I have been trying to learn a little more about the New Left, and was interested to see that there was an "anarchist" group, UAWMF, based in New York's East Village. I was curious what the relation between the various "anarchist", Maoist, and reformist movements of the 60s/70s might teach us about today's Left, which is of course heavily dominated through "Occupy" by what David Graeber calls "The New Anarchists".
Tom (Osha) Neumann was a member of UAWMF for just about the duration of their existence (which he admits was "marginal"). He was not the leader, that was an ex-heroin addict and street tough Ben Morea. In fact, Neumann admits in retrospect that the group had several features of a cult, where long-haired suburban malcontents would escape their parents to join "the family" that rebelled against "The System". "When we did well in [Morea's] eyes, he would reward us with a look of intense affection that became the most valued currency of the group."
Despite what I was hoping to find, UAWMF has little to teach us about today's more sophisticated anarchists (despite Neumann's claim that the Black Bloc is "modern day Motherf**kers"). This is the group that coined the phrase "affinity group", which is so used by today's anarchists, but UAWMF were basically a group of street toughs, who thought they were challenging "The System" by vandalizing and shoplifting from St. Mark's - even the Black Bloc looks advanced compared to this. UAWMF were known as a "street gang with an analysis", but the analysis seems to have been remarkably crude.
A major portion of the book (and most interesting) is dedicated to recounting the exploits of the group - declaring Wall Street "War Street" (perhaps the first proto-OWS action), dumping garbage at the Lincoln Center, unfurling banners of maimed Vietnamese children in St. Patrick's Cathedral, charging the Pentagon during the 1967 protests, their altercations with the Fillmore East (from which they chased MC5 away in their limousines), to their involvement in the Columbia University occupation of 1968, and Neumann's experiences at the 1968 Chicago demonstrations. Eventually, the group started to attract the wrong types of characters, the neighborhood started to be taken over by biker gangs, and several of the MFers got mixed up in violent escapades (Morea was charged with attempted murder, but acquitted). The group eventually decided it was time to leave New York, and set out to New Mexico where they hoped to join the Chicano movement for land rights. Needless to say, that didn't turn out as envisioned and the group soon split up after a few more tragedies and farces.
Basically these are old war stories about a marginal group of Sixties nihilists. But there is also a fair bit about Neumann's personal travails. Neumann was the eldest son of the Columbia professor and Marxist anti-fascist intellectual Franz Neumann, and his wife Inge. However, Herbert Marcuse was a friend of the family's, and having an affair with Tom's mother, leading him to suspect that he may have actually been the son of the New Left philosopher. After Franz died in a car crash, Inge was quick to remarry Herbert, and Tom's anarcho-nihilism can be seen as a rebellion against the cold treatment he always received from his mother and step-father. A fair bit of this book is about Tom (Osha) learning to deal with his intense self-loathing.
After leaving the MFers, Osha would go on to live on a polygamous commune for a few years, before finally settling down somewhat as a radical-lawyer. The latter parts of this book include some reflections on the failures of the New Left: e.g. "The thirst for liberation gave energy but undermined form"; "The movement's emphasis on the transformation of personal life was charismatic, but, at the same time, it limited participation"; "Only a total transformation of society would do. And the only organization worthy of allegiance was one that was committed to that total transformation and which required from its members a corresponding total commitment. These organizations risked becoming cults, tense pressure cookers in which their members were largely isolated from the everyday life of ordinary people."
I feel somewhat bad giving Neumann's heart-felt memoir only three stars. What I intend by the rating is that I would not recommend this book unless one has a very specialized interest in the Sixties, and/or this particular group. They were, as another reviewer put it, self-admittedly "marginal". But, then again, as fifteen year-old Tom Neumann thought: "Dostoevsky wrote about miserable, pathetic, humiliated, mediocre people. But he was a great man. A genius. Perhaps I could be the first truly mediocre man to give an authentic account of mediocrity."
I suppose then, on his own terms, Tom (Osha) Neumann has succeeded.