Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Students For Democratic Society (SDS) of the 1960s (Old Believers).Commentary
I have spilled plenty of ink over the past year or so discussing the ‘fresh’ breeze that has come through the political atmosphere as a result of the Obama whirlwind. I have, endlessly it seems, compared this phenomena to the one of my youth in the 1960s, the election and truncated presidency of John F. Kennedy. A large piece of that comparison has been the way that today’s youth, especially college students, have gravitated toward Obama in the hope of getting out of the abyss of the past eight years. Fair enough, for now. Although today I am older and wiser and therefore cannot join the young in their enthusiasms I will nevertheless stick to my position that I have held over this past period of seeing this political awakening as a first positive step toward an understanding for the need for socialist solutions after the Obama ship runs aground.
That said, one must recognize that today is not the 1960’s and that history does not (and as a rule should not) repeat itself. Nevertheless one organization that was pivotal in the student struggle s of the 1960’s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), has been resurrected over the past few years and therefore is subject to comment on as a link between the generations. Below is an article gleaned from the “Young Spartacus” pages of “Workers Vanguard”, Number 927, dated January 2, 2009 that polemicizes against today’s SDS and also provides some information about the history the 1960’s organization, its aims, achievements and failures. This article provides a good place to start a discussion about the way that socialists can tap into the political energy on today’s campuses.
As the article makes clear today’s SDS makes no pretense to be a socialist organization, has a merely marginal critique of contemporary American society and on the face of it does not rise to the level of politics that build the old SDS. Some of these shortcomings appears to be done willfully so. The earlier SDS faced that same problem, a problem that I argue today’s SDS will willy-nilly be forced to face. Either SDS will make serious anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critiques of American society and take actions based on those understandings or fold its tent. Look, generations of political activists, young and old, have broken their teeth trying to position themselves just slightly to the left of the Democratic Party or act as an ‘outside’ pressure on that organization. The hard reality, my young friends, is that if that is to be the fate of today’s SDS then the Young Democrats can do it better, have a history of doing this kind of donkey work (no pun intended, I do not think). And have jobs to offer.
However, that is music for the future. Right now serious, mainly liberal (hey we all started out from that position back in the days), students have to develop their critiques and march to a different drummer than that of the Young Democrats. I would argue that there is plenty of room for an all-inclusive socialist student organization where individual students and organizations (including the dreaded ‘vanguard’ organizations that everyone runs in fear of) can fight for their programs and unite on individual actions that are collectively agreed upon. One of the abiding sorrows of the old “New Left”, as the struggle in SDS intensified, is that an issue that never really got fought out was building this kind of organization. Not as a pro-socialist organization, any way. Read the article and think about this a bit. SDS Old & New
From Tepid Liberalism to Radicalism and Back Again
(Young Spartacus pages)
A “new” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 2006, has mushroomed on campuses across the country. This heterogeneous lash-up pounded the pavement to bring out voters for the Democratic Party (see “UCLA SDS Hitches Skateboard to Obama Bandwagon,” p. 5), but it has also occupied military recruitment centers. Disdainful of “ideology” and dominated by hysterical liberal anti-Communists, the new SDS sticks together by shunning political debate in favor of “politically correct” platitudes about democracy. So, for example, SDS’s voluminous “Who We Are” statement does not take a position on a single concrete political issue (studentsforademocraticsociety.org, 2007). Veterans of the early SDS, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd and Mike Klonsky, have rallied around the new SDS, giving talks and raising money, as well as holding their own tepid liberal protests and nostalgic conferences under the auspices of a refounded Movement for a Democratic Society.
So, what’s in a name? SDS cofounder Pat Korte explained, “The reason we chose to keep the name SDS is because it accurately describes us (we are students for a democratic society)” (“The New SDS: Towards a Radical Youth Movement,” CounterPunch, 10 July 2006). What being “for a democratic society” means in racist, capitalist America becomes clear from a look at SDSers’ activities. Having gained some experience at the business end of a nightstick, the original SDS was known for its petty-bourgeois radical “off the pig” rhetoric—but the new SDS in Boston went on hunger strike in support of security guards at Harvard! Former SDS News Bulletin coeditor and UCLA SDS honcho Dave Shukla wants to braintrust the Feds, who witchhunted the first SDS, by “developing a model for mass participation and engagement with institutional design and policy formation for each agency and program in the federal government” (“Left Forum 2008 Speaker Bio,” leftforum.org, undated). At Rutgers, SDS has taken up local New Jersey gerrymandering so “each [ward] gets to elect it’s OWN Council person to represent their neighborhood” and “the student community will get the representation it deserves” (Tent State University/Students for a Democratic Society Facebook page, undated).
The institutions of bourgeois democracy are institutions of capitalist class rule with which the bourgeoisie dupes, defrauds and represses working people and the oppressed. SDS’s pushing of “democratic models” diverts young activists into the dead end of bourgeois electoral politics. What unites the liberals in the new SDS with reformists of all varieties is the view that the capitalist system can be made to serve the interests of working people and the oppressed. As revolutionary Marxists, we seek to win youth to building a revolutionary workers party that can lead the working class in the struggle to overthrow the whole rotten capitalist system and lay the basis for an egalitarian, communist society.
Pushing the myth that communism destroyed the first SDS, the new SDS’s leadership raises the spectre of “sectarian takeovers” and “totalitarian principles” in the service of liberal anti-communism. Voicing her opposition to members of the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization being in SDS, New York SDS honcho Rachel Haut told Platypus magazine: “I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization. Why should we be having these conversations with them, including them in the discussion, if their ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society?” (September 2008). Who needs the House Committee on Un-American Activities when you have the new SDS! The Workers World Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and other reformists work in SDS anyway, but this says less about SDS’s “non-sectarianism” than about the reformists’ toothless politics. They must feel right at home with the new SDS’s parochial campus activism and Democratic Party lesser-evilism.
Forty years ago, Students for a Democratic Society played a prominent role in protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. The dirty, losing Vietnam War, initiated and escalated under Democratic Party presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was a burning issue. Most of the protesters in Chicago in 1968 opposed the Democratic Party as a capitalist party presiding over social injustice. As Kirkpatrick Sale described in SDS, his well-known history of the organization, SDSers rejected “as usual the idea of mass marches but [were] doubly scornful of any project mired in electoral politics.” SDSers propagandized and organized actions against the Democratic Party and raised general hell in the city. For that, they were arrested, savagely beaten, and one young man was shot to death, all under the aegis of the Democratic Party city administration of the infamous Daley machine.
Last August, the new SDS mobilized for protests at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. They did so as part of the Alliance for Real Democracy, whose stated intention was “to convince and pressure Democrats to work for just and progressive policies at home and abroad” (realdemocracy2008.org, undated).
Ostensibly more radical chapters of SDS, including the one from Grand Rapids, Michigan, stated in their call to action, “If we, as a radical movement, are going to attempt to pressure the Democratic Party candidates, the time to do so is before they are elected” (“SDS Call to Action: Disrupt the DNC,” undated). The new SDS is a far cry from the iconic New Left organization of the 1960s, but the history of the old SDS sheds light on the new one.Heirs of Stodgy Cold Warriors
While the first SDS emerged as part of a radicalization of U.S. society, the new SDS reflects a rightward social shift in a period of little struggle. Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a grave defeat for working people and the oppressed worldwide. It ushered in a period of bourgeois triumphalism over the “death of communism,” in which social struggle has been limited and isolated. In their works Empire and Multitude, American academic Michael Hardt and his mentor, veteran Italian New Left intellectual Antonio Negri, developed on the bourgeois idea that communism has failed—an idea also embraced by the new SDS. As our article “Empire, Multitude and the ‘Death of Communism’: The Senile Dementia of Post-Marxism,” noted:
“Claiming to update Marx, Hardt and Negri jettison the programmatic core of Marxism: proletarian revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. They dismiss the lessons distilled from the 1871 Paris Commune, the first proletarian insurrection, and the subsequent history of the revolutionary workers movement. They deride class war and proletarian power as ‘old, tired and faded’ notions….
“In the late 1930s, following the victory of fascism in Germany and the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed: ‘As always during epochs of reaction and decay, quacks and charlatans appear on all sides, desirous of revising the whole course of revolutionary thought’ (Transitional Program ). The triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe in the early 1990s has nurtured a new generation of ideological quacks and charlatans. Hardt and Negri peddle their ideological wares to young leftists who, having no sense of the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat, accept the subjective outlook that a new world will be won not by uprooting the material reality of oppression but by changing the ideas in people’s heads.”
—Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 59, Spring 2006
Dismissing communist revolution as a “failed experiment,” today’s SDSers are left with nothing more than the grubby politics of “lesser evil” capitalism. They are running the film of the first SDS’s radicalization in reverse.
The new SDS’s “democratic” and “anti-authoritarian” rhetoric recapitulates the Cold War anti-Communism that the first SDS broke from. SDS originated as the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the student affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). Moribund by 1960, the LID had served as a handmaiden of the U.S. government in the left and the labor movement, peddling the virtues of “democratic,” “anti-authoritarian” capitalism. Populated by “State Department socialists” such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, the LID also counted among its members the labor traitors Victor and Walter Reuther, who rode to power in the United Auto Workers by purging Communists from the union in the 1940s, and Sidney Hook, a former Communist turned “god that failed” supporter of the established order. Hook was a leading light in the Congress for Cultural Freedom—a CIA-funded operation devoted to counteracting the appeal of Communism and the Soviet Union.
Despite posturing as champions of democracy in the Cold War, the U.S. imperialists supported right-wing military dictatorships, reactionary regimes and the remnants of European colonial rule around the world. On the home front, in the American South black people faced legal segregation and were deprived of basic rights—a fact publicized by the Soviet Union. The Southern Jim Crow system was based on police/Klan terror against atomized rural sharecroppers, and it had become increasingly anachronistic as industrialization in the American South during and following World War II drew blacks into the working class. By the mid 1950s, black anger at Jim Crow segregation had given birth to the civil rights movement, shattering the climate of Cold War McCarthyism and increasingly polarizing American society.
Seeking to refurbish its image and in response to early struggles, the U.S. capitalist class made some concessions, notably in the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education that mandated the integration of public schools. But implementation of this ruling proceeded at a snail’s pace. Young liberal activists, black and white, came forward courageously in lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides. Students from the North, defiant in the face of the murder of young civil rights militants, poured into the South to register black voters. In this changed climate, in January 1960 SLID changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society; its membership began to grow. Early SDS: Confronting Cold War Anti-Communism
The Cuban Revolution coincided with the civil rights movement, reinforcing the appeal of more radical ideas among young activists. In January 1959, Castro’s rebel army overthrew the brutal, corrupt, U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A petty-bourgeois nationalist, Castro formed a coalition government with venal local bourgeois forces and pledged to protect their interests. However, Castro’s program of land redistribution and the measures taken against Batista’s police torturers alienated Castro’s Cuban bourgeois supporters and the U.S. imperialists, including Eisenhower’s CIA director Allen Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, both major stockholders in the United Fruit Company. Eisenhower responded with brute economic pressure to bring Castro’s regime to heel. This pushed Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union. By early 1961, the holdings of the National City Bank, United Fruit, Standard Oil, the sugar barons and the Mafia—as well as the Cuban bourgeoisie—had been expropriated, and the Cuban capitalists were either in exile or in prison.
Facing the unrelenting pressure of U.S. imperialism, the Castro government sought the protection of the Soviet Union. It was compelled under these circumstances to liquidate the bourgeoisie as a class, carrying out a social revolution. Cuba became a bureaucratically deformed workers state in which capitalism had been overthrown but political power was held by a parasitic bureaucratic caste fundamentally sharing the nationalist political program of “socialism in one country” with the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. In 1961, newly elected president Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, attempting to overthrow the Cuban Revolution and establish a puppet regime. Leftist youth were inspired by the Cubans’ defense of their revolution against U.S. imperialism. However, other guerrilla insurgencies aiming to overthrow right-wing capitalist regimes in Latin America were crushed with murderous repression.
In response to the Bay of Pigs invasion, SDSers posed the question “whether our foreign policy had really changed from its old imperialist ways” (The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, July 1962). Early SDSers were increasingly at odds with the Cold War-era anti-Communism of their parent organization, which they rightly saw as a loyalty oath to the powers that be. The Port Huron Statement, adopted at SDS’s June 1962 National Convention, sought “to oppose communism without contributing to the common fear of associations and public actions.” It criticized the Cold War as “not sufficient for the creation of appropriate policies with which to relate to and counter communist movements in the world” and argued that “the American military response has been more effective in deterring the growth of democracy than communism.” A delegate of the Communist Progressive Youth Organizing Committee was allowed to attend the convention as an observer.
Even these small steps away from McCarthyism were too much for the LID elders, who hauled the SDS leadership into a trial for not being anti-Communist enough, then cut all funds to SDS and changed the locks on the SDS office. After much organizational wrangling, SDS and the LID patched things up. Although moving away from the dried-up LID social democrats, SDS had not fundamentally broken from lesser-evil Democratic Party pressure politics, drawing disaffected youth back into the two-party shell game and perpetuating illusions in bourgeois democracy. In the 1964 elections, a wing of SDS campaigned to go “part of the way with LBJ,” maintaining that the Democratic Party platform was “superior to any passed by a major national party since the first New Deal” and that a victory by arch-conservative Barry Goldwater would spell disaster (Sale, SDS).
But the times, they were a-changin’. In 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement (FSM) broke out against the Berkeley administration’s attempts to censor political life on campus by barring reds and other civil rights activists (“outside agitators”) and restricting the activities of student organizations. Facing reprisals from both the liberal campus administration and Democratic governor Pat Brown, FSM activists defended their right to “hear any person speak in any open area of the campus at any time on any subject” (see “The Student Revolt at Berkeley,” Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965). The FSM’s victory fueled further student radicalization across the country and undermined illusions in the good offices of campus administrations and the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, the escalation of the imperialist war in Vietnam meant more youth were being drafted, adding a direct material interest against American imperialist aims to the moral outrage felt by student activists. In 1965, SDS initiated the first nationwide protest against the Vietnam War. To many LID liberals, protesting a war against Communism was as bad as supporting the Communists outright. Furthermore, SDS’s call for the march included no anti-Communist exclusion clause. With a rush of new members and continued radicalization, SDS would abolish its anti-Communist exclusion clause at its 1965 summer convention, and soon afterward it split from the LID entirely. Radicalization: the Civil Rights Movement
When the civil rights movement spread to the North, fighters for black freedom confronted not Southern legal segregation, but the vicious inequality and racial oppression embedded in the American capitalist system. The struggle for fundamental change in the conditions of black life—for real equality, for jobs, decent housing and adequate schools—collided head-on with the realities of American capitalism. The Northern ghettos were exploding in protest. At the 1964 Democratic Party convention, the Johnson/Humphrey machine crushed the attempt by delegates from the anti-racist Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat the Jim Crow Mississippi delegation.
The civil rights movement was fracturing as young militants broke from the Democratic Party and the liberal pacifism exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr., who said of the Watts ghetto upheaval, “It was necessary that as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them” (New York Times, 16 August 1965). As we wrote in “Black Power—Class Power”:
“In contrast to the reform program of the civil rights movement, the demands of the black masses are necessarily and inherently class demands, and demands which the ruling class cannot meet…. It is this transition which is represented by the black power slogan. Its popularization represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the non-violent philosophy of moral suasion. In this sense, therefore, black power is class power, and should be supported by all socialist forces.”
—Spartacist West No. 8, 30 September 1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised), September 1978
At the same time, we warned of the “black power” slogan, in the absence of a broader class fight:
“It can be used by petty bourgeois black nationalist elements who want to slice the social cake along color rather than class lines and to promote reactionary color mysticism. More seriously, it can be degraded to mean mere support for black politicians operating within the system.”
This was a prescient warning. As struggle ebbed, such was exactly the bill of goods sold to the black masses.
Co-optation was one weapon of the racist rulers; extermination was another. The best elements of radicalized black youth drawn to the Black Panther Party faced a systematic government campaign of assassination, police provocations, frame-ups and imprisonment, including through the FBI’s notorious Counter-Intelligence Program. The Panthers’ glorification of ghetto rage and rejection of the Marxist understanding of the role of the working class left them vulnerable to state repression. In the face of this repression, the Panthers turned to the right, into the orbit of the reformist Communist Party and its lawyers, as well as of the Democratic Party. (See “Rise and Fall of the Panthers: End of the Black Power Era,” Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], September 1978.)The Vietnam War
Today, the SDS of the second mobilization displays chauvinist support for the forces of U.S. imperialism. In a grotesque testament to “support our troops” patriotism, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, chapter of SDS “collected and sent care packages to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is now going to be a monthly event…” (SDS News Bulletin No. 4, May/June 2008). The University of North Carolina-Asheville chapter set out white flags commemorating U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq together with shoes representing Iraqis killed under the American occupation (“UNCA SDS Iraq Body Count,” SDS News Bulletin No. 1, October 2007). SDS’s University of Chicago chapter has close relations with Platypus, an organization known for not opposing the occupation of Iraq (see “Platypus Group: Pseudo-Marxist, Pro-Imperialist, Academic Claptrap,” Workers Vanguard No. 908, 15 February 2008).
We stand for the military defense of the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan against the brutal U.S. imperialist occupiers. As revolutionary Marxists, we side with oppressed countries against the predatory imperialist powers. But unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was also another element at work during the Vietnam War: there was a socially progressive character to those who fought against the imperialist butchers. The heroic Vietnamese had carried out a social revolution, albeit bureaucratically deformed, overturning capitalism in the North, and they were fighting to extend this to the South. We demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces and called for the military defense of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese forces, raising revolutionary slogans, including “Victory for the Vietnamese Revolution…No negotiations!” and “All Indochina must go Communist!”
As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, draft resistance spread among militant youth and SDS members. We oppose the draft, demanding “not one man, not one penny” for the imperialist military. But in the event of a draft, as we argued in “You Will Go!”, adapted from a position paper we put forward in SDS, we oppose the voluntary purging of radicals from the army, which would only strengthen the ideological purity and political reliability of the army. Instead, we said young militants should go with the working-class and minority youth and continue their political agitation (see Spartacist No. 11, March-April 1968).
As opposition to the war grew, more and more young activists stopped chanting for “peace” and began calling for “Victory to the NLF!” As we explained in the founding document of our youth organization, Youth, Class and Party (adopted in 1971; reprinted as a pamphlet in December 1974):
“When the liberal establishment backed the imperialist adventure in Vietnam, it drove the radical student movement to the left and opened the path to revolutionary politics.
“As the Vietnam war drove the New Left away from the liberals, the New Left began to re-examine the ‘Communist bloc’ and came to identify with Stalinism in its ‘militant Third World’ form. New Lefters did not consciously identify with the legacy of Stalinism as embodied in the Soviet Union. Instead they created a false dichotomy between the conservatism and opportunism of Soviet Stalinism and the apparent militancy of ‘Third World’ Stalinist governments and leaderships like those of China, Cuba and the NLF.”
Several variants of Maoism would attract a following in SDS. One was Progressive Labor Party (PL), a left split from the pro-Moscow Communist Party. PL put forward a crude working-class line against the blatant petty-bourgeois politics of Mike Klonsky’s wing of SDS, the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which advanced a petty-bourgeois notion of sectoralist struggle, according to which the Vietnamese would fight for their liberation and independence, blacks in the U.S. for theirs, women for theirs, and so forth. By RYM’s lights, the role of revolutionary-minded students was to act as propaganda bureaus and support groups for these various “vanguards.” Ultimately, this sectoralism was just a “radical” version of standard ward-heeling-type Democratic Party constituency politics, with the working class relegated at best to another “oppressed” constituency rather than the agency for fundamental social change. Various Maoist outfits contended within and emerged from RYM, including what would become today’s Revolutionary Communist Party.
Maoism did not represent a break from Stalinist class collaboration, but rather “Khrushchevism under the gun” of U.S. imperialism. Seeking to win young radicals to a Trotskyist program, we exposed the Chinese Maoists’ repeated attempts to form a reactionary, anti-Soviet bloc with U.S. imperialism at the expense of social struggles around the world. This alliance was sealed by Mao’s 1972 meeting with U.S. war criminal Richard Nixon in Beijing as American warplanes rained death and destruction on Vietnam, and it eventually destroyed the Maoist movement for all intents and purposes within the “belly of the U.S. beast.”
As we stated in Youth, Class and Party: “Only by replacing the Stalinist parties with parties unalterably committed to internationalism can the power of the Sino-Soviet states be used to further the struggle for world socialism. Recognizing that collectivized property and economic planning constitute a major qualitative gain for the workers in the Sino-Soviet states, we unconditionally defend these property forms against imperialist attacks and capitalist encroachment.” Uniquely on the left, today we uphold the same Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense and proletarian political revolution for the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba.Student Radicals in Search of Revolutionary Program
By the end of the spring of 1968, universities had been shut down and reopened, administration buildings occupied and then abandoned. This did not stop the Vietnam War—the government escalated troop deployments to Vietnam. Radical youth within SDS were becoming increasingly restive with student-centered politics. Clearly, there was a limit to “student power.” The question was posed: if not students, then what force could bring social change? The French general strike of May 1968 gave an answer. This incipient workers revolution in France exposed the charlatanry of an earlier generation of “post-Marxist” ideologues such as Herbert Marcuse, who had written off the revolutionary potential of the working class. May ’68 forced the New Left to confront the key question of class, laying the basis for new layers of youth to be won to revolutionary Marxism.
SDS’s rejection of the “Old Left” was in large measure a response to the boring reformist politics of the Stalinist Communist Party, which had been deeply ensconced in Democratic Party politics for decades and whose idea of black struggle was to follow the lead of the “respectable,” religious black leaders. The most widely known self-styled Trotskyist organization at the time, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was moving rapidly to the right when our founding cadres were expelled as a left-wing opposition in 1963-64. The SWP and its National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) gave Trotskyism a bad name as they promoted “peaceful, legal” single-issue antiwar peace crawls in order to make a reformist alliance with the defeatist wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie and social-democratic trade-union bureaucrats. The SWP’s alliance with liberal imperialists was sealed in blood when Spartacist supporters along with PLers and SDSers were beaten and expelled from a 1971 NPAC conference for protesting the presence of ruling-class politician Vance Hartke on the platform. (See “The Vietnam Antiwar Movement and the National Peace Action Coalition,” WV No. 920, 12 September 2008).
Our Trotskyist program won a hearing within SDS, and the forebear of today’s Spartacus Youth Clubs was founded as the Revolutionary Marxist Caucus (RMC) in SDS in early 1970. The RMC sought to win radical-minded students to a revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian communist program. This included fighting for an understanding of the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the world’s first successful workers revolution, which pulled Russia out of the bloody slaughter of World War I, expropriated the capitalist class, and placed Russia’s economy under the control of democratic workers rule through soviets (workers councils). The RMC also sought to lay out Trotsky’s understanding of the material roots of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution (see our pamphlet, The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited).
In the summer of 1969 at the SDS National Convention in Chicago, facing the prospect of Progressive Labor’s positions gaining a majority, a clique within the SDS National Collective (NC), including Bernardine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky, engineered a split, lining up Black Panthers and others to race-bait PL supporters. When PL refused to take the bait, the NC splitters led their followers out of the conference. We remained with the PL-led Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) wing of SDS, based on its orientation, however crude, to the proletariat. But while PL correctly opposed the RYM splitters’ sectoralism, it also advanced (as it continues to do) a line of indifference toward special oppression, for example, racial and sexual oppression. We fought for a proletarian orientation on this question—we issued position papers within SDS, arguing for a Leninist vanguard party to bring the power of the working class to bear in the interests of all the oppressed (see “‘Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics’,” WV No. 897, 31 August 2007, and “‘The Fight for Women’s Liberation’,” WV No. 910, 14 March 2008).
PL was vulnerable to our Trotskyist criticism, but ultimately they clung to their reformist “minimum/maximum program,” combining “communist” rhetoric with reformist practice. We warned: “By attempting to build on social guilt, moralism, and empiricism, the three most obnoxious and defective characteristics of the American left, PL creates the conditions for its own defeat and the continuous splits to the right…. Without a clearly reasoned theoretical explanation for its break with Stalinist theory, without an institution of real inner party democracy, and without a transitional program which bridges the gap between ‘rubber mats’ [PL’s concrete demands for workers struggle on campus were usually grotesquely minimal] and the dictatorship of the proletariat, PL is bound to create within itself right wing splits and transmit the same process to SDS” (“Final SDS Convention?”, Revolutionary Marxist Caucus Newsletter No. 6, March 1971). Indeed, PL eventually “led” its WSA-SDS in retreat into outright liberal idealism, campus parochialism and ordinary reformism. Terrorism and Communism
As we wrote in Youth, Class and Party:
“The break-up of the New Left, most evident in the 1969 SDS split, was caused by the inadequacy of New Left politics in the face of the general social crisis of the late ’60’s. With the collapse of the traditional New Left, there remained three general political tendencies on the left. One is an attempt to re-establish the ties between the left and the liberal political establishment, now possible because of the deep split in the ruling class over the Vietnam war. The second is a policy of confrontation with the armed forces of the state and terrorism practiced in the name of Third World nationalism. The third tendency is that of proletarian socialism of which the Revolutionary Communist Youth is an important element.”
Lacking a proletarian strategy, and desperate to do something, some in the RYM wing ended up in the Weather Underground. The Weathermen would conduct acts of individual terror that were self-defeating and, more times than not, far more dangerous to themselves than to the bourgeoisie. Such a program was no break from liberalism, but in fact a logical conclusion, in extremis, of the liberal program of bearing “moral witness” to the government’s crimes. The Weathermen’s strategy was futile; at the same time, their targets were representatives of imperialism and capitalist oppression. As comrade Trotsky wrote of a German youth who had assassinated a Nazi:
“We Marxists consider the tactic of individual terror inexpedient in the tasks of the liberating struggle of the proletariat as well as oppressed nationalities. A single isolated hero cannot replace the masses. But we understand only too clearly the inevitability of such convulsive acts of despair and vengeance. All our emotions, all our sympathies are with the self-sacrificing avengers even though they have been unable to discover the correct road.”
—“For Grynszpan: Against Fascist Pogrom Gangs and Stalinist Scoundrels,” February 1939
While politically in opposition to the Weathermen, we fought for their defense, insisting that they were “an integral part of the radical movement.” We wrote:
“The real crime vis-a-vis terror politics and heroic individualism is that it allows the revolutionary energies of some of the movement’s most talented, dedicated people to be channeled into futile and self-destructive actions. It is our job to seek to redirect these energies into genuinely revolutionary directions.”
—“Terrorism and Communism,” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 17-18, August-September 1970
Other so-called “socialists” refused to defend the Weathermen and often even joined the witchhunting chorus against them. The Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party both denounced this small, isolated, and persecuted outfit of misguided radical youth. For its part, PL branded the Weathermen “police agents.”
Although the new SDS is divided over whether the Weathermen were heroic, criminal or simply irrelevant, the Weathermen’s politics have a pale echo in the new SDS’s “acts of resistance” which, even at their most militant, lack both the social power and political program required to challenge the class rule of the capitalists. Like much of the “anti-globalization” movement, these protests are based on “the dangerously false idea that the capitalist U.S. is or could be pressured into being a democracy ‘for the people’ if only the anti-globalization youth were determined or creative enough to make the rulers pay attention…. Lacking a perspective of mobilizing the working class against the rule of capital, such confrontations with the cops amount to the streetfighting face of reformism” (“What Strategy to Defeat Imperialism?” WV No. 817, 9 January 2004).
In the Pacific Northwest, SDSers and others have repeatedly blocked military convoys, delaying shipments of war materiel to Iraq. These courageous protesters have been arrested, beaten and pepper-sprayed, but they lack the social power and political program needed to stop the U.S. imperialists’ overwhelming military might. Despite our vast political differences, we revolutionary Marxist youth defend SDS when it runs afoul of the state (see “UCLA: 16 Arrested at SDS/SWF Protest—Drop the Charges! For Free, Quality, Integrated Education for All!” WV No. 918, 1 August 2008, and “Drop Charges Against Evergreen 6! Reinstate Olympia SDS!” WV No. 914, 9 May 2008).SDS Today: Second Time Farce…
Once the U.S. had been defeated on the battlefield in Vietnam and mass protests had ended, many former SDSers reconciled themselves to the capitalist system. Tom Hayden, for example, went on to become a well-known California Democrat and state senator. Many other leading lights from the “generation of ’68” went to work for Democratic Party mayors who oversee the oppression of the working class and oppressed in major urban centers. Former radicals also people the union bureaucracies and liberal civil liberties outfits, as well as the Democratic Party itself. Most recently, Tom Hayden, Carl Davidson and others got involved in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Obama, having been vetted and approved by the ruling class, is about to assume the role of overseer of the whole plantation.
The Republicans had attempted to make electoral hay out of Obama’s acquaintance with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, a luminary for many new SDSers. Chicago machine Democrat and mayor Richard M. Daley (whose father unleashed the police on the ’68 protests) testified to Ayers’ “rehabilitation”: “This is 2008, people make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life” (New York Times, 4 October 2008). It is also the case that a section of the ruling class will never forgive the likes of Ayers and Dohrn, no matter how “rehabilitated” they are by other sections of the bourgeoisie with whom they have made their peace. Even more vicious has been the continuing racist persecution of former Panthers, not least Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s foremost death row political prisoner (see “D.A. Petitions Supreme Court to Reinstate Death Penalty,” p. 2). The racist rulers have long memories. Believe it: they seek to stamp out even the hint of the militant challenge, however politically flawed, which faced them during the social explosions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Our model is not the confused, eclectic radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s but rather the Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Russian Revolution. Alienated radical students have no social power per se; they can, however, be won to the fight for a revolutionary workers party, one that struggles for the political independence of the working class from all bourgeois parties and for workers’ state power. Today the fight for revolutionary consciousness is surely an uphill battle, but a necessary one. There is a massive gulf between this understanding and that of the liberal politics, including their more “militant” face, of the present SDS.
Labels: american socialism, anti- Vietnam War, communism, new left, Old Left, PROGRESSIVE LABOR PARTY, SDS, VANGUARD PARTY, WEATHERMEN