This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the “founding” document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and as one would expect there are conferences and reflections galore. Most of these will focus on the early SDS, but in reality there were at least two SDSs, the Port Huron Statement SDS from 1962 to about 1966 and the SDS that followed until its split and explosion in 1969. David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle concerns the second SDS taking shape in 1966 just before much of the student movement took a new direction and I left SDS for more explicitly socialist politics. Despite only a slight overlap in SDS, much of what Gilbert writes about in this memoir is deeply familiar to me.
In fact, for the first 70 pages I felt a strong identification with Gilbert as his radical, then revolutionary politics evolved. What moved him to the left was what moved me and many others. First, he mentions the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins by Black students heroically confronting segregation. I remember well the very day I heard of these on the radio, how it affected me emotionally, and later sent me to seek out the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore. Then the explosive phase of the Civil Rights movement that followed with Birmingham and Selma. A little later it was the US’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
These were among the things that moved a generation of white, mostly middle-class youth to see the realities of US society and to draw radical, even revolutionary conclusions. National liberation movements were on the rise in the Third World and soon Europe would explode in student and class conflict. The world, it seemed, was moving toward dramatic change.
How would this change taking shape across the world come about? With the US’s rulers at the centre of oppression at home and abroad an enormous responsibility rested on the shoulders of this New Left. Debate about how to accomplish change at home was intense. Somewhere in the mid-1960s a fork in the road appeared for this emerging radicalism. I took one road, Gilbert took the other.
Allure of “Marxism-Leninism”
In the broadest sense this other road was defined by “Marxism-Leninism,” drawn mainly from Maoism but widely practiced in the Third World liberation movements. In the US it would call itself the “New Communist” movement and would be the dominant trend on the revolutionary left for a decade or so. Though this trend as a whole did not necessarily reject the working class as the major agent of change, the particular variant Gilbert embraced did . The path I took Gilbert derisively dismissed as the traditional Old Left path that sees the working class as the central agent of change. The path he took we derisively dismissed as “Third Worldism.” Before looking in more depth at the theory and practice involved, it is worth summarizing Gilbert’s development as he describes it.
The first thing to be said is that although Gilbert still — after 30 years in prison for the famous 1981 “Brinks job” (discussed below) — holds the politics he developed in the second half of the 1960s he is no hack. Much of the book involves his reflections of what went right and wrong in the organizations he embraced or supported. Some might dismiss this simply as Maoist “criticism, self-criticism,” which is, in fact, his way of putting it (though he is critical of the practice). However, the reflections seem sincere and real. He readily admits when he doubted positions he acted on or simply made a mistake, even if this is all done in a very particular ideological framework.
As he describes his evolution, he moved from liberalism to social democracy to radicalism and finally to becoming a revolutionary. He studied Marx, even reading three volumes of Capital, more than I had managed by the mid-1960s, and Lenin. The types of actions he participated in were those many of us experienced. He was in the 1968 student strike at Columbia and helped occupy buildings. Two years later I would help occupy the New School for Social Research in New York. When the Panthers became the leading organization in the Black Power movement Gilbert saw supporting them as important. The political tendency I belonged to, which later became the International Socialists (not connected to today’s Canadian group of the same name), also saw supporting the Panthers as important, in fact well before the “Marxist-Leninists” did. Yet there were fundamental differences in the political frameworks in which these similar actions took place.
In 1966, the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a tightly organized “vanguardist” group, invaded SDS. A few of us fought for an alternative working-class direction, but the main response was what became the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) tendency, which soon split into RYM I and RYM II.
Central to the politics of RYM was the conviction that the white working class of the US was so thoroughly racist and privileged by imperialism that it could not play any role in the revolutionary process. Blacks and other oppressed people would be at the centre of revolution in the US, perhaps even able to make the revolution on their own. White youth, however, were somewhat of an exception both because their age made them supposedly less integrated into racist structures and ideology and because the new youth culture separated them from the mainstream.
From this set of ideas came the Weather Underground in 1970 after the 1969 split in SDS. As Gilbert describes it, their analysis saw the Black, Latino and Native American people of the US as part of the worldwide national liberation movements that began with the Chinese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the long-standing struggle of the Vietnamese, and the guerrilla movements in Latin America. These movements were seen as the force for world revolution. In this scenario the role of sympathizing whites in the US was to act as support for Black organizations at home and national liberation movements abroad. This was to be the function of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO).
The nature of this support was based on the correct observation that the US with its military, CIA, etc. was the major roadblock to national liberation and revolution throughout the Third World as well as at home where repression against the Panthers and others had become extensive, deep and violent. However, the Weather analysis argued, the increasingly obvious defeat in Vietnam showed that US imperialism was not invulnerable. It could not be everywhere at once. The more national liberation movements there were the more difficult it would be for the US to repress and defeat them all. In this context, the role of white revolutionaries in supporting liberation movements was to add to the “armed struggles” and as much as possible distract US imperialism from repressing the Panthers at home and murdering the peoples of Third World.
This the Weather Underground attempted to do for six years with a series of 20 bombings of government, corporate and defence-related installations. Gilbert emphasizes that they were careful to avoid hurting anyone, so the bombings were timed when the facilities were empty. The infamous “Townhouse” explosion that killed three WUO activists in 1970 was accidentally set off by the activists themselves. Of course, the subsequent bombings did not stop the repression at home. Nor can the bombings take credit for the US defeat in Vietnam or the “Vietnam Syndrome” that kept US military adventures to a minimum for a period after the defeat — credit for that goes to the Vietnamese and the massive anti-war movement in the US and around the world.
As is often the case in left-wing organizations, failure or limited impact led to internal fights and the eventual dismantling of the Weather Underground in 1976. Gilbert went “above ground” for a while in Denver, but, clinging to the politics of white support for national liberation, by 1979 he was underground again, this time in support of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a splinter from the Panthers that was supposedly engaged in “armed struggle.” Support for the BLA involved fund-raising via “expropriations.” It was in this capacity that he and several others, including his partner Kathy Boudin, were busted for the botched Brinks job in 1981 in which two policemen and a Brinks guard were killed. Despite the fact that he was not a “shooter,”, this would send Gilbert to prison for the rest of his life.
Political blind spots
While most of those in the 1960s who accepted the RYM/Weather analysis did not go underground or bomb anything, they, nevertheless, faced the dilemma that analysis posed. In effect, the idea that the white working class, still a majority of the US population, was to be completely written off due to the reality of racism, led to a number of problems. The revolution would have to be carried out by a minority of the population — not the 99%, but the 12%? Additionally, the racism of the white working class would remain unaddressed as they had been written off as hopeless and this huge part of the population left outside the revolutionary process, perhaps to be “re-educated” after the revolution. Obviously this raises the question of just what such a “revolution” would be like assuming it had any chance of victory.
There was a major blind spot in this approach. The “Marxist-Leninist” parties seen as leading these revolutions were highly authoritarian, as were the societies created where they triumphed. One-party dictatorships were the norm. None of this enters into Gilbert’s discussion until toward the end and then only in passing. His only explanation for the top-down state of these movements and the more recent capitalist direction of their regimes is to blame this on the pressures of imperialism. As real as those pressures may have been, it is, nonetheless, the case that the parties and movements that rule in countries like China, Vietnam or Cuba chose the direction of their formative policies based on the Stalinist model of the USSR or China and their ruling parties . So it was that those who took the fork in the road followed by Gilbert were unable to have any critical analysis of the movements they supported, indeed, viewed such criticism as racist. Their vision of revolution was simply the taking of power by a single vanguard party following a “people’s war.”
Another blind spot was that of class. Occasionally class is mentioned positively, as in the case of the Prairie Fire Organization that followed RYM, but class exploitation and working-class struggle never really became part of the analysis of US society for most of the groups that followed this orientation. This meant not only writing off the majority, but misunderstanding the Civil Rights movement and even the Black Power phase that followed.
As the late Manning Marable and others have pointed out, the Civil Rights movement, first in the South then in the North, owed much of its power to the fact that it was primarily an urban working class-based movement, albeit with a largely middle-class leadership. Similarly, though the base of the Panthers was often characterized as “lumpenproletarian,” it was, in fact, in working-class communities in Oakland and Brooklyn that the Black Panthers were most successful. Indeed, the Panthers even had a caucus in a local of the United Auto Workers union in the Bay Area.
In looking at the Black movements of the 1960s, Gilbert doesn’t even mention such things as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the scores of Black union caucuses that spread across industry as the general labour upsurge took off in the second half of the 1960s or the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Nor can he see that the urban uprisings of that era were working-class-based as well. African Americans in motion somehow lose their class position. Despite the Weather Underground’s focus on white youth culture in the early 1970s, Gilbert never mentions one of the best know examples of the youth rebellion’s expression in the working class, the 1972 Lordstown GM strike, “the Woodstock of the working man,” as one of the strike leaders put it.
In effect, the analysis put forward by RYM, Weather Underground, and others in that period analytically detached the African American population from the US social formation, despite the fact that that is where their oppression is rooted, and re-conceptualized it as an organic part of the Third World national liberation movements. It was a faulty method made easier by a focus almost entirely on the radical Black organizations of the era, rather than on the realities and potential power of the African American population. So, the social power of Black America was reduced to the nationalist politics of ever shrinking and more desperate organizations such as New Afrika and the BLA. It was a cul-de-sac.
Of course, no one succeeded in building a viable revolutionary socialist movement with significant roots in the working class in that era. Indeed, today the Left is in dire straits in most of the developed capitalist world. But the situation we now face is a new one. Capitalism is clearly in global crisis (not collapse), even if worse in some places than others. New types of resistance have arisen: the Arab Spring, mass strikes in China, new immigrant organizations in the US and the Occupy movement, just to mention the most obvious ones. It is essential that socialists support and help build these movements — not as vanguardist know-it-alls, nor obedient servants, but as participants with some good ideas of our own.
For some people new to social activism, however, the romanticism and dedication of the Weather Underground may have appeal. The “politics of the deed” may be more rewarding in the short term. They may even seem like a short cut to social change. After all, the perspective of building a socialist movement rooted in social movements and the working- class struggles of the day is a long range, difficult, if sometimes exciting, one. As tempting as a short cut might seem, however, the militancy, actions, and daring a revolutionary movement needs to bring about “another world” will not be found “underground,”, but in the workplaces and streets for all to see.
 For a more balanced history and analysis of the New Communist movement see Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (2002).
 For a Marxist analysis of this in Cuba see Sam Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (2012).
Kim Moody is the author of US Labor in Trouble and Transition (Verso, 2007) and is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Work and Employment Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. He was present at the Port Huron SDS Convention in 1962.