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Tom Hayden on Mark Rudd

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But most of what Rudd tells is deeply disturbing, though illuminating, in its unemotional matter-of-factness. In describing the Weather Underground as a cult, Rudd writes: "I knew that the whole thing was nuts but couldn't intervene to stop it. " I believed as much as anyone else, perhaps more so, in the need to harden ourselves through group criticism." Feeling "addled," he agrees to take a break from the national leadership and accept demotion to its New York collective. He is unable to tell us exactly why, writing only that he was experiencing "the competitive world of the Weatherman hierarchy from the underside now." Yet he "couldn't allow my conscious mind even a tiny doubt as to the direction of the organization."

The mindset becomes lethal. Rudd "assented to the Fort Dix plan when Terry [Robbins] told me about it." He dropped off Robbins, one of the architects of the plan, at the West 11th Street townhouse in Manhattan two days before the bomb Robbins was assembling would accidentally go off, demolishing the site. Rudd spent March 6 at a friend's house in New Jersey "to establish an alibi," then watched "Zabriskie Point," the Michelangelo Antonioni film in which a fancy bourgeois house is blown up.  All this while three of his comrades were being killed by the bombs they intended for the noncommissioned officers, which would have included their dates, wives, and others, too, of Fort Dix.

Rudd, by his own account, often seems to be under the spell of charismatic, authoritarian leadership, vulnerable to the most fanatic of the fanatics, severed from his realities of only two years before. After the townhouse bombing, he meets a few weeks later with John Jacobs, known as JJ, an old friend from Columbia and the charismatic leader of the New York Weather faction, who wanted to kill soldiers and noncombatants. Rudd, who says he was befuddled, agreed to support JJ's newest ideas: blowing up a B-52 on the ground, knocking out a government computer, or considering a "selective" assassination or kidnapping. Then he joins JJ in bed with a married woman who'd given Rudd a place to hide. He enjoys the "intense excitement at the thought that my semen was mixing with JJ's inside a woman." Later he tells the woman's husband that "women's liberation shouldn't threaten him."

Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
By Mark Rudd
William Morrow, 336 pages

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There is much more, some of it extremely explosive,  though unprovable, such as Rudd's assertion that JJ was a willing scapegoat for the entire Weather leadership that approved, or, at the least, did not oppose, the Fort Dix plan. But recounting any more of Rudd's story here will bring no more revelation, only a kind of nausea. Rudd in these pages resembles the Roth character who says, "Eve didn't marry a communist, she married someone who couldn't find his life."

Yet I know Mark Rudd to be a good man, a useful person despite all this, and one must ask, how can that possibly be? Partly it is because I believe individuals are capable of surprising changes. I have befriended, and worked with, numerous people who have inflicted enormous damage on themselves, their loved ones, and society at some stage in their past lives. They include strung-out returning soldiers, prison inmates, former gang members, addicts, suicidal personalities of all kinds. Some of them have killed people. They have done unspeakable things but are not incorrigible. As the woman character says in Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," "We have two lives--the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness."

I don't know if Mark Rudd will or even should be happy, but he is living a life of amends. In this book, he takes responsibility for "the destruction of SDS [as] probably the greatest single mistake of my life [and I've made quite a few] " a historical crime." In speaking to young people, he can vividly describe the difference between radicalism and fanaticism, and the moral, emotional and political costs of the latter. He can confide that the best of us are capable of the worst. His wounds are gifts; he becomes a character in one of those Scared Straight performances, an important signifier for the next generation. And he continues working humbly, patiently and energetically as a rank-and-file activist.

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There is a larger reason for trying to understand a Mark Rudd. He was only an inflated individual symbol of many young people around the world who took up weapons, or dreamt of taking up weapons, or went underground, or dreamt of going underground, or sheltered people underground, or dreamt of sheltering people underground, in the years between 1966 and 1975. During the same short period, less than a decade, there were more than 100 violent rebellions in American cities. Hundreds of campuses were shut down. The murders of the Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to confirm, on a deep existential level, that peaceful change was impossible. The greatest flare-up of urban violence in America followed Dr. King's death on April 4, 1968, two weeks before Columbia and six months before the formation of the Weathermen. It would take a contortionist to reduce this collective rebellion to Freudian categories reserved for individual diagnoses, or to forms of mass psychosis like Eric Hoffer's notion of true believers. This massive cohort of mutinous and violent young people within the '60s generation is little researched or remembered in mainstream culture. They were young, educated, and mostly lived in societies with civil liberties and elections.

In Latin America, other young people, struggling often in dictatorial societies, participated in at least 20 guerrilla insurgencies modeled after the Cuban revolution, inspired by writers like Regis Debray and Carlos Marighella, the same authors studied by the Weathermen. Thousands were abducted, tortured, assassinated, disappeared. Though none of the Latin American movements, with the exception of Nicaragua, succeeded militarily, theirs was the generation that directly produced or influenced many leaders of today's successful democratic revolutions across the continent. It was revolutionaries from Mexico City's 1968 massacre of students, for example, who went on to create the Zapatistas.

In Europe, formations like the Weathermen burst out in several countries. In Germany, at the time of the Columbia student strike, radical youth protesting civic apathy toward Vietnam set fire to a Frankfurt department store, on grounds that it was better to burn it down than to run one.  A well-known journalist, Ulrike Meinhoff, feeling that in her role as a columnist she was only a pressure relief valve, joined a violent underground group, was imprisoned with others and hung herself on May 8, 1976, the anniversary of the end of World War II. In its beginning phase, her Red Army Faction had the sympathy of one of every four Germans under 30, according to a 1971 survey. Her Red Army Faction, like Italy's Red Brigades or Japan's Red Army, was more violent by far than the Weather Underground, and would spiral into lethal destruction.

Another example is the Irish Republican Army, revived in the late 1960s, which fought a 30-year war against England before signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. And in Quebec, revolutionary nationalists carried out kidnappings and bombings. As with Latin America, many of the participants in these revolutionary currents evolved to hold political office or serve in prominent professions today.

To my knowledge, no one has convincingly explained how all these events took place concurrently and with little coordination, or how so many middle-class young people chose violence as a moral and political necessity. The Paris revolutionaries of May 1968, for example, sent the striking Columbia students a telegram saying, "We've occupied a building in your honor. What do we do now?"- In Rudd's book, he typically writes that "I don't remember our answer." In Derry, Northern Ireland, the slogan "Free Derry" was adopted from "Free Berkeley."

There is a logical sequence from protest to resistance in the late 1960s. Protest assumed the authorities were listening, while resistance meant their institutions had to be disrupted, forcing them to pay a price. Resistance at first meant street battles with police, occupying buildings, burning draft cards, attempts to stop business as usual, and then gradually the beginnings of destroying property. It seems clear that the resistance escalated as the authorities chose to escalate an unpopular Vietnam War, or continue supporting dictatorships like the Shah's in Iran, in utter disregard for public opinion, petitions and peaceful protest.  People were dying every day, on television, making a moral mockery of appeals for gradual change. It is clear, however, that the moves from protest to resistance, and from there to underground revolutionary action, took place as necessary reforms were rejected by the authorities while wars like Vietnam and dictatorships like the Shah's seemed to rage beyond democracy's reach. For example, street violence escalated decisively in Germany after the shooting of student leader Rudi Dutschke. Perhaps the advent of a televised war, combined with repression by police and the impatient inexperience of youth, caused the rapid escalations toward violence. I often wonder whether the propensity toward violence was greatest in the Western countries or communities that suffered fascism in the previous generation, like Germany, Italy and Japan. Even in America,  Rudd, who was born two years after World War II ended, grew up wondering whether he would have bowed in the face of such evil.

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The sudden subsidence of this violence in the mid-1970s also points to a sociological, rather than a pathological, explanation of its nature. The end of the Vietnam War, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon from the Oval Office, the U.S. rapprochement with China, the new openings for voter participation inside the political system, all contributed to a sharp abatement of the revolutionary fevers of the 1968-73 period.

Ironically, the Justice Department dropped federal charges against Rudd and the Weather Underground for fear of revealing their undercover techniques, and in 1978 federal prosecutors actually brought charges against the FBI for their Weathermen probes. One might even say, as the rhetoricians of the Weather Underground might have put it, that white-skin privilege helped to exonerate Mark Rudd. Or, more importantly and fundamentally, to put it another way, public opinion caught up with the radicalism of the 1960s--on issues like Vietnam and Watergate--at the very moment that the revolutionaries had given up on public opinion in order to go underground.

As the research and writings of James Gilligan demonstrate, violence is more situational than innate. Violence and shame are closely connected. The acceleration to violent behavior can be breathtaking. The violence of the young signals a dysfunction of the elders, not a nihilist seed.  As John F. Kennedy famously said, those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.

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After fifty years of activism, politics and writing, Tom Hayden still is a leading voice for ending the war in Iraq, erasing sweatshops, saving the environment, and reforming politics through greater citizen participation.

Currently he is writing and advocating for US exiting Afghanistan. (more...)

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