Filed under SDS & Weather

The death of SDS

by Mark Rudd

It’s probably not a great idea to pursue an hallucination all the way to the end. Most likely the results will not be what you thought they would be, but 35 years ago we weren’t playing the probabilities.

There was this beautiful hallucination back then, roughly 1967-1970, that the world was about to be remade; that this monster of militarism and injustice was about to fall; that young people in this country would join with people all over the world to end imperialism and make a new world. I get shivers just writing these words.

Students for a Democratic Society had been growing almost effortlessly since 1965 when the U.S. attacked Vietnam with ground troops. By 1968 there were over 300 autonomous chapters on college campuses, high schools, and even post-college; the number of active members may have been more than 100,000 (though dues-paying national membership was much smaller). Our official uniting slogan was the ambiguous “Let the people decide!” but most SDS’ers considered the organization “radical” in the sense that we wanted to get to the roots of the problems of war, racism, poverty, that is, we opposed capitalism. Our 1962 founding document, “Port Huron Statement,” was radical for its time in rejecting the cold-war and the anti-communism which propped it up, though its solution was to create a left-wing of the Democratic Party. By 1968 most SDS’ers had rejected party politics and the liberals that gave us the war and perpetuated racism in this country. We were moving to the left “from reform to revolution.”

The amazing, dizzying events of 1968 pushed us even further: in Vietnam the Tet Offensive of January-March showed that the U.S. government and military had been lying about winning the war and turned a majority of Americans against it; the assassination of Martin Luther King in early April gave rise to riots in dozens of cities and the belief that the Black Power movement was ascendant; the occupation and strike against the war and racism at Columbia University (which I participated in) provided a model for further student militancy (“Create two, three, many Columbias!” was a slogan); the student-worker general strike in France known as “May-June” almost toppled the conservative deGaulle government; the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a potential anti-war candidate, followed by the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in which the police rioted against anti-war demonstrators as the Democrats nominated a pro-war candidate (“The whole world is watching!”); the massacre of students in Mexico protesting the Olympics, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR. All of this left us breathless and believing that massive change was imminent. Our movement was growing. (For more on the impact of 1968, check out Mark Kurlansky’s book, 1968: the Year that Rocked the World.)

But where to go? How to get there? Could students make a revolution alone? Was there some useful theory of revolution? How would revolution happen? We needed ideas and a plan, but even more, we needed a framework for thinking about the world and social change, we needed an ideology.

Marxism had already given us what appeared to be an extremely useful analysis of the war, racism, and the class structure in this country. The war was part of the grand scheme for global domination that the U.S. had been implementing since the end of World War II. U.S. imperialism needed labor and markets and natural resources (such as oil) and military bases with which to impose its rule. Opposing it were national liberation movements such as Vietnam’s and Cuba’s which were strong enough to not only challenge U.S. control but also to actually achieve liberation and revolution. We noted, of course, that these victorious revolutions were led by Marxist-Leninists. The Cubans and the Vietnamese, whom we met, were among the coolest people in the world, we thought.

Adding to the attraction of Marxism was the fact that our professors despised it: they were mostly liberals who had no explanation for the war other than as a well-intentioned mistake on the part of liberal Democrats such as Kennedy and Johnson. They were part of the structure of class privilege which universities were created to uphold! Screw them!

Once deciding to head down the Marxist road, things started getting dicey. We were faced with a further question: which brand of Marxism should we adopt? It was as if you suddenly had a vision that Jesus was the Way, then you looked in a yellow pages to figure out which church to go to on Sunday. What a mess!

Back in 1962, in the Port Huron Statement, SDS had rejected a cornerstone of the cold war, anti-communism. In so doing we had not only opened ourselves up eventually to Marxism, but to actual infiltration by members of communist parties whose goal was recruitment. The fastest-growing party at the time among college students was the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China Maoist party which had split from the old Soviet-oriented Communist Party of the United States. China was then in its Cultural Revolution, its revolution was still young and vibrant and attractive. “Long live Mao Tse-tung thought!” PL, by late 1968, early 1969, seeing a good thing in SDS, had infiltrated many of the most active chapters of SDS, such as Columbia’s, and had even taken over whole chapters, such as at Harvard. They were pushing as a strategy for SDS something called, “the Worker-Student Alliance,” which postulated that students should unite with the true revolutionary power in this country, “the workers,” in order to make the revolution. Why were they revolutionary? Because Marx had told us so back in 1848. There’s the religious aspect for you.

I knew PL was just blowing wind. After being kicked out of Columbia in May, 1968, I had become a regional and national traveler for SDS, going to chapters around the country to help them get organized. I constantly spoke about the events at Columbia, how it was necessary to support black students (SDS was mostly white), how militancy and a radical analysis gained us support. I found many other non-PL SDS’ers who believed as I did, and together we formed an anti-PL faction which put forward a competing vision of revolution based on what we saw happening around us, in this country and around the world: that national liberation movements such as Vietnam’s and the black liberation movement in this country were actually leading the struggle, and that we white students should organize support for them. Fixating on “the workers” was racist in that PL didn’t want to see non-white people as the revolutionary agents. (In retrospect our faction has been called “Third Worldist,” and there’s a certain element of reverse racism which is itself quite racist contained in our beliefs).

One other thing we noticed was that SDS membership and activity was increasing at state schools, which drew on less elite populations than the Ivy League; Kent State SDS, for example, composed of workng-class and lower-middle class students, was a model of militancy in 1968 and 1969. This led us to flesh out a strategy to compete with PL’s Worker-Student Alliance: we would build a Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) which would unite college students and non-student working class young people to support third world revolution. Our great strategic theory was embodied in a paper, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” prepared for the 1969 SDS National Convention in Chicago. Taken from a Dylan line, the title means you don’t need dogmatic Marxist theory (PL) to figure out what’s happening in the world, just look about you.

It was at that SDS National Convention in June, 1969, that the whole thing came to a head. PL had brought every single member they possibly could; my faction, the RYM, did similarly. For days we battled verbally, then an unplanned incident blew the convention apart. The SDS National Office (a RYM outpost) had invited the Black Panther Party to address the Convention. PL didn’t like the Black Panthers because they didn’t recognize any other party than their own; how could there be two Marxist parties, both with the Truth? And the Black Panthers didn’t like them.

A Panther leader was at the podium attacking “armchair Marxists” when he suddenly started talking about women’s liberation, the power of love, and “pussy power.” This stupid statement played perfectly into the hands of PL, who started chanting, “Fight Male Chauvinism! Fight Male Chauvinism!” From there it was pandemonium in the hall, as we just as vehemently chanted back, “Fight racism!” The next day, the Panthers demanded that SDS expel PL for its racism in not supporting national liberation; the RYM faction then led a very angry walk-out from the convention, thereby splitting the organization.

We elected our own officers and took over the National Office. I was elected National Secretary. We also called for a National Action in Chicago, demonstrations to coincide with the opening of the trial of the Chicago 8, who were indicted for conspiracy for the demonstrations the previous summer at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The action would be militant and openly anti-imperialist: “Come to Chicago to fight the pigs!” we advertised, “There’s a war going on in the world!” The date planned, Oct. 8, was the second anniversary of the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia.

The story of what happened at what became known as The Days of Rage has been told elsewhere, including the 2003 documentry, “The Weather Underground.” What’s significant for this story, though, is that the SDS chapters rejected en masse support for the action. Most chapters had been independent, neither PL nor RYM, and didn’t participate in or even understand the argument. The effect of the split at the June Convention was to cut them off from the National Office. We in what became known as Weatherman had lost our base. But we kept going without one.

The effect on SDS as a whole was disaster. By the beginning of 1970 the national organization had ceased to exist. We in the Weatherman leadership had made a decision that SDS wasn’t radical enough, that it was an impediment to the building of a revolutionary movement in this country. We needed an underground guerilla army to begin the revolutionary armed struggle. So we disbanded the National and Regional Offices, dissolved the national organization, and set the chapters adrift. Many chapters kept organizing, in their own ways, against the war and racism; demoralized, others disbanded.

We couldn’t have done the FBI’s work better for them had we been paid agents, which I know we weren’t. We were just stupid kids too in love with our ideas to realize they weren’t real. We believed they were real because we thought them. That’s the essence of the downside of idealism. (You don’t have to look very far to see idealism at work today. Just look at the neo-cons’ war in Iraq to see people believing the truth of their own stupid ideas).

The war was still raging in 1969, despite the fact that the war planners knew the U.S. couldn’t win. The carnage would continue for six more years. SDS had been the largest student anti-war organization in the country. When the U.S. invaded Cambodia in late April, 1970, thereby openly widening the war beyond Vietnam, there was no national student group to coordinate and send resources to the hundreds of protests and demonstrations that broke out. A few days later, when the Ohio National Guard murdered four students at Kent State, and three million students went out on strike, the largest student strike in U.S. history, SDS didn’t exist to help inform the millions about the imperialist nature of the war. I myself was sitting useless on a park bench in Philadelphia, having just escaped a run-in with the FBI, reduced to reading in the newspaper about the protests and student strike while contemplating the stupidity of my ideas. I hope you never have to go to those lengths to learn a necessary lesson.

Many veterans of the anti-war movement speak about the death of SDS as some sort of inevitability. I have heard people talk about the organization as having been “played out,” whatever that means. My recall is that my comrades and I in the leadership of Weatherman made specific bad decisions based on our evolving and deepening ideology toward the chimera of revolution and the strategy revolutionary guerilla warfare. One thinks of the roads not taken. We could have chosen to fight to maintain the organization, to strengthen its anti-imperialism and anti-racism among students, to build the largest possible coalition against the war. Perhaps we could have ended the war sooner, who knows?

Be careful when you’re tempted to believe your own shit.

But we’re fortunate that ideology is not the problem now. Outside of a few hard-core anarchists I’ve heard who say really dumb stuff like, “We don’t want a movement, we don’t want any movement, we want autonomous communities of struggle,” activists don’t kill each other and their work over whose ideas are the best. This old way of behaving is basically kaput, thank god. But the opposite problem prevails: not enough ideas about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Vision and strategy. One good thing about SDS, which was also our downfall, was that there was no shortage of ideas.