Friday, January 07, 2011

which way the wind blows

Mark Rudd was a student activist and organiser in the Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia University then helped found the “revolutionary” Weather Underground. "We claimed to be acting in solidarity with the oppressed people of the world; in actuality we were pretty much doing what we wanted, ie., posing as revolutionaries."

"Q. What is your view today of the acts of violence you and other members of weatherman engaged in?

A. Ridiculous. A total waste of time and energy. We should have been organizing on college campuses, which we were moderately good at, building the larger anti-war movement and pushing anti-imperialism. Instead we became incompetent terrorists. Had we actually organized an anti-imperialist movement with a widespread consciousness of the nature of US imperialism, perhaps we would have been successful at stopping the Central American war of the 80’s and even the current wars. We blew it.

Q. Is violence in the service of a political cause ever justifiable?

A. In theory, a small amount of violence might be moral to stop a larger violence. I have no problem with this. In practice in the U.S., violence only isolates the revolutionaries and gives a great big fat gift to the government: they can call us terrorists. I’ve become an advocate of nonviolent strategy because it’s been proven so effective in the 20th century—it is a zen answer to the militarism of the US. In addition to the pragmatic advantages of nonviolence, it also has certain moral and even spiritual advantages. I once heard the Dalai Lama answer the question of why he doesn’t hate the Chinese, despite what they’ve done to his country. He said, “They’re our neighbors, and when this is all over, we’ll have to live with them. One problem with violence is that it always breeds more violence, which means that revolutions need repression. That inherently makes them coercive and unstable.

Q. Weatherman were not the first or the last leftist group to abandon organising for the path of violent resistance. What do you think tends to breed the kind of mentality that prevailed in weatherman? Do you see elements of it, or the conditions for its development, today, and if so how can it be combated?

A. In our case, we fixated on the “central contradiction between US imperialism and national liberation movements” and concluded that it would be racist to stand on the sideline and applaud armed struggle. We figured that our white skin could be of help to armed revolutionary movements. It’s a perfect example of thinking your way into a corner. Anything less would be “liberal” and “wimpy.” (Note the macho implication). Plus, on top of all that, we had Che’s foco theory, which gave validation to our strategy. We hadn’t noticed that Che had already died, over two years before, behind the theory.

At a deeper level, we were responding to the challenge to white new leftists posed by black power: would we support black national liberation by any means necessary? Malcolm X used to say, if you want to find out which white people can be trusted, ask them what they think of John Brown. Well, John Brown took up the gun, so I guess that meant that we should. The Panthers taught us, “The revolution has come (Off the Pig!); time to pick up the gun (OFF THE PIG!). Would we have the balls (there’s the machismo again) to be real revolutionaries? Revolutionaries don’t talk about the revolution, they make it. Time to pick up the gun!

The foco theory, as transmitted from Fidel and Che via Regis Debray, was essentially a cult of the gun. Thousands died around the world following this theory. We were among the more timid adherents: the only people we killed were three of our own.

Organizing is slow and anonymous and difficult; being underground warriors is heroic and the insurrection happens quickly (one hopes). In organizing you have to talk with people, develop relationships; guerilla warfare is much more exemplary action approaching theater. We used to call it propaganda of the deed, meaning that we expected people to emulate us. (In fact, a small group in Madison, WI, did emulate us in the summer of 1970. They wound up blowing up a building used for math research for the army. They killed an anti-war grad student accidentally and debilitated the mass anti-war movement in Madison for several years).
One thing that underlies the turn away from organizing is the mistaken belief that the expression of one’s feelings and commitment alone will cause the movement to grow; that people need only see your example and they’ll join. Movements don’t work like that. They’re built on relationships and democratically developed strategy. The best that can be said of the kids who like to break Starbucks windows and wear bandanas and fight cops at demonstrations is that they are self-expressionists. I suspect, though that what they’re actually demonstrating is something much more base: how superior they are to the rest of us, who don’t feel the crisis as much and won’t take the same risks. Most of them have never experienced mass movements I guess, so they’ve just given up on other people. But of course this is all glossed with a theory of propaganda of the deed.

Another source of “left-wing infantilism” is the sense of crisis and impending disaster. Certain portions of the environmental and animal rights movements have that. They believe that if you can save one mountainside, for example, by burning down a development, you have a duty to do so. They downplay the potential power of mass movements, which take a long time to build, as too slow. We’ve got to do something now! We don’t have time! I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pacific northwest arguing with these kids, and it always comes down to their accusing me of not understanding how dire and serious the crisis is. I’m a complacent liberal...."

Some lessons learned but, of course, just what do we find behind his well-meaning self-reproach - the same old story of some radical reformism. Rudd continues:

"All I’m concerned with is building a mass-based center-left party which has a chance of achieving power. Such a thing does not exist. In theory, it could be a third party, but the system is totally stacked against the growth of third parties. The main result of third parties is to hurt the party closest to them. Oddly, the Democratic Party still has some attraction for millions as the party of the people. It’s probably a memory of the New Deal...The job will be to activate and mobilize the half the population that doesn’t vote. This will take an enormous community organizing effort, taking decades. I call it the second civil rights movement. It will also be to wage an enormous internal war within the Democratic Party, to turn it from center-right to center-left. "

See full interview here

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