Book Review: David Gilbert’s, “Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond”.
I must admit that it is difficult for me to write an honest review about Com. David Gilbert’s “Love and Struggle” (you can purchase your personal copy here), especially because of the enormous respect that I have for him and the sacrifices that he has made for the revolutionary cause, and a fear that any criticism of his work will be regarded as unfair, un-comradely and disrespectful. However, simultaneously I believe that such a review is absolutely necessary because Com. David’s life and politics have often intersected at key points in my own development as an activist, although completely unbeknownst to him. The first time was when I became involved around the anti-war movement against the second Iraq war, and some of us watched and hotly debated Sam Green’s documentary about the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and saw me reading a lot of the existing literature at the time; the second time was during a difficult three-month strike that I was deeply involved in at my home institution during which I devoured Dan Berger’s authoritative book, Outlaws of America (which interestingly was the result of a long relationship with Com. David himself); and the third was when I returned from Nepal and became increasingly interested in the question of the universality of protracted people’s war, and the parallel between the WUO and the Jhapa Uprising. I will not discuss these points of intersection further because I think that they distract from the task at hand, but needless to say, Com. David’s politics and life experiences have been something that I have consistently wrestled with throughout my own political development, and thus I do not take this book review lightly.
Thus in frank honesty, I must admit that I did not care for the first third of the book. The first hundred and twenty pages suffer from two major problems: 1) Com. David very little new information about the development of the revolutionary movement on the campuses across the USA, except for the fact that Com. David was not as central to the SDS leadership and Weather Underground leadership as I had previously thought (although I was interested to learn about his initial theoretical work in New Left Notes which resulted in an early fall from revolutionary grace); and 2) I found it to be too pedantic, and structured through a series of lesson-plans. Indeed, often the first-third of the book, due to the little new information – especially for a reader familiar with much of the existing literature on the topic, including Dan Berger’s aforementioned excellent book – often came across as a kind of an Anti-Oppression 101 class with Com. David’s life serving as scenarios which ought to be discussed to develop a form of best practices that should orient our organizing. Indeed, this structure is replete with every sub-chapter heading being followed with a small-italicized synopsis that read like an Anti-Oppression 101 scenario, which we are supposed to collectively figure out, but without having Com. David present to debate with, which is less than ideal for any kind of revolutionary pedagogy. Furthermore, we are forced to replace such debate with Com. David’s own resolution. I am not trying to suggest that there is anything particularly wrong with anti-oppression training, although I do think that often this has replaced a critical revolutionary framework, however, the result was that the narrative became disrupted and choppy. This disrupted narrative with little new information made evident the lesson-plan structure to the reader, which in turn blunted the effectiveness of the structure itself. This unfortunately resulted in Com. David coming across as too eager to provide solutions through which to demonstrate his continued belief in a form of revolutionary humanism. I must admit that I found this to be quite annoying, partially because of my own theoretical suspiciousness about revolutionary humanism (a debate for a different place), but also became I did not want to have Com. David to serve as a revolutionary ideal type, but rather, as an interlocutor in the revolutionary struggle. However, luckily both of these problems recede to the background as the narrative becomes stronger and very interesting information is provided to the reader about Com. David’s time underground, in Denver and during the Brinks trial in the latter 2/3rds of the book.
I know the exact moment at which I became excited about the content of the book and it is on page 124 when Com. David discusses criticism/self-criticism. It was fascinating to read about the WUO’s attempts to implement criticism/self-criticism in their practice as professional revolutionaries, and Com. David’s own self-criticism about how said practice was carried out (indeed, Com. David mentions that only a few times did he feel that the self-criticism sessions were actually aiding his development as a revolutionary). Indeed, an endearing aspect of this book is how humble and self-critical Comrade David is, although as I mentioned earlier, these aspects can also be quite irritating within the best practices format. This moment is important, as it is the point in which Com. David, unlike in first part of the book, does not demonstrate that there is in fact some easy best practice that young activists can follow. Rather, it actually shows the ambiguities and difficulties that come with putting any of these political methods in practice. And reminds us about the need for us to be consistently being critical about, and bettering, organzinational practices and individual work. Furthermore, the pedantic lesson-oriented teaching plan, whilst remaining partly in place, takes more and more a backseat to the narrative and allows the reader space in which to develop his/her own critical opinions about a given matter, which is what I consider to be an absolute necessity for any revolutionary.
Additionally, it was truly eye opening to read the rudimentary methods that the WUO developed to deal with security issues, especially in the context of being underground. Com. David, himself admits that these the methods are largely outdated in our contemporary context, but demonstrate the creativity and vigilance of the WUO during their underground years, and reaffirm the possibility of actually going underground and fighting in the heart of the beast. It was also interesting to learn a little about the debates within the WUO and how, once again, Com. David was not, besides a very brief time, a central figure in the WUO. However, I would have liked to learn more about the debates inside the organization, especially about their practice and conception of their conjuncture, but was interested to learn about the summer schools that they organized to improve the ideological quality of their cadre. It was interesting to learn about the debate in the organization around its relationship to the white working class, and its liquidation of the original line of the organization regarding the relationship to nationality struggles, and the role that Com. David played in it. It was impressive to learn that Prairie Fire (of which I own a copy) had originally been produced without any fingerprints on it. But, I do wish that there had been more information about the infamous Hard Times conference, which seems to remain a truly traumatic and pivotal event in the development of the WUO, and resulted in the building of the May 19th Communist Organization which became important in the context of the Brinks Robbery.
Com. David’s life aboveground in Denver, after the dissolution of the WUO, and his involvement with Men Against Sexism and the subsequently painful experience of dealing with multiple movements that came into loggerheads with one another, was very informative and again reflective of the complexities that arise in the course of the struggle. At this point in the narrative the lesson-plan structure seems to have completely evaporated which results in the reader being left to grapple with the contradictions within the revolutionary movement, alongside Com. David. I am not sure whether this was something that Com. David intentionally wanted to do or was a byproduct of the difficulties in providing any best practices in such complicated and textured inter-group/political relationships. I found it be particularly informative to learn about this period of his life, and was surprised to learn that Comrade David too had gone aboveground with the collapse of the WUO.
In perhaps one of the shortest sections of the book, and one about which I was very eager to learn more about, Com. David discusses his second and last time underground, especially his involvement in what has come to be known as the Revolutionary Armed Task Force and the notorious Brinks robbery and trial. It was intriguing to learn more details about the actors and politics involved in the Brinks Robbery, and facts like the Black Liberation Army not having a central command thus allowing autonomous collectives in the BLA to organize actions on their own accord (something that Com. David himself only came to learn about during the Brinks Trial). However, I must admit that I hungered for more information about Com. David’s relationship with the BLA and members of the May 19th Communist Organization in this second period, but recognize that these and a number of other aspects of his second period underground is something that Com. David likely decided to omit for good reasons.
Finally, it is noteworthy that Com. David spends a good section of the last part of the book discussing his family life with his imprisoned partner and newborn son, because I too have a loving revolutionary partner and also would like to have children someday. Indeed, this aspect was particularly important as it demonstrated a ‘softness’ to which male revolutionaries are not allowed to admit to. This obviously speaks to the macho attitude in many revolutionary groups and organization about the role of the family in the struggle, especially the armed struggle. Indeed, unfortunately often the two are put into juxtaposition to one another and rendered incompatible, thus requiring the revolutionary to ‘sacrifice’ the former in favor of the latter. Indeed, I can think of several autobiographies and interviews well well-known revolutionaries in which the revolutionary figure fails to even mention that he has a partner and children! And if and when they are mentioned, it is only in passing, and always in the context of sacrificing a relationship with them in the name of the revolutionary struggles. Thus, it was particularly inspiring to read about how Com. David was able to forge a relationship with his partner and son during his time in prison, despite all of the obstacles, and how this relationship was something that was negotiated with a revolutionary politics playing a central role. The only thing that one can say that is neglected in this last section of the book is the role that Com. David has played in the prison movement, both in his correspondence with activists outside, and with prisoners and political prisoners inside the prison system.
In closing, this is not a book to be simply read, enjoyed and tucked away on some bookshelf, forgotten, although it is an enjoyable read. It is a book that simply begs to be put into practice. What aspects a given reader wants to be put into practice is something that Com. David leaves the reader to decide, but he provides us with a wealth of life experience which we should all seriously consider. He gives us both the good and the bad. Comrade David is humble about his accomplishments and readily admits to his faults, he is an honest storyteller, and eager with his lessons for a new generation of activists.