Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies

Going Too Far?

Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

The Weather Underground, it would seem, is back. The clandestine group that conducted a series of bombings against corporate and governmental property from 1969 through 1976 has apparently made a comeback, despite its implosion and seeming dissolution thirty years ago. Now, however, it is in books rather than bombs that the group reappears. Starting with the 2001 release of Fugitive Days, a memoir by former member Bill Ayers, the past three years have also seen the release of Sam Green and Bill Siegel’ s Oscar-nominated documentary about the group and the publication of Susan Braudy’ s gossipy, largely fictitious book about the Boudin family, Family Circle. The group also made headlines after former Weatherwoman Kathy Boudin was granted parole in August 2003. The latest offering now is Varon’ s study.

As the title suggests, the book concerns itself largely with the turn to militancy and violence by two of the most (in)famous underground groups in the late 20th-century Western world. Varon, an assistant professor of history at Drew University, is interested in studying the reasons why New Leftists in the United States and Germany turned to violence and the effect such a turn had on the participants, on the broader movements, and on society. But in choosing two groups often dismissed by mainstream and the left alike, Varon also attempts to ‘restore a stronger measure of rationality and moral purpose to Weatherman and the RAF in order better to understand both their political histories and the complex nature of political violence more generally.’ In putting forth the moral, even humanistic, basis of two organizations widely disdained for their supposed nihilism, Varon’ s book makes its greatest contribution. The book, however, is less a complete history of either group than it is a study of political violence and how it can be rooted in a deep moral purpose.

Both the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction emerged from the cauldron of post-World War II anti-imperialism, particularly the civil rights and Black Power movements; the resistance by the Vietnamese and accompanying anti-war movement in the US; and national liberation struggles aimed at throwing off colonial or neocolonial rule in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Increasingly convinced of the futility of nonviolent resistance, both the Weatherman (later, the Weather Underground Organization, or WUO) and the Red Army Faction mixed bombs with bombastic imagery in shaping an anti-imperialist underground to build new forms of resistance against the state. The inclusion of the RAF, an organization most people in the United States are likely to know less about, is an important component to the book because it permits a more rounded and global history/analysis of clandestine work done by those who were rising up not as the most oppressed segments of society but rather as children of privilege. Indeed, both the WUO and the RAF formed to open a new front of struggle in solidarity with Third World struggles against imperialism in Vietnam, but also in other parts of the world including, at least for the WUO, African Americans and other people of color in the United States.

While both groups were clandestine revolutionary formations, they were by no means the same. Though it initially talked of targeting people, the WUO changed its course after the March 1970 accidental explosion that killed three members building a bomb to be used against people. After that catastrophic mistake, the group’ s bombing campaign damaged only property, never people. For the RAF, however, the turn to clandestine operations also included kidnappings and assassinations; it had no boundaries against taking lives, something which makes the German group far more controversial.

Comfortable with the music of the US New Left lyrics by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Phil Ochs dot Varon’ s narrative as epigraphs as well as its theorists, Varon seeks to study why these groups of relatively privileged people took up arms against their own countries. In pursuing this endeavor, he combines the language and ideas of New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse, postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard, and linguists Ralph Larkin and Daniel Foss, among others, to uncover and analyze the political motivations inspiring radicals in industrialized nations of this period. With this ideological grounding, Varon then seeks to explain how left movements such as the WUO and the RAF decided on violence as an appropriate tactic. Although radicals never embraced violence universally, Varon shows that sectors of movements across the world nonetheless embraced violence for solidly political reasons.

Despite this range of ideological backing, Bringing the War Home is more a primer for those interested in studying revolutionary violence than it is a comprehensive introduction to the Weather Underground or Red Army Faction. To be sure, Varon’ s research is exhaustive, including an excellent cast of interviews with former WUO members. And the more than 300 pages include some valuable information that had not previously seen the light of day. But although the book captures the specificities leading up to each organization’ s decision to engage in armed struggle, it lacks the in-depth discussion of the zeitgeist of the 1960s that characterizes some other recent books about that period. Particularly glaring is the absence of a more engaged look at the impact of the Black movement on the formation of the WUO. Though by no means ignoring this factor, Varon neglects to get at its centrality for the organization. Instead, the Vietnam War appears as the dominant reason for clandestine actions among white radicals in both this country and Germany.  Anti-imperialism is reduced to opposition to the war.

Of the book’ s eight chapters, three are devoted entirely to the Weather Underground and two to the Red Army Faction. (The others serve to introduce the topic, juxtapose the two groups, and conclude the book, respectively.) Given the heavy focus on the WUO, it is disappointing that Varon’ s analysis of the group is limited almost completely to its first year, when the nascent Weatherman (having not yet changed their name to the gender-neutral Weather Underground) was at its worst in terms of having a misanthropic, apocalyptic and often bizarre worldview. Indeed, for much of the first year, the group was still aboveground, giving speeches and conducting protests laced with a heavy celebration of violence. While Varon acknowledges that the organization later corrected its militaristic conception of itself, the bulk of discussion on the Weather Underground nevertheless revolves around its early months. This somewhat narrow focus repeats the dominant take on the group, which makes its bombastic early period (roughly from June 1969, when it assumed control of Students for a Democratic Society, to the accidental explosion in March 1970) into the total story. It is worth noting that Varon does a much better job than most other available texts and incorporates an incredibly rich and thorough detail in his account. Still, by focusing predominantly on the organization’ s early months, he repeats the same limited focus other historians have given to the group, only looking at it when it was at its most absurd.

His introduction to the Red Army Faction is more satisfactory—an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that most original RAF members are now dead and thus unavailable for first-hand interviews. His look at the German left and the country’ s postwar political structure is especially fascinating. That young radicals were politicized after coming into conflict with the right-wing and ruling-class-owned media should be of particular interest in today’ s world of corporate-consolidated, politically reactionary media. Again with RAF, however, Varon’ s focus is on the organization’ s early years, approximately 1970-78. In the conclusion, he fills in the gaps for both groups—which means cramming six years of WUO history and twenty years of RAF history into 22 pages.

Varon’s heavy focus on the early periods of these organizations, particularly the Weather Underground, arises from his conception of the book as a study of why people and groups on the left turned to violence. Because his approach is so thoroughly tied to analyzing the group along the axis of violence and militancy, Varon at times mistakes the tactical for the political. For instance, in writing about the involvement of several former Weatherpeople in alliance with members of the Black Liberation Army in the late 1970s and early 1980s—eventually leading to the arrest and capture of several of them following an attempted bank robbery in October 1981—Varon attributes this to their unwillingness to abandon violence, rather than their commitment to solidarity with Black liberation. While evaluating the reasons for and effects of the turn to violence is a valuable endeavor, analyzing a movement by its tactics alone can gloss over the political impulses at the root of its activism, even though Varon himself identifies the latter question as one of his main concerns in writing the book.

Despite this weakness, Varon’s text bears political resonance for activists and scholars today. Particularly useful is his impassioned, even if implicit, plea for radicals not to mirror that which we oppose. Without demanding that people renounce militancy or even violence, Varon argues that part of what led to the failings of the RAF and the WUO is that ‘both groups show that the aspiration to resistance provides no guarantee that one represents a genuine alternative to what one opposes.’ In other words, the ends do not inherently justify the means, and activism needs to be consistent with the world we are fighting for. As people will likely continue to grow tired with mass protests that do not appear to end wars and occupations, these words are important to bear in mind¾especially as activists strive to integrate more militant actions into mass demonstrations.

At several points in the narrative, Varon takes rather lengthy detours from strict historical study to advance a particular theoretical argument. Though these detours run the risk of descending into narrow academic exercises, Varon usually manages to relate them back to the subject-matter in a way that makes the book a quick, captivating read throughout. In the chapters on the WUO, these detours include discussions on language and the search for authenticity, on what exactly constitutes ‘the masses’ and their revolutionary potential, and on the social psychology of violence. With the RAF, Varon takes a fascinating look at the context of postwar and post-Holocaust Germany in relation to clandestine activism there. While his discussion of the WUO is also framed in understanding the post-Holocaust generation globally, it is in the sections on Germany that this issue is most illuminating. Criticizing the left for demeaning or misrepresenting history by comparing any disliked entity to fascism, Varon argues that the antifascist label is not enough to make one’ s actions historically or tactically appropriate. Indeed, he says that by constantly comparing their struggle to the one against Nazism (including making their plight analogous to that of Jews), ‘the RAF appropriated and even exploited the suffering of the victims of Nazism it meant to honor.’ This lesson is particularly important now, as George Bush’ s nakedly imperialist practices lead many to liken him to Hitler. Chicago-based antifascists Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai engage many of these questions from a different angle in their excellent book, Confronting Fascism,2 which argues that the left’s failure to understand fascism has led us to miss the true nature of systems we oppose—institutions still anti-human and repressive, though capitalist rather than fascistic.

Further, in lessons ripe for the current Palestine solidarity movement, Varon details the anti-Semitic actions engaged in by the RAF under the rubric of support for Palestine national liberation. The most egregious of these examples was the 1969 firebombing of a Berlin synagogue by German leftists on the anniversary of Kristallnacht to protest Israeli policies. ‘It is, therefore, one thing for Palestinians to engage in acts of ‘aggression,’ ‘terror,’ or ‘war’ against Israel and Israeli citizens in what they see as a struggle for national liberation; it is quite another for young German leftists, separated from the Holocaust by only a generation, to rally enthusiastically behind and even participate in such acts.’ The implicit challenge should be repeated now more than ever: for people to not rest on their good intentions alone, but to understand their own social location and act in a way that recognizes and seeks to dismantle privilege. Indeed, such a course of action is the very definition of solidarity. Also of interest in understanding the political obstacles of today is Varon’ s point that repressive measures undertaken in Germany to catch the RAF, while they succeeded in capturing the original members, also led to an increase in the frequency and brutality of terrorist violence. The West German government of the 1970s, like a certain leader of a supposedly democratic country today, targeted not just the people believed to be directly responsible for an act of aggression, but any and all who, broadly conceived, sympathized with a certain stance. Like today, the results were predictably disastrous.

Varon couldn’t be more correct, then, in closing the book by highlighting current struggles against war and corporate globalization. Indeed, it would have been nice to have a richer discussion on the parallels, diversions, and lessons learned to prove his point that ‘The stories of Weatherman and the RAF… have as yet no real end.’ Varon has, in sum, written a powerful text on the reasons for and impacts of (left-wing) political violence and its impact on mass movements, on the representative democratic state, and on society as a whole. Though today’s practitioners of political violence are markedly different from the subjects of Varon’ s study, Bringing the War Home is a positive contribution to understanding violence.

Given some of these strengths, it was disappointing to read Varon call the anti-imperialism of the Weather Underground a naïve political expression, even as he acknowledges that the group (along with the RAF) still offers lessons to modern activism. To be sure, both groups had serious faults, particularly around sexism and authoritarianism. But the analysis of the system as imperialism was an advance—something that resonates with surprising clarity in today’ s world of occupation. In its focus on studying violence, Bringing the War Home opens the door to a more thorough discussion of the political aspirations, motivations, and realities surrounding clandestine left-wing groups that have emerged in the West in solidarity with the liberation struggles of peoples of color the world over.

Reviewed by Dan Berger
author, forthcoming book on the Weather Underground
dberger@asc.upenn.edu

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