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Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

November 3, 2006

Rumblings about a renewed SDS have been in the news for about a year or so. Although I’ve been intrigued, I haven’t been sure of what to think about the present group’s prospects and connections to its predecessor. I’m finally provoked to comment after reading an article by Alex Beam of The Boston Globe, titled “The SDS Goes Back to School.” Beam said nothing particularly controversial, but his piece caused to think a bit more deeply on the phenomenon.

To begin, most everything I know about SDS comes from several books, a movie, and a friend. My friend studies(ied) Chicago’s counterculture community, and he introduced me to SDSers and their connections – and disconnections – with hippies. The books I’ve read covering SDS include Terry Anderson’s The Sixties and The Movement and the Sixties, and James T. Patterson’s Grand Expectations. I also recall reading about the group in several history of education texts. The best movie I’ve seen covering SDS, and then only indirectly, was Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (imdb.com’s description). Whenever I conduct a post-Civil War American history class, I show Weather Underground.

Beam noted in his story that Tom Hayden sells copies of The Port Huron Statement (PHS) on his website (scroll down). I don’t know why, but I find this really repulsive. You can obtain a copy of it online, so why buy the book? You do receive an introduction by Howard Zinn with it, but why is this useful? I suppose having Zinn on board draws a certain kind of readership.

Although I’m not an expert on PHS, I don’t recall Hayden being the sole author. Buttressing my memory is exhibit A – from the online version of the statement noted above:

– “Introductory Note: This document represents the results of several months of writing and discussion among the membership, a draft paper, and revision by the Students for a Democratic Society national convention meeting in Port Huron, Michigan, June 11-15, 1962. It is represented as a document with which SDS officially identifies, but also as a living document open to change with our times and experiences. It is a beginning: in our own debate and education, in our dialogue with society. Published and distributed by Students for a Democratic Society 112 East 19 Street New York 3, New York Gramercy 3-2181.”

This pretty clearly makes PHS a group-authored document. With that, an Amazon.com reviewer of “Hayden’s” book (if this link works – scroll down) chided Hayden for his ego.

But what of the new SDS? Beam reported on some of their activities, goals, and perspectives:

– “In an interview, [Matt Wasserman , a founder of the Reed College chapter] says SDS takes credit for trying to block a shipment of Stryker armored vehicles headed for Iraq at the port of Olympia, Wash., in May of this year. Six protesters were arrested. The New York press picked up on SDS’s presence at anti war protests in Manhattan in March and May. If you go to the website newsds.org , you’ll suss out the group’s priorities pretty quickly: anti-Iraq war, anti-Wal-Mart, anti-anyone named Bush, George or Jeb.”
– SDS “held its first national conference over the summer [of 2006] and now boasts chapters at 126 colleges, such as Boston College, Brandeis, Boston University, Harvard, UMass-Amherst, and Yale. SDS also has a presence at 39 high schools, including Brookline, Hollywood High, and Phillips Exeter.”
– Trinity’s [Ben Schacht, a junior] says he got involved with SDS because he noticed that conservatives were better organized on campus than the left.”

In Beam’s piece, Schacht comes off as the most historically informed of the new SDSers. Schacht said: “Most college students have no idea what SDS is or was. . . . That kind of historical amnesia makes it very difficult to get a discussion going. . . . There’s a perception that the new SDS is kids playing dress-up in this historical enterprise. . . . One of the reasons for a new SDS to exist is that old SDS was an unfinished project.”

I suppose he is correct in thinking of SDS’s business as “unfinished.” The old SDS was derailed by the 1969 split that resulted in the Weathermen. One could say that the Weathermen destroyed the positive perceptions of SDS after the former espoused violence over peaceful change. Frustration with the escalation in Vietnam shook some SDSers’ non-violent approach.

With that bit of history in mind, perhaps we can assert that the new SDS will remain successful insofar as the situation in Iraq doesn’t escalate. But other comments by Schacht are indicative of a project that will do more than simply counter conservative messages. He said: “Left activism [today] is dominated by moderate democratic sentiment that makes students toe a very corporate, capitalist line. When people say that they’re on the left they really mean they’re liberal democrats. You don’t have the kind of leftism of the 1960s, where people wanted to question capitalism.”

If his vision of the project is THE vision for the new SDS, then the new version may also implode. One of those interviewed in The Weather Underground, perhaps Mark Rudd, said – and I’m paraphrasing – that Americans just aren’t prone to violent revolutions. He was referring to physical violence, but I think that can also be attributed to the “American mind” and systems. Americans in general are not apt to question or overthrow capitalism, to engage in violent change, but they will agree to reforms. This may be hubris, but Americans in general believe too much in capitalism’s successes to entirely question it as a system. In sum, if the new SDS’s goal is to overthrow capitalism, then they will likely encounter the same frustrations as their 1960s and 1970s counterparts.

Every new SDSer should read Mark Rudd’s reflections on his involvement in the creation of The Weather Underground. Rudd’s candor and sympathetic affect, just like in the film, make him a wise teacher about youth trying to effect change. – TL

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3 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Keeping in mind that the PHS pre-dates the Vietnam War, the original SDS was only more focused on the war after 65/66. Before then the interest was Civil Rights, and economic fairness – see Todd Gitlin's “Uptown” his writings on the ERAP program in Chicago's Appalachian migrant community in Uptown in the mid-60s.

    I'd like to see where a reconstituted SDS would take those original interests and how they would apply them to today's issues.

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  2. anonymous,

    look no further.

    no doubt we can find many criticisms of the new sds.

    i recently started a MDS (movement for a dem soc) chapter here in arlington, tx.

    though we will challenge war in iraq, afghanistan and maybe Iran. racism, sexism, climate change, injustice, etc will be on the agenda. actually it already is.

    I have taken close note to the reflective criticism by rudd, ayers, etc (and other leftists). most in the organization – especially the older generation – are conscious of this.

    many of the original interests are still of interest and are being adapted to today, but I am seeing issues already.

    the students still kind of delusional. their hearts are in the right place and their opinions are mostly valid, but how they go about confronting these issues and the image.

    I will give an example.

    there was a protest against the minutemen in NYC and some got arrested. both parties had signs and looked like angry losers.

    I doubt many people were impressed or reached by either side.

    though we may see through the racist and xenophobic bullshit of the minutemen and agree with the message SDSers were trying to express, one cant help but think the whole thing was ineffective. in the end we had to come up with bail money and legal expenses. money that would have been better used for something else.

    im not dismissing protests. they can be valuable, but mostly when a sizeable movement has already been created.

    we should be focused more on rebuilding our organization. i think too many want to get their feet wet just for the experience and are not thinking practically and tactically.

    thats where we want to go a different route.

    we want to focus on community organizing. reaching out to unions, relevant organizations, schools and our neighborhoods. some things we are looking at doing is food and clothes drives for local shelters. we want to use the opportunities of doing something positive to get our presence out there while we also participate in protests, demonstrations, etc.

    basically, we want to ballance our image without compromising our ideals.

    we have noted the success in churches and especially groups like hamas and hizbollah in community organizing. what makes the latter two so successful is not how islamic they are or how confrontational they are with israel, but rather their services to the poor and their local communities. the same can be said with why we see churches on every corner.

    what we want to do is adapt that strategy with our actions here locally. help those at the bottom to show we are sincere about making another world a reality while explaining who we are and what our other and more broader concers are.

    polls routinely show that the general public is more in tune with the radical left in a general sense and the fact that much is not known about us and that the propaganda machine is heavily tilted the other way. with policy so radically different from public opinion we feel that a radical movement like ours could better reach these public with positive actions. we simply dont want to be looked at as negative whiners whose parents took our pacifiers away too early. while we feel that the negative impression is a result of a justified reaction to the injustices around us we also sense that unintentional ignorance might misunderstand that.

    we want to change that by building upon our successes and learning from our failures. call it building progressive stalagmites.

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  3. Dear MDS Arlington:

    Thanks for the long post. I checked out your site, and it's very informative. What a nice coincidence that you set it up on the very day I posted about SDS.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see that SDS/MDS Arlington is addressing issues that range far beyond war protest. I had also assumed that SDS/MDS is solely a student org, whereas it seems that yours is comprised of all ages. Nice. It seems to fit into the Saul Alinsky model.

    But what is the relationship between MDS and SDS? How tight are the two orgs? – TL

    Like

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