‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ and the End of the New Left
American revolutionaries too often become common criminals
It’s 1899 in America and the West is dying. Cowboys, rustlers and outlaws of all types are falling to the thresher of progress and westward expansion. Federal law enforcement isn’t yet a thing, but agents for the Pinkerton detective agency are hunting the remnants of America’s criminal gangs to extinction.
This is the setting for Red Dead Redemption 2—a video game where players take control of outlaw Arthur Morgan in the last days of the mythic American West. He’s a member of a gang led by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde, a man with ambitions that go way beyond robbing banks and holding up stage coaches.
For Dutch and his crew, criminal enterprise is a means to an end. Dutch wants to build a better world—an American utopia where every man and woman is free to live the life they want. Free of rules, free of civilization and free of “progress” and all its attendant complications.
It’s a beautiful dream and Dutch is a good talker, but in practice the van der Linde gang spends most of its time killing and robbing. They may have highfalutin ideas, but in the end, they’re just criminals and little more. No amount of rhetoric can turn a bank robber into a revolutionary hero.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s characters are living in the Old West, but their ideologies are firmly rooted in 1970s revolutionary politics. Dutch isn’t channeling an ancestral American spirit as much as he is aping the talking points of groups such as the Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army.
Throughout the late 1960s and into the early ’80s, a wave of political violence rocked America. In an eighteen month period from 1971 to 1972, the FBI recorded 2,500 political bombings. That’s five bombings a day.
Most were accompanied by political messages or missives from groups such as the Weather Underground who wanted no less than the destruction of the American government. The violence was about much more than just opposition to the Vietnam War. Weather and other groups wanted to kill police, smash the state, collaborate with black radicals and kill off “honky America.”
Rockstar Games art
It didn’t work out and today their efforts are largely forgotten—all that violence and death a footnote in history books. The sad fact is that, like Dutch and his gang in Red Dead Redemption 2, the New Left’s dreams of revolution were halted by the simple demands of staying alive. Revolutionaries need money to keep going, and 1970s revolutionary radicals had few sources of income. As the ’70s wore on, many of them focused on kidnapping, bank robbery and petty theft in lieu of pushing forward the cause.
Even the Weather Underground—a group made of formerly wealthy middle-class kids—turned to robbery when it needed some quick cash. Instead of a bank, the bourgeois revolutionaries decided to stick up a steakhouse in Westchester County, New York.
The group made off with a few thousand dollars and, afterwards, many of the members involved felt terrible about it. They were good at placing bombs in empty buildings in the night, but not so great at personal violence.
The same wasn’t true of the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Black Liberation Army, both of which robbed banks and killed people. The groups were revolutionary movements that used base criminality to fund their enterprises. As the years wore on, the revolutionary politics faded and all that remained was the crime.
The Black Liberation Army committed it’s final “revolutionary act” by knocking off a Brinks truck in 1981 with the help of former Weather Underground members.
It’s the same for Dutch and his crew in Red Dead Redemption 2. Players rage across the landscape robbing, looting and killing all in pursuit of Dutch’s vaunted “better world.” But they’re just criminals and one of the game’s major plotlines involves protagonist Arthur Morgan slowly realizing this.
Like a wayward college kid caught up in revolutionary 1970s politics, Morgan is a guy out of his depth. All too late he wakes up one day to realize he’s not a kid anymore and that the 20th century has come to kick his ass, just as Reagan’s America came to kick the ass of the hippies, yippies and student revolutionaries.