One of the shrewdest assessments of the fate of 1960s radicalism was also among the first: Elinor Langer’s essay “Notes for Next Time: A Memoir of the 1960s,” which appeared in 1973 in the pages of the long-since-defunct radical magazine Working Papers for a New Society and was reprinted in a 1989 collection edited by R. David Myers titled Toward a History of the New Left. Langer, a writer and teacher active in the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movement in the ’60s, was dismayed to discover–even as early as 1973–that students who had just missed out on being part of the ’60s generation were already in the process of idolizing her “as a relic of some brave revolutionary struggle whose meaning they didn’t quite catch–their La Passionaria perhaps.” Hoping that in the future ’60s radicals would come to be remembered “neither as false heroes nor as fallen idols,” she reflected in her essay on her generation’s political illusions. The fate of the student movement of the 1960s, she argued, was determined when its leaders made the “curiously apolitical” decision to start thinking of themselves as revolutionaries:
Because revolution was effectively impossible one did not have to dirty one’s hands in compromise, nor mingle much with the hoi polloi (meaning: the middle class; the un-Chosen) along the way. And it was also ahistorical and smug, since it mistook revolution, a rare historical event, for a moral choice.
That the New Left “mistook revolution…for a moral choice” is the best one-sentence summary I’ve ever read of the complexities of late-’60s radicalism. I would suggest a corollary that seems implicit in Langer’s essay. The movement’s revolutionary turn was not so much a measure of its un- or anti-American character, as conservative critics would have it, but rather an indication that, if anything, the New Left might have been a bit too American for its own good. Its impatience with the half-measures of liberal reformism, its lack of interest in creating a stable constituency or institutional base, and its promotion of a politics of confrontation and risk (“putting your body on the line,” as the saying went) revealed the movement as an exotic but recognizable descendant of the powerful Protestant antinomian tradition of radical individualism–one whose adherents defied social custom and religious law to follow the inner promptings of God’s voice wherever they might lead. “John Brown is a good symbol for us,” Langer noted in passing. “At one point he wanted to run a school for Negroes but he came to find the idea too small: he had to attack Harper’s Ferry.”
Cathy Wilkerson’s memoir, Flying Close to the Sun, offers a compelling cautionary tale of what comes from mistaking revolution for a moral choice. Weatherman was a small but influential faction within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest campus radical group of the ’60s. Taking their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” the group’s leaders proclaimed it the revolutionary duty of white radicals in the United States to come to the aid of brethren revolutionaries in the Third World–including those in the “black colony” at home–through violent and disruptive protest (and, before long, armed struggle). Anything less risky, at a time when Vietnamese peasants by the millions and (as was widely believed) Black Panthers by the dozens were being killed, was a capitulation to the moral failure of “white-skin privilege.” Weatherman leaders–the most famous of whom included Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd–gained control of SDS in the summer of 1969; by early 1970 they had shut down the organization, taking a few score of the most committed of their followers into the clandestine Weather Underground.
Although never among the top circle of Weatherman leaders, Wilkerson was nonetheless a charismatic presence in her own right. Susan Stern, a member of Weatherman’s Seattle collective, met her when they were both in Cook County Jail, following the violent “Days of Rage” demonstration staged by Weatherman in Chicago in October 1969. “Cathy Wilkerson was in my tier,” Stern recalled in her 1975 memoir With the Weathermen (recently reissued in a new edition ably edited and introduced by Laura Browder). “Tall and slender, the beautiful young woman listened critically but intently as I told her about my life and the progression of events that had led me to Weatherman.”