March 2, 2015
Tom Hayden on Mark Rudd
Posted on May 8, 2009
By Tom Hayden
Don’t go around tonight,
—Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure,
—Bob Dylan, 1978
Anyone meeting Mark Rudd today would think him a nice level-headed guy: retired community college teacher, carpenter, husband, father of two, rank-and-file peace activist. Turning 62, his hair is gone white, the paunch protrudes, but the blue eyes are observant. All in all, laid back but present.
This is the same Mark Rudd I met in the heat of the 1968 Columbia University student strike, the Mark Rudd who ended a letter to Grayson Kirk, Columbia’s president, by declaring, “Up against the wall, motherfucker!”, the Mark Rudd who proudly led Students for a Democratic Society to close its offices and end its organizing efforts in the midst of the greatest student rebellion of the 20th century, the same Mark Rudd who went underground and supported a plan to bomb Fort Dix, which went awry and killed three of his friends—all by the time he was 22 years old.
Rudd struggles to reconcile these two selves, representing two eras, in his memoir, “Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen,” an important contribution to a growing collection of narratives from former participants in the revolutionary 1960s’ underground. Other recent works include Bill Ayers’ “Fugitive Days,” Cathy Wilkerson’s “Flying Close to the Sun,” Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones’ “Sing a Battle Song,” David Gilbert’s “No Surrender,” Leslie Brody’s “Red Star Sister,” Roxanne Dunbar’s “Outlaw Woman,” and the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Weather Underground.” The saga is turned into fiction as well in Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document.” Other novels that mine the same or similar terrain include Heinrich Boll’s classic “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” Susan Choi’s “American Woman,” Neil Gordon’s “The Company You Keep,” and Marge Piercy’s “Dance the Eagle to Sleep” and “Vida.” No doubt there will be more.
That may be more books than those devoted to such organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Students for a Democratic Society, not to mention community organizing or the farmworkers’ movement of those years, and the genre is likely to grow, revealing an abiding fascination with the question of why it was that some peaceful dissenters turned to violence so suddenly in the late ’60s. The Weather Underground took credit for 24 bombings altogether and, according to federal sources, there were additionally several thousand acts of violence during the same years. In 1969-70 alone, there were more than 550 fraggings by soldiers, according to one authoritative historian of the Vietnam War.
The fascination with such violence is not new. Similar themes can be found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novel about young Russian nihilists, “The Possessed,” in Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Eyes,” Henry James’ “The Princess Casamassima,” Andre Malraux’s tale of the Shanghai uprising, “Man’s Fate,” and, of course, Ernest Hemingway’s stories of the Spanish civil war.
What explains the enduring interest in such radicals? I believe it has something to do with exploring the extremes of personal commitment. To fail heroically, though miserably, is seen by many as attaining a greater glory than the rewards to be had from the mundane life of patient political work. As Karl Marx wrote of the Paris Commune, the French Communards at least had stormed the heavens. And as Rudd quotes Erich Fromm quoting Nietzsche, “There are times when anyone who does not lose his mind has no mind to lose.”
Fiction may be a better vehicle than autobiography or history for ascertaining the truth in clandestine histories where the secret lives of others are at legal risk. In Rudd’s self-description, he is far from heroic, but more like a confused young man from the Jersey suburbs staggering out of a novel by Philip Roth, either “American Pastoral” or “I Married a Communist.”
There is an unconsciousness in Rudd’s memory of himself, a kind of bumbling innocence that will disappoint a reader seeking more. When, for example, the milling students at Columbia sought tactical direction, Rudd writes: “I had only the vaguest idea of what we were doing.” When Rudd is told by a comrade that his demonstration is out of control, he replies, “I know. I have no idea what to do.” When Rudd calls for taking a hostage, he says, “I meant a building,” not an administrator. But then he supports taking Dean Henry Coleman hostage, yelling: “Now we’ve got the man where we want him! He can’t leave unless he gives in to some of our demands.” When the media selects him as the new revolutionary symbol, he remembers a “gnawing sense that I was in over my head.”
Some of this is funny, as for example when Rudd calls his father in Maplewood, N.J., to say “We took a building” and the old man replies, “Well, give it back.”
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.”
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