‘Youthism’ and Ageism in Our Movement?
By Brian Kelly Kelly@Leftist.ws
Pace University & NYC, Students for a Democratic Society
Tom Hayden and Brian Kelly (right)
One of the most controversial and heavily debated issues in the first five months of our newly re-formed organisation is clearly the issue of the role of both youths (namely students), and of adults and postgraduates. Heated, often hostile debate has come from people with various opinions on the matter. Some adults have called for an entirely “integrated” organisation, with no distinction between the roles of students and that of adults. They advocate one voting system and method of decision making for all members of SDS, regardless of age. Some students have come under attack from some very vocal adults for their position that they believe that students should “lead” the movement.
There are varying degrees of this position of student power. The first group calls for students to lead the movement, but does not define the nature by which this will occur. Another group proposes that adults should not participate at all, conceivably banning anyone who is not enrolled in school, and raising questions about adults who have returned to school or who have not left it at all yet. While there is another, less debated, position advocating student power (which I will argue in favour of shortly), all of these positions have been grouped together under the newly coined term “youthism.” The person who coined this term has grouped all advocates of self-determination for students “youthist”, a highly pejorative term in my opinion. One possible definition of “youthism” is “a term describing one form of ageism which describes people who hold beliefs or take actions advocating unfavourable balance of power or resources toward the ‘younger’ generations in an organisation.”
From the beginning it must be explained why this term does not apply to all of the positions advocated. The only group this term could possibly be applied to is advocates for an exclusively student movement (a position I do not agree with). It could not be legitmately used to describe students who advocate for a student-led movement (SDS has a majority of students in its membership) or those who advocate for solidarity organising along generational and group lines.
Towards A Radical Youth Movement: Pace SDS at City Hall
The term condemns a set of beliefs, without looking at the fundamental reasons behind those beliefs, or differentiating between the many separate beliefs covered by the term. It claims that we (students) could have no possible reason for wanting autonomy and self-determination, and that our desires rest solely on “lack of experience” or our “rebellious nature [to resist adults].” It also promotes a position that we do not have the skills or intelligence necessary to create our own organisation, and that our analysis of our current situation is fundamentally incorrect (though I fail to see who could have a better analysis of our current situation than us – not the mention the undeniable ageism in the implication that all youths who want a say in SDS are ‘youthists”). Every student has a right to have an opinion on this matter, and it is uncomradely and in poor faith to attack a person’s opinion with a term that implies an inability to formulate successful strategies. Such a tactic amounts to no more than propaganda used to discredit the actual ability of a person to form a position, instead of arguing against the position itself in a positive and comradely manner, offering concrete evidence of a counter-position, and attempting to work with others in the movement. Treating people with dissenting opinions on small details as your enemy is one of the most toxic practices in the radical left today.
Challenging arbitrary authority: Sarah Trapido at City Hall
While I would agree that to simply rebel against the participation of adults might be the position of some students, I do not believe it is the position of the majority of students. I would go further to state that most students who would seek to expel all adults from SDS have come to that conclusion after being backed into a corner by hostile adults (as ageist as any ‘youthist’); and in most cases are willing to work with adults who treat them as equals. But more importantly I believe that an alternative and inclusive position must be put forth that encourages autonomy and self-determination for all groups involved. Combining autonomy & self-determination, participatory democracy, decentralisation, and organising along solidarity lines will help us to build a strong, vibrant, and radical mass student movement again in the United States – - and beyond.
It is important to explore the special nature of a matriculated or high school student before explaining why we need self-determination within the movement. As students, we are part of a system of society that wants to mold our minds, and turn us into alienated workers and mindless consumers. The education system is perfectly designed for this purpose. In high school, we are divided into the potential rulers of the world, and those who will be ruled (workers, consumers, soldiers, etc…). Those who actually make it to the university, have to face enormous odds – rising tuition and housing costs, cuts in financial aid, the privatisation of debt, military recruiters, and an under-funded education system. We are forced to face military recruiters who invade our schools and attempt to send us (or our friends) to kill innocent civilians all around the world, risk our lives, and throw our potential away in the name of Empire. They want us to leave school and participate in the illegal wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Police recruiters have similar goals. They want us to wage the war on the poor at home – the war to keep the oppressed people of our cities pacified. They want us to beat and kill our fellow comrades in the streets. They want us to give up everything we believe in. Both of these institutions seek to mold us into professional killers and spies. An even larger group of students will be destined to be recruited by Corporate America, which will get fully trained employees entirely on the taxpayer and student dollar.
In defence of immigrants: Pace SDS on the Brooklyn Bridge
All of these factors, including countless others too numerous to list make the problems facing students incredibly unique. Students are in need of a radical organisation that they can call their own. We need a venue where we can fully express ourselves, free from interference from other groups, including other generations of activists. There is an ever increasing need to stimulate the creation of a movement of this type.
The questions still remain:
What should be the relationship between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS)?
What should their membership look like?
How should they interact? and;
How should they be organised?
I will attempt to explain my position on each of these questions.
I believe very strongly in the value and power of decentralisation and the self-determination of groups & individuals. I think any organisation dedicated to the participatory democracy must emulate these concepts. So how should we organise SDS as a national organisation that can best empower its members? I think there must be a clear distinction between students (the student wing of SDS) and adults (the post-graduate / non-student wing of SDS; or MDS) for reasons I explained above relating to the nature of a university or high school student’s struggles. The same holds true for the problems faced by non-students. SDS should be organised into “subgroups” that respect the right of group self-determination. One option, that I would advocate in favour of, would be to propose two subgroups in SDS, one being called SDS and being the student wing of SDS, and another called MDS, being the non-student/post-graduate and worker wing of SDS. Most local chapters would fit into one of these categories. These categories should not be used to divide the movement, but rather to strengthen it and empower the membership. Anyone who uses these principles to advocate for a totally divided movement misses the purpose and value of solidarity and self-determination. Another important factor is the advocating for the inclusion of students and adults in citywide (or countywide, statewide, regional, etc.) memberships of SDS (SDS being defined as our movement, not as the student wing thereof).
George McAnanama of VFP marching with SDS
Why would I advocate for such a distinction between SDS and MDS chapters? I would make this distinction because it is the only logical option that respects the rights of students (and other groups such as non-students, post-graduates, workers, etc.) to have a voice in the decisions which affect them. The preamble of the original SDS constitution voices this concept clearly, envisioning not only an organisation, but also a society “where at all levels the people have control over the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent.” (italics added for emphasis). The most participatory models of democracy give people full control over the decisions which affect them, but never control over decisions which do not affect them. The same should be true for the structure of our organisation.
Defending immigrant workers: SDS on April 10, 2006
One example of how this system would work would be a strike vote on a university campus. If students were to take a strike vote on campus, it is fundamentally undemocratic for people who aren’t affected by that vote to participate in it. It is also important for others to show their solidarity with those students. The most involved MDS’ers up until this point have shown students solidarity and stood with us side-by-side in important struggles, instead of claiming that “we” (as students) are trying to exclude them. Anyone who talks about exclusion is clearly detached from the reality that is SDS. As my good comrade and friend Thomas Good said
“I stand in solidarity with my comrades in university – I’ve participated in
the free speech struggle at PACE [university] in a support capacity – while
simultaneously functioning in my primacy capacity as a community organiser
for MDS in New York. I don’t think campus organisers and community
organisers have mutually exclusive roles, but neither should we assume we
know what it is to be in the other person’s situation. The approach I favour
is to see our work as one Struggle – but one that is multifaceted.”
Tom Good (SDS/MDS) at a Pace University free speech protest
Tom is an organiser for SDS/MDS in New York City and a community organiser with MDS. Since the inception SDS, he has been one of the most supportive adults I have dealt with, always willing to provide his advice, opinion, and support whenever it is asked of him, but always assisting in a support and solidarity role. This should be the model for MDS, and for the solidarity that members of SDS certainly need to give in return.
Working together: SDS, Military Families Speak Out and Vets for Peace
Returning to the strike vote, how would MDSers get involved in solidarity with a student strike? One example, for the sake of argument, would be a blockade of the outside of the school (i.e. a picket line). That obviously WOULD affect MDSers since they risk arrest by participating in such an action. Therefore, following the concept that you have a right to have a say in decisions which affect you, it is democratic for them to take a separate vote on whether or not to risk such an action (with those who dissent obviously not having to take such risks if they do not want to risk arrest. In other words, people should be allowed to participate at their comfort level). Solidarity organising also extends to the realm of communication. A student strike and an MDS blockade would not be “segregated events,” but rather events that are closely planned together with input from both sides. Communication is vital to participatory democracy. We should build our relationship around mutual respect and open communication. That is how we will be successful as an organisation. However, in the end, votes should only be taken by those affected by the potential outcomes. (The same holds true for a workshop strike in which no students are involved).
So what is solidarity? Solidarity is standing by our comrades in the struggle, but never ever attempting to exert control or putting our vote where it does not belong. Solidarity is reaching out to those with common goals and offering our assistance, but never pressuring them to take it. In short, solidarity is offering assistance to our sisters and brothers in in the struggle whenever possible, but never giving it when it is not asked for, requested, or after it is turned down.
SDS New York defending war resister Lt. Ehren Watada
To answer the question “What should be the relationship between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS)?”: the relationship between SDS and MDS should be one based on solidarity lines. We should seek to aid each other whenever possible, but never exert our vote on matters that have nothing to do with us. We should seek to work together on issues that affect everyone, and increase communication and debate between generations, oppressed groups, and residents of different geographic regions.
The most important fact that must be pointed out is that the SDS-MDS relationship has nothing to do with age. Many have claimed that it is a youth/adult issue, but these analyses are fail to see the important factors that affect the relationship. It is a relationship that is based on group status. Conceivably, there could be other subgroups of SDS that form, (ie: Veterans for a Democratic Society, Workers for a Democratic Society, etc.). It must be stressed that, while most students are in fact youths, the relationship has everything to do with the special nature of the student and their oppression, and nothing to do with age. Every group has problems that they must be given the self-determination to struggle against. Others who sympathise with them can and should struggle with them, but always in solidarity. Anything less is not a model worthy of a democratic society.
Self-Determination for the Students!
Self-Determination for the Movement!