoken by Jacobs, SDS/WSA continued in Minnesota and nationally until about 1974 under the leadership of PL. RYM actually destroyed SDS as a large united front organization because they could not abide by a vote.
Pretty funny that totalitarian attitudes were used by nuevo-Stalinists against old-line Stalinists. But not really funny.
Eventually, as Jacobs shows, Klonsky and others in RYM II broke with the counter-culture politics of WU, and eventually so did the WU. The split in the WU in 1976 that virtually ended that organization was also over being pro-labor or not. You see, white people are in unions. Only a group in the Bay Area continued to insist that white workers were the enemy, and the New York WU were accused of selling out. The odd thing is that as the book goes on, some of the positions of the early PL – anti-drug, pro-working class, anti-racist, against adventurism, in support of some reforms, not putting the only focus on 3rd World support, that the revolution was not happening now – seem somehow rational. But of course not coming out of the mouth of PL, but only later out of Jacobs or the Panthers or Klonsky or most nearly anyone else. So be it.
As Jacobs shows, all the factions coming out of SDS were flawed, and so was PL. Don’t get me started. But the WU was the most flawed of all. Jesus Christ. This is a group that made so many mistakes that every single one of their public proclamations contained self-criticism of their rather large errors in the past. According to Jacobs, this is a group that joined a GE picket line saying that the NLF would kill GE workers. This is a group that ran through high schools unannounced, throwing leaflets around and telling kids to join the revolution. This is a group that thought they could beat up the Chicago police with pipes and football helmets. This is a group that took LSD for ‘self-criticism’ sessions and allowed leaders to have sex with whomever they wanted to, in order to break down ‘monogamy.’ This is a group that believed it could go it alone against the whole U.S. police state. This is a group that did not believe in any reforms or tactics like voting. This is a group that initially said it didn’t understand the ‘women question’ yet called itself ‘communist.’ For their information, the Bolsheviks had instituted an ERA in 1917. This is a group that was explicitly white, and was dedicated to supporting black organizations. This is a group that unconditionally praised the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), if anything an organization even more fucked up than the WU.
This is a perfect example of an ultra-leftist organization. Any period of class and social conflict brings out ultra-leftists, so there is a lesson in this. Something like the WU will return.
It should be noted that during the same period the German Red Army Faction / Baader-Meinhof group, the Italian Red Brigades, the Japanese Red Army, the Uruguayan Tupamaros, the Argentine Montoneros, etc. all were more competent and had more of an impact than the WU. The WU specialized in bombing bathrooms in federal government offices. Their most successful action was freeing Timothy Leary from jail. They did get a bomb in a Pentagon bathroom once and in the prosecutor’s office bathroom after the bloody Attica slaughter. They did blow up that damned cop statue at Haymarket in Chicago twice. And they did free one BLA member, I think. The rest of those bombings were pinpricks.
So what was their class basis? Well even WU said they had to beat the upper-class whiteness out of themselves. Let’s take Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, two of the most well-known. Ayers is now a very white retired professor of Education at the U of Illinois, and was the son of the CEO of Comm. Ed., the most hated utility in Illinois. Dohrn is now a very white professor of Law at Northwestern University and grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Milwaukee. She got a JD from the University of Chicago before becoming the most radical Ms. Dohrn. These two married each other. Dohrn was the main WU spokesperson. So you tell me who led this bunch.
Jacobs is somewhat myopic in his admiration for the WU, as if they were the only people bombing anything. Even here in Minneapolis, or in Madison, WI, far from any WU cell, bombings were semi-regular. I.E. you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the bomb blows. He also seems not to be aware of the activities of the rest of the left except his tiny area of it. No mention is made of the revolutionary union work of black workers in Detroit under the various DRUMs, for instance. He is totally unaware of SWP/ SL/ WWP/ PL/The Trend/CP or any of the many ‘Marxist-Leninist’ groups outside his 3rd World radical orbit. As a result he understates the number of leftists and overstates the influence of WU continually. But then that is a failing of some leftists who see part of the elephant, but not all in their histories. (See review of “Revolution in the Air,” below)
Most of the WU members eventually rose from the underground, the last one 25 years after the 1969 ‘Days of Rage’ in Chicago, spending short times in prison or on probation or with fines. Some that didn’t went on to other groups. Several attempted robbing a Brinks truck in 1981 and were sent to jail for many years due to that botched job.
The benefit of the WU – though no one with half a brain needed the WU to tell them this – is that any revolutionary organization or working-class organizations will have to break the law at times. That a revolutionary organization will have non-public and illegal activities. That workers will probably have to use violence to defend themselves. As Malcolm X said, ‘By any means necessary.” But he didn’t say ‘at all times necessary.’ The timing and organization of any of this has to be done with care and attention, not away from movements, but as part of them. WU only belatedly understood this, and was eventually ended like a goldfish out of water.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
November 1, 2013