Underground and under illusions: review of a Weather Underground memoir

The Wether Underground-organised Days of Rage in October 1969 were a dismal failure.

Love & Struggle, My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground & Beyond
By David Gilbert, PM Press, 2012
336 pp, $22.00

From the earliest anti-capitalist revolutions, starting almost as soon as capitalism cemented its political mastery of Europe in the late 1700s, there has been dispute between those whose moral outrage at oppression led them to conspiratorial methods and those saying that open political struggle is superior.

Originally this debate was between the Blanquists and Marxists and later between Bakuninite anarchists and (again) Marxists.

Russian revolutionary VI Lenin took a stand against a variation on this thinking in his famous Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.

David Gilbert’s memoir, Love and Struggle, is of a conspiracy that incubated within the large-scale “anti-imperialist” segment of the 1960’s US anti-racist and anti-Vietnam War movement — and a cautionary tale it is.

The “Beyond” mentioned in the full title is illustrative: it is prison. David Gilbert is serving 75 years to life for his role in a botched “expropriation” of a Brinks armed car in which three people died.

How he got there is colourful and interesting. Gilbert is a person of unfailing commitment to the revolutionary road that he embarked upon as a young man.

However, he remains an unrepentant ultra-leftist, displaying no understanding of the failings of the tendency he led from the 1960s until that fatal day in 1981.

Admittedly, Gilbert occasionally regrets errors — though in the manner of one apologising for farting in church, as if making amends for bad taste rather than political fault. 
 
Starting as a young American liberal, 17-year-old Gilbert was drawn towards Martin Luther King’s anti-racist movement, joining first the Congress of Racial Equality then the anti-Vietnam War movement. At Colombia University, he led militant occupations opposing plans to bulldoze surrounding Black neighbourhoods as part of the university’s building program.

Through reading Marx’s  Capital  and other classics, Gilbert became something of a theoretician in the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS was a rapidly growing, though factionally riven, radical student organisation in the 1960s.

Probably the most famous faction to emerge from the SDS was the Weather Underground group, named after a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Gilbert says he spoke to the author of the discussion piece that carried the title “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, who told him that the song just happened to be playing in the background when he wrote.

Such was the intellectual depth of the Weather Underground.

By 1969, Gilbert was leading a Weather Underground collective in Denver Colorado, where he scored a couple of convictions from clumsy police frame-ups. One was a charge of arson, resulting from distributing leaflets outside a right-wing meeting while a comrade let off a smoke bomb inside. Another was “assault with a deadly weapon” when cops found a rock in his pocket.

SDS, with about 80,000 members at its height (according to the authors of the recently published Black Against Empire), saw itself as part of the same movement as the Black Panthers. Gilbert’s Weather Underground faction promoted direct, violent action to end the Vietnam War. They were driven by an understandable indignation at the US rulers’ hypocrisy.

Gilbert was particularly struck by Lenin’s prescription during World War I that the inter-imperialist war should be turned into a civil war. While Love and Struggle is peppered with such references to Lenin, Gilbert never appears to have read Left-Wing Communism, in which Lenin stridently criticises the type of views pushed by Gilbert.

Gilbert recalls fondly the Weather Underground group leading an “anti-imperialist” group away from a huge anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington. Managing to collect 10,000 people, they swept past rally marshals organised by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to smash Justice Department office windows.

Gilbert reports that John Mitchell, the ultra-reactionary attorney-general who was watching from his office, said he felt he was in 1917 revolutionary Russia. Such commentary demonstrates Gilbert’s world view and political weakness.

He seriously thinks that the ruling class could be scared into ending the Vietnam War or that the working class could be inspired to revolt by smashing a few windows or letting off a few bombs. 
 
The audience that revolutionaries need to orient towards in their strategy and tactics is not the rulers looking down from their offices. It is the broad masses of working people who have to be convinced to break from their usual pattern of life to take action on their own behalf.
 
Over three days in October 1969, Gilbert took part in the Weather Underground-organised Days of Rage in Chicago. Designed to “Bring the War Home”, it aimed to stage mass-scale attacks on government property.

It was a dismal failure. As SWP activist Fred Halsted mentions in his history of the US movement against the Vietnam War,  Out Now, the Weather Underground gathered about 200 militants, which the police contained in 15 minutes.
 
Gilbert also took part in the SDS “National War Council”, where the Weather group decided to go underground and wage guerrilla war on the US government, supporting the Panthers’ split-off Black Liberation Army.

The description of this event is where things start going seriously weird. One speaker praised Charles Manson’s nut-case gang murder of the actress Sharon Tate.

To prepare for clandestine existence, Weather collectives practiced “self-criticism”, where people were confronted with all their faults. They also held orgies to “smash monogamy”.

LSD and marijuana were also part of the mix. This is the “love” that glued the group together, which Gilbert sees as essential for revolutionary activity.

To put it mildly, this version of underground existence is not anything like, say, the Bolsheviks' experience.  For example, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s memoir, On the Eve of 1917, records the constant need to sleep in a different location every night, the exceptional level of seriousness and above all the self-sacrifice.

Bolshevik underground operatives could expect to stay free for three months before arrest, torture and Siberian exile.

Weather Underground collectives successfully bombed some government facilities. Gilbert does not report taking part in these. He does mention being part of a banner drop to disrupt a right wing rally and some spray painting of slogans.
 
In 1970, after the murder of four Kent State University students protesting against President Richard Nixon’s extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, over 4 million US students occupied their universities, turning them into anti-war organising centres.  More than 100,000 people marched in Washington in an emergency protest.
 
Gilbert, the underground revolutionary, watched it all on TV.  The irony seems to escape him.

Slowly, the Weather Underground ran out of steam and individuals made their peace with authorities and “surfaced”.  Gilbert did this by returning to Denver and negotiating through a lawyer for the police to drop the only indictments against him: the outstanding arson and assault cases.
 
That Gilbert could do that so easily illustrates the Weather Underground’s unreal existence.  Far from being driven underground by repression, they freely divested themselves of democratic freedoms to live as “outlaws of America” (to borrow a phrase from a Jefferson Airplane song). 

When they tired of the game, they simply negotiated with the establishment and quietly resumed their lives.
 
After a few years of life in Denver, during which Gilbert took part in male anti-sexism activities and solidarity with Mexican-Americans, he chose to go underground again, this time in New York.  There he met his partner Kathy Boudin and the couple had a baby — while “underground”.
 
Again they decided to end clandestinity and were negotiating another “resurfacing” when, while their 10-month-old son was in day care, they took part in the Brinks robbery. 

Their abandoned infant son went through foster homes before ending up with Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, ex-Weather Underground leaders now academics living peacefully in Chicago.
 
The most telling parts of this book are where Gilbert details how differently the police treated him compared with the African American BLA prisoners. Gilbert was beaten and threatened with a shotgun, but his Black comrades were methodically tortured to a degree that is sickening to read.

The lesson is that while Gilbert’s politics may be foolish, his reading of US capitalism is accurate: it is a deeply, irresolvably racist system.
 
Boudin has since been released, becoming an adjunct professor at Columbia University, while Gilbert will never see freedom again. Inside, he has played an exemplary role tutoring younger prisoners and leading AIDS awareness education.

Gilbert says he has been supported by the love and comradeship of many during his decades in gaol. He wants to return that love by supporting activists on the outside through this book.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in this book where Gilbert speaks the truth that he could most usefully share: his “anti-imperialist” political path was stupid and no one in their right mind should ever emulate him.


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