Against Capitalist "Rehabilitation": Reading David Gilbert's Love & Struggle
January 13, 2012
According to a recent New York Times article by Tom Robbins, Judith Clark, former Weather Underground member who was arrested in 1981 for the attempted robbery of a Brinks truck, has renounced her radicalism and is now politically "rehabilitated." Robbins describes pre-rehabilitated Clark as if she was a member of a religious cult: she was a "militant zealot," a member of "a wild tribe of radicals," a "dogmatist"—in essence, the victim of leftist brainwashing. For Robbins and his ilk, the actions of Clark and other 1960s-1970s U.S. militants were an insane response to a sane society that just needed the help of a few enlightened liberals rather than a sane response to the insane reality of capitalism. Now Clark has recovered her sanity, now she has healed from the madness of revolutionary ideology, and so now, Robbins argues, she should be let out of prison and allowed to become part of productive liberal society—after all, seventy-five years of incarceration for simply driving a getaway car is only permissible if she still believed that robbing an armoured truck to fund a revolution was morally okay. Before now, before her "rehabilitation," she was simply a brainwashed stooge.
But as the friend and comrade who introduced me to this article [thanks Jude W!] pointed out, the fact that Clark's radical politics are treated as an instance of cult-like brainwashing is extremely ironic in the context of state brainwashing described unintentionally by Robbins. Clark's "rehabilitation" comes after two years in solitary confinement where a sociologist makes her feel guilt about the child she was forced to leave behind when she was imprisoned. Anyone who knows anything about the treatment of revolutionaries in the prison-industrial complex, and the mechanisms that are levelled upon people who resist status quo ideology (for more repressive, by all accounts, than what is suffered by the general prison population), also knows that solitary confinement and the interrogations connected to solitary confinement are designed to politically condition and "rehabilitate" prisoners. That is, Clark's reconversion to liberal ideology is not some honest recovery of "sanity" but an instance of ideological control and psychological torture—an instance of brain-washing.
What is interesting about this recent news of Judith Clark's "rehabilitation," though, is that it has happened around the same time that one of her former imprisoned comrades, David Gilbert, had finally written and published his memoir, Love & Struggle: my life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond. Unlike Clark, however, Gilbert refuses to be politically rehabilitated, has resisted decades of attempted brainwashing and psychological torture in concentration camps of the American prison system, and is generally known as one of the "poster-boys" of U.S. political prisoners.
Although Gilbert has written other books, Love & Struggle is his first attempt at a thorough and systematic autobiography. Indeed, Gilbert claims in the introduction that he has long resisted writing an autobiography because the idea "always felt too self-involved." Thankfully, for those of us who have wanted to read these memoirs, the son Gilbert has only known through conjugal visits convinced him otherwise.
Except Love & Struggle is not simply another collection of remembered politics on the part of a revolutionary who is still a committed revolutionary communist, nor is it just a who's-who inventory of the radical 1960s and 1970s—though it is, in some ways, both of these things. But Love & Struggle is truly worth reading for the following reasons: a) it is a book written by an imprisoned revolution who (unlike his former comrade Judith Clark) continues to resist political rehabilitation; b) parts of it are grouped around revolutionary concepts, leftist in-jargon that is usually obscure to a new radical, that are demystified through Gilbert's autobiography; c) it is an honest and self-critical engagement with a radical period in US history, a bildungsroman of a revolutionary now behind bars who is not afraid to critique the naivete, or the social privilege, of his younger self.
While those of us who believe in a revolutionary break from capitalism cannot endorse Clark's brainwashed renunciation, and should never treat the action taken in 1981 as morally "insane," we also should be critical of the political strategy behind this and similar actions. And Gilbert is not afraid to critique the erroneous line of this strategy (i.e. see the chapter "Foco" as well as the chapters dealing specifically with actions taken by the WU and other organizations with which he associated) while maintaining the politics behind this strategy and the need for revolution.
Nor is Gilbert afraid of self-criticism [and even has a chapter about criticism/self-criticism], of harshly examining his actions and beliefs at different stages of political growth, and so this is not an autobiography written by someone who wants to hide his mistakes, to paint himself as an angel. He is quite critical of moments of internal racism and sexism, of personal errors committed amongst comrades.
The autobiography proper concludes with the author and his comrades being imprisoned three decades before he decided to write this book. Only a small afterword following the last chapter discusses the thirty years Gilbert has spent incarcerated, but it is telling when read in context with the political "rehabilitation" of his former comrade: "As my son approached college age, he became the strongest advocate for my expressing my sorrow and regrets in a direct and forthright manner—and I’ve done so publicly on a number of occasions. The colossal social violence of imperialism does not grant those of us who fight it a free pass to become callous ourselves. Especially in fighting for a just cause, we need to take the greatest care to respect life and to minimize violence as we struggle to end violence. There is no contradiction: I full-heartedly continue my commitment to the oppressed; I deeply regret the loss of lives and the pain for those families caused by our actions on October 20, 1981."
Whereas Judith Clark's child was used as brainwashing method of political rehabilitation, David Gilbert uses the existence of his son to remind himself that a better world is necessary. Whereas the political errors made by the actions in 1981 were used to produce a guilt and shame that would allow Clark to break from her politics, Gilbert accepts responsibility but refuses to reject a commitment to the oppressed. And it is Gilbert's position that liberal hacks like Tom Robbins will continue to treat as insane and fanatical unaware that, every time they celebrate comrades who have lost their way, they are condoning the most insane and violent reality.
(Also: the introduction by Boots Riley from The Coup is awesome.)