Fortunate Rebel Son
Underground: My Life with the SDS and the Weatherman is Mark Rudd’s candid story of his years in Columbia University’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and, later, as a reluctant fugitive associate—though technically never a member—of the Weather Underground. (Full disclosure: I first met Mark Rudd in New Mexico two decades after his underground days ended, and I taught at the Albuquerque college where he taught. I was never a member of Weatherman [sic], also know colloquially as the Weathermen, though I did have some peripheral association with SDS in the late 1960s and early 1970s.)
Rudd grew up in a comfortable middle class family in suburban New Jersey, attended Columbia University in New York City as a promising student, and became heavily involved in anti-racist and anti-war organizing in the late 1960s’ Students for a Democratic Society. A charismatic, photogenic personality, he was picked up by the media and made the visible white male star of the student New Left. The fame—and, arguably, the youthful indulgences of the time—seemed to have warped his judgment and direction, as he confesses in his book. Tragically, by conspiring to introduce proactive violence into the student movement—via the Weatherman faction which took over SDS in a 1969 putsch—Rudd helped destroy SDS and, consequently, to deflate the momentum of the anti-war U.S. student movement. Rudd expresses profound regret for this in the book. But he also offers advice.
When SDS imploded, the Weather faction deserted it, issued a bombastic declaration of war against American imperialism, and embarked on a futile, if largely symbolic, terrorist bombing campaign. Rudd, shocked and appalled by the deaths of three of his Weather comrades—when explosives they were arming for an attack on U.S. soldiers and police misfired in a Manhattan apartment—tried to quit the Weatherman, which had renamed itself the Weather Underground Organization (WUO). However, he was wanted by the Feds and forced to hide under false names from 1970 until 1977.
When Rudd surfaced and surrendered in 1977, the federal charges against him were dropped because they had been tainted by illegal government actions. Rudd eventually settled in New Mexico under his own name and made a career teaching remedial math at an Albuquerque community college.
In 2002, a documentary film, Weather Underground, devoted much of its screen time to Rudd. While the movie has been criticized as less than fully accurate, it propelled Rudd into a second bout of fame, including a contract to produce this book for a major publisher.
Underground is, in many ways, a wryly humorous recollection and, despite having been expelled from an Ivy League college, placed on federal wanted lists, and driven into outlawry, Rudd kept in touch with his doting parents, and they with him. On the eve of this spring’s publication of the paperback edition of Underground, Rudd took the time to answer a few questions.
NEVINS: In your preface, you explain that there were earlier drafts of this book which you shelved. How does Underground differ from your earlier efforts?
RUDD: The book has been sitting around—in my mind and on a shelf—since about 1984, when Reagan was re-elected. The first version was a set of essays on the Vietnam War. Then I realized that my strength was in telling my story. But the draft I finished in 1989 didn’t sufficiently address the problem of why I chose violence. I hadn’t figured it out. Also, the 40-year-old was always beating up on the 20-year-old Mark Rudd. It took me 20 more years to gain any sort of balance and equanimity toward that kid. The published version is a hell of a lot kinder and gentler toward the kid, and also lets him tell his story, too.
What do your coming years likely hold for you?
I’m doing a lot of speaking and writing on "organizing." Last semester I taught an American Studies course at the University of New Mexico on "The Organizing Tradition in American Social Movements." I’ve found that young people have little awareness of the fact that movements don’t happen spontaneously. My book takes up this issue, but in reverse: I go from telling a story of good organizing (Columbia) to bad organizing (the demise of SDS and Weatherman) to even worse (the Weather Underground). It’s a study of what not to do.
I’m also working on various organizing projects, such as a progressive’s run for Lt. Governor of New Mexico. I’d like to see the Democratic Party turned in a center-left direction. It might be possible in a small place like New Mexico.
Have you read some of the other Weather Underground memoirs by Bill Ayers, etc.?
Billy’s book Fugitive Days is very moving, especially about the townhouse where he lost his girlfriend and his best friend. A lot of it is fiction, however. Also, in general, Bill gives too much credit for good intentions and doesn’t take crappy results into account. Cathy Wilkerson’s book, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman, is comprehensive as a history of the times. Well-researched, well thought out. I often recommend it to students of the new left. Unfortunately, she portrays herself as being much more passive than I remember her. Susan Stern’s book from the mid-1970s, With the Weathermen, is always of interest.
Did the publisher or your editor suggest or insist on any significant changes?
The draft I turned in to the editor included a long section covering 1978 to 2008 in Albuquerque. He cut it out completely, saying that the story should stop in 1977 when I turned myself in. He was right. He did give me a 25-page epilogue, though, which worked out okay. I can always use the material for further writing. Also, I wanted to name the book, Grandpa Was a Terrorist, which would have put me into Costco, but my editor and my wife nixed that.
Following a political line with which you disagreed, but which prevailed in the organization, the Weather Underground tried to build an insurgent army in the United States for the purposes of opening a military front in solidarity with the Vietnamese and Black revolutionaries in America. Is that an accurate description?
Yes, it’s a fairly accurate description.
This seemed then, to many of us, to have been an absurd and futile undertaking. Can you comment?
Yes, it was absurd and futile. The motives were mixed. Speaking only for myself, I wanted to be a hero like Che Guevara. I wanted to prove myself the way 20-year-old males have always proved themselves, in combat. I also wanted to be "an agent of history." We had studied Fanon, Mao, Marx, and Lenin and knew well that it was the age of decolonization, which would dismantle imperialism, the final stage of capitalism. You needed guts, like all great revolutionaries, to push history to the next stage. It was quite utopian and grandiose. In a sense, too, we saw ourselves as heirs to the great tradition of socialist revolution. Little did we know that we were the last recruits to a war that was already lost. Capitalism won that round, for better or worse. For worse, I like to think.
So if you look at it that way, one could even now get caught up in the heroism of the whole endeavor. In the long run, who’s more rational, Karl Rove or Bernardine Dohrn? I’ll vote for Bernardine.
There was a very ugly side to some 1960s-1970s radicalism. You recount that a Black Panther made a grossly offensive speech advocating sexual exploitation. Some Panthers came from what they described as "the lumpen proletariat," but most SDS and Weather activists came from privileged or at least middle class backgrounds. Would you care to comment on this and, more generally, on male sexist, violence-tripping attitudes then and now?
We fell for the whole black leadership line. It was our response to the earlier call for Black Power that had emerged from SNCC, an organization I still have deep respect for. I wish we had been much smarter than we were. As Marxists, we liked to reduce the world to "central contradictions." Since it was the era of decolonization, race oppression trumped sexism in the hierarchy of oppression. All of this is absolutely unintelligible now, but it made perfect sense to us at the time. Marxism is its own religion, with its own way of looking at the world.
What did you think of the two dramatic films about 20th century armed revolutionaries: Che directed by Steven Soderbergh and the German film The Baader Meinhof Complex?
I appreciated the trajectory of Soderbergh’s two-part Che. The first was all heroism and victory, the second pure defeat. It’s accurate. His theory was crap. The Baader Meinhof Complex was good at creating the context for why some German New Leftists might have thought that they were living in fascist times and felt the need to take up arms against it, as their parents did not. However, they degenerated into cops and robbers. Andreas Baader was portrayed as a sociopath, which he very well may have been. Why succeeding generations of kids joined them, I still don’t know. Maybe there was a deep need among some Germans to transcend the Good German Nazi history.
Did you help to write the statement issued by the Weather Underground in the later 1970s in the booklet Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism? Does that position paper hold up over the years, in your opinion?
As an indictment of U.S. history and of imperialism, Prairie Fire is still useful. As a blueprint for revolution it’s absurd. Actually, though, I didn’t help write it. I helped build a print shop to produce the successor to Prairie Fire, a magazine called Ossawatomie. I did help write the original Weatherman paper.
As you acknowledge in your book, there was a kill-your-parents rhetoric and attitude in some of the New Left, including the Weatherman. Yet, even in hiding, you and your parents maintained contact and they got material help to you on several occasions, though they were not radicals themselves. I found this both the most touching and, perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of your story.
The rhetoric was the politics of transgression. I don’t think I ever engaged in kill-your-parents stuff myself. I was more of the off-the-pig school. I was still a good Jewish boy. I tried to be accurate about that in my book.
You have been a successful teacher for decades now. You also helped form a faculty union at your college. Do you see these professional roles as linked to your earlier organizing and revolutionary efforts?
Organizing and teaching are the same. They both involve the question of how people learn things. They both involve dialogue. They both involve long-term commitment and perspective. They both involve people in changing their lives. And the teacher/organizer is always learning.