Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker!: A Memoir of Anarchism in the '60s
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker: A Memoir of the '60s, with Notes for Next Time, by Osha Neumann, published by Seven Stories Press, 2008.
In 1967, I became a founding member of an anarchist street gang called Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, an unexpected career move for a nice Jewish boy with an MA in history from Yale.
We called ourselves the Motherfuckers. We saw ourselves as urban guerrillas swimming in the countercultural sea of freaks and dropouts (we didn't like the media term "hippies") who had swarmed to the cheap-rent tenements of the Lower East Side of New York. Those young dropouts were our base, and we attempted to organize them for total revolution through rallies, free feasts, raucous community meetings, and a steady stream of mimeographed flyers. Against the vapid spaciness of "flower power" we proclaimed the need for "Armed Love." Our rhetoric was inflammatory and often violent.
We gave speeches and wrote manifestos, but above all we believed in propaganda of the deed. We engaged in constant confrontations with the police. We would start riots, get arrested, start another one to protest our arrests, and get arrested again. After one of my arrests I appeared before a judge who called me "a cross between Rap Brown and Hitler." I greeted his summation of my character with a mixture of pride and shame. I felt like a kid whose scary Halloween costume has been more successful than he intended.
As a child I'd imagined I was destined to become a professor and write books. My parents were German Jewish refugees from the Nazis. My father was Franz Neumann, the author of "Behemoth", a seminal study of fascist Germany. His best friend was Herbert Marcuse. Herbert's most famous books, "Eros and Civilization" and "One-Dimensional Man", are philosophical critiques of civilization and its discontents that rejected the rigid analytic framework of dogmatic Marxism. His writing and speeches provided theoretical legitimization to the unorthodox countercultural movements of the Sixties and made him something of a father figure to a generation that generally distrusted anyone over thirty.
Herbert moved into our house after his wife Sophie died of cancer in 1951. While living with us he continued a secret affair with my mother that had begun sometime earlier. Inge, my mother, was a brilliant woman, who sacrificed her own ambitions in order to do what was expected at the time of a mother and faculty wife. Her marriage to Franz was not a happy one. I suspect that in her unhappiness, she vented her frustration on me. We fought endlessly.
I grew up in a Manichean world. Fascism was the expression of the irrational; reason was its opposite. The distinction was clear and unambiguous. By the time I reached junior high school I had already reached the conclusion that our home was the clean well-lighted citadel of reason and I was an irrational foul-smelling insect befouling it. I became obsessive and introverted.
In becoming a Motherfucker I renounced my commitment to ordered discourse, the traffic in abstractions, respect for explanations, the demand for coherence, and the subordination of impulse and emotion -- all of which I thought of as characteristic of a life committed to reason. I grew fierce in my scorn for theory. I felt most alive when running in the streets with no thoughts in my head but where the cops were and how to avoid them. But my apostasy was never complete. As the Mafia don longs for respectability, as the dealer in prostitutes and drugs can be the staunchest proponent of family values, so I, the rebellious child of reason, longed for the respectable cloak of rationality and pledged allegiance to reason even as I plunged headlong into the irrational.