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Jesse Lemisch: Weather Underground, Redone in Pomo, Rises from the Ashes

Roundup: Historians' Take




I attended part of a January 20 "day workshop of interventions" -- aka "a day of dialogic interventions" -- at Columbia University on "Radical Politics and the Ethics of Life" (see below for program). The event aimed "to bring to light... the political aporias [sic] erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s." (See below for the postmodernist context indicated by the language.) Hosted by Columbia's Anthropology Department, workshop speakers included Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground, historian Jeremy Varon, poststructuralist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a dozen others. The panel I sat through was just awful.

What seems to be happening is that veterans of Weather are on a drive to rehabilitate, sanitize and perhaps revive it. Despite the substandard product they are peddling, this may not be so hard in the present frustrated mood of the left. In addition, many undergraduates, graduate students and faculty have been infected by postmodernism in this, its terminal phase, and therefore have little concern for concrete reality. Weather can be discussed in appealing-sounding abstractions, without reference to the destructive inanities of their real-life roles at the June 1969 Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society, the October 1969 Days of Rage, the bombings, the bombing fuck-ups, etc. (Nobody wants to talk about Bill Ayers's classic September 11, 2001 New York Times interview lauding Weather
violence.)

Bernardine Dohrn served up all the hoary platitudes about the everyday violence of the standing order -- all true -- leading inevitably to a justification of violent response by a minority substituting itself for a mass movement, while at the same time offering a rhetorical parenthesis seeming to reject armed struggle. Neither the efficacy nor morality of Weather tactics were scrutinized, nor any inquiry made into how you construct a majority radical democratic movement by denouncing and writing off the majority. Her defense of Weather includes the remark that in the face of terrible oppressions and injustices, it is necessary "to do something about it, it almost doesn't matter what." But it does matter, if we are interested in building rather than tearing apart a new left. Clearly, almost forty years after the Weather disaster, she doesn't get it. Indeed, she says that the actions of the Weather Underground "made people smile."

Weather killed and buried Students for a Democratic Society -- a catastrophe for the left. Dohrn passes lightly over this, saying that SDS wasn't worth saving by the time Weather came on the scene. An anarchist in the audience made the important point that how you make the revolution will affect the kind of revolution that you get. Partly agreeing, Dohrn insisted that, while underground, Weatherpeople not only practiced participatory democracy, but also got closer to the working class and to various minorities.

As I mentioned above, the discussion of the Weather Underground lacked concrete specifics. If we look beyond the abstraction to those specifics, Weather is a tragic laughingstock. It's the postmodern mood that allows such weird and empty history. How wonderful: we have lived to see Weather's posthumous rehabilitation in pomo hands. But we need a new left today, and the evasion of realities of past, present and future won't help to build this left.

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There was much to laugh about, and much to weep about in all this. But the funniest moment came when Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli recalled that when she was invited to speak on urban guerrilla groups, her first thought was that her brother is a primatologist.

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Jeff Schneider - 1/28/2006

Revival of these defeatist ideas is scary. Bill Ayers and his friends were a disaster in Ann Arbor when they broke up SDS and invited everyone to get into fights with cops the next year. Being willing to fight cops or blow up people or buildings is not a revolution. Ayers came to the Ann Arbor SDS reunion in 1988. He participated in none of the discussions. He didn't have a workable stategy in 1969 or 1988, why should any one listen to his advocacy of random violence now?

Political change will come from open politcal discussion, not secret planning of terrorism. When the Socialist movement revives, we can suceeed only on the bases of democratically organized groups based on the truthful analyses of ideas. Not the bullying tactics of arrogant "leaders" who lionize Manson.