"Ian Rankin once explained to an interviewer (the head of the Indian Communist Party!) that crime fiction is a way of talking about social inequality. Ron Jacobs applies that same maxim to the Sixties... in his wonderfully noir trilogy of those exhilarating and troubled times. And what Rankin does for Edinburgh, Jacobs amply illuminates for the Movement. Much much more than ripping yarns (though they are that too), from a master who's been there, done that, and lived to tell a tale or two."

--Ramsey Kanaan, Publisher PM Press/noir enthusiast

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Way the Wind Blew Reviews Part Three

two not so positive reviews and one from The Journal of American History


The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground By Ron Jacobs. (New York: Verso, 1997. viii, 216 pp. Cloth, $50.00, ISBN 1-85984-861-3. Paper, $15.00, ISBN 1- 85984-167-8.)

Ron Jacobs begins his history of the Weather Underground where most analyses of the move- ments of the 1960s leave off, with the splintering of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968 and the "Days of Rage" in 1969. His focus is solely on Weather, which turns out to be his book's major strength but also accounts for some of its weaknesses. Jacobs's first chapter, "1968: SDS Turns Left,' recounts the disintegration of SDS into factions that included Weather, Progressive Labor (PL), the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), and others. While the reader gains a careful analysis of the ideological differences among these groups, what is lost is the context out of which this all emerged. There is no discussion of the history of SDS or even of the political careers that led members of the Weather Underground to this point. (There are some biographical tidbits in a brief appendix entitled "The Cast.") From this moment on, however, Jacobs re- tells with care the stages of Weather activity coupled with discussions of its developing theoretical positions and growing cognizance of other political issues, including the emerging feminist movement. One virtue of his work is his decision to take Weather seriously and not to indulge in the kind of sensationalistic discussions of their interpersonal, communal, and sexual side, topics that have tainted other analyses. We witness the evolution of Weather's positions from the initial "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows" (1968) through "New Morning, Changing Weather" (1970) and, finally, Prairie Fire. The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (1974).
On the other hand, some further examination of the connection between their personal and political sides, including a more textured discussion of underground life, would have more fully rounded his portrait. An added value of this work is to remind older readers and inform younger ones of the domestic political events that occurred after 1968 and 1969, events which are too often merely thought of as footnotes to 1960s history, if not altogether forgotten. We learn not only of the explosion in a New York townhouse in 1970, where members were constructing bombs, and of other Weather bombings but also of the May Day demonstrations of 1971 that aimed to shut down Washington, D.C., the various legal struggles of the Black Panthers, and the short-lived media frenzy surrounding the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and its kidnapping and subsequent conversion of the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
What is striking as one reads and remembers the attention paid to the Weather Underground is how small the cadre was, given its importance in both the movement and the media. In part, this is not unusual in the history of the American Left. Numerous well- remembered and oft-studied factions of the Communist and Socialist parties had surprisingly few adherents. Yet we would not be able to find an equivalent amount of mainstream press attention paid to these groups. Through a combination of flamboyant rhetoric, publicity- grabbing activities, and its positioning of itself at the extreme edge of the rebellious impulse of the era, Weather became the most prominent, if not the most representative, group of the last phase of 1960s activism. Jacobs's study, while keeping to a slightly too narrow retelling of their activities, nevertheless provides an accessible, readable, and compelling history of their ideas and their activities.

Alexander Bloom Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blast From the Past: A Review of My Weather Underground Book from 1998

review published August 1998 in San Francisco Bay Guardian

Guerrilla USA

A philosophical history of the Weather Underground

The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. By Ron Jacobs. Verso, 216 pages, $15.

By Daniel Burton-Rose

IN THE CRUCIBLE of late-'60s white radicalism, a fomenting militancy pushed an element of Students for a Democratic Society toward a more immediate solidarity with the Vietnamese people, one born of shared repression. As the state reacted with dumb authoritarian brutality to questions it knew were too on-point to answer, a small group of middle-class activists took the steps they felt were necessary to end the U.S. regime once and for all. Revolutionary violence was, as Weather member Bernardine Dohrn put it, "The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle...."

Their efforts are the twisting tale that Ron Jacobs tells in his history of the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew. Jacobs -- a worker at the University of Vermont library and avowed New Leftie -- gives a documentary history that includes photos, posters, and underground comix. The Way the Wind Blew transplants you to a time of widespread domestic government repression and foreign aggression. A time in which change was not just an ideal but an imperative.

The history of Weather is the story of radicals for whom nothing could come too fast. Weather needed to immediately end everything it hated about the U.S. government, and it did not have time to waste on tolerating the unconvinced -- those who could have given it the numbers to realize its goals. Weather denounced the U.S. working class as hopelessly blind to its own oppression, supporting imperialist war and racism. In fits of self-righteousness Weather stomped into working-class communities and berated youth as "pigs," often getting an ass-kicking as their payback. With the Days of Rage in Chicago, Weather whipped up efforts to "tear the motherfucker apart" but experienced only low turnout and unfocused street violence.

Jacobs has written a history of ideas rather than personalities. His book is more instructive than either the flat-out denouncements of paramilitary violence or the uncritical celebrations that have thus far constituted the history of late-'60s and '70s guerrilla movements. Jacobs traces Weather's long ambivalent dance with youth counterculture. At times the group saw youth's lack of a stake in contemporary society as the hope for a new nation, but Weather retained a great "distrust of its own potential base of support." Militant feminist analysis by Weather women made the Weather men realize that the men themselves were also capable of counterrevolutionary thoughts. This epiphany made them acknowledge "that individuals were capable of change, whatever their previous prejudices." It was a step from revolutionary purity to real-world maturity.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Weather's military actions seemed less extreme to New Left folks. A bomb in the Pentagon in May 1972 was well-received in the antiwar community. Conversely, as the war wound down it became clear that there would be no galvanizing force of comparable strength for the next decade. Weather foundered.

So Jacobs goes on to tell of the flip side of the Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver-style '80s sellouts -- terribly fractured guerrilla cells trying desperately not to drown in the political tide turning away from an open society. Because of Weather's death in a flurry of acronyms, The Way the Wind Blew seems like a book without a conclusion. For that reason it is somewhat unsatisfying. But at closer look, the tapered anticlimax captures the nature of the period and the feeling of the participants. In the end, both they and you want more.

Jacobs admires Weather Underground members for their dedication and strength. Indeed, he dedicates his book to "those who gave their lives and freedom in the struggle against racism and imperial war." The book explores what Weather got right and what it screwed up. To read it is to understand one of the most fascinating attempts to create revolutionary change in modern American history.

(Daniel Burton-Rose is the editor of The Celling of America.)