The reappearance of Students for a Democratic Society, after 37 years, must be marked down as one of the most surprising events in American reform, along with the steady creep of isolationism in the wake of the failed Iraqi invasion. In fact, these events have a great deal in common. The domestic dialogue begins, as the Iowa-born historian of empire William Appleman Williams observed almost fifty years ago, when the elites fall out with each other and the imperial over-reach stands exposed. Class tensions so successfully submerged by bureaucratic operations re-emerge, sometimes with shocking suddenness. And sectors long seen as apathetic suddenly come to life. SDS membership, not surprisingly, is alive with the contradictions of the time.
This last point is, in my view, the most important message to CLR readers about the rebirth of SDS. The new organization of several thousand members and perhaps 200 locals, active or seeking to set down roots, is vastly more working class, in the broadest sense, than its precursor. No longer the "Brightest and Best," it seems to be appealing to the very rungs of the working class struggling to hold their own amid am imperiled empire. How to make the most of this prospect alongside an institutional labor movement seemingly headed ever downward, is a good and valuable question. The role of a vital Movement for a Democratic Society (whose ruling Board includes Jerry Tucker and Bill Fletcher, Jr, but also a host of older, Movement notables like Manning Marable, Angela Davis and Mark Rudd) may be the answer "if we can get it together."
Once upon a time, in the fabled 1960s, SDSers of modest origins spoke little about the (white) working class life that their parents hoped so urgently the next generation would escape. SDS melodrama offered the shiny faces of characteristic American promise. This time around, it's starkly different. Membership is racing through the community colleges, the commercial schools and highschools where recruiters find easy pickings. Once nearly all-white, New SDS is surprisingly (or not surprisingly) Latino, notably Dominican in some spots, Mexican-American in others, Asian (especially Indian) in others, and international membership has spontaneously sprung up in Chinese and Indonesian schools.
New SDS is mirrored--for those looking in the mirror after their SDS youth and seeing their aging selves—by the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). It was a good idea of 1970 that, like so many other good ideas of that year, never actually happened. Not everyone in MDS, an avuncular relative to New SDS, was actually in the old organization. Many a middle aged labor radical can trace a youngster's background there, along with the civil rights movement, and some, of course, not nearly so radical anymore. SDS, because it was the leading campus organization of the Vietnam years, enrolled some twenty thousand and had a following ten times that large: a healthy quota among those within the generational bulge who have gone on to lead rebel lives.
A little backtracking into history
To engage the complications of this subject further, let's think about what was "New" about the New Left and its ambivalent relationship with the US working class. In my caustic history of the labor bureaucracy, Taking Care of Business, I noted that business unionism offered as few openings as it possibly could allow to young idealists during the 1960s. The reality of race deepened the dilemma immensely. Most anyone who can remember family and in-laws among white union members in that era can wince at how the terrible fear of loss of hard-earned property (i.e., the mortgaged home in a growingly integrated neighborhood) and status could be manipulated through racist appeals, and worse, how little the fear often needed to be manipulated.
SDSers had more appeal to alienated working class youth than its members imagined. They shared haircuts, drugs and resentment of the government, although the middle class usually found a way out of the draft while the working class of every skin color mostly went to Vietnam. By 1970, more high school graduates opposed the war than did college graduates. But that was 1970, as the reality had sunk in, the generations of indoctrination to "stay in line" had been sloughed off. And as it turned out, only a short time before the factories closed down and "My Home Town" became Bruce Springsteen's oratory to the end of a way of life.
The irony of the SDS relation to blue collar life was multiple. The most dogmatic, 1930s-sounding group within SDS, the followers of the Progressive Labor Party, endlessly preached the message that young radicals had to reach workers…with the message to join the Leninist party. The PLP and smaller Marxist groups wore the short hair and shunned the marijuana that young working people were, respectively, leaving behind and grabbing. The more adventurous faction of SDS, preparing itself for an underground era, actually urged "fight the working class," fistfights with young people to show how tough the revolutionaries were. They weren't all that tough.
There was a third type of SDSer, and those were gathered around underground-looking tabloids and for the more cerebral, around Radical America, a magazine that I happened to found. We left the campuses for the blue collar communities, thinking to broaden the appeal of the Movement in the only way we knew how. Most of our projects crashed within a fairly short time. We found our way into labor reform movements, local and state labor history/oral history projects, and the larger effort to recuperate what had been lost and what the future might bring the working class.
What we only barely had begun to understand, until the decades at the end of the century, was how much demographic shifts mirrored the industrial ones. Industrial capitalism itself was passing, for an economy based upon speculation, concentrated financial resource, unprecedented mass debt, and equally unprecedented division of the world's wealth from the small proportion of very rich to the majority of the very poor, many of the latter inhabiting the zones where natural resources were extracted at exponentially growing rates.
The American working class was becoming, in significant part if by no means entirely, an immigrant working class as it had not been for a century, this time from formerly colonized and non-white societies. It was more yellow, brown and black than white, but it also spoke a multiplicity of languages as it had not for generations. It brought its patterns of family life, food, music and relaxation, merging them with available comforts and necessities. And it worked in service and retail, where it did not work cutting up animal carcases, picking crops and otherwise occupying the lowest levels of the wage scale.
That's almost enough history, for now
No office, no paid staff and no outside funding could account for the surge of contacts established by SDS through the Web because New SDS has none of these support services so far. Today's students interested in the 1960s, for one reason or another (but mainly, in my experience, because the subject suggests youth political rebellion), heard rumors of its existence and found SDS in Wikipedia, or from their friends on FaceBook, or even YouTube, to mention only a few sources. With the simplest of means now available, they registered themselves as members, found others in the same school of vicinity (here the old-fashioned "Activities Board" seems to have been important: radicalism as a social club), looked on the web for what other SDSers were doing, and went to work.
Parts of this sound eerily familiar. Students for a Democratic Society, an organization or movement so amorphous that a majority of its "members" never actually bothered to join officially, remains at the heart of the mystique and mystery of the 1960s. Along, naturally, with the civil rights and Black Power movement, the Women's Movement, marijuana and LSD, Bob Dylan and so much more. Within this mélange, SDS was unique, for better and for worse. It was the organization of Student Power on the campus, pinpointed by the FBI as the epicenter of trouble among the children of the white middle class. It skyrocketed to a following of perhaps 200,000. And what went up came suddenly down. Very much like the 'Sixties themselves.
It turns out that the memory of SDS and of the antiwar protest of the 1960s in general, has returned to fashion for the best of reasons. What the Vietnam War and the public knowledge of FBI misdeeds did to the trust in the US government during the 1960s, including its agencies and elected officials, the Iraq War and the Patriot Act's varied manifestations may have done again. It is a misperception that only middle class liberals (or their radical fringe) opposed the earlier war; actually, blue collar opposition was greater, by 1970, than opposition by the college educated as a group, and the two groups most widely opposed were African-Americans…and Jews. "Isolationism" so-called, a heartland suspicion of global military overreach, encompassed Republicans as well as Democrats, bent in many cases against self-avowed liberal Democrats such as Henry "Scoop" Jackson but also Hubert Humphrey, firmly and unalterably in support of the war. Notwithstanding what would later be titled Red/Blue State divisions, the demographic character of the antiwar opposition was never what liberals or conservatives (or for the most part, leftwingers, either) declared it to be. As now, when so many Democrats can be counted upon to hanker for a victory somehow to be accomplished in Iraq (or an all-out war to be waged on Iran), and when so many self-declared conservatives feel, in their souls, disheartened and isolationist.
And there is an element, a stronger reminder perhaps than any other of the lasting impress of SDS, in the circumstances of generational unrest. The Generation of 9/11, come of age in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, the Afghanistan attack and occupation, the mass detentions without charges and so on, is also the generation facing the literal, undeniable effects of Global Warming in daily life. The world of secure consumers, circa 2000, is gone, and in its place is a world of politicians who manage to keep a straight face while issuing denials of the crisis of empire.
The college courses treating the 1960s, going back to the later 1970s and the 1980s, never lacked for a certain appeal. Free Love, Communes, LSD and other reputed mass phenomena of the young naturally appealed to another generation of the young, especially with higher rents and rampant venereal diseases closing off the carefree low-income bohemia of earlier days. When the boom in those courses increased immeasurably, not every professor seemed to grasp that many students were seeking a "how to" rather than vicarious thrills of history, or the chance to listen to music rather than reading textbooks. The generation of young scholars just ten or twenty years behind the radicals of the 1960s, coming to press with their scholarly studies going back a decade in graduate school, truly seemed to have anticipated the shift best of all. No wonder so many of the subject line, "How did you hear of us?" in the on-line application blanks for SDS answer, "my history class," "my textbook" or "my teacher," followed in number of entries by "my parents."
Only in the last decade, as the former members of SDS entered middle age, has the understanding of the movement seriously begun to probe and poke the aura and the memoirs of prominent minority. Hostile critics have pointed to the number of young intellectuals involved and the few essayists produced, as if this were a key test of virility or fecundity. It would be better to meditate the paucity of local historical studies, because SDS was above all a local movement, arguably the most local movement in the history of American radicalism. But perhaps one problem has been overlooked: that a phenomenon so deeply set within popular culture would need an approach shaped by the techniques of cultural production.
Meanwhile, ex-SDSers, former Columbia University occupation leader Mark Rudd the most prominent, formed themselves in the Movement for Democratic Society (MDS) poised to create a movement in their own name, partly to support the youngsters and partly to find their own way back to the moment in history that had meant most to their lives. Noam Chomsky, Manning Marable, Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez and Judith Malina among others signed on as Board members of MDS. It was, not to make the point too strongly, the most diverse, the most youthful and the most distinguished group in the Left for decades to begin work. Like the November elections: Very 2006 and 2007. Seemingly a long way from the first years of the new century. ##
Paul Buhle was founder of Radical America (1967-92), the "pro-working class" but non-Leninist magazine of SDS. In later years, he has become a founder of the Rhode Island Labor History Society and a lecturer at Brown University. He will soon be retiring to Madison, Wisconsin, to edit educational comics as his own continued labor education effort.