Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (New York: William Morrow, 2009).
Mark Rudd’s memoir is a welcome and intelligent addition to the growing catalog of books on the history of the 1960s. Like previous Weather Underground Organization (WUO) members Cathy Wilkerson and Bill Ayers, Rudd discusses his experience in the WUO with the insight that the passage of time often provides. That being said, Underground is not a political book but a personal book of a man whose politics have defined much of his life.
Rudd begins with a vivid description of his introduction to the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). An inquiring college freshman with concerns about racism in the United States and war in Southeast Asia, Rudd was quite open to the arguments of Columbia’s Independent Committee on Vietnam (ICV) by the time its organizer David Gilbert knocked on his dorm room door. Within weeks, Rudd was involved in organizing campaigns against the war, and by the following academic year the ICV had become a chapter of national SDS. Campaigns against the presence of the Pentagon-connected think tank Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) and Columbia’s expansion into the Harlem community were growing in intensity. SDS chapters around the country were engaged in debate regarding the best means of organizing – direct action or education? By the following spring of 1968, the direct action faction was in control of Columbia’s chapter. This fact, combined with the university administration’s growing intransigence regarding SDS opposition to the IDA and to the planned gym on Harlem parkland, insured that a confrontation would ensue. Rudd’s account of the Columbia events of late March and April 1968 is first-hand and visceral; it rivals the best descriptions anywhere, losing nothing with the passage of time.
More revealing politically than his descriptions of the external events, however, are his narrative of the journey undertaken by him and his closest SDS allies. These are many of the folks that would form Weatherman. Rudd describes their desire to rid themselves of the vestiges of US bourgeois life via self-criticism sessions, street-fighting, and other activities. Weathermembers were convinced that these practices would destroy their middle-class hangups while bringing communist revolution to the United States. He explains the original Weatherman statement in a few paragraphs. Weather believed that the overextension of US forces, fighting wars overseas and quelling domestic disturbances, would lead to revolutionary conditions in the United States. Weather saw their task as joining those involved in attacking the US internally. They also saw the US working class as predominantly reactionary, yet held out hope for the youth of that class. This hope was based on the special oppression that youth faced – the draft and attacks on youth culture being the most obvious. The first major action based on this theory was to become known as the Days of Rage (Chicago, 1969).
After the relative failure of this action, the Weatherman leadership – of which Rudd was no longer a part – decided to engage the foco theory at its most basic. This approach, which had been applied successfully by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Cuba, held that small groups of revolutionaries could organize people with bold actions against the state. The Weather leadership believed the theory’s success in the United States had been proven at Columbia and elsewhere. However, it had never been practiced in the manner that the Weather leadership was considering in late 1969. This is when the Weather leadership decided to go underground and engage in armed struggle against the United States. Rudd remarks that while he supported the general idea of the foco theory, he was dismayed at the top-down nature of the decision and also afraid for himself and his comrades. The decision was presented to the Weatherman organization and the media at the National War Council in December 1969. Soon afterwards, members of the group began either going underground or leaving Weatherman.
As Rudd describes his move into the underground, he tellingly recounts an experience he and fellow Weatherman John Jacobs (JJ) shared in Philadelphia. It involved the two men sharing a space in a dwelling lent to them by a politically sympathetic couple. Soon, both JJ and Rudd are sleeping with the woman, with little regard for her already existing relationship. Ultimately, Rudd acknowledges the male supremacist conduct of many of the men in Weatherman’s early days, and that the anti-monogamous practices had little to do with liberation.
His discussion of Weatherman’s early obsession with violence is deeper and more personal. He relates two primary trends within the organization. One, which was championed by (among others) Terry Robbins and JJ, called for upping the ante by forming armed squads that would kill; the other, which did not (according to Rudd) truly develop until after the fatal March 6, 1970 townhouse explosion (where Robbins and two other WUO members were killed), was committed to actions that would not kill or injure people. These actions would be designed to increase the militancy of the mass movement but not alienate Weather from that movement. The latter position prevailed. Within days of this announcement at a meeting in California, JJ left the organization at the leadership’s request. Although Rudd agreed with the change of direction, he characterizes JJ’s departure as a purge. According to Rudd, Robbins’ death and JJ’s departure made it possible to blame the so-called “military error” on Terry Robbins and JJ alone, and not on the entire organization.
Rudd’s memoir is littered with regret. There are also remnants of personal and political bitterness. This fact in itself makes for a good memoir, but not the best political biography. There is a tendency to simplify political disagreements. His personal bitterness toward the Weather organization occasionally ends up being directed towards the entire Left. In taking this attitude, Rudd dismisses the Weather Underground’s relevance and diminishes the political context from which it sprang. After all, there are political and historical reasons why the WUO was formed that go beyond the personal frustrations of its members.
Another problem with Rudd’s book is his characterization of groups engaged in revolutionary armed struggle as “ideological cults.” The history surrounding this question proves otherwise. Revolutionary armed struggle is not a cultish activity, but a means toward liberation historically used by people opposed to colonialism, imperialism and oppression. The fact that the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization incorrectly believed that the people of the United States were ready for such a struggle and failed does not alter that. It only asserts that the WUO was wrong in its assessment.
2010 Ron Jacobs
Asheville, North Carolina