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.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on December 10, 2011, in History, ideology, Left-turn, Marxism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    My position is somewhere in the middle.

    It’s not any single person’s place to tell the masses what to do, whether violence or non-violence. It’s not a matter of who should be listened to because of their morally superior position. As always, the masses will do what the masses will do. It’s not even a matter of what is the moral or effective thing to do. Like it or not, the masses will get violent if and when they get frustrated and desperate enough.

    All that an individual can do in hope of shaping beneficial change is to offer knowledge and guidance along with opportunities of engagement and involvement. History will determine whether what is offered is worthy of meeting the challenges faced by the masses.

  2. I agree with your assessment of Rudd’s honesty. The new position he counterposes to his earlier ultra-Leftist militancy, the sort of standard liberal-democratic distrust of political elites and revolutionary struggles in general, us hardly less problematic. But you are right to see the Weathermen as a precursor to anarcho-liberalism, especially in its black bloc manifestation. But you are also correct to trace its inheritance of Narodnik-style terrorism, bypassing Lenin’s strong critique of political terrorism in What is to be Done? Ultimately, the tactics of the black bloc are far less violent than were the Weathermen’s.

    The anarchoid advocacy of non-violent direct action is somewhat removed from it, though it does seem to follow the idea of a small group of people going out of their way to get arrested to raise publicity about the movement and rally support around it. Fritz Tucker, a Maoist from Brooklyn with whom I’ve corresponded, made some great observations about this mindset during the early days of Occupy Wall Street (he was there from the third day onward). He pointed out how the martyrdom involved with the propaganda of the deed that comes with being arrested becomes enshrined as a sort of virtue unto itself:

    Within minutes, the discussion turned to who was willing to be arrested and how. Many felt that the quickest way to make the news was to get arrested, and that this alone would make the movement more socially relevant. Most people at the square understood that arrests are a consequence of any significant social movement; some seemed to believe, however, the converse was true: if there are arrests, it will be a significant social movement.

  3. “All that an individual can do in hope of shaping beneficial change is to offer knowledge and guidance along with opportunities of engagement and involvement. History will determine whether what is offered is worthy of meeting the challenges faced by the masses.”

    Exactly, this is the only role for a vanguard in the Leninist sense. The later developments of this idea seem to be predicated on an individual or small group being able to speak FOR the proletariat or the masses instead of just to them. This is an issue we have to deal with.

  4. Benjamin David Steele

    Yeah, we seem to be on the same page. It is an interesting moment of history, but I’m not sure exactly where we collectively stand among all these factors. I sense there is a growing awareness among some people (such as you and I) that a different approach is required… or maybe it’s just wishful thinking that this awareness is increasing in some manner.

    Engagement and involvement seems to be the key element, the opposite of apathy and disenfranchisement. But what does that specifically mean in the real world, in everyday life? I sometimes think that our country is too large, that the population is too immense and spread apart or else clumped too closely together in too high of numbers. It’s not natural for humans to live as we do… by which I mean that it isn’t optimal at least according to the conditions under which human nature evolved.

    My suspicion is that we need to somehow recreate the tangible experience of community that apparently can only function well on the small scale. The problem is that everything about our society seems to undermine this natural model of community. It seems to me that rooted community members have less allegiance to nation-states and are less dependent on a capitalist lifestyle. Such people have no place in this society.

    How society is structured right now seems designed to disenfranchise and cause apathy. Working within this society, it is like trying to swim upstream… constantly being pushed in the opposite direction from where you’re trying to get to… and just getting tired for all your struggle. Remaining in the river seems self-defeating. But how does one get out of this metaphorical river?

    This perplexes me beyond the capability of my mind to grasp what it all means. It’s like feeling the flow that is pulling you further away from where you are trying to go while not being sure exactly where your trying to get to in the first place. You look around and there appears to be no shore in sight. It’s more like being caught in a current in the middle of a vast ocean and having no idea where the current is going.

    Should one attempt to gather enough flotsam to jerry-rig a meager raft in hope of getting one’s bearings? What would such a raft be in these kinds of circumstances? Is sitting on a raft floating along with the current any better than simply floating along immersed in the water? What does one hope to achieve with one’s struggles? Is it simply to be able to stand up in order to wave and yell at the people floating off in the distance? Protests like Occupy seem like such a jerry-rigged raft in the vast ocean of modern society. The protesters have made their respective rafts and have attempted to remain on them, but the authorities come along with speed boats and water cannons trying to force everyone back in the water again.

    Where does all this lead to? Where can it lead to and how?

  5. To Ben:

    You know my goal right now is to critique with love. In order words to point out our “the left” (however, you define it) regressions and failures WHILE maintaining that this regressions and failures are how we learn, but we must learn. We have to develop a memory around the historical conditions in which we find ourselves. Secondly my other goal is to take different parts of the left and expose them to each other. This is something I do with groups here in Seoul, on facebook, and in this blog. I notice since just before #Occupy, there was a lot of this and we need to do more o fit.

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