The Company You Keep
Directed by Robert Redford
In cinemas now
The political commotion of the late 1960s and early ‘70s gave rise to many radical organisations, including America’s Weathermen, whose ex-members in hiding are the subject of Robert Redford’s latest film, The Company You Keep.
Initially a faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen—inspired by the Bob Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—morphed into an outfit (renamed Weather Underground) dedicated to armed struggle against military, corporate, and political targets in an effort to topple the capitalist system and imperialism.
The Weathermen correctly identified the roots of the Vietnam War, but their actions represented a desperate lashing out borne of a mistaken political analysis that believed it was possible to overturn capitalist social relations and the state through an urban insurgency. Moreover, the group’s bombing attacks on ruling class symbols were carried out in a highly clandestine manner that allowed no room for mass participation.
The ultra-militancy of organisations such as the Weather Underground was unthinkable except in the context of state killings of radicals and the more general intolerance of protest. For instance, Ward Churchill counts a minimum of 27 Black Panthers and 69 American Indian Movement (AIM) activists murdered by the US state between the years 1968-76.
Nonetheless, their actions reflected a misguided belief in the ability of individual radicals and organisations to challenge the armed might of the capitalist state.
But, contrary to the implication of the film, there was nothing inevitable about defeat for the radical left. Commenting on the experience of former European radicals such as the one-time member of Revolutionary Struggle turned German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, Chris Harman in a 2001 Socialist Review article argued that the tendency of some former rebels to embrace parliamentary politics had roots in political defeats and strategic setbacks.
Key actors among this generation pursued a flawed political strategy involving small-scale individualist tactics that isolated militants. Defeat in the streets led them down the corridors of parliament, as one dead end led to another. Relatively few were won over to a socialist perspective based on winning the support of the majority of the working class to mobilise their economic power through strikes and mass mobilisations against the capitalist system.
The Weathermen fetishised street actions: their “Days of Rage” protests in Chicago in 1969, characterised by attacks on property and police, were poorly attended and largely crushed by authorities, helping to drive them underground. But their actions reflected a wider confusion among the radical left.
Former SDS President Tom Hayden had lent his support to Free Territories in the Mother Country, autonomous zones of radicalism. After some attraction to the Weather Underground, he left for Berkeley, California and became associated with the Red Family, which idolised the North Korean ruler Kim Il-sung and prepared itself for guerrilla war. Hayden’s trajectory went from bad to worse when he settled down to become a career Democrat politician.
Hayden’s one-time fellow activist, the former Yippie (Youth International Party) Jerry Rubin had combined brave opposition to the Vietnam War and involvement in the Berkeley Free Speech campaign with street theatre and political stunts. But he emphasised the latter, believing that “[h]istory could be changed in a day. An hour. A second. By the right action at the right time”.
Street theatre and political stunts are intrinsic to any movement, but they are limited in their ability to upset the daily violence of capitalism and the state. Rubin tried consciousness-raising, health foods, tai chi, and various other new age experiments in the 1970s, before becoming a Yuppie (a term apparently coined with him in mind) businessman in the 1980s.
One should not underestimate the importance of psychology in understanding these individuals’ zigzagging transformations. But the defeats of radical left strategies gave full rein to such fragile psyches.
Does the film offer any insights into these events? Unfortunately, it’s a sad trip down memory lane—the contemporary figures appear as jaded and beaten shadows of their former selves—with no hint that things might have turned out differently.
As well as slandering Marxism—in one scene a former radical lectures college students on a historical materialism that requires no “human effort”—the film is stuck in a ‘60s time warp.
The Occupy movement that erupted spectacularly in 2011, and which reverberated in solidarity occupations in some 1500 cities across the globe, is nowhere to be seen. Anti-systemic dissent is presented as part of a bygone age.
Thankfully, in the wake of Occupy, the Arab Spring, and general strikes and continent wide mass protests in Europe in response to the global economic crisis, nothing could be further from the truth.