In an earlier post, I wrote:
>>I think they [the Weatherpeople] (and SDS as a whole after 69 or 70) must
>>responsibility for the destruction of the movement and the rise of the
>>right. But that's a larger topic.>
To which Don Monkerud replied:
>But your assertion warrants discussion ... what exactly do you mean?
To which I answer:
Whew Don, in fifty words or less??? Here's a very brief response.
I was in SDS during the Oglesby era, my focus later became the radical
pacifists, CNVA, WRL, Win Magazine, The Resistance That's my perspective.
I knew (and liked) some of the Weather leaders and was involved in actions
and coalitions, with them and others in the New York left, including Ben
Morea and the Motherfuckers. I was also on the office staff of Liberation
(Dave Dellinger was editor), and was witness to the planning of the
demonstrations in Chicago, August 68. I was also an enthusiastic Yippie.
Indeed I wrote a pro-Yippie editorial in Liberation to which Dellinger
wrote a critical reply. So that's where I'm coming from.
In 1968, the anti-war movement was becoming a mainstream and popular
movement. Students were against it, so were liberals, sectors of the
business elite, and even moderate Republicans. Mayor Daley was against it,
so was racist Senator Richard Russell who advised his pal LBJ to get out.
It's well documented that leading elements within the Democratic Party
wanted out (the so-called "wise men" organized by Clark Clifford). We were
winning the hearts and minds of the American people. All this is
documented in Paul Joseph's Cracks in the Empire, published in the early
eighties by South End Press.
To be sure, this opposition was moderate, not revolutionary, and wanted a
negotiated withdrawal rather than the unilateral withdrawal that the
anti-war activists rightly demanded.
Much of this new anti-war opposition was ready to rally behind Bobby
Kennedy, as were many older new leftists (most notably Tom Hayden). Harking
back to our earlier discussion on generations, the older SDSers were
willing to give the country one more chance. They saw him as the last hope
of uniting the white working class behind the civil rights movement and
ending the war. Maybe; maybe not. Kennedy was a man who seemed to feel the
emotions of the sixties and, unlike Gene McCarthy, was willing to listen to
radicals and seemingly to change and grow.
RFK's death united people like Hayden with the younger ones who were,
rhetorically at least, on a revolutionary path. In the period leading up to
Chicago, activists gave up on peaceful progressive change and began calling
themselves revolutionaries. I was one, though I was advocate of nonviolent
revolution and advocated a different path than the Weatherpeople and its
Few people came to Chicago, because Mayor Daley frightened the movement.
That should have been a clue that, rhetoric aside, the revolutionary agenda
did not have wide support. In Chicago, we chanted "the whole world is
watching" as Daley's cops beat up everyone in sight. And the whole world
was watching and many backed the police. Even among opponents of the war
the way activists acted in Chicago put many people off. (Those us who were
there and who were knowledgeable about Daley's machine, expected the level
of violence we got. We also know that a very small minority (some of them
future Weather people) went to Chicago with plans to deliberately provoke
the cops. (The government indicted the wrong people: Hayden, Hoffman,
Rubin, et. al. were not among the real provocateurs).
The movement at the time had two major goals. Ending the war and advancing
civil rights. Another goal was economic justice, but that was more a slogan
than a program. Both the war and civil rights got subsumed by the idea of
revolution. But we were not in a revolutionary situation and in 1968 we
sacrificed an opportunity to force the U.S. to end the war in pursuit of
our revolutionary delusions.
Leaders of a movement, among other responsibilities, are suppose to provide
leadership, objectively analyze a situation, and steer a course towards
their strategic goal. Our generational experience in leadership roles was
nil (we were very young) and our process was awful. (The nonsense that
there were no leaders is an example of bad process. There were leaders, but
they were accountable to rank and file).
After Chicago, the movement fractionalized, with a very small minority,
spouting revolutionary slogans, going out on their own. In 69 or 70 I
attended a NYC SDS meeting at NYU in which fist fights broke out between
the various factions. There was also much inane chanting. It absurd,
sophomoric and disgusting. Many people got turned off to politics because
of the way the self-proclaimed vanguard was acting. I left that meeting
believing that the movement was dead (and shortly thereafter moved back to
my commune in Vermont -- where I was able to continue my activism). This
was the milieu that spawned the Weatherpeople.
Too many of us were too enamored of our self-image as revolutionaries; our
belief -- and it was a belief, an act of faith rather than a hard-headed
analyses -- that the country was on a revolutionary path. The Weathermen
and a lot of other people and groups fed on this belief/act of faith.
Black Bear, the commune that Don has written about, shared this faith as
did the folks at Total Loss Farm, the commune that I helped start. (An
aside to Bill Mandell, the communal movement was a seamless part of the
broader left. It included a spectrum of people from new age spiritual
anti-activist drop-outs to people who very sympathetic to the Weather
So the Weather people weren't alone in their analysis but they acted in a
vanguardist way. Though they had little support within the movement, they
were so full of the conceit of themselves as revolutionaries that they
dismissed the activists who wouldn't follow their path as cop-outs and
worst. And their path, what distinguished them from the rest of the left,
was their cavalier approach to violence.
In short, at the very time when the movement was becoming majoritarian,
many of the leading activists (within the Weather and in other groups)
created a standard of activism that very few people (being more
clear-headed) were willing to embrace. They also gave Nixon a rationale for
coming down hard on the movement, something he wanted to do anyway, but the
Weather gave him an excuse.
The Weatherpeople guessed that Nixon's repression would radicalize
everyone. But people don't often get radicalized by the policemen's club.
They get angry and scared, but radicalism is a much deeper way of being.
Nixon's repression destroyed the left. In comparison with real fascism, it
was pretty petty (except to the small number who died or had their lives
ruined by the government's hand). We simply collapsed. Simply put, we were
not in a revolutionary situation and most of us who thought we were
revolutionaries were living in a fantasy, a result, in part, of youth and
inexperience, but strengthened, in part I believe, by promiscuous use of
psychedelic drugs (esp. LSD).
What was the alternative? The tough choice in '68, in retrospect, would
have been to vote for the horrible Humphrey. (This is Monday morning
quarterbacking. I think I voted for Eldridge Cleaver in 68 (a man with even
less character and, when push came to shove, worse politics than even
Hubert Humphrey), that's how ridiculous our politics were in the heat of
the struggle. Yet, the election was close and with the movement's critical
and token support, HHH would have won. This was not a matter of voting for
the lesser of two evils, this was a matter of making an unpopular but
Had Humphrey, as President, continued the war, he would have destroyed his
party, his base, and finally radicalized many of those liberals who were at
the edge. LBJ understood what the war was doing to the Democrats and that's
why he resigned. HHH would have also been a sympathetic voice, though not a
radical one, on civil rights. He would not have been able to suppress the
black movement, cause to do would, like continuing the war, have destroyed
the Democratic Party, something that HHH, hack that he was, was not
prepared to do. No matter what Humphrey wanted to do he was constrained as
to what he could do. Meanwhile, the countercultural stuff: feminism, gay
liberation, alternative lifestyles, back-to-the-land, etc. would have
continued to make progress (no matter who was in power). As for the war,
Humphrey would have negotiated the same kind of settlement that Nixon
negotiated a few years later. A lot of people died and a huge part of
Vietnam was destroyed in that interim. Had Humphrey gotten a negotiated
settlement in 68 or 69 (which LBJ had pretty much negotiated in his final
days, only the prospect of a Nixon victory enabled the South to successful
stall) there would have been no invasion of Cambodia and, probably, no Pol
I lay out the details of this interpretation in my book ABBIE HOFFMAN:
AMERICAN REBEL. I loved Abbie back then and consider him one of the
bravest and most innovative people of the sixties (and also the funniest!)
. But in the events leading up to Chicago and in its aftermath he, like the
Weather people and many many others, took a dangerous and destructive turn
that destroyed the possibility of a meaningful shift to the left in
American politics. (And those who wanted "the revolution" would still have
been able to organize and would not have been so easily repressed).
I'm not suggesting personal blame or personal guilt. We didn't kill
millions of Vietnamese. Our government did. We were products of our time
and experience and did our best. But we (meaning not just Weather people,
but all of us who got caught up in revolutionary fantasy) blew it. And it's
not trashing the sixties to acknowledge and discuss our mistakes.
That's what I mean, Don.
-- Marty Jezer * 22 Prospect St. * Brattleboro, VT 05301 * p/f 802 257-5644
Author: Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words (Basic Books) Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (Rutgers University Press) The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960 (South End Press) Rachel Carson [American Women of Achievement Series] (Chelsea House) Check out my web page: http://www.sover.net/~mjez To subscribe to my Friday commentary, simply request to be put on my mailing list. It's free!
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