Web Only / Features » February 18, 2009
You Say You Want a Revolution
A founding member of the Weather Underground looks back at an organization unable to come to terms with its own violence.
While we in the WU did not, by some grace, become terrorists, we were wrong and destructive. We did lose our way.
As a former member of the Weather Underground, I feel compelled to add my voice to the recently re-heated discussion of the group’s legacy.
I co-wrote and signed the original document that announced the formation of a radical tendency at the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) National Convention in the summer of 1969. We became known as the Weathermen, drawing the title of our position paper from the Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” and transformed ourselves into the Weather Underground (WU) over the course of the next year. Because of my involvement with the WU, I became a fugitive in 1970; by 1978 I turned myself in to government authorities.
I write now to paint a more accurate picture of the past for new activists as they face decisions about future direction – especially in moments of inevitable frustration.
A number of issues have been conflated that need to be disentangled at the outset. These are questions about (a) what is terrorism, (b) the appropriateness of any form of violence as a strategy, (c) how (not) to work through differences in a comradely fashion, as fellow participants in a common movement for social change, and finally (d) movement building.
Let’s begin with the most explosive issue.
What is terrorism?
During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Right successfully linked the actions of the WU to present-day terrorism.
Bill Ayers is mainly correct in denying that charge as a libel on the antiwar movement as a whole, and on the WU in particular. From any detached perspective, the Vietnam/American war-era antiwar movement was basically nonviolent, if sometimes quite agitated.
As I understand it, terrorism refers to the killing of innocent civilians for political reasons; therefore all forms of nongovernmental violence do not qualify as terrorism. The WU, while undoubtedly breaking from nonviolence, never advocated a strategy of terror or called for or carried out any attacks on civilians.
It is disingenuous, however, to represent, as Ayers did in the New York Times in December, that we in the WU were merely one wing of the antiwar movement. [Editor’s note: Read Ayers’ recent In These Times article looking back on the Vietnam era and the 2008 presidential campaign here.] His interpretation obscures what at the time was a big difference. Not only did we pride ourselves on having moved beyond the reformism of the antiwar movement and consider ourselves to be a revolutionary alternative, but few in the antiwar movement claimed us.
This is not the whole story. Ayers’s tale glosses over some important points, especially the actions of the 1970 Townhouse collective–a New York-based political formation designed to carry on illegal activities–whose failed efforts resulted in the deaths of three members of the WU.
After we decided in late 1969 to create a national underground organization that could carry on illegal–and sometimes violent activities–beyond the reach of the criminal justice system, collectives were set up in a few places that were centers of antiwar or anti-racist activity. The collective in New York came to be called the Townhouse Collective after a bomb that collective members were assembling in a Manhattan townhouse exploded prematurely.
On its own initiative, this collective had planned to attack a Non-Commissioned Officers’ (NCO) dance at Ft. Dix with a fragmentation bomb. Had this action been carried out, it would have undoubtedly led to the deaths of not only officers, but also their dates and other bystanders – by any definition, an act of terrorism. Instead, the device went off accidentally and killed three WU members of the Townhouse Collective.
This failed action set off an intense debate in the then newly formed WU organization that culminated in the critique of the Townhouse Collective’s “military error” in a publicly released WU communiqué entitled “New Morning.” While critical of the “heavier the better” mentality that promoted and celebrated political violence per se, the document fell well short of providing a full and honest examination and critique of Townhouse politics.
A chill in WU frenzy and attempts to reconnect with other activists and tendencies paralleled this limited self-critique. Internal discussions became less aggressive and accusatory; attempts were made to work with, and sometimes to try to lead, or manipulate, the aboveground mass movement.
While “New Morning” signaled the WU’s commitment to taking greater care after the accident to target property and not people, it did not acknowledge the WU’s own responsibility for the politics of the Townhouse collective.
WU leaders––then and since––failed to reckon candidly and directly with what it meant, politically and humanly, that core members of the organization had planned to use fragmentation bombs to kill attendees at a dance.
Prior to the Townhouse disaster, the WU had been obsessed with critiquing bourgeois ambivalence or cowardice, which allegedly was holding people back from armed resistance, with little notion or fear that unrestrained militancy could become inhumane as well as dangerous for the movement. At the Flint conference in December 1969, Weather leaders evoked Charles Manson and attendees danced while making the sign of the fork, a Manson symbol.
So while the WU did pull back from the precipice of a terrorist strategy, it never forthrightly admitted to the tendency that had grown and been nurtured within it.
After the WU dissolved in 1977-78 and most of its members turned themselves in to state authorities, there remained a leftover grouplet connected to members of the May 19 Communist Organization (an aboveground group linked to the WU which functioned in the New York area between 1978 and 1985) that was critical of any compromise with the state. It was this small group that, in tandem with elements of the Black Liberation Army, carried out the armed Brinks robbery in 1981, during which two police officers were killed.
Whatever its political pretensions, this valedictory act signaled a final disconnect from the larger political movement and a further descent into pointless revolutionary posturing.
Violence as strategy
Given that the WU managed to refrain from terrorism, did a strategy involving the use of nonterrorist violence help to end the war against Vietnam or lead to fundamental political and social change in the late ’60s or early ’70s?
WU leaders, then and since, have justified their actions as a form of “armed propaganda”: blowing up symbolic targets to emphatically make important political points and widen the spectrum of opposition, with the extra benefit of legitimizing more moderate actions. But there is little reason to believe that militant nonviolence, like that advocated by pacifist and antiwar activist Dave Dellinger, would not have done as well with a less severe downside.
We in the WU argued that militant nonviolence had been found wanting in stopping the war; we felt something more was urgently needed. However, there is no evidence that armed propaganda succeeded where militant nonviolence fell short. The WU argument only makes sense if its long-term aim was to set the stage for an armed overthrow of the state – a wildly wrong reading of the times.
The WU was not the only group that engaged in armed actions. Between 1968 and 1970, there was a spate of “trashings,” bombings and street riots. Groups such as the Black Panthers, White Panthers, Black Liberation Army and many armed “affinity groups” saw a turn to some kind of armed action as both necessary and feasible. It distorts history to frame the WU as the only group–or even the only white group–advocating forms of armed resistance.
There were also those who argued for the legitimacy of armed resistance–defending its use in national liberation struggles, for instance–without trying to implement it as an appropriate strategy for that historical moment in the United States. Armed resistance was on the minds of many of the most dedicated activists. I am not suggesting that armed action was a sound strategic choice, but rather that it was in the realm of possibility for many activists in the United States who desperately sought an end to racism, the U.S. war on Southeast Asia and the entire U.S. imperial project.
What lay behind the WU trajectory, however, was not merely frustration with the shortcomings of the “aboveground” movement, or long-term strategic thinking. It was an attempt to prove revolutionary mettle in the imagined spirit of the Vietnamese resistance or the Black Panthers. There was an eagerness to demonstrate in practice that white radicals could risk the same commitments as these revolutionary icons. We would not sell out or be co-opted. This was still the stance of many of the former WU members featured in the 2002 documentary film The Weather Underground.
Despite some bravado, I myself was a cautious person looking to break the shackles of bourgeois detachment. I felt real relief in seemingly giving my all. But at the same time, I was terrified. Such existential “acting out” does not ordinarily lead to political good sense. The importance of demonstrating revolutionary credentials or moral purity gets in the way of clear thinking about how to strengthen the movement or take advantage of political opportunities.
Other longtime activists argued that our actions would isolate the movement, obscure its message, and sabotage priorities: We dismissed all of these criticisms as examples of white privilege, if not cowardice. Counter-arguments served mainly to convince us of our own revolutionary righteousness. Not even Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s labeling us “Custeristic”–for the 1969 Days of Rage demonstration, which he accurately saw as self-destructive–slowed us down.
Get with–or out of–the program
This brings us directly to the notorious arrogance of the Weather people. During that first crazed year of willing “the underground” into existence, we perceived other activists as loath to go the last mile and risk their futures; we had no embarrassment in calling out other activists for not being “with the program.” We held a general contempt for all parts of the movement who failed to heed our call. This coincided with abusive internal criticism and self-criticism sessions to purge bourgeois “individualism” and gird members for the struggle.
While many forms of deep personal transformation can take on an unbecoming stridency, our over-the-top special pleading went beyond adolescent obnoxiousness and played a significant role in imploding the late ’60s left.
For example, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (from which the WU emerged) itself contained many deep internal contradictions–regarding Marxism-Leninism, internal democracy and sexism, to name a few divisive issues–that threatened its organizational integrity. But surely the Weather tendency’s strident divisiveness played a catalytic role in the demise of SDS as a core radical student organization.
By allowing our frustration and revolutionary airs to trump our political common sense, we disowned one of the ’60s-era organizers’ greatest contributions to leftist politics–the revival of what has been termed the “organizing tradition.” This was the tradition, focused on long-term change and bottom-up politics that animated the Civil Rights, Black Freedom, Women’s Liberation and antiwar movements.
This organizing tradition, which the WU abandoned, has a developmental, long-haul perspective and an emphasis on building relationships that endure. It respects collective leadership and holds that the best movement leaders should have ongoing, accountable relations with their bases–the grassroots. Its anti-bureaucratic ethos and preference for connecting issues and organizing around peoples’ everyday lives create an expansive notion of democracy.
This conception of organizing goes beyond mobilizing, disdains vanguardism, requires patience and emphasizes the centrality of building new leadership. The organizing tradition was most fully embodied in the practice of early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, but also revivified in Women’s Liberation groups and even some SDS chapters.
Out of sheer impatience and an inflated sense of vanguardism, the WU rejected this empowering tradition. Ironically, the WU understood the painstaking work of grassroots organizing as a sign of white privilege. This work required waiting too long while the world was in tumult.
The WU favored more dramatic action that ended up disconnecting the purported leadership from any mass base, leaving it unaccountable (except self-glorifyingly to a nebulous “people of the world”) in its self-defined trajectory. The WU rationalized its practice by attacking any possible base as too privileged, too corrupted by consumerism and imperialism.
Many WU cadre had been effective, energetic, even gifted organizers–but by the late ’60s such work seemed like too little, too late. The war was raging, the people of the world were in an uproar–where were we? From the WU perspective, white people were self-indulgently tarrying and oppressed people were bearing the brunt of imperial and racist power. We thought it was high time to up the ante.
One need not equate the relentless, pounding violence of the American war on Vietnam or against the Black Freedom movement with the small-time violent actions of the WU in order to be critical of the direction we set. While we in the WU did not, by some grace, become terrorists, we were wrong and destructive. We did lose our way. We were not demons, but we did succumb to our own fantasy of revolutionary pride.
For me, the overall lesson is this: Despite the desperation of any given political moment, we can only have a chance at success by deeply understanding that our goal must be to build humane power. We must remain alert to opportunities in current political realities, rather than act out fantasies of revolutionary prowess in frustration.
Similar temptations toward what has been variously called “infantile” leftism, “phallic” politics, or “petit-bourgeois” adventurism have not disappeared – they reappear in new guises, but parade with the same heedlessness and self-importance. The “fierce urgency of now” is always with us, but the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in building a movement for social justice in an oppressive world has a more profound urgency.
What do you want to see from our coverage of the 2020 presidential candidates?
As our editorial team finalizes plans for our coverage of the 2020 Democratic primary, we want to hear from you:
It only takes a minute to answer this short, three-question survey, but your input will help shape our coverage in the months to come. That’s why we want to make sure you have a chance to share your thoughts.
Howard Machtinger, a former member of Students For a Democratic Society and a founding member of Weatherman (later Weather Underground), is a retired teacher, but remains politically active and still believes in the need for social and political transformation--hopefully in the spirit of the "organizing tradition."