A review of Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, New York: William Morrow, 324 pp., $25.99.
Today, Mark Rudd is best known as a guy who ran with Bill Ayers forty years ago. But forty years ago, when Weatherman was real and not a historical curiosity, Ayers, and most of the Weathermen, were in Rudd’s shadow. In an era of campus takeovers, Rudd was the public face of the most famous one. When the government charged Weathermen in the 1969 Days of Rage riots in Chicago, the case tellingly bore the name Rudd, et al. In 1977, Rudd again beat his terror accomplices to the spotlight by becoming the first major Weatherman to surrender. Though subsequent misgivings over Weatherman make him less enduring a personality than the cartoonishly defiant Ayers, and less flamboyant than the cocky and camera-chasing Mark Rudd of 1968, they give Rudd’s memoirs a more honest and adult perspective than the bound remembrances of others from his graying gang.
The painful irony of Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen is that Mark Rudd lost his best friend to a bomb and his political mentor to life in prison by winning an argument with them.
In 1968, Columbia’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was beset by division. On one side were the “action faction,” led by Rudd, a sophomoric junior who had just returned from a trip to Castro’s Cuba paid for by drug dealing, and John Jacobs, “an animated madman” who affected a working-class accent despite arriving at the Ivy League by way of a tony Vermont prep school. On the other side stood the “praxis axis,” led by Ted Gold, a brainy Knicks fan, and David Gilbert, the even brainier patriarch of Columbia SDS. The praxis axis contended that action must wait for organizing, educating, and base-building. The action faction countered that organizing, educating, and base-building are the fruit of deeds rather than mere words.
The action v. organizing debate was settled by two battleground issues: the school’s relationship with the Institute for Defense Analyses and Ivy League encroachment upon the Harlem ghetto by the planned construction of an athletic center. As proxy issues for Vietnam and civil rights, the defense research and gymnasium struck a chord with students. Not ones to put the question to a vote, the action faction took matters into their own hands. Rudd led a mob that seized numerous academic buildings, took several deans hostage, torched a resented professor’s research files, and commandeered the office of the school’s president, flippantly smoking his cigars and drinking his sherry as his Rembrandt looked on. The vandals were truly inside of the gates—in fact, many were there on scholarship.
Columbia disaffiliated with the Institute for Defense Analyses and abandoned the construction of the “racist” gymnasium. Newsweek placed Rudd on its cover as the symbol of student rebellion. Doonesbury caricatured him as “Megaphone Mark.” SDS elected him its national chairman the following year. Rudd’s victory was so complete that the praxis axis became enthusiastic converts to the action faction.
As Columbia SDS was changing, so was the parent organization. Starting the decade a small, bookish band of red-diaper babies interested in repackaging radicalism into a New Left, SDS, propelled by the Vietnam War, exploded into an action-obsessed umbrella group for the wider Left and moved from the participatory democracy of the “Port Huron Statement” to Weatherman vanguardism. SDS became Weatherman, and Columbia’s go-slow “praxis axis” that had melded into the madman “action faction” then strangely found themselves the most far-out faction of Weatherman.
In 1970, a crushed Ted Gold perished with two fellow Weathermen after their amateur bomb factory exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse. Dave Gilbert, by 1981 a revolutionary without a revolution, participated in an armed expropriation of a Brink’s truck that resulted in the deaths of two policemen and a security guard. Gilbert, who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court that tried him, has wasted in prison for 28 years and counting. For Rudd’s schoolmates Gold and Gilbert, the sixties were indeed a long, strange trip.
Action-faction factotum John Jacobs’s fate may have been more pathetic than Gold’s or Gilbert’s. Dubbed too mad a bomber by a gang of mad bombers, Jacobs was purged from Weatherman in the wake of the friendly fire inside the townhouse. Shunned by radicals and on the run from authorities, JJ stayed underground long after the FBI had stopped caring about his whereabouts and the charges against him had been dropped. After battling drugs and depression, JJ succumbed to cancer in Vancouver in 1997. Rudd writes, “The principal author of the original Weatherman paper, JJ was both the first Weatherman and the last.”
Mark Rudd won an argument that he now wishes that he had lost. But it’s something other than survivor’s guilt that colors his memoirs. “In general, we played into the hands of the FBI—our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll,” he writes of Weatherman.
In its ordered orgies, bizarre initiation rites, such as skinning and eating an alley cat, and demand that its members abandon their children, Weatherman ensured the exclusion of anyone with a semblance of good sense. Rudd writes, “I did not realize at the time that we had unwittingly reproduced conditions that all hermetically sealed cults use: isolation, sleep deprivation, demanding arbitrary acts of loyalty to the group, even sexual initiation as bonding.” The Weatherman cult’s admiration for the Manson cult, then, came as much from operational affinity as from the convoluted, apocalyptic racial theories the two held in common.
Rudd’s life of activism reads more as a mission of catharsis than an effort to save the world. Columbia freshman Rudd’s psychotherapist asked whether one of his patient’s political rants masked some painful feelings: “‘Right, like poverty and racism’ I said, and that was the end of my psychoanalysis.” But it was the beginning of his therapy. A self-described childhood “misfit,” Rudd confesses that among the Columbia activists “I had finally found my gang.” With Rudd describing a lunatic in JJ, and admitting his own family’s intent to commit him to an insane asylum, Underground raises the question of whether the activist’s activism is an attempt to save the world or himself. Rudd’s post-underground political work is even described in such therapeutic terms. “Our pent-up energy for organizing and community had finally found a channel for release,” he writes of his late-’70s work in the no-nukes movement. “To deal with my own form of posttraumatic stress disorder, I joined the Central America solidarity movement and devoted the next five years of my life to opposing the intervention,” he notes of his Reagan-era activism.
Rudd still exhibits signs of suffering from the same comforting delusions as his comrades (e.g., the peace movement stopped the Vietnam War, the police targeted Black Panthers rather than the reverse, etc.). But the non-afflicted reader can easily see through the participant historian’s occasional mirage to benefit from his critical perspective. His frank assessment of Weatherman’s sexual brave new world is a case in point. The male fantasy (rationalized into an ideology) of girls for the taking shattered against reality when Rudd gazed into a lover’s eyes and spotted a crab in her eyebrow. “Weather sex was also a disaster for medical reasons: gonorrhea, pelvic inflammatory disease, crab lice, and a non-specific genital infection we called ‘Weather crud’ were epidemic among us.” An on-the-run Rudd and JJ repaid a Good Samaritan sheltering them by taking turns bedding his wife in his absence. Rudd impregnated a married woman, who promptly aborted his child. Utopia wasn’t supposed to be so complicated.
Underground leaves unexplored the glaring peculiarity common to the major Weathermen. Mark Rudd’s upwardly mobile father lived the American Dream by making a killing in real estate. As Bill Ayers counseled young people to “kill your parents” and “kill all the rich people” he sponged off an allowance from his father, the chairman of Commonwealth Edison. Convicted murderer Kathy Boudin, one of the few red-diaper-baby Weathermen, grew up in the townhouse later used by The Cosby Show to showcase the opulence of its fictional inhabitants. Before blowing her head off in the construction of a bomb aimed to blow the heads off of enlisted soldiers, Diana Oughton enjoyed life on a palatial estate featuring a deer park, a goose pond, and a 100-foot-high windmill. The amazing wealth provided the means to play revolutionary, a perverse noblesse oblige that caused them to act as Hessians fighting the class war for those too ignorant to wage it, the cultural conditioning to look down upon the cops and servicemen they targeted, and a sense of entitlement that fueled self-righteous demand after demand. Children whose brat fits ensured that they got what they wanted from their maids grew up to throw bombs along with their tantrums.
Rudd’s Underground stands up well next to other ventures in the cottage industry of Weatherman memoirs. Whereas Bill Ayers reports that he regrets nothing and Cathy Wilkerson makes excuses for everything, Rudd lays bare his ugly sins with few attempts to call them anything but failings. Paradoxically, it’s Ayers and Wilkerson who emerge from their self-serving memoirs ill-served, and Rudd who comes off as, if not likeable, then at least as the author of a likeable book.
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