Mother Country Radicals

by Harry on August 30, 2022

I just finished listening to Mother Country Radicals, the podcast series about the Weather Underground made by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, son of Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. It brilliantly made, and well worth listening to: the (living) protagonists are given considerable space to give their account of events, and even if you know quite a lot about the period and the events you’ll probably learn some things you didn’t know.

It must be weird making a documentary in which one’s own parents are the main characters. It’s clear that Ayers and Dohrn have been loving and good parents to their children, and that Ayers Dohrn loves them unconditionally: but that must make it even stranger given the distasteful nature of some of what they did, and the pretty awful character of some of what they say. It was very hard for me to figure out whether Ayres Dohrn was giving them enough rope, or whether he just wasn’t, himself, appalled by some of what they were saying. In the unlikely event that my parents had said some of those things I would have been tempted to leave them out. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make a documentary; I for sure don’t have what it would take to make a documentary about my parents if I loved them and they had been terrorists.

Were Ayres and Dorn terrorists? Ayers Dorhn does put the question to his father. And his father dismisses the label with a redefinition of terrorism on which most terrorist activity is carried out by states. I haven’t bothered to get the exact quote, but it was almost exactly what he says in his own memoir “Terrorists terrorize…they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”

It is true that between the Greenwich Townhouse explosion and the Brinks robbery (by which time Ayers and Dohrn were no longer underground, and in which they had no part) Weather took considerable precautions to ensure that they did not injure or kill actual people, only to damage property. This isn’t said in the documentary but we know for sure that they took considerable precautions because if you set that many bombs, avoiding casualties isn’t random.

But, of course, it is very lucky, especially if, as in their case, you are not expert handlers of explosives. And there is the inconvenient fact that the explosives involved in the Greenwich Townhouse explosion, according to the documentary (and nobody denies this),were intended to kill numerous non-commissioned officers (many presumably draftees) and their (presumably, in those days, female and non-military) dates. Most disappointingly, Ayers denies that they were terrorists only a couple of episodes after we hear a chilling recording, widely broadcast shortly after the townhouse explosion, of Dohrn declaring war on America:

Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don’t do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way.

Now we are adapting the classic guerrilla strategy of the Viet Cong and the urban guerrilla strategy of the Tupamaros to our own situation here in the most technically advanced country in the world…

We fight in many ways. Dope is one of our weapons. The laws against marijuana mean that millions of us are outlaws long before we actually split. Guns and grass are united in the youth underground.

This sounds like self-indulgent nonsense to me. But in the wake of the townhouse explosion, demonstrating that Weather was not only playing with fire, but had no idea how to control it, it would have sounded, to many, like a threat. Whatever, it doesn’t sound like they were aiming “only to educate”.

Ayers, Dohrn, Boudin, and Oughton all came from privileged families – Ayers and Oughton from very privileged families. Early on in the podcast, and in the formation of the group, we hear a story that betrays the remarkable lack of class consciousness and class analysis that was implicated in their political trajectory. Jeff Jones (one of the characters who comes across as thoroughly decent) tells a story of them all having dinner at a restaurant and Oughton, upset by a racist incident leads them all out of the restaurant without paying the bill. Jones expresses his discomfort, but Oughton tells him that the waitress is a collaborator, so deserves to be stiffed. The story might come across differently if the protagonist had been, say, Afeni Shakur (another of the characters in the story), but it is quite distasteful coming from someone who grew up in the top 0.1% of the income distribution.

The Weather members Ayers Dohrn records regularly remind him that, at the time, the US government was, itself, engaged in a devastating war in Vietnam. And, also, that numerous branches of the US government were engaging in highly criminal activity including regular assassinations and homicides of Black Panthers and other nationalist activists. It’s easy to forget how extensive this criminal activity was. (I lived in LA in the second half of the eighties during which the LAPD was, rightly, reviled as a criminal operation, but even so was surprised when I read Mike Davis and Jon Weiner’s excellent book about LA in the 60’s, Set the Night on Fire, just how high the body count of black activists murdered by or at the behest of LAPD officers was even before the emergence of the Black Panthers). So you might think that is some sort of excuse.

But Weather must have understood the backlash they would provoke, and must have known that it would impact everyone on the left, whatever they were trying to do – not just the backlash from the organs of the state, but from the working class Americans whom other left-wingers were trying to organize, and Weather were openly threatening. One millennial friend of mine, having listened to the documentary, referred to Weather as LARPers. Several 60’s generation friends (people who are still, in their 70s and 80s active on the left) have used similar language, though with a less amused tone, having, especially those who were active in the labor movement, directly experienced that backlash.

And that’s the weakness of the podcast. For all the endless references to “the movement”, and “the revolution”, this is the story of a handful of adventurers. There’s no sense of how they related to — or were seen by — their peers, the vast majority of whom eschewed violence, but were just as committed to, and, frankly had better judgment about how to achieve, social change. I wanted to hear from them as well, or have some acknowledgement that they really didn’t matter.

There’s a legend in these parts of an SDS meeting on the Madison campus at which a visiting Weatherman is attempting to recruit to the cause, and the gathered SDSers turn their backs to him, one of them with a large sign affixed saying “You don’t need to be a proctologist to know who the assholes are”. Listening to Mother Country Radicals made that joke feel a little less funny to me, but it didn’t make me feel any less sympathy with whoever cracked it.

Very curious what other people who have listened made of the documentary. And, if you haven’t listened to it, its well worth the time.



jsrtheta 08.30.22 at 4:30 am

I haven’t heard the documentary. I have no plan to. I remember when all this was happening. I remember the disgust most of us had for these fools.

Because it was cosplay, for sure. These arrogant bastards had no clue what damage they were really doing. They helped doom any chance at convincing the public of their righteousness, because none of them had a clue what actual suffering was. And there was plenty of suffering going on in the late ’60s. But not by them.

It’s hard to be a hero of the people when you have nothing but contempt for the people.


J. Bogart 08.30.22 at 5:47 am

This is a small point that does not go the substance of your post. “intended to kill numerous non-commissioned officers (many presumably draftees)” — while some NCOs came in through the draft (some draftees decided a career in the military was a good choice and enlisted at the end of the 2 years) I think that would be pretty small minority of NCOs.


Phil 08.30.22 at 8:59 am

Disclaimer – I haven’t heard this podcast, but I have read & thought a lot about armed struggle groups like Weather.

Defining “terrorism” is a mug’s game, but I think there is a core cluster of ideas involving using violence to create ‘terror’ – in other words, using violence against one target (group) to send a message to a much larger and/or more powerful target group. It’s that idea of not only making your immediate target suffer but using their suffering – treating them as a means to an end, in Kantian terms – that makes terrorism so abhorrent, IMO. I also think violence against the person is key – otherwise we’d be calling it vandalism to break windows with stones & terrorism to shoot them out, which would be absurd.

So I think it’s possible to make a respectable case – not just an apologia through pedantry – that Weather’s activities didn’t amount to terrorism. Whether they were justified… well, obviously they weren’t justified; even the participants know that now, and they should have known it much sooner – feedback at the time wasn’t exactly encouraging. But I find it hard to condemn them out of hand. Back in 1977, the big debate in the Italian youth movement was whether to relate to the armed struggle groups of the time as compagni che sbagliano or compagni e basta – “comrades who have made the wrong choice” or “comrades, full stop”. I think that’s the right emphasis. Weather, similarly, were part of the US radical left (although they would have hated that idea) and are part of its history.


John Quiggin 08.30.22 at 9:04 am

Quite at random, I happened across this post from 2011, which seems relevant and provoked a lengthy discussion


SamChevre 08.30.22 at 10:44 am

A related piece, which I found thought-provoking, is the long post Days of Rage on the bombings of the 1960’s and 1970’s.


J, not that one 08.30.22 at 1:39 pm

Does the podcast go into the activists’ youth and education? I often get the sense that many people of that generation were interested in a moral rather than political or economic battle, and that their allyship with the workers of the world and the Global South was often rhetorical – not that they didn’t mean it, but that they had been told the workers, Communists, and colonized peoples were on the correct side and that was enough for them to claim to be on the workers’, etc., side without experiencing guilt for the appropriation. It would be interesting to know whether something in the culture was reinforcing a very American sort of rejection of Americanness without a grasp of how to be politically effective.


Max Sawicky 08.30.22 at 2:10 pm

Ayers is the worst witness to Weatherman, has learned nothing. The best is Mark Rudd.


David in Tokyo 08.30.22 at 2:49 pm

Ah. Memories. I grew up listening to Boston area college radio, of which MIT’s was one (and then I later actually went there). But the whomevertheywere folks used to blow up the toilets in the MIT Sloan School (MIT’s business school) every now and then. It was kind of inefectual and cute since no one got hurt, but the cute bit was because no one got hurt. (I think, anyway. That’s how I remember it.)

FWIW, what I also remember of the time is the lamestream media dutifully reporting the “Look, Ma, we killed a bunch of Viet Cong” news stories the US military put out, when anyone with half a brain could see that what was going on was that they were counting dead civilians and promoting them to being Viet Cong after the fact.

The stupidity of the whole Vietnam thing was mindboggling. And then the US military tried to “help out” in Afghanistan and pulled a repeat of the stupidity. So I’m real hesitant to even read the reporting on Ukrain. Sigh. I’d like the upbeat headlines to be true (“Iranian Drones are Breaking Down”), but I suspect the story we’ll see when the smoke clears will be very ugly.

Anyway, it wasn’t surprising that there was domestic violence back then, although I’m not happy that I wasn’t more unhappy with it at the time.


Tracy 08.30.22 at 4:55 pm

The story about turning chairs around at a UW-Madison SDS meeting is no legend. Max Elbaum, who was part of the leadership setting up the meeting itself, tells the story in “Turn Your Chairs Around” in SDS: A Graphic History (2008) New York: Hill and Wang. Very entertaining and informative book, btw.


Hidari 08.30.22 at 5:29 pm


LFC 08.30.22 at 6:34 pm

J, not that one @6

I often get the sense that many people of that generation were interested in a moral rather than political or economic battle,

Many (though not all) political issues are also moral ones or have a moral dimension, so this opposition is misleading.

they had been told the workers, Communists, and colonized peoples were on the correct side and that was enough for them to claim to be on the workers’, etc., side without experiencing guilt for the appropriation.

What appropriation? What were they appropriating?

a very American sort of rejection of Americanness

The radical left in the U.S. in those days did not, for the most part, claim to be rejecting “Americanness” but rather saw themselves as trying to hold the country to its best ideals — I think that’s probably what a reading of, say, the Port Huron Statement would suggest. (However, that was probably not the Weather Underground’s specific version of things.)


EB 08.30.22 at 6:58 pm

The Weather underground was hugely detached from reality. Years later I met a woman who had participated in the Days of Rage; she said they all believed that the working class would rise up and join the struggle once they saw how committed the “vanguard” were.

There is also a huge discommect between the Ayers and Dohrn of that era, and what they later did with their lives: Ayers became a school teacher, a professor of education, and a main player in efforts towards school reform in Chicago. Dohrn became a lawyer (although unable to practice in court because her felonious past disqualified her) active in criminal justice reform especially with respect to juveniles. But they both, as the OP notes, seem unable to admit the harm (and stupidity) they fostered in the ’60’s and ’70’s.

As an activist in the anti-war movement in those days, I remember being angry that the Weather at times was taken to be a legitimate part of the movement. They made our work harder and because of that may have extended the war itself. Imagine how it felt to be knocking on doors in support of an anti-war congressinal candidate, only to be met with suspicion and hostility because of their adventuristic violence.


steven t johnson 08.30.22 at 8:06 pm

All this pious horror makes religion look bad. The equally ineffective opponents of violence have accomplished nothing either, a point that will never be accepted. Finding the so-called opposition to Weather so charming precisely because they were not only ineffective but not even threatening is, what’s the phrase, the chef’s kiss?

Repudiating violence because it’s not state-authorized is not a left-wing position at all. I would suggest the whole commitment of the New Left, all parts of it, to repudiating Communism, the Old Left and things like PL, rather than the issue of violence is genuinely relevant. And if we must use chatter about privilege, the property and income of electoral candidates are relevant. Here it’s just unseemly in my opinion.


engels 08.30.22 at 8:52 pm

Two decades on from the start of the “war on terror” might be a good time to recognise that “terrorist” is an ideological term with no value for moral judgment and analysis.


Dr. Hilarius 08.31.22 at 2:06 am

A close friend of mine attended the Flint, Michigan “war council” in December 1969. He was horrified by gleeful discussions of proposed bombings and suicide attacks on various targets. He said the proto-Weatherpeople were obsessed with expressions of white guilt (“We may be White, but we sure are tripping!”) and fantasies of “Battle of Algiers” martyrdom. He cut all ties to SDS after returning home.

The privileged origin of Dohrn, Ayers, Oughton, and Boudin was central to their contempt of anyone who disagreed with them. They recapitulated the hierarchical authority they claimed to despise.


Fake Dave 08.31.22 at 5:16 am

@13 Stephen t Johnson

The way you sneer at people for having the temerity to pretend (as you see it) to be offended by political violence strikes me as hopelessly antisocial. Real pacifists exist and we have no more use for armchair agitators on the left than chickenhawks on the right. If you don’t understand why a principled peace movement needs to repudiate violence as a tactic, then you’re probably not actually our our side anyway.


TM 08.31.22 at 7:57 am

“she said they all believed that the working class would rise up and join the struggle once they saw how committed the “vanguard” were.”

This disconnect is really the story. You can find similar delusions in the writings of the RAF for example. They started as part of a movement that was never as big and popular as they believed and then isolated themselves even from that, but were totally deluded about the attitudes of the “working class” whom they thought they were liberating.


John Quiggin 08.31.22 at 8:56 am

Hidari: Yes, radical suffragists murdered a few people, and provided a couple of martyrs to the cause. Barely 25 years later, the government was panicked into granting equal voting rights for women, thereby proving the effectiveness of violence.

Sadly, Australia and NZ got there long before, without anyone getting killed or even injured, AFAICT. And the only prominent suffragist we got from the UK turned out a fascist in the end.


J, not that one 08.31.22 at 1:22 pm


Believing waitresses are part of the American System and therefore can be taken advantage of and then not paid seems more like anti-Americanism than making America live up to its best self.


J, not that one 08.31.22 at 2:32 pm

I seem to remember the line in the 70s was that by 1968 “opportunities for political action had dried up,” leaving apathy and violence as the only possibilities.

It didn’t occur to me when I read those accounts a decade or two later that they may have been penned by those who’d chosen apathy and had a vested interest in playing down the alternatives while appearing to praise them.


David in Tokyo 08.31.22 at 3:35 pm

My memory of the problem of the period was not so much the Weatherpersons, but that when you thought you had an anti-war event/gathering going, you’d get a handful of people from each of several groups, and each group would refuse to play nice with the anti-war effort until their particular grievance/issue was fixed, or at least made the main cause of the group. The vast majority of their individual things were things I’d be happy to support, but my individual thing was stopping the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to Japan 2022. On July 7th, former prime minister Abe was assassintated by a bloke who was irritated that the Unification Church had bankrupted his family, and Abe himself, and Abe’s family and political party were in cahoots with said Unification Church. Almost immediately, the current PM declared that there would be a “State Funeral” for Abe. As the horrors of the Unification Church (and how deeply dependent the LDP is on said church) have slowly become widely known here, over half the Japanese population now considers this state funeral an obscenity, and is opposed to it. (There’s only been one state funeral here since before 1945, so it really is a wacky idea.)

My SO, is one of those, and has been going to oppose the state funeral events. Which involve multiple groups with particular causes each of which grabs the microphone, leaving almost no time for discussion of the problem at hand…


steven t johnson 08.31.22 at 3:45 pm

engels@14 is correct. The horror at the Weather Underground is, by the way, also contaminated by their sexual bonding practices. It seems to me that you could substitute “adultery and fornication” for “terrorism” in the OP and the majority of comments and it wouldn’t make any substantive change in the analysis. Again, genuine criticism of Weather Underground must address the opposition to the alternatives….which by the way was not voting Democratic, the unspoken assumption.

Fake Dave@16 is indeed a fake. Pacifists apparently exist, but so do flat-earthers and monarchists. No principled peace movement ever succeeded in stopping state violence and only serve to divide the lower orders by moral purity. The true arguments against individual terror start with rejecting petty bourgeois politics, not with posturing as the pure. The peculiar idea that it’s not enough to criticize individual terrorism as adventurism, as a tactic, but that it must be an arbitrary “principle” to serve as a morals test to divide the oppressed is endorsement of the status quo. I already said pacifists are not leftists, i.e., not on my side even in principle. The sneer at me personally because I don’t go out and shoot people is unworthy.

Dr. Hilarius@15 is perhaps the crudest example of the absurd moralizing about “privilege.” It is hard to imagine what privilege can be invoked against the Black terrorists.

John Quiggin@18 cites some unknown suffragist who later turned fascist. Such an evolution is not contrary to some sort of feminist essence: Female suffrage and feminism are not intrinsically part of the left, they are bourgeois reformist. But in regard to the issue of violence, the divide between Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst is more instructive perhaps? The democrat Christabel was pro-war and the pacifist Sylvia ended up as a supporter of Haile Selassie!

Principled opposition to violence is not and never has been the majority position. Opposition to unsanctioned violence has been but that is not a leftist position. Later Star Trek (especially as near as I can tell the B-team Trek, DS9) is fond of reducing all political issues to “pacifism” versus the status quo precisely because “pacifism” is a straw man. The issue there is always the repudiation of revolutionary violence as a principle as the supposedly moral way of endorsing the rulers.


Peter Dorman 08.31.22 at 8:12 pm

After all these years I’m still furious at Weather. I was in Madison SDS but not at the meeting (RYM II!) Elbaum organized.

To the litany of criticisms already made — elite background, sick, unstrategic violence, delusional politics — I’d add utter disrespect for anything approximating democracy. True, other strands of the New Left were authoritarian as well, but Weather was extreme. It was all charismatic leadership and suppression of dissent. (Alas, the BPP was similar in this respect.)

The only shred of defense that can be offered is that the horror of the Vietnam War scrambled our brains. Yes, but some got way more scrambled than others, and hindsight ought to work regardless.


PatinIowa 08.31.22 at 9:23 pm

I’m hard pressed to think of anyone at that time who got it right. It certainly wasn’t me.

I saw the Weather Underground as a distinctively American movement, down to its delusions, its violence, its cruelty, and its contempt for its enemies. Everything we accuse them of we can find in (almost) every part of the American political scene, then and now, including fantasies of transformative violence.

I do, however, believe that the failures of the New Left and especially the Black Power movement had more to do with the violence visited upon them, than the violence they undertook, stupid and contemptible as it was.

Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin nailed it at the time, “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”


Harry 09.01.22 at 10:45 am

It is astonishing to me that anyone with knowledge of the period could read the OP and think that voting Democrat is the implicit alternative to what Weather did. Torn between thinking stj simply doesn’t know what else was happening, wondering if he is the most uncharitable reader I’ve ever had, or is maybe trolling me. Obviously voting Democrat wasn’t going to end the war. Almost as obvious as that a bunch of posh kids playing at terrorism weren’t.


Seekonk 09.01.22 at 1:08 pm

I agree with the left criticism of the Weather Underground, particularly that their actions were counterproductive.
But not criticism from the right, which amounts to:
“Because they were not pacifists like George Washington, Jefferson Davis, J. Edgar Hoover, and so many other great American heroes, Dohrn and Ayers must be condemned for … “


J..Bogart 09.01.22 at 1:51 pm

I can’t recall any contemporaneous use of “the Weather” or “Weather people”. By my recollection they were either Weathermen or the Weather Underground. I don’t see why changing the names is needed or useful.


J, not that one 09.01.22 at 2:51 pm

“It is astonishing to me that anyone with knowledge of the period could read the OP and think that voting Democrat is the implicit alternative to what Weather did.”

The Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1972 ran on a platform of ending the war. Obviously in 1968 LBJ wasn’t going to end the war, but it’s all too easy to see that kind of rhetoric being unfortunately applied in 1972 as well, and becoming a blanket opposition to the Democratic Party and to all electoral politics (as we can see in some places now). Obviously the visibility of a mass protest movement influenced McGovern’s policies.

But equally obviously many left radicals and peace activists had actually more sweeping goals than that (over and above the question whether McGovern could have ended the war – even so it seems as positive a move as having a march). So then the question seems to be whether they’re going to make “revolution” or “the end of capitalism” or “no longer having the FBI investigate Communists, former Communists, and their allies” a priority over ending the war. (Put another way, whether they’re going to make “agreeing with us about all those other things” more important than “agreeing with us about the war” as a criterion for getting their cooperation. They never had the numbers or the reason on their side to get people to cooperate voluntarily under those conditions for long.)


LFC 09.01.22 at 4:51 pm

On the question whether “voting Democrat” (see @25) would have ended the war: at the risk of recalling well-known facts, Eugene McCarthy ran in ’68 as an antiwar candidate (before RFK entered the race, also as an antiwar candidate), and McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in N.H. primary helped convince Johnson not to run again. In the general election campaign, Humphrey took a while (too long) to break publicly with the administration’s Vietnam policy, but did so in September ’68 in a speech in Salt Lake City. (Whether Humphrey would have ended U.S. involvement sooner than Nixon did must remain an open question, but there is a case for thinking the answer is yes. No point in rehashing this here.) Clearly if McGovern had won in ’72, he would have ended U.S. involvement in the war sooner than Nixon. (Nixon and Kissinger’s strategy was a phased withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, a/k/a Vietnamization, but they continued to use air power, as for example in the Christmas bombings of Dec. ’72.)

In short, whether “voting Democrat” would have helped end the war depends partly on which candidate and election one refers to, but electoral politics were not irrelevant.


LFC 09.01.22 at 5:06 pm

p.s. just to add to my comment on electoral politics, the shifting balance of views in Congress was v. important, esp toward the end.


John Quiggin 09.01.22 at 11:01 pm

STJ “some unknown suffragist” I’m surprised, given the subsequent sentence about Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst that you didn’t pick up the allusion to Adele.

More generally, what Harry said.


Murray Reiss 09.02.22 at 1:54 am

What the podcast also makes clear is how deeply the movements like the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party were infiltrated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to the point where those who were often pushing for the most violence were actually working for the Man.


Tm 09.02.22 at 8:02 am

Pat: „Everything we accuse them of we can find in (almost) every part of the American political scene, then and now, including fantasies of transformative violence.“

Fantasies of transformative violence in every part of the American political scene? What are you referring to?


MFB 09.02.22 at 8:16 am

I haven’t heard the podcast.

Having read a lot about the U.S. anti-war movement (those of us who were in the South African anti-conscription movement in the 1980s leaned heavily on the American movement) it seems evident that there were some very foolish people in SDS who saw themselves as the American Lenins and Luxemburgs although they hadn’t actually walked the walk or even actually talked the talk with any coherency. It’s pretty evident that the outbreak of violence in the U.S. in the late 1960s was confused with a revolutionary situation — and to be fair, the leadership of the U.S. seems to have made the same sort of mistake, unless they were just pretending in order to get more repressive legislation through.

In retrospect, the Weather Underground wasn’t really popular with anyone and accomplished nothing. It was a mistake led by people who were either silly or misguided, however brave they might have been. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that it played a major role in the collapse of the U.S. left. The South African counterpart of the Weather Underground was the African Resistance Movement, which behaved similarly — but it didn’t lead to the collapse of the left in South Africa, which endured until after liberation.

It seems to me that rather than blaming the deluded tiny minority for their ill-advised behaviour. U.S. leftists should ask why all the other leftists who weren’t part of that minority failed to sustain the energy which appeared to exist as a result of the politics of the 1960s into the late 1970s.


steven t johnson 09.02.22 at 11:14 am

John Quiggin@31 displays a greater knowledge of Australian history than mine. But my point that feminism/female suffrage and pacifism are not left-wing is no more refuted than acknowledged. The implicit position that bourgeois democratic reformism that has a supposedly principled commitment to nonviolence and sufficiently orthodox electoral politics* is sufficient is invited to ask why the English gave in to the women in 1928…but the French waited till 1944 and the Swiss till 1971. Of course there was no bourgeois democratic reformism in Germany and Russia, whose revolutions mysteriously ended up with woman suffrage in 1917 and 1918. The assumption that early franchise in Australia and New Zealand stemmed from eschewing useless violence is not so uncontestable as assumed.
*From “bourgeois” to “politics” is the longer, duller non-US-centric version of “voting Democratic.”

From my comment@13, “I would suggest the whole commitment of the New Left, all parts of it, to repudiating Communism, the Old Left and things like PL, rather than the issue of violence is genuinely relevant.” From my comment@22 “Again, genuine criticism of Weather Underground must address the opposition to the alternatives….”
A charitable reading would suggest that I very much think there were in fact alternatives albeit I was only interest in the ones “rejecting petty bourgeois politics…” to quote myself again.

By my lights it is the OP that was conspicuously silent on the alternatives. I think LFC and J, not the other one, read the silence correctly too. So, no, I don’t think the part “which by the way was not voting Democratic, the unspoken assumption…” was unfair at all.

The notion that taking up underground life is “posh” is however quite extraordinary. Why it’s almost as if the Weather Underground is unforgivable because they were class traitors!

which by the way was not voting Democratic, the unspoken assumption.”


Jake Gibson 09.02.22 at 12:57 pm

I have heard some in the anti-war movement say that they could identify the Cointelpro plants by the violence they advocated.
If one is skeptical about state violence, as we should be, one should be even more skwprical of non-state violence.


Harry 09.03.22 at 12:05 am

“By my lights it is the OP that was conspicuously silent on the alternatives. I think LFC and J, not the other one, read the silence correctly too. So, no, I don’t think the part “which by the way was not voting Democratic, the unspoken assumption…” was unfair at all.”

Ok, then, I revert to the other hypothesis (that you don’t know much about what else was going on at the time). The political space between self-indulgent and reckless endangerment of other people’s lives and simply trying to get people to vote for Democrats was quite large. I know so so many people who occupied that space. Many of them still do and franjkly they didn’t end up with nice professorships either. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone by name checking them.

Jake Gibson: “I have heard some in the anti-war movement say that they could identify the Cointelpro plants by the violence they advocated.”
Yes, that even comes across in the podcast (esp with respect to the Panthers). I have a lot of comrades, most of them now deceased, with a great deal of experience with infiltration, and what they said was that they rarely got an accusation or suspicion wrong (because advocacy of violence was such an obvious clue), but that when the files came out there were so many more Cointelpro people than they imagined. We have readers, I am sure, who experienced this.

Oh, everyone should read Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The US Left wince the Second World War, which covers the period nicely, and recounts the proctologist incident. Phelps is an occasional commenter here.


Harry 09.03.22 at 12:15 am

“The notion that taking up underground life is “posh” is however quite extraordinary.”

I hereby withdraw my accusation of uncharitable reading…


Harry 09.03.22 at 12:21 am

I don’t think any one is implying that Weather was the central cause of the defeats of the left over the seventies and eighties or even much of a cause at all. They caused a lot of people a lot of headaches, and that probably did contribute to demoralization.

I really haven’t known anybody who was active in that era (and it’s a non-trivial sample size, though it is drawn largely but not exclusively from the very roughly the Trotskyist tradition) who admits to mistaking the violence for a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, and many of the people I know who don’t admit that have a paper trail supporting that they didn’t make that mistake. Which helps explain my lack of empathy I guess.


LFC 09.03.22 at 3:17 am

I’ve now listened to the first two podcast episodes and a bit of the third.

Everyone may have a different reaction to it based not only on political views but also partly on age. I was born in 1957; was twelve when the Days of Rage occurred (Oct. ’69). I was fairly politically aware for my age, but I don’t think I have any recollection (perhaps simply because my memory is patchy) of reading or hearing about the Weather Underground or the Days of Rage at the time. Since it was all over the news, it’s probably my faulty memory. (I do have memories of the McGovern campaign, in which I volunteered, also a couple of aspects of the ’68 campaign.)

Given that background, I probably listen to the podcast episodes without feeling quite the same emotions as someone who is old enough to have been an active participant in “the 60s” might feel. I’ve read, albeit a long time ago now, James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets and Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer. I bought some years ago, but have only very cursorily dipped into, R. Perlstein’s Nixonland. I’ve also read or skimmed a few ’60s memoirs. But reading can’t fully substitute for having been there as a participant. Despite whatever analogies and comparisons one might want to draw to the present (or to the last twenty years, say), the period feels rather distant — to me. Whereas to someone who was in SDS or is close friends with people who were, or was otherwise active on the Left (or the Right, for that matter) in that period, it might feel like yesterday.

P.s. The above may be banal and obvious, but so be it. If you can’t be banal and obvious in a blog comment thread, where can you be?


J, not that one 09.03.22 at 5:02 pm

Agree with LFC but also note that many of the books we have on the era are either memoir or essentially oral history, and almost all were written to defend the politics of the books’ subjects. A few were written to illustrate personal growth out of whatever errors the authors attribute to their younger selves. Set the Night on Fire seems like a move in the direction of writing history–a necessary first move as regards a time we have too little awareness of basic facts on–but is still an apologia for its subjects and doesn’t engage with much outside of them.

By the time I was in high school, much less college, the Weather Underground was much larger in terms of cultural importance than — arguably, for by far most people — political reality, though it was still held up as something to either admire for its political sincerity and representation of authentic experience, or shun for its demonstration of where careless politics might lead you. But that too is far in the past. We should by now have books that say more about those people than that they meant well.


PatinIowa 09.03.22 at 6:15 pm

“Fantasies of transformative violence in every part of the American political scene? What are you referring to?”

We could start with January 6, 2021 and work our way back, on the domestic scene. That’s on the right, and it’s not the extreme right, either.

On the extreme right we have the accelerationists, trying to start a race war.

I’ll leave a gap here for you to fill in, back to John Brown. (To be snarky about it: he must have known that the advocates for slavery would have made propaganda of his violence. To be less snarky about it, he was a murderer, whose violence was, while understandable, unsupportable.)

Meanwhile, US foreign policy is filled with examples of fantasies of transformative violence. I grew up being told–by liberals–that South Vietnam was a democracy being protected from a monolithic communist conspiracy, and that Agent Orange, napalm, and for some conservatives, nukes would save the day.

A more recent example: “And with the liberation of Iraq, there is a special opportunity to advance a positive agenda for the Middle East that will strengthen security in the region and throughout the world.”

More simply there’s this, from Jonah Goldberg at National Review, citing Michael Ledeen, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

To be sure, many of the people putting this stuff out are/were stone liars. But the lying works because the fantasies are everywhere.

I still say H. Rap Brown hit the nail on the head.


PatinIowa 09.03.22 at 6:28 pm

Harry at 39

“I really haven’t known anybody who was active in that era (and it’s a non-trivial sample size, though it is drawn largely but not exclusively from the very roughly the Trotskyist tradition) who admits to mistaking the violence for a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, and many of the people I know who don’t admit that have a paper trail supporting that they didn’t make that mistake. Which helps explain my lack of empathy I guess.”

I’ll cop to it. I don’t think I left a written record. It would have been late high school through early college. I did think there was a possibility for a revolution from the time I was sixteen until about the time I was nineteen, roughly 1969-1973. Two things brought me back to reality:

As I was gathering up my materials to apply to be a conscientious objector, I was reminded that I had made a commitment to pacifism when I was quite young, and that the violence I was romanticizing was a moral mistake on my part.
I knew people who considered themselves revolutionaries whom I considered authoritarian/cultish nitwits. I began to realize that, simply, one of the major problems with violence is that, almost universally, it makes the people using it stupid.

This did not send me into the arms of the Democratic Party. That’s another story.


Harry 09.04.22 at 12:27 am

Thanks PatinIowa. I found that rather moving.

I agree with J, not that one about Set The Night on Fire. And about the sparsity of resources. And note that very particular people have written memoirs, and others haven’t. I have at least one acquaintance and one friend who would be very notable ex-SDS memoirists if that’s what they’d chosen to do and their perspective would have been very different from many of those that we seen. But in both cases they have left that time behind: they don’t define themselves by that period which was their political formation. They’ve been busy doing other things, mainly in the labor movement.


LFC 09.04.22 at 3:52 am

Could there be a larger number of dispassionate historical works on this period than now exist? Sure. But is there a dire shortage of such work? I’m not convinced. There are scholarly or at least partially scholarly books on everything from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to the specific situation at UW Madison to the May Day demonstrations in D.C. to Gitlin’s The Sixties (which I have not read). The Miller and Isserman books I mentioned upthread are both reasonably good, though my recollection of them is, tbh, more than a bit fuzzy.

In short it does not seem to me that a student interested in this period would lack for a reading list to get him or her (or them, as the case may be) oriented, beyond just the memoirs. (But this is not my field so that’s merely my impression.)


LFC 09.04.22 at 4:09 am

P.s. Re UW, I had in mind T. Bates, Rads, somewhat narrowly focused on one bombing in 1970 (of the Army Math Research Center).


Bob 09.04.22 at 1:52 pm

I came across this article in the Guardian today, which includes some points that are quite relevant to the discussion here. The article addresses the recent wave of arson and vandalism in the US directed at pregnancy centres–places that actively discourage women from having abortions, and includes interviews with a number of experts on the efficacy of violence in achieving political ends. Their conclusion is that neither the right nor the left has gained anything from violence, notwithstanding the long history of attacks, and murders, of abortion providers by antiabortion activists.


Raven Onthill 09.04.22 at 3:50 pm

I listened to the first episode, decided I didn’t want to listen to an extended apology for terrorism, and so did not listen to the rest.

The definition of terrorism I have been using for decades is “Violence for the purposes of political propaganda.” This is as opposed to war, where the purpose of the violence is to physically incapacitate the enemy. Ayers and Dohrn’s actions fit that definition. So did “shock and awe” in Iraq. “Shock and awe” in particular demonstrated a problem of terrorism as a strategy; the response to it is often brave resistance rather than abject surrender.


TM 09.05.22 at 11:23 am

PatinIowa 42: So the only real example you came up with for “every part of the American political scene” is fascist violence. Ok.

Citing foreign wars in this context is strange since the context was clearly domestic politics. But apart from that, the only non-right-wing example you come up with is “liberals” supporting the Vietnam war. Maybe you could do without wild overgeneralizations.


Seekonk 09.05.22 at 5:00 pm

Private militia like the Proud Boys are becoming a new Ku Klux Klan, but right-wing violence in the US has traditionally been performed by state actors – the FBI, e.g., COINTELPRO, and ongoing activities in local police departments by what used to be called ‘Red Squads’.


engels 09.07.22 at 11:01 am

Citing foreign wars in this context is strange since the context was clearly domestic politics.

So we’re back to “violence is only violence when Americans are on the receiving end”… that didn’t take long.

Comments on this entry are closed.