Bayard and Me

The story of Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle.

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Bayard Rustin has gotten a great deal of posthumous love and, IMHO, he deserves it. After all, this is someone who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, almost entirely behind the scenes. And he was restricted to that role only because he was gay. This short video memoir by the love of Rustin’s life, Walter Naegle, compliments that aspect of Rustin’s life.

Rustin was a rather more complicated character, however, and many of us lefties regarded his later career as being something of a sell-out. But, like Rustin himself, it’s complicated.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bayard Rustin, I’d recommend John D’emilio’s biography Lost Prophet. You can also listen to a 35 minute interview with author D’emilio on Rustin on Episode 14 (March 10, 2012) of Chicago DSA’s Talkin’ Socialism:

 

Bad Moon Rising

a review by Bob Roman

Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution by Arthur M. Eckstein. Yale University Press, 2016. 352 pages. $35.

The 1960s and 70s were a radical time in U.S. history, a time that make today’s political divisiveness and culture wars seem relatively mild and civil. In 1971, Scanlan’s Monthly, expanding on the work of Congressional committees, counted several thousand acts of bombings, arson, and other assorted political mayhem in the course of a year. There is reason to believe this catalog did not capture everything nor was the violence done only by lefties. Apart from almost routine police violence directed at the left, there were white citizen councils (often with state financing, most notably in Mississippi), militias and vigilantes (individuals and groups) instigating violence against the left or replying in kind. But the “long hot summers” of urban disorders (“riots” they were called but often had the characteristics of insurrections), the decay of the military in Vietnam (drug use, fragging, refusal of orders) had President Nixon in high anxiety. Portions of the left agreed that a revolutionary, or at least an insurrectionary uprising was in the works and desirable.

Bad Moon Rising deals with one of the more notorious (and for some, romantic) left-wing terrorist groups, the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, aka “Weathermen”, began as a Marxist-Leninist faction of what had been an old left, social democratic student group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Since World War I, SDS had been the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (under the brand “Student League for Industrial Democracy”), a group that ideologically owed as much or more to John Dewey as to Karl Marx. Separating from the League over the League’s obsessive anti-communism, the SDS caught the winds of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. It rapidly expanded from a few hundred members to well over 100,000 members (and at that point they pretty much stopped counting) while remaining overwhelmingly a campus-based organization. By 1968, the national organization and many of the larger chapters had become battlegrounds for multiple Marxist-Leninist groups, leading to the infamous 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago’s old Colosseum. The organization split into three main factions plus a multitude of disaffiliated local chapters that quickly disappeared. One of the factions became the Weathermen. Arthur Eckstein explains this history in a bit more detail, but if you’re interested in how an organization of several hundred members in 1960 grew to over a hundred thousand in less than a decade, you’ll probably want to find a copy of Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent organizational history, SDS, though there are other works that will provide more context.

Eckstein’s book is a bit more about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) than the Weather Underground. Eckstein took advantage newly available FBI documents as well as doing interviews with many of the principle members of the Weathermen. He was unable to interview many of the FBI agents as, being a generation older than the Weathermen, most of them were dead. Some of the Weathermen were also unavailable, notably two of the top leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Eckstein’s own political history may well have set off alarms for Ayers and Dohrn as Eckstein went through a conservative anti-communist phase during which he wrote a half dozen articles for David Horowitz’s Frontpage, mostly dealing with examples of left-wing hypocrisy. That alone would be enough probably. But as Ayers’ two political memoirs, Fugitive Days and Public Enemy, have been critiqued as being factually challenged in places (Faulty memory, pled Ayers; it’s a memoir not a history.), the request must have seemed like a prelude to a set-up.

Is there anything new here? Not being a scholar, I can only say that there are things that were new to me. The book’s stereoscopic view – the FBI and the Weathermen – makes for an interesting read. With regard to the FBI, I suspect what’s new is mostly detail. Every lefty knows the FBI’s founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, was a bastard who was willing to break the law for political ends, but he was a canny bastard who always kept in mind the potential political consequences of getting caught at anything less than legal. He had been burned by the bad optics resulting from botched Palmer Raids in the 1920s. For that reason, he preferred that his agents have some plausible legal cover and he was perfectly happy to sabotage some of Nixon’s schemes, especially when they potentially undermined his control of the FBI. Nixon’s replacement FBI Director upon Hoover’s death, L. Patrick Gray, was every bit as much a bastard, but he was also a careless idiot, perfectly willing to demand illegalities from his staff while leaving them to decide the specifics and providing them with no cover for doing so. Two FBI agents ended up on trial, convicted then pardoned by President Reagan. Likewise, while FBI agents could find no evidence of foreign support for the Weathermen (indeed, representatives from Vietnam and Cuba advised the Weathermen against violence and in favor of above ground demonstrations and political pressure), Nixon was never convinced. The closer one got to Nixon’s White House, the more delusional the image of the Weathermen became.

While the FBI had hundreds of “informants” in the SDS (including 198 “informants” who were delegates to the 1969 convention and advised by the FBI to vote for the Weathermen), they only succeeded in placing two in the Weathermen. One was Larry Grathwohl. (In Public Enemy, Ayers denies Grathwohl was a member.) The FBI prematurely blew his cover to arrest two New York members in 1970. The other hasn’t been identified, but the second never did as much for the FBI, apparently. Despite the leadership being on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, the FBI never succeeded in arresting any of the Weather Underground until after Dohrn and Ayers were ousted from leadership. They ran a tight ship.

While it isn’t new, Eckstein takes some pains to point out there is something of a “party line” regarding the history of the Weather Underground. According to that version of history, from the time the organization went underground to the infamous New York townhouse bomb factory explosion, there was the intent to “bring the war home” to America with violence. Even so, the New York cell’s plan for bombing a USO dance with a powerful anti-personnel explosive was a rogue operation, unknown to the central leadership. In the wake of that self-inflicted disaster at the townhouse, a national meeting was held in Mendocino, California, where violence against people was rejected. Eckstein contends that the New York cell was hardly a rogue operation; the Weather Underground was too tightly controlled for that to be plausible. Mark Rudd’s memoir Underground, among other accounts, supports this. (Rudd knew about the plan, but then, he was also in New York; he’s a bit ambiguous as to how much others knew.)

Whatever: Subsequent bombings done while Ayers and Dohrn were in leadership were property-directed as a form of political commentary. It’s also apparent that not every Weatherman was happy about this restriction; Dohrn and Ayers were ultimately given the boot by their own comrades who then changed that policy. After that, things went downhill for the Weather Underground. The incompetent and violent new leadership, under Clayton van Lydegraf, were rounded up and sent to prison by 1977.

It’s notable that until then, in Eckstein’s words, “the FBI never permanently caught a single major Weatherman figure, or stopped a single bombing. In part that was because of FBI clumsiness, in part because the Weathermen were very careful – and in part because they did not do all that much.” (p 237) It’s also worth noting that as individual Weathermen surfaced, very little punishment was meted out, even though many of the charges were serious, because generally what evidence the FBI had had been gathered illegally.

(The one Weather Underground action that I approved of at the time was their bombing of the Haymarket police statue that then stood in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But that’s another story. And in any case, it’s not as if the Weathermen would have cared had they known.)

It is interesting that Eckstein regards the Mendocino meeting as one of those historically unknown events of major consequence. Had the Weathermen continued a course of violence against persons rather than property, Eckstein feels that Nixon was just crazy enough to drop “any pretense of adhering to judicial or legal constraint”, perhaps implementing Hoover’s little list of 11,000 lefties who wouldn’t be missed. We’ll never know, thankfully. But it does have some plausibility. The FBI initially gave the Weathermen far more credit than they deserved. For a while, the FBI labelled most left-wing violence as “Weathermen”. And there was a lot of it. Ultimately the FBI settled down in their assessments, but the Nixon White House never did.

This is outside the scope of Eckstein’s work, but around the turn of the millennium, there was a sudden nostalgia about the 1960s on many college campuses: long hair, drugs, anarchist politics and even the SDS, which was refounded at the University of Chicago in 2006. The “New SDS” enjoyed a brief “new kid on the block” prosperity of interest that quickly faded. It still staggers on as an all volunteer organization with a dozen or so campus chapters.

As the nostalgia crystallized into the new organization, old SDS leaders, mostly old Weathermen, got a lot of love. Maybe it’s because the anarchist and the Marxist left share with conservatism a view that government is inevitably oppressive; oppression is part of its DNA. So, these old Weathermen: They opposed the State in the name of peace and justice and got away with it! Role models! Heroism!

For my part, I think we deserve an apology instead. Bill Ayers supplied a clever one, designed to irritate his enemies. He’s “sorry we didn’t do more.” More what? Right-wing commentators had a field day with that, but it’s not as if Ayers had any intention of apologizing to them. Can’t say that I blame him. What democratic socialists should think of it, I’m not sure. I’ve read both his memoirs, and I have a feeling maybe Ayers isn’t sure either. He’s clearly not willing to discard those years, but much of his work in the decades since resembles the fruit of John Dewey social democracy, things that, for the most part, the original SDS would have been comfortable with.

Mark Rudd, in his memoir Underground, is less coy in his apology:

“…Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended. We deorganized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI – our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll. As if all this weren’t enough, three of my friends died in an accidental explosion while assembling bombs. This is not a heroic story; if anything, it’s antiheroic.” (page ix)

It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. political landscape if elements of the communist left had not deliberately destroyed SDS. An organization the size of 1969 SDS could have been a significant player in national politics. Imagine the New American Movement (founded by refugees from SDS, NAM was one of the predecessor organizations to today’s Democratic Socialists of America) starting out with over 100,000 members. Yet if Revolutionary Youth Movement I, Revolutionary Youth Movement II, National Labor Committee, Progressive Labor Party, et. al. hadn’t done in SDS, J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program (remember those 198 FBI delegates to the SDS convention?) may have destroyed it instead.

Maybe one of the main points to take from Eckstein’s work is that insurrectionary (let’s beg the question of what constitutes “revolutionary”) politics suck. For all the organization, solidarity and cleverness that going underground demanded, the Weather Underground accomplished nothing much of any consequence. In contrast, the damage it did to its members and members’ families and the rest of the left was considerable. This is not a route to take if you can avoid it.

And what of today? In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign and most especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President, the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned from about 6,000 members to somewhere north of 30,000. Will it pop like SDS? History never quite repeats itself. Instead of the grim coalition of bomb-throwing wanna-be Maoists that wrecked SDS, if DSA is wrecked, it would more likely be done by a motley rabble of anarchists and Trotskyists who, instead of bombs create molehills to kick over using social media character assassination well practised since high school. Mean girls of the world, unite! To be fair, these are techniques as old as politics but made accessible to all by social media and the web. Should this happen, its manifestation may very well not be a “split” but simply a rapid deflation of disgust and disappointment. None of this is inevitable, nonetheless: Those not ignorant of history might not avoid repeating it, but at least they will not be surprised by it.

Oh yes. What’s this “Bad Moon Rising” business? It turns out that cheery Creedence Clearwater Revival tune with such grim lyrics was something of an anthem for the Weather Underground. Song author John Fogarty was not impressed, according to Eckstein. But here’s a cover by Battlefield Band, better than the original IMHO.

The Waldheim Cemetery

The Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, is where the martyrs of Chicago’s Haymarket Affair are buried. Over the decades, I’ve been out to the martyrs’ monument several times, but May 1st has generally found me submerged in the details of an annual fundraising dinner in addition to the usual all else. Now I’m retired, so this last April 26, I took the CTA Blue Line to its Forest Park end and walked the few blocks south to the cemetery.

The day had a really wonderful light and, away from Lake Michigan, it was actually warm. It was, unfortunately, a day in which I never really awakened so my efforts to locate everyone I wished to visit were not all that successful.

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The Haymarket Martyrs’ monument (center) in the Waldheim Cemetery. Photo by Roman.

The monument is owned by the Illinois Labor History Society. They were not the original owners and, yes, there is an interesting story about how it came to be their responsibility. I don’t recall the story well enough to relate it, but it’s worth noting that a contribution to the Society does help with the monument’s upkeep.

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Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument. Photo by Roman.
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Haymarket Martyrs’ monument, decoration. Photo by Roman.

Note the offerings: I’m mystified about the coins and rocks, but the buttons make sense. Also note the anarchist graffito. Relations between the Illinois Labor History Society and various self-styled anarchists have been a bit tense over the years. The anarchists are happy to be disgruntled about the Society’s liberal and social democratic and labor and socialist and communist connections — bourgeois state-ists! — and that the National Park Service gave the site official recognition. Recognition of anarchists by the state?! The state that killed them?!!

The traffic at the monument is not huge but there is a constant trickle. While I was there, a women stopped by driving an SUV. She toured the monument and several graves behind. After a while I came up and asked, “Come to pay respects?”

“Every year,” she replied.

She left shortly after. I hope I didn’t speed her departure, but I do make some folks uneasy.

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Haymarket Martyrs’ monument, decoration. Photo by Roman
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Haymarket Martyrs’ monument, decoration. Photo by Roman
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Haymarket Martyrs’ monument, rear. Photo by Roman
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Emma Goldman’s grave, Waldheim Cemetery. Photo by Roman

More than just the Haymarket martyrs are buried around the monument. Here is the famous anarchist Emma Goldman. Note the offerings, also no graffiti. If you’ve not read her autobiography, you really should make the effort. Two volumes: she had a lot to say but not so much as that inflated ego, Winston Churchill.

The Illinois Labor History Society has documented nearly 100 lefties buried around or near the monument, mostly anarchists and stalinists with a few odd trotskyists and democratic socialists and labor folks thrown in. Plus, there are others who’ve had their ashes scattered around the monument. (Welcome back, “Big Bill” Haywood! I don’t believe this return to Chicago counts towards getting back that bail money your supporters put up.) If anarchists and stalinists sound like an odd combination, keep in mind they both have a similar view of government: it’s an instrument of oppression.

For my part, I’d be happy to fertilize the roots of some marijuana plants, though I’d settle for tomatoes if need be. Take a deep breath and hold me in.

During the summer months, the Society has guided tours of the Monument and graves around it. You can find out more HERE.

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Tobey and Mort Prinz at the Waldheim Cemetery. Photo by Roman.

I brought along a map of lefty graves from the Illinois Labor History Society, but I didn’t locate most of the ones I wanted, especially those at any distance from the monument. This is too bad as there are a few folks buried here who I actually knew and worked with.

Two of them were Tobey and Mort Prinz. When I moved to Rogers Park, I moved into a building that was the object of an organizing campaign by the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. Tobey Prinz was one of the leaders of the organization, so much of my brief career as a tenant organizer involved working with her and Mort. Residents of Rogers Park can thank these two (among others) for Loyola Park.

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Ralph Helstein had been head of the United Packing House Workers Union. Photo by Roman

Ralph Helstein had been the President of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. He gained some fame (or notoriety) by successfully resisting the McCarthy era purge of communists from AFL-CIO unions. He was also an early honoree at the annual Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee’s Thomas – Debs Dinner in Chicago.

I met Ralph and Rachel Helstein a few times, and I once attended a meeting at their Hyde Park home. In this century, I got to know their daughter, Nina, who I’m always glad to see when our paths cross at demonstrations or other events.

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Lucy Parsons at the Waldheim Cemetery. Photo by Roman

Did I mention anarchists and stalinists? Before I forget, here’s a famous person that embodies both: Lucy Parsons, the widow of Haymarket martyr anarchist labor leader Albert Parsons. She ended up a member of the Communist Party. My cynical take on it is that with membership she could continue advocating that workers organize and smash the state while at the same time having the Party support her. After all, how else is a radical woman of color going to earn a living in Jim Crow America? Her old anarchist comrades were not impressed, from what I’ve read. Even so, I would have hoped for a monument more monumental. She played a larger role in U.S. politics — both in life and after — than this modest rock would suggest.

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Photo by Roman

I have no idea what this is. There’s no inscription that I noticed beyond a date in Roman numerals on a tablet within. There’s a story here but I don’t know what it is. It’s probably the second most interesting item at the Waldheim after the Martyrs’ monument and its associated graves.

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Photo by Roman

Aside from the above, the Waldheim Cemetery is boring. Apart from some of the older monuments, there is a manufactured quality to the place, lacking any sense of history or individuality. Some of the newest large monuments seem to be homages not to the departed but to “brutalist” architecture — if not steel and glass, the geometry is the same. It’s not as bad as a “ticky-tacky” suburban housing tract, but…

Well, there are always trees.

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Waldheim Cemetery. Photo by Roman

May Day Began in Chicago

Labor Day for the world: “Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own. Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?”

In most parts of the world, May 1st is Labor Day but not here in the States, even though May Day had its beginning here in Chicago. It was part of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. Most Chicagoans are totally oblivious of this. In fact, most are only dimly aware that there may have been any controversy about having an 8 hour work day, thinking that it just came naturally. Rather than having this handed to us on a plastic platter, it was part of a political process wherein people were killed or wounded by the police or executed by the State. The incident that came to symbolize this was the Haymarket Affair that took place on Chicago’s near west side on the evening of May 4, 1886.

After some noodling around on the web, I found this documentary by Argyrios Marmaras and Gus Prekezes. It appears to be one of the better of those available on YouTube, especially as it draws on some of the past leaders of the Illinois Labor History Society. Two of them, Les Orear and William Adelman, have passed away since then. (They look quite young compared to when I last saw them.) It also includes comments from Oscar Neebe a descendant of one of the Haymarket martyrs.

At only a half hour, the documentary leaves a lot out.

One thing that might have been interesting would have been to include comments from descendants of Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield, who gets a lot of shade in this account. This would not be for “balance” as far as I’m concerned. I’m not on Bonfield’s side, so much so you would have to pay me to live on Bonfield Street. But at least one account that I recall reading indicated his descendants were still to this day firmly on Inspector Bonfield’s side. The contrast would have helped illustrate that this conflict is not just history but part of the present as well.

As Warren Lemming comments in this documentary, you can’t recreate the past. But you can approximate it. William Adelman comes close when he points out that at the time of the Haymarket incident, elections in Chicago were not done by secret ballot, making even dissent by voting a risky business. What Adelman does not mention is that the 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly were also not especially respected in law, never mind practice. Local governments in particular were regarded as having much the same rights as private land owners. Thus a demonstration on public property could legitimately be prohibited or dispersed if the local government did not like the message or even just the messenger. Or for no reason at all. This didn’t begin to change until the 1920s.

All this is to point out something the documentary (and the Illinois Labor History Society) skirts: Some of the Haymarket Martyrs were advocates of armed violence (dynamite as a political tool) and bombing — and in fact builders of bombs and organizers of left-wing militias. This position may seem unreasonable if you can in fact organize and speak out, but in the context of the times, it makes some sense. The documentary does discuss a systemic campaign of repression prior to the incident, but without the legal context, it’s easy to assume this was something unusual or extraordinary when in fact it was not even, legally, misbehavior. Adelman also mentions how the poor lived within a very few city blocks of the very wealthy, implying the contrast was a motivation for outrage among the poor that they lack today. But proximity has got to have been an inspiration for fear and loathing among the wealthy as well. Poverty makes people crazy, most especially the very rich.

If you’d like to learn more about labor history in Illinois, check out the Illinois Labor History Society.

Socialist International Meets

This was originally published in New Ground 144, September — October, 2012.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) met in Cape Town, South Africa, August 30 through September 1. This 24th Congress was the first to be held in Africa and the location seems to have attracted some attention and participation that it would not have had otherwise. The meeting was hosted by South Africa’s African National Congress. Over 400 people, representing more than 100 political parties and organizations, participated.

DSA is somewhat incongruously a full member of the SI; the SI is an organization of political parties and DSA is not a political party. DSA was represented at this Congress by Maria Svart, Skip Roberts, Gerry Hudson, and Mark Levinson: a heavily SEIU delegation and, therefore, maybe taken somewhat more seriously than many past DSA delegations. (“There goes the ghost of Michael Harrington.”) Possibly because it is an election year, the National Democratic Institute (an associated organization) was not represented, but then, not many other associated organizations were represented either.

While George Papandreou was re-elected President, there actually was a contested leadership election. Incumbent Secretary General Luis Ayala (Chile) was opposed by Mona Sahlin from Sweden. Ayala was re-elected.

The SI Congress adopted three resolutions.

“The Struggle for Rights and Freedoms” was an examination of the current upsurge in demands for democratic rights. In principle, there’s nothing difficult for the SI about it except that in far too many cases (the former member parties from Egypt and Tunisia, for example) SI parties have been an embarrassing part of the problem.

One might suppose “The Need to Secure Multilateralism” resolution would be aimed at the United States. But there are far too many other countries also willing to take matters into their own hands, and the resolution wisely recognizes this. Given the SI’s inability to enforce anything, it does end up having a well-meaning, hand-wringing affect to it. For example:

“With regard to Syria, the SI is following with deep concern the massacres that take place on a daily basis, as the Assad regime refuses to accept that change is inevitable. We stand firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their fight for democracy and human rights and condemn the brutal actions of the regime. We call for all sides to end hostilities and enter into negotiations without any preconditions. We are not in favour of foreign military intervention, which can lead to further human suffering and instability in the whole region. We strongly support a Syrian-led process of transition to democracy.”

One should not be totally dismissive of this, however, as the SI seems to serve as a diplomatic back channel for “progressive” elements in governments.

The economics resolution calls for a progressive fiscal policy:

“a bank levy or increased income tax on high earners, redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom; the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax; a new global reserves system that could provide developing countries with access to financing, giving them purchasing power and helping to drive demand by using resources that would otherwise be idle; and by establishing new financial institutions such as development banks and green banks that could create new credit mechanisms, enabling credit to flow once more and provide more liquidity to ensure the resources meet public needs.”

The resolution goes on to condemn austerity as a solution to the fiscal crisis and calls for

“a bold approach based on a new culture of solidarity, solidarity that works separately and simultaneously at different levels: economic, political and social. Otherwise, any government that acts alone risks being crushed by markets and ratings agencies. Common action and creative initiatives are needed to bring about a paradigm shift from the failed austerity policies; that is the only way to a sustained recovery.”

Previous meetings suggest that the SI is evolving in ways that may or may not be encouraging, and the accounts of this meeting suggest the process is slowly ongoing. For more details about the 24th Congress, see http://www.socialistinternational.org .

Post Script: I think this was the last SI meeting at which DSA was represented. The 2017 DSA National Convention voted to terminate DSA’s membership in the organization. In my humble opinion it was a brainlessly symbolic decision, but it does have the advantage of saving several thousand dollars in dues. Since DSA hasn’t had an international political agenda that I know of, this is money wisely not spent.