SDS Shifting From Protest to Organizing
Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Richard Blumenthal

SDS Shifting From Protest to Organizing

Published: Harvard Crimson, June 15, 1967.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The least successful SDS projects so far, as SDS intellectuals are aware, have been those dealing with the middle class.

(The CRIMSON is reprinting this article by Richard Blumenthal ’67 by permission of the Nation magazine, where it appeared in the May 22nd issue under the title of “SDS: Protest is not enough.”)

Members of Students for a Democratic Society marched last month in the Spring Mobilization, and cheered faithfully when Stokely Carmichael denounced the “cruel and senseless” war in Vietnam. But they demonstrated without the high expectations and hopes of past protests. SDS did not participate in organizing the march, refused initially to endorse it, and finally came to support it only ten days before it was scheduled to occur. Both the mood of the marchers and the attitude of their organization reflected a significant shift of strategy within SDS.


In building a movement or radical social change. SDS is turning from the tactics of protest and confrontation–marches, pickets and sit-ins–to those of organization and resistance. Although the students will continue to utilize dramatic, “one-shot” incidents of protest to attract publicity and membership, they are shifting, as national vice president, Carl Davidson, puts it, “to dig in for the long haul, to become full-time, radical, sustained, relevant.” Marches, says a Chicago SDSer, “are just not enough. They won’t stop this war. More important, they won’t stop the military industrial complex, the powerful institutions that decide the fate of people in this country .... We must do more than marching.”

The shift in tactics is an attempt to extend the organization’s appeal to new constituencies beyond the campus. While SDS has always aimed at inspiring a “broad-based” movement, it is now consciously appealing to adults, particularly among both the middle and working classes, and planning to increase such activities in the future. In organizing these groups, SDS is endeavoring to develop an “ideology”–a more systematic theory of social change for the American power structure.

A Third Stage

The new approach signifies the beginning of a third stage in the development of the New Left organization. At the beginning, following its break with the parent League for Industrial Democracy. SDS stressed community organizing among people excluded from the system; mainly Negroes and poor whites. Members opened a Community Union Project in Newark, financed by the United Auto Workers, and built similar Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP) in other cities. Since 1965, however, SDS has concentrated almost entirely on students, and its main issues have been the war in Vietnam, the draft and “student power.” During this second stage, it has endeavored, primarily by protest and confrontation, to organize new chapters on campuses throughout the country.

The organization has grown in the past two years from 1200 national members in 30 chapters to more than 6000 in 227 chapters. There are now in addition to these national members, about 30,000 chapter members, who participate in the activities of local groups but do not pay national dues. The organization employs a national staff of ten in Chicago, with nine traveling organizers (soon to be increased to 39) in the field. But most of the new chapters were organized by local student radicals without help from the parent organization. “They write us and say they’ve got this chapter and ask to be recognized,” says national chapter correspondent. John Veneziale. “Sometimes they wait for months before contacting us; there are probably a lot we still don’t know about.” Membership is now growing most rapidly in smaller institutions, state teachers’ colleges and junior colleges, particularly in the Midwest.

Alienation Appeal

With the tactics of direct action–picketing, campus recruitment by war oriented corporations or sitting in a against university social rules–SDS has appealed to a vague sense of alienation among students, without defining a radical ideology. Unlike the old Left, which spent much energy on theory and analysis, SDS has been purposely anti-ideological, even anti-intellectual. Members have tried, as national secretary, Greg Calvert, puts it, to “build a movement out of people’s guts.” Rejecting the dogmatism of the old Socialist and Communist parties, they have stretched their ideological tent to include anyone feeling the frustration and anomie of “dehumanizing” modern society.

Their evolving ideology, such as it is, focuses on the inability of the individual to make meaningful decisions in society. Individuals, according to the SDS analysis, are deprived of power over their own lives by a corporate elite which manipulates human beings economically and politically. The few who own the means of production, in alliance with the military, control all aspects of society. Their crass materialistic values reduce human beings to “consumers of things.” This depersonalization, combined with the separation of most people from power, produces a sense of apathy and resignation.

In place of this structure of decision making, SDS proposes “participatory democracy”–a decentralized system without real leaders in which every man would have an equal voice. It strongly rejects the contention of liberals that reform can be achieved through established parliamentary institutions. Numbers of supporters–or votes–do not count for political strength, since “representative” bodies only disguise manipulation by the industrial military elite. Thus, the so-called “new middle”–a group of student leaders who recently wrote President Johnson expressing “responsible” doubts about the war–fails to recognize that the Vietnamese conflict is only one manifestation of a corrupt structure, and that it will be followed by other imperialist ventures unless the system is radically altered. SDS members spurn coalitions with such liberal groups, fearing that their radicalism will be diluted.

The reliance on action–confrontation and protest–rather than ideology has enabled SDS in the middle phase of its development to include a wide variety of personalities and interests. The organization can claim as members blue-collar militants of the Progressive Labor Party, as well as three-piece suit liberals from ADA. There are anarchist hippies, humanists, Communists and an increasing number of former members of Young Americans for Freedom, a libertarian laissez faire capitalist group. About 85 per cent of the membership, according to Davidson, serves merely as “shock troops.” These are younger members, usually in the “long hair Bobby Dylan syndrome,” who turn out for demonstrations but do not go beyond gut reactions to a systematic critique of society. Davidson classifies the remaining 15 per cent in two groups: the “super-intellectuals” and the “organizers.” The intellectuals, mainly graduate students, dominate the discussions. The organizers are full-time, professional radicals.

And yet, despite the apparent success of their past approach in augmenting this diverse membership, many SDSers now believe that the organization must develop a longer-range strategy. The tactics of confrontation have gained headlines but have not altered government policies. Most members regard anti-war activity with a mounting sense of frustration and impotence. They often begin speeches with the disclaimer: “Well, probably nothing we can do now will prevent escalation ....” And many fear that the radical commitments of the membership will wane unless it comes to view short-run set-backs in a longer-range “critical radical perspective.” If the shock troops do not understand tactics in terms of consistent and systematic radical analysis, they will eventually desert the movement.

The intellectuals worry that most members of SDS have yet to shed the bourgeois outlook and prejudices of their middle-class upbringing. “In fact, most students hold a kind of dogged career-oriented conception of their lives which would do their parents proud,” observed Paul Potter, a past SDS president, and Hal Benenson, of the Harvard chapter, in a recent paper on the “critical radical perspective.” Despite the radical rhetoric and slogans, “there is very little comprehension of what the words that are slung around mean either as descriptions of the society or as prescriptions for action.” Most SDSers, they observed, still accept the notion that “getting a majority of people to vote for something creates a force for change”; that the United States will criminate poverty without radically changing, and that the country cannot lose the war in Vietnam if it employs its superior military power. “In a very real way,” they note, “rhetoric without content breeds the politics of despair and nihilism. The slogans we use acutely heighten our sense of distance and radical alienation ... the failure of these slogans to specify any content also heightens our sense of desperateness and impotence.”

The weakness of SDS ideology not only imperils the commitment of students, the intellectuals believe, but also prevents the organization from making a meaningful appeal to adults and thus filling the hole created by the departing parties of the Left. The collapse of the adult Left during the 1950’s, they argue, has left radicals without a meaningful political organization. Neither the present Communist Party nor the Progressive Labor Party (Maoist) comprehends the real needs and problems of modern Americans. Communism is no longer radical: it aims to get power through the electoral process–in other words, working within the system–and supports liberal measures such as Social Security and Medicare. Progressive Labor, on the other hand, fails to fit radical ideology to the American experience: it misunderstands the mentality of the working class, relies on puritanical cadre-like working class, comprising skilled as well as unskilled blue collar labor, has organization, secrecy and dictatorial leadership. Neither the revisionists (CP) nor the Maoists (PL) accept truly democratic methods of decision making internally, and both groups have grubby, materialistic values. But in order to build a movement among adults who are repelled by the old Left and alienated from present society, SDS must develop an entirely new ideology. It must show these adults how their personal sense of alienation relates to the overall structure of decision making. “To reach these people,” says Calvert, “we must involve them on the basic level of their own lives.”

Need for Ideology

The need for ideology when shifting to non-campus activity was discussed at a meeting of the National Council of SDS in Cambridge during the first week of April. At the last national meeting in December, almost all the workshops preceding the official session had dealt with issues and problems of campus organization. In April, only one (“Curriculum Reform”) concerned the university; the rest dealt with subjects like “Labor Strategy,” “Middle-Class Community Organizing” and “Organizing Professions.” Only eight delegates showed up for the curriculum workshop and most felt–as at least three stated explicitly–that the university would be “the last place to change.” They believed that the educational system, as Paul Millman of Antioch said, “is as necessary to the power structure as any other part of society, and just as tightly controlled by the elite.” Benenson and Potter warned against “separatism among students, and against student power activity” which ”has had the effect of isolating the campus movement in some ways.” The impulse to develop a new ideology was reflected in the decision to bring the Radical Education Project (REP) to Chicago and place it under the control of the national office. REP is the formal publishing and theoretical organ of SDS–one member calls it the radical equivalent of the RAND Corporation–and was set up in Ann Arbor as a semi-autonomous unit, for tax purposes, in 1966.

Organizing Unions

At the council workshops, Cambridge chapter members described projects in organizing unions among local hospital workers. Kim Moody of New York discussed his attempts to radicalize the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees by working within Local 1412. A representative of the American Friends Service Committee talked about radicalizing technicians in Cambridge corporations: “They feel they aren’t allowed to work on the most significant kinds of problems ...You talk about Vietnam and start a kind of systems analysis of social objectives.” Other delegates discussed attempts to organize middle-class neighborhoods in Boston against the war.

The new constituencies to which SDS now hopes to appeal are unlike those it worked with in its organizing activities during the first stage of the movement–they are primarily people involved in the system, rather than those frozen out of it. SDS must speak, Carl Davidson argues, primarily to the working class and “new working class,” while continuing to recognize the problems of the underclass (the poor, disabled and chronically unemployed). The traditional always been a source of political power for radical movements. But the number of people in this class is declining relative to the new working class – white-collar technicians, scientists, teachers and others who work at the bottom rungs of huge corporate bureaucracies. And these “new” workers, Davidson says, are the “most exploited people in the entire system.” Though well trained and imaginative, they have little or no control over the work they are assigned, and therefore no outlet for creative expression. They are dominated, along with the underclass and working class, by the three other groups: the middle class (petty bourgeois owners of small business), the sub-ruling class (politicians, corporation and university presidents) and the ruling class (owners of the means of production).

Discussion at the national convention indicated that there are important disagreements within SDS on this new approach. The effort to develop an ideology and push off-campus is supported by the national staff and most of the older chapters in Boston, Berkeley, New York and Ann Arbor. But many newer members believe that SDS should remain primarily a student organization, engaged for the most part in the tactics of confrontation. In the areas where membership is growing most rapidly, students have had little or no previous experience with radical ideas of political organizing. Many of these chapters are located in rural areas, away from urban centers of the working and underclasses. “There has always been this split between those who see SDS as primarily a student organization and those who see it as the main party of the Left,” says Lee Webb, a past national secretary, “and now it’s coming more and more in the open.”

More Problems

The split, moreover, is only one of a series of problems that SDS intellectuals say the organization must solve when shifting tactics and developing an ideology. First, aside from differences resulting from age, SDS is likely to reveal genuine political differences among its members as it attempts to define more clearly a program for social change. Second, assuming SDS can develop a radical movement among adults, it must decide whether to absorb them into the present organization or split them off into a “Movement for a Democratic Society.” In either case, students will risk domination by the older radicals. Third, there may be very serious limits to the application of participatory democracy to larger memberships. At the national council meeting, SDS members from the newer chapters complained that the participatory democracy of the session was “not even as democratic as most forms of representative democracy.” The proceedings, complained Craig Livingston, of Rutgers Law School, were “dominated by an elite meeting in committee and bringing proposals before the body.” The larger the number of participants, the more difficult consensus decision making becomes. Fourth, SDS lacks the money to support a substantial organizing drive. It now operates with a budget of $80,000 a year–one-tenth that of the National Student Association.

Conflicts of Ideology

In addition to these internal problems, SDS will raise substantial conflicts of ideology in appealing simultaneously to the two exploited classes it seeks to organize. If past projects in labor union organizing are any guide, SDS will organize the working class around bread and butter issues–steady jobs, higher wages and better working conditions. It will urge laborers to join unions and gain power over their employers as a means to increases in material welfare and higher standards of consumption. The power it urges the new working class to achieve will depend on very different values. The enemy will be the same corporate elite and the exploitive bureaucratic structure, but decisions will relate much more to the quality of life and work, and power will be exercised in accordance with an ethic that consciously rejects the goals of higher consumption and materialistic satisfaction. Radical change, in this case, will not only replace the present owners of the means of production but will challenge the entire ethic which makes such ownership worth while. For SDSers reject the “crass materialism” of present society – the values as Greg Calvert notes, that “transform people into consumers of things.” They reject the statistical economic indices of the government – employment rates, gross national product, etc. – as true measures of the quality of life. The “main and transcending” concern of society, Tom Hayden has written, “must be the unfolding and refinement of the moral, aesthetic and logical capacities of men in a manner that creates genuine independence.” Whatever the meaning of that goal for the individual man, it surely will not be equivalent automatically to a house in the country and a two-car garage. Yet these higher standards of consumption appear to be the present goal of the new working class – and, even more strongly, of the working class.

How can SDS use these values to organize the working class and, at the same time, re-educate the middle class out of them? SDS organizers argue that after the working class reaches a decent standard of living and gains control over the means of production, laborers will see the futility of unlimited material aspiration and acquire a “revolutionary consciousness.” But such predictions cannot be proved, and the fact is that many of the “new” workers who have reached decent levels of consumption aspire vigorously to the middleclass style of life. There remains, then, the problem of how to alter the values of teachers and technicians who have been indoctrinated by the system. It is possible that alienation about assignments on the job, and discontent about the Vietnamese War may be translated into an understanding of the faults of the entire system. But it is questionable whether such “knowledge” can lead to a genuine commitment to radical change among individuals who are already career oriented, who have settled down with a wife, children and mortgage after long years of training, and who are at the beginning of the income trajectory. The least successful SDS projects so far, as SDS intellectuals are aware, have been those dealing with the middle class.

Participatory Democracy

There are serious problems, furthermore, with the system of decision making which SDS would urge both classes to substitute for the present one. Participatory democracy, critics argue, is a vague and utopian notion that could never provide a workable system of government for society on a mass scale. In reply, SDSers allude to control by workers in cooperative factories, and to town meetings. But aside from the question of practicability, the notion has serious weaknesses even in theory. For it appears to depend on an underlying consensus in values and interests that runs directly against the pluralism and freedom which SDSers value so highly. The student radicals believe that meetings should produce a unanimity of viewpoint; yet they also prize a rebellious, strong-willed individualism.