In the midst of multiple student activist campaigns concerning divestment, need-blind admissions, and gender-neutral bathrooms, John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal interviewed Mark Rudd, an activist and founding member of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), on Friday, Jan. 31 before an audience of students, professors, and faculty.
The WUO emerged from a group called Students for a Democratic Society, an American left-wing organization that, according to its manifesto, aimed to counter imperialism with communism. The WUO was formed around the perception of violence as a tool to encourage political reform, but after spending seven years as a fugitive and a brief period of time in jail, Rudd has since denounced the use of violence for attaining change.
Professor Rosenthal framed the discussion of the morality of violence in activist campaigns by listing the three central tenets of revolutionary violence.
“One viewpoint might be thinking that political violence is never morally justified,” Rosenthal said. “…A second position would be it’s morally justified when the state or others are doing horrible things, but it’s never strategically smart to do. And a third position might be, well sometimes it might actually be morally justified and strategically smart in terms of winning the revolutionary struggle, but, nonetheless, it’s a bad idea because the state, the society that follows the revolution, is a society that’s been framed by violence and therefore works in ways you don’t want it to work.”
Rudd responded, renouncing the latter two tenets of Rosenthal’s definition of revolutionary violence. He then spoke about his regrets about advocating violence.
“[The WUO] talked about bombs, and the first bombs that we made killed three of our own people,” Rudd said. “There’s going to be mistakes, and then there’s going to be too much violence that you perpetuate.”
Rudd then focused on the morality of violent activism and the efficiency of non-violent protests.
“We thought the most moral position was to pick up the gun,” Rudd said. “And so we did. The results were disastrous. How much violence is needed to prop up the new revolution, once blood has been spilled? I decided to sort of reeducate myself. So I started studying the…Civil Rights Movement from 1945 to 1965, trying to learn from that. I realized that not only was the strategy of nonviolence productive—in a terrible, violent situation—but the method that was used can teach us a lot. I call it the classical organizing method.”
Evan Bieder ’15 asked Rudd how these organization methods could deal with urgent matters.
“How do you deal with the urgency of inequality in a grassroots organizing way?” Bieder asked. “…[T]o give an example at Wesleyan, our school’s endowment is held by Bank of America, and Bank of America forecloses on people in ghettos all the time…. How do you deal with that reality over…[a] 10-year grassroots organizing plan if it’s so urgent? How do you ethically sit by and wait patiently?”
In response to Bieder’s question, Rudd reaffirmed his position of effective organizing, citing the truth behind the Columbia University protests of 1968.
“The Columbia rebellion of 1968 did not happen spontaneously, and it didn’t happen because a few people took action,” Rudd said. “It actually was the result of many years of organizing and education. I was this kid from the suburbs in New Jersey; I didn’t know anything when I got to Columbia in 1965. But I met people who had been organizing for years. You’ve got to balance the urgency with the organizing.”
Distancing himself from the WUO’s radical ideology, Rudd advocated for reforming the Democratic Party.
“So my conclusion is since we represent the logical opinion and the most humane [opinion], our job is a very simple one: let’s organize,” Rudd said. “And the only method that I can see is to reform the Democratic Party into [one] that represents the party of common good…. There’s no other choice.”
Attendee Ari Ebstein ’16 disagreed with Rudd’s advocacy of reform rather than radical action to address urgent matters.
“We need radical action to address the social emergencies of our time,” Ebstein wrote in an email to The Argus. “That doesn’t mean violence, but it also doesn’t mean the Democratic [Party.] Radical simply means going to the root of the issue, and I don’t really see how directing our energy to reforming the Democratic [Party] at all addresses the root causes of inequality or state violence that are our biggest issues today.”
Bieder echoed Ebstein’s criticism of Rudd’s reformist plan.
“Like many liberal pragmatists, Rudd struck me as fairly cynical,” Bieder wrote in an email to The Argus. “While he claimed that he loved the members of Occupy Wall Street, he criticized their actions for being too idealistic or utopian. My heart sank a bit when Rudd told us our only hope is reforming the Democratic Party. I feel that the current American system has become far too corrupted to be reformed. As young people, I don’t think we should be scared to look to possibilities beyond the plutocratic Democratic Party.”
As the discussion came to a close due to time constraints, Rosenthal and Rudd joked about the enormity of the subject matter.
“I think this is the first hour of maybe a 12-hour discussion,” Rosenthal said.
Rudd ended the discussion with a simple message all activists could support.
“An assignment for the next 11,000 hours: organize,” Rudd said.