The American left has never produced a group more self-critical than Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the years since the organization’s 1969 collapse, its former members have produced an endless stream of mea culpas.
Some of this has come from self-conscious apostates, like New Republic contributing editor Paul Berman. A Columbia SDSer in 1968, Berman later condemned the group’s “degeneration into violence and irrationality … its final embrace of totalitarian doctrines.” The later SDS should have, he quips, been renamed “Students for a Dictatorial Society.” Even those less gleeful about skewering their former comrades have aired regrets about late-sixties radicalism. James Miller became “profoundly skeptical of the assumptions about human nature and the good society held by many radicals.” Mark Rudd, a member of the Weatherman faction of SDS, muses that “we played into the hands of the FBI.… We might as well have been on their payroll.”
Of course, on one level it’s difficult to argue with these assessments. Picture a convention of students, split between two sides, one chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” and the other “Mao, Mao, Mao Zedong!” SDS really did degenerate into a caricature of leftism.
Yet if former SDSers have grasped what went wrong with their organization, they’ve been less successful understanding why. This is especially glaring in accounts like Berman and Miller’s, where stress is placed on the ideas that SDSers held at various moments. Former SDSers still tend to see the story of their organization as one in which the choices made by students determined the movement’s path.
But understanding SDS requires more than understanding students. It requires understanding the dilemmas the American left more broadly faced in the 1960s. In these years, a new radicalization, driven above all by opposition to the slaughter in Vietnam, found itself wholly isolated from a labor movement itself defanged of radicalism by anticommunist purges. The result was a radicalization unmoored from the social forces capable of realizing its ideas. As a result, those ideas themselves were thrown into flux, as SDSers substituted one social force after another for the working class, moving from students to black revolutionaries to Third World guerrillas.
SDS serves as a warning about the fragility of political ideas in the abstract, and how quickly they can be remade when history comes knocking.
The Labor Youth
Students for a Democratic Society was born, with little fanfare, in January 1960, when members of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) decided to change their name to something more modern. The youth group of the venerable League for Industrial Democracy (LID), SLID had gone through the 1950s as a small part of the larger current of American social democracy. Within it, a certain set of politics were axiomatic: first, opposition to communism in all its forms, both foreign and domestic; second, a commitment to the union movement, whether with enthusiasm, as for Walter Reuther’s beacon of left-liberalism, the United Auto Workers (UAW), or begrudgingly, as for the unvarnished business unionism of AFL-CIO head George Meany; third, seeing the Democratic Party as the political vehicle for reform.
The advance of the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 1950s introduced the first cracks into the foundations of SLID’s milieu. Though the social democrats were fervent supporters of the movement from its earliest days, and champions of racial equality within the still-Dixified Democratic Party, the Southern movement, with its dramatic mass civil disobedience, implicitly called into question the faith held in progress through elections and collective bargaining. SLID’s new name, Students for a Democratic Society, was informed by the sensibility so forcibly impressed by the black movement — that the United States was, for all its proclamations, not yet a democracy.
SDS’s first order of business was organizing a spring 1960 conference, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Titled “Human Rights in the North,” it had the good fortune to come a few weeks after student sit-ins took off in the South. The conference brought in some of the leading lights of the movement — Bayard Rustin from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Farmer from the Congress of Racial Equality — to talk with young student activists. Though no concrete initiatives came of it, the conference helped solidify the Civil Rights Movement as SDS’s primary cause.
Coming out of the conference, SDS made a fateful move: it hired as its full-time staffer a young University of Michigan graduate student, Al Haber. Unlike later SDS notables, Haber was neither a charismatic leader nor a creative thinker. But he was an organizer, with a drive and energy that would prove crucial in establishing SDS as a new activist force. Haber embraced the organization’s focus on civil rights, and threw himself into putting its meager resources in service of the struggle. He started a SDS newsletter on civil rights, which within a year had over ten thousand subscribers. He also led the organization in a boycott of Sears, Roebuck & Co. over hiring discrimination. In November, SDS and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) co-edited a special issue of SNCC’s paper, Student Voice, on the election. At student conferences across the country, Haber made contacts with other movement supporters, building up SDS’s name and profile.
In 1961, SDS hired Tom Hayden as its field officer. Hayden had recently graduated from Michigan, and went to work in Atlanta, acting as SDS’s reporter on the ground. His fall arrival in Atlanta coincided with the beginning of a new stage in the movement, as SNCC was beginning its campaign of voter registration in the Deep South. Over the previous summer, SNCC activists had set up shop in McComb County, Mississippi, to attempt to register black voters in the face of white supremacist intimidation.
As violence against the campaign escalated, Hayden flew to Jackson to bring attention to the struggle. Very quickly, he himself became a target of violence and was forced to leave the state. He would soon write up his experiences in an SDS pamphlet titled “Revolution in Mississippi.” Hayden’s account of the student activists in McComb County would come to serve as a fitting descriptor for his generation’s ambitions for SDS:
They have decided not only to protest but to seek social transformation as well, and that is revolution. They have decided it is time right now — not in a minute, not after this one more committee meets, not after we have the legal defense and the court costs promised — to give blood and body if necessary for social justice, for freedom, for the common life, and for the creation of dignity for the enslaved, and thereby for us all.
Throughout this early period, SDS was attached at the hip to the labor movement. LID, SDS’s parent organization, was largely funded by the labor unions, making them indirect funders of SDS. The organization also received no small amount of direct funding from unions. Al Haber’s hiring was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the UAW. The AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department promoted SDS’s fund-raising efforts and lent the young organization their printing press. Walter Reuther himself praised the group as “the vanguard student organization dedicated to the forces of progress in America.”
In turn, early SDS activists held a positive view of the labor movement. Haber’s father was a labor arbitrator in Michigan. When Haber pushed SDS to become active in the Sears boycott, he wrote that he hoped the case would “bring to the fore the natural alliance of labor and the civil rights movement.” Sharon Jeffrey, another early leader in the group, was the daughter of Mildred Jeffrey, a top UAW official. The small SDS chapter in New York supported the 1962 newspaper strike, arguing that such support “ought to be an automatic reflex” for the group.
Even Tom Hayden, who would come to be the symbol of New Left alienation from the old left, was favorably inclined towards labor, writing in a letter to Reuther that “the labor movement remains the critical agency in the future advancement of democratic and egalitarian solutions to our economic troubles.” This relationship, however, wasn’t without strain. In particular, the LID looked with trepidation on SDS’s involvement in civil rights activism. LID was, after all, an educational organization, as well as a nonprofit whose tax exemption could be threatened by political action.
SDS’s involvement in boycotts and solidarity pickets went beyond the LID leadership’s imagined brief for the organization. When it found out about Haber’s efforts to turn the group into a kind of Northern SNCC, it tried to push him out of leadership. Haber stood steadfast, however, and, drawing on his father’s contacts in the labor movement, was able to persuade LID’s board that he should stay on.
SDS was thus a child of labor. Its early years were made possible by the movement’s largesse, and its ideology was firmly within the bounds of American social democracy. The question of what drove SDS’s later derangement is thus not why the organization didn’t look to the working class, but rather, why its once-strong partnership with labor couldn’t survive the sixties.
Beyond Social Democracy
Any answer to this question has to run through Port Huron, Michigan. There, in June 1962, SDS published the “Port Huron Statement,” the defining document of its early years. As the organization had grown over the past two years, acquiring a handful of organized chapters and about eight hundred dues-paying members scattered across the country, there was a need to clarify its aims. The June convention was called to accomplish this task, and Tom Hayden was charged with drafting a document to serve as the basis for discussion at the convention. In keeping with SDS’s labor roots, the convention was held at a Port Huron campground owned by the UAW.
The statement is an extraordinary distillation of the politics at play in the emerging student radicalism. It’s unapologetically middle class, reflecting on how its authors and readership have been “bred in at least modest comfort” and are “housed now in the universities.” Later, it somewhat presumptuously declares that “a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform.” Instead to confront the problems confronting the country in the early 1960s — racism, corporate domination, and the threat of nuclear annihilation — a revolution of values was necessary. Unsurprisingly, the Port Huron Statement authors identified students and universities as key players in the making of such a revolution.
Today, these sentiments can appear hopelessly out of touch with the realities of most Americans at the time (the vast majority of whom would never step foot on a university campus). But we should understand why this kind of analysis was compelling to so many. First, there was the demographic fact of a massive youth bulge, beginning with the baby boom. This combined with postwar economic growth to create a generation of college students far larger than any of its predecessors. The 1960s were the first time that college students outnumbered farmers in the United States. In this context, the facts of student life and the social setting of the university felt like a new source of strength for the Left, rather than a prescription for isolation.
The early 1960s were also a period when American society displayed few of the signs of obvious pathology that mark our politics today. These were years when most people’s standard of living was rising, buoyed by both a rapidly growing economy and a labor movement with 30 percent union density. Unlike our own era of catastrophic inequality and the foundering of official politics, these were years in which, if anything, the system appeared to be working too efficiently — the problem was that its operation was totally outside of the control of most Americans. Alienated from the machine-like operation of US institutions, most of the population was, in Hayden’s view, growing ever more remote from the kind of civic life necessary for confronting the real problems that remained in society. It was to this problem that SDS proposed the solution of a revolution in values.
These undeniably middle-class impulses coexisted, however, with a continued appreciation for the centrality of the labor movement for progressive politics. The statement’s section on labor opens by noting the frequent equation of “big labor” with “big business,” arguing that “nothing could be more distorted.” Instead, it declares that “what progress there has been in meeting human needs in this century rests greatly with the labor movement.” The primary problems with labor are a result of big business’s success in containing the movement’s further expansion. In this context, the statement argues, with no small justification, that labor has come to see itself as pressure group, rather than a “mass-oriented … 18 million member body making political demands for all America.” Labor, it concludes, will be an essential part of creating a more progressive country, but it needs a revolution of values as well.
The Port Huron Statement provoked intense criticism from SDS’s allies who identified their politics with the house of labor. Their criticism, however, didn’t center on the rather gentle critique of labor in the document, but rather on the question of communism. The issue arose at a June convention even before Port Huron’s drafting. The convention committee had voted to recognize as an observer the eighteen-year-old Jim Hawley, a member of a Communist Party youth group. The response of LID leaders like Michael Harrington was nothing short of apoplectic. This was compounded by the statement’s running attacks on anticommunism throughout the document, which it blamed for encouraging support of dictators abroad and enforcing a stifling political conformity at home. To Harrington and others, all this appeared as a dreadful forgetting of what they viewed as the most hard-won lesson of the 1930s — the need to completely isolate Stalinists from the progressive movement.
Haber and Hayden were summoned before a LID committee to discuss the issues. To the SDSers, there must have been a special irony in being hauled before a committee to answer questions about their views on communism. This irony, however, went unappreciated by their questioners, who attacked Haber and Hayden with blunt queries like “Would you give seats to the Nazis too?”
The SDSers’ answers failed to move their inquisitors, and LID tried to restrain its wayward child. It suspended Hayden and Haber’s salaries, declared all further SDS publications would be preapproved by LID, and changed the locks on the New York office’s doors. While in the next few weeks the crisis would be deescalated, largely through the efforts of Sarah Lawrence president Harold Taylor and Socialist Party spokesperson Norman Thomas, irreparable damage had been done to the image of social democracy in the eyes of the student left. To a left that had come of age chafing against the rituals of McCarthyism, the demand for a quarantine against Communist-linked activists, and for unyielding hostility to the Soviet Union, seemed less principles for the Left than symptoms of the very things they hoped to change about society. As Hayden put it years later, the experience of that summer “taught me that social democrats aren’t radicals and can’t be trusted in a radical movement.”
Dare to Struggle
Though the Port Huron Statement and battles with the LID contributed mightily to SDS’s developing politics, the group still lacked a clear sense of what it was actually trying to do. Hayden and company were inspired by SNCC’s example, but it had become abundantly clear to them that Northern students heading South wasn’t of much help to the movement. Instead, the question became how SDS could replicate what SNCC was doing elsewhere.
The group’s answer was the Economic Research and Action Programs — the ERAPs. Inspired by recent work from social-democratic economists arguing that automation was threatening skyrocketing unemployment and recession in the 1960s, SDSers became convinced that organizing the Northern poor could be their contribution to the struggle. Just as SNCC fanned out from Southern cities into the rural South with the goal of mobilizing disenfranchised blacks, Northern students would leave the universities and live among the poor of their cities, organizing them into “community unions” to fight in their own interests. Beginning in the summer of 1963, SDS began devoting itself to this project. It was still helped along in this endeavor by the UAW, who provided the bulk of ERAP’s early funding.
Over the next two years, hundreds of students moved into poor neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Newark. There, they lived in poverty themselves, forgoing the privileges of middle-class student life to help build an “interracial movement of the poor.” ERAP organizers tried to hold community meetings and work with local organizers on everything from city garbage collection to rent strikes against slumlords.
In retrospect, it’s easy enough to see that ERAP never stood a chance of success. Far from a new era of joblessness, the economy embarked on one of the strongest climbs of the century, and employment and wages both grew. Moreover, SDSers, in their idealism, had massively underestimated the obstacles to organizing the urban poor. The sheer levels of atomization and dispossession in Northern cities shocked the young activists. While over a dozen cities had ERAPs at some point, by spring of 1965 only a few remained.
Yet the experience was not entirely negative. Activists, both black and white, learned a great deal from the experience. Many black organizers who worked with SDS went on to play important roles in their city’s politics. White students, for their part, became convinced that something more than idealism was required to address poverty — the American system needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
This radicalization was steadily reproduced across the country. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 served notice that the mirage of consensus politics that had reigned throughout the Eisenhower years was dissipating. The assumption of steady social progress could no longer be taken for granted. This new mood was felt on campuses, as SDS slowly expanded its base of active chapters from the handful it had since its founding to the several dozen in 1965. This growth was all the more remarkable given that the organization’s attention had been focused on the ERAPs off-campus.
In fall 1964, student radicalism took a qualitative step forward with the Free Speech Movement (FSM). The FSM grew out of civil rights activism at Berkeley, where students were active in solidarity work with groups like SNCC and core. On September 15, a local group announced plans to picket the Oakland Tribune, a right-wing newspaper viciously critical of the Civil Rights Movement. The next day, the Dean of Students sent a letter to all student groups banning tabling on a popular bit of sidewalk and forbidding the distribution of literature advocating action on off-campus issues. In response, students mounted pickets against the administration, and set up tables collecting money for SNCC and core in explicit defiance of the policy.
On October 1, Jack Weinberg was arrested for tabling for CORE. In response, hundreds of students surrounded the police car, refusing to let it take him to be processed. A continuous speak-out was held, using the car as a podium, and after thirty-two hours, Weinberg was finally released. Over the next few months, student activism continued, leading to a dramatic sit-in at which eight hundred students were arrested. By January, however, the students had won, as the chancellor of the university was forced to resign and his replacement issued new rules acceding to the bulk of the movement’s demands.
Berkeley had an immediate impact on student politics across the country. While SDS had been devoting most of its attention to the ERAPs, the FSM called its attention back to campuses with authority.
Though the Port Huron Statement had identified a special role for students and universities in the process of social change, the FSM gave those arguments a force they had previously lacked. Students could, it seemed, play a similar role to SNCC in the South. They even drew on the same retinue of tactics — pickets, civil disobedience, and sit-ins. If demographics and a booming economy created a new potential for student politics, the FSM showed what they could look like.
The War at Home
In spring 1965, SDS finally moved against the Vietnam War. Though opposition to the war inside the group had long existed, it had not yet taken any antiwar action. US involvement in the war had grown slowly over the past few years; before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, Vietnam had remained far behind the Civil Rights Movement in its importance in American politics. What’s more, many in SDS felt that a focus on foreign policy was too remote from the project of a revolution of values to which the group was devoted.
However, when Vietnam became the subject of discussion at the National Council meeting in December 1964, it was an unexpectedly contentious topic, with different plans of action proposed to take on the war. Todd Gitlin, then SDS president, proposed a national pledge to refuse draft orders. Another member proposed sending medical supplies to the Vietcong. Some of the group’s more conservative members, fearful of open support for communist forces, proposed a march on Washington as a tamer alternative. This proposal passed, committing SDS to a spring march against the war.
The plan put SDS in the right place at the right time for tremendous growth. Just weeks after that meeting, the Johnson administration announced a significant escalation, launching bombing raids on the North and massively increasing the US troop presence. In response, campus activism surged. The first teach-ins against the war began, and new SDS chapters formed at an unprecedented rate. The march, planned for April, brought 20,000 people out — far larger than the 3,000 organizers had hoped for — making it the largest American antiwar protest ever. As an SDS-organized event, it also brought increased media and attention to the group, facilitating even more recruitment and chapter formation.
The influx of new members soon began to change SDS’s character. This became clear at the summer convention, held in Kewadin, Michigan. Here, at a convention ten times larger than the one which produced the Port Huron Statement, SDS began its move to the far left.
The new recruits who asserted themselves at Kewadin were far different than the generation who had founded SDS. Many of the early members had grown up around left-liberal politics, like Al Haber and Sharon Jeffreys, or had found their way into that milieu through their intellectual pursuits, like Tom Hayden. The new cadre, however, came from homes and campuses with no tradition of liberalism that could serve as a launching pad for radicalization. As Jeff Shero, one of the new breed, put it, “If you were from Texas, in SDS, you were a bad motherfucker, you couldn’t go home for Christmas.”
For these students, the break with the mainstream of American politics was necessarily much harsher than it was for the earlier generation. At this point, however, this alienation expressed itself more organizationally than ideologically. Rather than fighting for more militant positions in SDS, the new members, who easily won most of the votes at Kewadin, fought for decentralization and an eschewal of national positions altogether.
This hostility to strategy would have profound consequences for the group over the next few years. First, it left the group organizationally and politically unable to sustain the leading role it had played in mobilizing antiwar sentiment. Second, the decision to place all bets on the spontaneity and dynamism of local chapters instead of any kind of political vision, only guaranteed that later, when that dynamism inevitably faltered, there would be a frantic, ad-hoc search for a politics capable of explaining why.
Kewadin was also where the last threads connecting SDS to the LID were finally severed. The social democrats had been furious over SDS’s sponsorship of the antiwar march. Allowing a Communist to observe the Port Huron convention was bad enough; now the group was calling marches where Communists openly organized against Johnson administration policy. At Kewadin, SDS took things a step further than that — in a decision supported by both old members and new, the group got rid of the clause in its constitution banning supporters of “totalitarian” governments from joining the group.
To the veterans, who had slowly been disillusioned with American social democracy, the change merely institutionalized a political break that had been long in coming. To the new members, already called communists in their communities, it was simply common sense. As a result, in October, the organizational connection between LID and SDS was finally dissolved completely. Born of American social democracy, SDS had finally committed itself to a different path, though few at the time could say where they hoped it would lead.
Action That Demonstrates
The immediate result of Kewadin was paralysis. As antiwar sentiment continued to grow, SDS was unable to give it shape or direction. The sentiment at Kewadin had been strongly against prioritizing antiwar work, both on principle because it would decrease the autonomy of local chapters, and because most members felt the war was so deeply rooted in American life that only the vague “revolution of values” could end it. On top of this, the decisions at Kewadin had thrown the group’s organizational infrastructure into chaos, as questions of bureaucratic efficiency were treated with scorn.
At a time when American involvement in the war was escalating monthly, and antiwar sentiment growing to match it, the group was desperately searching for anything else to do.
Yet despite the group’s spurning of the antiwar movement, it continued to be identified with it in the public mind. Congressmen fulminated against SDS’s opposition to the war, and students across the country continued to view it as the main antiwar organization. When marches were called for mid-October by a different group, SDS’s endorsement was less than enthusiastic: “We are for action that educates, rather than action that demonstrates.” Despite the hostility from the national organizers, local chapters participated enthusiastically in the march, which drew over a hundred thousand, dwarfing April’s demonstration. SDS continued to grow, in spite of itself.
In the spring, the foolishness of the attempt to evade the war became clear to all. The immediate impetus was once more the Johnson administration, who, in the effort to supply manpower for the expanded American war effort, ended the student draft deferment. Universities were instructed to rank students, with lower ranks being vulnerable to local draft boards, and a national test was proposed to aid in the ranking. The response on campuses was immediate. Though SDS nationally floundered in preparing a concerted response, local chapters flew into action. Across the country, students disrupted draft exams, and rallied on campuses against university complicity with the war. Here, finally, the vision of the Port Huron Statement, of a struggle to remake the university in order to remake society, found fruition on a national level.
That spring also saw the entrance of the Progressive Labor Party (PL) into SDS. PL was born of a 1961 split from the Communist Party, when a small number of New York-based members were expelled for their criticism of the party’s continued support for Nikita Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization” campaign. Led by former Buffalo steelworker Milt Rosen, these communists looked instead to Mao’s China. Rosen and his comrades founded a magazine, Progressive Labor, and launched themselves as a left-wing labor organization. In 1964, moving sharply to the left, the group declared itself a party, and announced its campaign of struggle against other left currents for their “revisionism.”
The party grew at a respectable rate over the next few years, taking initiatives like organizing trips for college students to revolutionary Cuba and forming an antiwar group of its own, the May 2nd Movement. By early 1966, however, it was clear that SDS was where the action was. Entering into the organization, PL members, trained by old CP cadres with decades of experience, quickly won influence. Their developed politics stood out in the context of SDS’s general avoidance of ideology, allowing them to become a pole of attraction for SDSers looking for something deeper than immediate action. Their influence began to be felt in small ways, like letters in SDS publications full of strident praise for China.
In 1966, however, PL remained a tiny current in the group. Far more popular were the evolving politics of university protest, which received increasing theoretical elaboration over the course of the year. Two papers in particular laid the groundwork for an elevation of student struggle. First was Carl Davidson’s “Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement.” Delivered at the 1966 SDS Convention, Davidson’s paper argued that universities were central to sustaining modern American society. Their function was, essentially, “to produce the kind of men that can create, sustain, tolerate, or ignore situations like Watts, Mississippi and Vietnam.” The centrality of campuses thus raised an obvious question — “what would happen to a manipulative society if its means of creating manipulable people were done away with? The answer is that we might then have a fighting chance to change that system.”
Davidson’s concrete suggestions for disrupting this system were peculiar, focusing in particular on the supposedly revolutionary effect abolishing grades would have. But the tactics he advised were less important than the general theoretical picture, in which universities acted as one of the key cogs of modern society.
The second paper, originating with students at the New School, was called, in conscious parody of its ancestor, “The Port Authority Statement.” It offered a more social-scientific version of Davidson’s argument, contending that the traditional working class was in decline, and being replaced with “the new working class,” consisting primarily of clerical, technical, and professional workers. Since these workers were educated, of course, at universities, schools could be a key site of struggle to win them over.
Over the course of late 1966 and 1967, this analysis connected powerfully with what was happening on campuses. The college population continued to explode. While under four million had been enrolled in higher education at the start of the decade, by 1967, the number was just shy of seven million. Campuses continued to be sites of student struggle, with university involvement in Vietnam the most important target.
Students organized referenda on university facilitation of draft testing; they launched sit-ins at administration offices; and they declared student strikes, shutting down whole universities. At the University of Wisconsin, after some student protestors were arrested, over a thousand occupied a building until the university president was forced to bail the arrested students out with his own money. All of this created a ready campus audience for SDS’s ideas about student syndicalism and the potential of the new working class.
Students had just arrived back on campuses in early 1968 when liberation forces launched the Tet Offensive, shattering one of the administration’s most important arguments for continuing the war — that they were winning, and the war would be wrapped up soon. Antiwar sentiment surged in response, and Johnson found himself facing Democratic primary challenges. Two months later, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, sparking black rebellions in over a hundred cities. It was not hard to imagine that the revolution had arrived.
For SDS, the decisive development was the struggle at Columbia University. Coming out of struggles around university complicity with the military and a plan to expand further into Harlem, students occupied several university buildings, holding them for a week. Some seven hundred people were arrested in the process, and the campus was shut down for the next month by a student strike with wide support. Taking place on an Ivy League college in New York City, the struggle was covered intensely by the national press, and seemed a dramatic confirmation of the student left’s strength.
Columbia also offered a reconciliation between student power and resistance politics. The struggle had been led by students, but its target had been university complicity with the military and the racism of Columbia’s approach to its neighborhood. For many in the SDS leadership, it seemed that student and youth politics could be a vanguard in a struggle that was not primarily about their own conditions, but about remaking the country as a whole.
Heading into the 1968 convention, the SDS leadership was thus confident that this analysis would find wide support in the group. They were sorely disappointed. PL, which commanded around a quarter of the delegates, launched an all-out attack on their perspective. The leadership had argued that SDS’s project should be to use campuses as a base for building revolutionary organization in the cities, drawing on the “new working class” theories that had come before. PL skewered this proposal for its vagueness, its reliance on still-hazy notions of class, and pointed instead to May ’68 France, which they argued demonstrated the political potential of a worker-student alliance. Drawing support well beyond their own numbers, PL decisively defeated the revolutionary-cities proposal.
Unable to contend with PL politically, the leadership group resorted to arguing against their organizational practices. PL’s conduct as a disciplined cadre group, they argued, was contrary to the spirit of SDS. PL was simply in SDS to recruit members, not actually build the organization. Though PL often behaved in unprincipled and destructive ways, the leadership’s critique of the group would have been more convincing if they themselves weren’t guilty of ignoring the membership when convenient, and if they had raised these concerns before they began losing votes to PL.
PL members responded by accusing the leadership of red-baiting, prompting one outraged SDSer to sputter “Red-baiting! Red-baiting? I’m the communist here, not you guys from PL!” The leadership did manage to retain control over the organizational infrastructure. For the first time in SDS history, they put forward a slate for the national offices, headed by Mike Klonsky, a West Coast former student activist, and Bernardine Dohrn, a legal support worker who had only recently become involved in SDS. The politics of resistance had won a victory, if only a narrow one.
In the wake of the revolutionary-cities debate, Klonsky and company were forced to develop their ideas more systematically. The result was the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) document, which provided the basis for the leadership’s politics for much of the rest of SDS’s life. Opening with a quote from Mao, it argued that youth were a key revolutionary force, but that SDS had so far failed to tap into this potential because of the organization’s embrace of the privileges of university life. Instead of fighting there, SDSers should make it a priority to go to community colleges, technical schools, and high schools to meet the radicalizing youth and bring them into the movement.
To carry out this perspective, the SDS leadership called for a national student strike around the election. The initiative was a massive failure, unable to shut down a single school. The intensity of the ideological fracases among the factions contending for SDS’s leadership concealed an ever-growing distance from the group’s actual membership and audience.
Yet still, SDS continued to grow. In 1968, its membership reached a hundred thousand. At Princeton that fall, a tenth of the incoming freshman class joined the group. One survey of college students estimated that some 350,000 considered themselves revolutionaries. As the radicalization continued to grow, so did SDS, even as its leadership proved themselves more incapable than ever of taking advantage of it.
Charles Manson vs. Mao
SDS began its final year of existence blissfully unaware that its end was near. Developing the RYM perspective further, backers of Klonsky and Dohrn argued that the youth movement could only succeed in alliance with the two great revolutionary forces of the era: black radicals and anti-imperialist guerrillas. The elevation of these struggles was partially driven by a recognition that a youth movement alone could hardly lead a revolution; but it was also pushed by the leadership because these alliances seemed valuable weapons against PL. That year, PL published a series of documents arguing that black nationalism needed to be vigorously fought as a barrier to black liberation. This, combined with PL’s sectarianism around Vietnam, made boosting these groups a natural move for RYM supporters.
They also tried to implement the RYM perspective by going to high schools to recruit. The result was a disaster. SDSers came in and speechified about revolution to high schoolers just discovering radical politics. They brought the increasingly arcane debates between PL and RYM directly into their work with young students, factionalizing instead of organizing. SDSers found themselves unwelcome among young activists.
The failure of the RYM perspective to yield any success was compounded by the increased repression that came with the Nixon administration. The White House had SDS in its crosshairs; the deputy attorney general wrote of SDS that “If people demonstrated in a manner to interfere with others, they should be rounded up and put in a detention camp.” State legislators introduced more than four hundred bills targeting campus activists.
University administrators got in on the action as well. School psychiatrists were even encouraged to identify and “treat” student activists. The mounting repression only compounded SDS’s internal problems, as already overheated political debates now took place in the shadow of infiltration.
This was the environment in which the 1969 summer convention opened. Unlike the previous year’s, when the conflict with PL was unanticipated, this was clearly a battle to the finish between RYM and PL. RYM’s opening shot was a document entitled “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” The title, taken from a Bob Dylan song, was a shot at PL, whose facility with Marxist theory RYM hoped to turn into a mark of elitism. The document itself is almost unreadable — one older SDS leader quipped that, if read closely, it would cause the reader to go blind. Thousands of words of jumbled Maoist jargon, the work argues that the principle contradiction in the world is between US imperialism and the forces opposing it. As such, struggles in the United States that weren’t primarily oriented around fighting imperialism were dangerous distractions. Most American workers were simply brainwashed, and would have to be woken up.
PL, naturally enough, attacked this perspective head-on. RYM had come to the convention with backup, however. Representatives of the Black Panther Party spoke against PL, arguing that their criticisms of the Panthers disqualified them from the movement, and that if SDS hoped to be taken seriously, it needed to expel them. However, the Panther intervention went off script when the speaker began discoursing on women’s liberation, arguing that “pussy power” — women refusing to sleep with nonrevolutionary men — was crucial. When PL (and many non-PL SDSers) began chanting “Fight male chauvinism” in response, the Panthers responded with an infamous Stokeley Carmichael joke — “The position of women in the movement is prone.”
Things only devolved from there. PL–RYM arguments degenerated into PL chanting “Mao! Mao! Mao Zedong!” with RYM trying to drown them out with “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” (some New York wags responded to the cacophony with their own chants of “Go Mets!”). By this time, it was clear that each group had alienated all but its most die-hard supporters. Each side withdrew to caucus. When RYM returned to the stage, they announced, without the pretense of a convention-wide vote, that PL was expelled from SDS. The next day, there were two SDSes.
After June 1969, SDS ceased to exist as a national entity. PL tried to build its own SDS, though the point of a separate organization with identical politics to PL was lost on most students. RYM fractured quickly into two groups — the Weathermen, who embraced armed guerrilla struggle against the system, and RYM ii, with more orthodox Maoist politics. The Weathermen group soon established itself as a menace to radical politics, but only a nuisance to the system. Its bombings against establishment targets accomplished nothing, and its occasional bizarre public pronouncements, like Bernardine Dohrn’s declaration that “The Weathermen dig Charles Manson” only underscored how far these former SDSers had come from their old goal of a mass movement to transform America.
Meanwhile, the student radicalization continued. By 1970, polling was indicating that one million college students in the United States considered themselves revolutionaries. The student strike in spring 1970 against the invasion of Cambodia shut down hundreds of campuses for months. Yet without SDS there was no organization to give coherence to this upsurge.
The Lost Revolution
SDS was caught in the vicious trap American politics created for the Left in the 1960s. On one side, the country witnessed a massive expansion of higher education, turning students into a social group with real social and political weight. This was then combined with the war in Vietnam, a constantly escalating commitment to overseas slaughter, to create a formidable youth radicalization. Yet, on the other side, the most important ally for radical movements throughout the twentieth century, unions, remained viciously opposed to antiwar organizing, out of both deep anticommunist commitment and a steadfast allegiance to the Johnson administration. Politically defanged by McCarthyite repression and led by a caste of bureaucrats who genuinely believed in the American mission in Vietnam, the house of labor and its left-liberal allies saw SDS and the broader antiwar movement as enemies, rather than potential allies.
The consequences of this division can scarcely be overstated. At the most basic level, it was a terrible tragedy that one of the American left’s greatest accomplishments of the twentieth century — the movement to end the war in Vietnam — had to be built largely against the opposition of the labor movement. This fact profoundly distorted the politics of the antiwar movement, yielding SDS’s at-times frantic search for a social base — moving from the Civil Rights Movement to students to the poor back to students and finally to anti-colonial guerrillas.
As escalation in the war fed an escalating radicalism, SDS was caught up in the shallowest sorts of ultra-radicalism, eventually splitting as its different groups envisioned profoundly different agencies for the transformation of American politics.
A broader look at left politics in these years only confirms that the centrifugal forces at work on SDS came from forces much larger than the student group itself. After all, American social democracy, represented by the Socialist Party, also split in these years, as figures like Michael Harrington tried to maintain a cautious opposition to the war, while others pursued the logic of labor anticommunism to its most deranged conclusions, moving steadily to the right over the next few decades and ending up orbiting the Reagan administration. The institutional separation between labor and radicalism in the 1960s had tragic consequences for the moderates as well as the radicals.
Yet if SDS’s destruction was, in a key sense, not of its own making, it does not follow that it was inconsequential. The group’s self-marginalization and demise deprived the antiwar movement of any agency capable of channeling its tremendous energy. While spontaneity would continue to drive the movement forward, it meant that the movement’s life was a wrenching series of ups and downs, with little effort to build the infrastructures of dissent that can sustain radical politics.
SDS thus bequeaths a complicated heritage to radicals today. We should be inspired by the moral courage the group so often demonstrated, their unwillingness to allow their criticisms of American society to remain confined to the limits of acceptable politics. At the same time, their spasmodic ideological shifts, and ultimate embrace of self-marginalization, underline the importance of developing a sober analysis of political reality well in advance of any upsurge.
But if we can question the path they took to bring one about, there can be no doubt of SDS’s goal — America still desperately needs a revolution in values.