The Weathermen: A Precursor to Anarcho-liberalism?
Much can be said on the Weatherman (a helpful documentary is available in full on youtube), and much has. Louis Proyect has pointed out that The Weathermen’s tactics were an inspiration for the black bloc , while I don’t share Proyect’s exact analysis of the black bloc as a tactic as I see it as more of a mixed blessing, it is ironic that while the Weatheman were supposedly Maoist in politics, they’re tactics seem more like Bakunin’s International Brotherhood than a Maoist mass-line or to a Leninist vanguard. The interesting thing is that this does lead not to building mass-lines, but to rather elitist notions that non-workers could represent workers and that breaking morality taboos was revolutionary.
In a way, I would have to admit the black bloc tactics seem mild compared to the Weathermen, and more justifiable as a tactic as it is not in such explicit self-contradiction. But reading an interview with Mark Rudd, I was struck by a good deal of what he said as he seems fundamentally more honest than Ayers:
SL: But, at that time, the success of the dramatic building occupations was viewed as a vindication of your Action Faction’s tactics over those of the Praxis Axis. But now you are saying that this was a misreading of the situation, because it was really their tactics that were responsible for the success of your actions.
MR: Yes. Militancy and confrontation maybe could be thought of as a strategy, but basically it was a series of confrontational tactics. The overall strategy was education plus confrontation plus personal relationship-building. But at the time we misread it completely. We took the Columbia Revolt of April and May 1968 to be a vindication of Che’s foco theory (i.e. the theory that a small group takes action and the masses join in once they see that guerilla warfare can work). That was a theory promulgated by the Cuban Communist Party in 1967 and 1968 and we lapped it up. Our Action Faction tendency and mentality fit in with the foco theory. At one point I made a speech quoted by Todd Gitlin in his book1 in which I am reported as saying, “organizing is another word for going slow.” I did not want organizing. I wanted speed and confrontation and militancy. After Columbia, however, almost every single application of this non-strategy of confrontation and militancy resulted in defeat and failed to build the movement.
There is something that I see in Rudd and, in Ayer’s more elitist version, is that in both instances one sees a confusion of tactics and goals, not in a dialectical synthesis, but in a simple substituting one for the other. This seems why so often the ultra-leftist becomes the center-left or even center-liberal reformist. I’ll quote Rudd again:
SL: In the German context, when the student movement emerged there in the 1960s, the Marxist intellectual Theodor Adorno called into question the movement’s leftist character and said, in essence, “These young people really seek only the narcissistic satisfaction to be achieved by direct action. They are not really interested in or capable of transforming the circumstances that generate the discontent.” He thus took a critical position against what he saw as the authoritarianism rampant on the New Left in Europe. To what extent do you think authoritarianism was a factor both in your own particular political experience and on the American left as a whole in the 1960s?
MR: I think the popularity of Marxism-Leninism is a good gauge of that. Marxism-Leninism is essentially an authoritarian organizational strategy. It says, “Our little group knows best. We have the truth and we are going to impose it on everybody.” And of course, the New Left wound up in the 1970s as a giant mix of Marxist-Leninist groupuscules. There is the authoritarian tendency, the idea that we know best about everything. To me it is reappearing in the kids in Pittsburgh who want to wear bandanas and march without a permit. They said, “Well, we know better than everybody else because we have the truth. We understand how terrible the system is. You are just a liberal and don’t understand.”
SL: What about the exclusive preoccupation with action? To my mind, this is what historically ties today’s anarchists to the Weathermen. In both cases reflection has determined that the problem is reflection. It is almost a theoretical anti-theory, or an intellectual anti-intellectualism.
MR: That could be, but that was not our problem. Our problem was too much of both, too much belief in the propaganda of the deed and too much belief that national liberation was going to defeat US imperialism. So we had the worst of both worlds. We had the action plus the ideology. There has to be some way of testing the truth of ideas. The best I can figure out is growth of the movement, numbers. If you count how many people are at a demonstration and then, a year later, you count again and discover that your numbers have gone up, you are probably on the right track. If they have not, you are probably not.
SL: How do you know that the movement that is growing is the movement you want?
MR: You don’t. Nobody can know. You just blunder along. That is why I am for non-violence, because at least you are adopting strategies and tactics that do not do irreversible damage. In my experience, almost everything I ever did that I thought it was going to turn out one way turned out another. That is why I am a liberal, because hopefully liberals kill fewer people than radicals. I am for nobody killing anybody else, and that includes governments, terrorists, and communists, though, of course, there are not that many of those left in the world anymore.
You can see Rudd actually not answer the question, he doesn’t address that maybe they have an understanding he’s abandoned and perhaps never had because tactics become both the ends and means, and fear of bad tactics seems like prudent caution, but is it true? Do liberals not kill as many people as radicals, for while the Weather Underground did have a body count, doesn’t the Democratic party? Is a war-time Democrat not a liberal? Or is the remove from the violence what makes one sleep better at night?
In a way, I admire Rudd for his honesty about this, and its a candor that one needs to really see the issues. Is this not one of the same contradictions of anarcho-liberal? The Weatherman tactics reflected that they didn’t believe that class consciousness is there, but it has to be developed but instead of the Social Democratic way of developing it, they pick the Bakunin’s vanguard of terrorists way. A way that betrays a lack of faith in the possibility that masses–the proletariat–could defend themselves. It’s not that violence is the problem: it’s that violence done by a few for the many against the will of the many is objectively not a mass-based action. Action for its own sake doesn’t lead to more action: if history is a teacher, it generally leads to inaction or, worse, regression.