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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 ones fist measured ones 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 bendnext 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 couldnt 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 their prospects.
Today is different. Based on what I saw in Detroit, I think this new SDS generation doesnt 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 dont 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 didnt 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 arent 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 cant 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 cant 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 wont 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 todays 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 isnt 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 cant 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 peoples 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 blowsmental and sometimes physicalover 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 werent, 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 prospectswhich 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 werent 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 ones 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 isnt best. Everyone celebrates not their own ideas triumphing, but whatever ideas prove most valuable.
Shared Political Inclinations
I cant 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 societythat 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 dont remember all the questions he read out, but here are some that are indicative of the kind of approach these people have:
- Its 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 does victory look like?
In line with all the above, Detroits discussions of what to do now were almost peripheral. The reason wasnt that current action was denigrated, but that there simply wasnt 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 peopleand, 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 doesnt 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 identified campuses.
As to the mens caucusif my generations 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 womens 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.
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