Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

SDS Convention Split: Three Factions Emerge

First Published: The Heights, [Boston College] Number 28, July 3, 1969 
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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At its 1969 National Convention in Chicago last month, Students for a Democratic Society effectively split into two organizations. This formalized a division which had existed in practice for a number of months and, in some places, years. To understand why this division resulted in a split, we must look at tensions even deeper than the articulated political differences between the factions. To understand how it happened, we must look at the constellation of forces leading up to the Convention itself.

Absurd as much of the convention turned out to be, the split did reflect genuine political differences. The two major trends are represented by the Progressive Labor Party (PL) and the Revolutionary Youth Movement group (RYM).

The Progressive Labor Party had organized intensively in SDS, and its affiliate, the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus, had grown tremendously. PL-WSA, whose strength at the convention was proportionately far greater than its nationwide support among chapter members, had been mobilizing people for the convention for at least a month by telling them that the National Office of SDS was planning to expel PI or WSA. As soon as the convention began and factions could be identified by their applause, it became clear that the largest of them was PL-WSA, probably constituting 30-40% of the convention, perhaps even a majority. There appeared to be no question of PL’s expulsion by parliamentary means, since a change in the Constitution would have required a two-thirds vote. A major question was whether WSA would gain control of the National Office with the tremendous turnout they had gotten from Boston and San Francisco areas.

PL’s major organized opposition was the Revolutionary Youth Movement (which took its name from a proposal written by National Secretary Mike Klonsky and passed at the December Ann Arbor National Council). By this time, however, RYM had split into two factions. The Ohio-Michigan collective which with 150-200 members was the largest tightly knit group outside of WSA, and the Columbia chapter were united around their support of Mark Rudd for National Secretary and the resolution which he co-authored: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The other major faction supported Mike Kionsky’s new resolution “RYM II” and his choice of successor, Bob Avakian of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union. Although RYM had much less organized support than WSA’s 600-700, they could expect to pick up most of the independents and might win the elections.

It would be incorrect to say that communication between the factions broke down during the convention–it simply never began. From the opening debate on agenda everything that came up was battled out through applause and chanting. The first major speech– Mike Klonsky on racism– was little more than a broadside on PL and started a series of attacks and counter-attacks. Perhaps the highlight of the first day was the first time the Ohio-Michigan group began to chant “Mao, Mao, Mao tse-Tung” and waved their little red books.

Panther spokesman Jewel Cook charged that PL had deviated from Marxism-Leninism and demanded that they change their position on revolutionary nationalism (PL considers all nationalism reactionary) or else be considered “counter-revolutionary traitors.”

The points raised were similar to those mentioned by Columbia SDS members attempting to gain support for the expulsion of PL earlier in the day. It is impossible to say if the actual events of the split were planned and, if so, how far in advance, but it would seem that if significant planning was involved, the whole thing would have been carried off much more smoothly. Cook concluded by quoting a telephone conversation with Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Panthers, in which he called PL “Leon Trotsky reborn.”

The Panthers then left amid bedlam for the second day in a row. PL demanded a rebuttal and Jeff Gordon said that in fact PL was for self-determination in Vietnam in the only meaningful way –they demanded the immediate withdrawal of all American troops. (Not mentioned was their claim of a Washington-Moscow-Hanoi axis which is selling out the Vietnamese struggle.) Furthermore they thought that the Panthers had raised the level of class struggle in America, and so only criticized them in a fraternal manner.

The idea that the convention might serve as a forum in which people might synthesize ideas from numerous sources was by now shattered. Mark Rudd moved to adjourn since he believed that nothing could be done in the hall at that time. This proposal was not accepted, however, and things became more confused until Inter-organizational Secretary Bernadine Dohrn said either that it was no longer possible to work in the same organization with PL or that the membership should decide if this was the case. More than 300 RYM people then walked out into an adjoining amphitheatre as WSA chanted “no split.”

Two things indicate that the walkout was more or less spontaneous: 1.) very few RYM people knew it was going to happen; and 2.) if it had indeed been plotted, the issues would have been clearer, and there would have been much less confusion. Like many of the actions of the Klonsky national leadership, it was staged in a very elitist fashion (“We’re walking out–you have to side with us or them”), but it does not seem to have been the result of a pre-conceived strategy.

The call for unity by WSA was not unexpected since PL has found it tactically advantageous to function as what it considers the left wing of a large umbrella organization. PL’s going it alone will mean it will have no large organization from which to recruit caucus and party members.

What followed was two conventions–WSA broke down into workshops to discuss the implications of the walkout while in the RYM convention one speaker would urge the body to go back and fight in the other room while the next would try to articulate the principles around which PL was expelled. The night ended without decision.

On the fourth day Bernadine Dohrn spoke strongly for constituting RYM as SDS and criticized both the non-WSA Boston group and the Joe Hill caucus, (the non-WSA group from San Francisco state) for opposing the split. Neither group had taken part in the original walkout and both had been critical of RYM leadership. She claimed that their close contact with PL had caused them to develop a masochistic attitude toward it–they now depended upon their oppressor.

By evening a resolution was passed to expel PL and any other groups which did not support black liberation and the revolutionary governments of North Vietnam, North Korea, China, Cuba, and Albania. An amendment offered by Ron Bitten of the New England regional staff stating that SDS’s chief goal was to build an industrial working class movement centered around the point of production was defeated, partially because people seemed to feel that this would obscure the group’s differences with PL-WSA. RYM then marched back into the other room. WSA yielded the podium and Bernadine Dohrn announced PL’s expulsion. PL, however, did not leave RYM did, taking approximately half of the convention, while WSA stayed in the Coliseum. Both asserted that they were the SDS and elected separate sets of officers. Within RYM the weatherman slate was victorious – Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones. WSA elected John Pennington (PL), Alan Spector–both on New England regional staff–and Patricia Forman (WSA).

WSA passed several resolutions, notably one on racism which makes no mention of black studies or open admissions demands. RYM decided to hold a September 26-28 demonstration in Chicago against the war, coinciding with the conspiracy trial of eight involved in the demonstrations at last year’s Democratic Convention. Also passed by RYM was a program that the U.S. accept a ten point program of the NLF if it has not done so by Nov. 8. The conventions ended with claims of victory by both sides, and press conferences for the press, which both condemned.

Beyond the parliamentary games played at the convention, a much more real division existed at the chapter level. In the Boston area there had been for some time two virtually distinct movements under the same name. It was inevitable that PL, which has seen itself as the vanguard party of the revolution, should attack all other tendencies as revisionist or right wing.

On the other hand, the New Left has never been able to adequately consolidate its position and articulate its ideology, and as a result has usually been on the defensive. It knew that PL’s approach was inadequate (no open admissions, ignoring the family structure when dealing with women’s liberation, etc.) but it could not agree on why. To some, WSA appeared to be the only group with anything substantial to offer. Others chose to reject it. Since WSA recently stepped up its attack upon the rest of SDS, the split became inevitable.

The best that can be hoped for from the split is that the existence of two organizations will allow each to work along its own lines, without constantly fighting the other. While it is unlikely that PL’s line will change very much, if a shift from theoretical battling to the actual testing of ideas does occur, many WSA members may find PL lacking and seek out a more encompassing theory of social change. The New Left now has an excellent opportunity to dispense with self-righteousness and elitism, and formulate a serious program for developing a mass base towards the building of democratic socialism.