Mark Rudd — Activism and the Weather Underground

Brown Spectator: Why did you decide to pursue a violent disobedience despite the remarkable success of the non-violent protests that had taken place in the 60s, such as the Civil Rights movement? Mark Rudd: My friends and I were entranced by the heroism of Che Guevara and the Vietnamese and the Black Panthers and various people around the world who had taken up the gun to fight for freedom. We wanted to be like them. It was a losing strategy, in retrospect, but when you're twenty years old you often choose wrong strategies, especially attractive heroic ones. As for nonviolent strategy, you're right, it is one of the great contributions of the twentieth century to world history, and yet we underrated its achievements. "Black Power," for example, as espoused by Malcolm X and others, seemed more radical in its tactics as well as its analysis than nonviolent integration. To us, nonviolence was "wimpy," while "picking up the gun" had a virile, macho cache'. Twenty-year old boys need to prove themselves. (So did a few young women.)

Vanguardism was also a way to avoid the long hard work of mass political organizing. I used to say in my public speeches, "organizing is another word for going slow." What I forgot is that there's no other way, you've got to "do the work." BS: How much did collateral damage and the safety of innocents concern you when you decided to pursue a militant form of protest?

MR: I think there's a distinction between militancy and violence, but I'll let that slide for a second.

We saw ourselves as soldiers, and all soldiers consider the costs of war to be necessary. The justification for revolutionary wars is to stop a larger violence, the violence of the system. In Vietnam, our government was murdering millions of people (3-5 million, according to the American Friends Service Committee). When you're in despair, as I was, it's not easy to know what the exact right thing to do is to stop such a slaughter. Of course I've come to believe that nonviolence as a political strategy is much more powerful than violent governmental repression. However, it takes a militant nonviolent.

I would suggest that you ask this same question about collateral damage and the safety of innocents to the war planners and generals in Washington DC who are murdering thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as we talk. The French writer Jean Genet once said, when asked about the Weathermen, "The Weathermen have little bombs, the U.S. has big bombs." Berkeley Political Review: Looking back at your time with Weather Underground, what are you most proud of?

MR: I'm proud of very little having to do with the Weather Underground. It was completely misguided. On the other hand, I feel privileged and proud to have been a part of the larger anti-war movement, one of millions who helped stop our country's military aggression. When you think about it, that was a phenomenal historical achievement, a testament to this country's democratic possibilities.

American Foreign Policy (Princeton): Do you think that the Weather Underground movement was harmed by its affiliation with socialism and communism, potentially tainting its anti-war message? MR: By the time the Weather Underground emerged, we had already rejected "merely" the anti-war position in favor of the "revolutionary" position: we didn't want to stop one war, we wanted to stop the system that gave us successive wars. In doing so, we harmed the more realistic, practical, and appropriate anti-war movement, by splitting it into two camps, one for nonviolence and ending the war, one for violent revolution. We did the work of the FBI for them.

We thought the alternative to militaristic capitalism was communism, a case of believing the fallacy that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Of course our ultra-radical position diminished any chances we had of building a mass political base among normal people. It was merely self-expression, not strategic politics.

Penn Political Review: Do you think that comparisons between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War are justified?

MR: Historical analogies are always imperfect. In this case, the culture of Iraq is much different than the culture of Vietnam, and the nature of the fight is different. Vietnam was basically united against first French and then American colonialism, and for socialism. Iraq is riven with factions, one of which is very pro-US (the Kurds), while we can play others against each other. On the American side, the military has learned many lessons from Vietnam, not so much in how to win, but how to keep the US public from knowing about the war of occupation. Images are highly censored, reporters are "embedded." Soldiers are not drafted, so they don't bring anti-war sentiment with them.

The lack of a draft also means that people in the society at large don't need to pay attention to the war. Whole units go over together and come home together, which did not happen in Vietnam, they used individual replacements. It was like a factory. Only that undermined unit loyalty. In effect, there's now a permanent military caste, which sees war-fighting as its job. If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's necessary to look at things fresh. We live in an Orwellian age, when defense means aggression, peace means war. I advise young people to study history deeply and accept no conventional explanations. Are you familiar with the story of Temple Grandin? Because of her autism, she understood nothing at all about human relationships, but she looked at animals with a completely unbiased, fresh eye. As a result she was able to ask fundamental questions which no one else did, such as why the animals in a slaughterhouse feedlot were making so much noise? She revolutionized the way we treat animals.

Vanderbilt Political Review: … What do you feel were the forces behind the United States' invasion of Iraq? Should we be as concerned about what this war indicates about the American mentality as you were about Vietnam?

MR: Absolutely, we have to be concerned about our country's militarism. There are many other ways to solve problems in the world, including the development of international law. The Europeans have been dealing with terrorism for years as a criminal matter, handled by police agencies. They don't declare "war on terror" and invade countries, they go after the criminals. But our country's foreign policy is based on the use of force. War is not only the means, it's the goal. For decades, Noam Chomsky used to say that the goal of the United States is global domination. In the last decade he's changed the formulation, now he says that the goal is global domination through the use of violence.

(I could go on at length about this question because it's probably my main motivation for the organizing work I do, having come of age during Vietnam and seen the absolute immorality and waste of our wars. I'll just make two points, and then move on).

The simple fact that there's so little debate and discussion in this country, especially in the media, concerning militarism and its alternatives, does indicate a problem with our "mentality," as you suggest. We're in complete denial, a totally irrational situation.

Concerning the current administration's continuation of the wars, even before the election, President Obama and his advisors made a political decision not to challenge the power of the military and the corporations behind them, no matter what the desire of the American people for peace. (That desire does not have any organized political way to express itself). I like to believe that President Obama wants peace, unlike any of his predecessors, judging by his brilliant memoir, "Dreams from My Father," but he's trapped within this war system that controls the government and the media at every level. Unfortunately, he's not only retained major officials from Bush's neo-con interventionist administration, such as Secretary of Defense Gates, but he's excluded all non-militarists from his advisors. Things would have been different had our anti-war movement been larger and more politically significant, but it's not. Politics matters ultimately. It's up to us to build such a movement. It's a good learning experience, though: many of us were naive in believing that a president can change policy. Only a political mass movement can force such a thing. In short, power has not shifted since there's no organized peace party. BPR: Many California students that participated in last year's walkouts in support of access to public education will not do so again this fall because they feel their actions had no impact–"nothing has changed," you hear them say. Do you find that today's youth are more impatient than were their counterparts in the '60s and '70s?

MR: It's very easy to become demoralized because entrenched interests rarely yield when they're hit once. Most people lack the models of long-term movement building that the civil rights and labor movements gave us. Of course the powers in charge of the UC system will just ignore protest until it goes away. Same thing happened in 2003, when the largest demonstrations in world history opposed the run-up to the Iraq war: no response from the Bush administration, which merely ignored the protests. So people got demoralized and went home. Again, they didn't realize that the problem was how to build a movement. Again, the model had been lost. Both the anti-war demos in 2003 and the UC demos of last year were spontaneous outpourings, but they weren't tied to a long-term movement building conception in most students' heads.

Columbia Political Review: Do you believe that the climate crisis needs a Vietnam-like collegiate coalition to engender a sense of urgency within society to act?

MR: Absolutely. If the survival of life on the planet doesn't produce a sense of urgency, then nothing will. We need a mass political movement to demand sane energy policy. Our current policy of full-speed ahead on oil consumption is suicidal. I doubt whether young people want to commit suicide. CPR: One of the biggest problems with drawing parallels between the Vietnam war and the climate crisis is that the current crisis is not as visceral as the Vietnam war was for collegiate students (via the draft issue). How can we make the collegiate community feel like it has a stake in the issue?

MR: I often wonder about this myself. I don't know how to raise moral issues to the point that people feel compelled to act on them. I suspect it will take years of work and energy and agitation on the part of self-conscious organizers to mobilize a critical mass that can draw in people who are now essentially apolitical or in despair.

You've asked what is for me the question of the moment, how do we develop the strategy to build a mass movement?

VPR: Do you feel that this generation of college students is as politically engaged as your generation was? Is it as effectively engaged, and how does it need to grow? In what ways has your generation developed its approach to advocacy and activism, and do you expect the current youth to follow a similar trajectory as they age? MR: Young people often tell me that nothing anyone does can make a difference. So why bother educating oneself on social issues or engaging in activism if the outcome will be nothing? Better to maximize one's personal entertainment, which appears to be the point of life anyway, judging by advertising and the actual culture young people are immersed in. The irony is that I never once heard anyone say such a thing when I was in college, 1965-1968. It would have been obviously false, since we had the immediate example of the civil rights movement in the South, which resulted in a complete revolution in laws and mores, the over-turning of legal segregation. What individuals did, when they joined with others in a movement, was transforming the world. It was of supreme importance to us, too, that the shock-troops of the organizing and agitation in the South were all young.

Another thing which the civil rights movement taught us white kids in the north was how to organize. The same methods they used in the South--building one to one relations among people, developing new leadership, an emphasis on internal education, the use of both mobilizations, nonviolent civil disobedience, and political organizing--were adopted by the anti-Vietnam war movement and subsequently by the women's, gay-rights, and environmental movements. My organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), named "participatory democracy" as our goal and our method. The term originated with SNCC.

Much of this organizing model also came from the labor movement, which in the Sixties was still vibrant as a result of thirty years of success. Alas, there's been a forty year break and young people now don't have these powerful models for organizing, as we did, and so don't know how to build a long term movement for power. So it's predictable that people sink back into despair: they don't have a clue about what can be done or what has been done in the past.

BS: How would you recommend students in today’s universities go about protesting government actions? MR: First, study and figure out a power analysis. Who's in charge, whose interests are being served, what should be the main lines of protest and targets? Then do mass educational work, build a base. Figure out what people's moral and material self-interest are. From that study, strategy and tactics will flow. I should add that it's quite worthwhile to also study successful social and political movements of the twentieth century in this country (and abroad).

At some point …, there has to be a political movement that puts forward a program for the future. It will of necessity challenge the entrenched interests such as corporations, banks, military. Wouldn't it be wonderful if students abandoned en masse the business schools to prepare for careers as community organizers? Studying the history and methods of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, 1961-1965, might be a lot more interesting and socially valuable than one more course in financial instruments. Gothic Guardian (Duke): One question plaguing leftist politics today concerns the state's efficacy as a tool for enacting positive change -- to many, the state is too intertwined with (racial, gender, sexual) oppression to be a viable tool for legislating change. Where do you stand on this issue? Have you lost faith in the power of the people, so to speak? How would you go about enacting political change today?

MR: I can't see any alternative to building a movement or movements for political power. No matter what the conservatives say, there's still such a thing as the Social Contract. We join together in order to live better: the state should become, if it's not already, the embodiment of the collective will of society. It is obviously now controlled by elite interests, but there needs to be a struggle for power. What's at stake is the type of lives my children and grandchildren will live, your lives, as well as the ultimate survival of life on the planet. If we don't struggle for power and just ignore the state, than the result will be war, the default solution to all problems in our society.

As for the power of the people, I still believe that we need to mobilize people to use the democratic mechanisms such as voting which still exist. Getting people to act in their interests is tough for a myriad of reasons, however. They're too distracted by entertainment, too insecure to think they understand the issues, too cynical, too drunk, too beat up, too messed up to take a political stand. The political class in this country is infinitesimal in size. But that will change, as you young people get smart and start figuring out how you want to live your lives.

CPR: Do you believe that there is any one issue in society today around which such a visceral feeling could coalesce, around which a radical reaction could foment? MR: Having participated in several historical mass movements, and lived through others, I believe as an act of faith that such popular movements will arise again. They may take different forms, but they'll be back. People haven't changed all that much, they still have moral and altruistic feelings no matter how much we're subjected to forces that try to beat them out of us. People are still rational. I don't know if it will be working against global warming or constant war and the preparation for war, or worrying about our neighbors' poverty, or reforming the educational system so all kids have a chance, or treating immigrants as human beings, but people are going to snap sooner or later. There's still a survival instinct.

All of these current crises represent the triumph of small elite interests over popular interests. The problem then is how to organize for mass progressive political power. The right-wing elites are currently doing better, since they're co-opting people's discontent (and racism) to build a mass movement.