Top: Mark Rudd, today and in his Weather days. (Photos: markrudd.com)
Bottom: Dan Mirisola of new SDS (Photo: Thomas Good)
The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago gave me a crushing headache, and I canâ€™t have been the only one. Like most (but by no means all) the SDSers that I knew, I left the convention hall with the anti-PLers, sure that nothing could be quite worse than being dragged back, not just into 1930s rhetoric but to the least effective 1930s rhetoric, before the funny songs, successful labor mobilization and great movies made the leftwing message somewhat diluted but lot more popular.
The rude shock came soon. Mark Rudd, a fresh face and a good orator about to be elected, has recalled the disaster to follow as well as anyone, leaving out few criticisms of himself (something for which he deserves a lot of credit). Radical youth organizations founded in the previous few years soon collapsed almost everywhere, irrespective of personalities and rhetoric. All of us could have done better and none of us, in my view, deserves the Great Big Vindication. My old magazine, RADICAL AMERICA, made itself part of a diaspora from campus to blue collar community, and if the magazine bravely held on and held up the ideals of SDS for another twenty years, we had come up against a stone wall of history, too.
All this time later, as of the launching of SDS, fittingly on Martin Luther King, Jr., day of 2006, I watched the memberships roll in with enormous curiosity. On the subject line, â€œHow did you hear of us?â€ the most common reply after â€œFriendsâ€ was something like â€œHistory,â€ either the reading of a book or the lecture of a teacher, high school or college. Among the others following, with â€œMy parents were members,â€ could be found those who joined after they saw the Weatherman film. Including one of my current students, a Latina Wobbly and punk singer.
What did it mean? According to an essay in the summer NEW POLITICS, it signified a monstrous return of Weatherism, a sign that the organization must be near the June, 1969, moment of fatal implosion. This is a remarkable notion, with 175 chapters chartered and more each week, often from the least likely of old SDS places: junior colleges and high schools, including the Old South (SSOC rather than SDS held this territory, back when), and Latina membership.
So what is this all about? I call it the Listserv Lesson. SDS has grown with great speed, although we find no articles in the NEW YORK TIMES or the NATION, for that matter. (Thanks, MR ZINE, NPR, Pacifica and Z-NET, among others, for fair and favorable mention.) Efforts to discuss what older folks should do have inevitably (as I now see it) prompted furious emailing from 1960s activists and other over-50s who donâ€™t have a lot of political activity personally but do have a deep need to be heard by as many readers as possible. Nothing much needs to be accomplished but everything needs to be discussed. At length. Forever. If among the young, the whole history of SDS is to be discussed, among some of the old, the need for self-vindication trumps all. They have been waiting a long time to be affirmed correct in their decisions of the late 1960s, and now, by gosh, they insist upon it. They are joined in their outrage by others who insist that SDS today is â€œextremistâ€ and â€œanarchist,â€ dominated by young people who evidently need to be corrected.
None of this seems very serious, to me, at a time when the young SDSers are going ahead, heedless of assorted grandparently warnings. But there are things that oldtime activists can do, and some of MR ZINE readers may want to do. MDS, the old but still useful name for Movement for a Democratic Society, i.e., those post-college, has been established first of all to provide logistical and legal assistance to SDSers. (In New York, MDS members are also very active in SDS demonstrations.) Our information is linked to nextleftnotes.net and can be easily accessed, but it may be useful to mention our Boardâ€™s members: they include veterans from across the American Left, Noam Chomsky, Charlene Mitchell, Bill Fletcher Jr., Carl Davidson, Tom Hayden, Al Haber (SDSâ€™s founder), Michael James (of the Heartland CafÃ©), Gerald Horne, Mark Rudd, Jose Limon, Bernardine Dohrn and E. Ethelbert Miller.
What Iâ€™m hoping is that MDS will begin to reach out to former SDSers among others, reconnect from the 1960s, begin to hold social and political events, fundraisers and other activities, especially in districts where a lot of 1960s activists have settled: the Bay Area, Portland, Madison, Austin, Boston and New York. We need to get togetherâ€”and not just former SDS members of courseâ€”for the good reason that so many of us are at or near retirement years, with more time to spend, as long as our energies hold out. SDS will have its now-annual convention this coming summer, and it may be in Chicago, again, for the usual geographical reasons. SDS regions will be holding conferences in a half-dozen places over the Winter, with report-backs of chapter doings, and looking ahead to all the issues of a constitution and so on. I hope oldtimers will be presentâ€¦.but not to condescend, to tell the new generation what to do, or to seek personal vindication on any grounds. That would be pointless, anyway.