Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 18, 2008

Who is Bill Ayers?

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm


If you listen to rightwing talk radio, you’ve probably heard Bill Ayers’s name before. WABC AM, a prime outlet for Limbaugh and company, has been burning up the dial recently over this ex-Weatherman who is supposedly in bed with Barack Obama. The Ayers quote that they keep using over and over again comes from a September 11, 2001 NY Times profile that begins:

“I don’t regret setting bombs,” Bill Ayers said. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”

They keep harping on the September 11 date as if Ayers was in cahoots with Mohammad Atta. Any fool would know that the first newspaper reports on September 11 appeared the day after. It was just a coincidence that Ayers’s profile appeared the same day as the 9/11 attacks. They also make a big thing about Ayers stating that “we didn’t do enough”, when in fact he was almost certainly referring to their failure to end the war.

Ayers tries to explain what he really meant on his blog:

Regrets. I’m often quoted saying that I have “no regrets.” This is not true. For anyone paying attention-and I try to stay wide-awake to the world around me all/ways-life brings misgivings, doubts, uncertainty, loss, regret. I’m sometimes asked if I regret anything I did to oppose the war in Viet Nam, and I say “no, I don’t regret anything I did to try to stop the slaughter of millions of human beings by my own government.” Sometimes I add, “I don’t think I did enough.” This is then elided: he has no regrets for setting bombs and thinks there should be more bombings.

Obama told the idiot George Stephanopolous that he was only 8 years old when the Weathermen were setting off bombs. For the benefit of many of my readers, who were not even a gleam in their father’s eye back in the early 70s, a word or two of introduction is in order.

The Weathermen started out as a faction of SDS. At the 1969 convention, there was a 3 way split. The “Worker-Student Alliance” (WSA) was led by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and basically promoted a kind of “serve the people” missionary-like strategy which involved students getting jobs in factories and preaching to the workers. The WSA was opposed by the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which was divided into RYM1 and RYM2. RYM1 was led by Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn and other SDS leaders who had become deeply frustrated by the inability of the student movement to end the war.

After RYM1 morphed into the Weathermen, the 200 or so members adopted a neo-Narodnik strategy and went underground. Unlike the original Narodniks, the Weathermen never assassinated government officials. They only set off bombs at government buildings. When they weren’t setting off bombs, they were imbibing huge amounts of psychedelic drugs and having orgies. Generally speaking, the Weathermen not only reflected the excesses of the 1960s but strove to embody them.

Like the WSA, RYM2 adopted Maoist politics, but supported Black and Latino nationalism, which PLP regarded as “dividing the working class” in the style of the CPUSA–a party that its leaders had emerged from in the 1950s. RYM2 was a genuine “New Left” tendency as opposed to PLP/WSA’s ambitions to resurrect “Third Period” Stalinism.

RYM2 eventually spawned a number of “Marxist-Leninist” formations whose history was documented by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air“. All of the groups that originated in RYM2 are now defunct, except for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a sect-cult around Bob Avakian who was a RYM2 leader.

While everybody should repudiate the “violence baiting” of Barack Obama, there is a separate question of more direct concern to the radical movement and that involves the legacy of the Weathermen. It would be a big mistake to romanticize them since their politics did a lot to undermine the radical movement in the 1970s. The capitalist class can always replace the bricks that a Weathermen bomb destroyed, but it had a much harder job dislodging radical ideas from a student or young worker. By making an amalgam between the radical movement and the Weathermen, it sought to drive a wedge between us and ordinary American workers who had the social power to end the war and the capitalist system itself eventually.

In today’s Counterpunch, there’s an article by Dave Lindorff that gets the Weathermen wrong. He writes:

While many in the anti-war movement condemned the actions of the Weather Underground, I would argue that they, like the militant Black Panthers, performed an invaluable role by sending a loud, clear message to the nation’s ruling elite that if they continued the war, things would get worse at home.

Their actions made the peaceful mass protests against the Indochina War far more potent, because they forced the ruling elite in the US to have to ponder what would happen if those masses turned to the same kind of violent measures against them.

There is no evidence that the “ruling elite” feared the spread of Weathermen tactics. They knew that the frustrated young radicals had almost no support on the college campuses or high schools. Furthermore, people who demonstrated against the war were not likely to risk prison sentences. Indeed, examination of the historical record will show that the SDS’ers who became Weathermen had turned their back on antiwar organizing by 1967 at least. It was their retreat from mass demonstrations in fact that prepared the way for Narodnik tactics. Political isolation from the mass movement almost guarantees that you will be looking for short-cuts, like setting off bombs.

The late Fred Halstead, who led the SWP’s antiwar activity, once characterized the Weathermen as young people who never lost their ties to the bourgeoisie no matter how outrageous they behaved. If you think of them as children throwing a tantrum, it makes perfect sense. Instead of holding their breath until they turn blue, they set off bombs instead. If daddy didn’t stop bombing the Vietnamese, they’d drive him nuts. That was the real logic of Weathermen bomb-throwing, not socialist revolution.

If your goal is to pressure daddy into changing his ways, then it is likely that you will think up ways to persuade him that you are a good boy or girl when tantrums don’t work. Becoming a good boy or girl in the U.S. of course means becoming a pillar of your community and becoming active in the Democratic Party. Despite Ayers’s claims on his blog that he still “against imperialism”, he has found a home in the party that is totally committed to ruling the world on behalf of American corporations.

The NY Times reported that in 1995 State Senator Alice Palmer “introduced her chosen successor, Barack Obama, to a few of the district’s influential liberals at the home of two well known figures on the local left: William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.” In other words, Ayers and Dohrn were involved with the Democratic Party at a fairly high level. Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, served as an adviser to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the son of the former Mayor who unleashed the cops on peaceful demonstrators in 1968.

Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician, told the NY Times about his initial encounter with Obama at Ayers and Dohrn’s home:

“When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn,” Warren [Maria Warren, another liberal] wrote on her blog in 2005. “They were launching him – introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread.”

Warren’s blog entry apparently was what led to rightwing efforts to link Obama to the notorious “bomb thrower” when in fact Warren considered Obama and the former Weathermen as too tame by even her own liberal standards. Such is the grotesque character of American politics that an utterly conventional tête-à-tête among utterly conventional middle-class liberals can become transformed into the second coming of the Smolny Institute.


  1. I won’t remind you, what is two sides of the same coin, or if scratched what it turns to.

    Great post.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — April 19, 2008 @ 4:44 am

  2. I had some dealings with Bill Ayers in my final year at Goddard College in 2000 around the publication of a manuscript I submitted to Teachers College Press. He’s a cagey one, that one is. Most people just send you aa rejection notice if they’re not interested in your work, Bill plays a “now you see it now you don’t” game, and then acts as though it’s all on your end of the exchange. To paraphrase the Old Moor, if that’s socialism, I at least am no socialist.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — April 19, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  3. I have absolutely no idea what Ayers means in the paragraph you quoted from his blog. The paragraph concludes:

    “This is then elided: he has no regrets for setting bombs and thinks there should be more bombings.”

    What does the word “this” refer to? It makes no sense.

    Or is it that Ayers should have used a word other than “elided?”

    If this is typical of the language used by Ayers, I can easily see how his comments can be misinterpreted, or how people can infer things that Ayers did not intend to suggest. But it seems difficult to willfully distort his comments.

    Comment by alan — April 19, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

  4. The name ‘Weathermen’ alsways seemd to me to express the counterintuitive natue of their strategy. They took the name from from a song, and what di the song say? You DON’T need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

    Comment by Chuckie K — April 19, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  5. Interesting that Ayers and Dohrn were/are apparently such insiders in the Democratic Party, at least according to your take. In the documentary film, The Weatherman, they still talked like thay were radicals. Seems like I have seen Dohrn’s name associated with Monthly Review in recent years as well. Could it be that they still are radicals, and just think that tactically that the left needs to work in the Democratic Party so as to defeat the far-Right Republicans?

    Comment by Sheldon — April 22, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

  6. Ayers and Dohrn certainly are radicals, but they are mistaken in supporting DP candidates. The DP has been around since the days of Andrew Jackson and its racist and imperialist character is pretty well established.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — April 22, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

  7. Re: Comment #3 by Alan:

    Ayers is saying that the things he has said, “no, I don’t regret anything I did to try to stop the slaughter of millions of human beings by my own government” and “I don’t think I did enough” are “elided” (condensed? joined together?) by others into the assertion that “he has no regrets for setting bombs and thinks there should be more bombings”.

    BTW, IMO the problem with the WUO was not the bombings, but their self-important rhetoric. If they had merely stated with humility that they were trying to do their small bit to interfere with the imperialist war machine and the domestic oppression of Blacks and other minorities, without any pretense that they were making the revolution, they would have had a much better psychological effect on the broader movement.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — April 26, 2008 @ 6:48 am

  8. This post is right on the money. As Markin at American Left History (and I’m sure many others) has said, the association says more about Ayers and Dohrn, and there reformist, pro-democratic party politics than it says about Obama.

    Thanks for using the reference to Narodism. Its very apt for the Weathermen and even today’s Black Bloc-ers.

    Comment by Nicholas — April 30, 2008 @ 12:08 am

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