Interview: Mark Rudd
Written by Bwog Staff
Students for a Democratic Society—that group that shut down Columbia and other Universities across the country in 1968—generated some buzz last week, when about 20 students met in a Kent classroom to hash out plans for their return (sitting in, Bwog found the Young Spartacists particularly entertaining). “The New SDS” even landed the cover of The Nation, which talks about the nationwide phenomenon. Craving commentary (and something quite different from this commentary), Bwog sought out Mark Rudd, the leader of Columbia’s chapter in the 60s, who consented to an interview via e-mail.
Have you been back on the Columbia campus much since your time here as a student?
I was there in 1988 for the twentieth reunion. I’ve been off and on to show friends from New Mexico around. I spoke at a 25th reunion of the class of 1969, which I should have graduated with, on a panel on 68. They didn’t even invite me to lunch.
In the 1968 protests, how much of the student body seemed like it felt the way you did about the war and other issues you were protesting? Was it a small core of radical leaders, or more of a mass movement?
It grew to be a huge mass movement, probably the large majority of campus. Over 6000 people were organized into the strike coordinating committee through delegates. That was after the bust. The campus was highly politicized.
How did the administration react–do you think those tactics had any lasting success?
Our primary goal was building the anti-war movement. That we did. Columbia served as a model for many other campuses, not just in this country but internationally. The administration intransigence built our movement. Never underestimate the stupidity of college administrators.
You’ve said that we need to help foster anti-war sentiment within the ranks of the military itself. How can students do that? How should they treat other students in ROTC programs, for example, or those who have returned from military service?
All future and past soldiers should be treated with the utmost respect as human beings. Anti-war people should enter into dialogue with them about the true nature of this war. The goal is to get service people to understand their experience as occupiers of a foreign country and to use that experience to oppose the war. Soldiers are the victims of the government as well as the people they are forced to torture or murder.
At a small meeting of students interested in restarting the SDS at Columbia, New School student Adam Cline said that the organization did not yet have a national infrastructure, with a president or anything. Do you think this is a necessary element? Can small groups of students make change without national organization?
Probably the new SDS will continue to evolve as a network of local chapters, linked regionally and ultimately nationally. Just as with the old SDS, each chapter is autonomous. That’s a strength, not a weakness. The national organization already exists, but in very weak form.
There’s a strong anarchist and ultra-democratic ethos in the new SDS. They don’t want any formal or identifiable leaders. I think that’s also positive. The media will have to deal with the movement as a whole, not individuals.
What feelings do you think the SDS conjures up in the mind of the average American, 40 years after their primary period of activity?
The average American, whatever that is, has never heard of SDS, or if so, just barely. Probably this mythical person has no thoughts whatsoever on SDS.
You’ve been paying attention to the rise in anti-war sentiment over the last six years. How is it different from anti-Vietnam feelings in the 1960s? How is it similar?
Anti-war sentiment, in the form of public opinion, is as strong now as it was in 1968. Polls are identical. Unfortunately the anti-war movement is not as well organized or active, for many reasons. The lack of a draft is one. Also, the lack of models for organizing. We were blessed with the civil rights movement and the labor movement contiguous in time with the anti-war movement. We learned from them how to organize, the slow, steady, patient work of engaging with people and changing minds.
Now, unfortunately, too many people think of organizing as spectacle. It doesn’t work. Columbia April 1968 worked because of years of patient, slow, educational work and “spadework” on campus. We called it base-building.
One of the difficulties in addressing the war is gridlock in Washington that’s prevented Democrats from drawing down troops quickly. Will public protest really make this happen? Should anti-war groups also try to work within the political process to pressurize those who can actually vote in Congress?
Since public opinion is already against the war, some sort of pressure has to be brought on the politicians to respond. So far the Democrats have proven themselves remarkably spineless. However more pressure could cause them to evolve a spinal cord before the next twenty-five million years passes.
– Lydia DePillis