Monday, May 11, 2009

Tom Hayden on the Weather Underground's "revolutionary violence"

Mark Rudd in 1968 as a leader of the Columbia University strike

After seeing the German film Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex last year, which tells the story through 1977 of the far-left German terrorist group the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), I've been reading quite a bit about the RAF and related themes from the 1960s and 1970s in Germany. The RAF's story didn't end then. The "third generation" of the RAF were still operating in the early 1990s and formally disbanded in 1998.

The Weather Underground Organization (WUO) was an analogous American group to the RAF, although after an accident during the construction of a bomb killed three of their own members, the WUO gave up any further plans of killing people. Those three were the only known fatalities directly connected to the WUO, though some former members became involved with groups like the Black Liberation Army that did commit homicides. The RAF, on the other hand, was considerably more lethal in its actions. The WUO mainly concentrated on bombing bathrooms in public buildings, including the Pentagon and the US Capitol.

Tom Hayden was written a long review of a recently-released memoir by Mark Rudd, a former WUO member and leader: Tom Hayden on Mark Rudd 05/08/09. While Hayden was supportive of the concept of violent political action under certain circumstances during the 1960s, his own efforts concentrated on nonviolent forms of protest. As he mentions in this essay, the concepts of protest, resistance and revolutionary action were seen by left radicals in those days as distinct political strategies.

Since Terrorism is now the main marketing tool justifying the US keeping a military budget equal to the rest of the whole world's combined, long after the fall of the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, I think there's some real value in understanding earlier experiences of Western countries with terrorism.

Hayden's take on Rudd brings his own experiences to bear, as well as his decades-long acquaintance with Rudd, his own experiences in debates over political violence, and his own studies of urban violence, including gang violence, such as Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence (2004) and Rebellion in Newark: Official violence and ghetto response (1967). The text of the latter first appeared in the New York Review of Books under the title The Occupation of Newark, where as of this writing it is publicly accessible.

Hayden seems to agree with Rudd characterization of the WUO as a cult:

But most of what Rudd tells is deeply disturbing, though illuminating, in its unemotional matter-of-factness. In describing the Weather Underground as a cult, Rudd writes: "I knew that the whole thing was nuts but couldn’t intervene to stop it. … I believed as much as anyone else, perhaps more so, in the need to harden ourselves through group criticism." Feeling "addled," he agrees to take a break from the national leadership and accept demotion to its New York collective. He is unable to tell us exactly why, writing only that he was experiencing "the competitive world of the Weatherman hierarchy from the underside now." Yet he "couldn't allow my conscious mind even a tiny doubt as to the direction of the organization." [my emphasis]
"Cult" is a word that is sometimes carelessly tossed around. A group can be violent and fanatical without being a cult. But cults have a strong tendency to become violent and fanatical.

I believed that both the WUO and the German RAF were cults. One characteristic they shared was that by going "underground", which meant changing identities and attempting to drop of the radar of the law, both groups isolated themselves severely from normal social contacts, including political contacts. Without making a judgment on whether they were cults or not, groups like the Irish Republican Army, Hizbollah and Hamas all had military wings that carried out violent actions but also functioned in some real sense as part of a larger organization which had distinct political components not immersed in violent action or isolated in secrecy. In Weimar Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD), the Communists (KPD) and the Nazis (NSDAP) all had both violent groups of some kind or another but also functioned as political parties in election campaigns and in Parliament.

For the WUO as for the RAF, the "armed struggle" itself was their politics. I don't want to give the impression their ideologies were identical, they weren't. But both groups saw themselves as revolutionary vanguards inside imperialist countries acting as allies of Third World revolutionary movements in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. Both groups embraced some form of the interpretation of the Cuban Revolution promoted by Che Guevara and Regis Debray, the French leftist writer who elaborated the Guevarist theory in his book Revolution in the Revolution? (1967). The essential notion was, make armed struggle and supporters will come.

Tom Hayden

The notion was a spectacular misjudgment of the political situation in the United States for the WUO, as it was for the RAF in Germany. Consequently, the ideas of the groups became closed within the group and reinforcing, in conditions encouraging political paranoia. As Hayden points out:

Ironically, the Justice Department dropped federal charges against Rudd and the Weather Underground for fear of revealing their undercover techniques, and in 1978 federal prosecutors actually brought charges against the FBI for their Weathermen probes.
So there was an element of "just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after you" in the WUO's situation. A number of leading figures among the militant Black Panthers died in extralegal killings by police. And, of course, the 1960s in the US were marked by some very high-profile political assassinations.

Still, this self-imposed isolation doomed the WUO's larger political aims from the start. Sara Robinson of the Orcinus blog and the Campaign for America's Future has done an important post on The Far Right's First 100 Days: Shifting Into Overdrive 04/29/09 analyzing the stages which analysts and law-enforcement need to watch in the radicalization of groups. She is focusing in particular on far-right groups in America, and the particulars of a group's ideology and home country politics are important factors. I don't want to suggest that extremists groups on the far right and the far left are somehow interchangeably, a persistent but potentially bad misleading concept. Still, some basics of group dynamics cross a lot of ideological lines. Or, as she explains it:

We need to look at what long experience has taught us about the past escalation patterns of right-wing rhetoric and violence, and figure out where we currently stand within those patterns.

We actually know quite a bit about this. Most national agencies tasked with keeping tabs on political and religious extremist groups look for specific signs that help them sort out who's just talking the talk, and who's actually getting ready to walk the walk. The criteria vary from agency to agency; and our collective insight into these patterns changes and deepens every year. But there are some generally-accepted principles ...
And she emphasizes:

One of the watershed moments in the development of a religious or political radical group is the day they decide to go upcountry, building some sort of secluded retreat or community away from the prying eyes of the authorities. The Aryan Nations, the Fundamentalist Mormons, Jim Jones....the list is long, because this is such a universal moment in the radicalization process. It's also the next place the gears shift.
In the case of the WUO and the RAF, going "upcountry" took the form of cutting themselves off from any normal social and political context and going underground.

This is a dangerous development. Groups that try to separate always claim that they're retreating to "live in peace" - but too often, peace is about the last thing that results from this. Goin' up to the country is an overt declaration that the group believes that the mainstream culture is "out to get us," and is now asserting its right to live outside the law. There's an unquestioned conviction that the outside world means them harm - and that they must organize and arm themselves for the coming showdown.

The isolation also allows high-dominance leaders to concentrate their power over group members, without any pesky social or legal recourse to fairness. Suspicion and dependency flourish. People learn that might makes right, and come to accept violence as a natural and proper way to deal with conflict. This is why law enforcement groups consider the moment of physical retreat as sort of Rubicon beyond which the likelihood of violence increases dramatically. We should be very concerned that the right wing seems determined to go there.
The one caveat to Sara's analysis I would make in the context of the WUO and the RAF is that they didn't claim to be looking to "live in peace", nor did they perceive themselves that way. Their "goin' up to the country" leap into illegality was expressly designed to make armed warfare on their respective states and economic elites. But their version of going upcountry fit the pattern she describes here: it let pathological leadership factors flourish, it put an emphasis on violence, and it often made normal critical judgment or realistic evaluations of their situation impossible. As Hayden says of Mark Rudd in his WUO phase, "Rudd, by his own account, often seems to be under the spell of charismatic, authoritarian leadership, vulnerable to the most fanatic of the fanatics, severed from his realities of only two years before."

Despite Hayden finding Rudd's behavior during this period "deeply disturbing", he also writes:

Yet I know Mark Rudd to be a good man, a useful person despite all this, and one must ask, how can that possibly be? Partly it is because I believe individuals are capable of surprising changes. I have befriended, and worked with, numerous people who have inflicted enormous damage on themselves, their loved ones, and society at some stage in their past lives. They include strung-out returning soldiers, prison inmates, former gang members, addicts, suicidal personalities of all kinds. Some of them have killed people. They have done unspeakable things but are not incorrigible. As the woman character says in Bernard Malamud’s "The Natural," "We have two lives ... the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness."

I don't know if Mark Rudd will or even should be happy, but he is living a life of amends.
Despite the valid generalizations that can be made about the aspects of groups like the WUO or the RAF or violent far-right groups in terms of their criminal behaviors or the cult dynamics in some of these groups, the political context of their actions is also important to understand what they are doing. In the case of RAF leaders like Andreas Baader or possibly Horst Mahler and religious cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh, their involvement with their particular groups may have been more opportunistic, in the sense of incorrigibly criminal characters hooking up with a group that meets their pathological needs.

But its a mistake to think political terrorist groups as primarily pathological nihilists, though some come closer to that condition than others. That's also true of criminals who expressly give far-right political reasons for their crimes. It matters in terms of understanding how to limit the harm such groups can cause in a democratic society. But it also addresses the phenomenon Hayden highlights with Mark Rudd: someone capable of plotting to commit terrible crimes or even doing so isn't necessarily an incorrigible criminal. Hayden:

As the research and writings of James Gilligan demonstrate, violence is more situational than innate. Violence and shame are closely connected. The acceleration to violent behavior can be breathtaking. The violence of the young signals a dysfunction of the elders, not a nihilist seed. [my emphasis]
He also make a provocative point with this observation:

That may be more books than those devoted to such organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Students for a Democratic Society, not to mention community organizing or the farmworkers’ movement of those years, and the genre is likely to grow, revealing an abiding fascination with the question of why it was that some peaceful dissenters turned to violence so suddenly in the late ’60s. The Weather Underground took credit for 24 bombings altogether and, according to federal sources, there were additionally several thousand acts of violence during the same years. In 1969-70 alone, there were more than 550 fraggings by soldiers, according to one authoritative historian of the Vietnam War.

The fascination with such violence is not new. Similar themes can be found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novel about young Russian nihilists, "The Possessed," in Joseph Conrad’s "Under Western Eyes," Henry James’ "The Princess Casamassima," Andre Malraux’s tale of the Shanghai uprising, "Man’s Fate," and, of course, Ernest Hemingway’s stories of the Spanish civil war.

What explains the enduring interest in such radicals? I believe it has something to do with exploring the extremes of personal commitment. To fail heroically, though miserably, is seen by many as attaining a greater glory than the rewards to be had from the mundane life of patient political work. As Karl Marx wrote of the Paris Commune, the French Communards at least had stormed the heavens. And as Rudd quotes Erich Fromm quoting Nietzsche, "There are times when anyone who does not lose his mind has no mind to lose." [my emphasis]
I don't know if his quantitative observation about what has been written on these subjects is correct. But there certainly is an enduring interest in the topic of violent fringe groups that goes beyond the extremely limited political influence they had in any normal sense of the word. The aspect of extreme commitment is surely one part of the interest. After all, their are roles in society in which extreme commitment is not only expected but highly honored: soldiers, police, firefighters, spies.

Part of it is also that the story of the WUO, like that of the RAF, is simultaneously a political story and a crime drama. And there's the aspect I mentioned at the start of this post. Terrorism is a major policy concern right now. It seems perfectly normal and understandable that lots of people would be interested in understanding more about it.

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