Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2017

Charles Manson and the 1960s

Filed under: cults,Kevin Coogan,television — louisproyect @ 8:54 pm

Just by coincidence, the 83-year old Charles Manson died in Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield just 12 days after American Horror Story aired a chillingly accurate recreation of the infamous Helter Skelter murders in 1969 that landed him and all but one of his henchmen in prison for the rest of their lives. Steve Grogan was the only member of his cult to ever be paroled. Even as the judge in his trial stated that he “was too stupid and too hopped on drugs to decide anything on his own”, he spent 14 years in prison. Another cult member, one “Squeaky” Fromme was not involved in the Helter Skelter killings but gained infamy for aiming a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1979. At her trial, where she refused to cooperate in her defense, she reacted to the life sentence by saying, “”I stood up and waved a gun for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation.”

Clearly, these people were borderline psychotic or even fully fledged.

This, the seventh season of American Horror Story, is titled Cult and is deeply engaged with American politics today even if it avoids making social commentary. The primary purpose of the series that concluded last week is to use the right/left divide in the USA today as satirical fodder after the fashion of Mike Judge or Trey Parker but with a Grand Guignol sensibility.

The primary character is a Richard Spencer type named Kai who shows up in a small town just before the 2016 election to build support for Donald Trump. Before long he finds himself in a clash with a married lesbian couple who are divided over who to support. One is committed to Hilary Clinton and the other to Jill Stein.

Before long, Kai has built up a cult of locals, including the Jill Stein supporter who has abandoned her Green Party politics as easily as a snake sheds its skin. The cult is on a secret mission to plunge the town, the state, and eventually the entire nation into fascism through a series of false flag incidents. One he dubs “The Night of a Thousand Tates” in homage to Charles Manson. He will send out his cult members to knife a thousand pregnant women, just as Roman Polanski’s wife, the very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, was killed in 1969. Manson intended his murder to spark a race war by having his acolytes scrawling the word “pigs” on Polanski’s house, a word associated with Black militancy. In Cult, it is not made crystal clear why killing pregnant women will spark a war between the Christian right and Hilary Clinton voters but by episode 10, Kai is a raving lunatic.

To prepare his followers for “The Night of a Thousand Tates”, Kai recounts the Helter Skelter murders that are reenacted quite graphically in episode 10 with the actor playing Kai also playing Manson (in the previous episode, he became Jim Jones). The purpose of the politics in Cult is simply to provide a peg upon which gruesome scenes can unfold with deadpan humor and it succeeds nicely. If you want to get your minds off the real horrors taking place in Puerto Rico or Syria, this FX series is just the thing.

I have vivid memories of the Charles Manson incident since some on the left endorsed his attack. In 1981, Lucinda Franks wrote a 6600-word article for the NY Times that made an amalgam between SDS, the antiwar movement, and Manson:

”All white babies are pigs,” one Weatherman shouted during the council, in which some 400 people crowded into a large hall hung with signs reading ”Piece (that is, guns) now.” Bernardine Dohrn, who later took control of the organization when it went underground, made a speech accusing the left of being scared ”honkies” for not burning down Chicago when Hampton was killed, and urging her audience to take up arms and be ”a fighting force alongside the blacks.” The Weathermen were to become as savage as Charles Manson, who massacred Sharon Tate and her friends in her Beverly Hills home. Dohrn said: ”Dig it, first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”

While everybody understood that the Weathermen had lost their minds by this point, there were others who were nearly as bad, even though they were considered to be reasonable. The New Times, a magazine that was the Salon.com of its day, had a cover photo of a handcuffed Manson with the heading, “The Media Assassination of Charlie Manson: Last Interview from Jail”.

You have to keep in mind that Manson had adopted the guise of a hippie guru after being released from prison in 1967. He headed straight for Berkeley where a fellow ex-con had helped him find an apartment. He supported himself at first by begging on the street, which was very common in those days, and then went on to leech off of various wealthy people, including Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson and his 12 female cult members moved into Wilson’s mansion where the two were served by them as if sultans in a harem. Manson, who had dreams of becoming a musician and songwriter, impressed Wilson so much so that he actually recorded a song Manson had written titled “Never Learn to Love” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRGI5Exr3ZQ).

By 1969, the bloom had faded from the hippie rose. First, there was Manson’s cult and then there was the free Altamont rock concert in 1970 when Hells Angels hired as security guards for a rock concert knifed a black man to death during a Rolling Stones performance. Billed as Woodstock West, it was ample proof that the “groovy” vibe of the earlier concert had died. The Angels had become respectable after Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, had invited them to one of his acid-dropping sessions.

In keeping with the nihilistic anthem “Sympathy for the Devil” that the Stones began to perform, a confrontation began that resulted in the murder of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old African-American man who was totally stoned and bent on mounting the stage. After he was punched out by a Hells Angel, he drew a 22 caliber pistol from within his jacket and headed toward the stage again. At that point, the Angel drew a knife and stabbed him to death. For young “peace and love” hippie types, this incident symbolized the end of an era and meshed perfectly with the sense of futility over the continuing war in Vietnam. The Maysles brothers made a documentary about the concert titled “Gimme Shelter” that can be viewed here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEw_FuglGVU

I watched all this going on from a distance feeling rather superior to the hippie implosion. I was around people who had never taken drugs and who went about their mission of overthrowing the capitalist system with a single-mindedness that was the polar opposite of the hippie dream of achieving peace and love by “dropping out”.

I had no idea at the time that I too belonged to a cult but one that was far less malevolent than Manson’s or Kai’s. What they all had in common was a subordination of the individual to the Divine Master that prevented independent thinking. By the end of the seventies, I had become a disillusioned ex-cult member but not one who had given up on the stated purpose of the cult, namely to create a society based on human need rather than private profit. I had come to the conclusion after a very painful experience that socialist revolutions are carried out collectively but Marxist thought is a deeply individual endeavor. Unless you think for yourself, you cannot make a contribution to Marxism. The conditions that created the deep alienation and criminality of Helter Skelter and the Altamont concert are spawned by a system that has long outlived its usefulness. It is no accident that the fascist-like movements that are making headway around the world, including the USA, put a premium on following a leader blindly. This is essentially the message of American Horror Story: Cult that lies beneath its Grand Guignol surface.



  1. Especially well written, Louis… thanks. Happy Thanksgiving – Richie

    Comment by Richard Greener — November 22, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

  2. Agreed. Hard-won truths. Happy Thanksgiving Louis. Best, Brian

    Comment by Brian McKenna — November 23, 2017 @ 12:49 am

  3. I have no truck with defending Ayers/Dohrn/Weathermen — but it’s not that hard to at least google the quote and find their interpretation. But of course that might interfere with Louis’s pristine narrative regarding the relationship between Manson and violent antiwar radicalism:


    Another Big Lie is the famous Charles Manson story. Bernardine was reported to have said in the middle of a speech at an SDS meeting in Flint, Michigan, “Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they put a fork in their bellies. Wild!” I didn’t hear that exactly, but words that were close enough I guess. Her speech was focused on the murder just days earlier of our friend Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, a murder we were certain—although we didn’t know it yet—was part of a larger government plot, the Gestapo-like tactics of an emerging police state. She linked Fred’s murder to the murders of other Panthers around the country, to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba, the CIA attempts on Fidel’s life, and then to the ongoing terror in Viet Nam. “This is the state of the world,” she cried. “This is what screams out for our attention and our response. And what do we find in our newspapers? A sick fascination with a story that has it all: a racist psycho, a killer cult, and a chorus line of Hollywood bodies. Dig it!…” So I heard it partly as political talk, agitated and inflamed and full of rhetorical overkill, and partly as a joke, stupid perhaps, tasteless, but a joke nonetheless—and Hunter Thompson for one was making much more excessive, and funnier, jokes about Charles Manson then, and so was Richard Pryor.

    Not only is it apocryphal and demonizing, it’s irrefutable—every attempt to explain, including possibly what I just wrote above, is held up to further ridicule, as deeper dimensions and meanings are slipped into place and attached to the story. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, for example after a three hour conversation, reached over and touched Bernardine’s arm and said, “I just have to ask you about the Manson quote. It’s my duty as a journalist.” I heard Bernardine respond in full, explaining the context, the perverse humor of it, Fred’s murder and all the rest, her own meaning-making and her sense of its meaning to insiders and outsiders alike. It made no difference: Kolbert reported the received story intact without any mention of any part of their exchange, and with this added fiction: “The Manson murders were treated as an inspired political act.” Not true, not even close, a lie on every level.

    And two months later Steve Neal of the Chicago Sun-Times, playing off Kolbert, wrote: “…the Weathermen idolized killer Charles Manson and adopted a fork as their symbol…” Not true, not true. But what’s the use? By the end of the year a Time magazine essayist called me an “American terrorist,” and echoing the New York Times, said that “even today he finds ‘a certain eloquence to bombs.’” It’s all part of the endlessly-repeating official account, the echo that grows and grows as it bounces off the walls. How can it ever be effectively denied?

    Comment by David Green — November 23, 2017 @ 4:04 am

  4. It would surprise only cult members that their leader’s watching something from a distance wouldn’t enable him to give an honest account of it.

    Comment by davidly — November 23, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

  5. I also regarded Dohrn’s remarks as a joke but a telling one. The Weathermen were becoming a deranged terrorist sect at this point and her joke was what you’d expect from someone who had taken one too many LSD trips. My recommendation is to read Mark Rudd’s memoir to get an idea of how nuts they were, as opposed to Bill Ayers’s self-serving garbage.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 23, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

  6. The hippies had already fallen apart back in the “Summer of Love” disaster in the Haight Ashbury in 1967. That was the trial run for mass communal living while staying high as a kite. The masses consisted of teen-age runaways from rural Indiana mixed with Hell’s Angels on the make from Oakland. They had long hair, used drugs, so they were hippies. By the end of August, the neighborhood was a disaster, a lot of the runaway girls were working as prostitutes, overdose deaths had soared, and everybody who lived through the experience knew that turning on, tuning in and dropping out didn’t work…except for a minority who were so stoned by then that they couldn’t think even half-straight. Altamont and the thing New York (I always forget the name…Woodstock) were just the aftermaths of what had already happened. Charles Manson et al. were another example of the deadly fall out along with Jim Jones, Scientology and dozens of lesser know cults including some which thought they were revolutionary parties.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — November 23, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

  7. Apologists for Weatherman are incorrigible.

    Fortunately there are now plenty of ex-Weather people who are up front that it was a crazy violent cult.

    According to the author, Steve Neal from the Chicago Sun Times invented all this.

    Actually the story of Flint came from the Liberation News Service that covered Flint extensively.

    Here are excerpts from the 1970 LNS report on Flint as reprinted in the Militant (p 12).

    Click to access v34n01-jan-16-1970-mil.pdf

    This is the report that made it clear Weather had gone off the deep end. But now Steve Neal made it all up including the sign of the fork. “Not true, not true”: Yes it’s not true, because Steve Neal didn’t make it up.

    We also get “Bernardine was reported to have said . . .”

    It was LNS that reported the Manson stuff and much more besides.

    Also we are treated to someone who has a remarkable memory of BD’s exact words said some 50 years ago and which no one reported at the time as a joke.

    Nor were her remarks spontaneous.

    (As for Fred Hampton, he despised Weather and constantly ridiculed the group as everyone knows.)

    As LNS first reported, the hall in Flint for the “Wargasm” has a large poster of Sharon Tate among other “enemies of the people.” Howie Machinger said that the remarks of Dohrn were discussed ahead of time by the Weather Bureau, which was in charge of putting up pictures, including Tate’s.

    From Rudd’s memoirs:

    There were crazy discussions at Flint over whether killing white babies was inherently revolutionary, since all white people are the enemy. Out of this bizarre thinking came Bernardine’s infamous speech praising Charles Manson and his gang’s murder of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and the LaBiancas. “Dig it!” she exclaimed. “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!” We instantly adopted as Weather’s salute four fingers held up in the air, invoking the fork left in Sharon Tate’s belly. The message was that we shit on all your conventional values, you murderers of black revolutionaries and Vietnamese babies. There were no limits now to our politics of transgression.

    But now it turns out she was just “joking.” So Machinger and Rudd got it all wrong and the poster of Tate never existed either, one presumes. Basically BD was doing something like a stand-up act like Richard Pryor or Hunter Thompson!

    Well this new version of the defense should get points for humor since it’s truly laughable. No matter what Mark Rudd says, Steve Neal made it all up, including the fork sign.

    Instead of just admitting the obvious fact that WU went down the rabbit hole, BD’s dwindling band of defenders are still trying to justify/minimize her remarks, a task made much more difficult given the numerous memoirs.

    The one thing I do feel should be mentioned in her defense, as it were, is that her remarks were not spontaneous but reflected a political discussion in the Weather Bureau so she should not be blamed alone. In that sense, for decades she has taken a bullet for the team.

    In reality the Manson rant was approved by the Weather Bureau who went with the JJ urban terrorism line as opposed to Jim Mellen and some others who jumped ship after Flint.

    To BD’s credit, after the Townhouse explosions, the Eggplant DID abandon urban terrorism and JJ was kicked out. BD did something very valuable and admirable but it came as a major reversal of the Flint debacle symbolized by the sign of the fork. (As for JJ, he went on to fight the revolution as a pot dealer in Vancouver if I recall correctly.)

    If you want to defend WUO, it makes much more sense (at least to me) to point out this fact that BD was part of the leadership that reversed course rather than to try to pretend that what happened at Flint never happened at all and was all an invention of “the man.”

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — November 26, 2017 @ 6:44 am

  8. More BS from Proyect. Why don`t you do serious work like review an updated version of Hollywood Babylon, report about the 107 doctors that remained in Eastern Ghouta that I told you about and you did not have the guts to talk about, or learn why it matters if Planned Parenthood changes the ending of a movie so that a woman does not murder a child. Don`t trust your wife “Louis Proyect“. She is all that you admire in your perverted social liberal articles.

    Comment by Lawrence — November 29, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

  9. Lawrence, don’t you realize your taunts are a sign of intellectual impotency?

    Comment by louisproyect — November 29, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

  10. You are a liberal Louis Proyect who has not reported about how many doctors have died in the countryside of Damascus in the last few months or that the United Nations cannot get into Syria or that there are United Nations investigations into prosecuting Bashar al-Assad for war crimes in the ICC.

    Comment by Lawrence — December 4, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

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