Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mary-Alice Waters

The split at the SDS national convention

First Published: The Militant, Vol. 33, No. 27, July 4, 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Article II: Membership

Section 1: Membership is open to all who share the commitment of the organization to democracy as a means and as a social goal.
Section 2: SDS is an organization of and for democrats. It is civil libertarian in its treatment of those with whom it disagrees, but clear in its opposition to any anti-democratic principle as a basis for governmental, social, or political organization.

The Constitution, Students for a Democratic Society

* * *

Thus stood, and still stands, the constitution of SDS. But by the end of the stormy five-day convention held in Chicago June 18-22, such provisions of the SDS constitution had been rendered meaningless by the bureaucratic, expulsion from SDS of all members of Progressive Labor and anyone agreeing with PL on certain questions. Meeting in closed caucus, a minority of the convention voted to expel PL and all those who agreed with their ideas from SDS.

The organization which was founded nine years ago as a “new” experiment in building a political group free from ideology and program, trying to escape the “sterile political squabbles” of the “old left,” and hoping it had found a way to escape the bureaucratic, undemocratic methods of Stalinism and social democracy – that organization has now come almost full circle. The “new left” failed to examine and take sides on the burning issues that divided the reformists and revolutionaries in the past, that divided the Stalinists, social-democrats, anarchists and others, from the Marxists, the Trotskyists. This flight from ideological responsibility made it certain that when faced by the same political issues, they would be easy prey to the reformist line being pushed by social democratic tendencies and Stalinist tendencies of both the Moscow and Peking variety.

The convention strikingly reconfirmed that there is no way to cheat history by trying to avoid political program; that in the end politics is always decisive; that the debates which have divided the political tendencies in the working class movement for almost 70 years, far from being “sterile,” remain the most fundamental and burning questions of today. It also showed that the “new left,” like the Communist Party and social democracy, is entirely capable of violating the basic democratic rights of members – when it fits their needs – not because they want to be undemocratic, but because they are politically incapable of dealing with serious, organized opposition.

From the moment the convention opened it was dominated by the fierce factional struggle between supporters of the current national leadership of SDS – Mike Klonsky, Bob Avakian, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Jeff Jones, and others (who have differences among themselves) – and the Worker-Student Alliance caucus (WSA), which was led by the Progressive Labor Party. The supporters of the national office organized themselves in the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) caucus.

There was also a significant number of delegates who supported neither caucus. These included many SDSers who had not yet made up their minds on the political issues dividing the groups, as well as other organized caucuses, such as the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) caucus, and the Joe Hill caucus from San Francisco. These other caucuses, some organized around specific programs, generally disagreed with both major factions on one or more points, and many of them were opposed to the split that occurred.

Opening skirmishes

During the first two days of the convention little of substance took place, but several questions over which there were sharp differences came to a vote, giving both factions an opportunity to gauge their strength. (The results were reassuring to PL and the WSA caucus, and, consequently, quite unsettling to the RYM faction.)

PL won two such votes – to exclude the commercial press and to schedule more workshops – while the national office faction won a vote to give the floor to Chris Milton, an American student who joined the Red Guards in China for a while. PL charged that Milton had been cashiered out of the Red Guards and shouldn’t be allowed to speak.

Aside from the vote itself, which was 586-577, the incident was also significant as an example of the method used by the national office throughout in trying to combat PL. Unable to answer PL’s utterly false political line, they attempted to “out-Mao” the Maoists, to prove by frequent reference to and quotations from the Red Book, Lin Piao, and similar sources, that they were the real Maoists. The country which has had the most consistently revolutionary line for more than a decade – Cuba – received no attention.

The split that occurred at the SDS convention has been maturing for well over a year. As the PL-led caucus grew from one convention and national council meeting to the next, the inability of the national leadership of SDS to meet the challenge became more and more obvious. At this convention, when the national leadership realized that PL might be able to win a majority of the delegates on some of the key resolutions,, and perhaps even win the leadership, (they precipitated the split without waiting to see how many they could win over in political discussion.

On the three main political questions before the convention, PL’s “revolutionary” rhetoric is nothing but cover for abstention from the real struggles with revolutionary implications going on in the world today. They condemn the leadership and policies of the NLV and North Vietnam, refusing here in the U.S. to build the mass antiwar movement. They condemn all nationalism as reactionary, including the revolutionary nationalism of the oppressed, and even attack as “bourgeois” the struggles by oppressed national minorities for university education. They condemn struggles for women’s rights unless they are directly tied to the struggles of women workers for equal economic opportunities. Even against such rotten, reformist positions, the national leadership of SDS proved incapable of engaging in a political debate with PL.

The miserable conduct of PL also contributed to the lack of rational political debate. Using tactics that have long been second-nature to those in the Stalinist movement the PL leaders and the WSA faction systematically attempted to drown out their opponents by mass chanting every time a statement was made with which they disagreed. The RYM caucus responded by adopting the same methods, with the result that any attempt to debate political questions rapidly degenerated into opposing sides shouting slogans and epithets at each other and shaking their fists in unison.

For example, whenever anyone attacked PL’s refusal to support the struggle for black control of the black community, open admissions, and many other demands of the black struggle, they were answered not by political argument, but by 500 voices screaming, ”Smash racism.” The usual response of those supporting the RYM was limited to a near-hysterical “Free Huey.” And so it went throughout.

Split number one

On Friday evening, when the discussion on resolutions was to begin, the convention proceedings were suspended to hear a delegation from the Illinois Black Panther Party. Stating that he was speaking on behalf of the national organizations of the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets and the Young Lords, Panther Bobby Rush launched into a vitriolic attack on PL for its refusal to support the black liberation struggle in practice.

Undoubtedly, some hoped this would produce an anti-PL stampede in the convention, but the Panther statement didn’t have quite the desired effect. One reason was that the previous evening the same Panther spokesmen had seriously discredit themselves and had been literally booed the platform for their male-chauvinist narks about “pussy power.” When they mistakenly assumed that the source of hostility was prudishness, they only succeeded making matters worse by saying, “You sisters have a strategic position for the revolution . . . prone.” The hall bust loose and the ensuing chaos prevented the Panther’s from saying any more.)

In denouncing PL, Rush accused them “deviating from the Marxist-Leninist position on the right to self-determination of peoples,” and declared, “they will be considered as counterrevolutionary traitors” if they don’t change their attitude. “SDS,” he said, “will be judged by the company it keeps and the effectiveness with which it deals with factions within its organization.”

As the convention neared chaos once again, Jeff Gordon of PL took the floor to defend PL’s position, denouncing the leaders for trying to use the Panthers as a club against the WSA caucus and for their inability to carry out a political debate themselves.

Bernadine Dohrn, Mike Klonsky and other SDS leaders responded by declaring that it was impossible to remain in the same organization with people who opposed self-determination in practice and demanded an immediate split. Then Bernadine Dohrn announced she was walking out and invited all those who agreed with her to follow. The convention was in such total chaos that few people even heard what she said. Less than half followed her out.

From Friday evening till late Saturday evening the SDS convention met in two different wings of the Chicago Coliseum. Those who had walked out, and others who had joined them later, debated whether or not to split SDS, and if so, how. Those who remained with the WSA caucus held general workshops and waited to see if the others would “return to SDS.” Throughout the day the RYM caucus fluctuated between 500 and 700, reaching its peak late Saturday night.

Split number two

When the final decision was reached, the RYM caucus voted to expel PL, and all those who agreed with them, from SDS. (About 10-15 percent of the RYM caucus voted against expulsion. Abstentions were not counted.

In short, a minority of the SDS convention, in a caucus which excluded those to be expelled, voted to expel what might have been the majority of the convention. They were expelled not for specific acts’ against which they could defend themselves but solely for their ideas. Technically, they have no means to appeal the expulsion.

The RYM caucus returned to the convention hall and read a statement enunciating two principles which henceforth are supposedly criteria for membership in SDS. (RYM leaders shamefacedly admitted the next day that they had forgotten to read a couple of additional points.)

One: We support the struggle of the black and Latin colonies within the U. S. for national liberation and we recognize those nations’ rights to self-determination (including the right to political secession if they desire it.).

Two: We support the struggle for national liberation of the people of South Vietnam, led by the National Liberation Front and Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. We also support the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by President Ho Chi Minh, as well as the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Democratic Republics of Korea and Albania, and the Republic of Cuba, all waging fierce struggles against U.S. imperalism. We support the right of all people to pick up the gun to free themselves from the brutal rule of U. S. imperialism.”

The statement stipulated that in addition to PL, “all people who do not accept the above two principles are no longer members of SDS.” Where this could lead was made abundantly clear the following day when Bob Avakian (creator of the out-Mao-the-Maoists strategy), running for national secretary, announced that if elected he would work to exclude members of the Independent Socialist Club, a group which does not support the governments listed. After reading the statement, during which screams of “bullshit”, “shame” and similar political slogans reached their convention peak, the RYM caucus filed out of the hall.

Two, three, many SDS’s

On Sunday afternoon the two sections of the SDS convention met on different sides of the city.

Four or five hundred gathered in the Coliseum to constitute the WSA caucus as SDS. PL, perhaps emboldened by the fumbling ineptness of the national office leadership, succumbed to the temptation to try to become SDS, and bulled ahead. Instead of deciding to appeal to the ranks of SDS against the undemocratic expulsion, the WSA caucus passed its resolutions, elected its officers, and scheduled a press conference to declare itself the SDS and to denounce the “splinter leadership” for “anti-working-class politics and practices.” In a painfully slow and lifeless meeting, SDS (WSA) elected John Pennington of Boston PL as national secretary, Pat Forman of San Francisco as inter-organizational secretary, and Alan Spector of the New England Regional SDS as educational secretary.

Across town, some 700-800 members and supporters of the RYM caucus gathered to decide in what form SDS would continue. The general mood was one of great relief to have finally, somehow, been freed of the millstone. But very rapidly the political differences within the RYM faction intensified, and the national leadership found itself under attack from those who objected to the lack of democracy within SDS.

The first point of discussion was a set of five principles, drafted by the Avakian-Klonsky group and supported by the Bernadine Dohrn-Mark Rudd wing. The five points were intended to concretize and buttress the “principles” adopted to expel PL. The motion put forth was to adopt the five principles as the basis for membership in SDS. In response to a question from the floor, the chair ruled that the principles would definitely constitute the basis for excluding people from SDS.

The five “unity principles of SDS” proposed were: “1) Oppose white supremacy. Full support to the national liberation struggles of oppressed peoples against U. S. imperialism. For the right of self-determination for the black and Chicano nations. Independence for Puerto Rico. 2) Oppose male supremacy, support the struggle for women’s liberation. 3) Support for armed struggle. 4) Exclude anti-communism. 5) Fight for socialism.”

Strong opposition came from a minority of delegates who felt the principles were irrelevant to the day to day work of SDS and would not be acceptable to the bulk of the membership. They tended to want to return to the “old SDS” which was anti-ideology and anti-program, with everyone free to do his own thing.

The proposed set of principles, if adopted and enforced, would change the fundamental character of SDS as it has existed for nine years. Yet, the leaders tried to ram it through after 45 minutes of debate. But the opposition was vociferous enough to force a retreat, and it was decided to print the proposed program in New Left Notes and allow a written discussion.

Antiwar inaction

By far the most important issue acted on by SDS (RYM) was on the proposal for a fall action. Despite all the self-criticism about SDS’s past errors and failure to make the fight against the war in Vietnam the central task, the action proposal adopted by the SDS (RYM) convention represented no fundamental change in policy.

SDS decided to call an action in Chicago in late September when the eight indicted for last August’s Chicago demonstration go on trial. The demands of the demonstration will be withdraw the troops, support the NLF, support the GIs, support black liberation, free all political prisoners.

There was no mention, much less discussion, of how SDS could work with the antiwar coalition and other organizations to build mass demonstrations against the war and for the withdrawal of troops. The July 4-5 Cleveland conference sponsored by antiwar organizations across the country to discuss the next mass action was not mentioned once! Unable to lead even its own membership in the struggle against the war, SDS is once again offering its leadership to the entire antiwar movement.

Far from being a turn to the antiwar movement, SDS’s new action represents just one more variation on their five- year-old policy of hoping to substitute themselves for the mass antiwar movement in the U. S. Their adoption of the negotiations line, under cover of supporting the NLF 10-point program, represents a retreat, not an advance for the anti-imperialist forces in the U.S.

The SDS (RYM) convention concluded in the early morning hours of Sunday with the election of Mark Rudd (who modestly labeled himself an internationally known “symbol of the movement”) as national secretary, Jeff Jones of San Francisco as inter-organizational secretary, and Bill Ayers of Michigan as educational secretary. Defeated in the elections were two ISC candidates, and the Bob Avakian-Lyn Wells ticket, running for national secretary and national educational secretary respectively.

The new national interim committee is composed of Barbara Reilly from Columbia, Bob Avakian of Berkeley, Linda Evans of Michigan, Mike Klonsky, Noel Ignatin, Bernadine Dohrn of Chicago, Corky Benedict of Ohio and Howie Machtinger.

SDS has traveled a long way from the days of its founding as a liberal anti-communist organization. While the political level of the delegates at the convention did not accurately reflect the total SDS membership, certainly the majority of the delegates at this convention considered themselves “some sort of communist.” This indicates the rising political consciousness of the American student radicalization.

But at the same time, the shallow, pragmatic philosophy on which SDS has based itself, and the lack of understanding of the need for principled politics and clear program has permitted the factionalism, supposedly barred at the front door, to come flooding in by the windows, and back-alley entrances. Along with the increasing Marxist jargon have come all the vices, but few of the virtues of the “old left.”

The ninth national convention of the Students for a Democratic Society was possibly the most bureaucratic, undemocratic and factional youth convention in the history of the radical movement in the U.S.

In its wake, there are now two groups claiming to be the real SDS, each with an essentially factional and sectarian program, and one of them excluding the other. The factional battle will now continue on campuses across the country. But the convention itself provided striking confirmation that an attempt to build a broad student movement by ignoring political program can lead only to one variation or another of the current crisis. The steadily radicalizing student movement will gain little from either of the warring groups.