The Cult of Violence Always Kills the Left
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—The Weather Underground, a clandestine revolutionary organization that advocated violence, was seen by my father and other clergy members who were involved in Vietnam anti-war protests as one of the most self-destructive forces on the left. These members of the clergy, many of whom, including my father, were World War II veterans, had often became ministers because of their experiences in the war. They understood the poison of violence. One of the most prominent leaders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), to which my father belonged, was the Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who as an Army second lieutenant fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
The young radicals of the Vietnam era, including Mark Rudd—who in 1968 as a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led the occupation of five buildings at Columbia University and later helped form the Weather Underground—did not turn to those on the religious left whose personal experiences with violence might have saved SDS, the Weather Underground and the student anti-war movement from self-immolation. Blinded by hubris and infected with moral purity, the members of the Weather Underground saw themselves as the only real revolutionaries. And they embarked, as have those in today’s black bloc and antifa, on a campaign that was counterproductive to the social justice goals they said they advocated.
Rudd, 50 years later, plays the role once played by the priests Phil and Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. His book “Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen” is a brutally honest deconstruction of the dangerous myths that captivated him as a young man. I suspect that many of those in the black bloc and antifa will no more listen to his wisdom than did the young radicals five decades ago who dismissed the warnings from those on the religious left for whom violence was not an abstraction. Rudd sees his old self in the masked faces of the black bloc and antifa, groups that advocate violence and property destruction in the name of anti-fascism. These faces, he said, ignite his deep embers of “shame and guilt.”
“It’s word for word the same thing,” Rudd said of antifa and the black bloc when we spoke for several hours recently in Albuquerque. “You look on a YouTube channel like Acting Out. It’s identical. How can we as white people stand by while the nonwhite people of the world are suffering under imperialism? I think the shame of being white in this society is so great [that] people want to show that they’re aware of how terrible the disparities are, and how privilege and oppression distort everything. The urge to talk about violence and commit violence in response is a way of cleansing yourself of that privilege, of the guilt of privilege. It taps into this strain that I’ve identified as self-expression rather than strategy. That, to me, is the biggest problem.”
“The anarchist Andy Cornell makes a distinction between activism and organizing,” he said. “Activism is about self-expression. It often is a substitute for strategy. Strategic organizing is about results. These acts of self-expression, which is what antifa does and what we did in the Weather Underground, are exactly what the cops want.”
“The slogan ‘diversity of tactics’ used by the black bloc and antifa is ridiculous,” he said. “Even the term ‘tactic’ is ridiculous. What we need is a strategy. And let’s be clear, even when you adopt a nonviolent strategy it will be portrayed by the state as violent. This is what the Israelis are doing at the Gaza fence. I often tell the antifa kids here—there are about four antifa kids in Albuquerque and they hate my guts—this story. There was a spontaneous anti-war demonstration in 2003 by a thousand people in Albuquerque the night the [Iraq] war began. The cops, who support the military, were angry. They attacked the crowd with tear gas and clubs. There were a lot of arrests. The victims brought a civil suit against the police. It did not come to trial until 2011. The police and the city of Albuquerque were the defendants. They were charged with violating the rights of the protesters. It was a jury trial. The jury found for the cops. Why? It turned out the police attorneys brought in a photograph. There were about 200 or 300 people in the photograph. In the front were two people wearing bandannas [as masks]. Just wearing bandannas. They zoomed in on the people wearing the bandannas. They told the jury, ‘See these people wearing these bandannas? They’re wearing bandannas because they’re terrorists. And we knew they were about to attack us. So, we had to attack them.’ The jury went for it. We had not yet convinced our fellow citizens of the value of the right to protest. My conclusion: Don’t wear bandannas! Every time I see a kid wearing a bandanna, I say, ‘You’re so beautiful, why cover your face?’ They say, ‘Well, I have to, I’m a Zapatista.’ I say that’s nice but this is what happened in 2003 and 2011. It would probably be better for you to not wear the bandanna so they won’t think we’re violent. And they say, ‘You’re a stupid piece of shit’ or they walk away.”
Rudd said that the occupation of Columbia University in April 1968, an occupation that caused him to be expelled from the university, was an example of the kind of strategy that the left has to adopt. This strategy had its roots in the organizing techniques of the labor and civil rights movement.
“The means of transmission were red diaper babies,’ he said, referring to the sons and daughters of members of the United States Communist Party. “The red diaper babies at Columbia SDS kept saying, ‘Build the base. Build the base. Build the base.’ It became a mantra for years. It was all we could think about. This meant education, confrontation and talking, talking, talking. It meant building relationships and alliances. It meant don’t get too far out in front. In the spring of 1968 it all came to a head. It was the perfect storm. A few of us knew, now is the time to strike.”
“Columbia was a success,” he said. “The deed attracted attention. And because of the alliance with the black students, which has never gotten enough media attention in the story of Columbia, we closed down the university. We accomplished our strategic aim, which was to politicize more people and to build the movement. Our goal was not to end the university’s involvement with military research. That was a symbolic goal. The real goal was to build the movement. I got into a lot of trouble for saying the issue is not the issue.”
But Rudd and other radicals in the SDS soon became, he said, “enamored with the propaganda of the deed.” Self-expression replaced strategy. The organizing, which had made the occupation of the university successful, was replaced by revolutionary posturing. The radicals believed that more radical tactics, including violence, would accelerate political and social change. It did the opposite.
“After Columbia, it was failure after failure after failure in SDS for the next year and a half,” he said. “Then we doubled down on the failures.”
The SDS radicals came under the spell of revolutionary theories propagated by those supporting armed liberation movements in the developing world. They wanted to transplant Frantz Fanon’s call for revolutionary violence, Lin Biao’s idea of “people’s war” and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s foco, or insurrectionary center, to the struggle in the United States. The radicals would go underground and carry out acts of violence that would ignite a national war of liberation. This call to arms was seductive and exhilarating, but it was based on a distorted and highly selective account of revolutionary struggle, especially in Cuba.
“Che put forward a phony analysis of how the Cuban revolution was won,” Rudd said. “According to him it was won solely by Fidel and Che going into the Sierra Maestra [mountain range]. Armed struggle was the only thing that was important to the Cuban revolution. All other aspects of the revolution, including 20,000 people who were murdered by [dictator Fulgencio] Batista in the cities, the national strikes by the unions, the street protests by women, university students and the Cuban Communist Party were wiped out of history. There was only one thing to do, pick up the gun.”
The cult of the gun was disastrous. It distorted reality. It elevated violence as the only real tool for revolution. Vijay Prashad in his book “The Darker Nations” spells out the incalculable damage caused by this cult, including the doomed attempt in 1967 by Che Guevara to form a foco in Bolivia, an effort that would cost him his life. The cult of the gun saw most third-world liberation movements, such as the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, devolve into squalid military dictatorships when they took power.
“My little segment of the left worshipped Che,” Rudd said. “We believed in the propaganda of the deed. We were so sure of our strategy, of leading the armed struggle, that we decided to destroy SDS and build the Weather Underground, a revolutionary fighting force. We decided on a tactic, which was to bring thousands of people to Chicago in 1969 for the conspiracy trial [of radicals such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, charged with instigating riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention]. Very few people showed up. We got creamed with beatings, arrests, and even shootings by the cops.”
“After that we went from bad organizing to no organizing,” Rudd said. “It was purely about self-expression. That self-expression would take the form of bombs. The first thing we did was kill three of our own people.”
The premature explosion of a bomb in a New York City townhouse on March 6, 1970, that killed three of Rudd’s comrades sobered the radical group. The bomb was to have been placed at an officers’ dance at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. It surely would have killed and wounded dozens of people had it exploded at the Army base. The Weather Underground decided to bomb buildings that symbolized centers of power, including the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the California attorney general’s office and a New York City police station, but to call in warnings beforehand so the buildings could be evacuated. The group was responsible for 25 bombings and in 1970 organized the prison escape of Timothy Leary, the famous advocate of psychedelic drugs, for which the group was paid $25,000 by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a collection of drug dealers.
“A lot of Americans can accept their government’s violence, but they can’t conceive of political violence as anything other than criminal and mentally ill,” Rudd said. “And who has all the power, in terms of violence? Our means of violence is very little. The government’s means, the right wing’s means, are very great. So, we’ve got to adopt nonviolence. The research of Erica Chenoweth and others has shown that nonviolence is much more efficacious than violence. Gene Sharp approaches nonviolence from a practical rather than a moral point of view. It is the difference between moral pacifism and practical pacifism. The antifa kids are not moral pacifists. They believe in a cleansing moral violence. At its base is a desire to absolve themselves of white guilt.”
Rudd cautioned against the danger of intellectualizing the struggle against oppressive forces. He said all resistance had to remain rooted in practical realities and the hard, often anonymous and time-consuming work of organizing.
“As intellectuals, we can talk ourselves into anything,” Rudd said. “If we think it’s necessary we can probably figure out how to do it. David Gilbert is one of the gentlest people I have ever met. Yet he somehow talked himself into driving a getaway van with a bunch of black guys armed with automatic weapons. Gilbert left his kid at a daycare center, thinking he was going back at the end of the day to pick the kid up. Nobody picked up the kid. This is ludicrous. And that’s the point; you can talk yourself into anything. I have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that says don’t believe everything that you think.”
Rudd is acutely aware of the failure by most liberals to fight for the values they purport to defend. However, the repeated betrayal of the oppressed by the liberal class as it mouths the language of justice should not push radicals to acts of violence. Rather, radicals must make strategic alliances with liberals while being fully aware of their propensity to flee from struggle when it becomes difficult.
“The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] was a sister organization of SDS,” Rudd said. “They decided to go to the absolute worst place in the United States, Mississippi, to organize for voting rights. And they did. They lost a lot of people. A lot of people got arrested and beaten. A lot of stuff happened over a three-year period. But they won the right to vote. They organized a non-segregationist democratic delegation called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The real Democratic Party delegation was all-white. The Democratic Party worked out a deal with their allies in the North including the United Auto Workers and other liberals. They would seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic Party Convention. They would exclude the segregationists. Busloads of mostly black people went to Atlantic City [site of the convention]. Lyndon Johnson had a change of heart. He feared if he seated the black delegates he would lose re-election. They didn’t get seated. That was an ultimate betrayal. Out of this betrayal came the impetus for black power. Black power was supposedly a strategy. But it was no more a strategy than the Weather Underground. It was another form of self-expression.”
“I was 18,” Rudd said. “I saw heroic SNCC people advocating for black power. The liberals betrayed them. Which side would you be on? Black power rejected the nonviolence of Martin Luther King. It rejected integration. Malcolm X used the slogan ‘By any means necessary.’ This was seized upon to justify revolutionary violence. It was the same fantasy of revolution. Black power was no more embraced by the black masses than the violence and rhetoric of the Weather Underground were embraced by the white masses. In the end, the white left became the base of the Black Panther Party. The Panther 21 was set up on charges of a bombing in April 1969. SDS in New York, which I was a part of, protested to defend them. Our demonstrations became more and more white. The black base was not behind them. I thought the reason was our presence. I was so steeped in black power ideology I thought the mere presence of white people would keep black people away. That wasn’t it. Black power made no sense to most black people. It was suicidal. Huey P. Newton’s autobiography, “Revolutionary Suicide,” captured it. What kind of a strategy is that? The black power movement was a cultural uprising. But it was not strategic. We fell for this bullshit.”
“White radicals felt personally challenged by black power,” he said. “Would we be liberals or would we be radicals? Would we go to the base, to the origin of the problem, which is capitalism and imperialism? Would we embrace ‘by any means necessary’? Would we overthrow the system? Or would we be liberal reformists? When you’re 18 or 20 that’s not much of a question. This is why David Gilbert is in prison for the rest of his life.”
“What we did was a historical crime,” he said of the destruction of the SDS. “At the height of the war in 1969 we decided to close down the national and regional offices and the newspaper of the largest student radical organization in the country. SDS had chapters in 400 campuses. We probably had 100,000 active members. It was crazy. Three of our people died immediately. We inspired copycat actions. One of them happened in the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1970. An anti-war graduate student died. Eventually, it led to the Brink’s robbery in 1981. The worst thing of all, of all the things we did, was we split the anti-war movement over the bogus issue of armed struggle, our right to an armed struggle. This is the same thing as the call by antifa for diversity of tactics, which is a code word for violence.”
“The thing about nonviolence is that it works,” he said. “But it only works if it’s total. The cops put the burden of violence on protesters. Our job is to do the opposite. Our job is to make it crystal clear it’s the government and the system that engages violence. We muddy the water when we use violence.”
“The left has not hit on a strategy analogous to the far-right strategy, which is to unite ideological conservatives with a base, especially the Christian fundamentalist base,” he said. “A base means people show up. They vote. They go where they’re told. That was the old union model for the Democratic Party. But with unions depleted we have no institutional or structural base. This is a huge problem. We have to rebuild structures. It’s going to take a long time, maybe 20 or 40 years. I’ll be 110.”
“Antifa claims to be anarchist,” he said. “But is not the same anarchism as, say, the Wobblies. Antifa’s version of anarchism is you can’t tell me what to do. It’s self-expression. I fell into the trap of self-expression. Self-expression is narcissistic. It’s saying my feelings are so important that I can do anything I want. It’s saying once other people see how important my feelings are they will join me. It never works. There’s only two kinds of people who advocate for violence—very stupid people, of which I was one, and cops. Which are you? Are you very stupid or are you a cop?”
“I can’t communicate with antifa because my own PTSD forbids me to say you are so morally right, so courageous and so morally pure,” Rudd said. “You understand how violent the system is. You understand what it’s like to be nonwhite. I understand your motives. I applaud you for it. This is the only thing they hear, words that feed their self-adulation.”
“I’m a veteran of all of this shit,” he lamented. “But that doesn’t count for anything. It’s all expired.”