David Gilbert and the Weather Underground: A European Perspective
A review of David Gilbert, Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (2012). Originally published by Alpine Anarchist Productions.
David Gilbert mentions the documentary film The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, released in 2002, on the very first page of his book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond. Gilbert relates how the film has made many activists of a younger generation aware of his case, leading to very rewarding and inspiring correspondence. Fittingly, my own awareness of David Gilbert’s role in the Weather Underground and of his subsequent involvement with the Black Liberation Army is strongly tied to watching the movie about a decade ago.
I got politicized in the radical European left of the late 1980s, when the urban guerrilla movements that had formed in the 1970s – the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades, Action Directe, and others – had already succumbed to state repression and internal friction or were making their last stand. I remember defending the Red Army Faction in my high school after the assassination of the Deutsche Bank chairman, Alfred Herrhausen, in November 1989. I didn’t necessarily condone the killing, but argued that the group’s political motivations were honorable. I’m sure I said things that were self-righteous, insensitive, and pretty stupid, but still believe that the moral panic I caused was worth the exercise. There is no fault in reminding people that not everything in this world is rosy, even if you go to a good school in a First World country and have plenty of opportunities.
In my late teens, politics replaced sports as my number one passion and I became obsessed with people dedicating their lives to armed struggle. The willingness to pick up arms seemed to distinguish the most serious, most committed, and most heroic of all revolutionaries: people who had made the ultimate sacrifice and put the struggle for a better world above all else, especially decadent bourgeois ideals such as financial security, professional career, and nuclear family.
I feel embarrassed for these thoughts today, as they express elitism, a very masculine glorification of violence, and rather poor political analysis, but at the time they framed my worldview. Reading Love and Struggle, it appears as if I wasn’t the only one dealing with that kind of problem; David Gilbert speaks of “making a fetish out of violence” in the early Weather days. Had I read the book twenty tears earlier, I might have at least understood that machismo was not only a moral problem, but a tactical one as well: “When someone takes risks mainly to prove his manhood or her womanhood to peers – when one doesn’t feel a deep political and humanitarian basis for facing new challenges – he or she often makes dumb mistakes and has trouble maintaining commitment over the long haul. Macho is not only a male-chauvinist style; it doesn’t work, at least not for us, going up against such a powerful enemy and needing to build a long-term struggle.” (131)
Perhaps luckily, I never faced the decision of intensifying militant confrontation. Going on the offensive was not in the cards for my activist generation. In the Europe of the 1990s, we managed little more than organizing modest resistance against capitalism’s claim to historic victory and the new wave of nationalism and racism that swept over the continent. We were mainly busy keeping left-wing culture alive at all in the midst of socialism’s apparent demise and a deep collective identity crisis. Entertaining the thought of urban guerrilla struggle was so outlandish that it provided little more than moments of amusement in otherwise depressing times.
The Weather in Israel
It was not least due to these circumstances that, by the mid-1990s, I increasingly framed my politics in individualistic terms, that is, expressing my values and principles in everyday life became more important than commitments to any specific community or collective. For over ten years, I traveled nonstop, doing my best to live up to the moment, meet activists in various countries, and join actions and campaigns if I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
It was towards the end of this decade that, after a year-long overland trip from Cape Town, South Africa, I visited Israel/Palestine for a third time. During some weeks in the spring of 2004, I lived in a squat with Israeli anti-occupation activists in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv. One night, some of us went to a friend’s apartment to socialize and watch movies – one of them being the Weather Underground documentary.
I was excited to see the film as I only knew the basics about the Weather Underground Organization. It wasn’t one of the militant movements of the 1970s that we had paid much attention to in Europe. One reason was that its history was simply further removed from us than that of its European counterparts. Another reason was that we, correctly or incorrectly, held the belief that some of the European movements had come closer to shaking the foundations of the capitalist nation state. If there was an interest in militancy in the U.S. at all, it almost exclusively focused on the Black Panthers. Unfortunately, this interest contained – besides much genuine respect and support – elements of a patronizing mystification and romanticization of Black culture, something that still requires serious analysis in anti-racist movements in Europe today.
I enjoyed the Weather Underground documentary with a particular feature standing out. I was deeply impressed by the interview excerpts with David Gilbert. I remember thinking that I had never seen an imprisoned veteran of the armed struggle exuding such warmth and openness. The images of armed struggle prisoners I was used to were those of earnest and guarded folks. Not that I ever expected anything else; I rather regarded this as an inevitable consequence of their circumstances. Whether Gilbert’s circumstances differ vastly from those of other armed struggle prisoners across the world I cannot say. In any case, I was intrigued by his composure and, taking authoritative control of the remote at 4 a.m., I instantly switched to the full-length Gilbert interview once the movie had ended. The DVD extra confirmed my impression: here was an armed struggle prisoner who you’d want to have a cup of tea with and chat about anti-imperialism, revolutionary strategy, or, what the heck, the Denver Broncos at the next best opportunity – and I know nothing about American Football.
Love and Struggle
Undeniably, one aspect of being taken with Gilbert was a certain identification factor. I, too, come from a white upper middle-class family and have long wrestled with the question of how to meaningfully engage in revolutionary politics based on the privileges I was born with. Furthermore, just like Gilbert and apparently other Weathermen (Gilbert describes a class interruption at a Brooklyn community college, 128), I find it hard to be impolite – not always the best foundation for intervening in messed-up conditions. Finally, I’m also prone to the “most anti-racist white activist” or “exceptional white person” syndrome, which, as Gilbert rightly points out, “usually undermines any serious effort to organize other people against racism” (304). This was one reason for my excitement when a collection of Gilbert’s political writings appeared as No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner in 2004, as I hoped to learn important lessons from those texts – and not in vain.
I was equally excited about the release of the autobiographical Love and Struggle. The book left the same impression as the abovementioned interview: a nuanced, balanced, and self-reflective account of Gilbert’s involvement in revolutionary politics. The absence of all polemics, finger-pointing, and bashing of other left factions – a rare feat for any of us – is a real treat. In addition, Gilbert’s prose is remarkably clean of both radical and theoretical jargon. Plenty of different views and opinions are portrayed, but always evenhandedly, leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Gilbert’s fair-minded approach seems to be rooted in his own experiences. With respect to the conflict that split the SDS in the late 1960s, he writes: “The situation called for open, healthy debate, but more often we responded with posturing, quote-plucking, and name-calling. … In challenging, heady, scary periods, we need ways to keep our grounding, to try to always base decisions on the interests of the oppressed, to always stay in touch with the humanist basis for our activism.” (109-110)
Gilbert also offers crucial advice on how to handle one of the revolutionary’s biggest nemeses, the ego: “Looking back I’m amazed at how many times I thought everything I was doing was about making revolution, but my actions were self-aggrandizing… I now believe it is healthier to be conscious and explicit about self-interest… It’s not inherently evil to have self-interest, and in any case it’s not completely avoidable. What messed me up was when I couldn’t admit it to myself and then unconsciously maneuvered in dishonest ways. My method now is to try to be open and explicit about my personal concerns and then to rigorously evaluate them relative to collective principles and goals. Sometimes my personal needs are a legitimate consideration; at other times I’ll want to subordinate them to what’s needed by everyone.” (110)
Learning from History
The final chapter of Love and Struggle might be the most captivating. This is no big surprise: the ill-fated Brink’s robbery, the arrest and subsequent separation from wife and son, the trial, and the prison experience all contain elements of tragedy that have been captivating audiences for millennia. (Gilbert only tells about his pre-trial detention. In general, he states: “For a number of reasons, I’m not yet ready to write about prison”, 7).
This, by no means, takes away from the rest of the book. Gilbert’s account is engaging throughout and provides a precious insight into the U.S.-American left of the 1960s and 1970s, its hopes, debates, conflicts, and disappointments. After introductory remarks on his childhood and youth, with two headstrong sisters paving the way for politicization, Gilbert takes the reader through his activities at Columbia University, the anti-war movement, the SDS, the emerging Weather group, and his six years underground. He describes a steady path of increasing radicalization: “Compared to many people in the ‘60s – when some leaped from Republican families to militant radicals in a matter of months – I was as slow and deliberate as a turtle, grappling with every step in the process: from liberal Democrat, to social democrat (hoping to bring about moderate socialism through elections), to nonviolent civil disobedience, to building resistance through street militancy and draft defiance, to supporting revolutionary armed struggle.” (86)
A detail of special interest to me was that Gilbert’s first arrest came at a solidarity demonstration for Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic leader of the 1960s German student movement, who was shot by a right-wing youth in April 1968. (The incident would eventually cost Dutschke his life: he drowned in a bathtub on Christmas Eve 1979 after an epileptic seizure related to his injuries.) The fact that such a demonstration was held in New York at all confirms the internationalism of the era’s struggles. The shooting of Dutschke was a key moment in the radicalization of the German protest movements of the 1960s, out of which the urban guerrilla movements of the 1970s emerged.
Gilbert’s account touches on numerous issues of ongoing importance for radical debate such as free love, drugs, security culture, and movement infiltration. Gilbert also shares enlightening, and amusing, memories about the formation of the Progressive Labor Party, the origins of the LaRouche movement, Enver-Hoxha-touting Maoists, or the working process behind the 1974 Weather manifesto Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. Love and Struggle is certainly not bereft of humor. In his recollection of the Chicago “Days of Rage” in October 1969, Gilbert writes about missing a handful of cops with a bottle thrown from not more than a few feet, only to escape arrest a second later by a swift and unpredictable move. He concludes: “That moment was fairly emblematic of my brief ‘streetfighting days’. My offensive reflexes were close to nil, but my defensive reflexes were spectacular.” (133)
Particularly interesting from a German-speaker’s perspective are Gilbert’s final remarks on national liberation and anti-imperialism. Gilbert concedes that the former is no “adequate form of struggle in itself to build socialism and to spearhead world revolution” and that the latter can take on “right-wing forms”. Yet, he continues to see imperialism as “the main source” of much global strife and does not regard anti-imperialism as per se reactionary. This is a refreshing perspective in the light of the rifts that the national liberation and imperialism debate has caused among German-speaking leftists, with one side stubbornly clinging to simplistic anti-imperialist doctrines and the other accusing all anti-imperialist analysis of anti-American resentment, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and nationalist chauvinism.
It is hardly astonishing that the big questions the left is facing today are essentially the same that Gilbert and his comrades faced in 1970: “Did we support independence for various peoples of color within the U.S., or should we strive to forge a multinational working class? Did an independent women’s caucus give needed power to the oppressed or create divisions diverting us from the overall struggle? Should our limited resources be devoted more to big national demonstrations or to community organizing? Were election campaigns a good arena for organizing or a diversion from building a movement in the streets? Should you organize people based on immediate bread and butter concerns or was it essential to emphasize the major issues for society as a whole? Do we respond to growing repression with increased militancy or by restricting the movement to nonconfrontational tactics.” (109) Also many of the personal conflicts described by Gilbert resemble tensions faced by contemporary activists. Gilbert tells us, for example, how his commitments to solidarity work with El Comité, a Chicano/a organization in Denver, and his involvement in the city’s feminist movement and the group Men Against Sexism (MAS) created a situation that felt like “an unbridgeable gap” even if shouldn’t have (251) – the difficulty to unite different struggles against oppression rather than having them compete over center-stage positions haunts the left to this day.
Naturally, Gilbert is not able to provide definite answers to any of these questions – this being a task of utter impossibility. However, Gilbert provides numerous important guidelines that are essential for resolving the related challenges in the only way possible, that is, by drawing specific conclusions from analyzing specific circumstances. Perhaps most importantly, Gilbert reminds us that focusing on what unites us as radicals is far more important than fights over superior ideology, tactics, and revolutionary identity. The following words should be taken to heart: “As revolutionaries, our commitment isn’t to our own status but rather to advancing the struggle.” (292)
While, as Gilbert rightly points out, “we still don’t have that foolproof method for distinguishing crucial debates from competitive bickering” (109), it is easy for petty squabbles to turn a movement of the many into an egotistical battlefield of the few. Differences in opinion and perspective are fruitful and productive for any movement, but we need to stand on a common ground that allows us to nourish the indispensable requirements for true revolutionary action: compassion, solidarity, and love, as there will be no strength, determination, and perseverance without it.
The willingness and the ability to self-criticize are key aspects of the process. Gilbert points this out several times. Yet, he does not mistake self-criticism for self-deprecation and achieves the rare feat of writing a revolutionary memoir staying clear both of denouncing one’s past and of glorifying it. He writes: “I’ve … tried my best to carry on that dual responsibility of upholding basic principles while being open about errors and flaws.” (323) He has been hugely successful. Gilbert’s honesty is one of the book’s main appeals.
Love and Struggle is a gift to all activists, not least those of younger generations. We often fail to adequately pass on experiences acquired in struggle. Longtime comrades leave the movement or can’t be bothered to engage with newcomers; at the same time, a mixture of insecurity, youthful arrogance, and misconceived anti-authoritarianism complicates efforts to hand down knowledge in empowering and democratic ways. As a result, new generations of activists often have but a vague idea about what others did just a decade ago (let alone several), reinvent the wheel, and make the same errors. In light of this, a book like Love and Struggle – rousing and instructive, yet far from pretentious and obtrusive – is tremendously valuable. This alone confirms that David Gilbert, also an insightful commentator on current political affairs and a prison activist, remains as much part of the struggle as he has ever been.
For more information on David Gilbert, a selection of his essays, and a link to the interview from the Weather Underground documentary, please see his profile at www.kersplebedeb.com.