SDS: The Way the Wind Is Blowing

SDS: The Way the Wind Is Blowing

Oakland, Calif.


Oakland, Calif.

The New SDS” by Christopher Phelps [April 16] articulates something a lot of young people are feeling more and more: the bubbling of a new student activism that’s just beginning to define our generation. As a national student organizer for SDS and Rainforest Action Network, I see it daily across the country. Social movements come in waves and cycles; the pendulum is swinging back in our direction right now. The student movement has, of course, not yet reached the proportions of the 1930s or ’60s, but the depth and sophistication of student organizing is growing and evolving by leaps and bounds. The new student activism is grounded in a vision of participatory democracy, student power and liberation. It seeks to be relevant, thoughtful and strategic, by taking intergenerational organizing and mentorship seriously, without nostalgia for the past. Despite the complexities of taking on the name SDS–both the opportunities and the baggage–we are a new organization for a new generation. SDS is growing because students are hungry. We are growing because we are providing an entry point into the movement that so many students are looking for.

SDS organizer


Christopher Phelps has written a timely but ultimately disappointing article about the vibrant and growing student movement. He transforms the tough challenges of movement-building into a set of tepid formulas about what not to do. The new wave of student activism in America and around the world is a hopeful development worthy of our active participation and respect. Yet Phelps focuses on the sectarian divides of the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) generation, rehearsing old political grudges or offering simplistic “lessons” from the New Left rather than highlighting the steps forward and the common ground among radical organizers. Our points of convergence (young and old, organizers and activists) are numerous, including the need to strive for participatory democracy and nonexclusion, to resist the savage wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, fight brutal poverty and gluttonous wealth here and globally, act to end catastrophic climate change, racial injustice and patriarchal power and reject the permanent “war on terror” in toto. Phelps would have benefited from more attention to what led to coordinated antiwar actions on sixty campuses in March, and to the new, diverse SDS campaigns, ranging from getting military recruiters out of high schools and off campuses to antisweatshop coordination, from opposition to police violence against the community to protest when war criminals speak, from support for Assata Shakur and the new Panther 8 defendants to fights for universal healthcare–radical youth organizing is broad and deep. This is the power and the inspiration of a vast left umbrella network with variety and vigor.

Phelps stereotypically characterizes me as a “celebrity,” while the male ideologues are described by what they say about politics. I object. Who knows why any speech or article is well received? At the SDS conference at Brown University in spring 2006, it seemed that the political substance of my talk was what generated the positive response from students: the urgent needs to reject the framework of US military and economic empire, to forge active opposition to white supremacy and grapple with the issue of multiracial organization and to reckon with the importance of direct action to organizing and educating. I intentionally ignored the challenge to debate the issue of what killed SDS thirty-eight years ago and who was right when in favor of exploring what we all can do, in solidarity, now. Building bridges between issues, finding points of convergence and creating an independent radical movement resonates across generations. The last thing the new SDS needs is patronizing elders wagging their fingers with cautionary tales.



I thought Christopher Phelps was a little easy on Bernardine Dohrn and the Weathermen. Dohrn was the principal public leader of what we’ve always referred to as the ultraleft, or Weatherman, faction of SDS. She should not be held solely responsible for all the damage those goofballs did, but she was the leader, and until she repudiates her terribly damaging positions, she doesn’t deserve to be looked to as an example for young people today.

I had a lot of experience with the ultralefts who looked to Dohrn for leadership. At the 1969 national SDS meeting, in Austin, Texas, which she chaired, she and her thuggish faction fought tooth and nail to prevent workshops, for fear that students who wanted to ally with working people and other average Americans might get a chance to speak up.

I was in the Army when Dohrn and her pals split SDS, in Chicago. I’ve always felt that they believed that if their crazy politics couldn’t prevail in the group, then they wanted to destroy it, which is exactly what they did. If Dohrn wants to help build an “independent radical movement,” she should begin by thoroughly repudiating the politics that she is so completely identified with.


Staten Island, NY

Christopher Phelps characterized me to fit his bias rather than represent my actual views. As a veteran organizer who has been arrested six times since the war began–for nonviolent civil disobedience–I regret the misrepresentation of myself and MDS. We do not share Phelps’s preoccupation with the Weather Underground. There is a war on, and our responsibility is to end it as quickly as possible, in a manner consonant with our nonviolent beliefs. MDS does community organizing and legal defense work with student activists and partners with SDS in the Radical Education Project.

There are varying views of Weather in SDS, but they are not part of MDS discussions on how to build a multigenerational movement. My friendship with former members of SDS and Weather Underground has revealed something to me I wish Phelps could grasp: Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s have moved on with our lives and learned from the past. We are not interested in reliving it–or debating what-ifs. Phelps could just as easily have fabricated his fictitious Weather issue in the new SDS without dropping my name.


Clinton, NY

My principal objection to the new SDS is that the young people who are attracted to it are selling themselves short. As I said in the March 2 Chronicle of Higher Education Review, “The whole idea of seeking to revive SDS…is well, very un-SDS. It…had come on the stage proclaiming the need for the American left to rethink its inherited orthodoxies.” The new SDS is controlled by a cohort of radical elders enamored of the worst moment in the original SDS’s history, its infatuation with revolutionary violence in the era of Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd. To his credit, Rudd repudiates his role in the destruction of the original SDS. Dohrn and Ayers do not, and it is their “inherited orthodoxy,” alas, that shapes the perspective of the reigning new SDS elders.



As Christopher Phelps notes, the new SDS faces big challenges and yet has managed to capture the attention and imagination of an inspiring cross-section of youth across the country. But the main challenge, according to Phelps and others, revolves around how new SDSers relate to the twists and turns of the original SDS. This is misguided; although these young activists opened up a can of worms by reviving the name SDS, they have, thankfully, not concerned themselves with settling yesterday’s battles. A focus on the squabbles of the past distracts from the real challenges these activists face: namely, how to organize a multifaceted and successful student movement. How to build a democratic national organization that addresses the global complexities of race and class, gender and sexuality, war and environmental collapse. The fault lines of the original SDS will continue to be debated by former members, historians and others. The new SDS, however, should be judged in its own context.

Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

New York City

“The New SDS” is the latest in a long line of post-’60s articles heralding and dissecting “a new student radicalism,” which in a kind of wishful thinking hints at a return to the mass activism of the Vietnam era. Christopher Phelps misses the main question about student politics today, which is, Why is it so dead? The new SDS is a tiny group with almost no campus influence or visibility–including on my campus, NYU, which tends to be relatively activist (which is not saying much). Four years into the Vietnam War, SDS had about 100,000 members and was involved in building a mass antiwar movement on and off the campuses. Four years into the Iraq War, this revived SDS claims a whopping 2,000 members.

When I asked my students about their generation’s relative silence on the war, they pointed to the financial pressures of college, the absence of a draft, the Internet’s power to draw young people to blog rather than march and despair over changing Bush’s policies. The lack of activism is striking, given the university’s reputation on the right as a hotbed of radicalism and political correctness.


Clarksville, NY

At the June 1969 convention, where SDS split into three factions (the Progressive Labor Party; the Weathermen, or Revolutionary Youth Movement RYM 1; and RYM 2), I spoke from the podium of the need for SDS to return to its roots as an organization based on participatory democracy. As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, I and others who had the temerity to suggest that SDS should return to the principles of the Port Huron statement were mocked by the former SDS activists.

The downfall of SDS, as I saw it through the eyes of a 17-year-old activist, and as I still believe today, was the organization’s attempt to determine which “Marxist Leninist” model was correct. However, neither the “infantile disorder” of the Weathermen nor the mechanistic formulations of the short-haired “Maoists” of the Progressive Labor Party had any chance of support on college campuses, let alone in the population at large. Given the tremendous potential for a left-wing mobilization after the 1968 election, the failure to maintain the SDS that had existed in the early and mid-1960s was a tremendous loss. Although there has been a failure to maintain continuous left-wing activism on campus since the 1960s, it is encouraging that a new generation has chosen, for whatever reason, to identify with SDS.



US student movements do have a history. The SDS of the 1960s was an outgrowth of SLID (Student League for Industrial Democracy), which in turn was an outgrowth of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, co-founded by Jack London in the 1910s.

Surely there is a place for mutual aid in social evolution as well as natural evolution. Older generations of activists have often come forward to help younger people in their struggles. As a member of SDS in the 1960s, I was especially grateful to such old Wobblies as Fred Thompson, Jenny Velsek and Jack Sheridan, who helped us start the Solidarity Bookshop in Chicago. In more recent times, Studs Terkel, Leon Despres, Vicki Starr, Les Orear and the Illinois Labor History Society have also done much to help young activists in various worthy causes. The MDS has been established to aid, encourage and support the SDS activists of today. There have always been sour-grapes ex-radicals who say they did it better, or that it can’t be done, and that today’s younger people can’t change anything either. Well, phooey on them! The young activists in today’s growing SDS are already a creative force in a society that certainly needs them!

President, MDS

Old Chatham, NY

I think it’s great that the new student movement wants to call itself SDS. I take this to mean that it is inspired by the values and the commitment to change the society that characterized the best of the old SDS, and us old SDS people ought to feel pleased and honored by the students’ use of the name. But they should be very wary of listening to or taking on much more from us, and we should steer clear of offering any advice. Because SDS largely failed in achieving its vision. So we should say, great, more power to you, here’s some money if you need it: Now go out and build your own movement in your own way. If you need a body at a demo we’ll be there, but we won’t speak and we certainly won’t tell you what you should or should not be doing. How the hell do we know?

SDS National Secretary, 1962-63


Mansfield, Ohio

In my largely positive overview of the multi-issue organizing of the new SDS, I was compelled to report briefly on the Weather controversy. I did not invent this controversy. It was a source of tension almost from the beginning in SDS’s adult counterpart, MDS. It was raised by significant critics, both internal (Jesse Lemisch) and external (Maurice Isserman) and aggravated greatly by Tom Good, who fails here to take responsibility for his pro-Weather remarks–which I quoted with total accuracy.

I am, at 41, much younger than those SDS veterans who still chafe at Weather’s arrogance and adventurism, but they have my empathy. The implosion of the 1960s left, its failure to build durable institutions, was a tragedy felt acutely by those of us who came of age on the left during the barren Reagan years. Perhaps a new generation’s choice of the name SDS, for all its many upsides, inevitably invited Weather questions, given the way the first SDS was wrecked. It’s a tall order to lay claim to a historic name while wishing away a major part of its history.

This difficulty may not be insuperable, but it is compounded by those former Weather leaders, typified by Bernardine Dohrn, who refuse to own up to their destructive role and discourage critical assessment of the past while simultaneously attempting in films and books to wipe the slate clean of their most disastrous acts and ideas. No wonder suspicions persist that such people have not actually “moved on” but are merely biding their time for new opportunities.

Demands that we leave history behind are far from radical. They are the counterpart of “Just Do It,” our live-for-the-moment capitalist culture. Effective organizing and action require historical consciousness. Which past approaches were compelling? Which failures? Critical reflection enhances prospects for future success.

My finding, in any case, was that the new SDS is neither emulating Weather nor controlled by boomers. The dozens of students I interviewed are concentrating, quite properly, on ending the Iraq War and other laudable goals. I was impressed by the students’ commitment to movement-building, their thoughtfulness about tactics and strategies, and their attempts to build democratic group structures that, because premised on common judgment, will diminish the likelihood of actions that are rash and self-defeating.

I wish I had been able to bring Robert Cohen with me to the Northeast regional SDS meeting that I observed, attended by more than eighty students from two dozen universities, including the New School, Pratt and Pace. There I would have introduced him to Josh Russell and other exceptional young activists who would, I feel certain, have given him reason to hope.


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