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Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of solidarity

Seamus Connolly
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

AK Press 2006

The Weather Underground Organization haunts the imaginations of young white leftists searching for a concrete and modern example of white people putting it on the line, taking risks, following the leadership of people of color and really fighting white supremacy. Well, that and the balls-to-the-wall-fuck-you bombings of government toilets.

In Outlaws of America, young historian Dan Berger moves beyond the often romantic and one-dimensional view of the controversial organization.

Berger’s aim in writing the book is “…that we can learn from history to create a better future.” Outlaws is peppered with retrospective critiques from former members and others within “the movement.” The criticisms of Weather’s white chauvinism, sectarianism, model and adventurism may not be new to anyone familiar with the organization, but the depth and breadth of former members critically self-reflecting and explaining their actions is powerful and educational.

Berger is not a passive objective storyteller, but he also refuses to take a solid overarching line on the organization. He draws conclusions at different points in the book, but is stalwart in remaining true to the legacy of Weather, which was a legacy of confusion, doubt, frustration, self-defeat, inspiration, excitement, growth, contradiction, and possibility.

To define Weather as one way or another when there was plenty of growth, internal contradiction and external contradiction would be a disservice. It is the contradictions, the grappling with the question of “what is to be done?” that Outlaws highlights and runs with down to the last page. “The Weather Underground and others from the US anti-imperialist Left of the 1960’s and 1970’s can’t offer answers or provide an instruction manual…they do present a legacy of constantly raising and grappling with these questions.” This running debate and reflection is the biggest contribution the book offers young radicals of today.

In a section called “The Politics of Solidarity”, there is an attempt to coalesce the different lessons from Weather’s legacy in 26 pages. What comes through is an acknowledgement that their most resonating political contribution to the current Left is a militant white anti-racism based in anti-imperialism, with a focus on the primacy of the liberation struggles of third world people or people of color inside and outside the US. How they practiced this politic and if they did a good job is dealt with in the rest of the book.

Good addition

Beyond upholding their political contribution, Berger suggests ideas that come off less as an extrapolation from the history and politics presented and more as the sloganeering of an anti-prison activist. He asserts “…the Black Power and white anti-imperialist movements have successfully raised the issue of white supremacy as one the Left—and society—must deal with.” This may be true in relation to the Left and American society of the 60’s and prior, but, as the book points out, US incarceration rates are rising with communities of color as the primary targets of police violence, repression and imprisonment; the US is engaged in an imperialist war in Iraq; and the people of New Orleans are still drowning as a result of the racism of the Hurricane Katrina (non)response.

Society is not dealing with, let alone prevailing against, white-supremacy. The Left (domestically) has not been able to turn the theoretical and practical advances of the 60’s into a sustained movement. In fact the most militant and militaristic resistance to US empire today, which is engaging the US state and weakening its global hegemony, comes from anti-imperialist right-wing religious fundamentalists. And unless the enemy of my enemy is our friend, the US Left has a lot of work to do to build real power and the ability to create anti-imperialist domestic change that would benefit and support Leftist struggles in the outposts of empire.

It seems that part of Weather’s legacy was not only a gap between theory and practice, but also a continued sequestering of the US Left from what is happening in mainstream society globally and the ruling class culture makers that shape these sentiments.

Outlaws offers a model of self-reflection that is necessary for the advancement of theory and practice in liberation struggles. It is a good addition to any library. Hopefully the second edition will have a more fleshed out section about the current work of the anti-imperialist left.