A deeper look Underground

Outlaws of America:

The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

THERE HAS been a resurgence of interest recently in the Weather Underground Organization, the group of 1960s radicals who went underground in the 1970s and bombed government buildings. Most widely known is the Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground, but the past decade has also seen the publication of several memoirs by leading members and a short historical overview, Ron Jacobs’ The Way the Wind Blew.

But not until Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America has there been such a thorough documentation of the group’s history. In many ways, Berger’s book is a step forward from both the film and Jacobs’s book. It goes much deeper into the history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the group that gave birth to Weather, than either of the former were able to go. It also looks much more closely at the individual experiences, memories, and regrets of ex-members.

Jacobs, whose book was released in 1997, was denied many of the interviews granted to Berger (who surely benefited from the release of the film) and was only able to hint at the recollections of the various people involved. Berger synthesizes many of the recent memoirs and makes use of his own extensive interviews with, among others, David Gilbert, one of the few Weathermen who ended up with a lengthy prison sentence for his post-Weather activities. For these reasons, Outlaws of America is well worth reading, especially for anybody looking for a detailed account. But while Berger provides a fascinating history, his book is marred by an uncritical analysis of the group’s politics.

The Weather Underground began as Weatherman, a faction of SDS that broke with Progressive Labor (PL), an influential faction of Stalinist/Maoists. PL’s “class-unity” brand of anti-racism bred a mechanical hostility to Black Nationalism and to nationalist struggles in the Third World. Berger describes the split in SDS as, “Something historic.… Beyond the messy process of faction fights was the reality that a sizable sector of white American radicals had broken with white supremacy.”

The split in SDS, however was not a moment of historic clarity but rather a symptom of the impasse of the New Left. After spending years building impressive struggles against segregation and the Vietnam War, and living through the historic events of 1968—which saw millions of young radicals break with the Democratic Party and look to the struggle of the Vietnamese resistance and the general strike of 10 million French workers as a way forward—it was utterly unclear to many in SDS how to make a revolution in the United States.

As Weather saw it, nationalist struggles were challenging imperialism, and it was the primary job of white radicals to break with their “white-skin privilege” and, eventually, to take up armed struggle against the U.S. government. Anything less would be an acceptance of privilege, which was just as bad as being a full-blown racist. This led to all sorts of radical posturing and displays of militancy based on showing off rather than engaging other forces in mass action. The masses, after all, were supposedly too busy wallowing in their privilege to fight for a revolution. Unsurprisingly, this failed to provide an effective strategy for stopping the Vietnam War or for challenging the effects of racism.

Berger is certainly critical of many of the sectarian stupidities carried out by Weatherman, such as the Days of Rage protest in October of 1969, which promised to turn out tens of thousands but only turned out hundreds, in no small part due to Weather’s hostile attitude to other activists. He also mentions the Flint “War Council” shortly after, where Weather leader Bernadine Dohrn praised the Charles Manson group’s Los Angeles murders while others talked about whether killing white children would help stop the spread of white supremacy.

It was this “War Council” which eventually led to the decision to take up underground activities, toward which Berger is fairly uncritical. He writes, “Bombing pierced the myth of government invincibility—one of Weather’s most important accomplishments, some former members argue.” How this invincibility was pierced, and whether Berger agrees with these former members, is never explained.

Berger even states that, “The lessons [of the Weather Underground] are not primarily to be found in the bombed buildings but in the politics and practice of the group.” It is unclear how the “bombed buildings” can be separated from the “practice of the group.” Furthermore, Berger never relates the group’s sectarianism or ridiculous behavior to the split or the politics on which it was based. In the end, it is the theory of white-skin privilege that is important to Berger—in spite of the flawed practice that flowed from it.

Incredibly, Berger even writes that, “[I]t is not true to say that the group maligned, minimized, or missed the role of the white working class.” This is simply false. According to Jacobs—in an event ignored by Berger—during a national strike of General Electric workers in November 1969, Weatherman distributed literature denouncing the workers as “pigs” and one member held a sign at a picket line in Boston stating “Ho Chi Minh, the NLF are going to kill GE workers.”

Ultimately, the politics of the Weather Underground led to its downfall. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, some in Weather grappled with a class analysis of war and racism as an alternative to a single focus on national liberation, and thus considered leaving the underground in order to work toward a mass base. Berger dismisses this as a turn to “the multinational working class,” using snide quotes and all. How clear these Weather members were about making this turn is beside the point. The problem is that one section of Weather saw the adoption of a class outlook as a betrayal of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Rather than deal with these issues honestly, the leadership simply tried to impose the new line.

The debates of 1976-77 turned into personal attacks and accusations of racism—the Weather Underground’s procedure for years—and led to the group’s hasty dissolution. This was no accident, but represents the dead end of their politics, an end reached by much of the radical Left, which had seen American workers as bought off and became disoriented by the late 1970s as social movements went into retreat.

It is to Berger’s credit that a decent understanding of these issues can be gained from reading his book. But in spite of the wealth of information he provides, one must often read between the uncritical lines of his text to understand the underlying dynamics of the Weather Underground.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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