Folks across the country have recently revived the 1960s new left student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and are planning a national convention during the summer of 2006 — the first since 1969. The time and location are still to be determined. There are already more than 60 local SDS chapters across the US with new ones forming weekly. The idea of re-forming SDS has taken off rapidly, perhaps signaling a widespread desire for a national, radical student organization that can be independent of existing sectarian groups and that can provide a space for investigation, critical thought and ultimately, action. The key for a new SDS to achieve relevance will be its ability to go beyond historical precedents and create its own, modern forms of theory, practice and community.
SDS in History
The original SDS played a key role in the radical movement during the 60s — opening up a radical political space known as the new left that stood between the older 1930s inspired-left and mainstream establishment liberalism. While SDS had a complex history that evolved and changed between its founding in 1960 and its demise in 1969, one of its key innovations was a push for participatory democracy — small-d democracy in which ordinary workers, students and people could have direct involvement in decisions effecting their lives. Much radical analysis that activists in 2006 take for granted was created by SDS.
Many people are familiar with the late 1960s incarnation of SDS — a period of mass organization focusing largely on the anti-Vietnam war struggle which eventually spawned the Weather Underground. During the early part of the 1960s, SDS was a much smaller, more academic and theoretically explorative organization. In 1962, SDS published the Port Huron Statement which served as a groundbreaking manifesto describing the new left project.
Part of SDS’s early political strength was that its politics were up for debate, learning and growth rather than being set in stone. It provided a big tent — a model of a radical community that permitted people to plug in at many different levels. Growing as it did from academic institutions, it was willing to gather evidence as an organization and re-evaluate its efforts based on experimentation. SDS played a key role in helping its members understand the connections between various single issue “causes” and develop a more coherent analysis of modern capitalism and the modern state.
Organizers behind the re-formation of SDS note that the original SDS formed out of a political vacuum — establishment liberalism, as well as the institutional left, were both discredited and ill-equipped to participate in social change. The situation looks somewhat similar in 2006, although with numerous differences. Issues of civil rights, gender, queer liberation, neoliberalism, economic injustice, war and the environment — barely present at the beginning of the 1960s — are now well developed social movements.
Unlike in 1960, there are numerous existing national radical networks — Indymedia, Food Not Bombs, Earth First, IWW and Infoshops to name just a few. While there is no explicitly student based radical network of which this writer is aware, many national radical networks include students as well as youth who aren’t in school. In other words, “student” is not the sharply defined social status that it might have been at one point. Many people young and old drift in and out of school. A new SDS will have to figure out a niche and a purpose.
One potential niche for a new SDS could be to invest intellectually rigorous energy in political theory. The original SDS, in addition to producing the Port Huron Statement, produced a constant stream of position papers and research documents. By contrast, the majority of modern radical groups seem to focus on tactics and activity — making websites, planning protests and conferences, keeping Infoshops, publications, and food programs going — but fail to spend significant time studying and understanding theory which might inform what projects to undertake and how to undertake them.
Could the new SDS create a Port Huron statement for now — an organized and comprehensive articulation of radical values?
Another potential for the new SDS is the opportunity for radical cross-generational cooperation. The new SDS organizers are in close contact with a number of key players from the original SDS days. Many of these once-student organizers now have 45 years of radical experience under their belts. Sharing information and wisdom across the generations is never easy — younger activists have a hard time connecting with older ones, and vice versa. It appears likely that this summer’s national convention of SDS will include a caucus of original SDS members.
Some chapters of SDS have been playing with the acronym– for instance, Seniors for a Democratic Society or Solidarity and Democratic Struggle. Whichever direction SDS may take, it is clear that the historical legacy of SDS is inspiring folks to organize. Hopefully, SDS will go beyond just another on-line discussion forum and will translate into real world discussion and struggle.
SDS is having a SDS Northeast Regional Meeting at Brown University in Providence, RI on April 23 from 11 – 6. For a good history of SDS, there are a ton of books including SDS by Kirkpatrick Sale, Democracy is in the Streets by James Miller’s or The New Left Revisited edited by Paul Buhle and John McMillian. Or see the film “Rebels with a Cause.” For more information on SDS chapters in your area, historical documents from the original SDS, and the date and location for the 2006 national convention (which has not been determined as of the writing of this article) check studentsforademocraticsociety.org