Heavy Weather

IT PROBABLY STARTED for me around the end of the 1950s, let’s say 1959. I was twelve. Sitting in my room in my family’s ranch house in suburban New Jersey, I picked up John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and made the connection between poverty and exploitation. Also, the connection with Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Refugee,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and the left-wing folk revival taking off at that time, busting through AM radio onto our 33 1/3 LP turntables.

Six years later, in 1965, the US had just invaded Vietnam with main-force troops, Malcolm X had been assassinated, and I was a freshman at Columbia. Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X appeared, and my friends and I were all transfixed. Malcolm’s last public appearance had been at Barnard College, across the street; he had died only a few miles away. Reading about his life, we were exposed to the oppression of black people in ghettos, including Harlem, as well as the liberatory logic of Black Power. Our commitment to supporting the real black revolutionaries grew: We didn’t want to be sell-out white liberals.

My friend David Gilbert, an upperclassman at Columbia and SDS leader, co-wrote a widely circulated pamphlet entitled U.S. Imperialism, and we realized the war in Vietnam was part of a much larger world system. We read the National Guardian, Viet Report, and Monthly Review to find out what the war was about, and this led us to the great Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett’s Vietnam Will Win!: Why the People of South Vietnam Have Already Defeated US Imperialism and How They Have Done It.

We read Fidel’s and Che’s speeches and pamphlets; I remember especially Che’s “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” which fed my utopian idealism. Could there be anyone on the planet cooler than Che?

Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, preface by J. P. Sartre, explained the phenomenon of internalized oppression and the necessity of violent revolution, which went well with Che’s cult of the gun.

Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China gave us the early years of the Chinese Revolution, and William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village brought us right into a village as participants in the revolution, stripping away the layers of peasant and bourgeois consciousness, like peeling the layers of an onion.

Our reading gave us the world. We wanted to be revolutionaries, to join the heroic struggle for socialist liberation against US imperialism.

And then, in 1967, we read Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, which, based on discussions with Fidel and Che, gave the logic for insurrectionary armed struggle by small guerrilla bands. I remember hitchhiking to the SDS National Office on West Madison Street in Chicago, just past skid row, walking in, and someone handing me a copy of Debray, saying, “This is our future.” Holy shit! I too could be Che. We could all be Che.

Oy vey iz mir! Don’t believe everything you read. I should have read more about revolutionary nonviolence, but it wasn’t macho enough for me and my friends. Thank God nonviolent strategy has made a comeback, helped in no small part by the critique of male violence offered by feminists, and we have Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth to explain why nonviolence works.

Mark Rudd was chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society during the April 1968 student strike. He was subsequently elected last national secretary of SDS, and was a founder of the Weathermen and Weather Underground. He’s spent the past fifty years as a teacher and organizer for peace, social justice, and the environment.