The murderers on West 11th Street

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After the bombing

On March 6, 1970, bombs created by a radical terrorist group called the Weather Underground destroyed a three-story townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Three people (Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold) were killed, and two others (Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson) were injured. When police inspected the premises, they found enough unexploded dynamite to have destroyed every building on both sides of that rather long block. (At the time, actor Dustin Hoffman lived right next door.) The truth that eventually came to light was that the house itself which the poet James Merrill had lived in as a child, and which had later been the home of lyricist Howard Dietz had not been the target of the bombers, but had been their headquarters. The five people who had been killed or injured had, in fact, planned to bomb a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. “It is likely,” writes Arthur M. Eckstein in his history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, “that dozens of people would have been killed if the plan had succeeded.”

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18 West 11th Street, then and now

At first they called themselves Weatherman – singular, not plural. After a while they came to be known publicly as the Weathermen or the Weather Underground. The group itself had begun as a faction within the radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It was a Leninist group, devoted to an international revolutionary struggle on behalf of the proletariat against the forces of imperialism, capitalism, and racism; many of its members had spent time in Cuba, idolized Che Guevara, met with North Vietnamese officials, and/or been influenced by Mao Zedong.

After the townhouse bombing, the Weather Underground publicly announced that the 11th Street bombers were members of a renegade New York cell that had been engaged in a “rogue operation” that had not been approved by the Weathermen’s national leaders. The Weathermen’s national leaders further announced that, while they would continue to work toward a guerrilla revolution that would overthrow the U.S. government, they would make certain not to plant bombs that might actually harm or kill people and would instead carrying out bombings that would do damage only to property.

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Bill Ayers today

In the years and decades that followed, this claim – that the townhouse crew had gone rogue and that the Weathermen, as a whole, weren’t out to murder but only to commit vandalism – was faithfully repeated in the writings and public statements by members (and, later, former members) of the group, most famously Bill Ayers, who has since become famous as a friend and mentor of former President Obama. This relatively benign line was also reliably echoed in the Academy Award-nominated 2003 documentary Weather Underground and in Jeremy Varon’s 2004 book Bringing the War Home (a comparison of the Weather Underground with Germany’s Red Army Faction, which we wrote about last September). Only in recent years has this narrative been prominently challenged. As Eckstein makes clear in his book, many if not most members of the Weather Underground were, in fact, devoted to killing, and Ayers and other Weather leaders presented “a united front committed to maximum violence.” In short, the would-be bombers who worked out of that 11th Street townhouse were not defying the Weathermen leadership; they were engaged in precisely the sort of activity that Ayers urged upon them.

More tomorrow.

America’s #1 Commie

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Cornel West

Cornel West, the former Harvard and Princeton professor and author of Race Matters, has called him “a long distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism.” Howard Zinn, the late author of A People’s History of the United States, praised his memoir as “a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary.” Among his other admirers are Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, the author of Race Rules, and activist Cindy Sheehan.

The man in question? Bob Avakian, longtime chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP). Now 73, he’s been a veritable Zelig of the American far left, described in a 2005 profile as “the marathon man of the international anti-imperialist struggle.”

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Bob Avakian

Attracted in his youth (he was an undergraduate at – where else? – Berkeley) to various New Left groups – among them the Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Weathermen, and (although he’s white) the Black Panthers – Avakian became a community organizer in Richmond, California, where he sought to convert workers to Communism. In 1968, he and several Bay Area comrades founded their own organization, the Revolutionary Union, which took its inspiration from both Stalin and Mao, whose deadly Cultural Revolution was then in full swing.

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Mao Zedong

During a 1971 visit to China, Avakian experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand, finding it “wondrous”; four years later, under his leadership, the Revolutionary Union morphed into the Mao-besotted RCP. Though upset by Mao’s death the next year and by China’s subsequent embrace of capitalism, Avakian soldiered on, declaring that, with Beijing’s betrayal, he and his RCP brethren were now “the true upholders of Maoism” on the planet. Around this time, the RCP shifted its emphasis from “workplace organizing [to] an increasingly hysterical militancy in the streets”; after he and other party members were arrested for rioting, assaulting cops, etc., etc., during Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 visit to Washington, D.C., Avakian skipped bail and fled to France from what he has called America’s “suffocating climate of intolerance.”

stalin1Ever since, Avakian has consistently insisted on the greatness of Mao and Stalin. “If the bourgeoisie and its political representatives can uphold people like Madison and Jefferson,” he wrote in his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, “then the proletariat and its vanguard forces can and should uphold Stalin.” And he’s devoted his life to the RCP, which runs a newspaper, a website, and a chain of stores called Revolutionary Books, all of which serve to advance the cause of Mao and Stalin.

But in addition to promoting Mao and Stalin, Avakian has unashamedly promoted himself. As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in a 2008 profile, the RCP – thanks in part to Avakian’s Stalin-like purges of other party leaders – gradually became “a cult of personality focused on him.” One tool in Avakian’s effort to turn himself into a cult figure was invisibility: for a long time almost nobody knew where he lived, and he never appeared in public; in his frequent writings (as in North Korea and Mao’s China, the shelves of his bookstores groan with copies of the Dear Leader’s works), Avakian continued to describe himself as being in exile, even though all charges against him were dropped in 1982, and even though he returned to the U.S. from Europe some time after the turn of the century. As Oppenheimer put it, “the chairman is still on the run, even if nobody is chasing him.”

More tomorrow.