Organic Consumers Association

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Mark Rudd: What It Takes to Build a Movement

Since the summer of 2003, I've crisscrossed the country speaking at colleges and theaters and bookstores, first with The Weather Underground documentary and, starting in March of this year, with my book, Underground:  My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009). In discussions with young people, they often tell me, "Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference."

The words still sound strange: it's a phrase I never once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false on its surface.  Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, I - and the rest of the country - knew about the civil rights movement in the South, and what was most evident was that individuals, joining with others, actually were making a difference. The labor movement of the Thirties to the Sixties had improved the lives of millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a sitting president - LBJ, March 1968 - and was actively engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. In the forty years since, the women's movement, gay rights, disability rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have all registered enormous social and political gains. To old new lefties, such as myself, this is all self-evident.

So, why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of how these historical movements were built, young people assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps, charismatic leaders suddenly called them into existence. On the third Monday of every January we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. having had a dream; knowledge of the movement itself is lost.

The current anti-war movement's weakness, however, is very much alive in young people's experience. They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect. "We demonstrated, and they didn't listen to us." Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a big shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today. The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement's long-term weakness. 

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