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SDS and the struggles of the 1960s

April 28, 2006 | Page 10

GEOFF BAILEY tells the history of Students for a Democratic Society, the organization came to symbolize the explosion of dissent and protest on college campuses during the 1960s.

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STUDENTS FOR a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in 1960, as the youth group of the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID). It emerged against the backdrop of a growing rejection, particularly among young people, of the hypocrisy and stultifying conservatism of the Cold War period--the constant threat of nuclear war and the growing movement against Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Its early politics were hardly revolutionary. Its first statement of principles, the Port Huron Statement, raised criticisms of the racial and economic inequality in the United States and Cold War foreign policy. It sounded themes such as "participatory democracy" and urged the individual to break out of the confines of an alienated and atomized culture.

Yet what set SDS apart was its attempt to move beyond single-issue politics to a more radical critique of American society as a whole.

SDS also refused to accept the limits of the debate imposed by Cold War anti-Communism. Red-baiting, the new organization argued, cut off the possibility any attempt at real debate about how to transform society.

SDS announced that it would be open to working with any individuals or organizations, regardless of their political affiliation. SDS was attacked immediately by their parent organization, ultimately leading to a severing of relations between SDS and LID in 1965.

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THIS OPPOSITION to anti-Communism shared by many SDS members did not mean that they were Marxists. SDS activists were influenced more by the ideas of sociologist C. Wright Mills than Karl Marx. They attacked the suffocating bureaucratism of corporate liberalism and promoted decentralized decision-making, participatory democracy and semi-communal living.

But American workers were seen as, at best, bought off by the system and, at worst, part of the problem. The debates of the Old Left--ideas of workers' power, class struggle and working-class self-emancipation--were seen as irrelevant.

But there was a sense in the early years of the group that SDS was beginning to break out of the impasse of American radicalism during the Cold War--a feeling that a new radical movement was beginning.

The feeling was confirmed when, in the fall of 1964, a huge movement broke out at the University of California at Berkeley. Led by a coalition of groups, including SDS, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement energized tens of thousands of students in a struggle against a university ban on political organizing on campus, which quickly became a huge movement for student rights, culminating in a student strike that shut down the university.

In the fall of 1964, SDS was confronted with its first major internal debate: whether to endorse Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson for president.

Many SDS activists had become disillusioned by the Democratic Party's repeated betrayals of the civil rights movement in the South. But Johnson was running against the right-wing lunatic Barry Goldwater, who was infamous for calling for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Johnson, running as a "peace candidate," seemed to be the "lesser of two evils." SDS adopted the ambiguous slogan, "Half the Way with LBJ."

In November, Johnson was elected president. In January, he began aerial bombing and a massive military build-up in Vietnam.

That April, SDS called a national protest in Washington, D.C. They expected a few thousand to turn up; 25,000 joined the protest.

In campuses around the country, teach-ins were organized to expose the truth about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The largest of these, in Berkeley, lasted 36 hours and was attended by over 35,000 people.

For thousands of students, the teach-ins and early demonstrations were eye-opening. Most people had been brought up believing in the Cold War idea that the U.S. was a force for good in the world, against the evil forces of Communism; Vietnam was just a bad policy.

The realization that Vietnam was not the exception to U.S. foreign policy, but the rule, led thousands of activists to begin asking larger questions about American society. And those activists who began by questioning the Vietnam War could end by questioning the whole society they lived in.

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SDS MUSHROOMED from an organization of 2,500 in December 1964 to an organization of 25,000 in October 1966. New chapters sprang up on dozens of campuses.

But there was a problem--the teach-ins and the demonstrations hadn't stopped the war. It just kept going. It wasn't enough simply to register a voice of protest. The government wasn't listening; the politicians didn't care.

In 1966, SDS took up the slogan, "From Protest to Resistance." Beginning in 1967, SDS organized a series of direct actions aimed at not just protesting the war, but disrupting the "war machine."

In Madison, the local chapter of SDS helped organize a demonstration to prevent Dow Chemicals, makers of napalm, from recruiting on campus. In October, in the Bay Area, SDS helped organize a weeklong series of actions aimed at disrupting the draft.

SDS increasingly began to see the war not just as a mistaken policy, but as an outgrowth of a social system based on competition and profit. All of this boiled over in 1968.

1968 was a watershed year. In January, the Vietnamese guerrilla army resisting U.S. forces launched the Tet Offensive across South Vietnam. Television journalist Walter Cronkite announced that the war was now "unwinnable." On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Students and faculty at Columbia University in New York City went on strike for six weeks. Massive student struggles were put down violently in Czechoslovakia and Mexico.

Protests organized by SDS and other groups at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into three nights of police violence, in which demonstrators, reporters, even bystanders were beaten indiscriminately.

And perhaps most spectacularly, on May 6, students in Paris led an occupation of the Sorbonne University, which resulted in running battles with the police. In response, 10 million workers struck against the government.

The student movement had put the war on the front page--no small accomplishment in the United States. But it didn't have the power to make a revolution. Suddenly the questions of the Old Left, which just a few years earlier members of SDS had dismissed as irrelevant, seemed to take on new urgency.

It was clear to thousands of activists that the old system was bankrupt. But what could replace it? And who had the power to make that change?

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IN 1968, the revolutionary left took off. Before this, the movement had prided itself in being non-ideological--now, it quickly turned to revolutionary politics. According to one poll in 1969, more than 1 million students considered themselves revolutionaries and socialists of some kind.

SDS reached a peak of 100,000 members in 1969. It then collapsed more quickly than it had risen.

At its national convention in 1969, SDS split into rival factions after the national leadership decided, quite undemocratically, to expel members of the Maoist-turned-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party (PL).

PL had joined SDS in 1966. As a coordinated group of experienced organizers, it was able to both become a leading force in SDS, and put forward, at a time when SDS was radicalizing rapidly, a coherent (if highly distorted) version of Marxism.

In response, the SDS National Collective, which in preceding years had been more of a loose collection of leadership, began to consolidate itself around a more coherent set of politics to counter PL's increasing strength. As SDS leader Bill Ayers recounts, "[PL] kept growing in strength, so I felt like we had to know some Marxism in order to talk to the Marxists...So we became Marxists ourselves, even though we were the silliest, least intellectual group of Marxists ever."

While the conflict between the two groups became very heated, ultimately leading to the collapse of SDS, the politics of the various factions were not so very different.

The dominant tendency inside the SDS factions--and the revolutionary left more broadly in the late 1960s--was one or another version of Stalinism, which looked to variations of the ex-USSR and the Eastern Bloc, China or Cuba as the model for socialism and socialist revolution.

As two student leaders, Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson, wrote at the time: "At the 1968 convention, there had been strong anarchist and 'non-ideological' tendencies; by the 1969 convention, these had all but disappeared. Everyone thought himself or herself a Marxist; most were Maoists; and while some found it hard to swallow, the bulk of the leadership openly identified with Stalin."

The dominant commitment was not to the revolutionary transformation of society from below by the working class, but revolution from above--carried out by a committed, highly disciplined minority. Such efforts failed spectacularly to achieve their goals, and also pushed the new cadre of revolutionaries to the margins of political influence.

Yet whatever its weaknesses, the history of SDS shows the tremendous speed with which radicalization can take root, even in the most conservative of countries. It emphasizes the need for revolutionaries to be part of this radicalization--and to fight for leadership within it.

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