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Thinking About the Weather Underground
The Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization derived from a frustration inside the U.S. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with the seemingly endless protest against the war in Vietnam and the racism endemic to U.S. society. Formed by some of the brightest and most committed members of the organization during a fractious national SDS convention in June 1969, this group hoped to build a revolutionary army of white youth. They were not alone in this desire: one of the other factions after the split, RYM 1, also hoped to do this. The two factions worked together for a few weeks, building for a week of demonstrations in Chicago. Unfortunately, both groups perceived their political differences to be too great and, in August of 1969 they ended their joint efforts in a bout of name-calling. Both then went on to organize separately for two separate rounds of actions in Chicago during the same week in October. Weather’s became the more well-known. After a summer of organizing for mass demonstrations in Chicago a little more than a year after the police riot during the Democratic Party convention, Weather and its followers met in Chicago the second week of October 1969. Although the numbers who gathered were far less than the tens of thousands the Weatherman leadership had predicted, the group caught the attention of the radical movement, law enforcement and much of the nation with its violent street fighting tactics and oftentimes maniacal determination.
Despite this attention, or perhaps because of it, by December 1969, the group decided to go underground, forming tight "focos" in the Guevarist style of guerrilla warfare. The first actions undertaken by these cells included the firebombing of police cars in response to the Chicago police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and the firebombing of the home of the judge overseeing the conspiracy trial of twenty-one Panthers in New York City. After a bomb-building mishap in Greenwich Village that resulted in the deaths of three Weather members, the organization dug even deeper underground while re-evaluating their program in light of what they would term the "military error" that led to the deaths.
Over the next several years, Weatherman would change its name to the Weather Underground, form all women cells, bomb the Capitol building, the Pentagon (among other attacks), and release several communiques. Some of these described their reasons for a particular action or series of actions; some cheered on youth and black insurrections; some memorialized fallen revolutionaries such as George Jackson and Ho Chi Minh; and some discussed the organization’s theoretical approach and/or its role in the anti-imperialist movement. The organization finally imploded in 1976-1977 after a series of splits and recriminations which came in the wake of its attempts to re-define itself after the 1975 Vietnamese victory. Despite its small size, Weather influenced many a conversation and, ultimately, the direction of the New Left in the late Sixties through the mid-Seventies. Although some would argue otherwise, they were not responsible for the destruction of the New Left. In fact, their attempts to adjust to the post-Vietnam reality of the mid-Seventies showed the weaknesses of the movement while pointing (in writing, at least) a possible direction the Left could have gone in order to not only maintain its relevance, but become a potentially powerful force in U.S. politics.
Let me divert this train of thought for a minute to provide some context. There was a lot of revolutionary sentiment among new leftists throughout the world in 1969. As you may know, the world was turned upside down in 1968: the TET offensive in Vietnam that showed the world that the US wasn’t winning the war, the student rebellions around the world (which were joined by workers in France, Italy and Mexico), the continued (and intensified) black rebellion in the United States, the continuation of the cultural revolution in China, the assassinations of MLK and RFK in the US, and the list goes on. The intensity of this year’s events led many on the left to conclude that revolution was near and all that was needed was an organization dedicated to fomenting that revolution. Weatherman was but one of many of such groups internationally. Some of the revolutionary sentiment was based on the objective reality of the time and some was fantasy. Of course, in retrospect, it’s easier to tell which was which then it was then-in the thick of it.
The major contribution of Weatherman/WUO to the Left in the United States was its insistence on the importance of racism in the U.S. experience and a persistent emphasis on internationalism and its complement, anti-imperialism. While not alone in this, Weather was probably the only white organization for which this was the underpinning of its existence. The Left continues to maintain the importance of these phenomenon on the American mindset. The existence of past and present solidarity movements in support of Nicaragua, South Africa, and El Salvador, Palestine and Chiapas, to name a few, while clearly evidence of an internationalist analysis, also seem to underscore the belief that fundamental changes in the United States will occur only when enough of its neo-colonies have fallen. This perception was a basic tenet of Weather’s founding statement, You Don’t Need a Weatherman….
Although corporate and government attacks on the labor movement since the Nixon regime have increased substantially since 1977, some Left activists still continue to ignore in their organizing the necessary role labor must take in order for change to take place. While issues of imperialism, race, and gender cannot be dismissed if we are to effect true change in this country, neither can the workers. Weather’s distrust (some might call it contempt) of the U.S. working class led it to conclude wrongly that labor support was unnecessary to bring about fundamental social change. Their analysis and practice in this area resulted from their experiences in the new Left — a Left movement derived from a different constituency than the old U.S. Left it tried so hard not to imitate. Also apparent was a failure to recognize early on that the U.S. workforce was no longer just white males in the mold of the TV character Archie Bunker (from the CBS show All in the Family).
By the time the early Seventies arrived, however, it was apparent that labor support was essential. Recognizing this, groups like the Revolutionary Union and the October League came to romanticize the caricature of the workers represented by Archie Bunker while, on the other hand, Weather, the Yippies, women’s groups, and other New Left organizations, maintained their anti-racist, anti-sexist (and, ultimately, anti-worker) platform developed in the sixties and seventies. Neither exclusivist strategy worked. Although Weather did recognize the changing makeup of the workforce by the time its aboveground organization, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, helped organize the Hard Times Conference in the winter of 1976 it, too, continued to focus its organizing energies on the more reactionary elements of that class. Another aspect of this anti-labor approach surfaced in Weather’s statements regarding those in the military. By mistaking them for the enemy, they further ensured that there would be no revolution in the U.S. (especially one which included them). There has never been a successful revolution that did not involve a considerable part of the military siding with the revolutionary masses, either by refusing to fire on the civilian populace or by actively joining them. You can’t stop an imperial army by confusing its lower ranking members with its generals. Weather realized this a bit too late.
The earlier Weather argument against workers recalled Lenin’s admonitions against the German and British communists in the early 1900s. His statements on their disavowal of trade unions as hopelessly reactionary have relevance to the U.S. Left in the sixties and today. Lenin acknowledged that reactionary elements exist among workers, and wrote that organizers needed to keep this in mind when organizing, and struggle with those attitudes. This is similar to what Weather suggested in their New Morning communique of December 1970 in their comments about the existence of sexism and racism in the counter culture. It was in that context that they called for stepped up organizing among youth to be conducted, but conducted critically. Weather and the New Left’s championing of issues of race and gender was a welcome and necessary departure from the Eurocentrism of earlier Leftist theory. Although that emphasis enhanced their internationalist perspective, it did so at the expense of U.S. labor and class issues. This denial of the worker’s role in the revolutionary movement (expressed in its most extreme version by Weather), and the deepening division between labor and the Left helped prevent truly fundamental change from occurring. It also prevented both labor and the Left from drawing the essential connection between the export of industry to the Third World and the loss of jobs and benefits in the United States. Events since then have made this connection apparent on a very real level, as the very same corporations moving their operations overseas blame "overpaid unionized workers" and foreign governments for the loss of jobs in the United States.
In addition to all this, a contest to be the most revolutionary got in the way. Oftentimes, this was expressed by extolling violence, no matter what the reason or cost; others competed in the contest by spouting ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric. This contest, diversionary as it was, occurred throughout the Left and alienated many potential revolutionaries. At its worst in Weather during the organizing for the Days Of Rage and up to the townhouse explosion, the organization never completely overcame this tendency. Antagonisms between the armed movement and the mass movement played into the hands of government agents, providing them with an ideal means to widen existing divisions. In fact, the final split in 1976-77 in the Weather organization revolved around similar dynamics. Ultimately, what is the most revolutionary is that which results in revolutionary change. In the United States, this seems to require not just electoral politics, mass movements, or armed action, but probably some combination of all three. Weather, like most of the New Left, did not realize this soon enough. Their actions, from the Days of Rage to the final bombing, often substituted bravado and the bomb for the movement. In so doing, the momentum faltered. These tactics, along with the already existing differences, resulted in increased factionalism on the Left. This created a situation where the ruling elites’ interests were served, ensuring them of continued dominance and the increasing impotence of any opposition.
The power elites were also able to manipulate (with the cooperation of many of the culture’s adherents) the potentially revolutionary counterculture into one more subculture of consumption. This was in part due to the New Left’s failure to realize earlier the political potential of the culture. Unlike the African-American culture and those of other non-whites in the United States, the counterculture did not have its own history of oppression and resistance to draw lessons from. Consequently, when it bothered to consciously design a history, it borrowed its political strategies and history from others, primarily the Left of the Third World. The lack of a historical consciousness caused the youth culture to fumble and created an opening for those in power to buy it off.
Weather’s (and the New Left’s) fascination with the struggles of the Third World was understandable given the romantic vision of the movement and the considerable number of revolutionary struggles occurring in those countries at the time. The attempts to import the revolutions of Latin America and Vietnam with virtually no changes, however, severely limited Weather’s effectiveness. The primary reason for that limited ability, especially in relation to the application of foco organizational strategies, was an oversimplified perception of the control techniques of the U.S. system. Unlike the Latin America of the sixties, where many people lived away from urban areas and were illiterate and impoverished, in the United States most people were (and are) literate and relatively financially secure. Consequently, they could be convinced there was no reason to change anything.
Although youthful discontent with the products of the increasingly centralized political and economic system in the United States and other capitalist nations motivated much of the New Left in the sixties and seventies, the majority of the discontented youth maintained a belief that their society was capable of remedying the problems. As it became apparent to the most politically aware that this was not the case, they moved towards revolutionary positions. In SDS, these positions took two main forms by the summer of 1969 (Weatherman and RYM II), both deriving from the SDS statement ‘Towards a Revolutionary Youth Movement.’ Although both agreed on the particular exploitation of youth, the perception of youth’s role in the revolutionary struggle differed. At that time. Weather organized youth as a fifth column operating behind enemy lines in support of Third World revolutions and RYM II organized them as future members of the working class. Both relied on the forms of the youth culture as organizing tools, yet neither actually considered youth worthy of organizing on the basis of their own oppression.
Following the Third World meant, by definition, accepting their definition of revolution. While more applicable to the colonies (including the North American black colony), the analysis applied little to the circumstances of those in the belly of the beast. The alienation and oppression felt by the non-poor majority of youth of North America and Europe was not primarily economic. Instead, it stemmed from social alienation and the realization of one’s unequal relationship to the rest of the world and the awareness that, as the children of the beast, one was being groomed to maintain that inequality.
In Europe, radical youth instigated movements which, in some cases (France, 1968) mobilized whole sectors of the society. Some radicals chose the armed struggle in these countries, too. Two of the more notorious and popular of the armed movements were the previously mentioned Red Army Fraktion in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. Unlike Weather, both of these groups developed substantial and deep public support as well. When military actions were carried out, demonstrations of several thousands supported the actions in the streets. Weather never enjoyed such a level of organized public support.
Dave Gilbert, a Weathermember recruited in 1969 by Ted Gold and currently serving two life terms at Attica Prison for his involvement in a 1981 Brinks truck holdup, speculated in a 1990 opinion piece in the now-defunct leftist weekly The Guardian that Weather "dismissed the potential to have both an underground and a militant mass movement." This statement indicates the inability of the U.S. Left to take itself seriously enough and commit itself to a protracted struggle. Weathermembers, who did take themselves seriously, apparently did not consider their fellow Leftists sufficiently committed to the struggle. This led them to decide not to organize a political wing and devote all their energy to the underground instead. The lack of organized popular support gave the state in all its guises (Nixon, FBI, liberals, media) the space to further criminalize the armed Left and thereby guarantee their isolation. In the same way that purveyors of mind-expanding substances are now portrayed as evil, so did North American revolutionaries become gangs of bloodthirsty terrorists and criminals.
The period that the new left (and Weather) existed was a unique historical moment. We live in the wake of that time. The world has changed immensely since then. One thing that remains the same, though, is the corporate American hold on the planet. Indeed, that hold is greater now than it was 30 years ago. Although more insidious (fewer hot wars for example), the damage is even greater: increased poverty, increased concentration of wealth, greater environmental damage, and widespread cynicism among the world’s populations.
Recently, leftist popular politics have experienced a bit of a renaissance in the United States and elsewhere in the capitalist world. This has occurred in spite of (or perhaps because of) the disintegration of the Stalinist states in Europe and Asia. The primary focii of this resurgence have been the criminal justice system (especially in the US) and its victims, and the globalization of capital, which is primarily under the control of US corporations. This movement has mobilized internationally against the 1999 NATO attack on Yugoslavia, the WTO/IMF/World Bank/FTAA meetings from Seattle to Prague to Okinawa, the so-called war on terrorism, and in support of political prisoners like writer and death row activist Mumia Abu Jamal. There have been minor victories- for example, Black Panthers geronimo ji jaga pratt and dhoruba bin wahad were freed after years of struggle. There have been many setbacks as well: the most obvious being Mumia and, on a greater scale, the continuing growth of the military and prison-industrial complex.
Since my history of the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew, was published in 1997, I have received many letters from participants in the aforementioned movements, most of them from youth. I have also received many letters from prisoners in prisons around the US. While many of these letter writers are proponents of forceful direct action, none express a frustration even approaching that felt by their similarily youthful counterparts of the late 1960s and 1870s. Likewise, nor do they express a belief in underground armed struggle. The level of tactical sophistication amongst the street fighting elements of this movement, represented best by the anarchist black bloc and its communist and syndicalist allies, is far beyond any tactical approaches during the street actions of Weather’s heyday. In addition, there seems to be a level of support for the militant tactics by others in the movement not inclined to such action. Hopefully, these individuals and movements will continue to wage the struggle in the streets, even as the forces of the state employ even harsher repressive tactics. Also hopeful are the alliances between students, workers, farmers, environmentalists and others in this movement-a phenomenon that stems directly from its anti-capitalist analysis, which is, in itself, the only possible analysis that allows for a complete understanding of the process of globalization.
Instead of insisting on its newness and differences from the old Left, the New Left, (of whom Weather represented some of its most influential members) should have acknowledged the rich history of the Left (especially its North American portion) early on, and their role as the latest protagonists of the revolutionary struggle. This may well have prevented the confusion and disillusionment which developed in the late sixties when the necessity for a more defined ideology and culture was realized. Instead of clumsily attempting to fit the pegs of Latin American and Asian revolutionary theory into the ideological hole of the U.S. revolutionary movement, perhaps a bit of revolutionary United States history would have provided the right shape peg. Although true that any anti-imperial movement, be it one of electoral change or popular revolution, potentially hastens the end of U.S. imperialism, grassroots anti-capitalist, anti-fascist change in the United States would, given its hegemony at the moment, change everything.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground. He can be reached at: