SDS is at a radical crossroads
Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

SDS is at a radical crossroads

First Published: Guardian, June 7, 1969.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The school year now ending might well be remembered as the period when SDS became a household word.

Wave after wave of mass political action of newly radicalized young people in the schools, led largely by SDS and black student organizations, has incurred the wrath of the country’s ruling elites.

With the start of summer vacations, the movement shows no sign of letting up – only a shift of location into the potentially more explosive communities, factories and streets.

It is almost trite to say that SDS is going through fundamental changes. That has been the case every year since the organization was founded in the early 1960s. With SDS’s yearly national convention coming up June 16-22, it is natural to expect new changes and directions.

But this year it seems different.

The changes now occurring in the organization (and in the country as a whole) seem more fundamental, and move at a more rapid pace. The political situation and choices confronting and enveloping the movement seem more ominous than ever: people’s lives are at stake. The repression of the state, including the murder of two people by police in North Carolina and Berkeley, has created a new level of seriousness, political intensity and, to be honest, fear within the ranks of the new left.

SDS is confronted with tremendous problems along with the possibilities of tremendous success. In a way, the problems are those that have plagued revolutionary movements for the past 100 years. For that reason, they cannot be dismissed or viewed with petty annoyance. The problems persist because they have not been solved. Revolutionary movements have met with defeat, time and time again, because of the political substance behind the various catch-phrase “isms” scattered in dusty polemics.

Many new leftists have been upset by “old left rhetoric” now in common usage in SDS’s various “ideological struggles.” But those phrases are laden with the historical experience of the revolutionary socialist movement; and while they are often abused and misused, and while a fresh approach is always welcomed, neither that experience nor its language should be rejected out of hand.

Convention will reflect immaturity, experience

In the past year, SDS has come of age as an authentic revolutionary movement. It also contains the immaturity of its “old left” elders, the mistakes permeating the defeats of past and present movements. All of this will certainly be reflected at the convention where new national officers will be chosen, experience summed up, mistakes corrected and new directions taken.

That is, if all goes as it should. There is also the possibility that the analyses of revolutionaries from other times and places will be mechanically transplanted and misapplied, obfuscating rather than clarifying the realities of modern capitalism in the U.S.

There will be those who will endlessly repeat formulas and slogans, betraying their inability to think critically and creatively by hiding behind Marxist rhetoric. Newer activists will be intimidated, oppressed and beaten into passivity and silence by the words of articulate phrasemongers.

The key issues facing SDS are reflections of some major problems of U.S. society as a whole: white supremacy, male supremacy and the war in Vietnam. The way the convention deals with these can shape the direction of the movement over the next year.

Although SDS has been a leading force among white people fighting against white supremacy, many campus chapters have had difficulty and made mistakes in relating to the struggles of black students. Some chapters have opposed anticolonial demands raised by black students as “bourgeois” or “student power.” Other chapters have failed to recognize the principle of black leadership in anticolonial struggles, or have tacked on “white demands” to black demands, confusing the issues and deflecting the struggle from its primary target, white supremacy.

A principal source of this chauvinistic practice in SDS is the Progressive Labor Party, whose political analysis and influence will have to be criticized and defeated. For instance, PLP believes that all nationalism, including all black nationalism and the nationalism of the oppressed peoples of the third world, is reactionary and a weapon of the ruling class. This perspective has even led PLP to join Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey in using the term “racism in reverse” to describe some of the anticolonial demands of black students and workers.

Although SDS passed a good resolution on women’s liberation six months ago, all political groups and chapters in the organization have done little more than give rhetorical support to the movement. One chapter even put out a leaflet which observed, “The system is like a woman; you have to fuck it to make it change.” The same chapter also circulated a local underground paper with an article comparing the crisis of decaying imperialism to the process of menopause in older women–worthless, run down, out of shape and no longer good for anything.

Major weaknesses

In chapters where women’s caucuses have formed, many women have met intense hostility from SDS men. In some cases, women have withdrawn from SDS altogether and formed separate groups because the practice of male supremacy has been so rampant.

On the issue of the Vietnam war, SDS lacks neither a good political analysis nor a willingness to fight, and has played a leading role in campus antiwar and antimilitary struggles. The problem is one of sectarianism in relation to the antiwar movement as a whole.

SDS has abstained from playing a leading (or even any) role in national and regional mobilizations against the war. This grows out of SDS’s past practice of putting its interest in “multi-issue local organizing” above the necessity for mass mobilizations against the war.

SDS’s weakness in this area is based on its inability to understand or practice the politics of a united front. Rather than fighting for anti-imperialist politics and leadership within a broad coalition of all groups and political forces favoring the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, SDS has remained on the sidelines of these struggles for fear of cooptation by liberals.

This does not necessarily mean that SDS should try to revitalize all the old Mobilization Committees. A more fruitful approach might involve pulling together more viable broad coalitions with an anti-imperialist leadership and direction. The Oakland Stop the Draft Week operation is a good example.

In part, SDS’s noninvolvement in mass antiwar mobilizations has been because of the influence of PLP, which has always fought against any SDS effort to work in principled coalitions with the mobilization committees’ “revisionist, Trotskyist and pacifist” leadership. PLP is also pushing the counterrevolutionary position that the National Liberation Front and Democratic Republic of Vietnam have sold out the struggle in Vietnam and are cooperating with imperialism. SDS will have to expose and defeat this position thoroughly, as well as improve its methods of working with mass mobilizations against the war.

From the perspective of these three main problems, the principal factional struggle at the convention should be directed against the politics of PLP and its supporters. There are, however, important political differences among other groupings in SDS which will also be debated.

One debate will center on the conception and direction of SDS as a revolutionary youth movement. The contested ideas here will concern the class composition of U.S. society, the class position of students and young people generally and the relation between the youth movement and the working class.

One position–that students are part of the working class–views the increase of skills through study as alienated and exploited labor.

An opposing position view’s students as a multiclass social stratum, reflecting all class divisions. As such, most students come from the working class and return to more skilled sectors of the working class. But their work as students, which is certainly alienating and oppressive, is not exploited labor–the creation of exchange value for the market and surplus value for the capitalist.

A similar difference between these two positions concerns the nature of youth in general, rather than just student youth.

Although the dispute seems academic, it has serious implications. For instance, the importance of the basic industrial sector of the working class is played down by those who believe that students are workers.

Those who do not blur the distinctions between students and workers point out the difference between “vanguard role” and “main force” in the making of a socialist revolution. As they see it, a revolutionary youth movement is taking the lead among white people in fighting imperialism at this time. But when all is said and done, they insist that the working class will be the main force to carry the revolution through to the end.

One formulation of the debate holds that there are “three roads” to the radicalization of the working class. One is an anti-imperialist youth movement that can relate to young workers in communities, factories and the military. The second is a women’s liberation movement that can relate to working women and housewives. The third road is the black liberation movement, which has recently developed major struggles against the class and colonial oppression of the masses of black workers in basic industries.

Another question sure to come up will be adventurism and opportunism in relation to armed struggle and armed self-defense. One position is that SDS has a problem with “non-struggle attitudes,” backing away from militant action when it is necessary. Others see the problem of “adventurism,” initiating super-militant tactics that lead to isolation and defeat.

The biggest problem of all at the convention, however, will be SDS’s ability to discuss these issues in a rational way. The organization is rife with false factionalism, personal attacks and innuendo, dogmatism and heated maneuvering behind the election of new national officers.

If these problems are to be contained, and if the real differences can be sharply drawn and resolved, the outcome of the convention could mark a major step forward–not only for SDS, but for the radical movement as a whole.