The Weather Underground
posted to www.marxmail.org on June 21, 2003
Currently showing at the Film Forum in New York City, "The Weather Underground" now joins "Rebels With a Cause" as a worthy and unstinting documentary about the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In this case, the focus is on the ultra-ultraleft faction that evolved from scatterbrained street confrontations with the cops into terrorist bombing attacks on government buildings.
Naming itself after the line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" in Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues", the group was trying to convey its belief that global revolution was an inescapable fact. That, at least, was the way things seemed in 1970. Implicitly, the choice of this line betrayed the middle-class impressionism of a layer of the student movement that preferred raw action to theory and long-term strategic thinking. Despite lip service to the Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, these activists had never advanced beyond the unsophisticated New Left ideology of the early SDS. In the final analysis, the Weathermen were simply involved in moralistic protests that used bombs instead of candles.
The film effectively crosscuts interviews with veterans of the Weather Underground and stock footage of their press conferences from the 1970s, when they were in the news as much as the Black Panthers or the Yippies. With no exceptions, Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Naomi Jaffe, Todd Gitlin and Laura Whitehorn--now all in their fifties and sixties--come across as rueful, chastened and ashamed. While none have turned to the right, they give the impression of people who are more or less politically exhausted.
Unfortunately, co-directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel, have drawn upon former SDS leader Todd Gitlin to provide commentary on the sad spectacle of the Weather Underground. While many of his points seem unexceptionable, the implicit message is that he was an alternative to the course that they took. As most people are aware, Gitlin was never a radical to begin with and denounced the antiwar movement for not supporting Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Today his main claim to fame is writing articles in the bourgeois press attacking the ANSWER coalition, the Nader candidacy for president and any other outbursts of radicalism to the left of the Democratic Party.
When Naomi Jaffe first appeared on the screen, I was startled to see how much she looked like her mother who lived in the next village from me in the 1950s. The Jaffes were part of a small progressive milieu in the next village that included the Communist parents of her neighbor Allen Young, who became a New Left leader himself. After launching Liberation News Service, he became a pioneer gay activist. When we were in high school, other villagers viewed the Jaffes, the Youngs et al with suspicion. Not only were some reputed to be pro-Soviet, they were also rumored to have inter-racial parties at their homes, where blacks and whites danced with each other.
Although I never really had much contact with her, I used to see Naomi Jaffe at the New School in New York City in 1965 to 1967, when she and I were graduate students. I distinctly recall her hanging out with SDS'ers in the cafeteria where every other word out of their mouths seemed to be about revolution. When I began to become radicalized, I had little interest in idle chatter and found myself drawn to the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), groups that seemed much more disciplined and serious.
When I discovered that PLP's main area of activity was SDS, I naturally chose to join the SWP since they were spearheading the antiwar coalitions. Even though SDS organized the first antiwar demonstration in 1965, they had decided within a year or so that this was not radical enough. At least, this is what leaders like Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd thought. Many rank-and-file SDS'ers continued to organize demonstrations on local campuses, paying scant attention to the empty bombast of their leaders.
Frustration with the inability of the mass demonstrations to end the war led to an escalation of tactical militancy. This was the signature of the Weathermen, even before they went underground. The film shows Bill Ayers walking along the street in a wealthy Chicago neighborhood that the Weathermen chose as their battleground during the Days of Rage back in 1969. Proclaiming that thousands of angry youth would join their window-breaking rampage, less than 200 hard-core Weathermen and their supporters were beaten senseless by the cops, while six were shot.
Ayers explains why they organized such an adventurist action. He says that they were tired of playing by the cops' rules, which meant getting a parade permit, staying within designated routes, etc. It was necessary to challenge all this in a kind of tug-of-war between "revolutionaries" and the forces of law and order. Victory would not be measured by the size of the demonstration or the numbers of working people won to the antiwar movement, but by the numbers of windows broken.
Unfortunately, this sort of illogic has never completely disappeared. In a Counterpunch article, Benjamin Shepard, who had already written a misty-eyed review of Bill Ayers' memoir in Monthly Review, complains:
"Instead of involving itself in any of the exciting or fresh direct action stuff which involves not getting a police permit or lining up speakers to preach to the converted, ANSWER was doing their best ground hog day routine pushing for its third march in DC in six months."
While Shepard is not as addled as the black block types, who seem intent on elevating "Days of Rage" tactics to a principle, he doesn't seem to understand the purpose of demonstrations. They are not designed to raise the adrenaline level of participants, but to convince others to take part. It was only when antiwar demonstrations in the USA reached a critical mass in the USA during the late 1960s and early 1970s that imperialism was forced to retreat from an all-out military solution. If none of the demonstrations seemed "exciting" or "fresh" to some autoworker watching at home on his or her television, this was besides the point. The whole point was to make it as *easy* as possible for them to participate. While tear gas and billy club attacks might make for breathless "I was there" type narratives in ensuing weeks, they are not calculated to win fresh troops for the cause. If anything, it was the exhaustion of tactical street militancy that led the Weathermen to opt for bombing attacks.
When all this was going on, we Trotskyists felt a certain kind of smug vindication. The Weathermen were being driven into the underground and obscurity, while we had over 1500 members and branches in every city in the country. While the Weathermen had failed to appreciate the importance of the antiwar movement, we were capitalizing on it and poised for future growth.
If the failure to effectively put an end to the Vietnam War had caused a section of the New Left to implode, the end of the Vietnam War eventually led my own movement to implode as well. Leaving the Film Forum, I meditated on the tendency of leftwing groups to go haywire. What did the SDS and the SWP have in common? It is now clear to me that they shared an utter inability to view themselves critically. If the SDS Weathermen could not objectively assess the political impact of their ultraleftism, the SWP was not much better. Announcing in 1976 that the working class in the USA was more radical than at any time in the 20th century, the party leaders--who were as pigheaded in their own way as Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn--dispatched the membership into factories and out of the mass movement, where they had been so effective.
By the late 1970s virtually the entire Weather Underground had resurfaced and surrendered to the cops. This was exactly the same moment that the American Trotskyist movement had decided to go underground metaphorically speaking. In revolutionary politics, fantasy is a deadly enemy, whether it is about "bringing the war home" or about "lines of march" involving an industrial proletariat that has not even begun to move.
1) Review of Rebels With a Cause: (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/rebels_with_a_cause.htm)
2) Ben Shepard Counterpunch article: http://www.counterpunch.org/shepard06102003.html
3) Ben Shepard MR review of Bill Ayers memoir: http://www.monthlyreview.org/0202shepard.htm
4) Perceptive review of Ayers by Cathy Wilkerson, another Weather Underground veteran: http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/dec01wilkerson.htm