Michael Walzer is Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and co-editor of Dissent magazine. Active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, he is one of the pre-eminent political theorists of his generation. Amongst his many books are Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, Thick and Thin, Arguing About War, and Politics and Passion. Here Michael writes about Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep.
Michael Walzer on The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon
Neil Gordon teaches creative writing at the New School in New York; this is the third of three novels that he has published, all of them advertised and reviewed as 'political thrillers'. I read a lot of books of that sort, and I can testify that Gordon's are several notches above the usual offering - because of the sophistication of the politics and the intellectual character of the thrills. The Company You Keep is a great read and, at the same time, a wonderfully engaging political argument or set of arguments. The title comes from a claim made by one of the characters, an FBI agent who went undercover on the University of Michigan campus in the 1960s, that your politics depend on the company you keep (and not on the ideology you work out for yourself). I am not sure that Gordon entirely believes that, but he does believe that the faith you keep with your company and the decency and honesty of human relations within it are more important than its political direction. He has to believe something like that because his novel is about the Weather Underground.
Most of us on what might be called the near-left (distance is relative in politics as everywhere else) in the '60s hated the Weather people - a break-off group from SDS that embraced a politics of violence, if not terrorism. The hero of Gordon's novel, a lovely man with a violent past, insists at some length that the Weather people were not terrorists. They destroyed only property, mostly government property, took care not to kill or injure anyone, and actually did not kill or injure anyone. All the deaths from '60s bombings (leaving aside the self-inflicted deaths in the New York townhouse explosion in 1970) were caused by groups that had broken off from the Weather collective. That is probably true, but Weather produced a lot of break-offs, and it seemed clear to many of us then that its ideology pointed towards the terrorism that some of its members finally reached. Anyway, we thought that violence of any sort was wrong in a still-democratic country and also that it was politically disastrous. Beyond all the factional break-offs, Weather violence contributed in a big way to the break-up of the New Left and its disappearance as a coherent political force.
Gordon's novel is about the long aftermath of the break-up. It works at three chronological levels. The present is 2006, when one of the Weather people, now imprisoned, is coming up for parole. Most of the action takes place in 1996, when the fake identity and life-in-hiding of the chief character collapses; and the reference point of the narrative is a bank robbery in Michigan in the early '70s, in which a police guard was killed (the robbery was planned and carried out by one of the break-off groups). Many Weather and ex-Weather people emerged from their underground existence once it became clear that illegal wiretapping by the FBI had made their prosecution and conviction impossible. With the help of lefty lawyers, they became 'legal' without much fuss. But the three people involved in the Michigan killing - this is the premise of the novel - could not emerge unless they were prepared to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And yet one of them is actually innocent of the killing, and all of them are, as the novel makes clear, good people.
What were good people doing in the Weather Underground? Several characters in the book - it is a fairly realistic if romantic novel - make the familiar and bad political argument that we heard so often in those days: despite the civil rights movement, the condition of Black Americans hadn't improved much; despite the anti-war movement, the Vietnam war dragged on and on. What do you do when left politics seems to go nowhere? 'Throw a bomb' is surely the stupid answer to that question, but the SDS breakaways who decided that that was what ought to be done were by no means stupid. In fact, they were very smart (which they proved by eluding the FBI for many years). All of Gordon's characters have a brightness and wit that makes them attractive; they also once had an elaborate theory about the capitalist and imperialist system, which explained why ordinary democratic politics could not change it. Now, they both acknowledge the wrongness of (some of) their political decisions and honour each other for being bravely and idealistically wrong. And perhaps they also think, now, that the real successes of the left in the '60s owed something to their own wrongness and bravery. This is the division of labour theory (and I am not sure it is mistaken): that the victories of the mainstream left require a little threatening craziness on the margins.
Anyway, this novel is about people who went a little crazy around 1968 and are now trying to find their way back to a normal life. Children play an important part in motivating this effort: 'As soon as you breed,' says one of the bank robbers, years later, 'all your ideals go out the window.' Which turns out to be wrong, because the return to above-ground society (and to ordinary left politics) requires its own bravery and idealism and tests the loyalty of the returnees. Gordon tells a stylish but also an intellectually absorbing story and provides an almost persuasive defence of people whose politics I once thought, and still think, indefensible.
Finally, if any of Norm's readers are led by this posting to look at Gordon's novel, I also recommend his second book, The Gun Runner's Daughter, which features the smartest young woman ever to appear on the printed page - the sort of young woman that every male intellectual wants to write a novel about.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]