Interview With The Weather Underground Organization
The GroundUp has a conversation with Mark Rudd, organizer, anti-war activist and counter-culture icon known for his involvement in the irregular military organization the Weather Underground Organization (WUO).
TGU: What were the WUO's successes and failures with the utilization of violence and destruction?
MR: Our overall goal was to help in the creation of a mass revolutionary movement, one capable of overthrowing the u.s. state. In no way did we push this goal along.
Our more immediate goal was to take some of the pressure off the various national liberation movements both in this country and in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We maybe diverted some tiny amount of resources of the government from the repression they were carrying out internally and [externally in] the war in Vietnam, but that was inconsequential. We destroyed a few bathrooms in public buildings such as police headquarters in NYC, the Pentagon [and] the capitol.
Here is a short list of our accomplishments: (1) we split the anti-war movement at the height of the war (1969-1970) over the bogus issue of our right to use violence to end the system behind the war, imperialism. In doing this we completely ignored the constant advice of the Vietnamese themselves, which was to unite as many people as possible to end the war in Vietnam. Many people left the anti-war movement because they wanted no part of our insanity. It might be argued that we prolonged the war; though, there's no proof of that either way. My own opinion is that we weakened the anti-war movement, hence prolonging the war; (2) we destroyed the largest student anti-war and radical organization in the country (Students for a Democratic Society or SDS), [which had] chapters on four hundred college and high school campuses, involving at least one hundred thousand people, which is the number often given for our "membership.” Although there were many forces that led to the demise of SDS, the actual decision to close the national and regional offices, to destroy the membership lists, to stop printing a weekly paper, was made by a miniscule cabal of people in my faction— no more than 10 people, if that. Our reason: SDS wasn't revolutionary enough. It wasn't willing to 'smash the state!' And (3) we killed three of our own cadre in an accident in which bombs went off prematurely. The bombs were meant for a non-commissioned officers' dance at an army base in N.J. We were lucky that the plan didn't work because the effect of those bombs would have been to destroy the much larger and mostly nonviolent anti-war movement. There's something inherently fascist about violence: it's always the work of a tiny group of people that believe they are right, whether it's the state or "revolutionaries." But true political movements are mass movements of the people. We came out of one — the movement against the War in Vietnam — but we felt we knew better than everyone else. Anyone who —even in their anger — commits an act of violence within a mass movement is taking that decision [upon oneself and inflicting it on others]. One among many advantages of nonviolence is that if you make a mistake the consequences are only to yourself, not to others.
TGU: What is the social and political and economic cost of the WUO and its members (including impact from the media), organizing (interorganizational) impact, public relations/image impact (which is connected to social and political and economic cost but is more distant and disconnected from immediate social and political and economic cost in the sense that public support or rejection interacts in ideological nuance beyond that of whether WUO is “Good” or “Bad” or “Right” or “Wrong” or “Success” or “Failure” (as the media and state apparatuses might spin it); additionally, what did you learn about the Weather Underground Organization from a full spectrum of public opinions?
MR: We started out as traditional mass student organizers, in the labor and civil rights mode: "Build the Base!" We learned that from the "red diaper babies" among us. (I wasn't one). But our successes led us to believe it was our "militancy" that attracted people to us, not our traditional organizing work — building relationships, education, nonviolent confrontation, coalition building, etc. This was in line with our infatuation with Che Guevara's foco theory as articulated by Regis Debray in “Revolution in the Revolution?”, which we all read. Foquismo held that revolutions are made when a small group of people (guerillas) begin armed struggle successfully defeating small units of the repressive forces, and the "masses" join the fight. There's a lot to be said about our relationship to Che and Fidel and the foco theory but I'll try to be brief here: The theory was bullshit. It [neither] accurately describe[d] what had happened in the Cuban Revolution, nor did it ever work for Che himself. We were so enamored [by] Che, the Heroic Guerilla, that we didn't notice that he had been murdered by the CIA and Bolivian Army back in October 1967. And that the continental revolution he and Cuba were trying to spark was thoroughly defeated. In truth, the foco theory was only promulgated by Havana for a brief time, not even two years, but they were the years when we developed as "revolutionaries." Incidentally, many thousands of people died around the world behind the foco theory. The reason it didn't work was quite simple: it wipes out the organizing that it takes to build mass movements that make revolution, essentially leaving the foco (both the actors and the black swan or dragon king that they potentially could create by means of creating irreversible political situations in terms of generating popular discontent) without support. It’s standard “left adventurism” [and] “propaganda of the deed.”
(Fidel and Che adopted it in order to justify one party rule in Cuba. [I]t erases all other fronts and organizations in the decades long struggle, making invisible the [twenty thousand] students and workers murdered by batista's forces in the cities of Cuba).
TGU: A follow up question is what were political and social and economic factors that impacted the successes and failures of the violence and destruction of the Weather Underground Organization? What circumstances would have been necessary to make the Weather Underground more successful?
MR: We were intellectuals, predominantly but not all in elite schools. Our experience of the world was limited. But our belief in the morality and brilliance of our ideas was skyhigh. We were idealists in the worst sense of the word: we had ideas and the only evidence for their truth was that we had them. I suppose the sociological explanation might be that we were entitled middle class kids, overconfident of our ideas. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and, for myself, I've come to realize that I was a very young man (twenty years old) and wanted to prove myself in combat. This [want of young men], incidentally, is an extremely powerful force in world history. It allows old men to raise armies and fight wars. 'Revolutionary wars' are not immune to the problem.
We should have [remained] organizers, building the base, educating, protesting [and] building a mass movement among students for anti-imperialism. Ten years after the war in Vietnam ended, I found myself organizing again against the u.s. war in Central America. In 1986-88 we almost ended aid to the Contra in Nicaragua — we had significant elements of Congress against it — but we weren't quite strong enough. I often wondered whether we would have been able to end that [instance of] u.s. aggression had we made the better decision to stay mass organizers and educated people, building a mass base for anti-imperialism.
TGU: What should have been done differently both as it relates to violence and destruction and simply in general on the level of organizing?
MR: At one level our mistake was to believe that expressing our own anger — in the form of fighting cops or planting bombs — would help build a mass movement. That it would attract people who would join us. It did the opposite: it drove people away, even on our bases, the campuses. It's a solipsistic error to believe that your actions will serve as a model for others. Changing people’s minds and mobilizing people doesn’t work that way. Self-expression is not automatically or necessarily organizing, which is always strategic in that its goal and methods work to build mass movements for power.
My study of nonviolence in recent decades leads me to believe that as a strategy it works much better than violence in almost all situations and conditions. There are many reasons for this, [and I would love to discuss many of these reasons], but I'll pick just one: It works against building the mass movements necessary for power and for real social change. Most people just don't want war. It scares them. So violence plays into the hands of the oppressors, scaring people away from mass movements. That's why trump has spent so much effort trying to build up [the antifascist movement], as has the official propaganda outlets like [fox news]. Even an fbi report said that antifa is not an organization, it's a [movement and ideology]. Nobody understands what that means. Truth is, outside of a couple places in the country (maybe Seattle, Portland) antifascist organizers [are small in number]. So you have farmers in Iowa burning their own equipment and saying that antifa did it. The rightwing and the government are immoral and cruel and violent; we are not. That’s our message to our fellow Americans.
One more point: there is zero understanding and there never will be [understanding] of cause and effect when it has to do with violence. Who started the violence is NEVER a consideration. Very few people in this country — including even oppressed people — understand the violence inherent in the system of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter has taken on the work of educating the country. But any violence, even verbal [violence], such as 'All Cops Are Bastards,' works against the strategic goal of building the movement. So does insisting on the principle that violence against property can never be equated to violence against people. I happen to agree with that statement because of its inherent morality, but it's a fool's errand to insist that people have to agree that breaking a window in a store or setting fire to a dumpster or a police station is a good thing. The principle needs to be put away somewhere, with the guns, and brought out only occasionally when absolutely needed.
Similarly, the 'right to self-defense' does not include a strategy doomed to failure. There’s a very slippery slope between self-defense and offense.
TGU: What are outliers or rather insights or explorations I have not asked that played a part in the successes and failures of Weather Underground Organization that the public does not know about?
MR: I don't think 'the public' knows anything at all about the Weather Underground. Many of my old comrades stress our intentions, but I don’t give points for intentions. However, organizers should understand why we failed so tragically. I could go into that in much more depth, such as the macho element, the question of white guilt and proving oneself as a revolutionary, the problem of self-expression vs. strategic organizing and the nature of organizing, such as coalition building, building relationships, education and confrontation. Organizers also need to [learn] about the practical experiences of mass movements in using nonviolence [from] the work of Erica Chenoweth and Gene Sharp (who are reviled on the left because they blow apart the religious faith in the efficacy of violence).
TGU: Given your pragmatic position in this present moment — what are organizing solutions that you believe are potential solutions to state oppression?
Engler and Engler. Their models are good ones: Simultaneously build momentum-driven mass movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter) and structured movements for power (left-wing takeover of the Democratic Party, including especially progressives in power at local and state governmental levels).