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Sunday, May 17, 2009

‘Underground’ Regrets

May 17, 2009
‘Underground’ Regrets

To the Editor:

From Paul M. Barrett’s review of Mark Rudd’s memoir, “Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen” (May 3), one might imagine that Rudd had written an unrepentant, unreflective, shallow defense of his activist days with “some mistakes” tossed in.

In his introduction, Rudd expresses the hope that his story will help young people “figure out what they can do to build a more just and peaceful world.” The reviewer is indignant. How can this would-be terrorist claim that “his exploits” should “offer inspiration” to anyone? However, Rudd is not making this claim. Although he never repudiates the causes of his youth or the perception that something drastic needed to be done, he is quite clear that violence is not a remedy for social injustice or for illegal wars.

Rudd expresses deep sorrow for what he terms “disastrous mistakes.” He has remained silent about his past activities for over 25 years because of his abiding sense of shame and self-doubt. In unflinching detail, he demonstrates how political conditions, psychological need and poor judgment produced decisions that destroyed his own movement and inflicted immeasurable pain on others, including his loving parents. What makes this memoir so affecting is the absence of excuses, the refusal to blame others, the willingness to accept responsibility — more perhaps than the circumstances warranted.

As a student protester at Columbia, I knew Mark Rudd and disagreed with him much of the time (a point alluded to in the book). However, it takes no special acuity to see that his memoir is the work of a 60-year-old man with many regrets but an abiding commitment to learn from mistakes and make a positive contribution to the world.

As an aging historian, I have been reading the declassified papers of other men of that period who made plans to set off bombs in the middle of cities. Some had their doubts, some were neutral, some were plainly excited and enthusiastic about the damage they could do. Unlike the Weathermen, whose elaborate schemes never materialized, these men carried out their plans, not once but thousands of times, with excruciating human consequences. None has ever apologized or been called to account. To this day, those who are still alive are described as statesmen, not “terrorists,” and when they publish books they are treated respectfully.

The writer, a professor of American diplomatic history at Hofstra University, is completing a book about the foreign policy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.


Blogger Marc said...

This review of Rudd's book by Staughton Lynd is to be published in "The Sixties: A Journal of Politics and Culture."

Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (New

York: HarperCollins, 2009). Reviewed by Staughton Lynd.

Mark Rudd burst into prominence in April 1968 as the most
visible leader of the insurgency at Columbia University. In the
minds of many young activists the Columbia uprising then became the template for overthrowing United States imperialism and the capitalist system that engendered it. A few years later, as one of a handful of members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who called themselves Weatherman, Mark Rudd went underground. In this book he tells us what happened as he experienced it, and how he feels about it now.
What Happened at Columbia?
In Part I of Rudd's memoir, the reader who was not part of the Columbia events (as I was not) will find a detailed narrative of what happened there.
Shortly before the Columbia confrontation Rudd had been part of an SDS delegation to revolutionary Cuba, and in this country Dr. King had been assassinated. One of Rudd's first acts of public defiance was to seize the microphone at an official Columbia memorial for Dr. King. "Trembling inside with fear" he denounced Columbia's hypocrisy for mourning a black leader when the university was fighting the unionization of black and Puerto Rican workers there, as well as starting to build an eleven-story gym on the land of a public park in nearby Harlem. He then led about forty persons out of the meeting.
A showdown with the university administration was planned for April 23. The idea was to begin with a series of speeches at an outdoor location and then march into Low Library where the Columbia president had his office. Word came that the doors to Low had been locked. Someone in the crowd yelled, "To the gym site!"
Part of the crowd streamed toward the gym site where another impasse ensued. A demonstrator had been arrested. Police were present in force. Finally someone proposed returning to the original rally site. Rudd recalls: "I was totally dejected by now. The day had been an utter disaster. . . . I, the big leader, had no notion of what to do."
There then ensued a sequence of events that might have caused any participant to conclude that revolution has its own organic logic for those brave enough to ride the wave. Hamilton Hall, where the Columbia dean had his office, had not been locked. Accordingly it was occupied. A Steering Committee was chosen and a six-point set of demands was drawn up, beginning with the demand that construction of the gym be stopped and ending with a demand for amnesty.
Within the next few days four more buildings were occupied. "The situation was way beyond control by 'leadership'," Rudd writes. Students were joining the occupation on their own. The joyous atmosphere inside the liberated buildings, which included performance of a marriage ceremony, led the occupiers to call themselves "communes." When the long-awaited police bust came on April 30, it was carried out with an indiscriminate brutality that won the arrestees considerable public sympathy.
The lesson drawn by Rudd and his colleagues at the time, then carried across the country and into Weatherman, was that "exemplary action leads to mass support and participation." "Organizing," Rudd told countless student audiences, "was just another word for going slow." This analysis fell short in two respects.
First, as Tom Hayden (who was at Columbia) and Cathy Wilkerson (who became a Weatherperson) stress in their own memoirs, despite its apocalyptic frenzy the Columbia revolt achieved its principal specific goal: it stopped the construction of the gym. The possibility of winning important attainable goals tended to be forgotten in subsequent confrontations with "the system."
Second, as Rudd emphasizes in hindsight, what happened in April 1968 could not have happened without years of preparatory organizing. Rudd describes how David Gilbert knocked on the door of his dormitory room one evening and drew him into the Movement at Columbia. Likewise, according to Wilkerson, Gilbert recruited Teddy Gold when Gold went to his first day of classes wearing an NLF button. April 1968, she adds, came about because antiwar and SDS activists at Columbia had "distributed materials, held rap sessions in the dorms, protested recruiters, and held referendums, first on student ranking [which determined eligibility for the draft] and then on military recruiting."
Both the importance of winning reforms and the need for preliminary organizing tended to be forgotten in the passion to create two, three, many Columbias.
Stormy Weather
Parts II and III of Underground describe how the self-described Weatherman grouping emerged, floundered, and then went underground.
I don't pretend to have mastered the entire literature on Weatherman. However, I find persuasive the fact that Rudd, a member of the initial central committeee or "Weather Bureau," and Cathy Wilkerson, a rank-and-file Weatherperson who has described her experience in Flying Close to the Sun (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), tell essentially the same story.
In the Weatherman sub-culture there was a bizarre commitment to demonstrate one's capacity to engage in violence. This is especially striking in Rudd's case, because he apparently recognized even in early skirmishes at Columbia that "[d]eep down I knew I was no fighter." Following a demonstration at Richard Nixon's inauguration in 1969 a black acquaintance forced Rudd to admit to himself that ever since he "was a little kid," he had been and still was "afraid of violence." Nothing had changed later on that year, when after an encounter in Milwaukee with a group of about a dozen working-class youngsters he comments, "I knew I was no fighter and suspected that most of the other Weathermen were similarly incapable." Still, he continued in speech after speech to deride pacifists and "liberals," and to call on all committed persons to prove their Movement credentials by acts of violence.
Further, Weatherman's purported commitment to "criticism and self-criticism" amounted in practice to ridicule and bullying
of any one who disagreed with the current party line. Rudd gives several poignant examples.
Friends forcefully informed Rudd that the Cubans believed Weatherman's planned "Days of Rage" in Chicago to be a terrible idea. The Cubans like the Vietnamese considered it necessary to build "the broadest possible unity of as many Americans as possible against the war, not a fantasy of violent revolution in the streets." But when Rudd tried to share this information with his Weather friends Terry Robbins and Bill Ayers, they jumped on him. "How could you be so weak?" Robbins demanded.
A few months later another powerful Weatherperson, Bernardine Dohrn, went to Cuba and likewise was told that the American antiwar movement "had to become even broader." This time Rudd, along with John Jacobs (J.J.), played the part of interrogator, barraging Dohrn with unrealistic expectations about the Days of Rage until she "capitulated."
Witnessing the remorseless criticism of a gentle, thoughtful younger comrade, Rudd says he "knew the whole thing was nuts but couldn't intervene to stop it." Wilkerson recounts many similar moments. Why, one wonders, were these strong and dedicated activists, committed to criticism and self-criticism, paralyzed when it came to standing up against majority sentiment in their own in-group?
Two, Three Many Weathermen?
Reading this admirably candid memoir, the most troubling thought it provokes is that the new Movement may be following a romanticized image of Weatherman down the same dead-end road.
The young people who make up the new Movement by and large call themselves "anarchists." Like Rudd after Columbia, they believe in "propaganda of the deed." And the deed, all too often, seems to consist of youthful demonstrators in black jackets breaking the nearest plateglass windows and provoking acts of violence from the police.
One such apocalyptic encounter was unexpectedly successful. In 1999, demonstrators, including delegations from the Steelworkers and Teamsters unions, prevented the World Trade Organization from holding a meeting in Seattle. Since then, however, the powers that be have been careful to gather at sites inaccessible to would-be disrupters. As a result such occasions have tended to become latterday Days of Rage: opportunities for participants to prove themselves in the eyes of their colleagues, rather than serious political events.
The new Movement is a blessing. When Abbie Hoffman committed suicide, Tom Hayden said that we were all waiting for a new Movement and he guessed Abbie couldn't wait any longer.
But the new Movement will be a more fruitful blessing if its organizers and activists read this book, along with Wilkerson's parallel account, and resolve to make violence a last resort rather than a badge of courage.

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