The New SDS

The New SDS

Can the new Students for a Democratic Society avoid the internal conflicts that plagued the original group?


Twenty-year-old Will Klatt, wearing a green knit hat, baggy jeans and black jacket pulled over a hoodie, stands before a Civil War monument at the center of Ohio University’s main campus in Athens. Although a February snow is falling steadily, more than a hundred students have turned out for this rally called by a new organization with a very familiar name: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

“Many of us at Ohio University have taken classes on the principles of democracy, on justice, on ethics,” says Klatt, “and with the presumption that we will use this knowledge, acquired in our classes, to become more informed citizens. Yet this knowledge we acquire is nothing if we do not put it into practice.”

The students, including frat boys and jocks, clap and whistle. They are here in protest against new fees, elimination of four varsity sports programs and increased administrative bonus pay. Each decision, organizers say, reflects a lack of student power on campus–as do “free-speech zones” confining student protest to irrelevant corners of campus. “We are talking,” says Klatt, “about the corporatization of our university.”

Angry at the Iraq debacle, emboldened by the Bush-Cheney tailspin, a new student radicalism is emerging whose concerns include immigrants’ rights, global warming and the uncertainties facing debt-ridden graduates. Such considerations distinguish the new SDS from its historical namesake, which took shape in a very different context of economic affluence and establishment liberalism.

The original SDS, formed in 1960, sought “a participatory democracy,” the involvement of all in running society from the bottom up, as elaborated in the Port Huron Statement of 1962. Frustrated with conventional liberalism, inspired by the civil rights movement and sustained by opposition to the Vietnam War, SDS grew to perhaps 100,000 members before disintegrating in a shower of fratricidal sparks in 1969.

The notion of re-creating SDS was the brainchild of Jessica Rapchik and Pat Korte, high school students in North Carolina and Connecticut, respectively, who met on an antiwar phone hookup in the fall of 2005. Upon discovering their mutual dissatisfaction with the existing left, they hit upon the notion of reviving SDS. One of the original SDSers they first contacted was Alan Haber, president of SDS from 1960 to 1962, now a woodworker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had independently suggested “re-membering” SDS at a historians’ conference in 2003. Once the call to relaunch SDS went public in January 2006 with a new website, campus chapters began popping up, from Florida to Colorado. Today, there are more than 100 college chapters and dozens more in high schools.

By laying claim to an old name, contemporary students risked that 1960s veterans might disapprove of new wine being made in their bottle. Sociologist Todd Gitlin, SDS president from 1963 to 1964, is one such skeptic. “What was often brilliant about SDS,” he says, “was that it was attuned to its moment. It didn’t recycle the Old Left. It was the New Left.” Maurice Isserman, who joined SDS at Reed College in 1968, recently published a sharply critical piece about the new SDS in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In an interview, he said of the group’s revival, “As a historian, I found it a little offensive. It’s like, could I be in the Sons of Liberty tomorrow if I started it, claimed lineal descent from Sam Adams?”

The new SDSers have few such qualms. They seek continuity with radical history but value the name Students for a Democratic Society as much for the future it projects as for its fabled past. They find it a compelling name for an inclusive, multi-issue student group seeking social transformation. Emerging from a post-Seattle, direct-action culture defined by negation–“anticapitalist,” “antiwar”–they value its forthright, positive aim of democracy. The new SDSers admit, however, that the name does not always evoke the associations they intend. “Oh,” said a friend to Yale University senior Micah Landau, 21, “so you want me to join the guerrillas?”

What most links the new SDS to the old is the principle of participatory democracy. SDSers consider that ideal, both as a social aim and a guide to present-day practice, to be the quintessence of their project. They seek to combine the expansive vision of liberation from oppression, empire and capitalism characteristic of SDS in the late 1960s with the commitment to participatory democracy typical of the movement in the early ’60s. The tone at meetings is honest, searching, respectful. Although the group has informal leaders, no one is a “heavy.”

The belief systems of SDSers range tremendously. Variations on anarchism and socialism are commonplace, but each chapter has a distinct character. At Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut prep school, Paul Gault, 18, says “a lot of students wanted just an outlet for their voice,” making the chapter “by SDS standards not too radical.” But since the new SDS has spread most rapidly on regional campuses and at community colleges, not elite institutions, a more typical chapter–both demographically and ideologically–might be Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California. There the four SDS members identify themselves as Marxist-libertarian, libertarian socialist, anarcho-syndicalist and communal anarchist, the differences between them being “zilch,” they report. Ohio’s Klatt says that many people in SDS are “anarcho-something-or-other, but they feel like anarchist organizations are so unorganized that they haven’t been effective in creating systemic change.” At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, however, the ten core SDSers are all liberals, while at the University of North Alabama the thirteen to fifteen core SDSers are mostly liberals, with a sprinkling of socialists. “Anarchy isn’t really our deal,” says Andrew Walker, 23, a journalism major.

While SDSers are extraordinarily skillful at dissecting race, gender, class and sexuality in their personal lives, they show less aptitude, as yet, for economic research and political analysis. Most SDSers would have an easier time defining “heteronormativity” than corporate liberalism. Their knowledge of the labor movement all too often begins and ends with the Industrial Workers of the World. However, the new SDS’s sensitivity to group dynamics is light-years–or several decades–ahead of its ’60s predecessor. Women compose 40 percent or more of the membership and often exert chapter leadership. Sarah McGarity, 20, a political science and women’s studies major, helped create the Ohio University chapter and believes women are for the most part equals within SDS. “Women definitely have the opportunities that weren’t necessarily given to them in the ’60s,” she says.

Race today is not quite the study in black and white that it was in the ’60s. Now as then, there are few African-Americans in SDS, but proportions vary. Of the five who started Wayne State’s chapter in Detroit, two were African-American, one Asian and one Latina, says Carmen Mendoza-King, 21. If SDS is not as heavily white as it was in the ’60s, this is mostly a result of subsequent waves of Asian and Latin American immigration. Hunter College senior Daniel Tasripin, 24, whose father was Indonesian and mother Polish-Jewish and French, argues that SDS should recognize affirmative action, the curriculum and the “basic justice of the university in relation to the surrounding community” as issues not specific to people of color but reflective of “the universal need for a university that represents all the people.”

SDS is loose, more movement than organization. Anyone can sign up online. The group now claims more than 2,000 members, but it is hard to tell what that means. There are no dues, and therefore no funds, no staff, no office and no national publication apart from the website. The group has no elected national leaders and no basis for national decision-making. Paradoxically, these weaknesses provide some strength. The very élan of SDS is anti-bureaucratic. SDS enables regional and national linkages while preserving local control. Its appeal is that it is self-creating, do-it-yourself, free from centralized discipline or external control.

This explains why SDS displays such variety and vitality at the chapter level. At Brown University, where meetings regularly attract twenty-five people, SDS distributed a “Disorientation Guide” to 1,600 new students this fall. At Olympia last May and in Tacoma this March, Washington state SDSers were arrested for blocking Army Stryker vehicles from being loaded onto ships bound for Iraq. At Pace University in Manhattan, five SDSers were arrested in November simply for stepping onto campus to exercise free speech in protest against their administration.

From the outset, the new SDS sought interaction with older radicals, in particular veterans of the first SDS. This, however, has proved more vexing than anyone anticipated. The new SDS’s adult counterpart, Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), has been riven by divisions rooted deep in SDS history. Power has resided largely with three figures: historian Paul Buhle, once editor of the original SDS journal Radical America; Thomas Good, a 48-year-old Communist-turned-anarchist who created the new SDS website; and Bruce Rubenstein, a Connecticut personal-injury attorney. Left on the outs have been Haber, a kindly bearded sage, and a small “democracy” caucus whose best-known member is historian Jesse Lemisch.

The MDS tensions trace in part to distinct pasts. Both Haber and Lemisch were present at SDS’s founding convention in 1960; Rubenstein was part of Weatherman, a faction that scuttled SDS in 1969, and its successor, the Weather Underground, which bombed corporate and government targets. Bitter sniping on group listservs has been a more recent source of estrangement. Substantively, the dividing lines surfaced in an early discussion about whether to bring young and old together in one big-tent SDS. That proposal proved a dead letter when the students stated their desire for autonomy. A more gnawing issue is whether processes in MDS have been transparent, legitimate or democratic. A final matter is the residual influence of Weatherman.

The Weather controversy erupted when Bernardine Dohrn, a Weather leader who now teaches law at Northwestern University, was invited to speak at the first new SDS conference, held in Providence, Rhode Island, in April 2006. Dohrn received a rousing welcome, but when Bob Ross, an early SDSer, used his talk to lament that “the largest legal and unarmed movement in the history of the West” turned “ineffectually violent and useless,” he was received coolly. At the first new SDS national convention in Chicago, in August, Good opened the proceedings by reading greetings from Dohrn. Moreover, Rubenstein, MDS’s treasurer, is unapologetic about his Weather history and says that if it were 1969 he would “do it all over again,” but that he does “not endorse those tactics” for SDS today.

Many in MDS consider Weatherman ancient history. “Heck, they’re all 65 already,” says Penelope Rosemont, another graying MDS officer. “How violent can you get at 65?” Lemisch, however, is concerned that a rehabilitated Weather may corrupt the revived SDS. A critic of a recent spate of films and books that sanitize and romanticize the Weather past, he has interpreted some direct actions of the new SDS as reminiscent of Weatherman’s “Fight the People” slogan. The students, for their part, find Lemisch’s criticism lacking in proportionality. Although intrigued by Weather’s notoriety and susceptible to being impressed by Dohrn’s celebrity, they regard Weather as a negative political example. “They espoused a sort of white-guilt and white-privileged politics that is, in my estimation, wrongheaded,” says Tasripin. Co-founder Korte, now a 19-year-old student at the New School, objects to “people trying to conjure or dress us in Weather’s clothes.” An actual inspiration for the new SDS, says Senia Barrigan, 20, a Brown University student and daughter of immigrants from Colombia and Ecuador, was last year’s strike by 70,000 teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, which sparked a militant but peaceful popular insurgency against a corrupt, autocratic government.

MDS secretary Good, however, has referred to “my Weather comrades” and called himself “an unrepentant Weather supporter.” He donned a “Fuck Jesse Lemisch” T-shirt at the national convention and issued a facetious “fatwa” calling for a pie to be thrown in Lemisch’s face. Some in MDS and SDS find these puerilities obnoxious or embarrassing, but that hasn’t translated into support for the “democracy” caucus, widely regarded as a nuisance for sending frequent, adversarial complaints over the group’s listservs. (The dissidents, for their part, object that they have been removed or excluded from many listservs.)

In February MDS held a daylong public meeting to announce a nonprofit corporation, MDS, Inc., that will raise funds for SDS. One of the selected speakers, former Weather leader Mark Rudd, delivered a piercingly honest self-criticism, stating that Weather “did the work” of the FBI by “killing off” the original SDS. Rudd urged the new SDS to recognize violence and property destruction as politically self-defeating in the United States. A panel of students, in turn, asked MDS to assist SDS by sharing wisdom and skills rather than bickering. However, Haber’s desire for extended participatory conversation among the gathered MDS members was not fulfilled, and the dissidents felt railroaded. “It was not democracy’s finest hour,” allows Rudd. “I felt they should have been given ten minutes to present their case.”

The newly elected board of MDS, Inc., is broadly representative of the whole left, but its biggest names–Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West, Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky–are symbolic luminaries, not actively involved. Much hinges on whether the new chairman, Manning Marable, a distinguished African-American historian at Columbia University, can guide MDS, Inc., beyond its present contretemps to “assist and promote the development of activism among young people,” as he envisions.

The youth in SDS have for the most part tuned out MDS. They are instead focused on their own priorities: defining their points of unity, developing a decision-making structure and challenging the Iraq War.

The connection between these needs became clear at the January 27 mass mobilization on the Washington Mall called by United for Peace and Justice. SDSers could not agree on where to meet beforehand. Some wanted to convene at Dupont Circle, the traditional gathering point for the masked anarchist “black bloc.” Others, greater in number, wanted to meet at the Smithsonian Castle and leaflet the crowd. In the end, all SDSers found themselves drawn behind the black bloc as it trampled a flimsy fence, rushed up the Hill bearing plastic shields and painted obscenities and slogans on the Capitol steps. While some in SDS were elated by this action, others considered it witless. “Propaganda by the deed doesn’t work,” says Yale’s Landau. “They probably alienated far more people than they inspired with the Capitol rush, especially the graffiti on the steps of the Capitol.”

Because the Capitol police behaved with extraordinary restraint and made no arrests, the provocation received scant media scrutiny. Such luck cannot be expected to hold twice. Many in SDS conclude that the episode proved there is a need for greater coordination and that structurelessness can be undemocratic if a chapter or two engage in rash actions contrary to the wishes of most members. At a February SDS meeting in New York, more than eighty students from twenty-two Northeastern campuses endorsed a federated regional council system, a possible basis for a national structure. Whether organization and anti-authoritarianism can be synthesized in SDS, however, remains to be seen. Klatt foresees a period of transition, “kind of like how our American government had to go through the confederation of states before they came up with a unified country.”

Within SDS there is rising awareness that the wildest tactic may derail the most radical strategy. Landau believes SDSers “who are willing to jump into the most extreme action without thinking about base-building and movement-building” are counterweighed by others with more thoughtful approaches. Korte says SDSers are increasingly asking themselves, “Rather than tactics guiding our strategy, is strategy guiding our tactics?” Joshua Russell, 23, a Brandeis grad whose job for the Rainforest Action Network allows him to travel as an unofficial national SDS organizer, hopes SDS will become a “movement-building institution that will unite people.”

The matter of moment is the Iraq War. Whether or not they approve of the Capitol rush, SDSers are eager to push the envelope beyond large marches. There is “a general feeling that the tactics being used now are not enough,” says John Cronan Jr., 23, a Pace student. At the University of Alabama, SDS recently staged a “die-in” to dramatize the war. Three Michigan chapters are investigating their universities’ financial ties to the military industry. To mark the war’s four-year anniversary in March, SDS initiated class walkouts, rallies and marches at more than sixty campuses and high schools. And, to borrow a ’60s phrase, momentum now flows “from protest to resistance”–from merely speaking out against the war to the nonviolent obstruction of its operation. Twenty New York SDSers were arrested on March 12 after they shut down an Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Manhattan for two hours. Their chant: “Stop the war! Yes we can! SDS is back again!”

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