Tom Hayden on Mark Rudd
Posted on May 8, 2009
By Tom Hayden
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.”
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.
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.
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