One place to start in describing Weather as an ecology is theory, even if it was a movement that generally seen as privileging action over theory.1 In Weatherman, the initial Weather faction position paper “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind’s Blowing” that was circulated at the last SDS convention in 1969 is reproduced in full (51-90), as well as several critiques of it from various positions within the new left on the part of writers such as Carl Oglesby, Jack Weinberg and Todd Gitlin. These critiques, which Thoburn echoes uncritically, tend to insist upon a clear separation between theory and practice, and take the Weatherman document to task for compromising clear theoretical articulation with pragmatic, tactical concerns, such as overcoming the Maoist PL faction of SDS. David Horowitz, for example, describes the statement as a form of “hand-me-down” Marxism, accusing it at once of being a return to the old left and a submission to an uncritical Maoism (Horowitz 1970, 99ff.). Others like Gitlin take the Weather faction to task for abandoning the legacy of what he calls the “visionary perogative” that had previously been exercised by SDS (Gitlin, 109). More tellingly, International Socialists Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson attack the statement at its weakest point, from a Marxist rather than liberal position, emphasizing its negativity or even hostility towards the American working class and claiming that “Weatherman … have, as their ultimate goal, taking away from workers what they already have” (111) and concluding that “the central driving force behind Weatherman is desperation” (117). This last point seems to be general consensus between both liberal and Marxist critics, many of whom predicted that Weather would not last one year in its current form.
While some of these critiques have theoretical validity, especially the critique of alienating the American working class by situating it on the side of colonial oppression rather than as an at least potentially revolutionary subject, none of them really address the pragmatic nature of the Weatherman statement, which was not meant as an abstract summation of the situation of the new left but rather to serve a specific pragmatic function of expressing what the SDS and the youth movement more generally could become at a precise moment in its history. More specifically, some of what is invariably described as its rhetoric had the express purpose of defeating the doctrinaire Maoists of the PL at their own game by articulating a superior version of the revolutionary potential of the movement in Marxist-Leninist terms and to oppose its incorporation into typical Maoist strategies of infiltrating industrial workplaces and using students and other youth movements as mere resources for this labor strategy. The only critic to partially grasp this process is Carl Oglesby, who nevertheless goes on to reject the Weatherman statement in the harshest possible terms: “Any close reading of the RYM’s Weatherman statement will drive you blind” (129). Nevertheless he is the only critical voice to acknowledge the shift to what would now be called a postcolonial perspective in the Weatherman statement, and is in agreement that the US needs to be understood in terms of global imperialism rather than via a conventional class analysis as a separate nation state. Nevertheless he claims that Weatherman is ambiguous in its treatment of the industrial proletariat which at times appears as having a “momentarily stifled revolutionary potential” and at others as a reactionary “labor aristocracy” (130). The most serious charge he levels at Weatherman is the reifying reduction of class relations from a process to a thing, thus fixing social groups such as blacks, students, and workers in fixed and cliché positions; nevertheless he also detect moments in which Weatherman “forgets its static model of class … and give[s] freer rein to its sense of history and process. At such moments it comes close to saying something really important” (131). This something important closely resembles the Italian Workerist account of class composition as processual and contingent, an account that neither Weatherman, nor Oglesby for that matter, arrive at fully articulating. Nevertheless, there are clearly the beginnings of such an approach within the Weatherman statement as a minor political tendency within it, however subjugated they are to the overarching anti-imperialist perspective and the articulation of a vanguard politics. Writing several decades later, Bill Ayers, one of the authors of the statement, acknowledged the criticisms that, for the uninitiated, reading this statement “could drive you blind, or leave you gasping for air” (Ayers, 2001, 145). He claims, nevertheless, that the message was simple, “The world was on fire; masses of people throughout Africa and Asia and Latin America were standing up everywhere … the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle has a counterpart within the borders of the US—the black liberation movement … The revolution was at hand, the question of power in the air, and along [with that] the question of armed struggle” (Ayers, 145-146).
Examining the statement itself, clearly the key analytical idea is the one taken from Lin Piao that “the main struggle going on in the world today is between US Imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it” (Karin Ashley et al, 1970, 51). Regardless of whether this perspective is accepted or rather seen as an oversimplification, everything that follows in the statement is a pragmatic consequence of this political hypothesis. It is from this perspective that the above criticized class politics emerges: “if the goal [of global anti-imperialist struggle] is not clear from the start we will further the preservation of class society, oppression, war, genocide, and the complete emiseration of everyone, including the people of the US” (52-53). While it is clear how this could be read as being an anti-working class position, in fact what it opposes is the linkage between the working class and bourgeois power, expressed through a conservative union movement that had remained inactive even in the face of massive student opposition to the Vietnam War. In fact, its only difference to conventional Marxist politics is tactical rather than theoretical, in its belief that it is working class youth before their entry into the disciplinary apparatus of the industrial factory assemblage, who were the most potentially revolutionary subjects in the current conditions then prevailing in the US. Bearing in mind the pragmatic goal of building a revolutionary youth movement, the simplifications of this class analysis, which does receive further elaboration (64-68) are a way of mobilizing Marxist ideas for the practical purpose of identifying those subjectivities which are likely have the greatest interest in and desire for revolutionary change and the least investment in preserving the status quo. The departure from classical Marxism’s insistence on the centrality of the industrial proletariat, reveal to what extent this is not just a dry repetition of stale Marxist ideologies but rather an attempted cartography of emergent class composition, that does not assume this will correspond to existing, conventional and fixed categories of class. It is anti-working class (and no less anti-student for that matter), to the extent that it insists that all classes should question their political position in the global perspective of US imperialism and anti-imperialist struggle.
A key part of this cartography of class composition is the positioning of Black Americans as an “internal colony” (53-55), engaged in a necessarily socialist and revolutionary “national liberation struggle”. In this, they are merely responding actively to the ideas of Malcolm X as developed in more Marxist terms by the Black Panthers, both of whom emphasize how the result of slavery was to create a form of invisible colonialism that could only be resisted via a massive awakening of a revolutionary black consciousness. Quoting Huey P. Newton they argue that black liberation is necessarily revolutionary since black “self-determination requires being free from white capitalist exploitation in the form of inferior (lower caste) jobs, housing, schools, hospitals” (56). The original aspect of the Weatherman statement is to attempt to map out an active white response to this situation that consists neither in subordinating black struggle to white leadership nor in leaving blacks to “take on the whole fight—and the whole cost—for everyone” (58). Clearly influenced by the escalating police and FBI war against the Panthers that had already led to several deaths and many imprisonments, the Weather faction strongly insisted that white people should take on as much of the burden, and the risk, of revolutionary action, rather than hiding safely behind non-violent protest or abstract radical theory. It is by pragmatically articulating what this might consist of that Weather formulated its strategy for a revolutionary youth movement.
Given the above analytic propositions, the Weather proposal for a revolutionary youth movement was to target proletarian youth before entry into the factory, as the part of the white population both most directly oppressed by disciplinary institutions such as the family, school, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and with the most to gain from a revolutionary transformation of the US, to fight in tandem with black and international national liberation struggles. The proposed tactics involved not the denial of local struggles but connecting them up with a global anti-imperialist perspective as in the case of Berkeley’s People’s Park that is affirmatively cited.2 The proposed way of organizing the movement would consist of three elements, namely “mixing different issues, struggles, and groups”, “relating to motion”, and building a “movement oriented toward Power” (83-84). In other words these tactics would involve first reaching out the maximum different specific groups and issues and demonstrating the interconnections of their specific struggles with global anti-imperialism; demonstrating the nature of struggle through practical means by provoking confrontations and thereby catalyzing the extension of local struggles; and finally the emphasis on radical change being a power struggle and not just a matter of achieving limited reforms. In order to do this effectively, the statement proposes developing fighting revolutionary cells who would not only develop their own means of self-defense by learning techniques like Karate and the use of weapons but would also use this training to attract rebellious youth already fighting with the system but without any articulation of their rebellion within a broader anti-imperialist framework. Specifically this would mean involving youth in increasingly large scale fighting against the police as key representatives of imperialist power in order to both maximize “anti-pig consciousness” (86) and demonstrate that the repressive force of the police, and therefore of imperialist power more generally, can be overcome. Again this owes a good deal to the Black Panthers who pioneered the ideas and practices of collective self-defense, while also insisting that the white movement should take on an offensive rather than merely defensive role since they have the tactical advantage of not being immediately targeted by the police. As with the RAF, there is the idea here of the revolutionary cell “breeding revolutionaries” through practice, and while a future clandestine organization in envisaged, the immediate task is seen as the building up of these revolutionary cells amongst proletarian youth, including but not limited to students and the counterculture; a phase of Weather strategy that would receive its ultimate test in the “Days of Rage” that would be organized in Chicago a few months later: “tying the city-wide fights to community and city-wide anti-pig movement, and for building a party eventually out of this motion” (90). Whatever the practical feasibility of this project, it was clearly based on activating the movement of bodies, on confrontational practice, rather than the imposition of pre-formulated Marxist theory that is has been accused of being; in fact the “reading difficulty” on the part of the abovementioned new left critics can largely be put down to the very “privileged” preference for theory over practice that Weather believed it was both correct and necessary to challenge, by placing themselves on the frontlines of violent confrontation with the forces of imperialist order. Beyond this, the statement constituted a dramatically open “diagram” of militancy whose form could only be determined through the coming struggles.
Already on the SDS floor, the Weather faction had operated as a kind of war machine, using words as weapons and spouting out lines “like the clanging of steel on armor flashing across the room” (Ayers 2001, 145), leading to the expulsion of the PL from the SDS and sowing the seeds for the dissolution of the latter organization into what Weather hoped would become a revolutionary youth movement. But rhetorical battles amongst the politically engaged are one thing and street fighting with alienated youth and police quite another, as Weather would soon discover. Nevertheless they proceeded to put their ideas into practice by ranging over parks, schools, universities and beaches, talking, arguing, fighting when necessary, anywhere that new recruits for the revolutionary youth movement might be found. While the slogan of the breakaway group RYM 2 was “Serve the People”, Weather instead would “Fight the People”, using their bodies and risking violence and injury, in order to persuade potential members of the movement that they were serious and courageous. One example of this kind of action to reach out to “high school kids, freaks, community college people, bikers, greasers” (Motor City SDS 1970, 152) was what became known as the Metro Beach riot; 300 “cadre” swept the beach in Detroit distributing leaflets about the planned Chicago action and carrying red flags. They provoked heated arguments that soon escalated into a mass physical fight, the SDS contingent apparently holding its own against more patriotically inclined youth, before beating a retreat, chanting communist songs. Through actions like these it was hoped that even initially hostile youth, especially those already involved in rebellious activities such as bikers and freaks, would be persuaded to join the movement and take part in the forthcoming National Action. Other actions known as “jailbreaks” involved taking over and barricading community college or school classrooms, to deliver the anti-imperialist message and exhort young people to abandon their education in favor of participating in revolutionary action. Some of these actions were led and entirely conducted by women, since there was a feeling that the original Weather statement had not engaged sufficiently with women’s issues and the then emergent feminist movement, despite strong female leaders like Bernadine Dohrn and Cathy Wilkerson, the latter writing about the project of forming a “revolutionary women’s militia” (Wilkerson, 1970, 91-96).3
Once formed into collectives the activities would range from Martial arts and self-defense training in the morning to the experimentation with non-monogamous relationships at night, since Weather strongly maintained that the personal was political, and all existing bourgeois social forms, habits and institutions were to be called into question. While such practices were hardly uncommon at the time, their incorporation into a disciplined process of political subjectivation was less common, as was the newfound abstinence or at least restraint in relation to drugs and alcohol. Again, almost all these activities took inspiration from the Black Panthers but were developed in a more accelerated and even exaggerated way, as they sought to form as large a fighting revolutionary force as possible within the time of a single summer. In Ayers words, “all through the summer we worked, and fought and practiced, and when we got time for a breather late at night, we criticized ourselves for not doing enough” (Ayers 2001, 160). Criticisms like those of Thoburn of such Weather practices as self-criticism and the “gut check” often miss the point that it was a matter of producing movement, of generating as powerful a machine as possible, for which it was necessary to eliminate forms of resistance such as fear of violence or even death, that would slow down the maelstrom. In fact Ayers specifically associates this experience to being caught in gale force wind, a cyclone, claiming that a hundred mile an hour gale is not just three times a thirty miles an hour wind but an overwhelming experience that “sucks your breath out as it howls through your empty head” (160). While the Weather self-criticism sessions did not match the extremity of their Japanese counterparts in the United Red Army, some of whom did not return from these sessions alive,4 nevertheless their task demanded an intense subjectivation process in which fears, doubts, and inadequacies had to be overcome by all possible means. While Ayers today laments the excesses whereby from the rule of “art and politics, joy and struggle, love and engagement”, the first of these sets of terms tended also to be eliminated, nevertheless it was clear that to transform student and youth activists into street fighting revolutionaries would not be possible without an affective hardening, not only of bodies but of feelings and behaviors.
The “Days of Rage” as the October, 1969 Chicago National Action has come to be known, has been the subject of many accounts (Kopkind, 1970; Berger, 2006; Gitlin, 1987) all of which emphasize the disproportion between the hoped for thousands of street fighting militants and what actually happened. The choice of Chicago was no accident as it was also the time and place of the trial of the Chicago 8, the anniversary of the Democratic Convention at which the movement was subject to mass police violence and arrests, as well as being the two year anniversary of the execution of Che Guevara. The event was prepared for by an explosion of the Haymarket police statue, a much hated symbol of the Chicago police’s repression of labor activists in the 19th Century, and only one of several occasions in which it had been targeted. However, for this planned attack on the city of Chicago, only a few hundred of the hardcore Weather cadre showed up, and even some of the Black Panthers, including the soon to be murdered Fred Hampton, were critical of the action, the latter describing it as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualist, chauvinistic, and Custeristic” (Hampton cited in Berger 2006, 108). To make matters worse, the Panthers and other groups like the Young Lords who Weather saw their action as supporting, had instead endorsed the non-violent RYM 2 action, essentially a conventional protest against the conspiracy trial. Nevertheless, the small group that had assembled in Lincoln Park were determined to go ahead with their action, and after some rousing speeches descended on the wealthy Gold Coast area of Chicago, smashing windows, damaging property and fighting with police. The Weather militants were armed, in the sense of wearing helmets and carrying baseball bats, rocks and lead pipes, but not any fire-arms, which had been a directive of the organizing Weather Bureau. At the sound of breaking glass (provided by a Weather affinity group already in town) the signal was given to march into town ostensibly to attack the Drake hotel where one of the conspiracy trial judges lived. On this first night the police were still unprepared for what was to follow, as a few hundred militants literally attacked the city, smashing shopfront and car windows and offensively rather than defensively fighting the police. While a terrifying experience for the militants, it was also largely recollected as an exhilarating one, with several Weather members reporting it was the first time they really felt part of a revolutionary movement; nevertheless only a few of the militants were able to break through the hastily regrouped police lines and the wave of insurgency dispersed before reaching its objectives but not before doing significant property damage to the area they had surged through. By this stage the police were not hesitating to fire on the insurgents and several of them received gunshot wounds. Subsequent events were less effective, particularly a planned action of the Women’s Militia that failed to even break out of a park, and within days the national guard had been called in to quell the disturbance. The result in the end was around 300 arrests, massive injuries on both sides, and more than a thousand smashed windows of shopfronts and automobiles (Berger 2006, 112). The reaction to the event was highly mixed with Weather on the one hand claiming the level of confrontation, and the fact that the national guard had to be called in as proof of its success, and also claiming that they received the support, and help, of Black Chicagoans, while many of the New Left were at the very least ambivalent about the action, many preferring the non-violent but inter-ethnic RYM 2 action. Ironically, while some Black Panthers had criticized the action as too confrontational and insufficiently thought out, others like Eldridge Cleaver considered this a reactionary criticism and argued that the problem was that the action was not violent enough; if guns were available, and the police would be using them, it was suicidal not to employ a comparable level of armed force (Cleaver 1970, 293-295). Andrew Kopkind, a sympathetic observer/participant in the events described them as “a political psychodrama of the best and worst kind” (Kopkind 1970, 291) and concluded in his report that “the Weathermen did not shrink form the fight, and we all thought in the cell-block that night that simply not to fear fighting is a kind of winning” (292).
1This impression was certainly fostered in many respects by Weather themselves at this time. See, for example, Kathy Boudin, Bernadine Dohrn and Terry Robbins, “Bringing the War home: Less Talk, More National Action” in Jacobs ed., 1970, 175-182.
2This was a key event in the radicalization of the struggle around the Bekeley campus, arguably the most radical campus in the US. In this action, activists “liberated” a disused UC Berkeley owned car-park and created a “peo, reverting it to its former use. This is captured well in the documentary Berkeley in the 60s.
3Some of the fraught relations between Weather and radical feminism can be seen in the negative responses of high profile radical feminists like Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone, who saw Weather as conservative and sexist despite the strong leadership roles undertaken by women in that sexual oppression and liberation was always subordinated to the over-arching framework of anti-imperialism, or in other words a male defined New Left agenda. See especially Shulamith Firestone, 1979, 41-43, and for a more nuanced critique, Bread and Roses Collective, 1970, 327-336. Weatherwomen, for their part made numerous overtures towards the feminist movement, several of which can be found in the Weatherman collection.