Students for a Democratic Society

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Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the most influential socialist youth group in American history.

Origins

Students for a Democratic Society began life as the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), a student group affiliated with the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). In January of 1960, SLID changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), so as to have a broader appeal among students. The group started small, in 1960 it only had nine chapters on various campuses.

At a 1962 convention in Port Huron, Michigan, SDS delegates worked on a draft originally written by Tom Hayden which would become the Port Huron Statement. Michael Harrington from LID, SDS's parent organization, attended the convention and fought with the SDS members over the statement, especially what he considered its softness on being anti-communist, as well as SDS allowing an observer associated with the Communist Party youth organization to be present at the convention. When the convention was over, the fight between SDS and LID continued, with LID even locking the doors of SDS's New York office, but SDS and LID managed to patch things up. Some consider this convention as the break between the Old Left and the New Left. The Port Huron Statement found an audience on much of the student left such as with the National Student Association.

In September 1963, SDS began the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP), where college students would go into poor areas and organize. One of the program's first successes was organizing in Chester, Pennsylvania near Swarthmore College. Eventually hundreds of college students would move into the ghettoes and organize.

SDS led the first national demonstration against the invasion of Vietnam on April 17, 1965 in Washington DC. Over 20,000 people attended the demonstration.

SDS Becomes Independent

LID and SDS had an uneasy relationship for a while. On October 04, 1965, SDS broke off from LID, the cited reason being problems regarding tax-exempt statuses for the organizations. The real reason, of course, is that SDS had amended its constitution at the June 1965 convention -- dropping the clause that prohibited communists from being members. SDS was growing, becoming more radical, and more involved in anti-war work as the Vietnam War escalated.

In February of 1966 members of the May 2nd Movement (M2M), which the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) exercised great control over, disbanded M2M, and many of the M2M members joined SDS, in an attempt to recruit SDS members into the PLP. SDS began feeling the influence of the M2M members (PLP) almost immediately.

SDS had began shunning formal structure in 1965, which carried into the 1966 SDS convention in Clear Lake, Iowa. Steering committees and formal hierarchy was shunned, and consensus and "prairie power" was emphasized. Boston SDS'er John Maher made a proposal at the convention which indirectly targeted the Progressive Labor (PL) SDS'ers - it was rejected by a large majority of the convention.

In the spring of 1967, most of the working class members of the PLP, many of whom were on the West Coast, left PLP. PLP decided to concentrate on recruiting students more than workers. A February/March 1967 article in Progressive Labor by Jeff Gordon suggested a worker-student alliance.

The Winter and Spring of 1967 saw an escalation of the militancy of the protests at many campuses. SDSers and self-styled radicals were even elected into the student government at a few places. Demonstrations against Dow Chemical Company and other campus recruiters were widespread, and ranking and the draft issues grew in scale. The FBI (mainly through its secret COINTELPRO (WP)) and other law enforcement agencies were often exposed as having spies and informers in the chapters. Harassment by the authorities was also on the rise. The National Office became distinctly more effective in this period, and the three officers actually visited most of the chapters. New Left Notes, as well, became a potent vehicle for promoting some coherence and solidarity among the chapters. The Anti-War movement began to take hold among university students.

1968

On April 23, 1968, 19 days after the assassination Martin Luther King, Jr., a student strike began at Columbia University, many of the leaders of which were "action faction" SDSers. This would be followed by student strikes on other universities in the coming days, months and years throughout the country (and throughout the world - students went on strike in France a month later, almost bringing the French government down when the strike spread to become a general strike among workers).

At the SDS convention in June 1968 at Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan, the PL-affiliated SDS'ers began to try to openly dominate SDS. Following democratic centralism, in a manner some said was even stricter than CPUSA democratic centralism, they were a united front in SDS. They were also well-organized, and their Marxist theory was well-worked out as opposed to "vaguer" ideas and theories presented by non-PLers. The anti-PL "new working class" SDSers caucused at the convention.

After the convention, the SDS PL'ers began pushing the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) idea more. The PL'ers were not much involved in what became militant protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois which many SDS'ers participated in. In a December 1968 SDS National Council meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, PL-WSA succeeds in passing its Marxian resolution on racism (which said that racism is a byproduct of the class war). Toward a Revolutionary Youth Movement by an anti-PL faction which would become called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) passed as well.

A group containing Murray Bookchin was working on a Radical Decentralization Project within SDS at the time, but Bookchin said it didn't have much success.

1969 Convention

From June 18-22 of 1969, SDS held its ninth annual convention at the Chicago Coliseum, mostly because it was unable to find a meeting place on any Mid-western college campus. At this convention, fighting between the PL-WSA faction and the anti-PL faction (collected together as the Revolutionary Youth Movement) came to a head. On June 21, Saturday night, hundreds of RYMers marched out of the coliseum, permanently splitting with PL-WSA. This more or less was the end of SDS - the two largest, but still relatively small factions, PL-WSA and RYM continued to exist as the rest of SDS, much of whom were marginally attached students, disintegrated.

The Revolutionary Youth Movement, which had always been a loose group united in their oppositon to PL-WSA, split up into the two groups it had been more or less composed of - RYM I, which would become the Weathermen, and RYM II, which included members of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union and other groups. In a month or two, the rift between RYM I and RYM II became permanent, after which RYM II itself began breaking up into different groups.

The newsletter of SDS was called New Left Notes.

Bibliography

SDS: Ten Years Towards a Revolution by Kirkpatrick Sale; 1974 Vintage Books, ISBN 0394719654


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