Friday, June 05, 2009

“White riot - I wanna riot. White riot - a riot of my own”, the Clash.

Mark Rudd: Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009)
Bill Ayers: Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2001/2009)
Cathy Wilkerson: Flying Close to the Sun (Seven Stories, 2007/2009)
Carl Oglesby: Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement (Scribner 2008)

Perhaps the happiest and most unexpected sidebar to the mass opposition to George W. Bush’s horrific quagmire in Iraq was the election of the United States’ first African-American president, Barack Obama. During that long, dirty election cycle the Republican Party and its demagogic partisans employed an array of craven political tricks. One of the most absurd attempts to damage Obama’s reputation by association was to throw around the name of one of the pop stars of the 1960s’ New Left, Bill Ayers. Obama indeed had some passing encounter with this ex-Weatherman. As a result for months not a day passed without Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and their imitators mentioning the nominees’ “terrorist friend” Bill Ayers. This time around these insane efforts to smear a decent candidate were ineffectual and failed utterly. One lucky consequence of this happy failure is the publication (in paperback) of a new edition of Ayers’ poetic 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days.

The recent, at last report on-going war in Iraq brought on inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The imperialist invasion and occupation of a small sovereign state, the youth led antiwar movement at home, the drawn out guerilla resistance abroad -- the parallels between these two wars are too obvious for even the most cloudy of minds to ignore. And the accompanying, renewed interest in all things 60s has brought on a slew of books: reprints of 1960s classics and new studies, histories and biographies. I have previously attempted to draw some attention to what I considered some of the better of these works, paying close attention to works related to the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground/SDS. Recently several memoirs by leaders of the later organization have been published. Together the autobiographies of Mark Rudd, Cathy Wilkerson, Carl Oglesby and Bill Ayers trace how in five years a New Left anti-racist predominately white student organization went from activism to revolution, from “bring the boys home” to “bring the war home” from “we shall overcome” to “pick up the gun”.

Bill Ayers was one of the three principle leaders of one of the more militant and violent ultra-leftist organizations in American history. He turns out to be a gentle, soft-spoken man. And today appears the model of the clichéd pacifists liberal. When he is not trying to destroy America, Ayers has a day job as a professor of education. In his Jekyll persona, he has written books with such titles as A Kind and Just Parent. Ayers and fellow ex-Weather leader Bernardine Dohrn seem to be wonderful parents. The couple has raised three children under difficult circumstances. Their third child, Chesa Boudin was adopted after his birth parents were arrested and given life sentences for their role in the ill fated 1981 Brinks robbery on behalf of the Black Revolutionary Army. Chesa has grown to be a thoughtful and talented writer and activist himself. .

“Back in the day”, least toward the later end of “back in the day,” Ayers and Dohrn, with their rock star good looks and revolutionary fervor, were the Bonnie & Clyde, the Bogart and Bacall, the Mick and Marianne of the New Left, photogenic heroes of the revolution. As much as it is the story of revolution brewing in the homeland, Fugitive Days is something of a love story. It is the story of one painful love, lost to revolutionary misfire, and of another born from that same miserable accidental massacre. Diana Oughton was lost along with Terry Robbins and Teddy Gold to the 1970 Weatherman townhouse explosion, and that is where Fugitive Days begins. Ayers is the disciplined young soldier of the revolution waiting every night at a pre-specified time for a phone call, a call which turns out to be news of the death of his girlfriend: Oughton. Oddly enough the call was delivered by a woman, a voice on the other end of the line, later to be Ayers’ life partner, wife and mother of his children: Dohrn. Around this tale of tragedy and romance, Ayers wraps the story of a country at war and at war with itself. He is the story’s tragic hero in the old sense of that word, hubris and all.

In his own memoir, Underground, Mark Rudd’s descriptions of Ayers and Dohrn are anything but heroic. His description of himself is more negative still. The young activist and his friends come across as youthful know-it-alls unwilling to listen to any difference of opinion. In many ways their flaws are indicative of leftist radicals of any age and all eras. The slightest deviation from the correct point of view is quickly dismissed as a “right turn” or as “opportunism”, in the nomenclature of Mao’s then influential Cultural Revolution.

There is a great tradition of arguing amongst ourselves on the left over fine points of barely comprehensible political dogma, while the real “rightist” sit comfortable at the seats of power decade upon decade crushing resistance, committing all manner of crimes against humans, and stealing from the poor to feed themselves. This is exactly what happened while SDS then the Weathermen then the W.U.O. fragmented into ever smaller and ineffectual cliques. The organization’s self destruction was helped by the infamous tactics of Cointelpro (a.k.a. counterintelligence programs), but mostly Weather destroyed itself. The war and the Nixon administration came to end by means of mass opposition and the president’s own bumbling paranoia. One excellent point made by Rudd is the greatest believer in Weather after Weather was the Nixon administration.

Thus it is with justification Rudd paints a negative picture of the Weather leadership of Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones and their intra-organizational sectarian squabbles. Unfortunately this criticism makes light of the thoughtful political analysis within the pages of Prairie Fire (a self published Weather book), Osawatomie (the short lived Weather magazine) and elsewhere, analysis that is perhaps Weather’s greatest legacy. Also one must consider the source. Rudd was one of the leaders of the “action faction” of Columbia SDS. He was one of key people who helped to push all of SDS in the direction of an ever more macho brand of militancy. Yet, by his own account he was remarkably tentative at almost every stage of this push toward revolution. Leading his troops to battle, this comic book Custer seemed to have no idea what he was doing or what to do next. This is no surprise considering that he and all of the New Left were in Bill Ayers’ words “so very young,” and the sad fact is youth does not always beat experience.

In some ways Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun is the most ambitious of the four memoirs. It is certainly the most demanding with its somewhat scholarly, sometimes dry tone. Her style is seldom as infectious as Rudd’s or as naturally poetic as Ayers, but she manages to tell an emotionally devastating tale. Considering the fact she was one of the two women who walked out alive from the infamous townhouse explosion that killed three of her friends, this was perhaps inevitable. More than her fellow memoirist, Wilkerson tells the story of the movement in its whole messy multifaceted complexity, and how it related to her own life and ever-changing political point-of-view. She is critical of mistakes made by herself and others, yet compassionate in her analysis. She remains committed to radical change, as do the other ex-SDS memoirists. More than the others, Wilkerson is able to describe the many directions at once the movement was being pulled. She keeps a remarkably positive, in-the-moment tone. When SDS begins to come undone, one feels Wilkerson’s agony all these years later as she describes how: “all of a sudden, people who were my housemates and friends were no longer speaking to me nor I to them. Our family was breaking up.”

Of our four SDS memoirist Carl Oglesby was the only young radical who did not turn the corner toward revolution. He remained true to the spirit of nonviolent resistance, refusing ever to embrace guns and bombs as tools for social change. He calls himself a “moderate”, which has nothing to do with the contemporary notion of what that word has unfortunately come to mean. In an era in which our moderate Democratic president is called a radical, Oglesby is certainly not what media pundits call “moderate”. Nevertheless, he was not involved with the radical Weathermen, did not go underground, did not find his face on post office walls among the FBI’s “most wanted” criminals. Despite some lack of drama, his memoir is in many ways the most fascinating of these four. It would be worth reading if only for his description of 1967 Human Rights Tribunal in Copenhagen and Stockholm in which he participated with Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Vlado Dedijer, Isaac Deutscher, Stokely Carmichael, Julius Lester, and others.

Ravens in the Storm is a book worth reading for many other reasons, not least is Oglesby’s recollections of conversations he had forty years ago. In his introduction called “A Note on Memory”, Oglesby explains these accounts are based mostly on notes he took at the time. Elsewhere memory is supplemented – like other recent studies of 1960s era radicals – by the release of FBI files, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the bull-doggedly determined diligence of a few leftist lawyers. Regardless of what tools he used to recreate these conversations, Oglesby deserves considerable credit for the lengthy dialogues brought back into the light all these years later. Doubtless, his memories are imperfect, but as a person with a notoriously bad memory, I am amazed what has been recalled.

Bernardine Dohrn was a fearless, brilliantly bold orator, but her youthful, fierce commitment to change by any means often gave rise to sound bites that are ugly and cruel at a half century’s remove. Many infamous, often reprinted quotes have been attributed to Dohrn. According to Oglesby’s account she was no less bold in her private conversations. There is a lengthy and extraordinary talk between Oglesby and Dohrn regarding a disagreement over tactics: the never to-be-resolved argument of pacifist resistance versus violent revolution that would shortly turn SDS against itself, and famously rip that organization asunder. Unfortunately, the missing point-of-view in this complex story is Dohrn’s. Hers is a memoir we need to read. Let us hope Bernardine Dohrn is now putting the finishing touches upon that book-to-be.

As mentioned above, during the recent presidential election, conservative demagogues repeatedly referred to Barack Obama’s “friend” Bill Ayers as a terrorist. To my knowledge these same right wing commentators did not possess any quotes where Ayers called himself a terrorist. This should not surprise. History records few instances of anyone referring to themselves in such terms, but Ravens in the Storm quotes Ayers’ current partner and wife coming very close to saying exactly that, in an exchange that is stunning. The conversation between Oglesby and Dohrn extends over several pages, until the two approach opposing and inextricable positions.
Dohrn: “We are enemies of the state.” Oglesby: “Sounds like a rock band.”

She didn’t laugh. Her face was not hard but set. I figured I had to keep trying. I said, “Violence, my friend, is exactly what the reactionaries want from us.” Incorrect,” she said with a little smile. ‘The hawks and their liberal allies want an America that’s willing to accept the war even if it doesn’t like it. Sure, they’ll permit a few antiwar rallies to show the other tyrannies of the world how irrelevant free speech is. Okay? But they don’t want American blood to be shed in American streets. The hawks do not want a turbulent America, a America terrorized – yes, terrorized – by the threat of violence from the revolutionary left.”

From Oglesby’s way of looking, Cointelpro and the Weathermen were “born of the same womb”. He suggests: “Given that provocateurism is the favorite tactic for secret police attacks on dissent, we would be foolish not to wonder” if these two “might be is some way connected”. It is indication how fresh his 1960s’ wounds remain that Oglesby would hint at such a thing. He immediately follows, admitting he “knew many of the Weathermen intimately and cannot bring myself to believe they were any other than honest if misguided militants.” In fact, we know as conclusively as possible, only one FBI agent was able to infiltrate Weather. That one infiltrator was Larry Grathwohl, a short-lived and overly enthusiastic Weatherman. Due to a premature sting operation, the FBI was forced to pull their agent. Instead of bringing down the Weathermen, Grathwohl published a book. Bringing Down America: An FBI Informant with the Weathermen (Arlington House, 1976) is a reprehensible but fascinating piece of anti-left propaganda.

Oglesby cannot be faulted for remaining hurt and critical of his former comrades. Regardless of what “errors” he was guilty, Oglesby was clearly a well-intentioned member of the movement, and certainly not a government planted informer. According to his own account in Ravens in the Storm, this later accusation was made during his expulsion from SDS. The chapter called “Star-Chambered in Texas” is painful to read. At a small semi-secret meeting in Austin, March 1969, Oglesby met with a group of his fellow SDSers including members of the elected National Council. (Though the meeting was not secret enough to prevent it being recorded by the FBI!) Oglesby says he was there to propose SDS send a mass force to Cuba to help cut sugar cane. Thus SDS could assist the Castro government to achieve a record-breaking 10 million ton harvest. After he made this proposal, the subject of the meeting turned into an assault upon his revolutionary credentials, coordinated by Dohrn and a woman named Arlen Bergman. The fact of the matter is that short of being an agent of the government, Oglesby was guilty of what he was accused. He was not ready for revolution. He admits as much, and he admitted it in Austin, and in retrospect neither were his accusers. They wanted revolution, but they were not ready. Sadly it was their errors that broke the movement in to pieces. If I had been there with them, I probably would have followed them on that path to destruction. And if they could do it again, they probably would do it again. None of which disproves Ogelsby’s point, then or now.

As I type, all these titles are in print, though the Oglesby book might not be available much longer. There appear to be no plans for Ravens in the Storm in paperback. On the other hand, Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun is scheduled to come out in paperback soon. Ayers’ Fugitive Days was issued in soft cover in January. Rudd’s Underground was recently released in hardcover, but there are no announced plans for a paperback edition. It would be no surprise to see all of these books fall out of print in a handful of years. Similar books about the Panthers and other radical sixties organizers have quickly fallen out of print. Nevertheless, the fast majority of these are readily available for a very few dollars (in many cases a few cents) through such websites as

In addition to these four SDS memoirs there are numerous other excellent books today’s students of this restless era need to have at hand. Other SDS biographies include Tom Hayden’s Reunion (Random House, 1988) and the family biography, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience by Thai (son of Jeff) Jones (Free Press, 2004). Two overviews stand above all others: Kirkpatrick Sale’s massive, 750 page history, SDS (Random House, 1973), and my personal favorite work of radical history, Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006). Those wanting a glimpse into the government’s hopelessly corrupt “legal” attacks upon the anti-war movement will want to look at: The Conspiracy Trial (Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), edited by Judy Clavir and John Spitzer. For a journalistic, down-on-the-street account of the action that led to that same “conspiracy” trial, there is nothing to compare to the recently re-issued in paperback: No One Was Killed: The Democratic National Convention, August 1968 (University of Chicago, 2009) by John Schultz. And lastly, to begin to understand how far our government was/is willing to go to destroy its internal enemies, everyone should read the brilliant study by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall of counter intelligence against Black Liberation movements, New Left and other progressive/leftist groups that threatened the status quo: The COINTELPRO Papers (South End Press, 2002).