Criminals with the Best of Intentions

I just finished reading Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, The Weather Underground, and Beyond by David Gilbert, and it was a bit of a surreal experience in that it held up a twisted mirror to me, revealing my darkest timeline. I resonate with a lot of Gilbert’s story, his analysis of events, and even his politics and intentions; but the book begins with the story of how he was arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, which resulted in a shootout and three dead police officers. Like me, Gilbert began as a pacifist; but within a decade he was participating in bombings and living as a fugitive.

After he starts from the beginning of his story, it becomes clear that self-criticism with the goal of improvement is one of the principles that Gilbert carried through every collective and organization he was a part of, and this book amounts to an extended self-criticism of his life. He says so in the introduction, pointing out that he wrote this book for the sake of his son Chesa, and also in response to the many letters he’s received from activists asking for wisdom and advice. He’s had a lot of time to reflect on his life, as he’s been in prison longer than I’ve been alive, and the depth of his self-criticism shows the perspective he’s gained, no doubt partially from growing older but mainly (I think) from time outside of his life as a revolutionary. His distance from the events has allowed him to acknowledge persistent flaws in his character, repeated mistakes both personally and organizationally, and flaws in the radical Left in general. A few things stood out to me as I read this book:

1. The Left Eats Its Own

Someone once told me that the Left eats its own, and I was disappointed to acknowledge how true that is, even in my own experience. Love and Struggle confirmed that for me, with story after story about infighting within organizations and between organizations who, by all accounts, should have been the closest of allies. Gilbert points out how much false motives played a role in this, over and over again: self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” who talk about solidarity with armed struggles abroad, but who actually just want to stoke their egos and dare themselves to be more radical; organizations who uphold being anti-male-supremacist and anti-white-supremacist as core definitive values, and yet maintain hierarchical structures and harbour racist and sexist attitudes; etc. To put it more bluntly than Gilbert does, a lot of the time they were being poseurs.

I think that the infighting in the organized Left is somewhat inevitable based on the character of the Left: it values education (and educated people love to debate), principles (and no two people have completely identical principles), and passionate advocacy. Add in a dose of human pride (leftist activists are often perceived to be holier-than-thou, and the perception is often all too accurate), and it’s easy to see why there would be conflict. Especially when leftist activists are concerned with so many issues, most of which are intertwined yet still represent so many perspectives and people groups; contrast that with the Right, which is much more homogenous (mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly Christian or otherwise religious) and places a higher emphasis on cultural uniformity. Gilbert’s life as an activist included involvement with anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, and anti-racism groups, often working in alliances (or working to build or maintain shaky alliances) between white, Black, Mexicano/a, feminist, and more generically leftist organizations. Each of these organizations had its own principles and purposes, and while they were all against American imperialism, sexism, and racism, their other principles often conflicted, sometimes over slight variations in interpretation of Marx or Lenin or Mao.

There’s also the Left’s desire to be non-complicit with evil or oppressive systems, and their ability to see systems everywhere. Not only are the principles of different organizations conflicting with each other, but they do so because the organizations have differing views of which systems the other is complicit with (e.g., sexism, racism, imperialism), and they vow not to ally themselves with that kind of complicity in order to maintain the stability and clarity of purpose of their own organization (but to the detriment of the larger movement). Ironically, the clarity with which they see the specks in their neighbours’ eyes not only doesn’t reflect in how they manage to miss the logs in their own, but also the logs in the eyes of the third-world revolutionaries they claim to have solidarity with: Gilbert describes Soviets and Maoists in a generally positive light in spite of their obvious horrors, and recalls an argument he once had with another revolutionary about whether or not it was alright for the communist Vietnam to invade the communist-of-a-different-stripe Cambodia. It turned out that the imperialist move by the Vietnamese (invading their neighbour) stopped the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of its own people. The third-world nationalist struggles were clearly idealized uncritically, except perhaps through analysis of their brand of theory (Marxist-Leninist vs. Maoist, etc.).

So how can people who work to allow the greatest extent of human freedom and individual rights and expressions maintain cohesiveness in spite of their differences? Individual critical thought and aversion to authority, while often excellent and necessary traits, keep the Left from working together with even a shred of the cohesive power of the Right, and I’m sure that this is why communist regimes tend to have well-developed propaganda departments. Leftist cohesiveness is impossible in an educated society that allows for criticism, even when there’s a common enemy to unite them.

2. It Takes More Than a Common Enemy

The principles that united the various groups that Gilbert interacted with were generally based in excellent values: anti-imperialism, solidarity with the oppressed, anti-male-supremacy, and anti-white-supremacy. The various groups also shared a foundation in socialist thought and analysis, mostly Marxist-Leninist though sometimes Maoist or Islamic. That said, the extent to which these values or perspectives were emphasized in each group led to divisions, as noted above; the only thing that kept them together, it seems, is a general sense of having a common enemy, American imperialism. Their major emphasis on solidarity was proved fragile by instilled racism and sexism, their distance from the third-world revolutions that inspired them, and their own differing analyses of theory and events and practices. There was a general assumption of humanism that undergirded all of the other values and principles, but at least in Love and Struggle it was merely an assumption and not elaborated upon.

Without a strong core, it’s easy for values to shift. How does a pacifist student protester evolve into a violent revolutionary? If generic humanism alone is the strong core, then the project was doomed from the outset, because humanism itself is not a core: it is derived from, and a mere shadow of, the true Human. Humanism itself can have many different perspectives and values that range widely simply because of its generic nature: humanism is basically a generic appreciation for human life, abilities, accomplishments, etc. It’s a powerful value that spawns many other powerful values, but it’s very non-specific. But if we recognize that humanism is a development of Christianity, which is based on the person and character of Jesus Christ, we can see the true strength of humanism and everything that comes from it: it comes from Christ, and without Christ it’s just a generic sense of goodwill that has no anchor to root it. Revolutionaries can justify violence against the bourgeoisie in solidarity with the proletariat by emphasizing the humanity of the oppressed and dehumanizing the oppressors: in the name of humanism for the oppressed majority, dehumanization of others on a smaller scale seems permissible. But Christ defines what it means to be human, and calls us to humanize our enemies, showing us how to do it in his own life. With his teachings and examples (and continued presence among us), there is a specificity to our humanism that doesn’t allow for a shifting scale of values or justification of means in light of desired ends.

3. Radicals Are Often Forced Into Radicalism

Reading this book was a lot like watching the documentary If a Tree Falls, about how environmental activists became “eco-terrorists.” In both cases the shift toward more radical and revolutionary action came in response to the inefficacy of more congenial and conventional means of dissent. Basically, when all legitimate avenues for being heard are blocked or undermined, activists are faced with the choice of giving up or trying less legitimate actions. When I watched If a Tree Falls I resonated more with their struggle, as I too find it difficult to promote environmental sustainability in a nation with the world’s biggest environmental catastrophe as one of our primary industries. But seeing this shift toward radical and revolutionary action in Love and Struggle about issues that I’m less involved with helped to frame it for me a little better, and I think that the shift to violence is a false choice.

While I do think that the powers that be force greater radicalism on dissenters by blocking any legitimate methods of organized dissent, I don’t think that radicalism or even revolution require violence. Gilbert points out near the end of the book that many leftist organizations thought that the violent organizations he worked with hurt the cause by resorting to violence, and I think that they’re right: a regular strategy these days is for undercover police to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest and try to whip up a mob in order to discredit the claims of the protesters and legitimate the use of force to put them down. Gilbert describes this strategy going back to the 60’s, so I’m surprised that he didn’t catch on that engaging in violence actually undermines the position of dissenters.

Radicals who have left the biggest mark on this world were those who chose radical love (not in the sense of the free love of the 60’s, which Gilbert admits was quite poseur-ish in its deliberate flouting of societal norms for the sake of flouting societal norms, as well as being largely a cover for men to hook up with multiple women). Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., made themselves stand out by their radical refusal to be violent toward their enemies, and their efforts to bring peace to those who would kill them. These people were forced to radicalism in the same way that Gilbert and the Weather Underground were, but their radical methods were more innovative and truer to their core values. Their shift to radicalism was not a compromise with the powers that be, but rather a fuller and more drastic expression of their very selves as human beings. Their radical insistence on love in the face of adversity made dehumanizing them completely impossible, and made any violence against them very obviously illegitimate.


Overall, this was a very fascinating book, and a cautionary tale for me. No matter how frustrated I get with doing things the right way, I can never let it drive me to become what I struggle against. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and though I admire Gilbert’s passion and principles, I think he lost his way. A good read for inspiration and practical advice, but take Gilbert’s self-criticism further than he does if you want to gain more foundational wisdom here. B+


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