Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jack A. Smith

SDS ousts PLP

First Published: The Guardian, June 28, 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Despite rumors to the contrary, there is still one SDS.

When the 9th annual convention of SDS convened here June 18, the question was which road the nationís largest radical organization would take. When it ended in the early morning of June 23, across town from where it began, the question was whether SDS could successfully negotiate the perilous road it had chosen.

SDS expelled the Progressive Labor party and, by extension, the worker-student alliance caucus from its ranks. It did so by what can only be termed a most unusual procedure.

PL – a small cadre group formed along Leninist lines – and the WSA, a broad caucus which PL created within SDS through diligent organization during the last year – may have constituted a voting majority at the convention.

SDS met in closed caucus for 24 hours in a hall adjoining the convention hall, deciding that the basis for unity between PL and SDS no longer existed because PL “is objectively racist, anticommunist and reactionary.” The SDS caucus, which fluctuated between 700 and 1200 members, then returned to the convention floor – occupied by perhaps another 1000 delegates, mostly WSA and PL – and declared that “SDS feels that it is now necessary to rid itself of the burden of allowing the politics of the PLP to exist within our organization.”

SDSers thereupon marched out of their own convention site, amidst hooting and jeers from those who remained. SDS reconvened the next day in another location, this time without the WSA-PL delegates, and proceeded to set programs – including a major anti-Vietnam war action – elect officers and adjourn.

Those who remained in the drab, cavernous Coliseum on Wabash Avenue declared that they are the real SDS, and also set program and elected officers.

“Last night,” the WSA-PL group said in a press release, “a minority-group faction of the SDS national convention split off from the original. This faction included a majority of the previous leadership, whose anti-working-class politics and practices have been exposed and defeated. They have lost the confidence of the majority of the original-both on the campuses and at the convention. Recognizing this, they walked out of the convention hall, held their own meeting and declared that the PLP was purged from SDS. This fallacious attempt to cover up their political defeat was coupled with the false claim that they legitimately represented SDS. However, there is only one SDS. This meeting in the Coliseum is the 1969 meeting of the national convention of SDS. This attempt to split and destroy the student movement must and will be fought.”

The decision to expel PL was based on the following two principles, decided on during the SDS caucus:

“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. imperialism. We support the right of all people to pick up the gun to free themselves from, the brutal rule of U.S. imperialism.

“The PLP has attacked every revolutionary national struggle of the black and Latin American peoples in the U.S. as being racist and reactionary. For example, they have attacked open admissions, black studies, community control of police, the Black Panther party, its ’breakfast for children’ program and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

“PLP attacked Ho Chi Minh, the NLF, the revolutionary government of Cuba-all leaders of the people’s struggles for freedom against U.S. imperialism.”

In addition to PL, the statement continued, “all people who do not accept the above two principles are no longer members of SDS.”

The move to purge ranks came after a year of intense factionalism in SDS on the national and local levels, PL gaining in strength with the proliferation of WSA chapters and caucuses on scores of campuses. WSAers are not predominantly members of PL, but generally adhere to PL’s line for the student movement, a line SDS – which has proclaimed itself a revolutionary youth movement – considers both liberal and reactionary.

SDS’s estimated membership of 100,000, [text missing in the original – MIA] but has been able to produce a great number of members at national meetings because it was guided by a tough, disciplined PL cadre.

The great majority of SDS members, on the other hand, seemed to feel real distance from SDS affairs on the national level.

The reason for the expulsion was that SDS feared that continued tolerance of PL-WSA politics in the organization would have destroyed SDS’s development into a revolutionary youth movement, the leading SDS organizational principle of the last six months. Although SDSers say that PL’s presence in SDS in the last several years has forced SDS to deal with revolutionary politics and create revolutionary programs, they maintain that PL has sabotaged many programs and has paralyzed genuine revolutionary development.

PL maintains the expulsion was planned and organized before the convention, though there is little evidence to support this charge. The expulsion was probably inevitable sooner or later, but it appears to have been intended for later than sooner, judging from the tactical blunders, utter confusion, manipulation and unpreparedness attendant upon the decision.

Aside from defending its line on black liberation, self-determination and total support for the Vietnamese, SDS was influenced by at least three immediate reasons to sidestep its own constitution in expelling PL and setting exclusionary standards for membership.

First, given the unrepresentative nature of the convention (a concern which never weighed too heavily in the past), SDS was in danger of being taken over politically and organizationally by the PL-WSA faction.

Second, a virtual ultimatum from the Black Panther party – subscribed to by the Brown Berets, a militant Mexican-American organization, and the Young Lords, a similar organization of Puerto Rican youth – demanded that SDS purge itself of tendencies opposing their line on self-determination of oppressed peoples (including the right to secession). While insisting that it supports self-determination, PL has stated that “all nationalism is reactionary,” including the nationalism of oppressed minorities within the oppressor nation.

Third, there seemed to be a growing tendency in SDS which was already contemplating leaving the organization to form another group based on revolutionary youth movement politics, free of PL once and for all.

The ouster was the result of the temporary unity around the PL question by two contending SDS tendencies supporting the concept of the revolutionary youth movement. RYM, as the concept is known, seeks to convert SDS into a mass revolutionary organization of youth grounded in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung’s thought. Originally the product of what was known late last year as the “national collective” – that is, basically, elected national leaders and their political associates in various regions or chapters – the RYM group split into two factions known as “weatherman” and RYM 2, based on names of papers submitted to the convention by the two groups.

Both factions agreed on many points, but came to a parting of ways due to different ideas on such questions as black liberation, women’s liberation, nationalism, the white working class and action tactics.

Weatherman, which now controls the SDS national structure, tends to deny the leading role of the working class in revolutionary struggle. It has been charged with adventurism both for its seeming indifference to white workers and for a shock-brigade action strategy. This practice is consistent with its persistent slogan, “Two, three, many Vietnams” – a distillation of the theory that third-world revolution, coupled with armed struggle in the U.S. by revolutionary whites supported by white youths, will defeat imperialism and bring about socialism.

Blacks in the weatherman as a nation within the National liberation oppressor country cannot by accomplished until capitalism is overthrown. On women’s liberation, the weatherman tendency holds that women should be organized around anti-imperialist, antiracist struggles.

RYM 2, badly beaten in the election, sees the proletariat as being the main force in the revolution, while at this stage, revolutionary blacks at home and liberation struggles abroad play the leading role. Blacks, women and students, RYM 2 holds, play a key role in raising the consciousness of the working class by struggling for their own liberation.

Blacks in the U.S. are seen by RYM 2 as a separate nation, but because of the dual position of black workers – oppressed as blacks, superexploited as workers – “their fight for the right of self-determination is a precondition for any kind of socialism in this country.” This struggle for liberation, along with women’s struggle for liberation from male supremacy and the struggles of youth, is seen as a means of developing proletarian unity and revolution.

PL, which considers itself the vanguard of the proletarian struggle, sees the working class as the key to revolution. While supporting self-determination, PL insists that national liberation struggles, including the black struggle in the U.S. must have a class character. Juxtaposed to the Black Panther party slogan, “Power to the; people,” PL demands “Power to the workers.” PL says student actions must be in the objective interest of the working class, which often means that WSA members engage in reformist trade union struggles. Women are seen as superexploited workers, victims of the ruling class-not as being oppressed by men as well.

Another established tendency in SDS, though it may be a matter of time before it is purged, is the Independent Socialist Club. The ISC – supporting workers’ democracy as the ultimate goal of the revolutionary movement – is critical of all existing socialist countries (including those the SDS expulsion order indicates must be supported). ISC is very small in SDS, but very vocal. It engages in considerable criticism of undemocratic practices in SDS, most recently deploring what it terms a resurgence in Stalinism in SDS practice. Other considerations aside, should ISC be expelled – its ideology is considered counterrevolutionary by SDS’ factions – the sole organized critique inside SDS on the question of manipulative, top-down leadership would be silenced.

In terms of real strength, none of the SDS factions can be considered overwhelming. With PL-WSA no longer in evidence, the weatherman group appears to have the most grass-roots support, particularly in the Ohio-Michigan region and on certain large campuses, such as Columbia. The newly elected national officers – Mark Rudd, national secretary, Bill Ayers, education secretary and Jeff Jones, inter-organizational secretary – identify with the weatherman group. A majority of the national interim committee also supports weatherman.

The new SDS Vietnam action program calls for major antiwar demonstrations in the fall – time and precise action to be determined. The demonstrations, intended to build a broad anti-imperialist consciousness, mark SDS’s reentry into the struggle against the Vietnam war on a on a national level.

The fight with PL began the moment the convention opened (a week late, because SDS was turned down by about 50 universities that were asked to provide accommodations). A motion had been introduced to ban the New York Times from covering the meeting (because a Times reporter testified about the student movement recently before the House Internal Security Committee), and requiring media representatives to sign an affidavit promising not to testify about the convention if subpoenaed by any investigative agency. PL presented a successful counterproposal banning all members of the “capitalistic media.” Not to be outdone, the convention press committee a day or so later came up with a four-point rationale for excluding the bourgeois press.

One of the results of all this was that reporters who would have had to pay $25 to SDS for the privilege of covering the meeting, under the original motion, got in for $5 by disguising themselves as SDSers – and their stories were more garbled than usual because most were afraid of taking notes openly. After concocting a profound critique of the commercial press (“the mass media creates false consciousness ...” and so on), one of the first things PL-WSA and SDS did after the split was to call news conferences and issue lengthy prepared statements to the press.

After the first five minutes of the convention, chairman Tim McCarthy found himself pounding on the table with a rock to restore order. It took another five minutes for the battle to really begin.

Mike Klonsky, outgoing national secretary and a RYM 2 leader, delivered a brief agenda which was promptly and scathingly challenged by Jeff Gordon, one of PL’s floor leaders. Gordon pointed out that the agenda hardly made provisions for workshops, and challenged two of SDS’s pet agenda items – a discussion of imperialism, intended to expose PL as counterrevolutionary, and an address about the Chinese cultural revolution by a young (and anti-PL) American who had the singular experience of having been in China for three years as a Red Guard. First, SDS maintained there was “no room” for workshops – an argument which collapsed when PL inquired where the few scheduled workshops were to be held. Klonsky then blew it entirely by denigrating workshops, saying they were hunting grounds for “80 different sects who want a piece of the new person.”

Eventually the convention managed to accommodate new workshops, the imperialism panel and the talk from the former Red Guard, Chris Milton, a member of the Berkeley Revolutionary Union (a new Maoist grouping which considers PL counterrevolutionary and is affiliated with RYM 2).

After PL denounced Milton for some deviation or other, the first serious chanting began from the Ohio-Michigan caucus, the disciplined, if emotional, base of weatherman: “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-tung; Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-tung,” followed by “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” escalating to cacophony before terminating in riotous self-applause.

PL chose to parry swiftly but softly: “Waving the red flag to oppose the red flag,” intoned a party operative, confidently and defiantly.

A panel on women’s liberation ended the evening, but not before PL began the first chanting of “Bullshit! Bullshit!” when a woman representing PL’s line on women’s liberation, was under attack.

Throughout much of the next day’s discussion on racism, mutual recrimination between PL and SDS reached. new levels of adolescence with WSAers rarely speaking, but participating lustily in chants of “Racist! Racist!”

The convention was brought back to order by the appearance of speakers from the Brown Berets and the Young Lords, both of whom condemned the fierce factionalism they witnessed and the obscure rhetoric employed. They also took the opportunity to condemn “those who say all nationalism is reactionary.” Milton then delivered an interesting account of his service as a Red Guard, only once saying that PL was “left opportunist.”

The next speaker, Chaka Walls, minister of information of the Illinois Black Panther party, took a strong stand against “armchair Marxism.” He said the Black Panthers were the vanguard because they had shed more blood than anyone, and that white leftists had not even shot rubber bands. He refrained from attacking PL by name.

’Pussy power’

Walls then began to explain the role of women in the revolution. “We believe in the freedom of love, in pussy power,” he said. A shock wave stunned the arena, and PL responded with chants of “Fight male chauvinism.”

“We’ve got some puritans in the crowd,” responded Walls. “Superman was a punk, because he never tried to fuck Lois Lane.”

“Fight male chauvinism,” PL-WSA and many others began to chant. Anger was so intense that Walls stepped down and left the podium to Jewel Cook, another Panther spokesman. Cook, not understanding what was wrong with “pussy power,” quickly made matters worse. Misinterpreting the reason for the hostility, but correctly locating the largest core of opposition as the PL bloc, Cook said: “I don’t want to get personal, but I bet PL ain’t leading any struggles on campus. Call Chairman Mao and asks him who’s the vanguard party in the U.S. “He [Walls] was only trying to say that you sisters have a strategic position for the revolution . . . prone.”

But before the word “prone” could really escape his mouth the house was in pandemonium.

The room sobered up when Naomi Jaffe, of New York WITCH, liberated the microphone from the men.

“We refuse to have women’s liberation used as a political football any longer.”

The evening ended after a fistfight, with PL charging that two of their supporters were attacked.

The real fight, leading to the expulsion, started the next day. It began quietly enough when credentials were distributed. There were few challenges, which is unusual in SDS. Many SDS leaders of both RYM factions were busy counting delegate strength, uneasy to the point of mild hysteria because it looked like PL-WSA might finally have mustered a voting majority.

Debate was beginning on the first resolution. PL’s motion on racism (entitled “Less talk, more action, fight racism”), a program primarily concerned with the tactics of fighting racism on campus. Suddenly it was announced that Cook had returned to the convention with a directive from the Panthers. The convention immediately agreed to listen and, for the first time, an absolute hush overcame the assembly.

“The PLP,” he said, “has deviated from a Marxist-Leninist position.” Everyone freaked out. Cook demanded that PL change its position on self-determination. “If PLP continues, we will consider them counterrevolutionary traitors. . .. SDS will be judged by the company it keeps.”

WSA-PL: “Smash red-baiting! smash red-baiting!”

Mark Rudd, reasonably, proposed a recess. But before his wisdom could be acted upon, his fellow weatherman, Bernardine Dorhn, took the microphone and initiated a process which, two days later, resulted in what new inter-organizational secretary Jeff Jones was to describe as “perhaps the most important thing in left history in 3 maybe 200, years.”

Jim Mellon, a weatherman leader, said what many had only spoken of privately until that moment. “PL out-organized us and made us look politically ridiculous. We were out-organized, out-talked and out-forced; but we can’t walk out. We must form a RYM caucus and go back and fight on the basis of ideas.”

During a full day’s SDS caucus it was apparent that many people had reversed their positions. Miss Dohrn, who had publically argued against “dumping” PL the day before, said she felt this might be necessary. “I propose we unite, argue it all out with PL inside, and return here to constitute ourselves as SDS, meet on program and elect officers.” The idea caught on.

About 800 SDSers met the next day at the First Congregational Church to set program and elect officers. The RYM 2 ticket consisted of Avakian for national secretary against weatherman Rudd, who won overwhelmingly; Lyn Wells for education secretary against Ayers, who also won overwhelmingly. Jones – who was acceptable to both sides, though he identifies with weatherman – ran unopposed for inter-organizational secretary.

ISC ran two candidates, who lost, but their candidacy provided a forum for denouncing SDS’s lack of democracy.

In running for office, Rudd, who figured in the 1968 Columbia rebellion, said that he was a press-created SDS leader whom the media had made a symbol of the new left. While he didn’t approve of such things, he said, “the movement needs leadership, the movement needs symbols, my name exists as a symbol. I think that’s a good thing.”

The course ahead for SDS is unclear. No one can fully anticipate what PL will do, nor the impact of two groups saying they are SDS. It is conceivable that PL can continue to hold its group together.

SDS itself has a lot of problems. Sectarianism is heavy, and will probably get heavier before it gets lighter. Comradely references to Stalin among part of the leadership – though the convention was spared at least this – disturb many SDSers. The base of membership still remains incredibly distant from the center of decision-making in the organization. If this trend continues, the distance may become unbridgeable.