Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974 is a new anthology edited by three former leaders of the militant anti-imperialist organization known as the Weather Underground. From its origins in the student antiwar movement of the 1960s through its ongoing support of liberation movements around the world in the 1970s, the Weather Underground became one of the most controversial groups to emerge from the 1960s movements due to their support for armed struggle and use of political bombings as a means of practicing active solidarity with third world movements. The anthology collects three texts from the Weather Underground’s most active period, a collection of poetry titled “Sing a Battle Song: Poems by Women of the Weather Underground Organization,” “The Weather Eye: Communiques from the Weather Underground May 1970 – May 1974,” and “Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-imperialism.” By collecting these texts in one place, the editors make an important contribution to recent literature on the Weather Underground and to those in current movements against war and racism who want to learn from past struggle as a way of drawing out lessons for the present. In their respective introductions to the text, the editors reflect on the Weather Underground and the lessons that can be learned, with all three former leaders concluding that they were right to challenge white supremacy and imperialism as demonstrated by Bernadine Dohrn’s arguing that “Weather had an unequivocal lucidity about white supremacy and race.” Similarly, they argue that the Weather Underground helped to advance a theory of imperialism that looked at its domestic consequences–economic collapse, incarceration, ecological assaults, etc.–that presented a more comprehensive analysis of power to the antiwar movement and attempting to recast it as an anti-imperialist movement. While still supporting the goals and many of the theoretical positions of the group, the editors agree that Weather’s major failure was in its sectarianism, inflated rhetoric, and its unwillingness to build meaningful alliances with other organizations. To this end, Jeff Jones’ comments that Weather defined only by its tactics is a relic of the past, but if it is considered in terms of its opposition to imperialism and racism it has a relevancy for the present, seem particularly apt.
Following the introductions and a brief excerpt from the “Weatherman Statement” issued in 1969, Sing a Battle Song opens the book. The short book of poetry by “women in the Weather Underground” features a variety of poems that show the ways in which the Weather Underground sought to grapple with a host of different issues and interlocking systems of oppression. There are poems that challenge sexism and patriarchy, poems in support of the Vietnamese struggle for liberation, poems in support of political prisoners, and a host of other poems addressing important issues within both the Weather Underground and the greater left movement of the 1960s and 1970s. According to the 1975 introduction, the poems–like armed actions and written propaganda–are another means of communicating, educating, and building an anti-imperialist movement. The poem writing process itself was a product of the Weather Underground’s experimentation with different methods of collective organizing and structuring of political groups, with each poem being written individually and then critiqued and edited as a group in order to sharpen its clarity and effectiveness as a tool of struggle. Moreover, the book is firmly rooted in the Weather Underground’s internal debate over male supremacy and sexism, a debate that raged not only within the group but also within the movement press.
Weather Eye collects the communiques of the Weather Underground, from its opening “A Declaration of a Sate of War” in which the group announced that it was going to “attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice” within the next fourteen days (it set off a bomb in the New York Police Department headquarters to protest the racist justice system three weeks after the declaration of war) to a 1974 communique explaining why the Weather Underground “attacked” a fundraiser for Nelson Rockefeller for his support of strict anti-drug laws. The communiqués vary greatly from over-the-top rhetoric talking about “pigs” and “amerikan” imperialism to longer, more theoretical pieces that analyzed events of the times and the state of the movement. As the organization became more experienced, its communiqués focused less on the bombing and more on the reasons behind the choosing of a specific target, opting to use the bombings as an act of “armed propaganda” that could potentially highlight an issue that was not receiving an appropriate amount of attention in the media or in the movement. The Weather Underground also released statements exploring their own tactical and political development, perhaps the most famous of which was the group’s “New Morning, Changing Weather” statement in which the group specifically expressed its “military error” in considering “only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary” and advocated the building of a movement that respected a diversity of tactics. Reading them some thirty years later, the communiques show Weather’s evolving analysis and its work towards developing a more comprehensive anti-imperialism theory and praxis and the obligation of white radicals to dedicate themselves to combating imperialism.
Billed as “the political statement of the Weather Underground,” Prairie Fire is an important document in understanding the theoretical development of the Weather Underground. It presents their longest exploration of imperialism, white supremacy, and the tactics necessary for revolutionary movements to succeed. While the statement’s politics have been criticized by some former members for emphasizing class over race, it represents an attempt by an underground organization to stay relevant at a time of lessening popular struggle. The book, published in the mid-1970s, is an attempt to give direction to the organization and to present a strategy for anti-imperialism and revolution. The book is very much written out of an analysis of conditions in the mid-1970s, interpreting imperialism as in decline, and as such sees the prospects of a revolutionary movement as being attainable provided that a new revolutionary organization is formed to guide the movement. It identifies anti-organization tendencies, cynicism, sexism, and racism as the primary reason for the movement being at a “low-point” and prevents its analysis as a means of sparking a larger anti-imperialist movement. To that end, the book presents a lengthy analysis of resistance movements in United States history while also articulating a detailed analysis of imperialism and recent (at the time) worldwide victories against imperialism. For those reading the analysis in the present, it appears quite flawed given that its predications about the direction of the movement and the decline of United States imperialism did not come to pass, yet at the same time, it does offer a number of points worthy of consideration by contemporary activists. The text presents a clear argument in support of an anti-imperialist analysis of United States foreign policy, explaining how the United States prosperity is based on the “super-exploitation” of the third world, how imperialism links domestic, foreign, corporate, and military policy, and how racism functions as a tool of imperialism. The book also presents a solid–although dated–critique and analysis of white privilege and asserts that challenging racism and white supremacy must be a primary focus of radical movements.
Sing a Battle Song is an important book in that it presents materials that were previously available primarily in university libraries and in the collections of aging radicals and makes them available for a new generation of radicals to consider and learn from. Of course, as primary text materials, they feature no secondary analysis and are often lacking the context necessary to completely understand them (the exception would be Jonah Raskin’s introduction to Weather Eye) and as such a reading of these texts should be undertaken along with a reading of Dan Berger’s excellent book on the Weather Underground, Outlaws of America. Nevertheless, these texts provide an intriguing and useful look into a movement that was willing to risk everything in order to commit itself to fighting white supremacy and as such, there is a considerable amount to be learned from them by radicals of this generation.
Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, eds., Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).