Cathy Wilkerson has written a detailed, thoughtful and unapologetic autobiography of her life growing up in the US in the 1950s. She became radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s, and was a serious activist involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. She joined the Students for a Democratic Society and was then involved with a group called the Weathermen, who were involved in a bombing campaign targeting military and financial institutions in the US.
The story of how a young girl from a very comfortable middle class background became an anti-imperialist revolutionary woman planting bombs and going on the run from the FBI for ten years is very well written and fascinating.
Her story highlights both the triumphs and tragedy of the US left in the 1960s and 1970s. She first became involved at university, becoming part of the civil rights movement. Working with other activists she came to realise that racism did not only exist in the South but was endemic across the US. She became increasingly active, organising campaigns and coming into contact with other young people who were seriously questioning the US in particular and capitalist society in general.
Wilkerson, along with many other idealistic young people, came to realise that US foreign and domestic policy was dominated by corporate interests. Through their struggles they came to the conclusion that a Marxist view of the world should be their guiding idea.
Fidel Castro and Mao seemed to offer a brand of Marxism that could organise resistance without the working class. The years of the McCarthy witch-hunts took their toll on the movement, with thousands of suspected leftists bring victimised from their jobs and unions. Mainstream unions seemed to compromise with racism and/or supported the Vietnam War and seemed to be hostile to the idea that the times they were a-changing.
Anger, impatience and lack of understating of Marx and Lenin’s ideas of party and class meant that those on the left failed to develop a significant revolutionary trend that saw the working class as the agent for change. This failure meant that when the movement declined much of the left developed into short-lived sectarian organisations totally incapable of taking the movement forward. In Wilkerson’s case she adopted the Weathermen’s approach that instead of organising with workers, students or communities they were the revolutionaries and would act on the workers’ behalf.
The Weathermen became increasingly isolated and divided when their bombing campaign created hostility and police repression and little else. The organisation finally broke up in acrimony.
Wilkerson is unrepentant about capitalism. War, racism, inequality and corruption – it’s the same old system, but lessons need to be learned.
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