SDS: The signature organization of the 1960s student left has been reborn

Matt Wasserman Sep 22, 2006

SDSThe signature organization of the 1960s student left has been reborn

Three decades after its storied meltdown, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is back. And it’s reemerged into a country that looks strangely the same. The United States is bogged down in another unpopular war, the corporatization of the university continues, people of color are fighting to be treated as full citizens. Yet two things are conspicuously missing: the widespread rebellion that goes by the catch-all name of “the ‘60s,” and militant, mass organizations like the Black Panthers and SDS that were on the frontlines of the struggle.

When the anti-corporate globalization movement burst on to the scene in 1999’s famous Battle of Seattle the disruption of the World Trade Organization summit proved that direct action still has the ability to win the hearts of a generation. Then September 11 changed the game. With the failure of mass marches to stop the war, protest movements grew moribund, unable to regain its early momentum in the new, fearbased climate of the Bush administration.

It’s not that nothing is happening. Local collectives like Common Ground in New Orleans or the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, and single-issue organizations like Critical Resistance and United Students Against Sweatshops continue to wage important fights. But unlike their counterparts on the right, they have been unable to join their movements into a coherent political struggle. The sum of “the movement” is less than its parts.

On the student front, the new SDS is the best bet. There’s enormous potential out there, but it is unorganized and without outlet; expressing itself in anti-Bush t-shirts, rather than substantial challenges to power. The missing link between discontent and organized resistance is exactly the kind of participatory group SDS promises to be. We need organizations that are capable of naming, analyzing and fighting the system that lies beneath George W. Bush’s actions. Organizations that enable any group of committed students can join and play a conscious role.

The core SDS concept of participatory democracy provides a means of uniting disparate struggles as part of a broader, decentralized movement where students learn along the way. The involvement of a number of old SDS stalwarts gives the new SDS an edge in confronting, understanding and transcending the legacy of the original student New Left.

As of its founding conference this summer at the University of Chicago, SDS claims over 160 chapters. While there are Harvard and Yale chapters, the new SDS has significantly broadened the starting demographics of its historical progenitor with an enormous number of chapters at community colleges, state universities and high schools.

The Olympia, Washington chapter was the main group behind the blockade of Stryker tanks being shipped to Iraq this summer, the most militant and promising anti-war action of the last year. Hundreds of students, many from Evergreen College braved pepper gas and arrests to actually obstruct the war effort. In New York, Pace University SDS claimed credit for scaring pro-war Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton from making an appearance.

Discussing the events and aftermath of the uprisings of 1848, Marx claimed, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” In the next line, he adds that in the course of “creating something that did not exist before,” revolutionaries “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service… in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The new SDS has donned its costume; here’s hoping it’s not a “second time farce.”

Matt Wasserman is a founder of Reed College SDS.
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Photo: Kid Citizen

7 Responses

  1. HERMAN says:

    its about time too… wish SDS all the best : )

  2. Anonymous says:

    We will see were SDS goes. Will the new SDS go up in pot smoke or explode like a crudely made bomb? Or will button up Maoists or their kissing cousins in some other sectarian group call the shots?

  3. good luck says:

    It seems like a good idea, and I hope it catches on.

    Concerns include re-fighting old battles in drag, the role of so many “older” people who don’t seem like the best “advisors” to me, apparently caught up in very particular analyses of what went wrong.

    I also heard that there was a ban on open tabling by communists. That’s wrong, wrong, wrong. I urge every involved student to read Kirkpatrick Sale’s book “SDS.” Getting over stupid red-bans was what made SDS take off. That’s a good part of what was “new” in the New Left.

    Anyone who proposes banning someone because they are communists or socialists has no concept of what a “democratic society” would look like. I believe that would be a society where we can advocate and work together to end this system of war and empire. It means we can form revolutionary organizations dedicated to a real program of change, and that we can freely discuss our ideas and strategies. That includes argument, but hopefully with respect.

    Those who want bans don’t trust people to think for themselves. It’s exactly the kind of narrowness that will bog any student group down in recriminating, non-productive arguments based on political identity, not what people are acutally doing.

  4. Barkingchildren says:

    I’m an active member of SDS and I’ve not seen a ban placed on either socialists or communists. My chapter is even starting up a marxist caucus within SDS similar to an anarchist caucus.

  5. Strumit says:

    SDS is one of the biggest wastes of time ever to come out out of the liberal students’ communities. First of all, just like the old SDS, this new SDS will fail. Simply because they are fighting for a lost cause. Rather than spending time on more important things, they are wasting time on pointless conflicts, protests etc.

    The biggest mistake of all would be to give a student any power. And the idea of a non-representative gov’t is not possible. People need a leader, and if they didnt, the country would implode. SDS will never win.

  6. Strumit says:

    anarchists and socialists? I am russian. Ask any russian who lived under the Iron Curtain during the Cold War whether they want to go back to that. They will think you are an idiot. Which you are. Since those are the two things that will never go through in American Society.

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