The Male Cult of Martyrdom: Saying Adios to Che
By Mark Rudd
FOR ALMOST A decade of my life, I was a member of the cult of Che
Guevara. I worshipped the man as the embodiment of true revolutionary
spirit and consciousness. I tried to internalize his thinking. What
motivated him? How had he learned to live (and die) for the worldwide
revolution? How could I become as fearless and selfless toward the
wretched of the earth as he was? How could I become a revolutionary
hero like him?
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest student
radical organization in the country, consisting of at least 100,000
active members with chapters on 400 college and high school campuses.
Instead of valuing what we had, my faction attacked SDS. According to
Che’s theory, the first step toward revolution was armed struggle. So,
in the spring of 1970 our little clique of ten or so Weatherman
leaders decided to close down the national and regional SDS offices.
FBI surveillance reports say that I often proclaimed in public
meetings, “I hate SDS; it’s soft and liberal, not revolutionary.”
Weatherman understood the foco strategy as necessary to further the
global revolution that would bring down U.S. imperialism. Che had
proclaimed the overall strategic objective: “Create two, three, many
Vietnams!” Vietnam would be the first of a cascade of military
defeats, resulting in the fall. After the fall, socialism. We just
needed to do our part inside the belly of the beast, not stand by
applauding the non-white people of the world while they took all the
risks and paid all the costs. That would have been racist.
Hadn’t Che said, “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the
revolution?” You don’t talk about revolution, you take gun in hand,
challenging the repressive apparatus of the state. In December 1969,
the FBI and the Chicago police had just murdered Fred Hampton, the
leader of the Black Panthers, in his own bed in Chicago. The
revolutionary war was under way. Marching in rally after rally in
1969, SDS and other new leftists gleefully chanted the Panther slogan,
“The revolution has come! Time to pick up the gun!”
In opting for armed struggle, my friends and I abandoned our real
strength, organizing on college campuses. I am proud to have played a
leadership role in the Columbia University uprising of 1968, along
along with many other student and non-student organizers, black and
white. However, just as I got all the media attention as the leader of
the strike, so the white SDS loomed so large in the media story of
Columbia that the actions of the Student Afro-American Society in
holding the first building were “blacked out.”
The antiwar movement in the 1960s and 70s was built, like the labor
and civil rights movements immediately preceding and following it,
using organizing—figuring out a strategy to grow the movement and then
implementing that strategy. Movements do not grow spontaneously.
Organizing involves building relationships with people, helping them
understand what’s happening, identifying and developing grassroots
leadership, forming strategic coalitions—in short, practicing
Organizing uses a wide variety of tactics, from setting up tables or
knocking on doors to talking with people, petitioning, demonstrating,
running candidates, confrontations with authority, and nonviolent
civil disobedience such as tree-sitting or building occupations,
boycotts, or strikes. Look closely at any successful movement and
you’ll find an organizing method at its base.
Turning to Violence
Weatherman turned away from organizing toward militancy, an
unfortunate and false dichotomy. But our militancy was merely the
expression of the willingness to do some sort of violence, to take
risks, to suffer consequences, to inflict physical damage. We somehow
believed that it would communicate to the people we wanted to recruit
how serious we were about revolution. We took as an article of faith,
with no proof whatsoever, that they would then join us.
If you wouldn’t go as far as us, we called you a liberal: weak, out of
touch with reality, and engaging in wishful thinking that the system
could reform without the necessary cleansing violence. Whole years of
the antiwar movement were wasted in debates between those wanting
systematic and disciplined organizing and those wanting violent
militancy. I often said, post-Columbia, that “organizing” was another
word for going slow. What I didn’t understand was that organizing was
the way to build a movement, not self-expression.
Years later, I realized that I was doing the work of the FBI for them
by helping split the antiwar movement over militancy. SDS wasn’t the
only casualty of our mistakes: one of our first attempts at bombs was
so inept we killed three of our own people. We also demoralized many
good antiwar activists who could not stomach our behavior.
During my seven years underground, I realized my error. By 1977, when
I turned myself in, all I wanted to do was become an organizer again.
That’s what I’ve spent my last 31 years in Albuquerque, N.M., doing—in
a variety of movements, from peace to Native American solidarity to
union organizing to environmental to electoral.
Another thing I realized during that time underground is that violence
is not a practical winning strategy in this country. It divides us
from our potential base of support. Americans do not understand
violence as being political. We’re taught that all violence not
sanctioned by the state is either criminal or mentally ill. That
includes destruction of property, which is defined by almost all
Americans as violence (terrorism). A few broken windows in a Starbucks
and a Nike store in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization
protests justified the expenditure of many millions to repress
subsequent demonstrations in Miami (2003), Philadelphia and New York
(2004), and St. Paul (2008). Also, the state has infinite violent
resources and is willing to use them. We have to seize the moral
position, making crystal clear that the people’s movement does not
resort to violence, the government does.
After I surrendered, the first ones who welcomed me back were David
Dellinger, Ralph DiGia, and other WRL staffers. They understood that I
had acted out of principled, if misguided, motives. They also saw that
my experiences with violent strategy might have led me toward
nonviolence. They were right.
Over the intervening years, I’ve realized that nonviolence has in fact
accomplished enormous feats in the 20th century. The civil rights
movement was nonviolent and won the end of legal segregation.
Subsequent nonviolent movements have changed the lives of women; the
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community; and people with
disabilities. None of these was an absolute victory, but they were
Hero or Terrorist?
Why had I opted for the cult of Che? I unsuccessfully pondered this
question for years, especially because I’m basically a nonviolent
person. In 1989, I picked up a book by feminist author Robin Morgan
with the intriguing title, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of
Terrorism. Morgan explains that all violence, whether by the state or
by revolutionaries, is terrorism. Women are often the target. Violent
revolutionaries are playing out a five-millennia-old archetype of male
heroes who liberate through their actions, either winning or dying.
Their martyrdom itself is often the source of liberation. Think Jesus,
though he was the object of violence and did not advocate it. Che was
the latest in the series, however.
That explained my problem: I wanted to be a hero, like Che. A male,
liberating hero, unafraid to die, because in my death I would inspire
the people to greater sacrifice and victory. But liberation doesn’t
come from violence; it comes by people mobilizing themselves.
In his last message to the Tricontental conference, Che wrote, as he
was about to go to his certain death in Bolivia, “Wherever death may
surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry,
may have reached some receptive ear, and another hand may be extended
to wield our weapons and other men be ready to intone the funeral
dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle
cries of war and victory.”
The male cult of martyrdom and violence doesn’t get any clearer than
that. And I bought into it. I was 20 years old and wanted to be a man.
Violence is how men prove themselves. Male desire to prove ourselves
is the universal motive coopted and manipulated by old men throughout
history to get stupid young men to fight in their wars. I recruited
myself to this revolutionary war. I wanted to be a hero like Che.
Reading Morgan’s book was the moment that Che and I parted. In recent
years I’ve been reading biographies of my former hero that reveal a
much more checkered psychology to the man. A lifelong risk-taker,
possibly to prove that he could overcome his disability, asthma, he
eventually embraced the world of revolutionary war. But revolutionary
war is not immune from the cycles of blood revenge that plague all
wars. The soldier has to constantly justify the loss of his friends by
killing more. Victorious armed struggles have to end in repression.
All soldiers, even revolutionaries, have to justify their own
sacrifice in killing another human being through more war. I fully
believe that by the time Che went to Bolivia, he was both homicidal
and suicidal. He had become a victim of his means, not saved or
ennobled by his ends.
Mark Rudd was a leader of the 1968 Columbia University student strike,
the last national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, and
a founder of the Weather Underground. A retired teacher in
Albuquerque, N.M., he recently published the memoir Underground: My
Life in SDS and Weatherman. More of his work can be found at