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.
One of the most remarkable things about the political history of the United States in the middle of the 20th century is the reversal in climate: from the stifling paranoia, censorship, and political character assassination of the 1950s, based on an all-consuming dread of Communism, to the chaotic, uncontrollable political ferment of the 1960s, by the end of which educated, politically active youth were openly declaring themselves Communists and spreading a message of revolution. Underneath this reversal is the story of a generation. The early Baby Boomers grew up in a sterile, consumerist culture politically defined by the McCarthyist witch hunts. By the time they were old enough to be politically aware, the Civil Rights Movement had cracked the shell protecting the 1950s status quo and created space for radical change. In colleges they explored ideological frontiers which were closed off and hidden during their childhood, and began to act and organize.
The nature of their political awareness and action changed as well, from the concerned but optimistic idealism of the early 1960s, centered around the fight against Jim Crow, to the violent radicalism of the late 1960s, fueled by the militant threat of the Vietnam War. The largest group representing youth politics, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was the stage upon which this dramatic bildungsroman played out. There is an eerie, distorted echo between the founding document of SDS, the Port Huron Statement, and what might be called its disbanding document, Weatherman’s manifesto “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In the beginning there was a sense of innocence betrayed with an undercurrent of cautious hope for restoring lost ideals:
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time…
…The declaration “all men are created equal…” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo. ~ From the Port Huron Statement
By the end, the last cohort of SDS would look back on their generation’s earlier understanding with more jaded and bitter eyes:
In general, young people have less stake in a society (no family, fewer debts, etc.), are more open to new ideas (they have not been brainwashed for so long or so well), and are therefore more able and willing to move in a revolutionary direction. Specifically in America, young people have grown up experiencing the crises in imperialism. They have grown up along with a developing black liberation movement, with the liberation of Cuba, the fights for independence in Africa and the war in Vietnam.
Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Temptations brought us closer to the “people’s culture” of Black America. The racist response to the civil rights movement revealed the depth of racism in America, as well as the impossibility of real change through American institutions. And the war against Vietnam is not “the heroic war against the Nazis”; it’s the big lie, with napalm burning through everything we had heard this country stood for. Kids begin to ask questions: Where is the Free World? And who do the pigs protect at home? ~ From “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”
This shift in tone signals a transformation from a commitment to peace and democracy, to a belief in violent revolt and elitist command. The underlying cause for this negative development is clear from the accounts of former Weatherpeople: frustration with the ineffectiveness of the anti-war effort, developing into a desperate sense that something had to be done, that their actions must escalate beyond the normal bounds of student activism to that point. Driven by a panicked awareness of the Vietnam War’s expansion, horrified by the actions the American government undertook at home and abroad daily, a segment of SDS became fanatical. At the end of this path their convictions had set them on, they would repudiate all the positive values they had once embraced and turn to senseless militancy and charismatic authoritarianism. A hard core of dedicated, well-educated, talented young people would form a terrorist organization. But before that, their zeal turned them into a cult.
If Weather1 was a cult, its origin could be called a schism. By the late 1960s, the internal politics of SDS had two poles: the Progressive Labor (PL) faction, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), comprising much of the SDS leadership and formed in response to the popularity of PL’s Student-Worker Alliance program, with a large number of unaligned or only slightly leaning members in the middle. The battle lines were only theoretically clear. PL had a line of education before action, organizing youth in support of adult workers, and the black community as an exceptionally oppressed segment of the working class. RYM stressed direct action as education, youth as revolutionary in its own right and with its own interests, and the black community as an internal colony. What’s striking about this is how little the two sides really disagreed in terms of end goals: they both wanted an active and organized youth movement, both supported working class uprising, and both supported the black liberation struggle.
It seems like an incredibly petty doctrinal difference, of the sort that should not splinter any group with such aligned goals, but it was a matter of fanatic importance at the SDS convention in the summer of 1969. PL’s failure to endorse Black Nationalism was, to RYM, a clear sign of their racism, but a chauvinistic comment by a spokesman for the Black Panther delegation gave PL a counter-claim, against the sexism of RYM’s allies. Debate quickly devolved into a shouting match between political cheerleaders chanting their favorite slogans. Since it was clear that PL would carry the day on the basis of majority support, the RYM-aligned leadership took the archetypically childish route of storming out, forming their own clique, returning to the convention to declare PL expelled, and then departing to form a new SDS under their leadership: a dogmatic temper tantrum.
In so doing they not only ceded the greater body of SDS to PL, since they had no authority to unilaterally expel anyone, but also repudiated the democratic values SDS stood for. Even after excommunicating PL, the new SDS/RYM organization revealed its own fragility, and split over such surprisingly significant issues as whether the youth was a inter-class oppressed segment or a revolutionary vanguard, the degree of emphasis to place of black liberation (whether it was critical or merely very important), and whether to organize and act with the whole working class or only its youth. This second schism led to a separate SDS/Weather sect, doctrinally purified and under the charismatic leadership of the Weatherbureau, which deserved authority simply by dint of being correct, in its own estimation, despite alienating nearly every other faction of the New Left outside the Black Panthers2.
Secure in their faith, Weather declared a crusade: against the imperialism of the U.S., to be fought in Chicago in early October. That was when Weather, in a self-declared alliance with the North Vietnamese, would “bring the war home” to the U.S., an event to be called the Days of Rage. But first, they needed to convert an army. Over the remainder of the summer of 1969, Weather worked towards two goals: first, to put Communism into practice by creating collectivist cells, with the goal of forging them into the cadre of a revolutionary “fighting force,” and to recruit working class youth to their cause.
In the process, they had to leave the comfort of their elite universities and go to live on the streets, with the people. This was a prospect some in Weather found daunting, fearful of the new and dangerous environment they found themselves in, intimidated by the rough people they aimed to convert. In all respects, they approached the task like missionaries heading into the wilderness to preach to heathen savages. Their methods were clumsy. On one occasion, a Weather cell marched across a public beach carrying a red flag and preached communism and anti-imperialism to the outraged crowd which formed around them. Returning Vietnam veterans led a charge to take their flag, which resulted in a fistfight. This was, apparently, good for their plans: they had agitated the people and laid out a political challenge while establishing their presence as a “fighting force.” Other attempts at agitation included a group of Weatherwomen barging into a community college classroom during a final exam to lecture its working class occupants on the oppressive nature of the jobs they were training for. They barricaded the doors and physically attacked anyone who tried to leave, convinced that would-be escapees were motivated by sexist refusal to learn from women.
Weather reported on each of these actions in affected youth slang – “raps” about imperialism, assertions that Communism is “right on,” how they were eventually “busted,” the importance of “kicking ass” to a fighting force – which only served to highlight their fundamental detachment from the people they aimed to convert. They truly believed that the working class youth intuitively understood their oppression and were ready to fight for anyone who stood up to various “pigs” (e.g., police and teachers), and that the fighting force they were organizing could truly be a part of a revolt against what they perceived as a tottering U.S. empire. This reflected their isolation from reality as they turned inward, developing a fully collectivist way of life. Every action within the Weather cells was subject to group consensus, most significantly plans to visit family and friends. In order to purify their political perspective, to cleanse their minds of corrupt thoughts implanted by the wicked world, they engaged in harsh self-criticism sessions for even minor ideological transgressions. Monogamy was frowned upon as a bourgeois and patriarchal institution, but more importantly as a threat to group cohesion: loving any one individual above the collective would lessen a member’s fighting zeal, and so a campaign against monogamy, using various levels of coercion, was enforced from on high.
The ostensible goal of this activity was to transform Weather’s members into “tools of the revolution,” collective cadres that would fight with absolute zeal. In effect, these were the classical methods of cult indoctrination: subordinating individual will to the group dogma and isolating initiates from any other social ties, even from any understanding of reality not parsed in terms of cult doctrine. If this were intentional, a manipulative plan by the leadership, Weather might not have been anything other than the usual cult scam, serving the interests of the Weatherbureau. However, even the leadership believed its own hype, had hypnotized themselves along with the initiates, and fully believed in the need for and effectiveness of their plan. They foresaw the Days of Rage as a revolutionary uprising in which tens of thousands of working class youth would take Chicago as student protesters took over college campuses.
What they got were little more than a three hundred fighters, most previously aligned with SDS rather than fresh working-class converts. Weather’s leading cadre dubbed them “true” revolutionaries and anti-racists, in contrast to the larger turnout of other protests in Chicago at that time, organized by their rivals in RYM and endorsed by their heroes and former allies, the Black Panthers. They led this Spartan force in fierce but futile street battles against police. The only significant damage they could claim from the fiasco was the cost of deploying the National Guard for a few days to quell unrest. Other than that, they could only claim the “moral victory” that they had struck the symbolic first blow against imperialism.
The Days of Rage is fairly well known episode in Weather’s ignominious revolutionary career. Less well known, but more telling, was their activity at the Mobilization to End the War protests at Washington D.C. in November of 1969. Amid hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters, a small “Revolutionary Contingent” including Weather committed random acts of vandalism while on the run from the police. Their most significant action was to attack the Justice Department building, where they lowered the American flag and replaced it with that of North Vietnam. In a “Chick Tract” style missionary cartoon, Weather described themselves as “white youth who know what has to be done,” as opposed to Nixon’s peaceful pet protesters, waging real battles as part of the “winning peoples’ war going on all over this world.” Amazingly, they elevated their petty destruction and symbolic stunts to effective and important actions in concert with revolutionary movements in the Third World.
No one else was buying it. After this, anti-SDS movements sprung up on campuses and black liberation groups turned their backs on SDS. Their greatest influence was upon the extreme edge of the radical fringe: in the days before the November protests, a small group of radicals set off bombs in government buildings and corporate offices. Their letters taking credit for the bombings listed motivations echoing Weather’s line: opposition to the war and American corporate imperialism, and to show white radical support for black liberation. This was a dark foreshadowing of things to come.
After a bizarre “War Council” in Flint, Michigan, the atmosphere of which combined dance club decor with revolutionary hero worship, and where Charles Manson was hailed as a fellow revolutionary, Weather went underground, executing a campaign of symbolic bombings from the shadows. For a time, Weather’s outlaw image and the spectacle of their actions reverberated with a growing zeitgeist of desperation and unrest not unlike what had prompted their transformation. After the end of the Vietnam war, however, their cause faded to irrelevancy, and the Left splintered again and moved on to new causes. Weather’s members grew old and longed for a “bourgeois” life of family and community which was impossible while underground, and one by one, they gave up the fight and resurfaced. (There is an fine documentary covering their later career.)
Weather was far from benign in its actions. Its members were reckless, violent, ineffective, and fanatical, and their bungling would be comical if it wasn’t such a tragedy. Whatever else one might say about them, they displayed passion, initiative, and dedication to direct action. In their most radical phase, they squandered their ability on fantasies of revolution, kamikaze symbolic acts, counterproductive dogmatism, and senseless violence. It’s a cliche to say, but they did have undeniable potential, and many Weather leaders had been effective activists. It’s almost unbelievable, looking back, that so many college students could be so politically motivated as to realign their lives totally in service to a goal, however twisted it was, however ridiculous their methods. Weather’s self-induced ideological brainwashing, born of frustration and desperation over the New Left’s inability to stop the Vietnam War, was a sad end to a decade of student activism in SDS. One is left to wonder what they might have accomplished had they channeled their abilities intelligently, and to hope that the next time students act politically, on the massive scale of the late 1960s, they do not follow Weather’s path.
1. I refer to the early Weather/SDS, Weatherman, and later WUO with this term.
2. Even they would eventually turn their backs on Weather, after an arcane dispute over a plan to put police under neighborhood control.