January 29, 2008
In the middle of a soliloquy on the challenges of student organizing, Mark Rudd, former national secretary for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–a radical student organization that in the 1960s boasted a membership of about 100,000–surprised me. “Have you ever been in love?” he asked abruptly. Startled, I hesitantly responded, “Yes.” “Me too,” he told me. “Only I was in love with a country.”
According to Rudd, that emotion pushed him to do crazy things. Though SDS was founded in 1962 as a nonviolent organization, with race riots brewing in America’s major cities in 1969 Rudd and several other SDS leaders began agitating for militant action. They formed a militant faction, the Weathermen, which eventually renounced SDS and emerged as the radical guerilla organization the Weather Underground.
The Weather Underground set its sights on the revolutionary overthrow of the United States government. Its members preached sacrifice of privilege and solidarity with anti-racist struggles from Vietnam to America’s ghettos. As one of its leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, said, “White youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.” During the 1970s, the Weather Underground staged over a dozen bombings at sites ranging from the New York police department to the Pentagon. Aside from one accidental detonation that killed three Weathermen, the group did not inflict any casualties.
Today, Rudd is unsparing in his critique of the organization he helped found. “It was juvenile, it was less than juvenile,” Rudd said. Though the Weather Underground gained rapid notoriety for its views, the group, Rudd argues, helped pave the way for the unmaking of the student left. By discarding SDS and pursuing militancy, says Rudd, the Weather Underground abandoned the basic principle of any strong political movement: a commitment to organizing. According to Rudd, this is a legacy that persists in contemporary student movements. Failure to do the hard work of organizing, Rudd said, is what continues to hold progressive students back today, even as they try to piece together new methods of political engagement.
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Though Rudd is cynical about much of his tenure as a student leader, one period of time for him remains untarnished: his years at Columbia University from 1965-1968.
Growing up in New Jersey as the grandson of Jewish immigrants who believed America could do no wrong, it was a shock for Rudd when he crossed the Hudson River and came in contact with his peers’ anti-racist, anti-imperialist critique of America. Rudd watched student uprisings taking place from France to Mexico to China–the world seemed poised on the brink of global revolution, and Rudd wanted to join in.