News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The '60s Are Gone, But One of Its Most Controversial Organizations Is Back

Since its fiery demise in 1969, there have been various attempts to revive Students for a Democratic Society. All such efforts failed ... until recently.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

In April of 1965 a young man named Paul Potter took the stage at the first march on Washington against the war in Vietnam. "What kind of system is it that justifies the U.S. or any other country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose?" he asked the crowd, before enjoining them to "name that system, describe it, analyze it, understand it, and change it."

Potter was president of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the group behind the demonstration. The largest and most influential activist youth organization of the 1960s, SDS united around the ideal of "participatory democracy" and encouraged radical analysis, emphasizing the connections between issues like poverty, racism and the Vietnam War. A media success, the march thrust SDS into the national spotlight. Over the next four years membership swelled to include upwards of 100,000 young people, but by 1970 the group had self-destructed.

Today Students for a Democratic Society occupies an almost mythical place in the history of the '60s, embodying both the promise and disappointment of Vietnam era youth activism. Since its fiery demise in 1969, there have been various attempts to revive SDS.

All such efforts failed, until recently.

Pat Korte of Stonington, Conn., and Jessica Rapchik of Chapel Hill, N.C., were high school seniors last year when they met on a conference call for participants in the World Can't Wait: Drive Out the Bush Regime campaign, one of the only nationwide protest games in town.

"After a while we felt very disillusioned. We felt powerless," Rapchik told me. Turned off by the lack of spontaneity and authoritarian undertones in discussions among the organizers, Korte and Rapchik realized the Revolutionary Communist Party -- a group that "definitely promotes violent overthrow of the government and revolution," as Rapchik put it -- was running the show.

It wasn't exactly the vibrant, spontaneous and inclusive peace movement they were looking to become part of. And so, after a couple of private phone conversations, the high school seniors went to their respective libraries and did some reading about past efforts to produce social change. Inspired by SDS's guiding ideal of "participatory democracy," they decided to revive the group.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Alan Haber, who played an instrumental role in the 1959 founding of SDS was having similar inklings up in Michigan, the original birthplace of the organization. Back in Ann Arbor after a long interlude in the Bay Area, Haber felt the time had come for the group's resurrection.

With a sense that the time was again ripe for New Left sentiments, Haber went to work doing what he does best: getting folks involved in the quest for peace. He put some fliers on telephone poles around town. "The last meeting was 35 years ago," they read. Approximately 30 people of varying ages showed up; soon enough, an SDS chapter formed on the university campus.

Unaware of these developments, Korte, an articulate and determined young idealist with a mop of unruly brown hair, got in touch with Haber to share his and Rapchik's vision. With that -- an 18-year-old reaching out to a man approaching 70 -- the nascent SDS signaled its first significant break with its previous incarnation, once famous for shunning the input of elders (defined, most dramatically, as "anyone over 30").

Since then, the organization's membership has mushroomed, exceeding Korte and Rapchik's wildest expectations. Boosters of the new SDS claim it is the fastest-growing multi-issue student group in history, already dwarfing comparable organizations like the International Socialist Organization. Official membership has passed the 2,000 mark, and there are approximately 140 university-based chapters across the country and 46 more at high schools.

According to Brian Kelley, a Pace University sophomore who is partly responsible for maintaining the website, new chapters are forming every week. Frustrated by the prevalence of single-issue groups on campus and the authoritarian politics or infighting between anti-war groups off campus, college students are gravitating towards the new SDS, which offers a youth-led, radically democratic program and a broad political focus.

Return to Chicago

But is it possible -- or, perhaps more importantly, desirable -- to revive a political organization that has been defunct for almost four decades? And not just any organization, but one with an incredibly vexed history -- and one whose previous members are still alive?

In 1969, SDS held its last national convention in Chicago, an event that has gone down in historical infamy. The proceedings devolved into sectarian madness, with Maoist militants facing off against the Marxist-Leninists, and what would become the Weather Underground Organization emerging as the most powerful faction.

Most of SDS's 100,000 members simply walked away, demoralized and disgusted. Thirty-seven years later SDS was back in Chicago, and I stood late last August chatting with Haber amidst the bustle of the first national convention of the revitalized SDS.

A man with a kind, grandfatherly face, a long bushy beard and a traditional yarmulke atop his head, Haber had come to the University of Chicago campus as part of MDS -- Movement for a Democratic Society -- the adult wing of the new SDS, though Haber, for one, doesn't see them as separate.

It's all the same organization, he explained, with the first letter in the service of a variety of meanings: Strugglers, Seekers, Survivors, Singers, Savants, and Seniors. SDS, he told me, can also stand for Some Day Soon.

Of the 200 or so people in attendance, the generally college-aged landscape was dotted with numerous gray heads. Aspiring to building a truly multigenerational movement, most youthful SDSers seemed happy to include to their older comrades, but unwilling to take orders from them. "They see us as encouragers and helpers," Haber explained, not as authorities. After all, when it comes to curing the world of injustice, "if we had all the answers, it would have been done already."

"A multigenerational approach is absolutely imperative," Rapchik told me in the days leading up to the convention. "It's not just our planet, it's theirs as well." According to Korte, the new SDS wants to make clear that "people who participate in a movement one decade are not discarded the next."

Rapchik and Korte also believe SDS veterans can offer essential perspective on why the group failed the first time around. "When we first started doing this search, they started giving us advice," Rapchik said. "They told us how the original organization fell apart." The dynamics of sexism and racism played a part, they explained, coupled with structural defects that made the group vulnerable to sectarian takeover. "No organization is perfect," Rapchick admitted of the new SDS, "but we wanted to start off with these issues in mind."

And so the 2006 SDS convention schedule was replete with panels like "White Privilege" and "Left-Wing Authoritarians and Crackpots: How to Spot Them and How to Stop Them." The errors of the first SDS were in the air. Yet it was clear by the final day of the convention that identifying potential pitfalls is the easy part. How to actually build a mass movement that meets the new members' standards of radial analysis, diversity, democracy and direct action provides a far more compelling challenge.

What's in a name?

On my final day in Chicago I was sitting on the lawn outside Cobb Hall, when a white-haired woman and her dog strolled up to a scruffy young man. She asked if he was attending the convention, he nodded and she told him, with touching sincerity, that the idea of a reformed SDS gave her hope.

The previous morning another local, about the same age, laughed when I explained why I was in town. "I don't think they know their history," she warned, stating that she was old enough to recall the now infamous "Days of Rage."

These two women occupy opposite sides of the spectrum on reactions to the new SDS. Why not come up with a new name, one without the stigma of SDS? Why not start anew?

Some elders, like Maurice Isserman, a well-known historian of the New Left, dismiss the effort outright, comparing the reformation of SDS to "something like a costume drama" of "dressing up in other people's clothes." But many of the young SDSers I spoke with wonder why they should have to reinvent the wheel.

Doug Viehmeyer, a dedicated SDS organizer from New Jersey, says, "If you consider the struggle for a participatory society, where people play a direct role in shaping their daily lives, nostalgic, then you can call us nostalgic anytime you want." Again and again young SDSers told me they stand behind the name because it deeply and accurately defines what they are -- they are students for a democratic society -- and because it is affirmative, implying a vision of a better world.

Korte notes that there are two facets to the word student: "The main thing is that no [other] organization on the left provides a radical program that is student led and democratic. Also, there's the idea that we want a society of self-educating individuals, a society of students. We want a society that doesn't suffer from that institutional memory loss."

Unfortunately for the new generation of SDSers, it's not as simple as making sure the past is not forgotten. The legacy of the original group and the lessons to draw from it are as ambiguous as they are hotly contested. Does reforming SDS condone past errors -- or even romanticize them -- as critics charge? Or, as the students hope, can you build a better movement by engaging the past and figuring out what worked and what didn't?

Will connecting the current anti-war movement with its roots make it stronger, or will it just drudge up bad blood? Most of SDS's negative associations have to do with the Weather Underground Organization. The fact the WUO splintered from SDS in 1969 has caused some critics to assume, wrongly, that the students spearheading the group's reformation glorify, or even advocate, armed struggle. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the founders of the new SDS have made clear that they take inspiration from the early incarnation of the original group, which had nothing to do with the emergence of the WUO.

At the same time, many students believe past mistakes have as much to teach them as past successes. "The bottom line," Korte told me, referring to the Weather Underground, "is it happened, it's something to learn from, and it provides an example of the direction we don't want to move in."

Moving forward

Despite the baggage, building off the mythology of SDS has its perks. It has attracted the attention of national and local media, including the Boston Globe and NPR's "All Things Considered."

This, in turn, has contributed to the group's phenomenal growth. And it has lured veterans of the original SDS, who may not have been motivated to invest time, energy and money into a budding student movement not explicitly reminiscent of their own youthful struggles.

On this front, Movement for a Democratic Society held its first national conference in New York City last month, focusing on the election of a board of directors. The group has incorporated in order to raise money for a bail fund and finance "action camps" and organizer trainings that are scheduled to take place this summer.

Aaron Petcoff, a 21-year-old attending Wayne State in Detroit, is hopeful about the relationship between SDS and MDS. To be successful, however, he thinks the new SDS should avoid trying to settle scores from 40 years ago or provide personal vindication for people with old grudges. He also advised against over-reliance on name recognition and coasting on "the romantic connection back to the legendary '60s group."

"I would make it clear that we're not resurrecting SDS," Petcoff said. "We're not a carbon copy of the old group. We're rebuilding it from the ground up." Young SDSers want to build a radical institution that can outlast the Iraq war, something that can foster a multigenerational movement with a long-term perspective. They say they need financial and legal support, professional skills, social capital and suggestions from their elders, not bickering, egotism or patronizing injunctions.

At the conference, student representatives challenged MDS members to stop making excuses and join their younger comrades in the streets. Brian Kelly lamented the fact that student organizations lose a quarter of their membership every year and called on the audience to make MDS a group post-graduate youth would want to join.

Mark Rudd, famed leader the 1968 Columbia University student strike and ex-Weatherman, warned young SDSers against getting too close to the "gray hairs." "There is no reason in the world why you would want to listen to me, except for the fact that over the last 37 years I've reflected continually about the complex of errors that led to the death of SDS and also on my part in this historical crime," he confessed at the conference.

Ferociously critical of the choices he made almost four decades years ago, Rudd is now committed to nonviolent activism. Taking the podium, he recalled conspiring to kill off the original SDS because "it wasn't revolutionary enough." Looking back, however, he sees the hypermilitancy of the Weather Underground faction as pure folly. Rudd and his comrades alienated people who should have been their allies and enabled the media and government to "characterize the entire movement as violent and therefore deranged."

"So the greatest lesson I draw from my disastrous history is the left must absolutely stay away from violence or any talk of violence," Rudd said. "The government is violent; we oppose their violence."

Right now the war in Iraq provides the most vivid example of the excesses of government violence. With the fourth anniversary just past, SDSers across the country geared up for a wave of actions. On March 12 approximately 100 students involved in New York SDS chapters occupied an Armed Forces Recruiting Center in lower Manhattan for two hours before 20 people were arrested. In Washington State, SDSers continue a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience at the Ports of Tacoma and Olympia to protest the shipment of Stryker Armored Vehicles to Iraq, one that police have responded to with tear gas and rubber bullets.

SDS has come a long way since the Chicago convention in August, but much remains to be done. From creating a national infrastructure to coordinating the upcoming action camps, student and veteran organizers have their hands full. History has played a unique role in this effort so far, but only time will tell what the new SDS has in store.

Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her first book, "Shadow Of the Sixties," is forthcoming from the New Press in 2007.

 
See more stories tagged with: