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Tom Hayden on Mark Rudd
Posted on May 8, 2009
By Tom Hayden
In Europe, formations like the Weathermen burst out in several countries. In Germany, at the time of the Columbia student strike, radical youth protesting civic apathy toward Vietnam set fire to a Frankfurt department store, on grounds that it was better to burn it down than to run one. A well-known journalist, Ulrike Meinhoff, feeling that in her role as a columnist she was only a pressure relief valve, joined a violent underground group, was imprisoned with others and hung herself on May 8, 1976, the anniversary of the end of World War II. In its beginning phase, her Red Army Faction had the sympathy of one of every four Germans under 30, according to a 1971 survey. Her Red Army Faction, like Italy’s Red Brigades or Japan’s Red Army, was more violent by far than the Weather Underground, and would spiral into lethal destruction.
Another example is the Irish Republican Army, revived in the late 1960s, which fought a 30-year war against England before signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. And in Quebec, revolutionary nationalists carried out kidnappings and bombings. As with Latin America, many of the participants in these revolutionary currents evolved to hold political office or serve in prominent professions today.
To my knowledge, no one has convincingly explained how all these events took place concurrently and with little coordination, or how so many middle-class young people chose violence as a moral and political necessity. The Paris revolutionaries of May 1968, for example, sent the striking Columbia students a telegram saying, “We’ve occupied a building in your honor. What do we do now?” In Rudd’s book, he typically writes that “I don’t remember our answer.” In Derry, Northern Ireland, the slogan “Free Derry” was adopted from “Free Berkeley.”
There is a logical sequence from protest to resistance in the late 1960s. Protest assumed the authorities were listening, while resistance meant their institutions had to be disrupted, forcing them to pay a price. Resistance at first meant street battles with police, occupying buildings, burning draft cards, attempts to stop business as usual, and then gradually the beginnings of destroying property. It seems clear that the resistance escalated as the authorities chose to escalate an unpopular Vietnam War, or continue supporting dictatorships like the Shah’s in Iran, in utter disregard for public opinion, petitions and peaceful protest. People were dying every day, on television, making a moral mockery of appeals for gradual change. It is clear, however, that the moves from protest to resistance, and from there to underground revolutionary action, took place as necessary reforms were rejected by the authorities while wars like Vietnam and dictatorships like the Shah’s seemed to rage beyond democracy’s reach. For example, street violence escalated decisively in Germany after the shooting of student leader Rudi Dutschke. Perhaps the advent of a televised war, combined with repression by police and the impatient inexperience of youth, caused the rapid escalations toward violence. I often wonder whether the propensity toward violence was greatest in the Western countries or communities that suffered fascism in the previous generation, like Germany, Italy and Japan. Even in America, Rudd, who was born two years after World War II ended, grew up wondering whether he would have bowed in the face of such evil.
The sudden subsidence of this violence in the mid-1970s also points to a sociological, rather than a pathological, explanation of its nature. The end of the Vietnam War, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon from the Oval Office, the U.S. rapprochement with China, the new openings for voter participation inside the political system, all contributed to a sharp abatement of the revolutionary fevers of the 1968-73 period.
Ironically, the Justice Department dropped federal charges against Rudd and the Weather Underground for fear of revealing their undercover techniques, and in 1978 federal prosecutors actually brought charges against the FBI for their Weathermen probes. One might even say, as the rhetoricians of the Weather Underground might have put it, that white-skin privilege helped to exonerate Mark Rudd. Or, more importantly and fundamentally, to put it another way, public opinion caught up with the radicalism of the 1960s—on issues like Vietnam and Watergate—at the very moment that the revolutionaries had given up on public opinion in order to go underground.
As the research and writings of James Gilligan demonstrate, violence is more situational than innate. Violence and shame are closely connected. The acceleration to violent behavior can be breathtaking. The violence of the young signals a dysfunction of the elders, not a nihilist seed. As John F. Kennedy famously said, those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
Now we have chosen a president, Barack Obama, who has known some of the Weather Underground veterans in their later incarnations. If he had been born 20 years earlier, Obama too might have given up on community organizing and become a black militant. The question he and the rest of us face today is whether we as a nation are prepared to act rapidly and deeply enough to prevent the conditions that provoke avoidable violence in a new generation yearning for substantial change. That’s the question a reading of Rudd’s book should make us ponder.
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