Don’t Wake the Weatherman: Microwaved Focoísmo Is Child’s Play
I finished Mark Rudd’s account of his organizing with SDS and the faction that captured leadership in 1969, Weatherman (later known as Weather Underground). It’s called Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen. Weather became known for a series of bombings and a statement called Prairie Fire which claimed to seek to set the trend for revolutionary, anti-imperialist organizing in the United States. I come into sharp disagreement with Rudd’s conclusions regarding the necessity of revolutionary violence (he claims that it will never work in the US, if there is to be a revolution here it must of necessity be violent because as Rudd himself said in the 1960s, capital will not simply give up because our arguments are better) and his strategies for organizing in the 21st century (he refers to the imperialist Barack Obama as a force for change and peace!), but it is important to listen to someone who had engaged in his share of violence to point out Weatherman style trends that are present in Maoist organizing today and struggle against them. History holds lessons that it is our duty to learn from, sum up, study seriously and be warned by.
At the root of Weathermanism was, essentially, a petit-bourgeois, subjectivist view of violence. Rudd points out in detail that the definition of a “revolutionary cadre”, according to Weather, was the ability to carry out acts that demonstrated one’s “hardness” and “militancy”. He discusses the leadup to the “Days of Rage” demonstrations in Chicago:
“That summer we actually set up tests of our ability to fight — in the guise of “organizing” the potentially revolutionary youth. In Detroit members of the Weatherman summer project, mostly students from Ann Arbor, ran down a beach brandishing a VietCong flag with predictable results — a gang of teenagers fought them. In Brooklyn, our people invaded a high school ad tied up two teachers while haranguing the terrified ninth-graders about the need to come to Chicago on October 8 and join the people of the world in their fight against US imperialism. In Cleveland, we started fights at a shopping mall, in which several of our youngest members were arrested and eventually did time in state prisons. To participate in these actions was to prove yourself a hardened ‘revolutionary cadre’.” (pp. 158)
This can be seen in hindsight as petit-bourgeois white youth (many Weather cadre were alumni of some of the country’s finest bourgeois indoctrination institutions (universities, Rudd himself was expelled from Columbia after participating in the notorious strike) attempting to have the petit-bourgeois beaten out of them. I see similar tendencies playing out today, white kids trying to prove their status as “hardened revolutionaries” by posturing with weapons and violent rhetoric on the internet. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t endear them to either the black and brown people they so desperately want attention and recognition from, their own people, or Communists in other countries (ironically, they’ve taken to denouncing the Filipino mass movement and Jose Maria Sison as “rightist” because they engage in peace talks, along with the fact that most of the Maoist movement in this country is in such a state of disarray and such an embarrassment that it is more fruitful and productive to link up with PSL and WWP and other revisionist formations than various “collectives” beholden to a sect in Texas that are, in practice, performance art troupes that occasionally holler about gentrification because that’s what black people care about. This is akin to PLP’s denunciation of the Vietnamese as “sellouts” because they sat down to the Paris Peace Talks). Ultra-leftism, manifest by obsession with violence regardless of the consequences (Weather eventually denounced their “militarist” error after three cadres were lost in a 1970 explosion because they didn’t know how to build bombs, deciding on a strategy of bombing empty buildings instead), sectarianism (Weather once wrecked a peace rally by storming the stage, denouncing the organizers as ‘liberals’, and ordering everyone to go commit revolutionary violence, this was cited by Rudd as eventually turning hundreds of people off the peace movement) and neglecting the painstaking (and oftentimes very tedious) work of building a mass base, is a manifestation of petit-bourgeois accelerationism, the belief that people have to be caught up in a wave of self-destructive violence, abuse, and paranoia to be real cadre. Weather’s internal affairs were no better. Rudd writes:
“We were by now a classic cult, true believers surrounded by a hostile world that we rejected and that rejected us in return. We had a holy faith, revolution, which could not be shaken, as well as a strategy to get there, the foco theory. Our logic was self fulfilling. The failure of the National Action proved that we could rely only on ourselves. The more people left because they were fed up and unable to continue under the brutal and hierarchical collective system, the more our resolve was strengthened. The fact that few or no SDS chapters supported us proved the truth of our line that students were middle class and couldn’t be trusted, with the exception only of ourselves, and even we were suspect. The rest of the movement hated us, which only confirmed the righteousness of our path.” (p. 184)
This bears creepy similarity to the “We didn’t become Maoists to be popular” line. This tactic of self-isolation, “not listening to anybody that we don’t like”, is cultish. Does Mao not teach us that anybody may offer criticism and it is our job to “attack not the speaker, but be warned by his words”? To link up and unite with only the people that are willing to submit to your line, either out of personal considerations or their own low political level, is not correct Maoist understanding of the principle of criticism-self criticism. Furthermore, to make a habit of routinely attacking other organizers, issuing threats, and isolating oneself from those with whom it would be advantageous to unite with in a united front is even more un-Maoist. It is a badge of honor among ultra-leftists to have no concrete ties to the people and to be impossible to work in coalition with. This isolation, self-isolation, is a badge of honor, of one’s ability to “stick to principles” and be dogmatic, veering in no fashion from what has been agreed by the sect to be “correct”. Even if material reality flies in one’s face and proves the incorrectness of one’s line (which was usually developed with no input from the masses whatsoever), the line is still followed right over a precipice. Again, this is amateurishness. Furthermore, if people are going through psychotic episodes, considering suicide, and being psychologically abused, with one person being ganged up on and attacked mercilessly under the guise of self-criticism, you need to leave and take as many people with you as possible. If you have leaders who do not receive such treatment, while ordering others to engage in dangerous activities with no mass support whatsoever and that carry risks of decades-long prison sentences or death, you need to leave. You are under no obligation to be an unwitting martyr for someone else to capitalize for their own aggrandizement. If you are to go to jail, or die, it must be for the people, not a sect. Don’t let yourself be led into a Greensboro type situation to “get out a line” or “escalate contradictions”. Question everything. Democratic centralism is oftentimes abused and distorted for stupid ends. This was the case with Weather.
Militancy is only one aspect of the determination of one’s competency as a cadre. The ability to demonstrate the correctness of our militant line through practice is much more important. It’s not enough for a small circle to be militant, we must step-by-step demonstrate the need for militancy by involvement in all aspects of the mass movement and demonstrating the correctness of our line and our positions through uniting the advanced for sharp struggle. If you can not do this, you are not a Maoist and you are not a cadre. A cadre is a seed that when planted and nurtured is able to inspire tens, hundreds, and millions. A cadre can take advantage of all opportunities that present themselves, turning a good thing into a bad thing, getting involved in all aspects of all things. Education is cadre work. Strike support is cadre work. Community gardening is cadre work. Addressing an assembly of university or high school students is cadre work. Organizing a tenants’ union that can actually win material gains for tenants is cadre work. There are so many positions in the mass movement that have been willingly abdicated by “Maoists” in this country. Then, they stand to the side and denounce them as “reformists, revisionists, and opportunists”. No shit, you’d rather parade around in a mask and run your mouth than go low and deep and organize! Nobody is going to pick up a gun at your command if they do not know or trust you! If the masses don’t trust you, they gon’ shoot you. Weatherman was eventually reduced to a smattering of fugitives on the run from the State, with no mass base, and eventually people stopped giving a fuck and they started turning themselves in. Paranoia and boredom wracked all. The organization’s line had degenerated to the point that they were supportive of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst, shot to death the first Black school superintendent in Oakland, and robbed a series of banks before being cornered and massacred by the police in Los Angeles because Cadre Teko tried to shoplift socks and they chose to shoot up a sporting goods store. A conversation at a Weather hideout:
“The pigs are murdering them!” one of my friends exclaimed. “Now everyone will see how righteous the SLA are. They’re burning them alive.”
“I don’t think so. This is just a cops and robbers TV show, where the bad guys die in the end and the cops win in the end.”
“Can’t you see they’re revolutionary martyrs?”
“I don’t think they’re anything more than self-deluded. Most normal people see them as criminals.”
“You’re totally right wing!” — (p. 265)
Of course, violence is a key part of any revolution, but a Maoist must always be aware of what our violence means to the masses, whether or not they call for or support it, or whether they reject it. Violence committed in defense of the community by the Black Panther Party is not akin to violence that involves spraying bank lobbies full of innocent customers, white people shooting Black people down in the streets because they think they’re “reformists”, or bringing dozens upon dozens upon dozens of cops into a black neighborhood where you’re hiding. You must be a benefit to the masses, not a burden. This is why the Chinese Red Army always helped with the harvest, helped provide medical treatment, and did whatever needed to be done to serve the people. If you barge in shooting, impose yourselves on the people, and do not investigate and improve their lives along with consistently promoting the principle of revolutionary defense and violence against the ruling class that will inevitably seek to take away these things, you have already lost. The Black Panthers provided breakfast to children, shoes to the people, and free medical care. This is why when COINTELPRO, SWAT, and various other acronyms came knocking, the community in many cases came out with guns to support them. This is what it means to have a nascent base area. Base areas are, of course, taken with violence, but alongside and with the masses, not a tiny armed cult that moves in and begins issuing dictats and fiats enforceable by violence. The theory of focoismo is spent, it doesn’t have any standing because even though its adherents speak of the masses, they do not seek to organize them, placing key stress on armed struggle, even though the people are not ready for it. Armed struggle must be prepared for, not declared arbitrarily. This is why those who today speak of “building the people’s army while building the party” are doomed for a similar fate to Weatherman, because they seek to put the cart before the horse and, in their own words, the gun before the party. You can read Mao all you want, but if you can’t apply his words and move like he did, you’re fucking up. Learn from the Weather experience. Go among the masses, cast aside the petit-bourgeois subjectivism and desire to “have fun” by promoting a senseless and stupid armed struggle, come out of the cult, and build a real party on a solid foundation.