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News :: Organizing : Politics
Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
02 Mar 2006
Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
By Micah Lee
The Student Underground
In early February, 2006, at the annual National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) in Washington, D.C., I approached the Cleveland Infoshop Collective table with a stack of Student Undergrounds under my arm with the intent to distribute. The table, like many of the tables at NCOR, was filled to the brim with zines, independent newspapers, fliers, and other radical literature. The guy behind the counter asked me if I had heard about the revival of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Intrigued, I picked up a flier and a button and visited the website as soon as I got home. People around the country had been hearing about the new SDS in similar ways.

On January 16, Martin Luther King Day, student activists and former-SDS members announced their intention to form a new national organization of SDS. As of February 16, “we have 33 chapters and about 400 members. [This is] very approximate as not everyone fills out the form; a lot sign up with their chapters, so it may be a lot more like 500 - 600, no way to tell,” said Thomas Good, an SDS organizer from the New York City chapter. “We are adding more members and chapters daily. No exaggeration – daily.” The first national convention of SDS since 1969 will be held during the summer of 2006.

The original SDS was founded in 1959, and in its early years was primarily focused on the civil rights movement. After President Johnson escalated the Vietnam War in 1965, drastically increasing the number of ground troops over seas, the focus of SDS shifted onto resisting the war and, in particular, the military draft. Within a few years, over 100,000 people became members nationwide, making it one of the largest and most radical anti-war organizations in the country.

By the 1969 national convention, sectarian infighting was tearing SDS apart. The two competing factions were Progressive Labor (PL), a pro-China Maoist group, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), a group with the goal of uniting radical college students with working class, non-student youths. Arguing that dogmatic Marxist theory is useless when imperialism and racism were so obvious to everyone paying attention, the RYM prepared the paper (named after a Bob Dylan song) for the national convention: “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” By the end of the convention, the SDS national organization had split in two. While the PL faction dwindled off into irrelevancy (where they still rest), the RYM faction, later renamed the Weathermen, called for a militant protest in Chicago which became known as the Days of Rage. With support waning, the desperate Weathermen advocated a revolutionary guerrilla war against the United States government, and they soon went underground. Throughout the 1970s, the Weathermen lived as fugitives, planting strategic bombs across the country to raise awareness about the behavior of the government.

The 2003 documentary, The Weather Underground, gives a detailed account of what happened to the Weathermen after the fall of SDS. Check out former Weatherman Mark Rudd’s article “The Death of SDS: Concerning the future...”, published in the Student Underground in the spring of 2005 for more details about the last days of SDS and criticism of its failure ( ).

At a glance, starting up SDS again seems like it might be a bad idea. It obviously didn’t work in the 60’s and it has the potential to attract nostalgic old hippies that don’t know anything about the changing times. tom nomad, the 23 year old organizer for the Ohio chapter of SDS, and member of the Cleveland Infoshop Collective addressed this problem: “There is a joke out there: How many activists does it take to screw in a light bulb? 23: one to screw it in and 22 to talk about how they did it in the 60’s. We need to escape this dynamic.”

“There is the possibility of a power struggle between the young and the old,” continued nomad. “I think that the older people have a lot to teach us, but we cannot let them try to dictate how things are done or how we analyze things. It is a different time now than it was then and we need to act from our experiences, not those of some group of elders.”

Some are not so optimistic. Mark Rudd, who led the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt at Columbia University, was one of the leaders of the Weathermen when they decided to go underground and declare a guerrilla war on the United States government. He is now a tactical pacifist and math teacher at a community college in New Mexico. He hasn’t gotten involved in the new SDS yet, and he probably never will. “Old people will only be trying to replay the battles of the past,” he said. “They will always impose the heavy hand of the past onto the present.”

Rudd has so little faith in the sectarian and ideological baby boomer generation that he was once a vibrant part of that he proposed a creative use for old people in SDS: “Banish them from your ranks! Let SDS grow as an organization of young people! That’s its beauty. Tell the old people that the best they can do is form a ‘self-immolation brigade’ to serve as an auxiliary when some big-time publicity is needed. This would do two things at once: it would give the struggle some useful martyrs and heroes, and it would also get rid of us.”

The new SDS is significantly different from the old SDS. “First off, it’s multi-generational,” said Good, a 47 year old member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the War Resistors League living in New York City. “Secondly, we are anti-authoritarian, looking to keep democratic centralists at arm’s length. Also, I am hopeful that our brand of participatory democracy will provide a true umbrella for student and other activists who are into a decentralized, grassroots approach. Many of us, but not all, want a national office that is purely a coordinating body, not a decision making body - we want to be democracy, not just build it.”

Sectarian infighting destroyed SDS in the 60’s. Although arguments and disagreements will be inevitable (as they are in any activist group with a diversity of people), the new structure has built-in defenses against letting those arguments bring the organization down. “Currently the SDS is structured as a network,” said nomad. “Each and every local chapter is autonomous and free to act as they please. There is no national organizing structure to take over. This is a stark contrast to the old SDS which had a national organization that was constantly being taken over by one group or another.”

Hopefully decentralization and anti-authoritarianism will be enough. “Don’t forget to doubt your own ideologies,” said Rudd. “Nobody has all the right ideas. I hope the new SDS has the courage to break out of ideological straitjackets, even anarchist ones.”

According to the SDS website, a Boston chapter already exists, but the listed organizer was not available for comment. The first regional New England SDS conference will be held at Brown University in Providence, RI on April 15th.

Check to join up and get more information on the upcoming conference.
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First as tragedy, then as farce
02 Mar 2006
I wish the new SDSers the best of luck. But their dogmatic rejection of Marxism, substituting a warmed over liberal democracy that was inadequate to the needs of the movement 100 years ago, is a recipe for irrelevance.
Re: Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
02 Mar 2006
this is lame, it will fail
to the new sds'ers: careful...
03 Mar 2006
nice thought, but careful how you approach this project. if the way the 'new black panther party' is viewed by most if not all panther veterans is any indication, there is a lot of indignation about coming out of the blue and using a name associated with a particular role in history.
yeah i know, anyone can use a name, it's not copyrighted, etc, but might be a good idea to get a bunch of oldsters behind the project, at the very least, so as to avoid a useless internecine battle about what sds 'really' stands for, etc. if i'd been around at the inception of this new network, i might have suggested using a different name, but since i wasn't, i can only counsel thinking about the responsibility that goes with the name, and the humility required to represent it. egos are a dime a dozen, but the selfless ones are rare indeed.

i'm a bit concerned about the autonomous chapters "free to act as they please" bit- is there a set of defining principles or basic common strategy which can be used to hold people using the name accountable for their actions? i like People's Global Action personally- global network of autonomous, radical peoples movements mostly led by groups in the global south. they are very different culturally and historically, but tied together with an elegant set of 5 basic 'hallmarks' which define minimum standards while keeping out those who would corrupt the network for sectarian purposes.

"break out of ideological straitjackets, even anarchist ones" - this is a crucial point to digest-many anarchists have no idea how marginalized and distanced natural allies who don't call themselves anarchists feel regarding the whole scene. coming into organizing with a fixed viewpoint and not being open to other people's honestly differing experiences and views only leads to failure. people can have anarchist beliefs, but forcing it down people's throats, being supercilious and demeaning of others who don't 'get' the anarchist orthodoxy- that attitude has gone a long way to giving anti-authoritarianism a bad name in many circles of natural allies, including among many people of color who feel excluded if they don't identify with punk music, or ragged clothes, or oldschool russian theorists, or non-monogamy or whatever.

one last point- please don't let your perspective be limited to this artificial national landscape. we're in a global struggle and it will only be successful if we here in the monster's belly can bring the strength, determination and acquired wisdom of struggles from all over the planet here into our midst. we are one people, and must act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters beyond the lines drawn on maps, as well as the natural world on which we all depend.

all that being said, it's about damn time people started stirring shit up! the world situation today is arguably worse than at the point when sncc and sds were starting up. so full steam ahead- good night and good luck!
Re: Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
03 Mar 2006
"if the way the 'new black panther party' is viewed by most if not all panther veterans is any indication, there is a lot of indignation about coming out of the blue and using a name associated with a particular role in history."

I think that has more to do with the fact that the NBPP is non-communist, anti-semetic, and terrible at community organizing.

The rest of what you say I pretty much agree with, which is irrelavent, as I'm not a student.
Re: Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
03 Mar 2006
ori, i don't think it matters that you're not a student. seems that the sds is redefining "student" to include just about anyone. i like that since, in some sense, all radicals are students of something. i'd be wary of anyone who calls herself a radical but doesn't think she has anything left to learn.

i also agree with most of what "blood in my eye" wrote. i'm concerned about adopting the name of one of the greatest radical organizing examples in recent history. nonetheless, if adopting the sds moniker will facilitate the development of a united radical front then i'm all for it and would seriously consider jumping on board.

i say, let's give sds a chance to revive. let's see what happens. but let's not dismiss it offhand.
Re: Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
03 Mar 2006
"yeah i know, anyone can use a name, it's not copyrighted, etc, but might be a good idea to get a bunch of oldsters behind the project"

from the research i've done, it's full of a bunch of those exact oldsters. i really don't know how it's gonna turn out, but it looks like the new structure is sort of built around what the old sds was lacking, namely anti-authoritarianism and anti-sectarianism. and the old sds chapters were basically autonomous back then too. when PL and RYM were fighting at the national level and ended up breaking down sds, a lot of the chapters continued doing the same kind of antiwar work they'd been doing before, just without being plugged into a national network.
Re: Reinventing Students for a Democratic Society
04 Mar 2006
any formation that purposely involves Aron "The Pieman" Kay of the Yippies cannot possibly succeed