The New SDS
The last weekend in July the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
held its second national convention in Michigan. Roughly 200 students from
across the U.S. participated. The decision-making agenda was to: (1) settle
on a structure for the coming year; (2) settle on a political statement
for the organization; and (3) settle on various points of program. While
there were hopes, also, that a vision for the country could be adopted
and that some other internal affairs could be dealt with, not everything
could get done in so short a time.
I was invited to attend the convention, both to speak and to report for
Z, and was there for the entire event. What students repeatedly asked me
was, “How did I think what they were doing compared to the ‘old days’,”
meaning the late 1960s, and “What did I think were their prospects?” I
tried to reply at the event and will do so here as well.
In the old SDS, circa 1967-1973, we made gigantic waves, crashing this
way and that, and had a profound impact on the values and culture of a
stupendous crowd. But we constructed movements unable to win fundamental
change. The reasons we failed were not the power of the state or the media,
but the flaws in our own efforts.
Four decades ago, SDSers thought that the vigorous waving of one’s fist
measured one’s contribution to social change. Old SDSers thought the quantity
of arrests, the ROTC buildings left in rubble, the doors of large gatherings
blocked, and the speaking engagements of war criminals disrupted measured
our contribution to social change. More, our notion of winning was that
it was just around the bend—next week, month, or year. We felt, in our
self delusions, that tactical victories and arrests, collecting into an
angry moral mountain, would overcome all obstacles. Not everyone thought
this, of course, but on average this mindset largely determined our trajectory.
To be fair, it is also true that, arguably, we would have been unable to
act at all without these sentiments. We came on the scene quickly and escalated
rapidly against a very hostile and uncomprehending society. Our mentors
couldn’t help our personal mindsets; we were way too different from them,
and vice versa. The generation of the late 1960s went from zero to 120
overnight. Exaggerated views stoked our confidence, revved our activist
engines and, in so doing, gave us the audacity and spirit to fight authority
at every turn, however much our views also distorted our efforts, limiting
Today is different. Based on what I saw in Detroit, I think this new SDS
generation doesn’t consider angry fist-waving to be the measure of a movement.
They respect compassion and comprehension. They seem to honor listening
and changing. They know that accumulating arrest records means little without
steadily attracting more participants. New SDS members say there are activists
who demonstrate, rally, and street fight. There are also organizers who
demonstrate, mainly for the purpose of building movement membership and
cohesion. Organizers spend time talking to those who don’t already agree.
New SDSers seem to understand that if you are trying to do civil disobedience,
shut down a gathering, or knock down a building, the criteria of evaluating
your efforts should not be whether you succeed with your proximate tactic,
but whether you attract new long-term members, deepen the commitment of
existing members, and develop new organizational power. The new SDS is
audacious, yes, but they seem to draw strength not from macho posturing
and digging in heels over every attitude they happen to adopt, but from
being part of a collective project aimed at victory.
The German revolutionary organizer/activist Rosa Luxembourg used to say
“You lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” She meant that in fighting against
such a behemoth as capitalism, you will lose many tactical showdowns, but
if you keep your eyes on long-term growth and on stengthening your organization,
you will see the forward motion and will not grasp defeat from the jaws
of victory or dream yourself into delusions of grandeur. You will persevere
and in the end win the overall struggle.
I think new SDS members, on average, see their work as a long trajectory
of engagements where what matters is the long-term accrual of more people
and power, with the whole undertaking caringly maintained on the road to
major structural success. In contrast, the old SDS approach was nearly
the opposite. We won, we won, we won, and then we lost. We didn’t have
our eyes on the real prize and as a result, in the end, we failed to sustain
our movement and create a new world. For the new SDS, winning is something
possible, but not something that they think they will do simply by showing
up for the battle. They aren’t delusional about how hard it will be to
win a new world, nor are they defeatist about the ultimate possibility.
In the old days, movement members sought a sense of loving community, a
“haven in a heartless world.” But in the process of seeking that sense
of belonging, we became more like a clique than a loving community. Our
brand of togetherness was so intense that one could legitimately feel,
I think, that at times we were cultish, at least to outside eyes. This
danger also exists for the new SDS. The decision to be mutually supportive
is positive, but the road to mutual support can’t be a kind of sweeping
cultural and behavioral commonality so pronounced it makes others feel
that the community is so uniform as to be cloneish. It is hard to avoid
this result, but I think the new SDS is working on the problem.
I have talked at many gatherings of leftist students and young folks. I
can’t remember one that was more diverse in dress and personal appearance
than this Detroit conference. The problem of an SDS-accent, where members
sounded alike, was already evident in Detroit, but hopefully it won’t get
out of hand, as it did with us decades back.
Another big difference is that in the late 1960s SDS mostly got its recruits
from the counterculture all around us. We pulled participants from that
large cultural community, which was quite like our own group in dress and
style. The 1960s counterculture in turn pulled its participants from the
mainstream and, in that sense, they did the harder work.
Nowadays, however, the demography of the left is quite different. For today’s
SDS and youth movements to grow, they have to address society at large,
rather than a very similar looking and feeling counterculture. This makes
cliquish attributes more harmful in alienating possible allies, but it
also ensures that movement building involves addressing the real and lasting
obstacles restraining the whole population. More, the new SDSers perceive,
I think quite rightly, that the obstacle to wide participation isn’t just,
or even mostly, doubt that there is injustice, that the U.S. is a rogue
state, and that class, racial, and gender oppressions are structural. The
main obstacle to participation is, instead, doubt that there is a better
way to live and that we can attain that better world, no matter how hard
we try. This means that SDS today can’t just present evidence of societal
injustice and tally up new adherents. To grow, SDS has to make a compelling
case for what a better world can be like, for why it would be viable, and
for how people’s activism on campuses and in communities can contribute
to attaining that better world.
In the old days we would go to bed late, get up early, and essentially
work our young selves into exhaustion, often turning our anger into a kind
of stressed out mindlessness. We would also demand of each other that we
end centuries of accrued horror overnight and that we jettison lifetimes
of encrusted personal baggage in a flash, though, of course, no one succeeded.
Inflated tendencies and expectations like this exist in the new SDS too,
yet my feeling at the conference was that, again, these young people are
more sober and alert to such matters than we were. They are more intent
on the long haul, and more focused on the sustainability of their movement
and on winning the overall struggle and not just fighting the good fight.
We in the old SDS had a tendency to vastly exaggerate the importance of
every little dispute and debate that arose among us, even coming to blows—mental
and sometimes physical—over every little thing. We would talk about something.
We would key on it for a time with all the energy we brought to everything
we did. The thought would begin to acquire monumental weight in our minds,
even if not in reality. People began to see everything apocalyptically.
Each issue appeared paramount, at least in our minds. We tended to align
ourselves with this view or that view, and to hear any criticism of our
aligned position as a personal assault on ourselves. Unless we were saintly,
and most of us weren’t, we fired back in kind. The ensuing sectarian tit
for tat, escalating with each new round, ate members and spit out ex-members.
It ate allies and spit out enemies.
These possible downward trends of internecine sectarianism could arise
for the new SDS just as they afflicted the old one. Among those with the
most clearly developed political leanings, there are a few members in the
new SDS who are broadly Leninist/Maoist though not in the most mechanical
ways of the old days. There are many other members who are anarchistic
and so distrustful of things like money, group decisions, and even large
scale organization that they rebel against each, wanting to literally do
without them, emphasizing activism in the now and very local organization
above all else. And there are still other members who see those same kinds
of faults with money, decisions, and institutions, but who feel that the
solution is not to reject such things outright, but to deal with these
matters in new ways, emphasizing long term growth and participatory structure
above all else.
One can imagine emerging from existing different views, an old-line Marxist
Leninist faction, a highly decentralized action faction focused primarily
on activism now, and a slower moving and more organization-conscious faction
focused more on long term prospects—which would be, remarkably, quite like
divisions that also existed in the old SDS. How would one make such diverse
inclinations into a strength rather than a weakness?
What seemed to be emerging in Detroit was a recognition that success in
preventing sectarianism would come from allowing and even welcoming different
tendencies, the ones mentioned above or others, but without making believe
the differences weren’t real. It would include each member of each tendency
being able to present the views of the other tendencies just as well as
their advocates. And it would include the organization as a whole, when
possible, making room for not choosing entirely between opposed viewpoints,
or massaging or maligning opposed viewpoints into a compromise that no
one really likes, but instead experimenting with all plausible options,
roughly in proportion to their support, to see what their relative merits
and debits turn out to be.
When people see their personal worth and identity riding on the success
of their particular beliefs, contending advocates get hostile. Debate deteriorates
into something like war, wherein victory for self or one’s team is everything.
The actual merits of contending perspectives disappear. You want to win.
You want others to lose. On the other hand, if people are seeking social
change rather than personal vindication, then everyone develops an interest
in finding the most effective long term process and program, not elevating
their own program when their own isn’t best. Everyone celebrates not their
own ideas triumphing, but whatever ideas prove most valuable.
Shared Political Inclinations
I can’t relate the whole of what people at the SDS convention had to say
about understanding society, vision for a new preferred society, and charting
a path between the two. But they did arrive at a statement of their shared
political inclinations. As agreed on in Detroit, they committed to:
Totalist politics, meaning, that we commit to understanding and paying
serious attention to race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, age, ability,
and authority without elevating any but instead recognizing the intrinsic
importance of each, and their entwine- ment, and understanding that we
must confront the “totality” of human oppression.
Embodying in the present the values and institutional features we want
to see in the future society—that is, having our organization, structure
and practice directly reflect and exemplify to the highest degree possible
the change we wish to see in the world.
Rejecting either advocating or employing any structures or policies that
embody authoritarian, racist, sexist, heterosexist, or classist elements
such as hierarchical divisions of labor or authoritarian decision making
procedures that structurally elevate some classes or constituencies above
others in influence and conditions.
Embodying in our organization and working towards in society, the value
of participatory self-management whereby everyone has a say in the decisions
which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent in proportion
to the degree to which they are affected.
Taking strategy seriously. We are united on the principle that our work
should serve to accomplish our goals, strengthen our organization and movements,
expand popular democratic control over all aspects of the society at large,
and lead us on a path to social transformation, all while prefiguring the
world we wish to live in.
In one of the conference sessions addressing vision for SDS, the moderator
had everyone close their eyes and then he quite dramatically spoke to everyone
a list of questions about how they see SDS evolving, providing time for
people to think after each question. Then the group broke into little sets
of four or five people, to talk about the reactions each person had to
the questions. I don’t remember all the questions he read out, but here
are some that are indicative of the kind of approach these people have:
It’s five years from now. It’s freshman orientation. Do freshman hear about
SDS? How? What role does your chapter play in engaging them? What do those
relationships look like? Are you friends or do you just see each other
during meetings? What do your meetings look like? Who speaks? Who participates?
How many people are in the room? What do they look like? What are the demographics?
How long are your meetings? Do people leave them excited or drained? How
consistent is the attendance? What does victory look like?
In line with all the above, Detroit’s discussions of what to do now were
almost peripheral. The reason wasn’t that current action was denigrated,
but that there simply wasn’t much disagreement about current action, nor
were explicitly national campaigns held to be a high priority at the moment.
Chapters in the new SDS are rather different than in the old. First, there
are many more high school participants. Second, chapters are not only school-centered,
there are also citywide chapters and regional chapters. The expectation
of the convention, in light of who SDS is, seemed to be that each chapter
would determine its own priorities in line with the overall thematic aims
of SDS. The latter were deemed to include the war, racism, sexism, class
relations, and education, exactly as you might anticipate.
Another striking indicator of the developing politics of the new SDS was
the caucuses at the convention. They were held by women, gays, people of
color, high schoolers, and working people—and, at the same time as each
caucus of the above communities was held, those in the remainder of SDS
also met to discuss how they could relate to the issues of the caucusing
group. Making SDS an organization that embodied the values of the future
was paramount, not only in sub groups that tend to suffer pain when a movement
doesn’t achieve that aim, but in the whole population of SDS.
Of the caucuses I could attend, particularly remarkable were the working
class caucus and the caucus of men addressing sexism. The former was unprecedented,
even by just existing in this type of gathering. Its consciousness was
exemplary in recognizing that SDS needed to transcend the culture and inclinations
of members identifying as what they called the coordinator class, to instead
become empowering to working class youth. This sentiment went well beyond
examining income differentials to prioritizing modes of communication,
cultural preferences, etc. One of the reasons for this caucus existing
in SDS was the political understanding in SDS that highlights the personal
as well as the social dimensions of class, and highlights class difference
based on property but also based on position in the economy. Another reason,
however, was that the new SDS has started out demographically differently
than decades back. Where in the 1960s the center of SDS energy, membership,
and ideas overwhelmingly stemmed from elite campuses like Berkeley, Colombia,
Harvard, MIT, Cornell, the new SDS has emerged mainly at more working class
As to the men’s caucus—if my generation’s men, on average, could have been
flies on the wall, we would have had very little comprehension of what
these young SDSers were talking about. We would agree, mostly, I think,
but it would have been a very shallow agreement, as compared to the current
SDS members for whom the desire to overcome sexist tendencies runs very
deep and yet runs without guilt and false expectations. The same might
be said for the people of color and women’s caucuses, and reactions to
them. Though I could only see their effects in the large, not in their
meetings, these caucuses seemed to be confident and effective and reactions
to them seemed to be respectful and engaged.
The new SDSers have spirit, endurance, and drive. They are far more knowledgeable
than my generation was, with far less posturing and pretense. They understand
the breadth of the issues that confront them and the need for community
and for solidarity. They see that each member needs a mind of his or her
own, but also unity and coherence with others. They see that each member
needs militancy, but also understanding and compassion. They see, most
particularly, their collective need for serious vision and strategy. The
SDS of my youth did almost everything either wrong or at least a lot less
well than was needed, yet we had an immense affect on society. Imagine
what the new SDS will accomplish if it makes much better choices, and keeps
its mind and heart more rooted and rounded.
Michael Albert was a member of the “old” SDS chapter at MIT. He has since
co-founded South End Press and Z Communications where he is a staff member
of ZNet. He has also written numerous books on theory and vision, his most
recent being Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism, Parecon: Life After
Capitalism, and Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism.