My last post dealt, tangentially, with a political cult, but the NBI was mainly preoccupied with spreading its message. It had no ulterior agenda and its cultish focus on the person of Ayn Rand was incidental to the belief that Objectivism (and its author, by extension) was correct. It was not a primarily political organization, although it was probably quite politically influential. It didn’t have a specific plan of action, it didn’t agitate for any specific causes, it didn’t really have much of a direct effect on anything but its own membership. On that level, it was somewhat benign; it certainly didn’t fight street battles with the police, attack government buildings, or conduct bombing campaigns. It was not, in short, the Weather Underground Organization.
The founding of the WUO, initially called Weatherman, was in answer to the calls of black nationalists for white people to organize movements within their own communities to fight racism and socioeconomic disparities. As leading Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn put it,
The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build a fucking white revolutionary movement.
Weatherman was one of the splinter factions of the Students for a Democratic Society, and part of the revolutionary left of the 1970s, open and avowed Communists who supported any revolt against the United States. Audacious and childish, grandiose and ineffectual, idealistic and violent, comic and tragic by turns, Weatherman was the most radical part of the youth and student New Left, which was itself a phenomenon unmatched since its implosion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s hard to imagine today’s college students turning out in the hundreds of thousands in support of causes, organizing politically and passionately for direct action on such scales, and staging mass college protests that effectively took over whole campuses. It’s also hard to imagine them aligning with America’s enemies and flying their flags, orchestrating planned battles with police, and forming terrorist cells to make their points with explosives. For better or for worse, the student youth of today seem mostly preoccupied with getting their diplomas and keeping their heads down. Maybe idealism has turned to cynicism and apathy, or maybe the economic demands they face are too great to risk anything else. But if youth-led political action for positive change ever becomes possible on that scale again, it would be good to understand the pitfalls of fanaticism, doctrinal splintering, isolation-born groupthink, and idealism outshining reality. If there was ever a textbook case of idealism gone wrong, practically and morally, it is the Weather Underground Organization.