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).