Kathy Boudin: Revolution Versus Direct Action

I did not know Kathy Boudin, except for her public persona depicted in the media and through writing. I mourned for her when she died on May 1st, and I think that mourning had as much to do with profound sadness at the death of the echoes of the heady days of protest in the 1960s and early 1970s, as it had to do with the loss and grief toward a person.

Boudin was at the center of the debate of nonviolent direct action against war versus violent action.

Boudin’s life followed a trajectory of a small group of the radical New Left, a minuscule cohort of those who began as liberals, usually liberal students at the inception of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 1960s, and became increasingly radical as the killing in Southeast Asia grew exponentially through the administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and finally Nixon. The movement ended in the cul-de-sac of violence that culminated in the plan to kill soldiers and their guests at a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and finally with the deaths of a Brink’s guard and two policemen during a robbery in Nyack, New York. By the time of the Brink’s robbery in October 1981, the last vestiges of the Weather Underground had formed an alliance with the Black Liberation Army.

The major strategic error of those radicals was the belief that they would be the vanguard of revolution. During the Days of Rage in Illinois in October 1969, the radical group to which Boudin belonged, the Weathermen, believed that others, including even high-school students, would join them as part of that vanguard. They could not have been more in error. Workers were not on the side of the revolutionaries in any significant numbers and the fact that so many struggling workers would vote for Trump decades later says much about that segment of the working class. For radicals, the demise of the left was mostly a very long downhill slide.

An article in the New Yorker The Radical Life of Kathy Boudin” (May 7, 2022), depicts the trajectory of Boudin’s life from student liberal to member of the Weather Underground (Weathermen), her years in jail, and finally her reintegration into society and death.

In 1970, three members of the Weathermen were killed when a bomb being made at a West 11th Street townhouse in Greenwich Village in New York City detonated. Boudin was seen running naked from the townhouse and went underground. Many leftists from that period condemned the townhouse explosion for the damage it did to the Vietnam antiwar movement that was overwhelmingly peaceful. Weathermen actions had involved violence against property rather than people. The intention of the Weathermen at the townhouse was to escalate the level of violence and murder people in response to US involvement in the Vietnam War and the larger war in Southeast Asia.

Just what radicals were thinking at the time of the Brink’s robbery in 1981 is hard to discern. Any idea of a return to antiwar activism and vanguard radicalism of the 60s and early 70s was a pipe dream. If electoral politics means anything, those who voted in the US had chosen the far right Ronald Reagan by the time of the Nyack robbery and any idea of the rise of the working class, a society that meets the needs of people, and the end to war must have involved people with their fingers up to a strange wind in determining just which way it blew by then.

While in prison, and then out into the world, Boudin did what an intelligent person would do. She became a champion of those in need and created programs to help fellow prisoners. Then she did what many from those heady antiwar days did, she earned a Ph.D. and continued helping people and educating people.

Not many who face incarceration in the US for serious actions and crimes get to reinvent themselves in this way. I think that it helps to be white and have had a middle-class or upper middle-class start in life as Kathy Boudin did and as many other 60’s radicals did.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for Gandhian nonviolent direct action for civil rights and peace and was assassinated in 1968. Malcolm X, a champion of self-defense in the struggle for Black liberation, was assassinated in 1965. Neither of these revolutionaries was able to reinvent himself. Masses of Black and brown people, mostly poor, spend long periods of time in US prisons with many in the private prison system. Some of these people, no longer useful to the economic system that sent millions of manufacturing jobs overseas, are kept in a kind of warehouse prison complex.

There is a telling interview in the documentary The Weather Underground in which one former radical does not apologize for her revolutionary actions. Kathy Boudin’s partner, David Gilbert, maintained his radical beliefs while rightly apologizing for the pain he caused through his actions in the Brink’s robbery. Some shed their radical pasts as fast as they could. Others maintained their belief system and commitment to changing the world while holding onto their humanity.

Often, it is difficult to recall the radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s in such reactionary times as these with so much war and inequality and existential threats to life itself. The grief one feels at the death of a former revolutionary, not for her acts that led to the death of others, but for her lost idealism that her early and later life seemed to inform, is difficult to deny. Once having lived in revolutionary times, the echoes come back in so many ways.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).