“To try to reform all the power structures at once would leave us with no power structure to use in our project. In any case, we will be able to see that absolute moral renewal could be attempted only by an absolute power and that a tyrannous force such as this must destroy the whole moral life of man, not renew it.”
―Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, Meaning (1975)
The terrorists attacked their target in New York on a sunny Tuesday in autumn—but not the sunny Tuesday we now commemorate. The year was 1981—a year in which, as Bryan Burrough observes in Days of Rage, his sprawling history of America’s post-’60s radical underground, the country had suffered the greatest number of fatalities from terrorism in that era of radical violence. That figure would not be surpassed again until the year the World Trade Center was bombed.
The 1981 attack is one of dozens of acts of cinematic violence narrated in Days of Rage, and it encapsulates some of the book’s key themes. A leader in the group that staged the attack was a man named Sekou Odinga. Born Nathaniel Burns, he had returned from Algeria, where he’d worked as a deputy for Eldridge Cleaver, who had established the Black Panther Party’s “international section” there (and was accorded official diplomatic recognition from Algiers). “We have a solidarity group in China,” Cleaver told a writer visiting his lair, which had a giant electrified map with colored lights that could be flicked on and off to represent revolutionary battlefronts all over the world. “Its chairman is Chairman Mao.” Cleaver also informally directed a new group from Algeria: the Black Liberation Army, a collection of terrorist cells that crisscrossed the United States, ambushing cops in cold blood. Upon its dissolution, Odinga helped start an even more shadowy and brutal organization, so informal that it went nameless, although its members referred to it as “the Family.”
The Family had an advantage over the Black Liberation Army, what its leaders called a “white edge”: a band of worshipful white fellow travelers who provided cover by renting cars and forging IDs. What the disciples didn’t know was that in the New York action, Mutulu Shakur and his comrades were going to carry out a “revolutionary expropriation” in order to buy cocaine. While two white accomplices, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, waited in a U-Haul truck, Shakur and two other men leaped out of a nearby van, shot a Brink’s guard to death, loaded $1.6 million in cash into the van, and sped off. Police officers intercepted the U-Haul vehicle and were about to release its white occupants—eyewitnesses had said the criminals were black—when Shakur’s crew sprang out of the rented truck and raked Rockland County’s finest with machine-gun fire, killing two.
Boudin and Gilbert ended up holding the bag, which had been the plan all along.That romanticism of violence, particularly by those far removed from its deleterious effects (“radical chic”), carries on today among advocates and devotees of the New Left, who view America only as an “evil nation,” unredeemable in its current political and economic structure. The New Left is often confused with liberalism; it is not. It does, however, have elements of both marxist and anarchist theory in its doctrines of revolution.
If the attack proved anything, it was the extraordinary resilience of “revolutionary” violence in the United States long after it had any conceivable chance of bringing about social change (assuming that such a chance existed in the first place). It also drew attention to the cultish behavior of the Family, their systematic exploitation of revolution-besotted acolytes, the incompetence of law-enforcement agencies in tracking them down, the underground network that assisted them, and the blood—barrels of it.
More important, the New Left has little or nothing in common with its predecessor, the Old Left, which was chiefly concerned with the rights of workers, economic issues and in particular issues revolving around social class. That the New Left wanted progress on social issues is understandable, and some of its ideas on women’s rights, on minority rights, and on the environment were ahead of its time. Its opposition to the Vietnam War was also later shown to be right.
Its chief mistake, among many, it seems, was its means of persuasion, and overestimating what it could achieve in a short period of time. It had unrealistic timelines; unrealistic understanding of the public appetite for revolutionary change, and perhaps, most important, it held an unrealistic understanding and appreciation of its power and influence in relation to the power and will of the American government and all of its agencies to maintain not only the old established order but also general civil order. This is after all one of the chief responsibilities of government in a civil society.
The New Left came out of the counter-culture and hippie movements of the 1960s, essentially a protest movement that drew inspiration from the Vietnam War, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Black Power movements. Unhappy with the communism’s authoritarian nature (as became publicly evident in the former Soviet Union), it thought it had a better way to create a new political order through the creation of new power structures. Social change is always easier than economic change, the history of nations show; it is easier to gain the public trust than it is to change the thinking of markets, which like no changes at all, but do, at times, from a position of self-interest, concede small incremental improvements to the mass of humanity. The market has no morality; zero compassion, zero empathy.
But violent idealists do, and plenty of emotion to fuel their anger and resentments. Yet, like all impatient and intemperate groups, revolution, violence and terrorism became an acceptable and “normal” way to achieve a “desired end.” Or to put it in simple terms, create disorder and disharmony. This, of course, means the destruction of old power structures, which only leads, as Polanyi & Prosch astutely write in Meaning, to horrible results for humanity. This shows that it is not enough to have a degree of idealism or good intentions, and that idealism combined with violence never achieves its desired aims. It becomes an end in itself, where it often leads to confusion, social unrest and eventually the restoration of law and order through tyranny.
A better long-term strategy for social change is to patiently and diligently work within the current system and use the nation’s judicial and political systems, the two arms of democracy. Laws have legitimacy, and that is what counts in the end. The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States is one recent example of using this approach, as was working to change cultural views through film, books, TV and other social media—an evolutionary process of societal adaptation. Idealism ought to also have a practical objective, if it is to eventually gain broad social acceptance. Gay individuals wanting to get married meets this criteria.
Overthrowing a democratically elected government does not.
For more, go to [The Nation]
Happy July Fourth, or Independence Day, to my American friends.