SDS Convention Report

The last weekend in July the new SDS (http://www.newsds.org) held its second national convention in Detroit Michigan. Roughly two hundred students from California to Massachusetts, Oregon to Florida, and Texas to Michigan, vigorously participated. The decision-making agenda was to (1) settle on a structure for the coming year while understanding that a structure adopted now might well change next 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 later, and was there for the entire event. Students repeatedly asked me how did what they were doing compare to “the old days” late sixties SDS, 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 throughout the land, crashing this way and that, and via the tumult profoundly affected the values and culture of a stupendous crowd of people. But it is also true that we constructed movements unable to win fundamental change. More, the reasons we failed were not the power of the state or the media, but the flaws in our own efforts.


Old SDS thought, in the late sixties, that the vigor of one’s fist wave measured one’s contribution to social change. Old SDS thought the quantity of arrests one had, devastated ROTC building, the blockaded convention doors, the disrupted war criminal speaking engagement, and the feverish flames of a burning bank, all as we intended, centrally measured our contribution to social change. Our notion of winning was that we would do it just around the bend, next week, month, or year. Get on board, the train is in transit. Don’t miss the big event. In our self delusions, waving fists, spewing anger, piling up immediate tactical victories, celebrating arrests, and building out of all this an angry moral mountain, would surmount all obstacles. Not everyone thought this, of course, but, on average this mindset largely determined our trajectory. Indeed, it is also arguably true that we would have been unable to act at all without these sentiments. We came on the scene too quickly and escalated too rapidly against a very hostile and incredibly 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 sixties went from zero to a hundred and twenty overnight. Exaggerated views stoked our confidence, revved our activist engines, and in so doing gave us the audacity, spirit, and wherewithal to fight authority and power at every turn, but  those same views also distorted our efforts, limiting their prospects.


Today is different. Based on what I saw and heard in Detroit, this new generation doesn’t think that waving fists and flashing anger is the measure of a movement. They respect compassion and comprehension. They don’t think angrily digging in like an ostrich is meritorious. They honor listening and changing. They know that accumulating arrest records means little without attracting steadily more participants. New SDS members say there are activists who demonstrate, rally, street fight, and then there are organizers who also demonstrate, but who do it mainly for the purpose of building movement membership and cohesion. Organizers, that is, also spend massive time talking to people who don’t already agree. New SDSers understand that if you try to prevent a meeting from happening, to do civil disobedience, to shut down a gathering, or to knock down a building, the criteria of evaluation of your efforts should not be did you succeed with your proximate tactic. Rather, what matters is did you attract new long term members, deepen the commitment of existing members, and develop new organizational clout. The new SDS is audacious, just like the old SDS, yes. But the new SDS seems 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 full victory.


The great 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 morally decrepit behemoth as capitalism, you will of course lose many tactical showdowns, at least in the technical sense of accomplishing less on the day of the confrontation than you sought to accomplish that day. But if you have your eyes on long term growth of consciousness, increase of membership, and growth of organizational might, you will measure your true accomplishments and also your true failings, and will see the forward motion. You will not grasp defeat from the jaws of victory, nor will you day dream yourself into delusions of grandeur. You will persevere and in the end win the overall struggle.


I think new SDS is, on average, seeing their work as a long trajectory of engagements where what matters is not technical daily successes and bravado, but long term accrual of more people and power. I think the new SDS see that the whole undertaking has to be comprehendingly and caringly maintained on the road to major structural success. In contrast, the old SDS approach was very nearly the opposite. We won, we won, we won, and then we lost. Due to the nature of the times and the speed of outpouring of resistance, and our incredible pizzazz, to be sure, we won skirmishes and battles over and over, but we didn’t have our eyes on the real prize and, as a result, in the end, we failed to sustain our movement all the way into creating a really new world. For the new SDS, winning is something possible, something that they strive for, but not something that they think they will do easily 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. We wanted our movement to be a mutually supportive “haven in a heartless world.” But in the process of seeking that sense of belonging, we were mutilated by massive social dump trucks unloading into our minds stress and pressure that distorted our perceptions. Under this psychic assault, we became more like an in group than like 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. And this danger exists for the new SDS too. The desire 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 loving community is out of bounds for them and especially that it is so uniform as to be clone-ish. It is undeniably 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 each member of the community has a kind of shared set of verbal intonations due to the group’s overall ingrown character, so that everyone in the group sounds 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 from yesteryear is that in the late sixties SDS didn’t have to organize in society to attract new members. Rather, we mostly got our recruits from the counterculture all around us. We pulled our participants from that large cultural community, which was quite like our own group in dress, style, and all things identifying. The sixties 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 SDS and youth movements to grow today, they have to address society at large rather than a very similar looking and feeling already quite dissident counterculture. This makes ingrown attributes more harmful in alienating possible allies, but it also ensures that nowadays movement building involves addressing the real and lasting obstacles restraining the whole population. More, SDS perceives, I think quite rightly, that that obstacle to wide participation isn’t just, or even mostly, doubt that there is injustice, that the U.S. is internationally rogue, and that class, racial, and gender oppressions are structural. The main obstacle to participation today is, instead, doubt that there is any better way to live, and doubt that we can attain a 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. Everyone now sees injustice, vile indignities, and all manner of horrors, pretty much everywhere, but all that pain is deemed unavoidable rather than seen as a cause for resistance. To grow, today’s 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 way late, get up way early, and essentially work our young selves into exhaustion, feeling that anything less was denying our destiny. 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 on fighting the good fight.


We in old SDS had a tendency to vastly exaggerate the importance of every little dispute and debate that arose among us, often even coming to blows – mental and sometimes physical.  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. Couple that tendency with the also natural though unhealthy inclination to connect one’s values and political beliefs to one’s personal identity, and in this conflation there arose a very strange and dangerous brew. People began to see everything apocalyptically. Each issue appeared paramount. 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. Someone said, “I disagree with you” and we tended to hear them saying “I think you are a decrepit immoral scuzzball.” 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. Seeds exist in a current threefold differentiation I saw at the convention.  Among those with the most clearly developed political leanings in the new SDS, there are a few members who are broadly Leninist/Maoist though not in the most mechanical ways typically present in the old days. There are many other members who are incredibly energetic but so distrustful of things like money, large group decisions, and even large scale organization that they rebel against each, wanting to literally do without them, emphasizing activism in the now plus continually regenerated local organization above all else. And there are still other members who see the same dangers 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. I can imagine emerging from existing different views, an old line Marxist Leninist faction, a highly decentralized action faction with great energy and audacity and focused primarily on activism now, and a slower moving and more organization conscious faction focused more on lasting structure and long term prospects. Indeed, this alignment of viewpoints would be, remarkably, quite like viewpoints  that also existed in the old SDS. So we can reasonably ask, what would respect and real diversity look like in such a context? How would one make such diverse inclinations into a strength of SDS rather than a weakness?


What seemed to me to be emerging in Detroit was a recognition that success in preventing sectarianism would arise 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 becoming 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 emergent options, roughly in proportion to their support, to see in practice 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. Period. Tendencies that should learn from one another become warring factions and splits ensue. 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. The goals isn’t to elevate one’s own program when one’s own program isn’t best. Everyone celebrates not their own ideas triumphing, but whatever ideas prove most valuable triumphing.  And in fact people don’t celebrate one right way triumphing, but a continuous exploration of diverse views and approaches.


Politics also involves our concepts and values. I can’t relate the whole of what people at the SDS convention had to say about understanding society, societal vision, and charting a path between the two. But I can let one of their major agreements reached at the convention speak for itself. The new SDS arrived at a succinct statement of their shared political inclinations. In their words, they committed to:


(1)      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 entwinement, and understanding that we must confront the totality of human oppression;


(2)      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;


(3)      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;


(4)      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;


(5)      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.


Another discussion at the conference was about vision, not for SDS itself, but for society as a whole. There was no time to vote on a shared view, so the convention decided the seemingly most favored formulation offered at the convention should be sent to chapters for each chapter to discuss locally, with broader organizational discussions occurring later. So while not yet an agreed statement, the content of the document offered at the convention displays directions of development of current SDS politics. Here is some of that content:


  • We struggle to win a total reorganization of our present society and fundamental transformation in the spheres of political, economic, cultural, kinship, environmental, and international life. … A successful revolutionary movement must accomplish the following tasks:


(1)      Win a series of reforms that will improve the day-to-day conditions under which people live while simultaneously weakening the power of oppressive institutions and bringing society closer to revolutionary transformation.


(2)      Create and strengthen visionary and alternative institutions that prefigure an egalitarian society and compete with oppressive structures for power and the support of the people.


(3)      Arouse radical consciousness among a majority of people and empower the public to want further changes in society.


(4)      Retain and strengthen already active members of the movement while simultaneously bringing a larger section of the population into the movement.


(5)      Build cross-organizational solidarity to build long-lasting trust and support for a variety of social movements.


(6)      Continue to increase the power and ability of the movement to successfully challenge and defeat the power of oppressive institutions.


  • We struggle to win a society where every individual directly shares in making the decisions that determine the quality and direction of both the individual’s life and that of their community….


  • We struggle to win a classless society where all forms of fixed economic hierarchies that demarcate people into opposed constituencies have been abolished….


  • We struggle to win a society where every individual has access to as high a level of education as they wish to achieve and where the education system is democratically controlled as a community of scholars, dedicated to individual and social betterment.  In schools – as in the rest of society – people will have control over decision-making in proportion to the degree that they are affected….


  • We struggle to win a society where all sexual divisions of labor have been abolished and where the demarcation of individuals according to sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual expression, and gender expression is eliminated….


  • We struggle to win a society that values the historical contributions of different communities and provides them with the means for further development. Diverse cultures should be preserved, not erased. …


  • We struggle to win a society that respects Earth and life in all its diversity, recognizing that all beings are interdependent, that all life has value, and that the resources and beauty of the planet are things to be preserved and secured for present and future generations….


  • We struggle to win a society that promotes solidarity between national, as well as cultural communities….


In one of the conference sessions addressing vision for SDS itself, the moderator had everyone present close their eyes and then quite dramatically spoke to everyone a list of questions about SDS prospects, providing time for people to think after each question. After the meditation, the group broke into sets of four or five people, so each could talk about their reactions to the questions. I don’t remember all the questions, but here some, indicative of the kind of approach these young people have:


It is five years from now. Its 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 do relationships with professors look like? What about relationships with staff? Custodial staff? Security guards? Other campus workers?


Now you are going to the national convention. What kinds of things do you talk about there? How do chapters relate? How many people are there? How many people from your chapter came? How many people are in your chapter?


What types of actions do you take? How many people participate in them? What does the larger community think of those actions? How do you relate to the media? Are you framing the issues for them, or are they framing the issues for you? Are you growing?


What does victory look like?



In line with all the above, Detroit‘s discussions of what to do now, were almost peripheral. Current action wasn’t denigrated, rather there simply wasn’t much disagreement, 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 city wide chapters and regional chapters. The new SDS is youth based on campuses, but also in locales. The expectation of the convention seemed to be that each chapter would determine its own priorities in line with overall thematic aims of SDS. The latter include the war, racism, sexism, class relations, education, etc., 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 each caucus of the above communities was held, those in the remainder of SDS also met in what were called auxiliaries 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 auxiliary of men addressing sexism. The former was unprecedented even in 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 I and they call 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, structural bases for real participation, and takes on issues, etc. One of the reasons for this caucus existing was the political understanding in SDS that highlights the personal as well as 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 sixties the center of late sixties SDS energy, membership, and ideas overwhelmingly stemmed from elite campuses like Berkeley, Colombia, Harvard, MIT, Cornell and others of that status, SDS today has emerged mainly at more working class identified campuses.


As to the men’s auxiliary  - if my generation’s men, on average, could have been flies on the wall, perching there with our minds congested and combusted as they were decades ago, we would have had very little comprehension of what these young SDSers were talking about. When we understood, our earlier fuzzy egocentric minds churning to comprehend, we would agree, mostly, I think, but it would have been a very shallow agreement compared to the current SDS members sincere desire to overcome sexist tendencies without guilt and without 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 effects in the large, not the meetings, these caucuses seemed to be not only warranted and insightful, but confident and effective, and reactions to them seemed to be honestly respectful and sincerely engaged.


So what was the bottom line? The new SDSers have spirit, endurance, and drive. They are far more knowledgeable than my generation was, with far less macho posturing and pretense. They understand the breadth and depth of issues that confront them, 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 and persistence, but also understanding and compassion. They see, most particularly, their collective need for serious, compelling, and accessible vision and strategy. The SDS of my youth did almost everything wrong or at best a lot less well than was needed, yet we nonetheless had an immense effect 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.

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