Guerrilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst


Posted to on January 15, 2006


Recently on the Maxism list I moderate, where all my film reviews are initially posted, there was a discussion about the Symbionese Liberation Army. There was a consensus that this terrorist group of the mid-1970s was completely disconnected with the broader radical movement, even more so than the Weather Underground. There was even a suggestion that the SLA was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the FBI created to wreak havoc on the left.


After viewing Robert Stone’s very fine 2004 documentary “Guerrilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst” (originally titled “Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army”), I am quite sure that the SLA was simply the product of a deadly logic that was rooted in the experience of middle-class radicals and not a government conspiracy. As is made clear in extensive interviews with Russ Little and Michael Bortin, two SLA members serving life imprisonment, the decision to launch the SLA was motivated by a sense of outrage over the continuing sins of American imperialism after the end of Vietnam war--and concomitantly a sense that mass action to oppose it was futile.


Russ Little was a college student from Florida who was radicalized by the war in Vietnam. In the documentary he explains that his radicalization was partially inspired by the example of anti-imperialist fighters but also by the popular culture he grew up immersed in. He remembered the television show “Zorro” fondly, which depicted a swordsman in a kind of one-man rebellion against Spanish tyranny in 19th century Southern California. He also was influenced by the example of “Robin Hood,” especially in the movie that starred Errol Flynn. (Russ Little was probably unaware of Flynn’s Nazi ties. In a letter to a German intelligence agent Hermann Erben written in 1933, Flynn complained, “[A] slimy Jew is trying to cheat me ... I do wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two. The bastards have absolutely no business probity or honour whatsoever.”


But above all, these radicals were captivated by Costa-Gravas’s “State of Siege,” a 1973 film that dramatized the kidnapping and murder of CIA agent Dan Mitrione in Uruguay by the Tupamaros, an urban guerrilla group. Essentially, the SLA was an attempt to adapt the model of such groups to the USA just as groups like the October League and the Revolutionary Union were attempting to adapt the Maoist example at this very time.


After the SLA kidnapped Patty Hearst, they demanded that her father Randolph Apperson Hearst, a fabulously wealthy press baron and the son of William Randolph Hearst whose life was dramatized by Orson Wells in “Citizen Kane”, dispense millions of dollars in groceries in poor neighborhoods as a partial ransom payment.


Their inspiration for this “Robin Hood” tactic came from guerrilla groups in Argentina, including the quasi-Trotskyist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). The ERP was backed by Europeans, while the American Socialist Workers Party and its allies backed a rival Trotskyist group that favored mass action in what they considered the orthodox Bolshevik mode.


The story of Patty Hearst’s involvement with the SLA is extremely dramatic. Not long after her capture, she gave all the appearances of being recruited to the guerrilla cause. She adopted the name Tanya, in honor of Che Guevara’s compañera in Bolivia. Initially, commentators explained this in terms of the “Stockholm Syndrome” in which kidnapping victims begin to identify with their captors, mostly out of a sense of fear. Unfortunately for Patty Hearst, she remained attached to the SLA even when she was off on her own. As one interviewee from the police force noted, there were numerous times in which she could have gotten into a cab and driven off to safety but she never did. After being convicted of bank robbery, Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison. Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence after 3 years.


Stone’s documentary allows Hearst and her father to largely speak on their own behalf but their words cannot do justice to the complexity of their relationship. This is a human drama that gets to the very heart of how class society operates and how it will begin to unravel as the contradictions of capitalism deepen. It was clear that Patty Hearst was not just a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, but was in many ways a typical 19 year old Berkeley student who sensed that there was something deeply wrong with American society. It is doubtful that she would have joined anything like the SLA on her own accord but her conversion was not that much different than the one other “Robin Hoods” of her generation underwent.


In 1909 Leon Trotsky wrote:


“A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences: strengthening of the workers' self-confidence, growth of the trade union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive technology. The murder of a factory owner produces effects of a police nature only, or a change of proprietors devoid of any social significance. Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case the confusion can only be shortlived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and continues to function.


“But the disarray introduced into the ranks of the working masses themselves by a terrorist attempt is much deeper. If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one's goal, why the efforts of the class struggle? If a thimbleful of gunpowder and a little chunk of lead is enough to shoot the enemy through the neck, what need is there for a class organisation? If it makes sense to terrify highly placed personages with the roar of explosions, where is the need for the party? Why meetings, mass agitation and elections if one can so easily take aim at the ministerial bench from the gallery of parliament?”


The same social factors that drove middle-class radicals to pick up the gun against Czarist officials drove the SLA’ers to kidnap Patty Hearst and to kill the African-American Superintendent of Schools in Oakland, a singularly counter-productive act. While there are few signs of terrorism in the USA today, except for the occasional outburst by deep ecologists who have the good sense to only attack property, it is not ruled out that such acts will become commonplace once again. In a society that is marked by a large degree of apathy and despair in the working class, young radicals will always feel tempted to substitute themselves for the masses. As part of the necessary education for a new generation of radicals, it will be necessary to read what Lenin and Trotsky had to say on the topic. Robert Stone’s very effective documentary, which is available on line and at your better video stores, will also play a part in this education.