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Jim Russell | The Nation

Jim Russell

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Jim Russell

Jim Russell (russellj@easternct.edu) was the first editor of New Left Notes, the SDS national newspaper. He is the author of After the Fifth Sun: Class and Race in North America (Prentice Hall) and is at work on a novel about slavery and the Texas War of Independence.

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With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.

Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.

While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.

The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."

Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.

The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.

Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.

The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.

For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.

An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.

In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."

Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.

Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.

Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."

But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.

Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.

SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.

The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.

Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.

Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.

Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.

I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?

I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.

The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.

In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.