Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Mark Rudd Speaks

In his fine synopsis of the anti-war Columbia protests of May 1968**, Mark Rudd says:

I arrived on campus in 1965 and immediately fell in with a group of campus radicals, who eventually formed the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.

I was among those radicals and appreciate how well Mark has summarized our story. He's right on, for example — as one used to say —  in writing that the occupation by students of five buildings, the subsequent strike that shut the Columbia campus down for the semester, and the over-the-top violence of the police response combined to make the Columbia protests "a high point of the campus movement against the Vietnam War, and a mile marker in its radicalization."

But Mark also detects a downside, or disconnect, one which I at best only dimly if at all perceived at the time. Yes, we SDS activists were buoyed by — if not drunk on — a sense of history, as you can tell from the grand names we used in our faction fights, in which the adherents of the Action Faction would polemicize mightily against those of the opposing Praxis Axis. Perhaps we had drunk too deeply of history and imagined that these disputes would lead to the emergence of the Correct Line, the Real Leader, and, finally, a goddamn Revolution!

There were far fewer African Americans on campus than whites but those who were involved in the protest had their own, more grounded, less pompous sense of history. They, Mark writes, "were inspired by the civil rights movement in the South and by their own parents' lifelong struggles." And their connections to the Harlem community surrounding Columbia may have resulted in some restraint being imposed on police all too eager to break heads and shed student blood.

What I also value in Mark's short piece is his introducing a key element of autobiography. "As for myself," he writes, "after a rocky few years pursuing the fantasy of anti-imperialist and socialist revolution, I settled into a lifetime of teaching and organizing."

All that enveloping sense of history, all that longing for revolutionary release, and all the deadening dogma that came with that longing:  Mark's been there and emerged — as many have not — with cautionary but also encouraging words to those among his peers who can still hear him, and, more important, to new generations seeking social change.

Mark Rudd, "The Missing History of the Columbia '68 Protests" NY Times 4/22/18

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