Left-wing terrorism?

June 8, 2005

Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies
By Jeremy Varon
University of California Press, 2004
394 pages, $44 (pb)


"Bringing the war home" was the aim of hundreds of angry young people in New York, Berlin and other cities in 1970 who picked up the bomb and the gun in an ill-fated and ill-conceived attempt to end a gruesome war in Vietnam. Weatherman (in the US) and the Red Army Faction (in West Germany) were the most prominent of these self-styled "armed struggle" groups, and Jeremy Varon's descriptively vivid and analytically rich book explores the motivations and failings of the young women and men of Weatherman and RAF.

By the late 1960s, mass protest against the war had become the norm, yet appeared to be having no effect as the war continued. The corporate media gagged dissenting voices and the capitalist state engaged in ruthless, sometimes deadly, repression of dissidents. Driven by a sense of "moral urgency", some revolutionary youth decided to fight fire with fire.

Weatherman (later renamed the Weather Underground) contributed a fair proportion of the 2000 arson and bombing attacks on state, corporate and university property in the US in 1969 and 1970. Weatherman had begun with a "street-fighting" strategy but after their "Days of Rage" in Chicago in 1969 (an often indiscriminate rampage of car and window-smashing) had been routed with extreme violence by police, they retired this model for one of sabotage.

In Germany, RAF (dubbed by the capitalist media the "Baader-Meinhof Gang" after its leaders) believed that its bombs would "detonate also in the consciousness of the masses" and, like Weatherman, were convinced that the socialist revolution would be brought closer, not through leaflets and demonstrations, but through "acts of revolutionary will" that would spark popular insurrection. RAF's "May Offensive" in 1972 saw bombings of police stations, US military bases and the right-wing press.

RAF targeted not only the property, but also the personnel, of the West German state and US military. Weatherman, on the other hand, were saved from becoming killers following a change of heart after three of their members in New York were accidentally killed when live wires were crossed during the construction of an anti-personnel bomb they were preparing for an Army dance at a military base.

Weatherman were to always issue warnings, and their entire campaign of violence took no lives (other than their own), as they waged what they called "armed propaganda", by attacking symbolic targets of the military-corporate apparatus — police stations, courthouses, National Guard headquarters, various state departments, the Pentagon and corporate offices.

RAF's body count was quite different, especially as survival and vengeance (following the jailing of their leadership and the death of many members in shoot-outs with police) motivated a string of lethal acts — the murders of a judge, federal prosecutor, bank CEO, and president of the Employers' Association; the kidnap of judges and Christian Democrat officials (as "exchange value" for RAF prisoners); the armed seizure of the West German embassy in Stockholm; and the hijack of a Lufthansa plane.

By 1978, the death toll had reached 43 (including 15 RAF members). Whilst Weatherman dissolved in 1976 (after having tapered off but not abandoned its bombing strategy), extreme bitterness prolonged RAF's offensive well into the '80s (from 1984 to 1987, 25 people were killed and 367 wounded in RAF-state violence) before RAF finally disbanded in 1998.

During what had become RAF's "private war" with the state, the government capitalised on public outrage at RAF to pursue its long-cherished agenda of curtailing civil liberties and democratic rights. "Anti-terrorist" laws, censorship, massive surveillance and violent raids with hundreds of arrests were variously used against publishers, lawyers, the amorphous ranks of "sympathisers" (those deemed sympathetic to RAF's broad aims if not their methods), and those leftists and liberals who, whilst repudiating RAF's strategy of violence, opposed (on human-rights grounds) the abuse and torture of RAF prisoners. These prisoners suffered isolation, sensory deprivation, frequent body searches, brutal force-feeding during hunger strikes, and suspicious "suicides" like that of Ulrike Meinhof (by hanging), and Andreas Baader (by gunshot wounds).

As the left had predicted, the result of RAF violence had created a climate of fear, "intense suspicion of all dissidents", and a strengthened state. Blowing up buildings and assassinating NATO generals, as the left critics of the "armed struggle" groups charged, would not "pierce the government's aura of invincibility" (as Weatherman put it) and spark popular revolution, but rather alienate those it meant to mobilise, and, by providing a juicy pretext for state repression, "worsen the political climate in which all leftists had to operate".

Both the efficacy and legitimacy of left-wing violence were found wanting by the rest of the left. It was useless to bump off individual members of the ruling class and state (because individuals were replaceable), and it was un-Marxist because it did not challenge what Marx called the "economic function" (as opposed to the individual representatives) of the capitalist class.

More importantly, both Weatherman and RAF, by substituting themselves for the working class (whom they saw as politically defunct because of their "incorporation" into the capitalist status quo), were ditching the democratic values of the socialist left.

The left rounded out their indictment against RAF and Weatherman with a charge list that included "the glorification of violence as the highest expression of militancy"; fostering a puerile hierarchy of being "more committed than thou", defined by readiness to "pick up the gun"; the fantasy that a revolutionary group can succeed, or even exist, without any popular base or links to popular movements; a fixation on action for action's sake; an antipathy to theory; sexism and sexual exploitation (despite some prominent female leaders); and the eruption of group pathologies arising from the pressures of clandestinity, such as a rigid internal hierarchy and oppressive ideological discipline (bullying "criticism-self-criticism" sessions designed to suppress doubt and disagreements, which were taken as signs of weakness).

Despite Varon's distance from Marxism (he laces his otherwise probing analysis with off-hand dismissals of various "obsolete" concepts of Marxism), he is sympathetic to the socialist critique of left violence. He is also persuasive when he concludes that the importance of Weatherman and RAF was as symbols of profound social unrest and rebellion against war, repression and racism.

Occasionally, however, Varon invests Weatherman and RAF with more political substance, adding "the bombers" to those who helped the Vietnamese to victory — the "petitioners, the candle-holders, the marchers, the conscientious objectors, the draft resisters, the GI resisters, the clergy and the churchgoers, the college and high school students". Given the evidence, and critical reflections, of Varon in his book, however, this assessment seems overly generous. In the end, to the capitalist state, Weatherman and RAF, unlike the mass anti-war movement, were a police problem, not a political problem.

Where Varon is particularly valuable is in comparing the often counter-productive results of Weatherman's and RAF's violence with the results of mass action. Although no single mass action succeeded in stopping the war, Varon shows that mass protest (and non-violent civil disobedience) had a measurable effect on the war policy of government officials who feared a loss of legitimacy and authority.

This outcome, however, was long-term and not immediately apparent, but, as Varon shows, the impatient few among the left, frustrated when moral passion hit a political brick-wall and who attempted a short-cut through violence, abandoned the difficult but only effective, and democratic, strategy of education and mobilisation.

Weatherman and RAF began with furious indignation at war, racial inequality and the rule of the rich. They had grand, socialist ambitions for a completely remade global order, but promptly squandered their moral and political capital by picking up the bomb and the gun. There were undoubtedly those on the left who "silently cheered" each Weatherman and RAF bomb, but it was a mark of the maturity of the left, for whom perseverance was more powerful than any bomb, that moral outrage moved beyond "politically shallow efforts at emotional gratification" through violence to a genuine democratic triumph of a people's victory against war.

From Green Left Weekly, June 8, 2005.
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