A Second Wind for Weather Underground? The Prairie Fire Statement
Published twenty years ago this week as part of Verso's Haymarket series, Ron Jacobs' The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground was the first comprehensive, single-volume history of Weather Underground. In eight compact chapters, Jacobs reconstructs the development of the infamous US New Left formation from it's emergence at the 1969 SDS convention through its dissolution in the early 1980s, following a series of splits and arrests.
In the excerpt below, Jacobs adumbrates the 1974 Prairie Fire publication, which heralded a new phase that proved the final one for Weather as such.
We are a guerrilla organization. We are communist women and men, underground in the United States for more than four years. We are deeply affected by the historic events of our time in the struggle against U.S. imperialism.
Our intention is to disrupt the empire, to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks, to make it hard to carry out its bloody functioning against the people of the world, to join the world struggle, to attack from the inside.
Our intention is to engage the enemy, to wear away at him, to isolate him, to expose every weakness, to pounce, to reveal his vulnerability.
Our intention is to encourage the people, to provoke leaps in confidence and consciousness, to stir the imagination, to popularize power, to agitate, to organize, to join in every possible way the people's day to day struggles.
Our intention is to forge an underground, a clandestine political organization engaged in every form of struggle, protected from the eyes and weapons of the state, a base against repression, to accumulate lessons, experience and constant practice, a base from which to attack.
Opening statement of Prairie Fire 1
Weather staged some armed actions in 1974, including its final bombing of the year on June 13 of Gulf Oil's headquarters in Pittsburgh — an act in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle against Portugal in Angola which caused over $350,000 worth of damage. But the group's major achievement of the year was not any armed action, or its statements concerning the SLA; it was the release in midsummer of Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. This 188-page work was the product of more than twelve months of thought, discussion, writing, and rewriting. The first detailed statement of Weather's politics since "You Don't Need a Weatherman" in June 1969, it described the group's plans for the immediate future and, like the "New Morning" statement, included criticism of its past. Most of the book consists of a summary of Weather history and a leftist history of the United States.
The book was rewritten four times in the course of a year before it was collectively adopted by the organization and published. Most of the writing was done by Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn (a pseudonym for several unnamed individuals). After each draft, copies were relayed to the remaining Weather "families” for discussion and revision. Van Lydegraf was also sent one of the later drafts for his input and it was his press which printed the final version. The distribution was coordinated by van Lydegraf, Jennifer Dohrn, and a number of other activists who formed the Prairie Fire Distributing Committee. The first edition appeared in bookstores in San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Madison, New York, and elsewhere throughout the United States on July 24, 1974. Eventually over 40,000 copies were distributed.
On the assumption that "the unique and fundamental condition of this time is the decline of US imperialism," Weather challenged the anti-imperialist movement to continue its revolutionary path. The group renounced its previous tendency which demanded an immediate revolution in the United States and declared that an American revolution would be "complicated and protracted" and involve many forms of struggle, armed and not. The years of political work, individually and collectively, undertaken by Weather enabled its members to place the struggle in a perspective they did not have in 1969. While maintaining Weather's internationalist context, Prairie Fire urged patience and warned against some "magical moment of insurrection." Reflecting a consciousness developed over years of revolutionary work, clandestine and aboveground, Weather urged revolutionaries in the US to organize and prepare constantly wherever they were and in whatever way possible.
Prairie Fire represented a shift in strategy, but one which had been developing since "New Morning, Changing Weather." While that statement had recognized the need for an underground army not to isolate itself from the masses, it was criticized for minimalizing the role of armed actions. Prairie Fire attempted to reconcile this apparent dichotomy by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of mass revolutionary organizing, while describing Weather as an underground organization. What this suggested was that Weather saw itself as the beginnings of a revolutionary people's army aligned with the revolutionary movement. This differed from their previous self-perception as primarily a foco organization whose role was to commit armed actions without any concern for organizing a political movement to support those acts. Whether or not the rest of the revolutionary movement shared Weather's new perception of itself was questionable, primarily because most revolutionary groups of the period were in the process of either reorganization or disintegration. Those revolutionaries not in organizations, meanwhile, were hesitant to align themselves with any group and often unwilling to even speak in terms of revolution, given the paranoia and lack of direction in the movement at the time.
This widely felt disillusionment in the movement was the result of multiple factors. Foremost among these were the counter-insurgency efforts of the state. Although the intensity of the legal and illegal campaign against the anti-war and anti-racist movements had decreased somewhat by 1974, the effects of COINTELPRO were still felt. Other factors which contributed to the despair of the Left in the 1970s, in Weather's opinion, concerned tendencies within the movement itself including a distrust of organizations, cynicism, racism, and sexism.
According to Prairie Fire, distrust of organizations arose from their failures, and the trend in organizations to replicate the hierarchical structures of the dominant society. In its early months, Weather was itself guilty of this. However, as the organization matured, the tendency to mimic the sexist structure of, and manipulate differences prevalent in, capitalist society eventually diminished. Distrust of movements was also evident in a turn toward cynicism in the early 1970s. From National Lampoon's satirical portraits of the anti-war movement to the distrustful mood expressed in rock music (for example, Lennon/Ono's "The Dream Is Over"), the general tendency among young people during this period was to abandon all hope. Weather sympathized with the demoralization and sense of hopelessness felt by many activists and blamed much of the prevailing attitude on the cult of individualism in US society. Prairie Fire encouraged understanding and urged the Left to persist in the struggle, especially in fighting sexism and racism in society and the movement. These struggles were critical as activists now organized more in the workplace, where racist and sexist unions and union members were commonly found.
Turning from the Left to the world situation, Prairie Fire warned that "conditions will not wait." The statement then proceeded to analyze two crises in the US in 1974. The first was Watergate. Calling it a "magnificent victory of the struggles of the Sixties," Weather recognized the troubles of the Nixon regime as a "reflection of the US empire in crisis" and a battle for power among the ruling elites. For Weather, the actual break-in at the Watergate Hotel was a logical extension of the Nixon program of militarization; Prairie Fire discussed the prosecution of the case and noted that all "the Watergate investigations . . . never explored Nixon's deliberate aggression against Black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican communities,” nor the criminal actions undertaken in Indochina. Nonetheless, in Weather's opinion the crisis was a victory for the people because it destroyed "the myth of American freedom and democracy."
The imperial myth described by Weather was further undermined by the advent of the energy crisis of 1973 — a crisis which, according to Weather, was "the crisis of imperialism." In an attempt to maintain their rate of profit in the face of the formation of the oil cartel (OPEC), the energy companies, along with the government, devised a phony oil shortage, providing them with an excuse to more than double prices and thereby maintain their already high profits. In turn, these profits enabled corporations to buy out smaller companies and consolidate their monopoly. Then, according to Weather, while American drivers sat in lines to buy overpriced gasoline, the Navy consumed over one-third of the oil used by the US.
Weather pointed out that this "crisis of imperialism" was evident in the ecological devastation caused by the continual exploitation of the earth by big business, and in the use of energy cost increases as reasons to refuse labor demands. It was further evident in the high food prices brought about by increased transportation costs to agribusiness, and in the rent increases charged by landlords to cover their costs.
Above all, Prairie Fire was a call to organize. Weather asked questions that all revolutionary movements throughout history had faced, and sought to apply the lessons it had learned to a program for the US revolution in the 1970s. Once again identifying US imperialism as the enemy of the world's peoples, Weather stated that its goal was to "attack imperialism's ability to exploit and wage war," and to eventually build a socialist society in the United States. To begin this process, Weather reiterated its original thesis that the empire must be at least partially destroyed. Naturally, the weakest links in the imperialist chain were the colonies. For that reason, claimed Weather (as it always had), it was the liberation of the third world which held the key to the eventual liberation of the mother country.
To assist in the liberation of the colonies, the Left in the United States needed organization. Without organization, Weather insisted, there could be only limited direction or results in political work. In a statement indicative of the political understanding gained from Weather's experiences, Prairie Fire urged people to never "dissociate mass struggle from revolutionary violence.” To do so, claimed Weather, was to do the state's work. Just as in 1969-70, Weather still refused to renounce revolutionary violence for "to leave people unprepared to fight the state is to seriously mislead them about the inevitable nature of what lies ahead.” It was Weather's belief that imperialism would not "decay peacefully.”
The difference in Weather's insistence on the need for revolutionary violence in 1969-70 and in 1974 concerned the role of the mass movement. In 1969, after the failure of the Days of Rage to involve thousands of youth in massive street fighting, Weather renounced most of the Left and decided to operate as an isolated underground group. That decision caused the group to lose sight of its commitment to mass struggle and made future alliances with the mass movement difficult and tenuous. By 1974, Weather had recognized this shortcoming and in Prairie Fire detailed a different strategy for the 1970s which demanded both mass and clandestine organizations. The role of the clandestine organization would be to build the "consciousness of action" and prepare the way for the development of a people's militia. Concurrently, the role of the mass movement would include support for, and encouragement of, armed action. Such an alliance would, according to Weather, "help create the 'sea' for the guerrillas to swim in.”
The importance of revolutionary culture expressed by Weather in "New Morning" was addressed in various ways throughout Prairie Fire. While critical of the prevalent hedonistic tendencies of the youth culture, Weather hailed the communities the culture had built and urged them not to rest on their past achievements, but to continue their opposition to imperialist war, racism, and sexism. Prairie Fire insisted that revolutionaries needed to view the youth culture not as a thing of the past, but as a very real culture of opposition which could become permanent.
One method proposed by Weather to make it permanent was the proletarianization of the culture. While nominally defined as a consciousness of anti-imperialism, what Weather actually meant by "proletarianization,” was identification with the populations of those nations victimized by imperialism and "discarding the privileges of empire.” This definition, when placed in the context of Weather's internationalist worldview, where all oppressed people suffered at the hands of US imperialism, lent a new meaning to the concept.
The most striking differences in the analyses of "You Don't Need a Weatherman" and Prairie Fire lie in Weather's changing ideas regarding women and feminism. In sharp contrast to a professed ignorance of the women question in the earlier statement, Prairie Fire provided the reader with a clear analysis of the issue. Fundamental to its analysis was the belief that imperialism, by definition, necessitates the subjugation of women. As mentioned before, this change in awareness was related to the changing role of women in the organization and to certain trends as the women's movement grew in the early 1970s. One trend emphasized the advancement of individual women within the system; another insisted on a complete separation from men; and another saw the enemy not as men, but as the system of imperialism, which manipulated both sexism and racism to its own ends. It was this third trend which was both embraced and developed by Weather, along with other anti-imperialist groups and individuals.
This analysis implied an understanding that any improvements in the lives of women such as daycare, birth control, or even higher wages, were merely reforms and did not accomplish any fundamental change in women's lives or in the manner in which women were perceived. In fact, as stated in Prairie Fire, such reforms only made women's lives bearable and, consequently, showed both women and men that sexism would exist as long as imperialism did. Prairie Fire, echoing the Women's Brigade communiqué of March 7, 1974, argued that without the power to control daycare, birth control, and other aspects of their daily lives, women would find that any progressive reforms could and would "become their opposite in the hands of the ruling class.” For example, birth control could become population control and daycare could be used for state indoctrination. For these reasons, then, Weather insisted, women must support socialist revolution and the revolution must support the women's movement.
The section on women attacked the racist tendencies within the women's movement and pointed to how the mainstream media had manipulated a fear of rape into a fear of third-world men. Weather challenged the complacency of much of the white feminist movement, and called for international solidarity with the women of the world, especially those in Vietnam, Palestine, and Puerto Rico.
To express that solidarity, and simultaneously express a "righteous anger at oppression," the statement encouraged women's resistance to sexism to be militant and courageous. To be otherwise, it argued, would detract from the history of women's resistance as well as imply acceptance of the violence of imperialism. In reply to those critics who considered militancy a macho or male response, Weather urged women to fight for the revolution as one lives for the revolution. In other words, with a total commitment without regard for personał reward.
For the most part, Prairie Fire was received positively by the revolutionary Left. The despair felt by many activists as they searched for a strategy to deal with the “Vietnamized” war in Indochina, which was still unresolved, and with the energy crisis and the economic recession, was lifted somewhat by the public release of the statement. At a press conference called by aboveground supporters and friends of Weather, a variety of activists spoke about it.
First, Jennifer Dohrn summarized the book's contents and placed the statement in the context of the period. It was, according to Dohrn, a period of reorganization and reflection for the American Left, and Weather's analysis could only enhance discussion about the future. Two other women present — Laura Whitehorn, a Weather supporter, and Ro Reilly, a Catholic anti-war activist — spoke of the statement's inclusiveness and understanding of women's needs and oppression. Whitehorn argued that Prairie Fire was "an articulation of true feminist politics set in the context of world forces” and urged revolutionary women to study the document. Red Murphy, a former Attica inmate, articulated the sentiments of those present when he said that Prairie Fire's most important point was "its call for unity on the Left." 2
In their review of Prairie Fire, the staff of Takeover in Madison, Wisconsin (by 1974, one of the few underground newspapers still holding true to its revolutionary roots), noted that the lack of "apocalyptic rage and rhetoric" in the book did not mean an end to Weather's militancy. Instead, argued the Takeover staff, the document "clari[fied] the present thinking of SDS's boldest heirs and spelled out the priorities of the seventies.” 3
As for some of SDS's other heirs, their response was critical. Carl Davidson, still writing a column for the Guardian and a member of the Los Angeles based Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group, the October League, accused Weather of "repudiating the proletariat" and having a "bankrupt line." 4 His primary criticism, however, concerned Weather's view of the role of national liberation movements, both internationally and domestically. According to the Leninist model, the proletariat is the main revolutionary force, and national movements become its allies. According to Weather, however, the revolutionary national movements were proletarian revolutions in their own right against the world imperialist class, and provided the leadership in the worldwide anti-imperialist revolution. This view, argued Davidson, rendered a workers' party irrelevant and made socialist revolution impossible. For Davidson, Weather had learned nothing in its years underground except perhaps better public-relations methods.
Davidson's opinions are indicative of the state of the US Left at the time. The major leftist organizations of the late 1960s were, with the possible exception of Weather and the SWP virtually non-existent. They were replaced nationally, during a period of open sectarianism and police provocation, with such organizations as the social-democratic New American Movement, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist October League and Revolutionary Unions, and the increasingly isolated and reactionary Lyndon LaRouche front groups such as the Labor Committees and National Labor Party, The total membership of all these groups was microscopic in comparison to the movement's heyday — perhaps 3,000 at most. Other groups, such as the SLA, the New World Liberation Front (NWLF), the BLA, and similar clandestine organizations engaged in armed struggle, accounted for perhaps a couple of hundred more activists. What these numbers suggest is that the signing of the Vietnam peace accords, an increasing cynicism among youth, a growing awareness of the limitations of a culture based on youth and leisure, and the effectiveness of the government's counter-insurgency efforts insured that ever smaller numbers of American activists were committed to revolution.
1. All quotations in this chapter, unless otherwise noted, are from Weather Underground Organization, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary AntiImperialism, Communications Co., 1974.
2. Rosenstein, "Weather Manifesto Surfaces,” City Star, September 974.
3. Staff, "A Single Spark Can Ignite a Prairie Fire", Takeover, September 9, 1974.
4. The October League was formed in 1973 by members of a Los Angeles Marxist-Leninist cell and other communists. Davidson and Mike Klonsky were its best-known members. Their all-out support of China alienated them from much of the Left, especially their support of China's arming the Shah of Iran and other counter-revolutionary governments and movemenats (UNITA in Angola, for one).
5. Carl Davidson, “Which Side Are You On?,” Guardian, October 9, 1974.