Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Notes: Days of Rage, America's Radical Underground, The FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough

Bryan Burrough's "Days of Rage" tells the stories of the radical terrorist groups which emerged from the tumult of the 1960s, each of which took their grievances against the USA and or capitalism to violent extremes. As the hippie ideal descended into disillusionment and despair, disparate groups emerged who no longer saw a future in love, peace, weed, free love and dropping out; but instead actively sought revolution.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of a plethora of these groups, notably the Weather Underground, which emerged from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), went underground and tried to provoke a popular uprising through a bombing campaign. Others like the Black Liberation Army came from the Black Panthers, the Simbionese Liberation Army - of Patty Hearst infamy, the FALN, The Family etc. Whether inspired by Marx or Mao, by the end of the Civil Rights Movement, by Puerto Rican Independence, or an ill defined rage; Burrough's described each group, their main characters, main actions, factions and eccentricities - and how each of them ground to a halt. Some fell apart in drug-fuelled acrimony, some fled the country, others re-emerged into normal life, others were busted by the FBI. 

Prior to reading this book I had been aware that groups such as the BLA existed, and the career of Eldridge Cleaver and so forth occur throughout the civil rights literature. The Weather Underground, likewise are referenced, as much for their excesses and sexual proclivities in 70s literature, as for their low-grade bombing campaigns. Burrough fills in all the gaps though, describing in great detail how these groups developed, hid, gained explosives and struggled to survive. Interestingly while much of the mainstream literature seems to reference these groups as if they were fierce, ruthless and brilliant; this inside account portrays most of them as desperate, amateur, deluded, fanatical and often inept. As such he adds a great deal to understanding much of the background to these frayed ends of the sixties cultural revolution.

The problem with the book though is that it is rather heavy on description, and rather light on analysis. Intricate details of bombing-runs by Weather Underground, or FALN are described, as they are of the characters, their safe-houses, cars, physical appearance and cars. We learn about the autumn leaves blowing around the bank under surveillance for an armed robbery, for example. So too, details of the construction of home-made bombs by each group's specialist. What is fascinating is how this information was shared amongst various groups, a kind of family tree of violence. Burrough is fascinated with the internal life and dynamic of each group, some of which were as complex as those within the Rumours era Fleetwood Mac! This eye for detail is sometimes a bit much, however the fact that he records the details of so many of the victims of the attacks made by radicals is a welcome reminder that these groups frequently murdered the innocent who were not anonymous representations of the state, but real people with lives, families, children, etc.

What is lacking though, is much analysis of the ideologies which drove these groups. While the book regularly speaks of the seizure of radical literature by the FBI, little is said of the content. So too there is a fascination with the detail and progression of car chases and raids, but not much with the process by which these people were radicalised. Neither is there much comparison between the different groups to establish common patterns of causation, not much of mapping the progress of these violent ideas onto any wider sociological interpretation of currents in wider American society. The reader is left to judge for themselves whether these people were ideologues who used crime as a means to an end, or criminals who used political dogma to legitimise their criminality. Given Burough's enormous amount of factual research and remarkable access to sources, this is something of a disappointment. Burrough certainly makes it plain, that while he had access to sources, he had little sympathy for them.

All in all, this is a good read, because it tells a series of little-known, but significant stories; based on excellent research. The limitations of the book all them from the fact that is is written in the style of a newspaper scoop, rather than with a historians desire to analyse and understand. The story is told - and told very well indeed- but the questions behind the story, are not addressed. Actually, that is an overstatement.... huge numbers of questions are asked and answered at a practical level such as how could (for example Dohrn and the Weather Underground) live undetected for so long and how could they re-emerge without facing prosecution; how did they build bombs, select targets and deliver them? What is not examined is why America produced so many such groups in the early 1970s, and why the people that joined them did so, compared to others (eg in their university classes at Berkeley) who did not. Likewise, why these groups developed as they did, and not in other ways is left undeveloped as is the question of why America seemed to stop producing violent leftist groups in the 1980s.

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