Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Reunion held at MSU

Last month, a reunion was held at Michigan State University (MSU) featuring former members of SDS from the 1960s. The reunion offered an excellent opportunity to discuss past and present movements and the power of students and community members to transform society.

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Last month, at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, an MSU Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) reunion was held on campus. SDS was the most prominent radical student groups of the 1960s and, like many universities, MSU had an active chapter. The reunion, organized with the help of Ignite SDS (MSU’s current SDS chapter) and Students for Economic Justice. The reunion offered an interesting dialog on the movements of the past, the revived SDS, and how students and community members can use their power to end wars.

Introduction by Bob Meola, a member of the original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Michigan State:

Members of the current Detroit, Michigan chapter of SDS talking about their ongoing organizing efforts:

Tom Price’s tribute to Jeff Miller, a member of MSU SDS who was murdered by the National Guard at Kent State University in May of 1970:

Founding SDS president Alan Haber on “A Plan to Win:”

Former SDS member Bill Ayers on “Movement Building in Troubled Times:”

Former SDS member Bernardine Dohrn on “When Hope and History Rhyme:”

Keynote speaker Bert Garskof, who was an MSU faculty member during the 1960s and who supported MSU SDS:

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Over the past several years, there have been a number of books published about Weatherman (later known as the Weather Underground organization). These have ranged from participant memoirs such as Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days to secondary analyses of the movement such as Bringing the War Home and Outlaws of America. These have been joined by Thai Jones’s study of his parents (his father was Jeff Jones, who held a leadership position in Weatherman/Weather Underground) titled A Radical Line along with Sing A Battle Song a collection of statements, communiques, and poems produced by the Weather Underground. With the exception of poems written by women and republished in Sing a Battle Song, men have written most of this recent material on the Weather Underground. In that sense, Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman is a welcome addition and will hopefully be joined by other women who were involved with the group. Given the sexism that the entire radical movement grappled with in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Wilkerson has a different perspective than those that have written thus far, while at the same time, she articulates a different position given that she was not in the leadership of the organization.

Cathy Wilkerson was at one time probably one of the more famous members of Weatherman, having survived the 1970 townhouse explosion in which three of her comrades–Teddy Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins–were killed when wires were crossed on a bomb that they were building. The bomb, which was being constructed to target the Fort Dix military bases, was a product of a frenzied time following Weatherman’s failed “Days of Rage” action in which only a few-hundred members of the group came to a “national action” to battle with the Chicago police. Following the lack of turnout for the “Days of Rage” event (and the even more problematic dismissal and criticism of it by the Black Panther Party, whom Weatherman saw as the vanguard of the movement), Wilkerson argues that the townhouse explosion was the consequence of:

“…a bright light burning itself out in its own intensity. We had become a voice of outrage whose single-mindedness had cut us off from the movement, from reality. We had created a bubble of our own reality, and the bubble burst.”

While the Weather Underground would eventually articulate its own analysis of what went wrong at the townhouse in the statement “New Morning, Changing Weather,” describing it as a “military error” borne out of a “tendency to consider only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary with the glorification of the heavier the better.” Wilkerson, while agreeing with portions of the analysis, criticizes the fact that the statement gave the townhouse collective sole blame rather than evaluating the context of what was happening politically, Weatherman’s own violent rhetoric, their actions (ex: the “Days of Rage”), and their political analysis, all of which “helped pave the way to the elevation of armed struggle as the only kind of struggle.” Wilkerson’s analysis of the townhouse explosion and what it meant for the Weather Underground–and to a lesser extent the movement–is interesting and she ultimately argues that:

“Only years later did I realize that it was only because our actions failed, because we had sacrificed some of our own, that our anger could be heard. Had our original plans been successful, any acknowledgment of our outrage against the war would have been overshadowed by others’ outrage at us, for we, too, would have inflicted chaos and hurt without a realistic plan–if one would have been possible–to move constructively beyond our anger and the damage.”

A significant portion of Wilkerson’s book is devoted to her work with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and her awakening to political consciousness in the mid-1960s. She begins by describing her family life in the 1950s, describing stifling gender roles and expectations that functioned as an early impetus towards rebellion in some form. When Wilkerson went to college she got involved in Civil Rights struggles by going to pickets and getting involved with neighborhood organizing efforts. This eventually led to organizing against the Vietnam War and ultimately, SDS. She worked at the national office as an editor of New Left Notes before becoming a regional SDS organizer in Washington DC. Her discussion of SDS is insightful as she addresses the organization’s many successes and failures. Moreover, Wilkerson was involved in SDS throughout most of its existence and she was one of the few who were involved in “early” SDS and the later SDS. Consequently, she discusses the divisions between the two, as well as the common failings, such as a lack of an overall strategy for change. Wilkerson also tackles sexism in the movement, COINTELPRO repression, and the continuing escalation of the war.

Wilkerson’s discussion of SDS is essential to understanding the Weather Underground, because without it, it is almost impossible to see what drove their group to engage in “armed struggle” within the United States. She aptly articulates the trajectory of SDS’s politics and skillfully draws out lessons that would be helpful for anyone doing antiwar and/or radical organizing in the current context. As she talks about the downfall of SDS, she describes the increase in radical rhetoric and imagery, with SDS publications featuring the rhetoric of warfare, imagery of guns, and exultations to militancy that became increasingly undecipherable to those outside the movement. Wilkerson argues that as SDS (and the emerging Weatherman and Revolutionary Youth Movement factions) began to cast itself as a “revolutionary” movement that sought ways to broaden its struggle, it became more narrowly focused and accountable. To her, Weatherman–which emerged out of the disintegration of SDS at the 1969 national convention–quickly became a product of its own rhetoric and began to believe its bold proclamations even when in reality there was not much of a movement behind them, nor were their particularly clear politics. At numerous points during her narrative, Wilkerson describes her doubts and second thoughts that she downplayed and overcame, convincing herself that “the leadership” had a clear plan or that there was no other way.

Throughout her writing, Wilkerson criticizes the politics and actions of the Weather Underground, arguing that it had “tremendous influence and iconic status, despite its small size and enormous, even absurd, failings.” She repeatedly talks of herself and the Weather Underground as an organization moving over “the blurry line between reality and delusion” as they convinced themselves that they had the right analysis and tactics. When people did not show up, they simply convinced themselves that they were the only ones who were willing to make the sacrifices and that they would have “to go it alone.” For the most part, Wilkerson’s analyses of the Weather Underground’s political and tactical failings are insightful, although they do seem colored by her own experience in the group and subsequent political thinking. One of Wilkerson’s assertions that are more questionable is that:

“Presented with both national and world events that were emotionally overwhelming, and ill-prepared to make the choices that lay in front of me, I made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practiced by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity–and each life within it–was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandoned myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.”

Honestly, it is somewhat difficult to accept portions of that analysis, especially when throughout the book Wilkerson advances a far more nuanced critique of the group.

Beyond on her evaluation of the politics and tactics of the Weather Underground, Wilkerson also describes life underground. Following the townhouse explosion, Wilkerson moved from a series of “safe houses” and often subsisted on bare necessities. In part because she was so well-known following the townhouse and in part because she was not part of the leadership collective, Wilkerson reveals only minimal involvement in the group’s activities and much of her life underground appeared tedious and served to isolate her from what remained of the movement. When reading the section, the hierarchy of the group’s operation is striking. The organization operated in a way that left the individual collectives and members often having no idea who else existed and rarely being asked to contribute to the strategic and tactical discussions at hand. Moreover, Wilkerson explains that there was often a significant disparity between how people lived, with those who were more connected to money living in significantly better conditions.

Despite her criticism, Wilkerson makes it clear that among Weatherman’s success was its ability “to serve as a powerful voice of outrage that spoke for thousands of angry young people,” its ability to elude capture and provide inspiration to 1960s veterans who were in the 1970s settling into long-term work, and its addressing racism as a central aspect of struggles in the United States. While recounting its many errors and asserting that it added little to “the broader conversation about change,” Wilkerson argues that despite all of its flaws, “the gravest mistake is inaction.” Flying Close to the Sun–while not the best book on the period–is an important contribution to the writing on the Weather Underground and the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s and is certainly worth reading by anyone seeking to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what happened during that period.

Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Michael Albert: “To Win Our New World”

Recently at the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) conference in Detroit, longtime activist and author Michael Albert read a lengthy piece that Media Mouse found to be inspirational and a worthy anecdote to the burnout that occasionally faces those involved in social change movements.

Recently, a Media Mouse contributor attended the second national convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The conference, held in Detroit from July 27-30. The entire convention–like any social change work–was a mix of inspiration, frustration, and learning. Throughout all of the mixes of emotions, seemingly endless panel discussions, and informal meetings, there was a sense that the work the 200 or so people who came together were actively engaged in a process that will help them develop skills necessary to build a better world.

As is the case with social change work more generally, it is easy to get burned out with Media Mouse–it seems like we are occasionally caught in a cycle of writing about the next protest, the most recent study of inequality, another act of organized racism, sexism, or homophobia–while victories are few and far between. At the SDS conference in Detroit, Michael Albert–the founder ofZ Magazine and a longtime activist and organizer on the left, read a piece that does a wonderful job explaining what we–with “we” meaning those who want a better world based on cooperation, equality, and solidarity–are seeking and rooting our actions in the history of popular struggle in the United States and abroad:

We are trying to win a new economy, a new realm of daily life and love, a new culture, a new polity, a new ecology, a new internationalism, all without hierarchies that condemn some people to subordination. We reject roles unsuited for humanity – the role of the owner, boss, manager; the role of the patriarch, misogynist, homophobe; the role of the racist, religious bigot, fundamentalist; the role of the denier, decrier, decider, dictator; the role of polluter of air, sea, and land; the role of bombardier, cultural commissar, empire expander. Gone with all of that.

We are pursuing this better world that will leave behind these horribly oppressive aspects by seeking improvements in people’s lives right now, from the washed out streets in New Orleans to the porn strewn back alleys in Chicago, from the black lunged mines in West Virginia to the dignity destroying commercialism of billboards and TV, from rural poverty to urban blight, from self-imposed diets seeking false beauty to society-imposed diets imposing criminal starvation, from the flesh houses of Los Angeles and its glam and glitter to the cardboard homes under bridges in Philadelphia, from the miles of AA meetings to the miles of local bars, from the capacity crushing horrors imposed on eighty percent of our school’s students to the elite Ivy farms spewing out scholars who lack sense and humanity, from the modern slave houses called prisons to the court houses that function like auction houses, from elections that are bought and sold by rich corporate executives investing in their preferred paths of domination to acres and acres of misguided commodity production remorselessly destroying our weather and water, from the endless skyways of half empty hotels to the endless alley ways of homeless children, mothers, and fathers.

We seek more income for the poor, more power for the weak, more status for the forlorn, more social ties for the lonely, more responsibility for all our crying souls. We seek equitable material well being, self managing influence, and mutual fulfillment of all kinds. We seek, as well, to ensure that our demands today not only partly redress the suffering caused by the world we now inhabit but also move us toward a better future in which worldly and spiritual benefits of society reach a high level and then persist due to the intrinsic logic of our new institutions rather than only when we win against harsh opposition.

And why we are doing all this? We are doing it tirelessly, steadfastly, and vigorously, for the memory of revolutionaries and visionaries and humanists from history past, for people all around us now, and for history’s and humanity’s future.

We are trying to win a new economy in which there are no classes. No one in the better world we seek will own workplaces, resources, or other people’s ability to do work. There will be no owners of Walmarts or Microsofts. There will be no private profits. There will be no wage slaves, working under the dictates of others. Further, no one will monopolize empowering conditions at work, as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers so typically do now, and on that account rule over those left only menial and obedient tasks. No one will earn inequitably whether from property, power, or output. No one will have more say over decisions than the fair share that we all are entitled to in accord with how much we are affected. There will be no top and no bottom of who decides what for whom. There will be no order giver and no order taker about production, allocation, or consumption. There will be no class responsible for decisions while another class is suppressed and responsible only to obey. We will all be elevated to use our fullest capacities and express our fullest desires, rather than most of us learning only to endure boredom and to obey orders showered down on us by the anointed masters of all that occurs. Our new economy will be classless, at last. Out with the old boss – and out with any new boss, too. We will enjoy a participatory economy, operating as one part of a participatory society.

But our project is not just about economics – we are not economistic. We realize that life is not working and consuming alone. For example, we are trying to win a new polity too, that will incorporate the will of all citizens in legislation, that will adjudicate disputes to produce justice, that will respond to violations to attain rehabilitation and liberation rather than vengeance and retribution. Our new polity will have citizens of diverse age, belief, experience, and knowledge, but will not have rulers and ruled. We are not merely seeking new Presidents and Senators because we understand that our political problem is government by a few – not simply the oddities of any particular few who happen to be prowling around the White House and Senate at any particular moment. We won’t have political choices mediated by dollar bills but by the will of informed citizens, each with equal rights and comparable means. We will have in our new society’s new polity, participatory democracy and self management. We won’t have information conveyed by agents of corporate power. We will have education, communication, and popular participation that together prepare all citizens to be full participants in social life and decision making. We will build and responsibly contribute to assemblies that express our informed desires for legislation allowing us to self manage our political and social life. We will build media that conveys expert information so we can function wisely. We will adopt decision methods that apportion influence over outcomes to those affected in proportion as they are affected so that we collectively self manage our conditions and projects. We might well call all this participatory politics, one more part of our new participatory society.

Beyond economy and polity, however, we are trying as well to win a new realm of sexuality, nurturance, socialization, and daily life. Do the roots of sexism reside in nuclear marriage as we know it? Do they stem from a gender division of labor that is women mothering and men fathering rather than both parenting? Is sexism born in a disparity in who does caretaking work and who doesn’t? Are there other roots of sexism, other structures that continually toss misogyny up into our lives, reproducing its contours year in and year out, and thereby subverting our potentials for sharing and caring? Whatever the roots of patriarchy are, whatever produces and reproduces sexism, it will all be transcended in a new world. Sexism will be only a memory in the new world we will win and celebrate. Will we need communal living arrangements, new modes of parenting, new ways of apportioning the labors of life, all even beyond the obvious need for fair and free access for women to all positions in society? If we do, then that’s the feminism we must and will achieve in our new participatory society. If something more or other is needed, then that too will be done. We will have participatory kinship, participatory living, in our new participatory society, nothing less is acceptable.

We are trying to win a new culture, as well, that celebrates cultural diversity while defending each community’s every participant. Our preferred new society will include social structures and relations that welcome spirituality and religious sentiment even as our new approaches escape the strictures of fundamentalism of all kinds and respect atheism as well. In our new society, we will all still celebrate, communicate, identify, and forge ways of seeing and understanding ourselves and our communities – but we will do it with mutual respect, taking pleasure not only in our own solutions but in admiring, learning from, and enjoying the rich variety of other people’s solutions too. We will choose our cultural communities freely, move among them as we choose, and refine and enrich our ties to them over the course of our lives. Racism, religious bigotry, ethnocentrism, and all kinds of self identification based on or presupposing the inferiority and subordination of others will have become a thing of the past, and our ways of constructing our communities and the institutions we adopt in our new cultural relations will have to respect, abide, and propel that outcome. New cultural institutions, that is, will guard the rights and norms of all communities, but particularly of the smaller in disputes with the larger. The name for all this might be multiculturalism or perhaps intercommunalism, another leg for our new participatory society to stand on.

We seek a greener world too, but not just sustainability. We are not content with the idea that the best we can do is to avoid suicide, which is what sustainability literally mandates. Rather, in our participatory society not only will our culture and daily life respect our natural environment, but our legislation will freely and effectively protect it and our economy will properly discern its interconnections and their value. Likewise, even beyond our own shores, we seek a community of countries that goes beyond being at peace to attain a condition of mutual benefit. We will have war no more – of course – but we will not dispense with global ties. On the contrary, we will enrich and extend global ties so that countries freely share their lessons and virtues, protect one another from harm, and exchange not according to competitive norms that ensure that trade benefits accrue mostly to whoever is richer and more powerful, but instead exchange in a way that always reduces disparities in wealth and power. In the time-honored tradition of our predecessors, we can call this internationalism, but it is ultimately just participatory societies participating in cooperative solidarity with one another.

But how do we win all this, that’s the question, isn’t it? We know we must. We know we will. But how? Of course, we only know some things about this massive question – the rest will be revealed only in the clash and jangle of struggles and constructions as we pursue the road forward. But, even now, there are some insights we can commit to, as we develop and share more.

In our future there will be participatory self management via worker and consumer councils in the economy, via people’s assemblies in the polity, and via new personal and collective arrangements in culture and in kinship as well. We can’t grow that kind of future participation using movements that are harshly hierarchical. No more of that. We can’t attain equitable remuneration, self management, classlessness, women and men in partnership, sexual liberation, political participation, wide dispersal of information, cultural intercommunalism, a wise relation to nature, and internationalism, if we use movement vehicles that incorporate the ills of the present. No more of that. We can’t have racism, sexism, or classism in our movements. No more, no more.

We will win a better world by winning sequences of improvements in people’s lives within existing society which also win our movements ever more consciousness, ever more commitment, and ever more infrastructure of struggle, until they are powerful and wise enough to win not solely modest elixirs for pain, but also the infrastructure of full freedom and liberation.

We can’t create a society of sharing souls by having fragmented, alienated movements. We can’t generate responsibility and initiative with movements that denigrate and debilitate. We can’t sustain participation with movements that are as oppressive as society at large – indeed we can’t win with these flaw in our movements since winning entails a movement of perhaps a hundred million involved participant leaders. Without movements that give their participants better lives than they would have outside, more friends, more love, more dignity, more empowerment, more knowledge, more confidence, we can’t win. So we must create such movements.

We can’t use anti democratic means to produce democratic results. We can’t use anti egalitarian norms to produce equitable distribution. We can’t use authoritarian culture and conceptions to produce participation. We can’t maintain soul wrecking values much less elitist and egocentric behaviors to produce intercommunalism.

We need to have our eyes on the real prize which is to enlarge membership, enlarge consciousness, enlarge commitment, and enlarge infrastructure, all consistent with our long term aims and not solely our short run priorities and tactics.

We do it for workers on the line, bored, tired, impoverished, and robbed of their creative days. No more Maggie’s Farm for us, instead classlessness.

We do it for women door-opened, pinched, decultured, feminized, impoverished, beaten, raped, advertised, psychologized, ball and chained. No more hustle and no more Hustler for us, instead Feminism.

We do it for Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians…nameless, robbed of dignity and means, legally lynched, harassed, low paid, running, jailed. No more plantations in the midst of plenty for us, instead Intercommunalism.

We do it for the drunks and addicts, the worn out and the never lively, for the old and ill who should be long lived and wise, for the forgotten, the dispossessed, the lonely.

For the young, schooled and unschooled, enduring boredom, sniffing glue, stealing sex and losing love, trying to escape or trying to find a way in, whether they exist under a massive thumb or are trying to grow a massive thumb with which to hold down others.

We do it for those on welfare or off it, looking into the mall or looking out from it, employed or unemployed, alone or crowded beyond sanity, hiding their sex or flaunting it, angry, sad, or mad.

We do it for all those who feel less than they could feel, for all those who have been made less than they could be in this rich land, the United States – and –

We do it for the Colombian, Paraguayan, Guatemalan, Haitian, South African, Congolese, Liberian, Sudanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Palestinian, Pakistani, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, and Chinese exploited, robbed, starved, cheated, tortured, ambushed, kidnapped, and death-squadded.

We do it for all the world’s citizens suffering the brutality and indignity of electric shocks and murdered relatives, suffering secret or public bombs, suffering Guantanamos and Abu Ghriabs, suffering poverty and even starvation, suffering the military boot and the cultural stamp.

We do it for the empire’s citizens, proud but beleaguered, and also for the empire’s enemies, our forebears:

We do it for the strikers, the saboteurs, the feminists and anarchists, the Marxists and nationalists, for those with no ideology but liberty, and for those who had too much ideology as well.

We do it for the memory of Che and the Cuban freedom fighters – we will be “guided by great feelings of love.”

We do it for the memory of Amilcar Cabral and the liberation of Africa – we will “tell no lies and claim no easy victories.”

We do it for the memory of Rosa Luxembourg and the revolutionaries of Europe – we will move, and therein we will notice and break our chains.

We do it for the memory of Alexandra Kollantai and Russians in revolt – we will not only create direct means of popular rule, we will preserve, revere, and utilize them.

We do it for Emma Goldman and the anarchists in struggle – we will dance on our way to, on our arrival at, and in celebration of our new world.

We do it for Simone de Beauvoir and feminists everywhere – we will accept no biological, psychological, or economic fate deterring women in our future.

We do it for Ho and the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese who yesterday taught us all, and who will have their day too, around the corner, over the hill, when we win the world we all desire.

We do it for r Martin Luther King Jr. – his mountain is our mountain, his vision looking into uncharted mists will become our daily pleasure, surrounding us during each breath of our lives. We will win for Martin too.

We do it for Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Righters, for Dave Dellinger and the new leftists, for Fred Hampton and the Panthers, for Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, for Lolita Lebron and the Puerto Rican nationalists, for Leonard Peltier and the fighters in AIM, and for all the fine souls who resisted and died in the past and who nonetheless live on.

We do it for the young who dodged the draft. For the young who went to war and disrupted. For the young who went and died – or lived. For the Vietnam Veterans against war, and especially for the Iraq Veterans against war.

We do it for the French in the streets of May and the Italians in Autumn, for the Mexicans in the summer, and the Czechs and Chinese, for the Nicaraugans, the El Salvadorans, the Haitians, the Bolivians, and the Venezuelans. For the ANC and landless peasants movement. For the anti globalization veterans of Seattle and Prague. For the camepasinos in Brazil and the piqueteros in Argentina, for the Zapatistas in Mexico and for movements all over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas – for the millions who opposed the Iraq War before it began and the many millions more who oppose it now.

We do it for everyone who has fought, fights, or will fight for a better wage, a better home, more dignity, more respect, a better life, a better world than they were, are, or are going to be bequeathed.

And at the same time, necessarily:

We do it against the Rockefellers, the Waltons and Buffets, the Somozas and Pinochets, the CIAs and FBIs, and the Bushs, Clintons, and Kissengers all.

We do it against the doctors coerced by their positions to deal in dollars but not in dignity, against the landlords, the corporate lawyers, and the politicians with their eyes closed to injustice or wallowing in its waste.

We do it against the owners, administrators, bosses, rapists and racists, those on top and those who aspire only to be on top, against all the dealers of bad hands, against the stacked decks.

We do it against the social ties and unties that breed the pain and all who grow ugly by benefiting from its continuance, one step above those suffering below.

We do it against the intellectuals who keep information as it if were their little toy, who enshrine their ignorance under false halos and who hide it behind big words, who justify barbarism or technically dissect it as their interests require, never shedding a tear, never raising a fist.

We do it against the media liars, the news pimps, the career thinkers with brains the size of cornflakes, the academics – left and right – who propagate propaganda to preserve this system or some other, and yes, we do it against the academics who call themselves socialists and always do nothing, the ones who succeed but don’t stay angry, the ones who don’t really care.

And finally, we will make this new world for our parents, our friends, our children, our children’s children, and for ourselves too.

To succeed, we must all soon agree on at least the essential core aspects of what a better world can and will embody.

To succeed, we must flexibly agree on what it will require to make it so, what skills must be learned, what tasks accomplished, what obstacles overcome, and to succeed, we must act, and act, and act, and refine our awareness as we learn from our actions.

Let us not mince words. Let us not call ourselves less than we are. The name for all this is revolution.

The name for those who believe in it, who aspire to it, who devote themselves to it, is revolutionary.

Till when there will be fewer acquaintances and many more friends and lovers, we must be revolutionary, we must be revolutionary, we must be revolutionary – to win our new world.

The above comes from a piece by Michael Albert titled “USSF – 2007 and After.”

SDS National Convention in Michigan

sds national convention graphic

Since re-forming in January of 2006, the revived Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has grown over two-hundred chapters around the United States. These chapters have been involved in a variety of different organizing efforts from antiwar work to fighting tuition hikes at universities around the country. SDS will hold its second annual convention next month in Detroit. Michigan is home to at least eight SDS chapters, including chapters at Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Grand Rapids.

SDS has issued a call encouraging chapters to send their members to Detroit:

In less than a year-and-a-half, SDS has grown to thousands of members at hundreds of chapters across the U.S. and represents one of the largest radical multi-issue voices on the American student left. SDS has proven itself to be an emerging force against imperialism, leading targeted actions to shut down the war machine from New York to Washington State. SDS is also combating the multi-layered forms of oppression that exist within our organization and the society at large, including but not limited to class, heterosexism, racism, and sexism. SDS incorporates a vision of environmental and climate justice, working to reverse the trend of ecological destruction that threatens the planet. And through it all SDS remains committed to participatory democracy as not only a goal but as our basic operating principle.

As last year’s National Convention resolved, the main priority this July will be to decide on issues of national structure, meaning the way that SDS chapters will be linked together to form a coherent whole. SDSers from all over the nation will gather to resolve those issues, during four days of food, fun, networking, strategy and training.

The burning question this summer is “How do we organize ourselves?” How do we effectively build student power, fight oppression and the militarization of society, ensure internal democracy and at the same time have a functional framework to support the thousands of new students that will join SDS in the coming year?

To answer these questions, as the old SDS saying goes, we need to “Let the People Decide!” And as a member of SDS, that means YOU!

Here’s 2 easy steps you can take to participate in this conversation and help SDS decide on national structure:

Come to Detroit this July (and bring your chapter!!!)

Send your ideas and proposals for how SDS should be structured, *early* so they can be circulated and read by SDSers across the country before the convention. In the meantime, brainstorm!

The 2007 SDS National Convention may become a pivotal event for our generation, not unlike what the 1962 Port Huron convention became for the generation that preceded us. The world faces some of the same grave challenges that it did in the ’60s, the stakes may be higher today, but the struggle continues. Come help turn the tide this July. See you in Detroit!

More information on the convention is available at http://newsds.org/wiki/index.php?title=National_Convention.

Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Michael Albert’s autobiography, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, follows both the life of the well-known radical, a founder of South End Press, Z Magazine, and Z Net, and the life of the left in the United States over the past forty years. Albert’s book successfully combines personal reflections with a larger institutional reflections that make a valuable contribution to those seeking to build a radical left movement in the United States.

Albert begins the book with early reflections from his life, but quickly moves into more interesting material covering his political development. Albert shares his experience of getting involved with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at MIT in the 1960s and his election to class president, a position from which he advocated anti-imperialist politics. He discusses the movements of the time, his involvement with them, and their legacies. Unlike liberal apologists for the 1960s radical movements, Albert approaches the movements from an honest approach, evaluating them in terms of what was appropriate at the time and criticizing them where they fell short. A significant portion of the book deals with the 1960s movements, but Albert also explores the left in the United States after the 1960s with a similar amount of attention to detail and honest critique. Albert shares his efforts, from helping to found South End Press to being involved in the World Social Forum, with the approach that current movements are part of the same spectrum of leftist activity that took place in the 1960s. Throughout the book, Albert identifies his own failings, the lessons he has learned, and the lessons that he believes the left should learn from the past in a humble manner that shows a genuine concern for the state of the world and the movements aimed at transforming it.

Of course, part of what is interesting about an autobiography of a prominent leftist in the United States are stories of their interactions with other prominent figures in the movement. In this regard, Albert’s book is full of stories detailing interactions with prominent figures on the left, including his personal friend for over thirty years, Noam Chomsky. Albert shares not only stories about how they have worked together over the years, but he recounts Chomsky’s reluctantly giving advice, including Chomsky’s advice that Albert pass on joining Weatherman in the late 1960s. Albert shares encounters with numerous other prominent left figures including Dave Dellinger, Howard Zinn, Tom Hayden, and Barbara Erenriech. Rather than merely namedropping, Albert uses these stories as ways to address deficiencies and strengths in the left and to account for its successes and failures over the past forty years.

A good part of this discussion of personal relationships and indeed his own life are Albert’s reflections on how the left has functioned over the past forty years. Albert became politically active in a period of intense political activity for the left and spent his early years in movements that openly claimed to be revolutionary. While the militant resistance of the 1960s declined rapidly by the mid to late 1970s, Albert has remained a committed leftist and has spent much of his life working on revolutionary projects. Particularly in the area of media–with Albert’s role in forming South End Press, Z Magazine, and Z Net–Albert has made many important contributions to the left. Albert shares with his readers why he started many of these projects and how he believed that they would help to develop a stronger left, as well as how others can learn from his efforts and experiences.

Perhaps Albert’s greatest contribution to the left have been his contributions to the development an economic theory called “participatory economics” or “parecon.” The theory was developed as a model for both organizing a future society as well as a model that could be implemented in the existing society for left-based organizations. It has made improvements on what Albert has seen as the deficiencies of Marxism, anarchism, and other such theories over his years of involvement in the left. However, Albert’s writes that despite offering many theoretical innovations and providing what Albert considers to be a viable model to point to for the left, “parecon” has never gained much attention on the left. He recounts that there have been few serious debates about it within the left and explains that he has had few serious discussions about it with other people identifying as leftists. Not surprisingly, the corporate press has rarely touched it and even the independent and progressive media has made little effort to publicize or debate the theory. Interestingly, Albert relates a number of stories about being interviewed in the foreign press about “parecon,” explaining that he got more attention for the theory abroad than he has within the United States.

Albert’s work on “parecon” highlights a theme that underlies his entire book, namely that the left needs to move forward by learning from past failures and successes and articulating a vision for a better world. Of course, as anyone on the left cannot attest to, it is easy to critique capitalism, imperialism, racism, and patriarchy, but our movement has serious deficiencies in articulating what we are for. Moreover, Albert argues that as part of this work, the left must find a way to be fulfilling and meaningful to the lives of who are involved. Albert criticizes the fact that many on the left expect such an intense personal involvement from those who take part that many people burn out too soon or become completely isolated. This isolation from “mainstream” society and often self-imposed refusal to talk to those outside of the left limits the movement and develops a significant obstacle to achieving social change.

Overall, Albert’s book is a worthwhile read, both for his reflections on the left over the past forty years as well as his thoughts on where the left should go from here. Albert ends the book with a moving appeal to the many radicals with whom he worked in the 1960s that abandoned the left, arguing that the need for a revolution remains as strong now as it was then:

I can’t see how 2006 is different from 1968. Is there some compelling new argument against being a revolution that I’ve missed? Is there some new evidence that private ownership, markets, bourgeois democracy, racism, patriarchy, global empire, and ecological suicide offer people good lives? Is there some compelling moral or practical argument against seeking institutions that foster diversity, solidarity, self-management, and equity? Is the degradation of living out of garbage cans below a rock-bottom poverty line less now than 38 years ago? Do we want our kids subordinated to bosses and managers? Do we want them to be lifetime wage slaves?

We must show the defining roots of society’s defining faults. We must evolve a defining vision of a definable future. We must communicate a compelling analysis and vision as widely as they will reach. We must create, with whatever patience proves necessary, alternative fulfilling and effective ways of being. We must live lives that will help more and more people put distractions and sometimes even their own security aside. We must dare to win.

By ending this way, Albert leaves the reader with the challenge of “looking forward to tomorrow.” Albert has made his contributions and has explained his choice, the only question that remains is what unique talents can we each bring to the building of a revolutionary left and how can get serious about winning?

Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).

Group Protests Military Recruiting in Wyoming as part of Nationwide Antiwar Protest

On Tuesday, the antiwar group ACTIVATE held a protest outside of the military recruiting center at 54th and Clyde Park in Wyoming. The group blocked most access to the building for approximately 45 minutes as part of a nationwide protest by SDS chapters calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq.

On Tuesday, March 20, protestors with the local group ACTIVATE held a protest at the Armed Forces Career Center located at 5316 Clyde Park Plaza SW in Wyoming, Michigan. At 9:00am, approximately 15 protestors moved in front of the recruiting center and blocked access for the building for about 45 minutes before deciding to leave once Wyoming police told a police liaison with ACTIVATE that they were going to start making arrests. The protest was held as part of a nationwide call to action by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a call for “Days of Resistance” to the war by a number of antiwar groups around the country.

The protest began at 9:00am after the group walked over to the station. On the way to the recruiting center, the group received many supportive gestures from passing motorists. When the group arrived at the station, they used a ten-foot long banner reading “Stop US Imperialism” to block access to the main door of the building while other protestors held signs reading “Stop Recruiting the Poor for the War,” “Recruiters Lie,” “655,000+ Iraqis Dead,” and other signs highlighting the deaths of the more than 3,220 US soldiers killed in Iraq. The group also chanted a variety slogans including “Recruiters Lie, You Die,” “No Justice, No Peace, US Out of the Middle East,” and “There’s Dead and then there is Army Dead.” During the protest, one person was denied access to the building, while a couple of recruiters were forced to push their way through the protestors or using the backdoor to gain access to the building. The group was unable to close down the recruiting station given their numbers, but it was clear that their presence was an annoyance and was somewhat disruptive to the recruiters, the majority of whom just stood around watching the group from inside. The reactions of individuals entering the neighboring businesses were entirely positive, with at least two people thanking the group for being there.

ACTIVATE chose this location because military recruiting centers are a direct connection between West Michigan and the Iraq War. ACTIVATE argues that the military needs new recruits to maintain the United States’ military occupation of Iraq and asserts that efforts designed to hinder the abilities of recruiters are a legitimate way of working to end the occupation of Iraq. As has been the case with previous protests at area recruiting centers, the protestors had a variety of interesting interactions with recruiters at the station, all of whom have appeared agitated by the protestors presence. The recruiters told the protestors that they were “bums,” offered them coffee, and asked them to enlist. One recruiter emailed ACTIVATE, making the following assertion:

Hi, I’m one of the recruiters…I want to thank you for the support that you are giving us. Your efforts really help us in recruiting! Believe it or not you are actually helping us out. People see the garbage ya’ll put out and support us. And ya’ll say we “target the poor”…that’s a crock of shit because most of the people who enlist are out of the better school districts such as Forest Hills and Rockford. Not the “poor” schools as ya’ll state. Get your facts straight. Thanks again for your support!

This is the second such email received from Brandon Faulkner, a recruiter with the Navy. An earlier email received after the group’s January 26 protest read:

FUCK YOU! YOU FUCKING HIPPIES! YOUR PROTESTS ONLY HELPED US RECRUIT PEOPLE LAST TIME BECAUSE OF THE MEDIA. WE ENLISTED 6-7 PEOPLE BECAUSE OF IT. YOUR EFFORTS ONLY HELP US. THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT…NOW GO TAKE A SHOWER.

The comments were similar to those made by recruiters at a February 16 protest where recruiters told protestors to “go back across the border” and that they had to “kill people in order to make room for his [a protestor’s gut],” while also stating on video that people “should take a bath” if they want to make a change.

While challenging the protestors in a variety of macho ways ranging from attempting to blast Toby Keith’s jingoistic “American Soldier” back in May to a recruiter leaving his pick-up truck running in front of the demonstrators on Tuesday, the recruiters have generally failed to challenge the facts touted by the protestors. Moreover, in subsequent months, reports have come out to back allegations such as “recruiters lie” (recruiters have been documenting telling potential enlistees that the war in Iraq is over) or that sexual assault is rampant within the military and toward potential enlistees. ACTIVATE has addressed its comments at the phenomenon of military recruiting as a whole, not specifically for Kent County. However, the claims of Navy recruiter Brandon Faulkner that “most of the people who enlist are out of the better school districts such as Forest Hills and Rockford” are still interesting. The most recent data available from the National Priorities Project–unfortunately from 2004 and for the Army and Army Reserve–shows that there were six students from Rockford high school compared to 14 from the Grand Rapids Public School district. Coupled with numbers at the national level showing that recruits from neighborhoods with low to middle-median household incomes are overrepresented, there is reason to be suspicious of the claims of Faulkner, although more recent numbers need to be obtained.

The Grand Rapids protest was one of dozens organized by SDS chapters around the United States. The protests ranged from protests at recruiting centers to walkouts and teach-ins.

Protestors in the Pacific Northwest Directly Resist Bush’s “Surge”

For the past several days, activists in Tacoma have held a series of protests designed to stop the military from shipping vehicles to Iraq. The vehicles will be used by soldiers being deployed as part of President Bush’s escalation of the Iraq War.

In the northwestern city of Tacoma, Washington, antiwar activists have been engaged in an ongoing struggle to stop the United States military from shipping 300 Stryker armored vehicles to Iraq. The military has been using the Port of Tacoma to deploy the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Division from Fort Lewis to Iraq as part of President George W. Bush’s escalation of the war. As part of this effort, the military has begun shipping the vehicles in advance of the unit’s soldiers, who are expected to be deployed in April. In order to meet the needs of the Bush’s “surge,” the soldiers are being deployed on an accelerated timetable with less training than soldiers typically receive. Protestors have organized nightly rallies to oppose the shipments, as much of the work is being done under the cover of darkness, presumably to discourage both protest and public scrutiny. However, each night crowds in excess of 100 people have been demonstrating and the actions continue to get media coverage both locally and nationally.

The police response to the protests in Tacoma, all of which have been entirely nonviolent, has been harsh. Last night, the police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators, two days after the police arrested 23 protestors. Beginning on Thursday night with the arrest of three protestors and continuing on Friday night when police gassed a crowd singing “give peace a chance,” the police have responded in a forceful manner to the nightly convergences by protestors. Despite the police violence, protestors have continued to gather citing what they believe is their legal obligation to resist under both international law and the United States’ constitution, both of which make the occupation of Iraq illegal. Similarly, protestors have cited the fact that under the Nuremberg Principles they must resist or else they will be legally complicit in the death and destruction that is caused by their inaction and complicity.

The repression on behalf of the police seems to be motivated by the fact that these protests could play a critical role in hastening an end to the occupation of Iraq. The organizing campaign, dubbed “Port Militarization Resistance” and is similar to a campaign of civil disobedience and direct action that took place last May in Olympia. In Olympia, protestors at one point managed to physically halt a convoy of Strykers. On another day, Olympia Port Militarization was able to knock over a fence leading into the Port of Olympia and engage in another act of resistance against the shipments. Protestors involved in both the Olympia and Tacoma actions see both the repression and the fact that the shipments moved to Tacoma as a testament to the success of the Olympia Port Militarization campaign, as many believe that the military and the state feel that they can no longer ship weapons through Olympia without meeting widespread resistance. By preventing the military from deploying weapons to Iraq, antiwar protestors could effectively limit the capacity of the military to wage war–the actions in Olympia and Tacoma provide only a glimpse of what could be possible with larger numbers, national coordination, and sustained action. Moreover, because the Strykers are being shipped as part of an advance deployment of soldiers not yet in Iraq and who are being deployed as part of President George W. Bush’s escalation of the Iraq War, protestors do not need to contend with the argument that they are denying materials to soldiers already stationed in Iraq.

While the resistance in Olympia initially came out of a sub-group of the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the resistance came from a variety of community-based groups. In both the ongoing actions in Tacoma and the actions last spring in Olympia, the recently revived Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has taken a role in the stepped-up resistance to the war (Olympia SDS’ role in Port Militarization campaign). In a short time, SDS has established itself as the most exciting national organization mobilizing against the war, with SDS chapters using a strong commitment to direct action to pursue an end to the war rather than the failed strategy of electing Democratic Party politicians or staging mass marches as has been the strategies pursued by United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER. Both Tacoma SDS and Olympia SDS have participated in the events targeting port militarization with their involvement typical of the type of antiwar organizing that is taking place within SDS. Around the country, SDS chapters have engaged in direct actions that target institutions directly connected to the war, including an action on Monday that shutdown a recruitment station in New York City. Even within the framework of the large antiwar rallies that have taken place in an almost ritualistic like fashion over the past four years, activists within SDS have worked to shift the focus of these rallies from empty parks to institutions connected the war, with an SDS contingent at the January 27 march rushing the capitol and staging a march to a military recruiting center. Similar plans are being made for this weekend’s antiwar march in DC where a variety of SDS chapters are calling for a coordinated convergence within the march that will have a more radical and strategic focus. Meanwhile, SDS chapters around the country have committed to staging protests around the country on March 20 to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Here in Grand Rapids, the local SDS affiliate ACTIVATE has signed on to the call for actions on the 20th. Their protest on the twentieth will be in addition to their March 17 antiwar march.

The direct actions organized by Olympia Port Militarization Resistance fit within the context of three years of organizing against the militarization of the port, during which time activists did education, legal work, and other forms of organizing to build support within the community for direct action. Similar organizing efforts could succeed around the country, as the military deploys from a variety of locations. Similarly, the antiwar movement could look towards the possibility of targeting not only the deployment of weapons once they are ready for use, but also the corporations and institutions that are producing weapons or conducting weapons research. From universities such as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh that do research for the military to corporations such as Raytheon that produce weapons used in Iraq, the military-industrial complex is pervasive enough that nearly every community has such an institution. Here in West Michigan, there are numerous companies producing components for weapons system used in Iraq. Corporations with operations in Grand Rapids, including Smiths Aerospace, Borisch Manufacturing, and L-3 Communications all produce items used in Iraq. Moreover, it’s not just abstractions–components made by these companies go towards F-15, F-16, and F-18 aircraft, M1A1 tanks, Stryker vehicles, Paladin cannons, and other weapons–all of which are necessary in varying capacities for providing the military power that maintains the occupation of Iraq but also US imperialism.

Local Antiwar Group Endorses SDS Call to Action

ACTIVATE, a local Grand Rapids antiwar group, has signed on to a “call to action” circulated by various chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that calls for a national day of “student and youth resistance” to the Iraq. As an affiliate of SDS, ACTIVATE became the 44th group around the country to endorse the call to action. ACTIVATE had previously signed on to a call to action being circulated around the country calling for “Days of Resistance” to the war on March 19th and March 20th. Plans have not yet been announced by the group for March 20th. However, the group has announced plans for an antiwar march on March 17. People will meet at the corner of East Beltline and Burton at 12:30pm. In addition, ACTIVATE is also planning a protest at Senator Debbie Stabenow’s office on March 14 due to her continued votes funding the occupation of Iraq.

The complete call to action:

The war in Iraq is entering its fifth year. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens want the war to end, despite the fact that U.S. forces are being defeated by the Iraqi resistance, Bush recently announced plans to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. These troops are being committed to fight and die in an unjust war based on lies and greed. Four years is four years too many. The Iraqi people want the foreign occupiers out. They know the U.S. government is not a “liberator,” but whose presence means only continued violence, death, and destruction.

We, students and young people here in the U.S., support the right of the Iraqi people to self-determination. We refuse to accept this new strategy to “expand the military,” and reject any means the government may use to make these new troops materialize – whether through the implementation of a draft or the continued use of manipulative and deceptive recruitment techniques. We refuse to be subtle in our outcry against this war, we refuse to do nothing and be silent while people are killed in our name for profit for the rich and we refuse to be sent overseas in a war for oil.

This past November, 100 students from twenty different college campuses came together at a Students for a Democratic Society meeting in Ft. Benning, GA and unanimously decided that March 20th be declared a national day of student and youth resistance against the war! SDS is calling on all students and youth to get out in the streets, get involved and get organized against this war! We, the students and youth of this country, are taking an active stand against US imperialism and fighting for a better world. We reject this war of greed and profit, and are walking out of our classes and taking to the streets in protest!

FIGHT THE WAR MACHINE – GET ORGANIZED, GET INVOLVED, AND GET IN THE STREETS!

Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

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The Weather Underground and the larger militant antiwar and anti-imperialist movement of the 1960s and 1970s occupy a precarious place in history. Its legacy has been largely shaped by conservative critics who have cast the group as spoiled rich kids who hated the United States for a variety of selfish psychological reasons ranging from being neglected by their parents to some members alleged feelings of inadequacy due to concerns over the size of their respective penises (see David Horrowitz’s Destructive Generation). However, at the same time the group’s legacy has been similarly colored by liberal scholars who have maligned the Weather Underground and dismissed the militant movement as a whole (for example, early Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin) while arguing that it turned away potential supporters and was morally indefensible. Such an argument has been used by activists in contemporary movements to attempt to enforce strict codes of nonviolence based on the so-called “experience” of the 1960s and largely based on readings of Tom Well’s lengthy examination of the movement against the Vietnam War in The War Within. However, over the past few years there has been more attention on the Weather Underground and the militant antiwar movement in the United States, with books such as Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, former Weatherman Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days, and the recently released collection of Weather books titled Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974. While all of these books and the 2003 film titled The Weather Underground have brought renewed attention to the group, few of these works have attempted to engage the Weather Underground’s complex legacy and the lessons that can be learned by today’s movements from the Weather Underground, instead choosing to focus primarily on the group’s history and activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Berger’s book, subtitled “The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity” engages the question of the Weather Underground’s legacy and through extensive research of movement documents and newspapers, oral interviews, and reviews of relevant secondary sources, creating a work that both presents a critical history of the Weather Underground and articulates the contributions of the Weather Underground to the left in the United States.

Unlike many previous attempts at exploring the Weather Underground’s history, Berger’s interpretations are fresh and written from the perspective of an activist clearly interested in learning from past struggles. Berger begins by exploring the Weather Underground’s origins in the white “New Left” of the 1960s and describes the context from which it emerged. Berger describes Weather’s actions as emerging from an antiwar movement that, feeling pressure from organizations of color who articulated an anti-imperialist analysis of the Vietnam war that saw the war in Vietnam and racism in the United States emerging from the same system of white supremacy and capitalism, slowly developed an anti-imperialist analysis of their own. Berger explains the context of the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and other third world groups organizing and the sense among some in the white left–particularly in the major student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–that something more needed to be done to support third world movements both within and outside of the United States. This realization, coupled with government repression of third world movements within the United States and the increased antiwar militancy in 1968, led a group of activists in SDS to form the faction (Revolutionary Youth Movement) that would eventually split from the group and form Weatherman (the group later changed its named to the Weather Underground Organization after going underground). While this split did ruin the largest student and antiwar organization at the time, Berger reinterprets the split as white radicals breaking from white supremacy and clearly aligning themselves with people of color and third world movements and sees it as a major step in the development of an anti-imperialist movement. Following the split, Weatherman–overcome by their own egos and machismo–held a small number of highly militant actions around the country that culminated in 1969’s Days of Rage. After limiting their potential to build alliances due to their excessive egos and incurring significant legal troubles from their actions, the group decided to become an underground organization that would use bombings and other such tactics as means of highlighting the government’s repression of third world movements and–ideally–developing another front that would lesson repression against people of color. While Weather’s actions were cast by some at the time–and many now–as “extreme,” Berger argues that they need to be seen within the context of a government war on activists of color that resulted in the murder and imprisonment of several Black Panthers and a movement that became militant even without Weather’s influence. Berger explains that the militant tactics employed by Weather both before and after they went underground were common place in the antiwar movement by 1970 with street fighting and property destruction being used across the country.

While the book does of course mention the Weather Underground’s various actions–ranging from bombing the Pentagon to Kennecott Minerals for their role in the Chilean coup–its focus is less on the specifics of the bombings and more on how they were used as an attempt to foster solidarity across movements and as a way of building an anti-imperialist left. Berger’s history examines Weather’s attempts at building anti-racist and anti-imperialist solidarity by following Weather up to its end in the late 1970s, bringing the story of the anti-imperialist armed struggle into the 1980s, and exploring its present context by discussing at length the fact that many political prisoners remain in prison for anti-imperialist actions undertaken decades ago. Berger provides a critical history and analysis of Weather’s attempts at building an anti-imperialist theoretical framework, its numerous printed works (the group published and a newspaper while underground), its relationship with other organizations on the left, and its attempts to do mass organizing work in the post-Vietnam era. Berger describes how the Weather Underground, born out of a politics that emphasized an understanding of white supremacy and white skin privilege, shifted towards the end of its existence and advocated for a strictly Marxist-Leninist analysis of class that focused on the need for developing a mass communist organization, out of which the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee was born. At this point, several members started thinking about surfacing and eventually the majority turned themselves in and in so doing exercised a privilege that Berger points out was only available to white militants. Despite the shifting politics of the Weather Underground, Berger’s explanation of how they came to specific theoretical views, the internal conflicts within the group, and the response of the aboveground left is a fascinating read that holds many lessons for white activists and organizers seeking to build a stronger anti-imperialist movement.

Unlike other authors, Berger is willing to criticize the Weather Underground while also critically engaging their history, theoretical writings, and actions to properly assess their role both on the left and among organizations working for social change. Berger argues that despite the organization’s flaws, particularly with regard to their sexism and bravado, it advanced an analysis of race that was unprecedented in the white left. Weather fought racism by showing that racism was a defining feature of the United States domestically and in foreign policy, calling for the white progressives to support people of color, and mandating that whites challenge themselves and other whites at a personal and institutional level in the struggle for racial justice. Berger argues that the Weather Underground injected an analysis of white skin privilege into the movement and developed an analysis of it years before it became a popular subject of academic study, and more importantly, developed a politics of active solidarity that saw anti-racism as something that needed to be lived. Of course, in a lot of ways–whether it was failing to communicate with organizations led by people of color or in failing to provide more concrete support to radicals of color–the organization was not accountable to people of color, but it did achieve success in making a staunch and unyielding opposition to racism a prerequisite for social justice movements in the United States. It was this opposition to white privilege–more than its symbolic bombings–that made the Weather Underground a real threat:

“The political threat to white supremacy–not physical damage to government or corporate buildings–is the central tenet of what the Weather Underground Organization means. White activists, mainly from the middle class, rejected what people of color were never offered, at least not in a meaningful way. The refusal of white people to embrace the system was significant because it tied their hopes and aspirations to the oppressed world majority rather than the oppressor minority. The organization grounded its strategic decisions in the issues facing most people of the world, rather than white North American people alone–a pivotal difference from most white-led social movements in this country.”

Outlaws of America is an important read for activists on a number of levels, but particularly for those wanting to build an anti-imperialist movement against the war in Iraq as part of an overall strategy of revolutionary anti-imperialism that presents a challenge to the status quo in the United States. To that end, Berger’s book provides numerous lessons and insights into one of the most misunderstood organizations on the left. Moreover, the book provides a valuable analysis and definition of what it means to be anti-imperialist for those who might be organizing against the war but have not yet developed such an analysis, and as such, a close study of both Outlaws of America and the politics behind it would bring great clarity to the seemingly directionless antiwar movement.

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, (AK Press, 2006).

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience

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A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience is the product of a college journalism class, with author Thai Jones writing a personal history of his family and their activities as part of the American left. Jones’ parents, Eleanor Stein and Jeff Jones were both active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Weatherman, and the Weather Underground and were for many years sought by the FBI as fugitives for their participation in the bombing of the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other symbols of state and corporate power during the 1970s. A Radical Line joins a wealth of new material about the Weather Underground–Bill Ayers Fugitive Days, Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home, and The Weather Underground in presenting a well-considered appraisal of New Left militancy in the 1960s and 1970s.

While right-wing commentators have made a cottage industry out of criticizing “sixties radicals” for their excesses and inconsistencies, A Radical Line confronts the common myth that the radicals of the 1960s were acting in a vacuum without tradition and were merely selfish youth–putting the activism of two SDS and Weather Underground members into the context of their families mutual struggles for social justice. Jones’ parents did not simply act out of a newfound consciousness in the 1960s but rather they were embracing their family history and traditions, and to a certain extent, the history and traditions of the American left. Eleanor Stein’s family had a long history of participation in the Communist movement and both her parents were part of the Communist underground (an underground which Jones humorously describes as “the most boring ever” with members simply discussing things and having meetings without any actions) and her father appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) while both of her parents were frequently monitored by the FBI. Stein’s parents were also active in the struggle for civil rights in Washington DC, participating in the movement that would provide the gateway for Eleanor Stein’s involvement in radical politics. A Radical Line describes how she walked out on a class at Columbia to join the demonstrations that would lead to the 1968 “Columbia Uprising” and spent the next ten years involved in the militant fringes of the New Left. Similarly, Jeff Jones father was involved in radical politics, albeit of a much more subtle nature than Stein’s parents were. Jeff’s father was a pacifist and spent World War II at a camp for Conscientious Objectors, dedicating his life to teaching about peace and justice, instilling the values that would lead Jeff Jones from a student at Antioch College to a position as a national organizer for SDS and later the inner circle of the Weather Underground.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of A Radical Line is its honesty and sincerity. Thai Jones is not afraid to identify the many and varied mistakes his parents made during their antiwar activism–from crafting terribly dogmatic Leninist justifications for what was essentially symbolic civil disobedience via bombing during the 1970s and using “toughness” as a means of recruiting youth to their revolution. Jones’ book is full of disagreements between the generations, with neither Jeff Jones’ or Eleanor Stein’s parents fully supporting what their children were doing, demonstrating the ways in which the “Old Left” felt the New Left was failing to learn from their parents’ struggles. One of the most telling passages in the book is a description of the type of “organizing” that Jeff Jones did as a part of Weatherman before the Days of Rage in 1969. Thai writes how his father went to an SDS meeting with a few other Weathermen at the University of Wisconsin Madison, pushed an SDS speaker off the stage as the other Weatherman struck up karate poses behind him and shouted, “You don’t see any motherfucking students at any motherfucking college up here on this stage. All of us up here are stone communist revolutionaries,” while encouraging the confused and annoyed crowd to go “trash” the Army Math Research Center. Of course, the group ignored him, just as the larger antiwar movement ignored both Weatherman and the Weather Underground. While their analysis was almost a step forward and a catalyst towards a truly revolutionary antiwar movement, the macho militancy and praxis of Weatherman, specifically the abandonment of the mass antiwar movement, ended up relegating the group to irrelevancy. Rather than learn from the so-called “Old Left” of which Eleanor Stein’s mother Annie Stein participated in, Weatherman failed to take into account the destructive nature of sectarianism and fractured the student movement. When they realized the error in their politics and turned to Annie Stein and others to teach them about the history of leftwing theory and practice it was too late, and the Weather Underground split apart with most members turning themselves in while others went on to participate in even more irrelevant “armed struggle” groups.

A Radical Line is not a history of the Weather Underground and readers looking for such a book should look elsewhere. However, it is an entertaining a well-written history of one radical family and their missteps, which, to a large extent, were indicative of the historical missteps of the left in the United States. While occasionally suffering from vague descriptions of historical events, A Radical Line is an examination of the human side of historical actors that risked everything they had for what they believed would make a concrete difference in the struggle for social justice and the human consequences of their actions.

Thai Jones, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience, (Free Press, 2004).