ZNet: There is a new, or re-emergent SDS in the making. Can you tell us how this came to be? When did it start up? What is its current condition?
Doug: The main credit for the national call for the formation of a new SDS on MLK Day in January 2006, goes to High School activist Patrick Korte, with the help of his friend Jessica Rapchik. Pat and Jessica contacted Paul Buhle, professor and historian at Brown University and former SDS member; and Thomas Good, a Wobbly, War Resister, and Veteran for Peace in New York City. They put out inquiries to other activists in their networks to see if there would be broad support for such an effort. Half a year later we have 150 registered chapters and well over 1000 registered members. I am also particularlly encouraged by the number chapters forming at community colleges. There were actually a few SDS chapters in existence before the call went out, but not really any movement towards the establishment of a national organization.
Liam: Of the 150 chapters, most are based on university and high school campuses around the country, with some regional, citywide, and community chapters. One very inspiring development is the amount of high school chapters that are forming. We currently have 22. Extending beyond the United States we have a chapter in El Paso, Mexico; Montreal, Canada; Auckland, New Zealand; Werneck, Germany; and a request for affiliation from a democratic student organization in the Niger State of Nigeria, Africa. I envision SDS reaching out to other radical organizations across the globe and working to increase our international solidarity.
Why the name SDS?
Liam: The name SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, is a very accurate way to describe the type of organization that we want to build. It brings to mind pictures of a radical movement that helped to rock the foundations of society, while striving to promote genuine democratic participation.
Doug: Some people have called us nostalgic for working to re-form SDS. But if you consider the struggle for a participatory society, where people play a direct role in shaping their daily lives, nostalgic, then you can call us nostalgic any time you want.
What do you see as the glue that holds the new SDS together, so far? What beliefs, what commitments, what feelings?
Liam: The new Students for a Democratic Society was formed as a democratic and grassroots alternative to the many organizations on the Left that fail to give students any real power. While we are still in the process of defining SDS, in practice we embody many original SDS values, including a commitment to participatory democracy, direct action, popular education, and an anti-systemic analysis of society. We also place strong emphasis on individual rights, chapter autonomy, and collective organizing (we are all leaders). The new SDS is also multi-generation. I believe strongly in the concept of solidarity organizing. Each group, students and other radicals, should be given control over the decisions which affect their lives, while standing in solidarity with each other on important issues.
Doug: The general feeling of most SDSers that I interact with, is a shared a sense that there is something profoundly wrong with this system that we are living under. If this system cannot be made to serve human needs then it should be dismantled from below by a radical movement for social change.
But what should replace the current system? Does the new SDS share a vision, even broadly? Are there some members who are disgruntled, but not anti system? Are there others who are anti capitalist, anti racist, and or anti sexist, but who don't offer an alternative and perhaps even think it would be wrong to do so? Are there others who do offer an alternative, and who wish to have SDS share a vision? Where do you guys fit in that spectrum, for that matter? And supposing there are differences over this, how is everyone managing with each other?
Liam: SDS had a vision of a democratic society "where at all levels the people have control of the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent…. It fe[lt] the urgency to put forth a radical, democratic program whose methods embody the democratic vision". That vision is still completely relevant today. SDS needs a broad, yet profoundly radical, vision of society that allows for individual interpretation and diversity of beliefs. I think it will be important to offer a critical analysis of society, while simultaneously constructing alternatives to the destructive nature of the system. If SDS maintains a broad vision of radical change, we will be able to remain an inclusive and democratic organization that will be relevant and successful on the Left for many years to come.
Doug: Obviously there is no blueprint for a future "good society", but I think the original SDS slogan "Let the People Decide" still resonates. We also don't think that students will be a vanguard of any radical movement, but rather part of a broader radical mass movement from below.
What kind of program do you see the new SDS having? On campuses, and also across campuses, or even internationally, as you mentioned? What kinds of projects and demands do you see the new SDS pursuing? Does it have programs or projects already? What? Do you have in mind some future programs or projects? What?
Liam: I see SDS having a diverse and evolving program that varies depending on the social problems, development, and geographical regions of chapters. Chapters and regions will have to decide how best to confront the issues that affect them, while taking into account broader problems, and constantly using communication networks to interact with each other to share ideas, tactics, and strategies. Some programs we are working on include campaigns for issues such as the War on the Middle East, free speech on campus, and labor organising and solidarity (both students workers and workers on campus). Each chapter sets its own priorities, while interacting with other members to form larger campaigns. Most of our campaigns are still being organised and you can expect many more from us in the near future. The Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), a post-graduate wing of our movement, is currently forming a program in a similar deliberative way. In addition to specifically MDS programs, they will be providing support to SDSers through vital support capacities such as legal defense, radical education, and programs to increase institutional memory in our organisation; such as through community and regional organisers.
Doug: When we look at what specific programs SDS will initiate and build on a local and national level, we have to keep in mind that such efforts will be based primarily on the organizing experiences of local chapters during the coming months. It may well be that very clear, central issues come up on many campuses which help define and shape a whole series of creative, participatory, national SDS programs and initiatives. But is far too early to tell what is going to constitute a coherant SDS strategy. These discussions are ongoing at the local and national level, and while we apologize for being somewhat vague, it is clear to us that this constitutes an ongoing process of dialogue and experimentation. There is no carbon copy to base our strategy on, so we will keep you informed as chapters develop and connections are made."
How has been the experience, so far, of trying to enlarge the new SDS by growing the number of members?
Doug: It might be useful to shortly explain how we got involved, because we were both somewhat skeptical before we made a commitment to SDS as our primary activist project. It is obviously a huge undertaking, and someone might ask "why SDS now?". With so many activist groups out there, why not just get involved in building the antiwar movement, or do global justice work? For me it wasn't so much the need for a multi-issue organization, but for an organization with an anti-systemic analysis and strategy, which at the same time is committed to participatory democracy. As an undergraduate, I had already been doing student organizing since my sophomore year, primarily in the antiwar, global justice, and Palestine solidarity movements.
Liam: We are still working to build solid chapters on campus. SDS started mid-semester, so there is still much work to be done. Much of our recruitment in our chapters has come through word-of-mouth, sympathetic professors who have talked about SDS in classes (including many original SDSers), our website, and folks who see us in the streets or at events on campus.
How do you, and other SDSers, see the task of campus outreach? I know activists use email and the internet extensively, of course, but what about face to face organizing? For example, what about SDS members going to people's dorm rooms, students they do not know but simply approach, over and over, and engaging in personal discussions about the issues, prospects, etc. Is that kind of direct outreach on the agenda?
Liam: To me the internet is a tool — certainly a powerful tool that we should utilise — but a tool none the less. Since I consider chapter and regional work to be where most of SDS's power lies, I think personal communications and political interaction is crucial to our work. Many of us have engaged in flyering, tabling, meetings, small gatherings and other outreach tactics that allow us to communicate with students at a very personal level. To gain more solid organisers and build strong, diverse chapters, we will need to be creative in our interactions with students. At my school for instance, we had several days of flyering were we handed out flyers that simply said "You Have a Right to Hand Out Flyers". Due to the neutral, yet clear message of the flyers, it illustrated how the ban on free speech affected all students on campus, and how we should be engaged in a common struggle. Many students from all different political persuassions were receptive to that message.
What is the reaction on campus – what are the obstacles in the minds of students who you have tried to organize?
Doug: In my chapter in northern NJ, the experience has been primarily with high school students in our chapter who have had problems organizing due to parental issues or family politics. Taking a plunge and getting involved in radical politics at such a young age can be difficult when you have parents that object to political activism. My role in the chapter has been to encourage younger members to get engaged at whatever level they feel comfortable and to develop popular education programs on a number of issues.
Liam: The reaction has been very positive from many people. A lot of students and professors are really excited about our potential. The name "SDS" carries a lot of weight and reputation; it strikes a lot of memories in the minds of some professors and draws many radicalized students who are beginning to see the system for what it is. I think that many students on the left believe that a democratic organization that seeks to empower students on a national level, is an idea whose time has come. And I'm pretty sure the university administrators love that we're back too.
When we began to organize at Pace University, violating their de facto ban on free speech and assembly, we got word that our administration wanted to give us the highest punishment possible, run us through the system, and get us out of their university. I think that really speaks volumes to the actual purpose and goals of university bureaucrats, and illustrates the role of the university in the power structure.
About reactions on campus – of course the administrations have no confusions, not surprising. But let me ask more directly about the students. Do you find — or, since you are just getting started — do you expect to find that students doubt that society and campuses have serious problems? Based on your experiences, do most students seem to think, deep down, that everything is basically okay and therefore that you are simply deluded in your concerns and outrage about poverty, powerlessness, war, racism, and so on? So your task is mostly to get them to see and admit injustice. Or do many or even most students know that conditions are horrendously unjust, but doubt that anything better is possible, or doubt that there is any chance of winning something better, thinking therefore, that you are right in your criticisms of injustice but that you are naÃ¯ve to think you can do anything about it via SDS so that joining you would be a waste of their time? So your task is mostly to convince students there is a better world to win and that their giving their time to doing so is not tilting at windmills but is, instead, a worthy investment of their time? Do students who you encounter who don't line up as you do, in other words, seem to be not radical at bottom because they think you are wrong to feel there are deep and deadly problems? Or do they avoid radicalism because they think you are proposing to fight a useless and pointless battle, there being no victory to win, and no way to win a victory in any case? It is probably some of both, but what is your impression? And have you thought about how you propose to overcome each type of resistance to joining – the there are no in justices to oppose type, and the no there are possibilities to usefully pursue type?
Liam: I'm sure I have encountered all these types of people on campus. There will never be any one-size-fits-all formula for engaging, politicising, and radicalising students. We are going to need to be creative about how we organise; catering our tactics and strategies to the realities of campus life. I feel that compared to previous years however, the last few have seen a steady increase in political consciousness among many students. Whether that is due to the current political nightmare that is our government, or the broader global catastrophe, is still to be seen. But one thing that we can be certain of is that there is a serious demand on the left for a radical and grassroots movement dedicated to participatory democracy. I hope that we can collectively meet that challenge.
Doug: We both hope that SDS will grow and draw new members from the entire spectrum of fields and disciplines within the academy; we certainly don't want SDS to be comprised solely of students in the social sciences. To build an anti-systemic movement we need to reach out to youth who are studying art, engineering, biology, etc… I doubt we will gain many members from business management departments in the short term, but who knows. That question will be answered if SDS can formulate a broad program and strategy that speaks to and inspires students based upon the issues that effect their daily lives. That is the essense of participatory democracy. One concept that has inspired me personally and which I feel might be useful for SDS organizers is the Zapatista dictum of "mandar obedeciendo / leading by following and listening." Former SDSer Greg Calvert touched upon this concept decades before the emergence of the EZLN when he discussed in his widely read 1967 piece "In White America: Radical Consciousness and Social Change" the organizing methods of the Guatemalan guerrillas as a potent example of building a revolutionary base. SDS should help initiate a broad program of creating a new political project based firmly in the principals of solidarity, encounter / encuentro, dialogue, autonomy, solidarity, and self-organization.
Can I ask one last question, based on my own distant past SDS experiences but also based on going out speaking on today's campuses? I know that when people become highly radicalized, students in this case, they lose many ties and options and need a supportive community which other organizers provide. A social milieu. A place of comfort and solidarity. But, in this pursuit of community, almost automatic, there can grow up an ingroupness that becomes an obstacle. The radicals on campus look alike in dress and style, talk alike, become very compatible, but lose some capacity to interact with others. You get to a few dozen or a few hundred people of shared critical views, supporting one another, eating together, socializing together, partying together, demonstrating together, communicating partly directly and partly by lists. All that is fine, per se, but what also happens is that the radical group is set off, almost like a clique, from the rest of the campus, and in time settles for its own company. It becomes much more pleasant to sit with allies than to mingle with students who dislike the activism. It becomes much easier to send an email to get a couple of hundred folks to a talk or rally, familiar folks, than to spend a week going room to room in dorms, directly addressing people's concerns, doubts, and fears, so as to get many more and newer people. So, I am wondering, do you see the new SDS transcending this in group type dynamic, well meaning but limiting as it is? Is there any prioritization for providing skills, confidence, or whatever else may be needed, so that activists really do reach out as much as is needed?
Doug: If you take the Columbia student uprising in '68 for example, one of the pivitol leaders of the revolt, Mark Rudd, was recruited by David Gilbert when he knocked on his door and asked if he wanted to chat about world issues, things he cared about, and invited him to an SDS meeting. So I agree with you that canvassing and reaching out beyond your comfort level are going to be crucial steps to take in order to trascend that problem. One thing I can't emphasise enough is the importance of being a movement of organisers, not just activists. While helping new members to develop the skills and confidence to meet the challenges of building a radical mass student movement, we are going to need find ways to do meaningful coalition work in our local communities that is based on relationships of true solidarity. Developing true solidarity is about creating spaces where young activists from different class and racial backgrounds can begin effective dialogue, communication, and joint projects.
Liam: Our August National Convention will only be the start of a very lengthly and organic process for tackling many of the issues you have brought up. We will need to have many further discussions at the chapter level, and interactions across chapters, regions, and internationally. SDS clearly needs to confront many of the issues and problems that have kept the radical left some what isolated in recent years. I think the new SDS is creating a unique model for intergenerational organising, by allowing groups from different generations to have the autonomy to control the decisions which affect their lives, while at the same time standing together in important struggles and lending advice and historical perspectives. We are both fairly impressed by some of the workshops that individual members and chapters have submitted for the Convention, and these workshops will be crucial in building a SDS program that is anti-imperialist, anti-racist, queer-positive, pro-feminist and confronts the many injustices that people face in their daily lives.