"Opportunities multiply as they are seized." – Sun Tzu
WHY WE WRITE
At a party recently, one of us was introduced as an organizer trying to launch the "new" Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The person raised her eyebrows. "I don’t know anything about the new SDS," she said, "but it makes me think of a Beatles reunion tour with none of the original members. Why would I want to see that?"
We were also skeptical of the idea at first. We knew we needed to learn from movements and organizing traditions that have come before us, and to root ourselves in history as part of moving forward. But do we really need a half-assed reunion tour or more Sixties worship? Surely, we thought, we should be building new organizations, not trying to reignite old ones. And why would we want to restart one with as fractious a history as SDS?
The new SDS celebrated its second birthday on Martin Luther King Jr. day in 2008. The new organization bears little resemblance to the original SDS. But building an organization with the same attention-grabbing name, aspirations to inter-generational organizing, and roots in student power and participatory democracy hit a nerve in the US. Within a year, we had hundreds of chapters and thousands of members across the country, the vast majority of them new to organizing. SDS quickly became what is likely the largest self-identified revolutionary youth organization in the country. It has been an exciting time, producing lots of interest and opportunities, as well as mistakes, disputes, frustrations, and heartbreaks. Two years later, we want to step back and examine the birth of SDS,[ii] distill the dynamics of its growth, and draw some lessons from the challenges we have faced. While we have each played different roles within the organization, we have also each done our best to maintain a broad view of the national direction of our group.
More than anything, SDS has so far been a vehicle to introduce political organizing to young people across the United States. This introduction happens differently in different places, and there is great diversity of SDS chapters on a local level. We will try to explore the organizational dynamics of national organizing, while recognizing that these national dynamics have not necessarily been replicated in all local chapters, nor does it capture the experience of SDS across the country in a uniform way.[iii]
Our hope in helping launch SDS was that it would become more than a place for people to share ideas and more than a common banner under which people could identify. We hoped it could be a space to collectively assess the political moment, strategize about how to engage it in a coherent way, and build a base of young organizers in the US as part of a larger mass movement. If we could coordinate our efforts across the country, we reasoned, young radicals would no longer remain isolated, feeling like they had to reinvent the wheel. Participatory democracy, with mechanisms to make quick decisions and respond immediately to changes in our political landscape, could make SDS an organization that effectively tackles pressing political problems and makes meaningful contributions to larger movements as young people. Despite its accomplishments, SDS has faced serious organizational challenges and setbacks. If SDS is unable to meet these challenges, it is difficult to imagine helping to build the mass base we need to build a new society.
SDS is on the brink of what may be a make-or-break year. In exploring both the possibilities and challenges within this young organization, we have identified a spectrum of assumptions about how change happens. While many members came to SDS with at least some analysis of how society works, SDS has engaged in little political education or internal debate about what we think it will take to build a revolutionary movement. Most SDS projects and adventures continue to be informed by a mixed and often contradictory set of approaches, tools, and biases that flow from a number of unexamined assumptions.
If SDS is to overcome its own contradictions, it needs to be more intentional in collectively building an understanding of how people can change society. We see social change as happening through the collective organized action of millions of people. To accomplish this, we need clarity about where we are going and about the commitment required to get there. This means navigating the immediate decisions that organizers must make with an eye to the practical tasks involved in achieving larger goals. Rather than become paralyzed by insular searches for "purity of politics and process" detached from the needs of movement-building, we must create organizational vehicles capable of compelling large numbers of people to move forward together. SDS must focus on important political issues of our time and engage them decisively if it wants to avoid collapsing into a marginal network of self-referential activists.
WHERE WERE WE? NATIONAL AND LEFT CONTEXT
It’s easy to mistake reasoned disillusionment for apathy. In a now infamous New York Times op-ed entitled "Generation Quiet," Thomas Friedman claimed that youth today embody an apathetic student culture, more interested in blogging about social change than actually creating it. Professors across the nation decry the level of disengagement they see in their students.
By launching SDS, we thought we could prove them wrong. We believed that skepticism and disillusionment are different from apathy. Disenchanted skeptics understand that change needs to be made, they just don’t believe it can be done. Those who are apathetic, on the other hand, just don’t care. It is no coincidence that the most popular forms of progressive media in the US are based on sarcasm and comedy. The Onion, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show are popular because they speak to the reasoned disillusionment of our generation.
Young people do not need to be convinced that society is broken. What our generation needs is a sense of agency. We need to show each other that change is possible, that there are ways of reorganizing society, and that there are groups with a plan to make it happen. By rooting itself in the tradition of an older organization of the same name, SDS hit that nerve amongst students. The result was an attractive force for lots of new (progressive, mostly white) people, many of whom had never had any experience in social movements, as well as young radicals who were excited to feel a part of something big for the first time.
Meanwhile, the increasingly transparent atrocity of the Iraq War was politicizing students across the country. SDS was largely a response to the political void on American campuses: there was no national, multi-issue, radical student formation. The Iraq War, along with domestic attacks on civil liberties and human rights (especially the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), was a central force in politicizing youth and students, but no one was connecting local student anti-war work into a national framework with the political breadth that SDS seemed capable of.
Pre-existing student anti-war groups chose to affiliate as SDS chapters, becoming our organizational grounding. At Brian’s school, Pace University, the anti-war group became an SDS chapter. On Josh’s Brandeis campus, the group Radical Student Alliance also affiliated. The name SDS gave us the kind of burst we needed to gain national attention and to connect with others all across the country who took on the name and were thus thrown together to build SDS.
SO, WHAT IS SDS?
SDS began as a concept – a meme[iv] that was set loose among youth in the United States. Embedded in the idea was the possibility of a national youth and student-led organization that could transcend ideological factionalism, carry explicitly revolutionary politics,, and ground itself in youth power and participatory democracy. That idea has opened a doorway into movements for social, environmental, racial, and economic justice for thousands of young people in the US.
Within its first year, SDS chapters led student walkouts for immigrant rights on May Day, organized large youth contingents at anti-war demonstrations, successfully blocked the deployment of weapons from ports, shut down military recruitment centers, fought education budget cuts, waged free speech battles, ousted a University president, built student unions, ran for student government seats, and practiced solidarity with local community campaigns. Some of the early, more visible chapters of SDS recruited members through catchy media stunts, pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest in order to spark debate, controversy, and to excite a base of newly-politicizing youth[v].
The flashy actions included civil disobedience at major military recruitment centres in New York and New England, and shutting down ports in the Northwest and Southwest to stop the shipment of war supplies and the redeployment of soldiers. We held a handful of fast-moving, highly visible free speech campaigns at Pace University, the University of Central Florida,