By Alan J. Spector, edited by Karyn Pomerantz, September 23, 2018

This abridged article describes the life of an SDS organizer during the 1960s student anti-war and anti-racist movements.  For the complete article, see Cultural Logic: Marxist Theory & Practice 2013, pp. 240-277.

This essay is about building a movement against exploitation and oppression, the need for anti-elitist, pro-working class strategy and tactics, and leadership from those most exposed to imperialism in the poorer countries and racial/ethnic minorities in the rich countries. The importance of female leadership is interwoven into the overall struggle to overcome all forms of capitalist/exploitative thought within the movement.

SDS buttonThe rise of a massive oppositional movement among college students to U.S. imperialism and its subsequent decline came out of the internal contradictions inherent in modern imperialist society. This essay is informed by my participation and observation in U.S. society, in the campus anti-war and anti-racist movements at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, as a full-time travelling organizer and active participant in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and by participation and analysis of the campus movement as both an activist and a sociology professor over the past few decades.

This short article, however, can, in no way, be considered any sort of comprehensive history of the 1960s, or SDS, nor even as a memoir.

What Was Going On During the 1960s?

On the economic level, capitalism’s cycle of growth, overproduction, falling rate of profit, imperialism, international stagnation, inter-imperialist competition and war was unfolding as it has done periodically. The standard of living of the US working class in general, including of the black working class, improved through the mid-1960s, and the economic contradiction would only begin to significantly sharpen in the early 1970s.  On the cultural level, a contradiction emerges when a class society becomes preoccupied with consumption of consumer goods in a way that leads many, including youth, to feel that the opiate of consumption actually increases alienation even as it pretends to assuage it.

The most glaring contradiction in U.S. society in the early 1960s was the persistence of legalized racial segregation and discrimination. The dominant ideology of that time, consistent with a kind of “anti-working class, racist optimism” was that capitalism was not the problem, but that certain groups were “culturally deprived” for whatever reasons and that with proper education and “uplifting” their lives could be improved and they could contribute more to society. But it was the explicit, legalized discrimination against black people that was the first major crack, the first loose thread which when pulled, exposed the flaws of the whole fabric of society. This was AMERICA – the USA – and people could not eat in restaurants, use washrooms in public buildings, nor even attend public colleges for which they paid taxes? Nor even vote? And dogs were attacking protesters; children were killed in a church?

sds harlem rebellionIn the fall of 1964, at University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of students were arrested for trying to raise money for civil rights organizations and peacefully sitting in, in defense of that right, and the reality and possibility of widespread student protests became an option for thousands of previously complacent students. There had been other smaller protests – a nearby one against the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in San Francisco where mainly youth were attacked with fire hoses. In New York City, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) held a small demonstration against the as-yet small Vietnam War and also played an important role in the Harlem Rebellion, which was the first such rebellion in decades. Other small socialist groups were organizing on different campuses and there were left-liberals critical of aspects of U.S. capitalism that were teaching at major universities. But when thousands of students surrounded that police car in Berkeley and eight hundred were arrested at the sit-in that was a turning point for the movement. The connection between the black-led civil rights movement in the South and the protests at Berkeley was crucial. Many of the organizers at Berkeley had been trained (“learning by doing and experience”) in the struggles in the South.  This “learning by doing” combined with a profound sense of betrayal at the “contradiction” between the myth of American democracy and the denial of free speech, especially on behalf of oppressed black people, confused and enraged tens of thousands all over the United States. Not only was the university defending the racists, but the intense physical brutality of the police – beating students, breaking arms, all for a minor “trespass” charge – was like ice water in the face of many youth. The sense of betrayal was all the more intense because so many were saying: “This is America. With its flaws, it is still the richest, most free country. We trust America. How could America do this to us?” And that raised questions about what else “America” might be doing.

In the midst of the civil rights protests and the awareness of the reluctance of the federal government to protect basic human rights, the military concocted a lie in the summer of 1964 that a U.S. ship was attacked in international waters by a ship from North Vietnam. Vaguely worded resolutions in Congress and the Senate giving the President open-ended authority to pursue a major war in South Vietnam and North Vietnam were passed overwhelmingly, with little protest from the American people, and the North Vietnamese base from which the nonexistent “attack ship” came was bombed. That seemed to be the end of it. Then in February 1965, President Johnson announced a major escalation of the war, including bombing the supposedly “sovereign” North Vietnam and committing tens of thousands of troops to the war.

Demonstrations appeared in dozens of cities, towns, and on many college campuses. Along with demonstrations came Teach-Ins, which played important roles in exposing the contradictions (lies). At one debate held on the University of Wisconsin campus, a history graduate student argued against a pro-war speaker by presenting what appeared to be a very one sided anti-imperialist, almost Marxist, argument, citing reason after reason that had all to do with profits and nothing to do with human rights, as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Liberal, reformist-minded young people were questioning more and more the very roots of US policy.

SDS Steps to the Front

Students for a Democratic Society came out of an older youth organization based in the social democratic “liberal” wing of the labor movement –the “Student League for Industrial Democracy” or SLID. SDS was founded in June, 1962. Its founding statement, “The Port Huron Statement,” was a manifesto for social justice in the United States. Its emphasis was on opposing racial discrimination in particular and poverty in general, as well as nuclear war, but there was also a strong tone of recognition of the general alienation, even degradation, of life in the affluent U.S.A. For the first three years or so, SDS remained relatively small. Its community organizing project in Newark, New Jersey was perhaps its most notable project, although some SDS members also had gone to the South for civil rights organizing, mainly voter registration.  With the major escalation/bombing in Vietnam in early 1965, SDS called for a national demonstration in Washington, D.C. for April 17. With a Democrat in the White House, and Democratic Party politicians and major union leaders nearly unanimous in support of the war, SDS sharply alienated some of its former allies. The expectation was that a few thousand might show up. Instead, perhaps fifteen to twenty five thousand, mainly college students turned out to protest.

SDS button-changeWith that, SDS chapters began to spring up on many campuses, although in most places they remained relatively small until early 1968. The appeal of SDS was that it was “multi-issue” and therefore “radical” in the sense that by critiquing U.S. society on a number of issues, it opened the door to a criticism of U.S. capitalism in general, rather than just single issues, such as “peace,” which could be discussed as if it was a separate struggle from the core of U.S. society.  The period of the anti-war movement, leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was one of many local protests by mainly independent campus anti-war groups. There were occasional massive rallies, in particular a huge one in New York City in the summer of 1967. These larger rallies were punctuated with controversy as some in the anti-war movement objected to the presence of otherwise pro-imperialist union leaders and politicians as honored speakers. Locally, there were many types of activities, some just informational, some more militant. There were disruptive, non-obstructive protests, and outright obstructive protests against military recruiters, against ROTC, against war profiteers, especially Dow Chemical Corporation, and against government officials who came to campus. Many of the peaceful obstructive demonstrations (sit-ins, etc.) were met with severe physical violence on the part of the police.

By 1967, SDS had made anti-war activities its main focus on many campuses. It was still relatively small on many campuses, overshadowed by the various independent anti-war groups. What SDS had that was different was a multi-issue approach. Some in the anti-war movement opposed bringing other issues into the anti-war movement, but most in SDS saw anti-poverty, civil rights, student rights and anti-war activities as all interconnected and reinforcing. There were numerous tensions within SDS – some based on antagonism among various socialist groups and some based on emphasis. Those whose interest was “student power” sometimes diluted the distinctly pro-working class origins of SDS.

Worker-Student Alliance

In 1966, the Progressive Labor Party decided to encourage some of its campus members to join local SDS chapters. While their numbers were small (and their size was often overestimated by their opponents), they became among the strongest advocates for building a “worker-student alliance.”  This concept was often misunderstood in a narrow, mechanical way. It did not simply mean “strike support,” although that was important. It meant taking a pro-working class approach to all issues – for example, anti-war activities should emphasize how workers and peasants in Vietnam and working class youth in the U.S. were harmed by the war, rather than emphasizing “peace” in an abstract way or individualist tactics to dodge the draft for personal protection. Bringing anti-war ideas to blue collar workers was at least as important as having students support strikes. Campus struggles should focus on anti-racist actions and pro community actions rather than narrow student rights or demands for more privileges for students.

Urban Rebellions

sds anti racismIn the summer of 1967, major rebellions, often sparked by police brutality, broke out in dozens of U.S. cities. Detroit was the most significant – police were helpless and planes carrying soldiers en route to Vietnam were turned around and sent to Detroit. It took a week for the U.S. government to subdue the hundreds of armed rebels in Detroit. While black workers led that rebellion, many false stereotypes about the rebels continue to be promoted. Thousands of white working class people mingled with the black rebels during the rebellion and there was little, if any, generalized “anti-white” violence although the racist myths about that rebellion have been promoted by the media and this myth has become “common” (though untrue) knowledge; the same is true of the rebellion in Los Angeles following the “Rodney King verdict” – the majority of those arrested were not black during those events.

The attempt to portray the vast majority of black people, then and now, as somehow “outside the working class” actually plays into the racist, missionary attitude that sees black people as victimized but weak. The vast majority of black people are working class; the lives and actions and labor of black people have not been outside the capitalist system—it is what the capitalists in the USA needed and need to sustain their system, the exploitation of slaves, of agricultural workers, of textile, and food, and steel, and auto, and health care and other service workers manifests the potential power of the black working class as a leading force in the whole working class. And as Marx, and some feminists, have pointed out, raising children is work; it is labor that may not be directly compensated by the capitalist class, unless they are hiring nannies/ au pairs to care for their children, but raising the next generation of people, of workers, is an essential part of the labor that keeps a society functioning. Categorizing most black people as “outside” the working class, and picturing the “working class” as virtually all white also plays into the politicians’ often expressed racist line of always talking about the needs of the so-called “middle class” as a way to appeal to working class whites and maintain the lie that black people contribute nothing to society but are merely “charity cases.” Being pro-working class necessitates taking a strong position against racist oppression; being anti-racist necessitates taking a strong pro-working class position.

Turning Point- My Life As An Organizer

In the spring of 1967, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having been deeply involved in the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union. I believed it was wrong to accept the 2-S college draft deferment while working class men were forced into the military and wanted to work full time for the anti-war movement in some capacity rather than go to graduate school. I had saved up $1700 from working for a road construction company that summer and estimated that I could support myself on that for a year. My expectation was that I would be drafted, would refuse, and probably spend a few years in jail. If enough young men went to jail, perhaps that could help end the war.  Along with perhaps 250 other UW students I had attended the 1965 SDS demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C., but did not get involved in the local SDS chapter. In the spring of 1967, I did send in the six dollars and officially joined national SDS but continued to focus on draft resistance instead of SDS.

That summer, I saw an advertisement in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes, for a “Regional Traveler” for SDS for the New England region. Wanting to be away from the New York – New Jersey area, but not too far away, Boston seemed to be a good choice. I had a few friends from high school there as well. Under a tree on the campus of Harvard University (from which I had been rejected four years earlier…), I interviewed with the other two regional travelers; one was a member of PLP, the other was an SDS activist in graduate school at Harvard. They “hired” me with the understanding that there was no salary and that I would have to provide my own car and raise money as I traveled for gas and whatever food I couldn’t get from the campus cafeterias. They found me a place to stay. I shared a six-bedroom apartment in Porter Square, Cambridge with two or three others. The total rent was $85/month. The place was something of a dump and was eventually knocked down. I didn’t spend much time there, maybe two or three days every two weeks. My route was Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and occasionally Western and Central Massachusetts, mainly Worcester. T.’s route was Connecticut and Rhode Island while D.’s was the Boston area, which actually had more schools than all of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined. The responsibilities were to meet with local anti-war activists, assist them in organizing, and encourage them to affiliate their anti-war groups with national SDS, or at least, try to set up an SDS chapter in addition to whatever broader anti-war coalition existed.

sds recruiting

There were perhaps twenty campuses on those two routes: Boston through Durham to the University of Maine-Orono and back; Boston through Hanover (Dartmouth) to Burlington down through Middlebury, Bennington, and back, hitting various places along the way.  My parents loaned me a car for a while; later I scraped together enough money for a small car. Generally, someone would find me an empty bed in a dorm, or a couch in someone’s apartment, or a spot on the floor for my sleeping bag; occasionally I had to sleep in the car. Local activists generally fed me (compliments of the university cafeterias), and they’d pass a hat for gasoline money to get me to the next place. Two dollars could take me a hundred miles or more. There were many hours driving alone, often through the beautiful New England landscape and, later, the less beautiful Route 20 and various state highways in the Midwest, and there was lots of time to think. Contrary to romantic legends, some of us steered very clear of certain types of personal relationships.

The old saying about sailors “A girl in every port” might have been the practice of some traveling organizers, but for many of us, irresponsible relationships could seriously jeopardize building a movement as could marijuana possession and use, which could land someone in jail for ten or twenty years. Having fun with others is an essential part of building good relationships and a strong social movement, but some kinds of fun, in certain contexts, can destroy months of work and even people’s lives. Police agencies look for any kind of crack in the movement or even in someone’s personal behavior to use against that person or to create discord within organizations.  I would generally arrive on a campus in the early afternoon. In the beginning, I was either blindly looking for activists or trying to locate a local contact/friend/relative of an activist from Boston.

Later, as I developed consistent contacts, I’d first meet with a small group that I had closest ties with. That evening there would often be a bigger meeting and then in the morning a wrap up meeting with the smaller group of more experienced/committed activists. Sometimes we would plan demonstrations; sometimes my visit would coincide with a demonstration.  The small meetings would discuss tactics, but mostly politics. We had been taught typical racist, sexist, elitist, anti-working class (and non-working class) history and social science and we were trying to understand the rebellion that was sweeping the world. With some exceptions, today’s students in the public schools are not taught much of anything and therefore do not have much of a sense of history at all, living more for the moment (typical in times of crisis) and having little sense that learning history and social science is important. But U.S. capitalism was not as decayed as it is now, so the dominant culture did often emphasize that learning was important and many college students and youth were reading on their own.   We read Marx, and Lenin, and Mao, although we did not necessarily understand it all! We read Malcolm X and Monthly Review and reprints from the Radical Education Project.

Escalation of the War

sds viet war attack

The war was killing thousands every month. This was a stinging reality that we could not forget and that drove us to seek out answers. We wanted to understand what kind of a system could do that and how these policies could be stopped. There were all kinds of study groups. Sometimes they would be led by a moderately leftist professor or graduate student whom we might later critique for not being militant enough, but we learned how to learn even from people and sources with which we had disagreements. We wanted to understand the economic system that created these policies rather than just focusing on personalities.

In my case, my special focus was on building SDS. It made sense that a multi-issue organization that focused on the war but also tied together struggles around many issues was a type of organization that could grow on, and eventually off, the campus and be an important force for positive social change. I carried SDS membership cards everywhere, along with suitcases full of books, pamphlets, leaflets used at other campuses, and copies of various underground newspapers. Even at some of these relatively small campuses, anti-war demonstrations of fifty or more were not uncommon. Rather than turn this short article into a memoir of those experiences, this information is only included to provide some context to this particular article. Suffice it to say that there were many, many very sincere activists, many from working class backgrounds or semi-professional backgrounds (parents were blue collar or perhaps school teachers) as well as upper-middle income youth at schools such as Bowdoin or Williams; however, another myth about the 1960s’ anti-war movement is that all the participants were from wealthy backgrounds.

By late 1967, increasing numbers of Americans were becoming impatient with the way the war was dragging on. In early 1968, the Vietnamese NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on U.S. troops that resulted in about 550 US soldiers killed and 2,500 wounded in one week. In March, the U.S. government announced the conscription of another 48,000 men. That same month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis and there was another wave of militant anti-police rebellions in dozens of U.S. cities. In March 1968, a campus struggle in France spread into a general strike of millions of workers against the French government. The impact of that strike cannot be overstated. The possibility, the reality, that students and workers could unite in such a powerful way lent great credence to the idea of worker-student unity in the U.S.A.

Columbia University Strike

sds columbia u strikeIn the midst of hundreds of local protests around the United States, the SDS chapter at Columbia University occupied several key university buildings. The demands were focused on anti-war issues but also included more obviously pro-working class/anti-racist demands opposing the construction of a gymnasium that required the destruction of part of the neighborhood. The extreme brutality of the police in arresting the protesters, the film clips on television news of women being dragged down concrete stairs by their hair for the crime of “trespass,” the broken arms and bloodied faces at one of America’s elite Ivy League universities further polarized the American people and further “disproved by contradiction” the myth that there was merely an imperfect democracy in the U.S.A. that could be made to serve the people and “proved by the realities of active learning” that the breadth and intensity of violent repression was far greater and ran far deeper into the core of U.S. society than many had thought.

There is no doubt that 1968 was to be a turning point, and it was only half over. Although Lyndon Johnson had won the 1964 election with the then-largest landslide in U.S. history, he announced his decision to not seek reelection in the spring of 1968. This gave optimism to liberals and some radicals who believed that the capitalist politicians were backing down on the war and Robert Kennedy then emerged as a supposed “anti-war candidate” and had the lock on the Democratic nomination for President. Like his murdered brother, he had the aura of youth, idealism, and a progressive, humanistic image. Many in the anti-war movement were swept into his campaign and had renewed hope that the system could respond in a way that reassured them that the U.S. really was a democracy. Then he was murdered. Irrespective of whether he actually did represent a break from the “Establishment” (he did not…), the impact of his murder further demoralized and alienated many thousands. It was in the context, then, of all these events, from summer 1967 to summer 1968, that SDS held its annual convention in Lansing, Michigan in June, 1968.

The Battle within SDS

If the first period of SDS was characterized by community organizing and civil rights work  the second period, roughly 1965-early 1968, was characterized mainly by anti-war activity and a growing tension between the main SDS leadership that promoted the “New Working Class” notion of social change (that intellectuals would lead the struggle for major social transformation) and various forces that supported reaching out to the blue collar community as a way of building a larger, more powerful movement.

Labor militancy was on the upsurge alongside black militancy and anti-war student militancy. The communist Progressive Labor Party was something of an enigma to many students. On the one side, they appeared to be “Old Left,” referencing Lenin and Marx, opposing drug use, supporting the idea of discipline rather than “do your own thing,” and generally appearing to be dogmatic to many college youth with middle class ideology. On the other hand, they were as militant as any anarchists were in the front lines in battles with the police, eschewed the Old Left pattern of compromise with “the system,” and actively immersed themselves in the daily struggles of everyday people, consistent with the “Maoist/People’s War” principle. This humility stood in stark contrast to the boldness of PLP’s rhetoric, which appeared to many to be very self-assured to the point of arrogance. But one thing was clear: the pro-working class line was gaining adherents and PLP was growing, though, as mentioned above, its numbers were always smaller than perceived. Some members of PLP also predicted that their opponents within SDS would attempt to force them out. The summer 1968 SDS convention in Lansing intensified the conflict within SDS.

SDS Supports the GE STRIKE

It was 1969. General Electric was on strike. Tens of thousands of workers. Despite the arrogant nonsense of some leftists that the whole working class was racist and fascist, these workers went on strike even as the President of the United States adamantly insisted that the strike would hurt the Vietnam War effort. Still, they went on strike. What the SDS students from Michigan State University, from Central Michigan University, from Alma College and from Western Michigan University did was, in a small way, the very best example of working to build a movement to stop the Vietnam War. Students went out to support the strikers, not just in Edmore, Michigan, but in many places, offering support and also discussing, as best as we could, the connections between their immediate struggle and the struggle against US imperialist war in Vietnam. The common slogan was: “Warmaker-Strikebreaker: Smash GE”. Many workers were receptive and open to discussing the issues; the sincerity of the relationships formed was inspiring. Some workers, of course, resented the students, but overall it was a model for how the anti-war, and hopefully, anti-capitalist movement could thrive and grow.

sds dem conventionLater that summer, thousands of mainly young protesters were attacked in extraordinarily brutal ways during the Democratic Convention. For most of them, the crime was staying in a park after it closed. Police on horses and on foot clubbed hundreds. The police attacked random pedestrians on the street and television cameras captured it all. Mayor Daley’s attempts to blame it on the protesters included holding a press conference showing a golf ball with nails and asserting that this was the kind of “weapon” that protesters were throwing at the police; later investigation revealed that those “weapons” were made by the police for the press conference. Autumn semester, 1968, marked the beginning of the most militant period on campuses. Opposition to the war was at an all-time high among youth, and interest in SDS in particular had grown remarkably. As others pointed out, hundreds of people attended SDS meetings – not conferences or demonstrations, but meetings – at schools like Harvard, but also at working class schools like the University of Wisconsin and University of Texas. Demonstrations, big and small, militant and peaceful, were taking place at upper middle-income private colleges in Maine and at inner city schools like CUNY.

PLP, for its part, continued its “base building” strategy of working on local campaigns against the war, supporting urban rebellions, knocking on doors, being militant when they believed it was necessary and trying to build up SDS chapters as SDS chapters. PLP members sometimes set up “Labor Committees” as subcommittees of SDS chapters which mainly did strike support, and PLP also consolidated its base by organizing Summer Work-Ins,” where students took summer jobs, mainly in factories, for the purpose of understanding the conditions and world views of those workers, to bring up anti-war ideas to the workers, and to try to build lasting, real relationships with some of the workers. As a result, despite PLP’s radical rhetoric and adherence to some strict political guidelines, many rank-and-file members respected PLP’s commitment to doing the work. Even as they criticized the Vietnamese leadership, for example, they continued to work hard against the war, often getting arrested, and were one of few groups that actually sent members into the service to organize against the war from within the military.

Richard Nixon won the Presidency. In November of 1968, students at San Franciscosds sf strike State College (now University) struck the school. Their demands focused on more minority admissions and more courses that taught about history and culture of “racial-ethnic” minorities in the USA and people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was, arguably, the most militant, sustained struggle on any U.S. campus. Day after day, week after week, hundreds of students would get arrested, often beaten brutally, and they would be back on the picket lines the next day. The Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and the Black Student Union led the strike itself but the local SDS chapter participated fully.

Harvard students occupied the University.  PLP and WSA Caucus members canvassed the dorms, knocked on doors, and passed out tens of thousands of flyers explaining the students’ demands against the use of the university to support the war effort.

sds dem conventionOther demands included opposition to the tearing down of working class housing for Harvard’s expansion and a Black Studies program.  Harvard was shut down, completely, for the first time since it was founded in 1636. More importantly, this struggle became a magnet for youth from hundreds of miles around and an inspiration worldwide. While the action was not as large, militant, nor sustained as the actions at many of the working class schools – San Francisco State, University of Wisconsin, and many others – the symbolism of shutting down the pinnacle of capitalist ruling class educational power added to the momentum of the campus anti-war movement and SDS.  As approximately 1500 young people prepared to converge on Chicago for the 1969 SDS Convention, the consciousness on U.S. campuses had reached a new level of quantitative and qualitative opposition to the war. Framing this within the context of Marxist pedagogy is particularly appropriate. The “disproof by contradiction” was manifested again and again as the politicians lied about the war, as the mouthpieces of bourgeois democracy defended racist oppression, and as the myth of democracy was contradicted again and again by the extreme overreaction of police. The “learning by doing” was manifested again and again as students witnessed and experienced physical abuse for non-violent activities.

SDS played an important role at Dartmouth and some other campuses, including a demonstration involving thousands in Berkeley, but 1969-1970 started out a quieter year than 1968-1969. The media blitz about SDS being “dead and gone, except for some crazies” had a powerful effect as did the wave of drugs that swept over campuses often with the passive consent of various government agencies. A few massive demonstrations, strike support for General Electric workers, and later General Motors and the Post Office had major strikes.

Black students were taking more of the lead in campus struggles. Then came the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State.  The Cambodia invasion and rebellions surrounding them as well as the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and shootings on other campuses caused the massive eruption that shut many campuses for the remainder of the year. Boston-based SDS continued to be active in the anti-war movement but moved towards becoming focused on a campaign called the “Campus Worker-Student Alliance.”  The CWSA was seen as a way to actually make the language of “Worker-Student Alliance” become a reality if students actually had ties with actual workers on a consistent basis; it was a reasonable extension of the WSA, but it was probably done in an imbalanced way. (Chicago 1969: SDS Splits. There are many fuller accounts of the 1969 SDS Convention in Chicago.  See the full article for details and Alan Adelson’s “SDS: A Profile).

The Demise of SDS

There was a combination of factors that prevented SDS in 1969-1973 from taking root and thriving. Foremost were the limits of the situation: the split at the 1969 SDS convention, the lack of membership records, and the intensive media campaign pushing scare campaigns about the Weathermen, anti-communism about PLP, and general demoralization had a powerful impact.

A group of members led by Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and others created the Weathermen, and attacked the worker-student alliance concept and Progressive Labor Party members at the 1969 SDS convention, splitting he organization into factions.  The Weathermen believed revolution was imminent and enacted confrontational acts hoping to incite workers into revolution.  They had few ties to workers and built anti-communism by their arrogant actions.

The welcome Nixon got in China, which confused many socialists and other leftists, also demoralized SDS members since Nixon could not get a welcome in any U.S. city! The Vietnam War appeared to be winding down, although there was a significant, short-lived outburst of protest when Nixon Kissinger authorized the bombing of Hanoi-Haiphong.  The Democratic Party nomination of George McGovern gave hope to many and siphoned off much of the anger; the combination of “carrot (McGovern) and stick (repression)” as well as the rise in unemployment all took their toll. Furthermore, many in the government concluded that they would rather tolerate the “cultural rebellion” of the Woodstock generation, (psychoactive drugs, opposition to dress codes, less repression of sexuality). Finally, it could be argued that because PLP had become the dominant force within what was left of SDS after the split and the lack of membership records that could have allowed the organization to broaden out, the perception was very strong that joining SDS now meant basically being in an organization that would follow PLP’s line.

Some of PLP’s predictions did come true: the blood of millions of Vietnamese and others has been squandered as the once-communist Vietnamese government embraces U.S. capitalism and Cuba moves that way, China embraces capitalism and carries out imperialist policies in Africa, and most national liberation struggles, whether in South Africa, the U.S.A., or elsewhere, became vehicles for small groups of ex-rebels to become the new capitalist exploiters and partners of today. There is a lot at stake in having a more accurate analysis; the collapse of the heroic struggles in the USSR, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere demonstrate how the lives of millions of heroic rebels can be wasted. Critiquing the line and consolidated leadership of various movements is essential. The struggle over “line” is not just some abstract theoretical issue for intellectuals. But when struggling among the grassroots, the debates are more fruitful when carried out in the context of actual struggle, rather than simply making verbal declarations and asking someone to “take it or leave it.” There were several interrelated errors that severely weakened the campus anti-war movement from within.

The inability of SDS to broaden out its line to the community and the weaknesses/erroneous perceptions, analysis, and strategy in the struggle against racist oppression. Call it “worker-student alliance” or “community outreach” or anything similar, the inability of the campus anti-war movement to sufficiently engage the off-campus community not only weakened the anti-war movement at any given time, it also left the students unprepared for how to function when they would leave the campus.  As others have written, after thousands of protests, some involving hundreds of thousands of people in one place—after shutting down hundreds of campuses, driving the military off campus, facing armed police and soldiers, the movement had to transform. It could either intensify its militancy without broadening its base or it could broaden its base. Broadening the base does not have to mean diluting the politics; it should mean taking the politics to others that might not agree. People have contradictory ideas tugging at them, contradictory perceptions, contradictory impulses, and contradictory philosophies.

Lessons Learned

Fully integrating our lives with the lives of others with whom we might have disagreements on some points and learning from others while struggling with others is the only way to integrate the activist movement into the broader population. “Struggling with others” should not mean “shouting at others” or insisting that they immediately agree with the “logic” and the “evidence” that are offered in words. People believe what they believe not simply based on the “logic” of the theory but on the ways that they believe various ideas relate to their lives.  Participating with others in everyday struggles–for a stop sign, against unfair school policies, supporting strikes, opposing police brutality, demanding services from the government, and even helping others deal with problems that appear to be merely “personal,” such as family problems–all these can become what Lenin called “schools” which can more powerfully illuminate what capitalism is “made of” and what the anti-capitalist movement is “made of,” building solidarity and trust. The “worker-student alliance” made some small steps in that regard, but it was inadequate and sometimes artificially done. Nevertheless, there were those who tried to implement the outreach.  Of course, to some, “outreach” meant diluting one’s politics and becoming a Democratic Party activist, but there were many thousands of others who did not abandon their philosophies, becoming social workers, teachers, labor activists, community activists, medical workers, hoping to implement their humanistic philosophies despite the decline of the movement. But the movement itself, as an organized force, continued to decline. Some big protests against Reagan’s assault on the labor movement, some solidarity demonstrations in opposition to U.S. government support for fascist regimes in Central America in the 1980s kept the flame of organized opposition flickering, but it was not until the major attack on Iraq in 2003 that the movement erupted again in such large numbers. If the organized campus movement had been able to maintain its organization throughout those decades and extend the grassroots militancy in an organized way to the broader population, the movement would be much more powerful today. The pressures on young people when they leave college can be intense; one has to learn how to be an effective organizer with only a few available minutes on many jobs, as opposed to the hours that students often had while on campus. Adjustments to jobs, to families, to economic stresses can all intensify the “take care of the moment” mentality. It is not inevitable.

Overcoming Racial Divisions

The students were not adequately mentally-politically prepared to integrate their political philosophies into the lives of “everyday” (working class and semi-professional) people. Understanding this politically as students and having “flesh-and-blood” genuine relationships with off-campus people while still students, are crucial. Related to this is the extreme racial segregation within the movement that was the result both of the pre-existing racial segregation in U.S. society and the inability of the white students to build genuine, honest relationships with black students and workers, the latter which was masked by leftist theories about “self-determination.” There were many small exceptions on many campuses, and many major struggles did build grassroots alliances (two especially significant ones were the San Francisco State and the City University of New York struggles). Often, though, either issues of racist oppression were ignored, or they were seen as some kind of separate struggle. Within the movement, the concept of “self-determination,” still strong today, resulted in “coalitions at the top” where leaders of different groups discussed “coordinating” activities rather than having the grassroots members develop the deep, genuine unity and solidarity on a personal basis that is essential to having unbreakable unity.

SDS before and after the 1969 Split was basically a “white student” organization. It often lent support to the increasing numbers of struggles led by black students, and later Latino students, starting especially in 1969, but it was often of the “support coalition” type, rather than genuine solidarity based on personal ties. Virtually all the groups, including the Marxist groups, believed that “self-determination” meant that “black people should determine their own destiny,” which in practice meant that “white people had no right to criticize what any black leader said or did.” The problem with this was several-fold. First, it created fiefdoms within the movement, where various leaders had their own positions of power to protect. Second, it was contradictory, because there were black people who criticized other black people–how could a white person agree with both of them? This non-class analysis of racist oppression created huge contradictions within the minds of white students, but it also conveniently allowed many of them to give in to the racist impulses towards separatism that were a part of their upbringing within the traditional racism of U.S. society. Saying: “It’s not my place to criticize or even comment” becomes a way to avoid the discomfort of struggle. Struggle, even criticism, after all, is not an insult or inconvenience. It can be the highest form of compliment, while deferring can actually be a kind of insult by implying that members of “other racial-ethnic groups” cannot be treated as equals but rather have to be treated as if they were hyper-sensitive weaklings.

Relying on the people, the working class and its allies among semiprofessionals, and even some professionals, means not relying on the capitalists. Another error related to this was relying too much on the capitalist media to promote the activities of the movement. By 1968, a major section of the capitalist class was beginning to move towards a position of winding down the Vietnam War, and their media seemed to report every protest of five or more people from New York to Pocatello, Idaho. Relying on them to build our movement creates a dependency; the news blackouts of protests often involving hundreds in the 1980s and even today are evidence of that.  Even today, many progressive activists lament the conservative media and pine for the day when the left can have more influence on television and radio. That would be better, of course, but it is not the main problem. The conservative movement in the post-1980s U.S.A. did not grow mainly because of the media. It grew through the churches, block clubs, PTAs, community organizations, where conservative activists did face-to-face work with hundreds of thousands of people, everything from conservative religious classes to sports leagues and marriage counseling. It is the approach used by Hamas to further their nationalistic aims, and anti-capitalist forces in Vietnam and in China, most notably, also effectively used it. In order for the movement to grow by more than “ones and twos” it must first grow by ones and twos, and the lack of trust generated by capitalist ideology and the ways that capitalist society structures our lives and therefore our thoughts can only be overcome by developing relationships and activities that structure all our lives and thoughts in cooperative, humanistic ways so that our militant actions will be carried out by the grassroots and not by a few self-appointed egotists such as the Weathermen.  (The Weather Underground advocated bombings and conducted crazy actions where women ran through high schools half naked to provoke an anti-sexism response.  They received much publicity that slandered the work of other anti-war and anti-racist activists, ed.)


Opposing elitism does not necessarily mean opposing organization or even leaders, but leaders should be held to a higher standard, not given higher privilege, and all forms of cultism have to be rejected. The struggle to develop more female leadership includes both the struggle against sexist oppression in society and against sexist ideas and practices within the movement. These ideas are very deeply rooted in history and will not just disappear with some preaching or sincerely proclamations of one’s presumed sins. And perhaps a major Achilles’ heel of the progressive movement is the failure to address and oppose all forms of racist discrimination and ideology. All forms of oppression are not identical, although all are deadly. There is, however, a particular commonality involving discrimination based on perceived (invented) “physical races,” ethnic/cultural/language groups, caste, and often, religion. Any passivity in the face of this only leads to a severely weakened movement, deprived of the leadership of people whose experiences have tempered them into insightful, committed leaders.  In the U.S., this has obviously meant opposing the oppression of African-American descendants of slaves. Increasingly, this has also meant opposing discrimination against Latinos, most especially undocumented immigrants. Native Americans continue to experience crushing oppression, and discrimination against working class Asians exists in the workplace as anti-Muslim discrimination (with collateral damage to Hindus and Sikhs) has intensified as U.S. and Euro capitalism feel threatened by the growing nationalism in some parts of the world.

Opposing this racism and building these ties is key also to building our “globalization from below” movement to counter the capitalists “globalization from above.” These ties, and not simply calling conferences where delegates from various leftist groups discuss issues, will form the core of a global movement for social justice and equality. The campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, did try to address issues of racist oppression, but the failure to fight through on this one hundred percent and the failure to build solid, genuine, deeply developed personal ties was a fatal problem then and remains a problem today.

If the young progressive, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-working class activists of today hope to build a movement that transcends the campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, which did “rock the house” with hundreds of thousands of supporters, it will have to confront and reject the pro-capitalist ideas of egotism, romanticism, elitism and separatism–learning from the successes but unflinchingly rejecting what was corrosive to the movement. Learning through the struggle over contradictory ideas and learning through experience are how a movement is built.

Students and workers today have a tremendous opportunity to build a multiracial and multiethnic movement.   Trump’s anti-immigrant and pro-fascist practices have mobilized thousands to confront racists, strike public schools, and demand environmental justice.  Students have an important role to play in developing ties to workers on and off campus, overcoming the errors of earlier movements (ed).

sds dem convention


Racism is a key glue that sustains capitalist oppression.  We must put the struggle against racist exploitation and oppression, which includes imperialism,  at the front of the broader class struggle.

Further Reading

The most detailed account of the development and decline of SDS can be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s encyclopedic work: SDS (Vintage Books, 1974). It is currently out of print; used copies are available and the entire text is available on the internet at:

An interesting, if impressionistic, account of the practice of SDS after the split can be found in SDS: A Profile, by Alan Adelson (Charles Scribner’s Sons; First Edition 1972).

Post-split SDS, based in Boston, had a useful pamphlet: “Who are the Bombers: Often the Rulers,” available at this website: This copy is not in perfect form; other versions may be available in university archives.

One can find PLP’s perspective on that period in various articles that have appeared on their website: and in an anonymous article “The Rise and Fall of the Anti-War Movement” that can be found at this web address:

Some other Marxist groups have written about that period; the International Socialists have a somewhat superficial account in one of their publications. There are dozens of books written about that period.

 Mark Rudd’s (Weatherman an Columbia U strike leader) website ( and his account, Underground (William Morrow, 2009)

repeats some of the superficial analysis of the struggle within SDS but at least it has some genuine self-criticism

I particularly recommend Katha Pollitt’s insightful piece not merely on the Weathermen, but on how they and others are rewriting history: Katha Pollitt, “Bill Ayers Whitewashes History, Again”, The Nation, December 8, 2008, available on line at:

Jesse Lemisch wrote a thoughtful piece, also as much about the distorted rewriting of history as it is about the Weathermen: Jesse Lemisch, “Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They’re Baack!”, in New Politics (Summer 2006), available on line at: and here: the Weathermen.html

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