I’ll be giving a presentation at this year’s James A. Barnes Club Graduate Student History Conference. My topic will be a summary of my research on the racial and sexual politics of the radical leftist organization Weatherman.
In the late 1960s, radical leftist activism was consumed by debate and strife over identity politics, leading to factional disputes and increasing extremism. In the eye of this political storm stood the arch-radical Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. These white radicals considered themselves allies of the vanguard of a people’s war against global imperialism. This worldview set the pattern for all their ideas and actions. Weatherman believed that it had answers for all the varied social-structural riddles posed by every form of oppression and exploitation, or rather, the answer: identifying the struggle against capitalism in its imperialist mode as the central conflict for liberation, they explained all oppressions as descending from capitalism.
My research details the effects of Weatherman’s ruling ideology on its interactions with other radical left groups and its own internal organization. I argue that Weatherman undermined its own goals by ideologically simplifying the complexity of identity politics. Although they claimed to fight on the side of Black Nationalists and Third-World revolutionaries, their conception of the meaning of revolution made effective work with these groups impossible. Likewise, they claimed to support women’s liberation and sexual freedom, but the demands of their unquestioning commitment to violent revolutionary struggle subverted these aims. This subversion was manifest in “smash monogamy,” a sexual policy that both abetted male sexual privilege and constrained its members’ genuine sexual desires and relationships. By studying the ways in which Weatherman’s liberatory aims were undermined by its ideological orientation, my research sheds light on the inherent danger in espousing a sweeping ideal of social justice while subsuming all causes and issues into one all-encompassing theory of oppression.
The 18th Annual Barnes Club Graduate History Conference will be held Friday evening March 22, 2013 and Saturday March 23, 2013, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM at Temple’s Center City Campus in downtown Philadelphia.