Next Left Notes Is A News Magazine Devoted To Direct Action
By Mark Alper
It is perhaps inevitable that the emergence of a new generation of anti-war
activists has resulted in a renewed interest in the largest anti-war
organization of the 1960's, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This interest
has been further stimulated by the DVD release of SDS-oriented documentaries,
"Rebels With A Cause" and "The Weather Underground."
There are, of course, some significant differences between US military
involvement in Vietnam during the 1960's and 1970's, and the events unfolding
today in Iraq. In the former conflict, the United States inserted itself into a
civil war between the Communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the
north and the US-backed Republic of Vietnam in the south, with the justification
that our military intervention was necessary to prevent the spread of
Communism in southeast Asia. In other words, the US policy toward Vietnam owed much
to Cold War liberalism (the greatest expansion of US forces in that region
occurred during the Johnson administration) against the backdrop of US-USSR
In contrast, the Bush administration's military adventurism in Iraq lacks
any substantive political basis. There is no extant super power rivalry and
the absence of any counterbalancing force has apparently led American
policymakers to feel they have a free hand to bring regimes "into line" that they
perceive as threatening to economic interests in the United States. Moreover,
the Bush administration generally succeeded in filling the void in political
justification for the war by appealing to anger, emotionalism and fear in the
wake of the terrible and tragic attacks in New York and Washington, DC on
September 11, 2001.
While it can be argued that emotionalism and fear were hallmarks of Cold War
policy, which they were, it must also be said that US involvement in Vietnam
did not represent a significant break from policies that had existed since
World War II. The Bush administration's decision to affect regime change in
Iraq, however, was in some ways a break with policy in the Middle East insofar
as the regime it sought to change was one the US had supported militarily and
technologically in the past. This is not to say that the US has ever shied
away from active involvement in removing regimes it felt were contrary to its
interests and prerogatives, as the history of Guatemala, Nicaragua, the
Dominican Republic, Chile and other nations demonstrates. Perhaps the closest
Vietnam-Iraq parallel in this regard was US involvement in a military coup in
Vietnam which resulted in the assassination of Diem in 1963.
Another interesting distinction between Vietnam and Iraq is that the former
conflict was fought on the grounds of anti-Communism, while the latter has
considerable religious overtones. The battleground isn't "democracy versus
communism" but "western faith versus Jihad," with biblical passages regularly
used by President Bush to justify almost any policy.
And finally, the Vietnam war took place concurrently with Lyndon Johnson's
much-touted 1960's version of the New Deal which he called "The Great
Society." Major domestic anti-poverty and civil rights legislation was promulgated,
and it was only the increasing costs of the war which put the breaks on Great
Society liberal initiatives. President Bush makes no pretense of either
compassion or liberalism, and only two years after the war with Iraq began, the
latest federal budget proposes wholesale gutting of domestic programs in
order to keep funding our military adventures thousands of miles away.
Notwithstanding these differences, the history of SDS is of interest to
those elements of American society who are being radicalized by the Iraq war. In
the first place, it was arguably the most successful radical organization
since the Socialist Party in the first two decades of the last century, and the
Communist Party in the 1930's and 1940's. And, as today, the anti-war
movement attracted some of the best minds of their generations.
The two recent documentary films mentioned above are much needed, because
material about SDS is difficult to come by. Some individual SDS veterans have
penned memoirs or commentaries, such as Todd Gitlin and Bill Ayers. Some
books mention SDS as a backdrop of other events, such as in James Michener's
anti-radical book, "Kent State: What Happened And Why." But actual literary
histories of SDS as a movement are difficult to come by and generally limited to
Kirkpatrick Sale's voluminous "S.D.S.," and Alan Adelson's book of similar
title. Both are long out of print.
SDS had its origins as the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID),
the youth affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) which had a
long association with the old Socialist Party. LID and SLID were the home for
Cold War liberals and social democrats whose anti-Communism was, as Michael
Harrington noted, fought with occasional violence and was not a kidding
matter. In one of the ironies of history, Clark Kerr had been a SLID member who,
years later, would become the nemesis of the Free Speech Movement while he
was president of the University of California-Berkeley.
The first major break between the old guard of the LID and the nascent SDS
occurred with the issuance of "The Port Huron Statement" by SDS in 1962.
While the pretext for the rift was the seating of a member of the Communist
Party's youth organization as an observer, the reality was that the SDSers at Port
Huron were beginning to chafe at the limitations of traditional liberalism
in favor of a homegrown radicalism they dubbed the New Left; a development
which had already begun some time previously in Europe.
But there is little question that the true emergence of SDS as a New Left
movement of a new generation took place on April 17, 1965 by SDS President Paul
Potter as part of a march on Washington. Potter's speech has become known
by one of its catchphrases, "Name that system." Some activists and historians
have suggested that the system Potter was referring to was capitalism or
imperialism, but Potter himself has stated in his book "A Name for Ourselves"
that he considered those words to be "hollow, dead words tied to the thirties."
[Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas allowed his name to be used in an ad
opposing the march, an act for which he later apologized].
Yet, it would be a mistake to view SDS as a single-issue organization, since
SDS was heavily involved in inner-city, anti-poverty initiatives through its
ERAP program and also active in the civil rights struggles through SNCC and
other organizations, both permanent and ad hoc.
Still, the success of SDS in campus-based organizing brought it attention
from some interesting corners, most notably the Progressive Labor Party (PLP).
PLP was formed in 1962 as the Progressive Labor Movement by former members
of the Communist Party USA who had been expelled for Maoism. It became a
Party in 1965 and, in contrast to many CPUSA members, made no secret of its
communist orientation. After organizing its own anti-war group, the May 2nd
Movement, PL decided to turn to SDS.
The effect of this event was that the New Leftists of SDS were confronted
with PL-style cadre discipline within its ranks. PL was successful in breaking
down SDS into caucuses and national conventions into workshops, PL cadre was
able to use its disciplined organizational norms to exercise an influence
far out of proportion to its numbers. SDSers had little experience nor tools
to deal with this development, and by the 1968-69 school year had begun to
orient itself toward a hybrid form of Marxism-Leninism with the New Left
becoming subordinated to Old Left tactics.
Nothing better epitomizes this than a look at SDS officers that year.
Michael Klonsky, a then 25 year old red diaper baby from California, was national
secretary. Klonsky would go on in post-SDS years to form the October League
(Marxist-Leninist) and Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), part of the new
communist movement that emerged in the 1970's. Bernardine Dohrn was
inter-organizational secretary. Dohrn, then 26, was a National Lawyers Guild member
who would later go on to be a leader in the Weather Underground. Both
described themselves as "revolutionary communists."
Within two years, SDS had collapsed. The election of Revolutionary Youth
Movement (RYM-later Weather Underground) leaders Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers and Jeff
Jones cemented a split between the New Left and Old Left (PLP would form its
own version of SDS which continued for several years before dying). RYM
leaders, convinced that demonstrations would not succeed in ending the war, went
underground as the Weathermen -- having taken their name from a line in a
Bob Dylan song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (the line being: "You don't need a
weatherman to know the way the wind blows."). By 1980, most members of the
Weather Underground emerged, having bombed several symbols of the
establishment and losing three of their own members in a massive explosion in a
Greenwich Village townhouse in March of 1970.
And much of the so-called new communist movement that emerged in the wake of
SDS's demise, has likewise collapsed. The Revolutionary Communist Party
USA, led by Bob Avakian (an SDS leader who was selected to be the national
secretary but who was defeated by Weatherman activist Mark Rudd) is the only
organization of that movement that has remained steadfast to its new
communist-Maoist focus to this day.
The history of SDS is instructive for a great many reasons. The Direct Action
Tendency (DAT) uses as its symbol the fist that was used by SDS during the
"Days of Rage" actions in Chicago. The Direct Action Tendency, like the early
SDS, is committed to building a movement of inclusion; a movement of activism
that draws from many streams of thought and reflection, and which isn't bound
to any specific ideological tradition.
In the final analysis, DAT incorporates and integrates the best traditions
of SDS. While respecting and incorporating some of the elements of the
classical Old Left, DAT also embraces the spirit that imbued the New Left. Namely,
that our focus is not to rehash polemics fought by earlier generations but
to work diligently and actively to be agents of change.
This is where the rubber meets the road. And this is where our shoes meet
Next Left Notes
(c) 2004,2006 Thomas Good
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