Self-Destructive Activism and the Weather Underground
From 1965 to 1968, Mark Rudd was a student activist and organizer in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at Columbia University. He was one of the leaders of the Spring 1968 occupation of five buildings and the subsequent strike against the university’s complicity with the Vietnam war. After being kicked out of Columbia, he became a full-time organizer for SDS, where he helped found the militant Weatherman faction. Mark was elected National Secretary of SDS in June, 1969, then helped found the “revolutionary” Weather Underground, which had as its goal “the violent overthrow of the government of the US in solidarity with the struggles of the people of the world.” Wanted on federal charges of bombing and conspiracy, Mark was a fugitive from 1970 to 1977. He spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty on the dangers of self-indulgent activism and his thoughts on current anti-war organising in the United states.
In 1963 as a student at Columbia University you joined the the student activist organisation Students for a Democratic Society, you later became a member of the Weatherman group. For younger readers could you explain what those two organisations were - what were their goals, how did they function?
Actually, you have the date wrong. In 1963 I was a pretty apolitical high school student. I got to Columbia in September 1965, met the people organizing around the war in Vietnam and the university’s institutional racism, then joined SDS in 1966. SDS had been founded in 1962 with the Port Huron Statement, a great document for its time in that it repudiated both the Cold War and anti-communism and sought a true people’s Democratic Party. It was also a white, northern students’ response to the Civil Rights movement.
I organized with SDS at Columbia for several years, then in April 1968 found myself chairman of the Columbia chapter when the university exploded. With the black students, we seized five buildings for a week, suffered a terrible police riot, then led a university-wide strike, the largest up to that time. Columbia set the pattern for student revolts. I became known as the “leader” by the press, though there were actually many leaders. I was thrown out of the university as a result. I became a national and regional organizer for SDS.
Students for a Democratic Society was the largest radical student organization in the U.S. It was not a branch of any other group, it embodied the independence of the New Left. At its height it had four hundred autonomous chapters on college campuses and in high schools.
In 1969, I became National Secretary of SDS, and, along with my faction, known as the Weathermen, took over the national office in Chicago. Unfortunately, we had developed an ultra-radical line by then, which was that just being anti-war wasn’t enough: we needed to be explicitly both anti-imperialist and revolutionary. We wanted to end the system which gave us Vietnam and other wars. This was an over-reaching, since the result was to divide the anti-war movement, at a time when we should have been uniting as many as possible. We claimed to be acting in solidarity with the oppressed people of the world; in actuality we were pretty much doing what we wanted, ie., posing as revolutionaries.
Another part of our over-reaching was our belief that the movement needed to become more militant and eventually engage in armed struggle to overthrow the US government. So in 1970 we closed SDS and began a revolutionary guerilla army, an underground, known as the Weather Underground. One of the first thing we did was accidentally kill three of our own people in a bomb factory in NYC, March 1970.
This story goes on and on. Check out my book, “Underground: My Life in SDS and Weatherman,” or my website. The Weather Underground was a bust; by 1976, after the war in Vietnam had ended, it dissolved in internal factional fights. I was a federal fugitive from March 1970 until September 1977.
You have been very self-critical regarding your impact on SDS - why was the decline of SDS so important and what was your role in its decline?
As I alluded to my faction undemocratically decided to close the SDS national and regional offices at the height of the war because SDS wasn’t “revolutionary” enough. We gave up organizing on campuses and in communities for a fantasy of vanguard guerilla warfare. We were followers of the cult of Che, which was not at all relevant to the U.S. (nor any other places). It was a cult of male heroism and violence.
The effect was we 1) killed three of our own people; 2) killed the largest anti-war anti-racist radical student organization in the U.S.; and 3) divided the anti-war movement over the bogus issue of our right to revolutionary violence. We did the work of the FBI for them.
I was one of the architects of all this, in the leadership collective known as the Weather Bureau. I often spoke on college campuses for this crazy strategy.
What is your view today of the acts of violence you and other members of weatherman engaged in?
Ridiculous. A total waste of time and energy. We should have been organizing on college campuses, which we were moderately good at, building the larger anti-war movement and pushing anti-imperialism. Instead we became incompetent terrorists.
Had we actually organized an anti-imperialist movement with a widespread consciousness of the nature of US imperialism, perhaps we would have been successful at stopping the Central American war of the 80’s and even the current wars. We blew it.
Is violence in the service of a political cause ever justifiable?
In theory, a small amount of violence might be moral to stop a larger violence. I have no problem with this. In practice in the U.S., violence only isolates the revolutionaries and gives a great big fat gift to the government: they can call us terrorists. I’ve become an advocate of nonviolent strategy because it’s been proven so effective in the 20th century—it is a zen answer to the militarism of the US.
In addition to the pragmatic advantages of nonviolence, it also has certain moral and even spiritual advantages. I once heard the Dalai Lama answer the question of why he doesn’t hate the Chinese, despite what they’ve done to his country. He said, “They’re our neighbors, and when this is all over, we’ll have to live with them.
One problem with violence is that it always breeds more violence, which means that revolutions need repression. That inherently makes them coercive and unstable.
SDS has been relaunched - what is the situtation of the present day SDS and anti-war activism in the United States more generally?
Anti-war activism is low because so much energy has gone into the Democratic Party and the elections of 2004 and 2008. We seem to have lost our capacity to do mass-movement organizing. I think the model has been lost, actually. The Vietnam War peace movement inherited the organizing model from the labor and civil rights movements, with which it was contiguous in time.
Young people are often depressed thinking that “nothing anyone does can make a difference.” This is a self-fulfilling idea, unfortunately. The irony is that 45 years ago, no one would ever have thought such a thing, because it was obviously untrue. The civil rights movement showed clearly that people were making a difference. The 20th century was a time of many mass social and political movements, all more or less successful—labor, civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental, and on and on.
In an article for Counterpunch you made the distinction between activists and organisers - what is the difference between the two?
I’ve noticed that many anti-war people think that if only they demonstrate their opposition and commitment, people will join the movement. It doesn’t work that way. Movements are organized through relationship-building, leadership development, education, sometimes confrontation. It takes a long-term strategy.
We all know people who believe that if they express themselves enough, people will join them. There’s a guy here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who carries a sign out on the main street every Friday saying one or another of his slogans: sometimes STOP THE WAR!, sometimes I DON’T PAY TAXES FOR WAR, sometimes END TORTURE, whatever. No one ever joins him; he just expresses his opinion. I call him an “activist.” He’s certainly not an organizer. Actually, the anti-war movement in general is a lot like that guy. We rarely talk to people who don’t already agree with us; we do a lot of cliched demonstrating and carrying signs. But we don’t have a strategy to grow our movement. That would be organizing.
What is your take on the Obama administration?
The left, including myself, engaged in a lot of magical thinking concerning Obama. He was going to change everything. But we conveniently forgot that this is an oligarchy (or maybe a plutocracy), and that the government is entirely owned by corporate and financial and military interests. One man can’t change that. We neglected to build a real progressive movement: the Democratic Party is not that, for sure. So even if Obama wanted to change the direction of this country, he couldn’t. I’m not sure he does, though I do think he understands what a progressive policy might look like.
We’ve got to build a progressive mass movement. I’m dedicating myself to remaking the Democratic Party. It’s a long-range strategy. I’m 63 now and only have about 30 more years of organizing left. Got to go recruit some kids now. It will take an enormous effort of community organizing to mobilize the half the population that doesn’t vote.
Weatherman were not the first or the last leftist group to abandon organising for the path of violent resistance. What do you think tends to breed the kind of mentality that prevailed in weatherman? Do you see elements of it, or the conditions for its development, today, and if so how can it be combated?
In our case, we fixated on the “central contradiction between US imperialism and national liberation movements” and concluded that it would be racist to stand on the sideline and applaud armed struggle. We figured that our white skin could be of help to armed revolutionary movements. It’s a perfect example of thinking your way into a corner. Anything less would be “liberal” and “wimpy.” (Note the macho implication). Plus, on top of all that, we had Che’s foco theory, which gave validation to our strategy. We hadn’t noticed that Che had already died, over two years before, behind the theory.
At a deeper level, we were responding to the challenge to white new leftists posed by black power: would we support black national liberation by any means necessary? Malcolm X used to say, if you want to find out which white people can be trusted, ask them what they think of John Brown. Well, John Brown took up the gun, so I guess that meant that we should. The Panthers taught us, “The revolution has come (Off the Pig!); time to pick up the gun (OFF THE PIG!). Would we have the balls (there’s the machismo again) to be real revolutionaries? Revolutionaries don’t talk about the revolution, they make it. Time to pick up the gun!
The foco theory, as transmitted from Fidel and Che via Regis Debray, was essentially a cult of the gun. Thousands died around the world following this theory. We were among the more timid adherents: the only people we killed were three of our own.
Organizing is slow and anonymous and difficult; being underground warriors is heroic and the insurrection happens quickly (one hopes). In organizing you have to talk with people, develop relationships; guerilla warfare is much more exemplary action approaching theater. We used to call it propaganda of the deed, meaning that we expected people to emulate us. (In fact, a small group in Madison, WI, did emulate us in the summer of 1970. They wound up blowing up a building used for math research for the army. They killed an anti-war grad student accidentally and debilitated the mass anti-war movement in Madison for several years).
One thing that underlies the turn away from organizing is the mistaken belief that the expression of one’s feelings and commitment alone will cause the movement to grow; that people need only see your example and they’ll join. Movements don’t work like that. They’re built on relationships and democratically developed strategy. The best that can be said of the kids who like to break Starbucks windows and wear bandanas and fight cops at demonstrations is that they are self-expressionists. I suspect, though that what they’re actually demonstrating is something much more base: how superior they are to the rest of us, who don’t feel the crisis as much and won’t take the same risks. Most of them have never experienced mass movements I guess, so they’ve just given up on other people. But of course this is all glossed with a theory of propaganda of the deed.
Another source of “left-wing infantilism” is the sense of crisis and impending disaster. Certain portions of the environmental and animal rights movements have that. They believe that if you can save one mountainside, for example, by burning down a development, you have a duty to do so. They downplay the potential power of mass movements, which take a long time to build, as too slow. We’ve got to do something now! We don’t have time! I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pacific northwest arguing with these kids, and it always comes down to their accusing me of not understanding how dire and serious the crisis is. I’m a complacent liberal.
Just to clarify - you state that it was a mistake to be “both anti-imperialist and revolutionary” - was it purely a mistake of timing and tactics pursued or are you suggesting that revolutionary goals themselves are always unattainable or even undesirable?
Revolutionary goals are desirable—they’re utopian and visionary. Whether they are always unattainable, I don’t know. At this point in my life, having lived 63 years in a profoundly conservative society, I tend to think that might be the case. I’ve also seen most revolutions become derailed through one process or another—power grabbed by elites, people’s desire for material wealth, neo-colonial strategies, people’s desire to live “normally,” meaning not in constant struggle. Cuba’s still going, but for how long? And would you like to live in a one-party state? It’s great that they’re still giving the finger to Uncle Sam, but at what cost?
In our case, being anti-imperialist was a great advance. It allowed us to recognize the nature of the system and its opposition in Vietnam, Cuba, China, and the ghettos at home. But we took the next step in believing that because we had made this leap in understanding, it meant that everyone would (a form of arrogant solipsism, one could say), and that the time was necessarily revolutionary. We were just a handful of white students, most of whom were middle class, and our experience was unique. We thought the cultural youth movement was revolutionary, which it actually wasn’t.
If we had spent our time patiently teaching and organizing support for anti-imperialism, we might have spread this consciousness much further than we did through our strategy of revolutionary posturing. Maybe we could have built a powerful enough Central American solidarity movement in the eighties to have actually stopped the US intervention. People forget that we came very very close, building on the “Vietnam syndrome” and even getting congressional opposition to aid to the counter revolutionaries in Nicaragua (of course we didn’t stop Reagan). Maybe we would have had larger anti-war movements in 1991 and 2003.
Back in 1969-70, we actually opposed the anti-war movement and split it under the mistaken belief that it wasn’t sufficient. We wanted to stop future wars of aggression, not just Vietnam. But the Vietnamese pleaded with us to unite as many people as possible to end the war. We refused, telling them that we knew better—the time was right for violent revolution. We got our strategy off of a Mick Jagger song. Absolutely shameful. Racist arrogance.
Given the degree to which the Democratic Party functions in the service of power and privilege is it not unrealistic to believe that it can be substantially changed by leftists entering and trying to transform it?
All I’m concerned with is building a mass-based center-left party which has a chance of achieving power. Such a thing does not exist. In theory, it could be a third party, but the system is totally stacked against the growth of third parties. The main result of third parties is to hurt the party closest to them.
Oddly, the Democratic Party still has some attraction for millions as the party of the people. It’s probably a memory of the New Deal. It could also be because the Republican party is so vehemently pro-capital and also violently racist. Non-white people identify as Democrats, though only a minority of white male workers do. Women do. The Howard Dean movement of 2004 and the Obama bottom-up mass campaign of 2008 demonstrated the existence of a progressive Democratic base. There’s a great book out on the subject, “Herding Donkeys,” by Ari Berman. He interviews grassroots activists and demonstrates that they are basically the same as us (minus the ideological gloss). There’s a hell of a lot of life left in the Demo Party at the bottom. That’s been my experience organizing at the local and state level here in New Mexico.
The job will be to activate and mobilize the half the population that doesn’t vote. This will take an enormous community organizing effort, taking decades. I call it the second civil rights movement. It will also be to wage an enormous internal war within the Democratic Party, to turn it from center-right to center-left. It’s a big job.
Do you have a quicker strategy? If so, I’ll join.
You say that currently ‘we don’t have a strategy to grow our movements’. What do you think are some of the elements of a successful left strategy?
Part of the answer I articulated in the previous question: build a center-left party based on a mass movement at the bottom of society. It will involve coalition-building, between non-white people and whites; between the marginalized poor in prisons and on welfare and illegals and between the working or as is known in this country “middle-class.” This is tough stuff. No simple formulation has yet been made.
The Republicans, since 1981 or before, had a very simple strategy which brought them to power: unite the ideological conservatives with the Christian fundamentalist movement. It held until 2006, when it disintegrated under the implosion of the neo-con Bush regime it had brought to power. It collapsed completely in 2008. Now it’s temporarily being rebuilt again, this time even smaller and tougher, with the ascent of the tea-party no-nothing movement as a front for big capital. It won’t last. But they did have an enduring slogan: “Government bad (except for the military)!”
We have nothing comparable. We can’t possibly say “Government good.” But we can say that the government has responsibility for the well-being of the people and the planet.
There’s got to be a rebuilding of the labor movement, united with a save-the-planet environmental movement. And a movement for meaningful jobs.
Believing in mass movements is a start. My personal contribution is to tell young people that mass movements have actually happened. I know because I was (for better or worse) a participant.
This interview originally appeared at New Left Project: http://www.newleftproject.org