Bill Ayers, the Marxist Revolutionary in the 1960s
Most of the recent attention on Barack Obama's radical associate and friend Bill Ayers has focused on Ayers' history with the terrorist Weather Underground (WU) group in the 1970s. But starting in the mid-1960s, Ayers was an influential leader of the revolutionary Marxist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), from which the WU evolved.
Kirkpatrick Sale's sympathetic, lengthy SDS: The Rise And Development Of The Students For A Democratic Society, published in 1973 by Vintage Books and long out of print, is the definitive history of the organization. The book is a comprehensive, near contemporaneous history written soon after the events it reports on and it is thoroughly sourced and annotated. A complete copy of the book is posted at the Internet Archive, and can be downloaded as a free PDF file.
"There's a whole new set on campus," wrote Terry Robbins and Bill Ayers, the travelers for SDS in the Ohio-Michigan region at the start of the 1968-69 school year. "The Movement is opening up all over the place: the first generation of high-school SDS coming onto the campus, the no-choice election-fraud bullshit, Columbia, and Chicago all have contributed to a new atmosphere of optimism and aggressiveness and the possibility for continued, prolonged action." Both travelers, committed actionists, devoted themselves to pushing SDS within that atmosphere for all they were worth. . . [SDS page 326 in original book]
"It is clear that SDS must begin to consciously transform itself from a student movement into a working class youth movement ... by emphasizing the commonality of the oppression and struggles of youth, and by making these struggles class conscious." But to it were added two crucial extensions, alliances with the black liberationists-"To recognize the vanguard character of the black liberation struggle means to recognize its importance to the 'white' movement"-and with the Third World-"All our actions must flow from our identity as part of an international struggle against U.S. imperialism." And to make any of this serious, to transform SDS into something that really could lead a revolutionary movement, what was necessary was a commitment to discipline. [SDS page 353]
"The reactionary nature of pacifism, the need for armed struggle as the only road to revolution [are] essential truths which were not predominant within our movement in the past ... . We [must] recognize the urgency of fighting white supremacy by building the material strength of the white movement to be a conscious, organized, mobilized fighting force capable of giving real support to the black liberation struggle." [Ayers and Mellen, SDS page 354]
"We have one task," Bill Ayers was to say, "and that's to make ourselves into tools of the revolution." Operating beneath their quest was the wisdom of the insight, shared by many Weathermen though not all, that the capitalist system operates not simply through obvious material and military ways but infests daily lives and thoughts with a million ideas and patterns which reinforce its power: not just racism and sexism and elitism, but all the other elements of socialization ingrained since childhood-attitudes to property, privacy, material goods, family, competition, collectivization, romantic love, homosexuality, power, status, and all the rest.
And though this insight did not always shine through in practice-there was still a lot of arrogance and impatience in these actionists-the attempt was made at every commune: "The fight to destroy the shit in us," as one woman wrote, "is part of building a new society." They threw themselves into Mao and Marx, they practiced karate and survived on brown rice diets, they tried abstinence (off and on) from drugs, alcohol, even pets. Accustomed property feelings had to be rooted out, so that no one felt attached to "personal" belongings, and in many cases Weathermen reduced themselves to a single set of clothes. Individualism and selfishness had to give way to a collective spirit, and this meant totally: nothing, including an individual's desire to leave the apartment for a walk, was to be decided without group discussion. The desire for privacy also had to be uprooted, smacking as it did of individualism and self-centeredness, and in several collectives no one was permitted to be separated from another communard (this had its security advantages, too, of course). Attitudes to wealth and materialism had to be challenged, eventually to the point of requiring the Weathermen to donate their personal savings to the collective, a step many found difficult to take. Anything hinting of racism, national chauvinism, or liberalism had to be confronted collectively, dissected, and discarded. Male chauvinism, both in word and action, had to be purged, again through collective sessions often resembling group therapy more than anything else, and the Weatherwomen grew in strength at most projects over the summer as they banded together to oversee this purgation. And accustomed sexual relations were to be scrapped in favor of a freewheeling partner-swapping that would allow people to concentrate on their particular jobs in the revolution rather than on the comforts or needs of any one other individual. [SDS page 406]
"There's a lot in white Americans that we do have to fight, and beat out of them, and beat out of ourselves. And that part of it is true-we have to be willing to fight people, and fight things in ourselves, and fight things in all white Americans-white privilege, racism, male supremacy-in order to build a revolutionary movement."