1968: SDS and the revolt of the campuses

July 3, 2018

In the next article in SW’s yearlong series on the revolutionary year of 1968, Geoff Bailey tells the story of the student movement in the U.S. and its largest organization.

THE 1960s in general, and the year 1968 in particular, are associated with students and their struggles — and for good reason.

Some of the most famous struggles of the civil rights movement were initiated by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The anti-Vietnam War movement that was shaking U.S. society had its main base on the campuses. France’s great May 1968 rebellion, the Prague Spring in then-Czechoslovakia, the massacre in Mexico City before the Olympics, and many other international struggles were based among students.

Youth have played a central role in most radical and revolutionary eras, but this was especially true of the 1960s for a whole number of reasons — not least of which was the expansion of higher education, which led to a growing number of young people who saw themselves as struggling over the fate of their futures.

In the U.S., the 1960s is sometimes reduced to a history of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. There’s also a reason for this: SDS was the largest student organization in the U.S., with a membership of 100,000 at its high point.

Members of SDS lead a demonstration against the Vietnam War
Members of SDS lead a demonstration against the Vietnam War

But this narrow view is misleading — SDS wasn’t the first nor the only student organization during the early 1960s when protests were getting going. SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) played much more central roles in mobilizing students in support of civil rights.

Even around the movement against the war in Vietnam, while many individual SDS members and local chapters played central roles organizing against the war, they weren’t the only forces on many campuses — and at a national level, SDS played little role in giving direction to the movement.

By its high point, SDS increasingly looked off-campus in search of a social force with the power to reshape American society. And tragically, it began to collapse at precisely the moment when the student movement was at its zenith.

In the years since its demise, there has been an attempt — often by former members — to divide the history of SDS into “good” and “bad” eras: the golden early years, when students wore ties and marched silently in support of basic freedoms, and the later years, when members went off the rails and started talking about revolution.

But this ignores the reality that the circumstances facing activists in the late 1960s were markedly different from just a few years earlier — and that the strategies which had dominated Cold War liberalism and social democracy previously had been unable to provide a way forward for a new generation of activists.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

The drive toward revolutionary politics — in SDS as well as other organizations of the time — was an attempt to chart a way forward as it became increasingly clear that the struggles against racism and the war in Vietnam were calling fundamental structures of American society into question.

The tragedy is that the form of revolutionary politics ultimately adopted within SDS was itself incapable of providing a way forward.


SDS BEGAN its life as the unfortunately named SLID, which stood for Student League for Industrial Democracy. It was the youth wing of the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy.

The League’s politics were bounded by three overriding principles: support for the labor movement, largely identified in the leadership of the AFL–CIO; a commitment to working within the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change; and, most importantly, opposition to USSR-aligned Communism, including the voice of the USSR in the U.S. and other countries, the Communist Party.

Initially, SDS shared much of the framework of its parent organization. But SDS also reflected the outlook of a new generation, brought up in a postwar boom that was equally stultifying in its consumer conformity and hypocritical in the obvious fact that large portions of the U.S., not to mention the world, had never been invited to the party.

The document that became the founding theoretical statement of SDS, the Port Huron statement, reflected the outlook of this generation of mostly middle-class students “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” as the statement begins.

The Port Huron Statement sounded themes such as “participatory democracy” and urged the individual to break out of the confines of an alienated and atomized culture. Its message was a moral exhortation to break with the mind-numbing conformity of Cold War America. For these young activists, that also meant rejecting the stifling limitations the Cold War left, particularly its obsessive anti-Communism.

For the conference at which the Port Huron statement was presented, SDS invited two participants with connections to the Communist Party USA. Leaders of the League went ballistic, cutting off funds and initially going so far as to change the locks on the SDS office.

Ultimately, things were smoothed over, but not before SDS set off on a new course from its parent organization.

In an effort to put the ideas for Port Huron statement into practice, SDS launched a series of initiatives — known as the Economic Research and Action Project — to move off campus and into poor and working-class communities. Dozens of students from mostly middle- and upper-class backgrounds responded to the call to move into poor and working-class communities and begin organizing around local issues.

The project launched SDS in a more activist direction, but by the end of 1964, most projects had ended in failure, with activists having learned that it isn’t so easy to organize on behalf of the unorganized.

But the beginning of the fall semester in 1964 gave a new direction to SDS: the explosion of the Berkeley Free Speech movement showcased the simmering anger among a new generation of students and showed the potential power of an organized student movement. SDS returned its attention to organizing on campus just as the Vietnam War was about to expand.


BY LATE 1965, SDS was an organization in search of a movement. The decision by the Johnson administration to escalate the war in Vietnam provided it.

In the spring of 1965, SDS called for the first national demonstration against the war. Organizers were caught completely off guard when 20,000 people attended.

Then-SDS President Paul Potter gave a speech that captured the ways in which a new generation was breaking from the outlook of their parents and — realizing that they had been lied to about Vietnam — beginning to raise much more fundamental questions about America:

The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy...The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam, the more we are driven toward the conclusion that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today.

The suspension of the student deferment for the draft suddenly brought home the realities of the war in Vietnam for millions of students, and SDS launched itself into organizing draft resistance and exposing the connections between the university and the war machine.

Again, SDS wasn’t alone, but it already had a significant reputation. Thousands upon thousands of young students began joining.

But at the very moment that SDS had the opportunity to give a national focus to the movement against the war in Vietnam, it was consumed by a debilitating faction fight.

Much of the early leadership of SDS had come from elite universities, but the majority of its new recruits were working-class students from rapidly expanding state schools in the Midwest and South — hence the name of the new faction “Prairie Power.”

The Prairie Power faction identified around a call for student syndicalism, arguing that radical movements on campus could influence the growing white-collar workforce of post-college graduates and become a new social force for radical transformation.

However, the more immediate impact of the Prairie Power faction was to argue for more local autonomy, limiting the power of SDS’s national center. This led to the fragmentation of the organization into hundreds of newly formed chapters, often with little or no relationship to each other.


THE YEAR 1968, in the words of writer Daniel Singer “opened a new chapter in our imagination.” The struggles of that year showed both the violence that the system is capable of and the desire of masses of people to fight for a different society.

By this point, people had been protesting for years. Tens of thousands of people had started the decade believing that Jim Crow and Vietnam were the exception. If you could demonstrate, if you could stand up with the moral force of justice behind you, you could sway the people in power.

The civil rights movement had won the end of legal Jim Crow after long struggle, only to confront the much deeper roots of structural racism, poverty and the American injustice system. African Americans in the North were second-class citizens, too, though Democratic politicians who had at least paid lip service to civil rights were the ones presiding over the ghettos.

Meanwhile, even as the antiwar movement was beginning to turn public opinion against the conflict, the war only seemed to escalate. U.S. deaths in Vietnam jumped from 6,000 in 1966, to 11,000 in 1967. In 1968, they would top 16,000.

Thus, the move of SDS toward revolutionary politics — which was mirrored in SNCC, the Black Panther Party and, to a different degree, Martin Luther King himself — was the product of a real impasse for the social movements of the 1960s. Increasingly, people could see that even meaningful reforms could only be accomplished by a fundamental restructuring of U.S. political and economic life.

However, while SDS increasingly identified with the need for a revolutionary transformation of society, it found itself cut off from any force with the social power to affect it.

Having run up against the limits of community organizing, student power and the spontaneous eruptions of anger in Black ghettoes, many activists began to turn toward the politics of revolutionary socialism.

Unfortunately, the variant of socialism that most young people discovered was Stalinism or Maoism — the top-down version of socialism preached in the USSR and China, where party leaders exercised overwhelming control over the direction and institutions of society, in stark contrast to the socialist principles of democracy and freedom that the Marxist tradition stood for.


THIS EXACERBATED the existing weaknesses of the student movement, including within SDS.

Progressive Labor (PL) had joined SDS in 1966. It was a hard-line Stalinist organization formed in 1962 as a pro-China split from the Communist Party.

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

PL talked about building alliances between students and workers, but its conception of relating to the working class consisted of imitating some of the crudest stereotypes of working-class life.

PL members were conspicuous for their short hair and button-down shirts. Drug use was forbidden. The organization was notable in its hostility to women’s rights and outright opposition to gay liberation — two forms of bigotry inherited from both Stalinism and pandering to the most backwards ideas among workers.

PL denounced all nationalism, even of the oppressed, as counterrevolutionary — this position was applied equally to groups like the Black Panthers and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. And in keeping with its Stalinist heritage, PL saw itself as the one true representative of the “world proletariat.”

But by 1968, many activists were looking toward revolutionary politics, and PL had implanted itself as a significant minority within SDS — so the organization was able to thrive.

In response, the SDS National Collective — which represented SDS’s main leadership, though it was more of a loose collection of individuals than a unified body — began to consolidate itself around a “more revolutionary than you” posture to try to outflank 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.”

At the 1969 SDS convention, members of the National Collective joined with others hostile to PL to form the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction and accuse PL of leading an undemocratic group intent on destroying SDS.

They brought in members of the Black Panthers, who denounced PL as counterrevolutionaries for their criticisms of Black nationalism — but then veered off script to begin lecturing the women present about their duty to sleep only with true revolutionaries. At this point, the SDS conference descended into chaos.

The national leadership of SDS expelled PL and promptly walked out of the convention. RYM held a conference in an adjoining hall and declared itself the “real” SDS — and then promptly split into two factions itself, known as RYM I and RYM II. PL remained in the initial hall and declared itself the “real” SDS. Within a year, both versions of “SDS” had disintegrated.


THE TRAGEDY is that SDS collapsed at the very moment when the student movement was about to explode once again.

By 1970, a national poll found that 1 million students considered themselves revolutionaries. When Nixon launched the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, campuses erupted in protest.

The intense government repression that followed led to the deaths of four white students at Kent State and two Black students at Jackson State. In response, a nationwide strike shut down 448 campuses. More than 4 million students and 350,000 faculty participated.

But SDS had all but ceased to exist, and none of the major groups that emerged from it could provide a credible way forward.

Like many of the groups of the 1960s, SDS provides a double-edged lesson for today.

On the one hand, it shows how a period of sustained struggle led to tens of thousands of people to conclude that there were fundamental limits to social change under U.S. capitalism — and that the politics of revolutionary socialism could provide a potential way forward.

But SDS also shows that the best politics don’t always win out. The real tragedy is that the revolutionary politics on offer within SDS couldn’t sustain an effective organization, even at the high point of the struggle.

Today, we are attempting to rebuild a left almost anew. But we find ourselves in a different environment than the 1960s. The Stalinist regimes are gone — or at least they can no longer creditably claim to be struggling against capitalism. We aren’t organizing at the tail end of the longest sustained economic boom in capitalist history, but in a period in which working-class living standards have been under relentless assault for 30 years.

Today, many new activists see the working class as, at the very least, an ally in social struggles. The current period presents new challenges, but also new possibilities for rebuilding a left based on the ideas of socialism from below.

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