Mark Rudd’s Lessons From SDS and the Weather Underground for Today’s Radicals

Mark Rudd

Mark Rudd was Columbia’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter president in 1968, when the university erupted in protest against the Vietnam War and racism. He then cofounded the Weather Underground. In an interview with Jacobin, he reflects on what radicals like him got right and got wrong, and what today’s socialists should learn from his experiences.

Mark Rudd addresses students as president of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society on May 3, 1968. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

In 1968, Mark Rudd was a leader in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Columbia University, where he was an undergraduate. That year, a massive uprising took place on campus, when student radicals and members of the surrounding Harlem community engaged in protest of Columbia’s role in the Vietnam War and displacement of Harlem residents. Soon after, he became a founding member of the Weather Underground, the ultraleft group that set off bombs and engaged in street battles as part of an ill-defined and poorly conceived strategy of fighting racism and war.

Rudd recounts these experiences in Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, his memoir of the long 1960s. It’s a riveting read that tells a history that is vital in its own right, but in particular for those who are trying to build a twenty-first-century left, especially through the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Many of these leftists are curious about what they should take from the 1960s (and what they shouldn’t) for their own organizing work today; Rudd’s book will give them plenty of direction.

Earlier this year, Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Rudd for our YouTube show Jacobin Talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly of those years, and what the lessons are for radicals of the twenty-first century. You can watch the full interview here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Columbia Occupation

MU

You were one of the most visible radicals of the New Left. What was the trajectory that led you to that point?

MR

I turned eighteen in June 1965 and went to the draft board to register. Everybody did. My brother was in the army at that time, and my father had been a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserves. I didn’t think much about Vietnam, which the United States had invaded a few months earlier.

In September, I got to Columbia and found there were already an awful lot of people studying the war and protesting it and organizing. They were the people I fell in with.

We organized on campus. Our idea was that we would build the movement. I came from an apolitical background, but a lot of the kids I fell in with were red diaper babies. There were an awful lot of them at Columbia at that time. Columbia had recently opened up to poorer white kids and Jews; the opening to black kids was also starting.

The idea of organizing came from the red diaper babies: build the base, build the base. That’s what we did. We knocked on doors in dormitories, set up teach-ins and discussions and confrontations, because the idea was that you could publicize and organize through confrontation.

MU

What was life like on Columbia’s campus in 1968?

MR

A perfect storm hit in spring 1968. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Harlem broke into a complete and total riot, with fires and confrontations with cops. Columbia is right next to Harlem. You couldn’t avoid thinking about Martin Luther King Jr’s murder and its aftermath.

A lot of other things had happened that year, too: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam from January through March 1968, then President Lyndon Johnson abdicating. The peace movement was growing, but it flipped public opinion against the war during the Tet Offensive.

It all came to a head in April ’68, when black students at Columbia seized a building, Hamilton Hall, and white students seized four more in support of them. The two issues had to do with the university’s involvement with the war in Vietnam through a secret research organization called the Institute for Defense Analysis. SDS had uncovered the connection between Columbia and IDA, and we argued that this violated the university’s objectivity and represented support for imperialism. The other issue was Columbia’s involvement in gentrifying Harlem.

The Columbia administration was scared to call in the cops. They dithered for about a week, and our strength grew over that time. Thousands of people came to Columbia, and finally, after about a week, the cops attacked and beat up hundreds of people, arresting something like seven hundred people.

Mark Rudd speaks to students at an SDS rally at Columbia on May 3, 1968. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As a result, the school went out on strike. That was the biggest antiwar, anti-racist action up to that time. The militancy at Columbia drove a kind of mania for more and more militancy within SDS.

We were pushing anti-imperialist politics and support for black liberation constantly. At that time, we white kids saw the rise of Black Power, and we took that as a challenge. Support for Black Power became one of our main principles, so SDS moved from what we had defined at that time as “resistance” to “revolution.” The fantasy of revolution took hold in SDS.

That came to a head in June 1969 at SDS’s national convention, which saw a major split.

MU

Before we discuss the convention, can you talk more about the occupation? It’s important to understand this was a genuine, community-backed mass movement.

MR

We identified the war in Vietnam as an imperialist war, and the first issue was stopping the university’s involvement in that imperialist war.

The second issue had to do with Columbia’s expansion into the Harlem community. The specific issue was building a gym in a public park, Morningside Park, which bordered Harlem. We were allied with the community members who wanted to stop Columbia’s expansion. The black students in particular were involved with the community, and when they seized Hamilton Hall, they did that as representatives of the Harlem community, the capital of black America. To us, imperialism and white supremacy were all tied up in one institution.

We saw ourselves as organizers, and our goal was to politicize the campus. Within our anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics, the fact that we were able to build an actual coalition with the Student Afro-American Society became extraordinarily important. It was, as black leaders of the Afro-American society subsequently called it, the strike’s real strategic strength.

MU

Was this distinct from other kinds of campus organizing across America during this time?

MR

Remember, the ’60s were contiguous in time with the rise of the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement. There were organizers everywhere who had experience. For example, at Berkeley in ’64, there were many people who had been at Freedom Summer, and went back to Berkeley and organized there.

The experience of organizing in the South and of the labor movement was critical to the rise of SDS. Tom Hayden, one of the principal writers of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, had spent quite a bit of time in the South, for example.

MU

SDS, of course, was a central force in the 1960s.

MR

We had 100,000 active members on 4,000 campuses.

MU

How did things end with the Columbia occupation? And how did that move into the history you were just starting to talk about, where SDS went the next year?

MR

We made a fundamental mistake in understanding what had happened. We fell into the trap of thinking we were so important — that Mark Rudd was the leader of the Columbia strike. It was like we accepted the media image of white people as the protagonists. We saw ourselves as that important.

But another big mistake that I was directly responsible for was eliminating organizing we had done so much of and substituting it with militancy. The last few months of Columbia SDS, a new faction that I led, the Action Faction, took over the chapter from the Praxis Axis, who were the old red diaper babies who taught us to build the base. But we said, “No, it’s action that’s important.”

We forgot that it took years to get people to the point where they would join SDS. It doesn’t happen suddenly — it happens through building relationships.

So our years of organizing at Columbia, which started years before I even got there in ’65, culminated in the events of ’68. We said, “It’s our militancy that created this situation.” That became the basis of an SDS faction, which eventually became Weathermen and later the Weather Underground.

More “Radicalism,” More Mistakes

MU

In the ’60s, many radicals thought the American working class was bought off, and that you needed a Che Guevara–style strategy. You needed people like you to be extreme militants who were willing to do what needed to be done to spark social change, because the old agent of change, the proletariat, wouldn’t.

MR

Within this larger anti-colonial national liberation story that we were telling, which did not involve the working class, we idolized Che Guevara, the revolutionary hero with the machine gun. In 1967, a theory had appeared: we were intellectuals of the sword.

We read books like Revolution in the Revolution? by Régis Debray. After extensive discussions with Che and Fidel in Cuba, he put forward the theory that revolutions were made by small groups of people starting armed struggle: the guerillas. That was known as the foco theory.

We became adherents of the foco theory — which didn’t work. It didn’t work anywhere in the world. We were so in love with Che Guevara that we didn’t notice he had been killed in October 1967 by a combination of the CIA and the Bolivian Army. He had failed. Foquismo never worked anywhere, and it certainly didn’t work in the United States.

MU

You went to Cuba at one point, where you met members of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

MR

I went before the Columbia uprising and met people from both North and South Vietnam. I was twenty. One of the Vietnamese gave me a ring made from a downed American plane.

Cuba was the United States flipped on its head. They followed the Tet Offensive daily, like we would follow the World Series. Our tour bus would go into a small town, and people would start celebrating a new victory in Vietnam. I fell in love with the idea of socialist revolution. I was a product of that moment.

MU

What’s funny about what happened after that, when you and other former SDSers founded Weather, was that at one point in Cuba, the Vietnamese comrades told you, basically, what would be best for them would be for you to go back to the United States and build a broad antiwar movement. You didn’t listen to them.

MR

We didn’t want to build a broad antiwar movement. We wanted to get to the root of the problem. Radicals always go to the root, and the root is imperialism and capitalism.

We wanted to jump many, many steps. Instead of building the base, we just wanted to go forward. I picked up a slogan in Cuba from José Martí, the poet who was the soul of the Cuban Revolution: “Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen.”

MU

What was wrong with the approach that you all were taking?

MR

It didn’t work! We thought we’d start a revolution and everybody would join us. It was a fantasy; it was a delusion.

The freedom struggle had morphed from the nonviolent, integrationist Civil Rights Movement to Black Power by 1968. I came of age during that transition, and one of the slogans of black power, which had originated with Malcolm X, was “by any means necessary.” Fifty years ago, this phrase was code for violence: we have to pick up the gun. We joined what historian Vijay Prashad called the “cult of the gun.”

MU

Then, in 1969, SDS became Weather.

MR

Then we moved to militancy. Again, we misidentified the source of our power, which was organizing and coalition-building at Columbia. We moved to militancy, and we made militancy the issue. We substituted bad organizing for good organizing.

That didn’t work either. For example, we called for a national action to bring the war home in October 1969 in Chicago, and we envisioned thousands of revolutionary youths meeting in Chicago to protest the opening of the Chicago conspiracy trial, also known as the Chicago Seven.

Well, it didn’t happen. The revolutionary youth did not appear, because there were maybe two hundred of us. Incidentally, we started with five hundred people in the Weatherman faction, and in the course of our organizing we went down to two hundred. That should have told us something right there.

MU

Shrinking by more than half is a warning sign, if I’ve ever heard one.

MR

But we knew we were right, and we knew Che Guevara was right. We knew it was the era of national liberation. We knew the revolution had come, it was time to pick up the gun, and we knew we had to support the Panthers.

A small cabal of people with whom I was involved decided that SDS wasn’t revolutionary enough — the time had come for revolution! Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen! To be revolutionary is to make the revolution — not to talk about it, but to make it.

The next thing to do was to destroy SDS, to close the national and regional offices, close down the chapters, and start a revolutionary guerrilla army. That was the thinking, such as it was, behind the Weather Underground.

MU

You took a mass organization that was playing a key role in all of these fights in that era, and you essentially decided to destroy it out of the belief that what you needed was “fewer, but better.”

MR

That was also the period when the Black Panthers and other black revolutionaries were under tremendous attack. At the end of 1969, when Fred Hampton was murdered, it was war. So we said, “Well, we’re white people. What can we do? We can take some of the casualties. We can take some of the burden of this war off of black people. It is racist not to do that.”

It’s very easy to define what’s racist and what’s not racist if you are of that mindset. What was racist was to keep SDS as an on-campus, safe protest movement, not to engage in the war which was going on. That context is key. The impact of Black Power on my life was enormous, and I’ve had to think through that for the last fifty years.

MU

Once you had formed Weather, what did you do?

MR

One of the first things the Weather Underground did was on March 6, 1970, when we killed three of our own people in an accidental bomb blast. On West 11th Street, in a townhouse owned by the father of one of our members, Weather members were making bombs in the basement.

I was not there, but I knew what was being planned: an attack on a noncommissioned officer’s dance at Fort Dix, a US Army basic training site. The theory was that by now, nobody was innocent. We had moved to the point of what I would call a kind of common definition of terrorism: attacking innocent people.

Fortunately, the bombs did not get to Fort Dix. They exploded prematurely, and three of our own people died. As a consequence of that, I became a fugitive, as did a lot of other people.

Then there were federal indictments for earlier actions. Approximately thirty-five to fifty people, maybe more, were wanted by the feds from that moment. We had to build an underground organization, and that became the Weather Underground (WUO).

We became WUO on March 6, 1970. On May 4, 1970, the National Guard at Kent State killed four students, and before that, the Mississippi state police and the Jackson State police had killed two students at Jackson State.

As a result of Kent State and Jackson State, millions of students at thousands of college campuses went on strike. That was by far the largest student strike in the history of the United States.

MU

Did you take the student strike as confirmation that what you guys at Weather were doing was working?

MR

We saw that as the beginning of a revolutionary movement, and we were soon to be leaders of a revolutionary army. But at the same time, I also recognized that my personal strengths, and all of our personal strengths, were in organizing, not in building bombs.

MU

What’s so tragic is that just two years earlier you had been a leader in this genuine mass struggle that brought together both black people in Harlem and white and black student radicals on Columbia’s campus. Two years later, a bomb explodes in a townhouse.

MR

I was an organizer; I became a not-organizer. In the interim period, the struggle within SDS, I had a crazy line which I’d repeat: organizing is another word for going slow. We had delusions that masses of young people would become revolutionary. There’s a certain narcissism or solipsism at the core of this. It says, “Well, my model, what I do and show to the world, will become the model for everybody else.”

It doesn’t work like that. It’s not organizing. You can call it a lot of things — left-wing adventurism, vanguardism, you can call it a lot of things. But it’s not organizing.

MU

What was life like underground, in those years after the townhouse explosion?

MR

By June 1970, a rectification took place within the organization. People recognized what they called at the time “the military error,” which I would now call terrorism. A decision was made — a good decision — to not attack human beings, and to make sure that nobody would be hurt. Somehow or other, it worked. We did not kill anybody. But we still kept the bombing going.

MU

The bombs went off and did property damage, but nobody else was killed?

MR

Right, with our bombs. But other people were killed with other bombs. We didn’t differentiate very clearly. We substituted “bombing light” for “bombing heavy.” But we never gave up the armed struggle principle — the principle that the revolution would happen if, as Mao Zedong said, political power rose out of the barrel of a gun.

I was demoted in the organization, although I was the founder of it. By the end of 1970, I was out. I left the organization, although I was still a federal fugitive.

I stayed in close contact with the organization, but I did not participate in the life of the organization, like internal voting and projects and bombings. So I went out on my own with my partner at the time, and we worked. We lived in working-class communities around the country. It didn’t take me long to realize it was a total waste of time. The only thing we were accomplishing was not getting caught.

By ’75, the war was over. I made a decision to turn myself in by April 1975. It took two and a half years to carry it out, because I didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of anybody who helped me.

MU

What was the outcome of your turning yourself in? Did you have to face charges and go to jail?

MR

You’d think! No, nothing.

MU

You have stories in the book about walking into stores and seeing images of yourself.

MR

I’d occasionally walk into a post office and they’d have lists of fugitives. I’d leaf through the flyers and find my flyer. I’d tear it down.

Strategy for Today’s Socialists

MU

We have a new generation of socialists in America today who want to be serious about organizing to change the world. Given your experiences in SDS and Weather, what is your advice to them?

MR

Jacobin is doing a great job of studying the history of successful social and political movements, trying to figure out what can be learned about how they worked and organized. My own study has led me to the Civil Rights Movement, the classical Civil Rights Movement — not so much Black Power but the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, in Mississippi, 1961 to 1965. How did they do that? Or the women’s movement, or the gay movement.

Mark Rudd in 2009. (Thomas Good / NLN)

Generally speaking, it has to do with strategic organizing. That tends to follow a certain path, a traditional pattern. You have to study how successful movements are organized.

The issue of power is critical. How do we move from issue-oriented, mass-momentum driven movements to structured power movements? That is what we’re facing. We have to build momentum-driven movements, but we have to figure out how to build a structured movement for power.

One of the obstacles is that we don’t want power. We’re not the kind of people who like to tell other people what to do. We love democracy; we don’t think that we have all the answers. But somebody has to gain power.

MU

The media made you into an enormous celebrity at Columbia in 1968, then when you went underground. How should we think about the media’s coverage of protest movements, both now and in the past?

MR

You’ve got to be really careful. I think Black Lives Matter has worked very hard to try to figure out how to surf these shoals, especially on identifying individuals as leaders. But you need individuals to articulate; it’s got to happen.

There’s a wonderful book that came out in the early ’70s, by Todd Gitlin, the sociologist and one of the original founders of SDS, called The Whole World Is Watching. He shows that over time, the experience at Columbia and Weathermen was a good example of substituting the media as our base for our original base. Our original base was students at Columbia University. That’s the base! Those are the people we’re trying to move. They’re the people we’re trying to mobilize and politicize. That’s the base. But we abandoned them.

MU

You’ve covered a lot of ground in your life. You went from being on the cover of major national magazines and staging violent spectacles in the Weather Underground to turning yourself in, teaching at a New Mexico community college, and organizing a local of the American Federation of Teachers. You went from organizing, to spectacle, and back to organizing again, as a rank-and-file organizer.

MR

I went from wanting to live and die like Che Guevara to the rank-and-file member of his organizing committee, a mild-mannered math teacher.

I was lucky on two grounds. One was that the period I was underground was a very good period for me, in that I had to become nobody. It’s good to be nobody, and it’s good to work at menial jobs and to get to know people at that level, not to be an upper-middle-class intellectual. That’s one thing.

The second is that I chose to teach at a community college, where all you have is working-class people, basically. Nobody knew me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the way they knew me in New York. I was just a teacher; that’s all I was. That saved my life.

MU

What else would you counsel young radicals today?

MR

Be an organizer. That’s all. Be an organizer.

I don’t like the word “activist,” incidentally, because that implies self-expression more than anything. Just be an organizer. Figure out how to build a movement. That’s all.

The best organizers I’ve known or learned about are the ones who, generally, are behind the scenes. My model is Ella Baker of the Civil Rights Movement. She was the guru behind SNCC. People didn’t seek her out; occasionally she’d make speeches, but she worked for the people, built relationships, and talked.

We need more organizers. Jacobin is wonderful in that it is a magazine for organizers. I would love to see schools for organizers, like the Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Center. That was at the core of the Civil Rights Movement. We don’t have anything like that now. Something to consider.