Meteorological images of all sorts — with their implications of inevitability — found their way into the narratives about the group. “Looks like we’re in for nasty weather,” plucked from Creedence Clearwater Revival went a 1969 headline in the Underground Press about the group. And in a late 1970 communiqué called “New Morning — Changing Weather,” penned after the lethal explosion of a Weatherman bomb factory, the group reinvented themselves as hippie-guerrillas who now foreswore, more or less, injury to persons.
Former Weatherman Jonathan Lerner offers the latest installment of this mash-up of music and and history with his Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary, a title derived from a Bob Dylan song. Lerner’s memoir is as withering a takedown of the group as its title suggests. It is a must read for anyone — young or old — inclined to see the Weatherman as right on, or badass, or as pioneers of a form of political struggle useful for the United States’s future. Lerner was there. He now sees the weather very differently. And he wants you to know how and why, no matter his risk of embarrassment or of being judged a turncoat.
Lerner’s insistent theme is that the Weatherman had, at bottom, thrown a moral tantrum. Whatever valid indignation its members felt at the twin evils of the Vietnam War and racism quickly gave way to delusions of grandeur, sickening self-righteousness, and a barely-thought-through zeal for destruction rooted in personal crisis and collective shame at not backing up their tough talk with action. For Lerner at least, child-like conceit and fear of a genuine adulthood trumped conviction.
Lerner cites adolescent insecurity, impulsiveness, and rivalry as hidden hands behind fateful turns in Weatherman’s history. In 1968, he helped rig a pivotal SDS election to thwart a power play by the dreaded Progressive Labor faction, known for rejecting everything emancipated and wild about the ’60s. He writes:
An early SDS slogan had been “Let the people decide,” but the days of participatory democracy were over. We [who would form Weatherman] were already into dirty tricks […] The striking thing to me now is that […] I [was] not motivated at the time by a clearly articulated political stance, or even a nonsensical one. […] We fiddled that election to protect the cool kids, because we just couldn’t stomach the nerds.
The group’s notorious “smash monogamy” campaign traded in both the predations and anxieties of sexual selves barely past puberty. The women, often passed among lusty male leaders, got the rawest deal. Poised for clandestine bombings by late 1969, the group “had begun to experience thrilling druglike waves of contempt for other people, rushes of our own superiority.” For Lerner, the vaunted underground was a place of romantic longing draped in cinematic fantasies of furtiveness and courage. Access was also strictly limited by a leadership demanding self-abnegating loyalty. “To go underground was a prize, like a special treat for an overexcited child — the extra scoop of ice cream, the second turn on the roller coaster.”
With prose worthy of a skilled novelist, Lerner writes of the rank-in-file,
We could strut around like bullies all day, and cower and pule before our hierophants [the leaders] in the evening. The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn’t identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults generally don’t.
In searing tones worthy of its worst nemesis, he castigates Weatherman as a “tiny, secretive, intellectually stultifying, corrupt and violent revolutionary group.” A line quoted from James Baldwin, more so than Dylan’s lyric, sums up Lerner’s lament: “People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.” Lerner’s book is his effort to claim responsibility, against the headwinds of a powerful Weather myth that still blows through the United States’s radical culture.
Swords in the Hands of Children is also the latest edition to what has become a veritable genre within American letters: the memoirs of former members of the Weather Underground. Though inviting comparison, the book is strangely hard to place in the landscape of such reminiscences or to distill to an essential historical-political lesson. It is surely the opposite of David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle (2012). Serving a life sentence for a 1981 action gone murderously wrong, Gilbert writes as an unreconstructed radical. He remains convinced of the enduring rightness of revolutionary struggle, while critical of Weatherman’s political and tactical errors.
But Lerner’s book is ultimately not, like Mark Rudd’s Underground (2010), the confessions of an erstwhile true believer, penitent in his disavowal of the failed god of violence. Nor, finally, does Swords share much with the contributions of Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson (Fugitive Days, 2001, and Flying Close to the Sun, 2007, respectively). With a mix of candor and evasiveness, they variously defend and denounce the extremes to which they took their rage.
Lerner, we quickly learn, never was a true believer — at least not in the ultra-radicalism distinguishing Weatherman. In that sense, he stands apart. The challenge the book poses is therefore what to make of the desultory fellow traveler or rebel with only a muddled cause — someone along for the ride without ever quite being on board. One cannot simply rue his fanaticism, or praise the courage and consistency of his conviction, or suffer his ambivalence, or embrace his anguished redemption.
Lerner himself spends much of the book trying to answer the riddle of how he got so thick into things with such a thin commitment. “So how,” he asks, “did I end up making so many rash and destructive choices?”
The pace of his radicalization was indeed stunning. Coming of age in the mid-1960s, he had by the elevated standards of his generation no more than an average disgust with racism and war and desire to set things right. At college in Antioch, Ohio, he authored some provocative antiwar protests but remained only “moderately politically active.” By late 1967, he was invited onto the regional staff of SDS in New York City, never having attended a meeting on his campus. Personal loyalties and the hope that being a “professional revolutionary” would void the frightening question of what to do with his life soon sent him through the looking glass to land in Weatherman.
Though never in leadership, Lerner played important roles. He headed the SDS national office in the Chicago office when the group was fending off felony charges and preparing for the underground. He put out the SDS newspaper as it converted to pure agitprop, strewn with real-life cartoons of street combat. He was even tasked to explain to incredulous media Weatherman’s mayhem during the October 1969 Days of Rage. Throughout, he seemed buoyed by the thrill of it all, while mostly numb to the escalating danger.
Again and again, Lerner stresses, his participation in Weatherman meant his crudely resolving — or in truth setting aside — multiple confusions and crises of identity. The personal, Lerner ably confirms, is ever the political. The Weathermen’s peculiar contribution to this truism was to be partly led by a host of personal complexes to try to transcend or deny the personal altogether.
Lerner never remotely succeeded in this gambit. Psychologically and organizationally, he was always one remove from the group’s heart and heavy collectivism. He flew solo as head of the SDS national office while most Weathermen were gearing for battle in harrowingly intense cells. He was stranded in Cuba with a Venceremos Brigade when the townhouse blew and the group submerged underground. Never joining his comrades below, he instead played support roles that left him both miffed and relieved.
But most of all he struggled to find personal liberation amid the consuming crusade of revolution. As a semi-closeted gay man in the mostly hostile New Left, this chiefly meant reckoning with his sexuality. Swords thus attains a second life as bildungsroman-as-coming-out narrative. Lerner’s journey ranged from unrequited crushes on fellow Weathermen, to decently earnest sex with some members, to hustles of affluent and accomplished men in swinging Paris, to sex romps spanning the United States’s shores. Now happily married to a man in Hudson Valley domesticity, Lerner is a proud veteran of an evolving, very real global revolution in human sexuality and identity. With whatever irony, the politics of his personal struggle proved far more consequential than his career as a stone-cold revolutionary.
Swords has the final, special virtue of speaking directly to the contexts of its moment. The floodgates of Weather histories and memoirs first opened around 9/11, after which terrorism became the great American menace and bogeyman. Former members have had to guard against the frequent right-wing charge that Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat, Osama bin Laden, Bill Ayers, and Assata Shakur are cut from the same evildoer cloth.
The charge is as offensive as it is false — especially in a country that sacralizes its own armed revolution and makes heroes of soldiers fighting for causes (as in Vietnam or Iraq, replete with war crimes) far less noble than national liberation. The response of former members has generally been to deny the label of “terrorist” by explaining the intensities and relativities of the 1960s, while steering clear of comparison with violent jihad.
But modern political violence has a distinct grammar, arguably known to all its far-flung practitioners. Conceding this, Lerner takes a different tack. He accepts the label of terrorist for the worst of what Weatherman did or planned. More than that, he confesses identifying — though at an enormous ideological remove — with aspects of today’s variously fanatical or misguided jihadis. The common threads are dire certainty of the rightness of one’s path, violence to compensate in part for individual angst, and acceptance of a tactical and moral logic of escalation unto death. Lerner now sees Weatherman as guilty of helping to desensitize the world to violence and of promoting chaos as a political virtue. With the wisdom of maturity he writes, “I am frightened of escalation. I remember how it seduces and blinds. I remember how to incite it. I remember I once believed that there was nothing left for us to do but make things worse. On purpose.”
These chilling lines hint at a second context for the book, made clearer with its occasional reflections on the looming 2016 election. (Swords ends the day before the election, giving the Trump presidency a haunting, elliptical presence in the text.) Trump has taken a blowtorch to American politics far more incendiary than Weatherman’s tiny match. Escalation, if once the obsession of system-hating leftist rebels, now heaves in the highest sanctums of US power. It seethes as well, as the murder in Charlottesville makes plain, in a vile, racist grassroots given soil and water from Trump. The peoples of the world are rightly terrified. And Trump doesn’t have the excuse of being young or driven by a passion for justice.
Without quite intending it, Lerner frames a current dilemma of the left: whether to shore up the institutions of a shabby republic that has always lied to and failed most of its inhabitants and pursue “radical reform” like single-payer health care; or to chase crisis and chaos in pursuit of whatever the latest radical dream. Perhaps each generation faces its own version of this choice. In the 1960s, choosing escalation seemed the measure of being vital, young, and radical — on the side of life in protest of a death culture.
Just as the era’s rebellion ramped up, Dylan turned the formula on its head in a song called “My Back Pages”:
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach
My existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
Seasoned by life and what he sees as terrible mistakes, Lerner has found his own voice to instruct us in growing young.
Jeremy Varon is a professor of History at The New School and is the author of Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, The Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies.