Anti-imperialism and its discontents: An interview with Mark Rudd, founding member of the Weather Undergroundby Sina Rahmani
This interview was conducted by e-mail and phone in the Fall, 2004 by Sina Rahmani. It was published in the Radical History Review, Spring, 2006.
By 1969, the annual convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student group in America, was a national media spectacle. During the conference that year, a group of radical leftists, calling themselves the Weatherman, including a fresh-faced Mark Rudd (who had lead the strike and occupation of Columbia University in 1968), took control of the organization. The name was an allusion to the Bob Dylan lyric, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the blows.” Today, Mark Rudd teaches math at a small community college in New Mexico. Although he defected early from the Weather Underground Organization, Mark Rudd has become one of the symbols of the radical American left. I interviewed Mark over email in early October of 2004.
I am assuming you were a privileged white youth. What made begin to slowly question that privilege?
I grew up in a middle-class suburb of New York City. As a teenager I was sort of an intellectual, in the sense that I was aware of literature, current events, art, etc. The Civil Rights movement made a big impression on me, though my town was all white, adjacent to an increasing black Newark, N.J—sort of a de facto S. Africa. I experienced echoes of the Beatnik movement of the fifties, reading Kerouac’s On the Road at an early age, for example, and Allen Ginsberg. So I always looked to escape the “conformity” of the suburbs. I listened to Woody Guthrie and read about the Spanish Civil War and the Wobblies (IWW). So first I experienced a cultural awakening, which was in the air (but not universal in my parents’ culture or the culture of the town). I could go on.
I was raised culturally Jewish in a large Jewish community. My parents were children of immigrants (actually my father came to this country at the age of 9). I always saw the U.S. with the eyes of an outsider, us and them, so I always had a critical eye for America. Plus, being Jewish, I always wondered about WWII and the Holocaust. Where did it come from? Why didn’t people know? My parents claimed they didn’t know about the genocide until after the war. I identified Nazism as racism very early in my life and made the leap to recognizing racism in this country as long as I could remember.
When did you first feel yourself become radicalized?
The war in Vietnam jumped off in earnest in the spring of 1965. I turned 18 in June of that year and went down to the Draft Board to register. In early September, I started as a freshman at Columbia University. I immediately fell in with the anti-war group of students at Columbia. I joined the sub-culture—pot, sex, opposing the war, fighting the university administration. Most important, I learned what it was all about from these other students—they had an analysis of imperialism. Once I understood imperialism the choice was fairly clear: which side will I be on?
Were there individual people or writers that pushed you to become revolutionary?
Probably the most important book that determined the specific path I would take was Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution?” which came out in the
summer of 1967. It laid out the theory of the armed guerilla foco which would spark revolution among the campesinos. It stood in opposition to the plodding strategies of the traditional Communist parties of the world. I became a foquista, as did thousands of young people around the world. Also I participated in the cult of Che. Che was an important figure in our work. For instance, Note that we had our big demonstration in Chicago, Oct. 8, 1969, later known as the Days of Rage, on the second anniversary of the death of Che Guevara.
You mentioned being a Jew and how the history of racism played out on you and your ability to connect racism in America to that experience. This is intriguing, because, as a secular (Ashkenazi) Jew, you could always hide your status as a minority. Why did you choose to begin to confront that racism?
I grew up in an immigrant milieu, or at a best second generation one. Back then, Jews in N.J. were very ghettoized. In the long run you’re right, assimilation was possible. I married two “shiksas” (non-Jews) although, not at the same time. But we didn’t know it then.
If you look at SDS chapters back then, on the two coasts you’ll find a high percentage of Jews. I think I wasn’t unique in my taking on racism. Think of all the Jews in the civil rights movement. Abraham Joshua Heschel has done a lot of work in this area.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because things turned out a certain way (the rise of Jewish neo-cons, for example) that that was always the dominant consciousness.
On the point of Columbia and radicalization, you mentioned getting involved with the counter-culture of sex, pot, and activism against administration policies. Looking back, how developed were your ideas on revolution and imperialism? Todd Gitlin, commented that the radical left’s ideas on revolution were “kindergarten.” Ron Jacobs says in his book on Weather that you once proudly mentioned how you didn’t wasted any time with theory. Are these accurate descriptions? How seriously did you take theory and revolution?
Todd’s comment was more about the fact that his theory was different from ours. That’s how you put down your opposition. In fact, almost everything we did, outside of tactical improvisation at a given moment, was governed by theory. In our case, it was the theory of the rise of the global anti-imperialist movement, centered on national liberation movements in the Third World and in internal colonies, and the inevitable victory of that movement over US imperialism. What could be more theoretical, especially if looked at in hindsight?
Were the Panthers the vanguard of the black liberation movement, or was that a theory? What became of the black liberation movement, incidentally? Maybe I’m confusing idealism (utopianism) with theory.
If I ever said I wasn’t theoretical it was probably just a rhetorical point to put down our opposition, the mechanical Marxists of Progressive Labor, who were putting forth the inevitable victory of the workers against the capitalists, yet another theory. You always want to paint your opposition as a bunch of stupid theorists, while your own theories are not theories or ideological at all, but are “reality.” So that’s why I might have said I couldn’t be concerned with theory.
Also, as I mentioned, we were very much adherents to a strategic theory, foquismo, as put forward by Debray and into practice by C. Ernesto Guevara. More theory.
Probably, too, I enjoyed playing with the heads of the critics who called me a “mindless activist” in that I said, sure, I don’t deal with theory. It’s like if you call a Jew pushy he’ll turn around and prove you right just for spite.
When Weather took over SDS, many on the left criticized your group and accused you tarnishing the name of SDS. Was the mainstream left’s reaction to Weather justified or was it another instance of the white, bourgeois mentality that has plagued the American left for generations. Putting aside your tactics for now (we will get to those soon enough), do you feel that your anti-racist and anti-imperial rhetoric took the correct tone?
As for tone we should have been less arrogant in attacking the rest of the left for not being more like us. And that leads to tactics. Our tactics (and strategy) were based on showing the superiority of our anti-imperialist politics. We often attacked the wimpy liberal left, such as the Mobilization. We destroyed SDS because it wasn’t radical enough (it couldn’t take the final step of anti-imperialism to armed action), thereby doing the work of the FBI.
What was right was being anti-imperialist: analyzing the fact that the war wasn’t a well-intentioned mistake; that there is such a thing as imperialist. This position we should have articulated again and again in SDS and in the broader movement, but not at the cost of dividing the movement, as we did.
And the ultimate position, that our anti-imperialism necessitated the beginning of revolutionary warfare in this country was stupid, kindergarten, as Todd Gitlin termed it.
With respect to Columbia and the youth counter-culture, do you think that the drugs and the sex were an integral part of the politics (subversive acts) or were they just hedonistic romps? How did this counter-culture setting affect your organizing work?
As to your questions, in the period that we were organizing on campuses, we were actually pretty straight, relative to the true hedonists, the real hippies. As time went on we saw a unity between them and us, though we always were more “political” than “personal liberation.” Also, we were young people and we liked to dance, fuck, get high, etc., so there wasn’t that much difference between “cultural revolutionaries” and “political.” You may be making the mistake of projecting the present back to the past. Kids nowadays get loaded on alcohol or ecstasy and it means absolutely nothing in terms of breaking with the social norms. Back then an acid trip was a break with conformist reality.
Later, after we went underground, the leadership of the organization recognized that hippies would be the sea we could swim in. They were right. They tried to forge a unity in 1970 by breaking [counter-culture hero and leader Timothy] Leary out of prison. It worked. Speaking for myself, I was a hippie as well as a communist revolutionary. But I always thought there was an element of opportunism in how quickly we changed from a critical position on hippieism (”it’s not political enough”) to a total embracement (”kids are outlaws, outlaws are kids” or something of that ilk).
At the time many other social movements were running in tandem, do you feel that you worked with these movements. An example of this is the second-wave feminism. SDS, and the New Left in general, was heavily criticized for its sexism. In retrospect, were those charges justified, and, do you think that the movements would have been more successfully had they spoke back to each other?
We tried to work in solidarity with the Vietnamese, the Cubans, the Blacks and Latinos in this country. Modern feminism emerged in part from women within the civil rights and anti-war movements, as a reaction to sexism in both the
society and in the movement. This has been analyzed extensively by many writers and activists. I agree with the analysis that the New Left was sexist. Many of my female comrades split SDS over this. Others did not.
The women who stayed with Weatherman tended to subordinate female liberation to a larger socialist revolution, which would create the conditions for women’s liberation. Later, around 1974 this position came back to haunt them. The women’s movement had grown in power and authority to the point where women mounted an attack on the Weather women’s position (as well as sexist weathermen, such as me). See any of the writings of Jane Alpert or Robin Morgan.
I’m not sure I understand your question fully. It would have been much better
had we understood women’s liberation, gay liberation, etc., but we didn’t because we were so focused on Third World liberation. We pit them against eachother, but that’s a historical fact, one that is not, I think, occurring now. In fact, women’s leadership is a new established fact. You don’t have male theorists, male militarists anymore (incidentally, I consider the female leadership of Weatherman to be entirely male defined in the sense of macho, needing to prove themselves).
You can imagine soon what I am going to get to: tactics. You speak of the mistakes of your radicalism. Can elaborate on this? Why was it a mistake? Ideologically and strategically, why was Weather’s armed revolutionary tactics incorrect in your assertion.
The entire Weatherman strategy was a macho nightmare. It was designed to prove ourselves as young men (and women).
My discussion of the actual results of the Weather Underground usually consists of enumerating three terrible consequences.
First, three of our comrades were killed in the Greenwich Village townhouse bomb accident. These were three intelligent, vibrant, beautiful friends, the same as those of us who survived, no more deserving of losing their lives than us. This loss can’t possibly be written off as a necessary consequence of war. Second, we in the leadership of Weatherman (predecessor to the Weather Underground Organization) made a historically criminal decision at the end of 1969 to scuttle Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student anti-war and radical organization, with over 300 chapters on college campuses and high schools. We mistakenly believed that we could bring into existence a revolutionary movement, led by an underground revolutionary army; SDS, with its purely legal above-ground existence and its reform agenda, was seen as an impediment to the growth of the revolutionary army. Our faction was in control of the national and regional offices of the organization, plus its newspaper. I remember sometime in January, 1970, dumping the membership lists of the New York Regional Office into a garbage barge at the W. 14th St. pier. How could we have done the FBI’s work better for them?
Many people object to this point by arguing that the centrifugal forces causing SDS to break apart were so great that there is nothing we in the national leadership could have done to keep it together. Perhaps this is true, but the fact remains that we didn’t even try to keep the organization together, that we were part of the problem. We argued for its demise, as if that were a step forward. Only Ted Gold, ironically, tried to keep SDS in existence and was overruled by “the leadership.”
Last, and probably most important, the Weather Underground forced a debilitating ideological debate in the much larger anti-war movement over the “necessity” of engaging in armed “revolutionary” actions. In the summer of 1969 Weather-organized actions even disrupted the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (“Mobe”) mass anti-war events and demonstrations. People became demoralized and left the anti-war movement because they didn’t want any part of an armed revolution.
You left Weather early in its history. Was it an ideological split or was it personal?
At the time of first my demotion into the ranks from the leadership (starting January 1970, right after the Flint meeting), followed by my eventually leaving the organization at the end of 1970, I experienced the problem as a “personal” one, namely I didn’t have the courage and conviction to actually be the guerilla revolutionary warrior I was posing a or to talk other the people into it.
Some years later I realized that what it really was a “political” difference: that I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of the armed strategy we were engaged in. That it isolated us, split the movement, etc. That it was the wrong strategy. We should have been building the mass movement, building SDS, too, while all the while arguing for anti-imperialism.
Were you involved at all with the Prairie Fire booklet? Some of the ideas on Third World liberation (like Palestine) were very much ahead of their time and are only now being given the attention by the Left. Did you agree with them? Do you still?
I didn’t help write PF but I did help with the clandestine production of it. I more or less agreed, though probably was distant even then from any espousal of armed struggle (I need to look back at it). In terms of analysis of national liberation as bringing down imperialism I totally agreed.
I want to point out a serious analytical problem at the moment, though. Thirty years ago all the national liberation movements we saw were leftist-socialist, for economic and political justice, etc. But now most national liberation is taking a right-wing form (e.g., Islamic clerical fascism). This severely muddies the waters, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
Important questions for academic writing: why did this happen? What were the limits of leftism? Why clerical fascism?
Now we turn to the question of regret. Many of the interviews and the writing that has occurred in the wake of the movie has focused on if you regret your actions and your methods. I find this interesting: it seems to be a way of dismissing the importance of your Weather’s politics and ideology. Do you think that the American media realizes the vastly important position that Weather has played in American history (along with the anti-war movement) or do you think that the only reflection that takes place is viewed through the lens of “they were crazy hippies”? (Even left-leaning Salon.com titled the review of the film “When Terrorism was Cool”)
The American media barely even recognizes that an anti-war movement ever
existed, and almost not at all that it had any impact on forcing the US to leave Vietnam. As for Weatherman, the American media only recognizes it as a misbegotten attempt at playing revolutionary. So I expect absolutely nothing at all from the American media.
I believe that we weakened the larger movement, whose goal was uniting as many people as possible to end the Vietnam War. Besides causing people to drop out, we gave the government ammunition to smear the whole anti-war movement as violent crazies bent on destruction of the society. Did our actions help attract the huge middle of American society who might otherwise have joined the anti-war movement, public opinion being vastly against the war? “Bring the War Home,” was as counter-productive a line in 1969 and 1970 as it was in 2001 at the World Trade Center.
We should have united as many people as possible within an anti-war movement. We should have maintained an anti-imperialist analysis but not insisted that everyone engaged in armed revolutionary struggle. That was stupid, it split the movement and it played into the hands of the FBI. The country was not in a revolutionary stage and we overestimated where we were at. We were true idealists, in the sense that we thought revolution was on the agenda just because we had the idea, and having the idea proved the reality. It’s no different from the imbecilic idealist neo-cons running the govt. who have the stupid idea that supporting Israel and invading Iraq will bring democracy to the Middle East.
Let’s talk about your new career. Why teach? Is this a continuation of your work as a revolutionary?
Yes, teaching teaches me how people learn. This is a critical issue of political organizing. Over a 24 year career I have learned that many Americans lack the intellectual self-confidence to even think about political and social issues. So I teach algebra to help them realize that they are competent thinkers and can begin to think about the larger world.
American imperialism has continued unabated. People are dying all over the world; governments continue to be overthrown. Social and economic chaos is growing more and more out of control by the day. How, in the face of immense state power and an almost completely docile popular media, can citizens work together and alter this situation.
Here’s the deal: I’m an expert on what happened 30 some years ago, namely the Weather Underground. I know what went wrong. I’m not an expert on anything else. Certainly not the future, or “what is to be done.” The last time anybody followed me the results were disastrous. So I really shouldn’t be answering your questions.
However, the temptation is too great, so I will. But remember, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Who could have predicted 30 years ago that leftist national liberation would morph into right-wing clerical fascism? I start simple: young people have to learn that there is a thing called US imperialism. All other explanations of what’s going on in our intervention in the Middle East, such as US security and fighting terrorism, are lies, if you look at the dynamics of the system. Secondly, there once was an anti-war movement in this country that opposed a previous military aggression, the one against Vietnam. It approached a majority and was extremely influential, resulting in the withdrawal of American troops. Soldiers were a significant part of that movement, as were students.
There’s a lot more to be said about both points. One salient issue on the second point is that the anti-war movement was not explicitly or mainly anti-imperialist. But some people argued for anti-imperialism within the movement and even went too far in thinking that an anti-imperialist revolution was imminent.
What are your hopes for American left? Can it ever come together as it once did and have the effect it did? What do you say to university activists and concerned citizens who must face this task, namely, the task of taking down the American empire?
It’s my belief (but I can’t prove it) that the US ruling class represented by the clique currently in power will continue to overplay their hand, as they have already in Vietnam and Iraq (but not in Central America, where their victory was conclusive, due to the strategy of using surrogate troops and not using US troops). They may invade Iran, causing a severe manpower shortage. They may reinstitute a draft (though they will do everything they can to avoid it). If they do, young people and their families will be in the streets instantly.
But knowing this, they may just enlist large numbers of immigrants or foreign troops, with significant inducements such as imperial citizenship. So we can’t bank on a draft, though of course I welcome one.
Meanwhile, a counter-culture may be growing up among young people under the corporate and media radar. It might erupt quickly in the form of anti-authoritiarianism and anti-war sentiments, I don’t know. I just sense it. So young people such as yourself should be organizing now among other young people, explaining the system, preaching opposition to the war and the internal repression surrounding the war.
Somebody’s got to be doing this.
The form it should take I don’t know. I suspect cultural forms are important, such as music and dance and film and poetry. Also, I think this movement of young people should be explicitly non-violent both for moral but also for practical reasons: nothing else has a chance of success. It should postulate a goal of a progressive majority in our (your) lifetime. And it should work along many lines, such as cultural events, protests in the streets and in institutions such as schools, and in the electoral realm.
That’s my thinking. I could be totally wrong so don’t quote me.