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The Weather Underground’s Prairie Fire Statement…Thirty Years On
I was thumbing through the new AK Press catalog the other day and discovered that they had some copies of the 1974 statement from the Weather Underground for sale. This document, titled Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, was the result of the individual and collective experiences and analyses of Weather’s members. Its 1974 appearance in radical bookstores, food coops, headshops, college campuses and many other places that movement activists met was greeted with a combination of emotions throughout the Left.
Thirty summers ago, the US Left was in disarray, searching for a new modus operandi in the wake of the coming defeat of the United States military in Vietnam, Watergate, and a declining base of support stateside. Serious leftists were forming new organizations, studying Marxist-Leninist texts, moving into the US workplace and away from their student and youth culture base, and just trying to figure out how they were going to fit in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world. Many of these folks would find themselves in various parties and party-building organizations by 1976, as the New Communist Movement (NCM) went into full swing. Even the underground was trying to figure out how to remain relevant, especially the most renowned and organized of the underground groups—the Weather Underground Organization (WUO).
A debate was taking place inside the group over exactly how to increase their exposure while maintaining their brand of politics. Some argued that it was time to go above ground and move into workplace organizing. Others thought such a move would be self-defeating, both politically and personally. After all, wouldn’t those individuals wanted by law enforcement end up doing time? If so, how could that possibly be politically effective? On the other hand, didn’t their continued underground existence further isolate them from the very population that they wished to organize? These were but a few of the questions facing the organization. Time would eventually answer them all, but in 1974 the Weather Underground decided to remain underground and operate as it had since 1971, occasionally bombing selected symbolic targets and propagandizing around those actions. This was the context in which they released Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism.
Prairie Fire represented something of a shift in strategy for the WUO, but one that had been developing since their December 1971 communiqué New Morning, Changing Weather. While that statement recognized the need for an underground army not to isolate itself from the masses, it was criticized for minimalizing the role of armed actions. Prairie Fire attempted to reconcile this apparent dichotomy by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of mass revolutionary organizing, yet describing Weather as an underground organization. What this suggested was that Weather saw itself as the beginnings of a revolutionary people’s army aligned with the revolutionary movement. This differed from their previous self-perception as a primarily foco organization whose role was to incite insurrection. Whether or not the rest of the movement shared Weather’s new perception of itself was questionable; questionable because most revolutionary groups of the period were either reorganizing themselves or disintegrating. Those revolutionaries not in organizations, meanwhile, were usually hesitant to align themselves with any organization and often unwilling to even speak in terms of revolution, given the fragmentation of the movement at the time.
The disillusionment implicit in such hesitation was the result of multiple factors. Foremost among these were the counterinsurgency efforts of the state. These efforts, as mentioned before, involved infiltration and disruption, sabotage and rumormongering, and in the case of the black and Latino liberation movements, outright premeditated murder. During certain high points of rebellion (People’s Park, Cambodian invasion), the white movement, too, suffered deaths at the hands of the police forces. Other factors that contributed to the despair and disillusionment in the white Left of the 1970s, according to Weather, concerned tendencies within the movement itself. Those factors included a distrust of organizations, cynicism, racism, and sexism.
Based on the assumption that "the unique and fundamental condition of this time is the decline of U.S. imperialism", the Weather Underground Organization challenged the anti-imperialist movement to continue its revolutionary path. Reflecting a consciousness developed over years of revolutionary work, clandestine and aboveground, Weather urged revolutionaries in the U.S. to organize and prepare constantly wherever they were and in whatever way possible.
Above all, Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism was a call to organize. Once again identifying the enemy of the world’s peoples as US imperialism, Weather stated their goal was to "attack imperialism’s ability to exploit and wage war", and eventually build a socialist society in the US. To begin this process, Weather reiterated its original thesis that the empire must be weakened and at least partially destroyed. According to this thesis, the weakest links in the imperialist chain were the colonies. For that reason, claimed Weather (as they always had), it was the liberation of the third world that held the key to eventual liberation of the mother country (the United States).
The hopefulness of Prairie Fire—The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism is its most elemental and memorable aspect. Perhaps this is why the statement was received positively by much of the revolutionary Left. To say the least, the Left found itself scattered following the signing of the Vietnam peace accords in January 1973—accords whose signing had changed little on the ground in Vietnam, but had convinced many US citizens that he war was over. The despair felt by many activists as they searched for a strategy to deal with the continued war in Indochina, the so-called energy crisis, and the economic decline at home, was lifted somewhat with the public release of the statement on July 26, 1974. At the press conference accompanying the release of the book, a variety of activists spoke positively about its contents. The staff of the leftist underground journal Takeover from Madison, Wisconsin, which was, by 1974, one of the few underground newspapers still holding true to its countercultural revolutionary roots, noted that the lack of "apocalyptic rage and rhetoric" in the statement did not mean an end to Weather’s militancy, but "clari(fied) the present thinking of SDS’s boldest heirs" and "spelled out the priorities of the seventies."
As for some of SDS’s other heirs, their response was much the opposite. Carl Davidson, still writing a column for the independent Marxist weekly The Guardian and a member of the Maoist October League, attacked the book. Davidson voiced the Stalinist criticism of youth culture, and accused the WUO of "repudiating the proletariat" and having a "bankrupt line". His primary criticism of Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, however, regarded the role of national liberation movements, both internationally and domestically. According to the Stalinist model, the proletariat is the main revolutionary force, while national movements become its allies. According to Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, however, the revolutionary national movements were proletarian revolutions in their own right against the world imperialist class and provided the leadership in the worldwide anti-imperialist revolution. If one assumed that, argued Davidson, they rendered a worker’s party irrelevant and, therefore, made socialist revolution impossible. All of which, concluded Davidson, proved that Weather had learned nothing in its years of existence except better public relations methods.
Davidson’s sentiments were echoed by other groups and individuals who held political lines similar to his organization’s. The arguments that ensued over the issues raised by Prairie Fire — The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism would continue through the next summer. If nothing else, they were proof that WUO’s influence and ability to stir debate had not declined despite the diminishing influence of leftist thought in general on the US body politic.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org