The very isolation of the individual -- from power and community and ability to aspire -- means the rise of a democracy without publics. With the great mass of people structurally remote and psychologically hesitant with respect to democratic institutions, those institutions themselves attenuate and become, in the fashion of the vicious circle, progressively less accessible to those few who aspire to serious participation in social affairs. The vital democratic connection between community and leadership, between the mass and the several elites, has been so wrenched and perverted that disastrous policies go unchallenged time and again . . .
The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests . . .
--Port Huron Statement, 1962
The Port Huron Statement was issued by the SDS when I was fifteen . . . forty-four years ago. A sophomore in high school in Boston, I was already a member of SNCC, hanging around The Club 47 and the coffeehouses along Charles Street. Although The Movement was mostly about Civil Rights, there was a growing awareness of the escalation in Viet Nam.
Eight years later, The Weather Underground Organization (The Weathermen) formed and split from SDS, advocating armed revolution, solidarity with international communism, and truly going underground, to be responsible for a quite a large number of bombings, armed robberies, and riots during the ensuing years. Other than the Brinks Robbery, their most memorable action was the instigation of The Days of Rage riots in Chicago in 1969.
In the decade or so of their existence, The Weathermen were the most notorious of a plethora of lefty political organizations, from the anarchist Progressive Labor Party and several Maoist factions to the Black Panthers.
Over the years, there have been several excellent documentaries and books about the Weather Underground, notably . . .
The Weathermen manifesto, "Prairie Fire: The Politics Of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism - Political Statement Of The Weather Underground" is a true classic.
Now comes Jesse Lemisch with "Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They're Baack!" in the Summer number of NewPolitics. Of course, I'll let you decide whether that's good news, bad news, or no news at all. Here are some clips from Lemisch's piece:
I attended part of a January 20, 2006, "day workshop of interventions" -- aka "a day of dialogic interventions" -- at Columbia University on "Radical Politics and the Ethics of Life."1 The event aimed "to stage a series of encounters . . . to bring to light . . . the political aporias [sic] erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups" in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the 80s. Hosted by Columbia's Anthropology Department, workshop speakers included veterans and leaders of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, historian Jeremy Varon, poststructuralist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a dozen others. The panel I sat through was just awful.
Veterans of Weather (as well as some fans) seem to be on a drive to rehabilitate, cleanse, and perhaps revive it -- not necessarily as a new organization, but rather as an ideological component of present and future movements. There have been signs of such a sanitization and romanticization for some time. A landmark in this rehabilitation is Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon Press 2001; Penguin Books 2003). This is a dubious account, full of anachronisms, inaccuracies, unacknowledged borrowings from unnamed sources (such as the documentary, Atomic Cafe, 17-19), adding up to an attempt to cover over the fact that Ayers was there only for a part of the things he describes in a volume that nonetheless presents itself as a memoir. It's also faux literary and soft core ("warm and wet and welcoming"(68)), "ruby mouth"(38), "she felt warm and moist"(81)), full of archaic sexism, littered with boasts of Ayers's sexual achievements, utterly untouched by feminism. (Among Ayers's many errors are some that betray ignorance of the Women's Liberation Movement: he repeats the media-generated myth that 1968 Miss America protesters burned their bras . . .
Weather killed and buried SDS -- a catastrophe for the left. (This is a complex matter, which I originally addressed here in too breezy and unqualified a manner. Clearly, it was not Weather alone that killed SDS. On the other hand, note Mark Rudd's view above that the Weather Underground destroyed SDS.) Dohrn passes lightly over this, saying that SDS wasn't worth saving by the time Weather came on the scene. An anarchist in the audience made the important point that how you make the revolution will affect the kind of revolution that you get. Partly agreeing, Dohrn insisted that, while underground, Weatherpeople not only practiced participatory democracy, but also got closer to the working class and to various minorities. Just picture it: Weather, while underground, super-closeted and of necessity concealing their politics, makes friends with the working class (whom they have already disdainfully written off) -- "nobody here but us regular American folks." Former WUer David Gilbert's reminiscence comes closer to the reality: "When you're underground, you can't go around saying, ‘I'm your local representative from the Weather Underground. Let's discuss politics.'" . . .
As I mentioned above, the discussion of the Weather Underground at the Columbia workshop lacked concrete specifics. If we look beyond the abstraction to those specifics, Weather is a tragic laughingstock. It's the postmodern mood that allows such weird and empty discussion. How wonderful: we have lived to see Weather's posthumous rehabilitation in pomo hands. But we need a new left today, and the evasion of realities of past, present and future won't help to build this left . . .
IS ALL THIS JUST BEATING A DEAD HORSE? Although I would hope so, in the present mood on the left there is some receptivity to a rehabilitation of Weather and Weather-like strategies, especially among the young who didn't live through the original reality. (One straw in the wind has been the confused and uncritical response to Ward Churchill in many parts of the left.) We have seen testimony from Dohrn and others about receptive audiences. As this is written, there is a promising attempt to found a new organization called SDS, and I wish it well. But for a sample of the uncritical, indeed adoring attitude towards Dohrn and her legacy by one of its main organizers, see Thomas Good, "From SDS to N[ational] C[onference on] O[rganized] R[esistance]: Socialism, Anarchism and Bernardine Dohrn." This is an enthusiastically positive report of a talk by Dohrn, which notes that "Her revolutionary passion [is] still intact after all these years of struggle" and describes her as pointing out "that one glaring failure of the Sixties was the ostracizing of [Vietnam] veterans" -- not a word is said about the glaring failure of Weather. Good calls himself "an old admirer" and describes meeting Dohrn as "a very special moment for this New Leftist." . . .
THOMAS GOOD SAYS that the new SDS is approaching 100 chapters. The rebirth of such an organization is in many ways good news. But from the above it would seem clear that SDS isn't open to debate about the politics that Weather represented. I'll resist the urge to speak of those who condemn themselves to relive the past. But it is vital that SDS face up to this part of its past if it is to help in building the kind of daring, democratic radicalism that we need. A left organization that dismisses internal political debate as mere sectarian backbiting doesn't have a very bright future. Too bad.
The "rehabilitation" of the Weather Underground and the reconstitution of the SDS is an interesting phenomenon. It is clear that radical left has been fractured pretty much into non-existence and by its own hands, at that. It remains to be seen whether the re-emergence can unite and energize an effective political movement.
For my money, it would be more useful if this and other revolutionary groups were to focus on community building for survival = sort of a non-violent Hizbollah.
Interestingly enough, an organization which I much admire, The Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, has quietly and effectively carried on the basic revolutionary values, without the bombs, that so energized many of us "back in the day".
Before you leave, please visit the P! Amazon Store and vote in the lastest P!oll