The Weather Underground

The Weatherman organization, variously known as Weather Underground, etc., existed in the United States for roughly ten years, from about 1969. But it was actually only for a few months that it had a viable existence; after its members inadvertently blew up a townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Manhattan (March 2, 1970), killing three of their own, it was all downhill. Together with its allies in the Black Panther Party, Weatherman was the most violent American opposition to the Viet Nam war. It adopted Ho Chi Minh as its ideological father.

The video shown above is but one of a number of such treatments by a largely sympathetic press. Weatherman is most often pictured as idealistic, devoted to human betterment, but as using unacceptable methods, i.e. violence.

The most informative description of Weatherman is probably that by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book “SDS,” published in 1973. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was the large student organization of the 1960’s which later morphed into Weatherman. Like most writers on the subject, Sale writes as a sympathizer of this larger “Movement,” but he writes with absolute realism about the darker side of Weatherman: its violence, blind fanaticism, hopeless self-righteousness, ridiculous posturing.

We now have a new account by one of the former Weathermen, or Weatherwomen, who were in that townhouse on 11th Street when the bomb went off. In fact that building belonged to Cathy Wilkerson’s father. Her book is entitled “Flying Close to the Sun,” Seven Stories Press, 2007. It adds very little to our knowledge or understanding of the movement. It does have a useful table of Weatherman bombings (taken from a 1974 book by Jonah Raskin), most of which took place after Sale’s book was published. Wilkerson can also tell us, as Sale could not, what it was like to be a rank-and-file member. It seem that the leaders had (literally) caviar while the followers subsisted on peanuts. And it also appears that Weathermen considered themselves above all the laws of human restraint. Wilkerson participated in a sexual orgy with fellow members (but the sex was not good) while the love of her live was in jail for a few weeks.

Wilerson lived in hiding for years and also served time for her part in the bombings, but she has now repudiated her violent past. Her account is wooden and formulaic. Ho Chi Minh, after all that has happened to the international movement of the Communist dictatorship, is still her hero. Her book is much more recent, and is written by a participant, but it lacks the understanding, the descriptive power, and yes, the intelligence of Kirkpatrick Sale.

Weatherman will continue to be of interest to students of social movements. For one thing, it invites comparison to the movements of our day.

a) Weatherman was one of the most conspicuous opponents of the Viet Nam war. Today we have the Iraq war, and a variety of movements to oppose that. One contrast, well illustrated by Weatherman, is that today’s war opponents do not champion the other side. There are no “Sadam, Sadam, Sadam Husein” chants that could be compared to Weatherman’s “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.”

b) Weatherman believed in direct action, violence, and the use of dynamite. In that it invites comparison to the terrorists of our day, say the Islamists. The contrast could not be more stark. Weatherman was careless in its use of bombs, but any loss of life, it would seem, was inadvertent. This surely cannot be said of the Islamists.

Weatherman, if not the only home-grown terrorist group in American history, was probably the most spectacular, certainly in modern times. But its fanaticism and violence were soon spent. It seems that there were no deep cultural American roots to sustain it in the long term.

The Peacock Factor


I am not picking on Columbia University, nor on its renowned Barnard College (alma mater to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among many others). Other bastions of culture, of good taste, of integrity — I know this only too well — are as strong on the Peacock Factor as is Barnard.

But still, it is striking. Barnard is auctioning its good name with a frank, some would say shameless, appeal for big bucks. Specifically, it appears that for twenty million dollars anyone, yes anyone, can have his name attached to a new building up there on Broadway somewhere. (Would Al Capone qualify if a descendant of his were willing to cough up the dough ? Good question.)

But wait, there is more. More “Naming Opportunities,” many more. For a mere five million you can have a “special events space” named after you, and for even less than that, two and half million, the greenroof can be Your Greenroof. For those with smaller fortunes, or perhaps smaller vanities, there are other “opportunities” throughout this building, listed by the floor, for all those interested in buying a spot of honor, or limelight, or whatever it is that tempts them so.

All this was enough for me to reach for my well-worn copy of Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” which is all about conspicuous consumption and invidious display, and which was published more than a hundred years ago but is as much on the mark today as it was in 1899. (You can download a copy of this book, free, if you click on its link in the right-hand column of this blog.)

In comparison with Columbia’s Barnard, a certain little synagogue in the outer boroughs is smaller than small. And sure enough, the prices in its catalogue of “dedication opportunities” seem addressed to pikers: your name on the Hebrew School program will cost you but a quarter of a million; your name on the elevator the smallish sum of $75,000, and — what a bargain ! — you can get your name on the Rabbi’s Study Mezuzah for no more than $36,000. (Hershey H. Friedman of Brooklyn College, basing himself on the Talmud and Maimonides, among others, writes about ostentation in Jewish life.)

Oh well, we can’t all get into Columbia University, but we can all (well, all those with a modicum of wealth) do what is done at Columbia, and for a lot less.

Mr. Galloway Implodes

The British political movement “Respect,” led by George Galloway MP, has imploded after existing for all of three years. One might say that Mr. Galloway himself has imploded.

Mr. Galloway, GG, has been an explosive, unpredictable, divisive force from the beginning of his career. A BBC report gives a restrained overall aperçu: always troubled by charges of financial irregularity, a declared enemy of “Bush, Blair, and Israel” (see the video below), yet an effective rabble-rouser and far-Left politician, Mr. Galloway nevertheless could never manage to cooperate even with those whose views are identical to his. The Independent adds the detail of Mr. G’s justifying, in advance, a suicide murder of Tony Blair.

Mr. Galloway was originally a Labour MP from Scotland, as his truly pretty brogue will attest. But alas Labour expelled him. So Mr. G., with Muslim and Trotskyist supporters, created “Respect,” and then was narrowly elected in a riding in England, defeating the only Black woman in the House in the process.

But now Respect, or so it would seem, has effectively come to an end. It has split, and will hold two rival conferences next week. It’s hard to see how anything effective can survive.

The movement was cobbled together by joining British Muslim groups with the Trotskyist “Socialist Workers Party.” What they have in common is this: all hate the West, all hate America, all hate Israel. It was a matter of lining up, in Mr. Galloway’s memorable phrase, against “Bush, Blair, and Israel.”

But while for the Muslims there surely is a God (at least so one would hope), for the Trotskyists there is no God but Trotsky (well, maybe Marx too). So, like all good things, Respect has come to an end. Galloway still has most of his Muslims, and with them has walked out to found “Respect Renewal.” The SWP retains the old Respect. But without GG, how can that be more than an empty shell ?

The British writer Oliver Kamm has been able to hold his nose long enough to give us news, more or less blow-by-blow, of Renewal’s implosion. The SWP has its own version, and so of course does Mr. Galloway.

"The Internationale" with Scottish brogue

The Scottish Socialist Party gives us this bit of leftist shmaltz. Watch Barbara Scott. By the way, Mr. George Galloway (see later postings on this blog), one-time socialist MP from Scotland but now absconded to England, has never liked the Trotskyist SSP. Too much competition, I guess.

In one of those truly weird stories that plague extreme leftists from time to time, the Trotskyist SSP has had a great deal of grief from its former leader Tommy Sheridan. It’s all about sex and alleged lies about sex — so much so that the political side of these left-wingers has been seriously compromised. The links I have just provided will fill you in, if you’re looking for a spot of entertainment.

The Extreme Right in Today’s Germany — ct’d


They cannot escape history. Whatever similarities there may be with radical-right groups in other countries, it is the post-war extreme right in Germany that is uniquely shadowed by the figure of Adolf Hitler.

Last year’s book by Toralf Staud, “Moderne Nazis” (in German), gives a thorough and vivid description of the Nationaldeutsche Partei Deutschlands and its variously associated but independent local “Kameradschaften.” We are indeed fortunate to have this measured and scholarly account. One of its many virtues is its excellent bibliography of the scholarly and journalistic literature. If I have a criticism, it is its failure to provide photographs. As was true of its Nazi predecessors in the Hitler period, this post-war extremist milieu must be seen to be appreciated– if not in person than at least in pictures. (Both YouTube and Flickr have pictorial materials, a small part of which I have presented on this blog earlier).

How large is this grouping in the Germany of today ? The German parliamentary system has a five-percent threshold that prevents splinter parties from entering the legislatures. As a result, the NPD has never been able to elect a representative to the national parliament. But in the late sixties and earlier seventies it was able to seat representatives in several Länder (states) of the then-West Germany. Today the NPD has representatives in only two Länder, Saxony and Mecklenburg – East Pomerania, both of which were in the former East Germany. The party garners between five and ten percent of the votes in those states, but can receive in excess of twenty percent in some small cities and towns. In the west, the NPD today is a hopelessly small splinter grouping.

As Staud shows in detail, the weight of the extreme right can only imperfectly be assessed by the voting strength of the NPD. The extreme right is somewhat heterogeneous, and some of its formations seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, for example, is the staid, traditional conservatism of German nationalism (harking back, in some respects, to the German-National Peoples Party [DNVP] of the pre-Nazi era), but on the other hand there are the very rowdy, unruly, brawling skinheads and right-rock enthusiasts. It is this latter scene, in particular, that seems to have given the extreme right wing, with the NPD at its center, a great new dynamism.

All sections of the extreme right have, more or less as articles of faith, these similarities:

1) First and foremost, a fierce xenophobia, especially a hostility to Germans of non-German origins, in particular those who came from Turkey.

2) A greater or lesser admiration of the Third Reich, or least a rejection of all views that saw Hitler as evil. Sometimes this takes the form of no more than nostalgia for the Wehrmacht, the trade in Nazi-era paraphernalia, etc. The new movie “The Unknown Soldier” (see review by A. O. Scott) documents the attempts of the extreme right to prevent the showing of an exhibition concerning the Wehrmacht in the Nazi era.

2) A rejection of the “system,” i.e. of the constitutional order of the German Federal Republic. There is much talk of “revolution” and the need to re-make the world. This has not always been true of the NPD. When it was founded, shortly after the War, it seemed content enough to work within the established order. In this earlier period it was able to elect representatives to western state legislatures, which it is unable to do now in its revolutionary incarnation.

3) Anti-Semitism. It came as a surprise to me that this theme is little stressed and seems to have low salience. It is simply taken for granted that Jews are to be hated, but little energy seems to be expended in this pursuit.

4) Opposition to Israel. The NPD and its fellow-travelers regularly embrace the anti-Israel stance of Arabs and left-wing Germans. This does not seem to cause discomfort in a movement that regularly denounces both the Muslims of Germany and the German left-wing.

5) Opposition to the West, particularly the United States. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of up-to-date international politics, but always also in terms of history, of the still-resented Allied victory in WWII.

Now, with Adolf Hitler as the unspoken but constant subtext to this movement, certainly so in the eyes of its many German detractors, we must observe some crucial differences from the Nazi movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

A. Unlike the NSDAP (Nazis) of the late Weimar republic, the NPD has no sizable popular base. In west Germany it seems to have no base at all, and in the eastern states, overall, it has a following of less than five percent of the population. At present, at least, it does not constitute a threat to German democracy.

B. Again unlike the NSDAP, which ultimately came to power only through deals with respectable parties, the NPD has been almost completely ostracized by other political formations. As long as this ostracism holds, it is difficult to see the NDP insinuate itself into any position of power anywhere in Germany.

C. Neither the NDP nor any other grouping on the extreme right has a charismatic figure who would command loyalty or admiration or respect within his own movement, let alone in the general public. In short, and alas for these new Nazis, there is no living Adolf Hitler now that they need one so badly.

D. The choreography of these two movements is radically different. The old NSDAP based itself on military traditions. It built a para-military grouping around itself, with uniforms, banners, badges, insignia, and a bold crimson flag that its Führer had personally designed. The extreme right of today, originally using traditional folk music and folkish cultural elements, is today dominated by the cultural styles of skinheads and rock enthusiasts. There are no uniforms. There are no storm troops. There are no para-military barracks.

What these differences imply for the future of the movement is hard to say. What is clear, though, is that the NSDAP has not found any sort of afterlife for its most significant features.

The Extreme Right Wing in Today’s Germany, part 1

I expect to post information about this troubling phenomenon from time to time.

Today’s extreme right wing in Germany has not been well reported in the western press, although the German media carry full, and disquieting, details. The movement, while heterogeneous, is united in its key tenets: anti-foreigner, anti-Semitic, respectful of the Third Reich, anti-American, anti-Israel.

At the center of this movement is the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or NPD. The party cannot currently obtain the support of any appreciable number of voters in the old, western regions. But in recent years it has made spectacular electoral gains in two of the new, eastern “Laender” (provinces) of the Federal Republic:

1) Sachsen. This is the land of the two important cities of Dresden and Leipzig. It is densely populated, having about 230 inhabitants per square kilometer. In the last (2004) provincial elections, the NDP obtained 9.2% of the vote, sending 12 deputies to the provincial legislature in Dresden.

2) Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. This is largely rural and small-town territory, north and east of Berlin, with a population density of about 73 inhabitants per square kilometer. In 2006 it elected 6 NDP deputies to the provincial legislature in Schwerin, the party having obtained 7.3% of the vote.

There is little that the English-only reader can find that is either reliable or comprehensive. I thought that the (English-language) Wikipedia article on the NDP is particularly biased — in favor of the NPD. But there is much in German that is informative. The German Wikipedia article is very good. There is also, among a number of other good German resources, the blog operated by Patrick Gensing.

Finally, there is the book-length study by Toralf Staud, “Moderne Nazis — Die neuen Rechten und the Aufstieg der NPD,” again, only in German so far. It should be issued in an English translation. I hope to report on this book in more detail in a future posting.

Occasional Writings by Werner Cohn,