Mark Rudd and the Weather Underground

TPQ features an interview conducted by André Poulin which initially featured in Bulletin d'histoire Politique (winter 2013, vol. 21, n 2).   The interviewee was Mark Rudd, a founding member of the Weatherman and Weather Underground during the student strike in Quebec.  André Poulin submitted this interview to TPQ after reading the discussion around republican armed activity. He felt there were parallels. Rudd opposed a radical faction of the student movement that was tempted to take up political violence. Mark Rudd wrote his political autobiography, Underground, my life with the SDS and the Weathermen in 2009.  His website is to be found here.

AP: When you arrived at Columbia in 1965, you were everything but a revolutionary.  You came from a middle class family from New Jersey.   What in your mind made you one of the main players in the student movement from your arrival at Columbia to 1968?

MR: I entered Columbia University as a freshman in the fall of 1965.  I had just turned 18 and registered for the draft.  But the U.S. had invaded Vietnam with main force troops in the spring of 1965, and I found at Columbia a group of students who were already learning about the war and protesting against it.  These were by far the most interesting people on campus.  They taught me about the nature of US imperialism and about national liberation movements in the world.  They also taught me about how to organize.  So I joined SDS and became an organizer.

What motivated me?  I didn’t want to be a good German.  That was a common metaphor at the time.  It meant someone who stuck his head in the sand and denied the reality of what was taking place.  Willful ignorance.  There were (and are) great moral questions in the world and I didn’t want to make the wrong choices.

As for becoming a leader of SDS, we were all trying to do what needed to be done. I was good at synthesizing people’s ideas and articulating what people were feeling.  I was also quite audacious. There were lots of leaders, but the media picked me in April 1968 during the Columbia rebellion to be the face of student rebels.  I don’t know whether it was a good idea to go along or not.  Only 44 years have passed and the returns are not in.
AP: 1968 was a crucial year in the student movement.   SDS seems to be at its apotheosis. Columbia was one of the biggest symbols of that year, yet at the same time, there seems to be a faction in the SDS who thought that, after years of mobilization, nothing was achieved.  In 1968, the question was: what to do from now on?

MR: Our analysis of the massive student rebellion against the war in Vietnam and the university’s racism was that it was our aggressive confrontational actions that made the difference.  We overlooked the long years of patient organizing that went into the build-up to the Columbia strike of April, 1968.  As a result, my faction, later known as the Weathermen, stressed militancy and the willingness to engage in confrontation as the key to building the movement.  We were wrong.  Nothing we tried subsequently, including fighting cops, barricading buildings, bombings, worked.  We should have stuck to mass organizing.

AP: 1969 was the year of radicalization of the SDS, first the Weathermen and at the end of 1969, the Weather Underground.   What led to this, what were the objectives of the Weathermen and the Weather Underground?

MR: We thought we would be a “white fighting force” to actually give support to third world revolutionaries who were engaged in combat.  We also thought we would build a mass guerilla revolutionary movement, ie., revolutionary anti-imperialist war within the imperial homeland.  Of course it was all a fantasy, no matter how well meaning we were.

AP: Todd Gitlin, an early president of the SDS, said about the Weathermen and Weather Underground that it was responsible for the destruction of the largest student movement in the history of the USA. What do think about Gitlin statement?

MR: He’s right.  I was one of a tiny group of no more than ten people who decided to close the national office of SDS, the regional offices, stop publishing our weekly newspaper, and disband the organization.  Why?  Because our arrogance had led us to reject mass organizing.  Only “revolution” was worthwhile.  We completely forgot about the need to build a mass movement.  They don’t happen spontaneously.

AP: Because of your participation in the Weather Underground, you were forced to live in hiding.   At that time you could not participate in the movement anymore.   Those days must have been difficult.  At the same time, did you think that you had to get out of hiding if you wanted to participate in the social change?

MR: Yes.  Being a fugitive for seven and a half years was a complete waste of time.  The only useful work is mass organizing.  When I emerged in 1978 I immediately threw myself into the anti-nuclear mass movement.

AP: After that you handed yourself to the justice system. You were not imprisoned.  People realized at that time that the government used illegal means to try to destroy the Student movement.  Were you surprised?

MR: I was not surprised that the government used illegal means against us, but I was very surprised that our charges were dropped because of that.  It was all connected with Watergate, and the fact that a black federal judge was concerned with the rights of the accused.  After that I became a believer in “bourgeois” civil liberties.

AP: Since the eighties you have not stayed neutral, you still work for social changes in your workplace and in your community.  What has changed in the way you act?

MR: I worked as an organizer in the anti-nuclear movement, the peace movement, the Native American solidarity movement, the Central American solidarity movement, the labor and environmental movements.  I realized that our goal is the creation of mass movements, not vanguard super-militant actions.  Lately I’ve even been doing electoral organizing, trying to build a progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  We don’t have a New Democratic Party or any equivalent social-democratic party in the U.S.

AP: Do you think you did more for social changes since 1980 than in the sixties?

MR: Probably my participation in Weatherman and the Weather Underground resulted in setbacks for the larger student anti-war movement.  We helped divide the movement over the stupid and bogus issue of violence.  We demoralized people.  I hope that engaging in mass organizing was more productive than that.

AP: What would you say to the students of Quebec who are still in the street protesting against increase of tuition fees, and now against the Special Law 78 (to make protesting illegal)?

MR: It seems as if the government is trying to destroy the mass movement through Special Law 78.  They want to scare people into leaving the streets and stopping organizing.  My advice is to not take the bait and reject mass organizing and nonviolent strategy.  In the U.S., I tell young people that anyone advocating violence is either very stupid or a police agent.  I know from experience, because I was very very stupid (though not an agent).  The Weathermen was a total mistake.

AP: Thank you again for your time and enthusiasm.


  1. Quite strange you pen this piece.
    I just watched the movie "The company you keep" about two week back.

    "A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity. "

    It starred Robert Redford and Shia Labouf. I enjoyed the flick.

    My beef with the real hard lefties I have known, is that they seem really out of touch with reality. Their grasp on economics and government seems immature and not well defined.

    That being said, I am appalled at how the left in this country has been almost universally been absent in criticizing the wholesale assault on our civil liberties, i.e. the NSA scandal and the Benghazi scandal.

    Their hypocrisy sickens me. The same is going on in the UK with GHQ as with the NSA and CIA here in the US

    We live in precarious times. We need to wake up on both sides of the pond, time is short.

  2. Ó Donnchadha,
    I have seen this movie. I found it very good. But if you want to see a documentary about the wearthermen:
    check this:
    The Weather Underground
    by Sam Green

  3. Thanks Andre for the tip. I will look into the flick. I will do a pre-screen via the interwebz. I love these type movies, but I deplore when there is too much spin and slant from either camp. I don;t want to ewatch a leftist screed from a bunch of wackadoodles. Nor do I want to watch a movie that is a propaganda piece of God knows what organization of the govt.

    I will give it a look.

  4. Ó Donnchadha,
    Was about to recommend a novel with a plot similar to the movie you described, then I realized its the book the film was based on. I read it a while ago but remember liking it. Haven't seen the flick yet though.

    I wonder if the seeming complacence of the American (US) left is really so unique. I imagine it as more of a feature of most (neo)liberal democratic states.

    That said, I remember getting disillusioned with all the antiwar protests which to me (I was young, 13 when it kicked off, and it was my first 'politically active' experience) seemed so 'safe'. How could we challenge the authority of a criminally-corrupt state when we accepted that our protests and demonstrations had to be approved by that same state.

    New forms of activism and protest must be developed.

    Andre Poulin,
    Very interesting, thank you for sharing with us. I had a interesting book of Todd Gitlin's poetry from the 1970s that I wish I could find. My interest in WU likely stems from my ma telling me when I was young how she was friends with I believe it was the sister of the young woman who died in the Greenwich Village explosion.

    Will check out that documentary.

    Sorry to be such a rambley bastard, ha

  5. The Weather Underground was a disaster because the plight of white middle class Americans was not a revolutionary situation. The anti-war movement was partly about principle and partly about the self-preservation of kids who didn't want to go to Vietnam. Don't get me wrong: there was no excuse for America's involvement in Vietnam. We were wrong. Dead wrong, as it were. What fired the Weather Underground movement was white insecurity at the work of the Black Panther Party, many of whose members came from communities where they did live in a revolutionary situation.