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International Socialist Review Issue 31, September–October 2003

The making of a new left

The rise and fall of SDS

GEOFF BAILEY looks at the role of Students for a Democratic Society in the mass radicalization of the 1960s.

THE 1960s marked, for the first time since the 1930s, the growth of a mass radicalization in the United States. Mass movements broke the conformity that characterized the 1950s, buried the McCarthyite consensus which had witch-hunted radical ideas out of American politics and gave impetus to efforts to build new radical and revolutionary socialist organizations. The achievements of these movements were immense--mass action helped to put an end to the Vietnam War and to Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South; the women's movement transformed attitudes and eventually won abortion rights. The upsurge of the 1960s led to a broader questioning of society and a belief that massive change--even revolution--was possible in the U.S.

For that reason, the people who run the system and their professional lackeys have spent the last 35 years trying to roll back the gains of those movements and erase the memory and lessons of that generation's struggles. To a mountain of literature attempting to discredit the achievements of the 1960s, can now be added a book by former SDS leader, Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist, which argues that the noble struggles of the early sixties were derailed by the radical politics of the late sixties. Reading Gitlin's attempt to rewrite the history of the sixties, one is left wondering who the real enemy was. "If antiwar militancy can take credit for driving Johnson from office in 1968," writes Gitlin, "it must...shoulder the blame for nudging some voters towards Nixon, who proceeded to extend the Vietnam War for five years and expanded it to Laos and Cambodia, killing more than a million people."1 Nixon seems to get off easy compared to the antiwar movement.

As author Max Elbaum has argued, the attempt to arbitrarily divide the "good sixties" from the "bad sixties" "rests on dubious political assumptions, which lift the late 1960s out of their historical context and gloss over substantial differences between the challenges facing activists in 1968-73 as opposed to 1960-64."2 The goal of this article is to try to explain why the ideas held by student activists in the early 1960s were unable to provide a way forward as the struggles of the 1960s progressed and how hundreds of thousands of activists began to turn to the ideas of revolutionary socialism as a way to find a way out of this impasse. For reasons of limited space, we must necessarily condense and, unfortunately, leave out important parts of the history of the period.

The roots of the student rebellion

The reconstruction of the post-Second World War world had led to an unprecedented period of prosperity in the United States. Between 1946 and 1973, the U.S. experienced the longest sustained boom in its history; and the standard of living for most American workers improved throughout the fifties and early sixties. The average weekly earnings for manufacturing workers grew by 84 percent between 1950 and 1965.3 But the boom was not without its contradictions. Entire groups, particularly Blacks, were left out almost entirely. Prosperity grew alongside Jim Crow segregation in the South and crushing poverty in Northern ghettos.

The reconstruction of the postwar world also locked the U.S. into a struggle with the Soviet Union for political and military dominance in the Cold War. The American Dream stood under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. U.S. economic predominance in the world economy rested on its position as a global superpower and on its ability to challenge any threat to the existing balance of power. Despite its professed support for democracy and self-determination, the U.S. ruthlessly attacked any challenge to the postwar political order--overthrowing nationalist regimes in Guatemala and the Congo, waging a low-intensity war against the Cuban Revolution and spending greater and greater sums of money supporting its puppet dictatorship in South Vietnam. The United States claimed to stand as a beacon of democracy and freedom, but in the atmosphere of McCarthyism, the slightest criticism of, let alone challenge to, the existing system was immediately branded as Communist. The early student movement grew as a reaction against these contradictions of the postwar boom--against the continued inequality of American capitalism and the rigid conformity and conservatism of the preceding decade.

Starting in the early 1960s, movements against the House Un-American Activities Committee and for nuclear disarmament began drawing larger numbers of young people to demonstrations and pickets. In particular, two issues would serve as the leading edge in the radicalization of the New Left: the fight against Jim Crow segregation and racism at home and the movement against the United States' growing involvement in Vietnam. Each struggle had its own dynamic (the evolution of the civil rights and Black power movements is beyond the scope of this article); but what should be remembered is that these two struggles fed into one another--the radicalization of one deepening the radicalization of the other.

The first stirrings of student activism developed around the struggle in the South against Jim Crow segregation. Following on the heels of the first mass civil rights protests of the 1950s led by Martin Luther King, Jr., southern Black students in 1960 began sitting in to desegregate restaurants and other public establishments. The northern-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a new organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), brought into activism a new layer of young Black students. Inspired by the civil rights movement, white students at hundreds of campuses in the North began forming civil rights support groups, and hundreds of students headed south to participate in voter registration drives, freedom rides, sit-ins and other protests.

These students were motivated at first by nonviolent ideology--although the contradiction between the nonviolent ideology of the participants and the strategy to provoke northern military intervention to impose desegregation in the South was evident from the start. The politics of these student activists were still marked by the conservatism of the Cold War. So, for example, SNCC's representative, Marion Barry, told the Democratic Party's Platform Committee in 1960: "America cannot fail in its responsibility to the free world. We must be strong.... This challenge cannot be met unless and until all Americans, Negro and white, enjoy the full promise of our democratic heritage."4 But the early civil rights struggles set the stage for what was to follow. When the student movement exploded in the North, there were thousands of activists who had already tasted their first experience as activists in the civil rights movement.

SDS and the politics of the student rebellion

In the early sixties, Students for a Democratic Society seemed an unlikely channel through which the new radicalization of the following decade would flow. SDS was formed in 1960, when a handful of student radicals took over the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the youth league of the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy. Its early politics were hardly revolutionary. The first statement of principles by the newly renamed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Port Huron Statement, raised criticisms of the racial and economic inequality in the United States, Cold War foreign policy and the constant threat of nuclear war. It sounded themes such as "participatory democracy" and urged the individual to break out of the confines of an alienated and atomized culture. Its message was a largely moral exhortation to break the stultifying conformity of Cold War America. Its outlook was the outlook of a new generation of mostly middle-class students "bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."5

Still, SDS was the beginning of a break with what had come before. SDS tried to tie together criticisms of racism, economic inequality and foreign policy into a coherent critique of an entire system, even if it was unclear about what drove that system or what, if anything, should replace it. It was the beginning of an attempt to move beyond single-issue struggles toward a more radical project of changing the whole society.

The move toward radical politics could, however, only begin with a break with the politics of anti-communism that had paralyzed the left during much of the preceding decade. Early SDS leaders, having grown up under the McCarthy witch-hunts, and many old enough to remember the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had a healthy rejection of the anti-communism that still dominated much of the American left. As they wrote in the Port Huron Statement:

An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America.... Political debate is restricted, thought is standardized, action is inhibited by the demands of "unity" and "oneness" in the face of the declared danger.... Even many liberals and socialists share static and repetitious participation in the anti-communist crusade and often discourage tentative, inquiring discussion about "the Russian question" within their ranks--often by employing "Stalinist," "Stalinoid," Trotskyite" and other epithets in an oversimplifying way to discredit opposition.6

SDS declared itself willing to work with groups regardless of their political affiliation. This was a more dramatic break than it might seem today. The anti-nuclear group SANE, the forerunner of today's Peace Action, had nearly self-destructed after it was discovered that one of their New York organizers had been a member of the Communist Party. In fact, the issue of anti-communism nearly led to the collapse of the Port Huron Convention.

The League for Industrial Democracy sent two representatives, Michael Harrington and Donald Slaiman, to report on the conference along with two members of SDS and the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL), Tom Kahn and Rachelle Horowitz. All were supporters of the LID's Cold War version of social democracy. They supported a vision of social-democratic reforms with the Democratic Party as the main vehicle for change. Within the movements for social reform, they oriented on the liberal establishment; within the labor movement they oriented primarily on the trade union bureaucracy. And above all, their politics were circumscribed by an unrelenting hostility to "communism."

The fact that SDS would even court the idea of working with former communists and communist organizations was grounds for a battle. In the ensuing debate over the draft of the Port Huron Statement, "Harrington remembers ranging widely over a host of different topics: anti-communism, liberalism, the labor movement, ๋the whole question of historical agency. I'm sure that came up at Port Huron. I would have been very critical about the idea that students were the vanguard.'"7 But the alternative put forward was not one of looking to the self-activity of the working class. After Harrington spoke, Slaiman entered the fray, denouncing SDS for its criticisms of the AFL-CIO, especially its criticisms of AFL-CIO President George Meany's support of U.S. Cold War foreign policy. As SDS member Richard Flacks remembers, Slaiman began to shout:

The American labor movement has won more for its members than any labor movement in the world! You people have some nerve attacking the labor movement! You people will stand for any left-wing Stalinoid kind of thing, but you have this double standard. George Meany, don't you attack George Meany!8

The vitriol with which they were attacked stunned many SDS members. As Flack recalls, "[SDS member, Tom Hayden] felt that he'd put too much anti-communism in to the manifesto already. The only reason he'd put any anti-communism in was to please these people who were bigots and were living in the Cold War past."9 Although SDS and LID would retain formal relations until 1965, the battle at Port Huron signaled the beginning of SDS's break with liberalism.

The politics represented at Port Huron bear little resemblance to those that SDS would advocate just a few years later, but the drafting of the Port Huron Statement and the feeling that SDS was beginning to break out of the impasse of American radicalism contributed to an atmosphere of intellectual ferment in SDS. As the struggles of the decade intensified, the politics of SDS would change accordingly. The political climate changed so quickly that when SDS issued a second printing of the Port Huron Statement in 1964, it included a disclaimer saying that most of its authors no longer agreed with what was in it.

Yet, if the politics of SDS were a reaction against the conservatism of the Cold War, they were also shaped by it. SDS took great pride in being "non-ideological," rejecting the importance of the questions that had dominated the Old Left--reform or revolution, class struggle and socialism. As the independent socialist, Hal Draper, noted:

The new radicals are non-ideological in the sense that they refuse to, or are disinclined to, generalize their ideas and positions. They are inclined to substitute a moral approach--indeed a dogmatic moral approach--for political and social analysis as much as possible.10

But there is no such thing as a non-ideological movement. Every movement needs a set of ideas to explain the world that it is trying to change and to articulate what it is fighting for, even if, as in the case of SDS, that ideology is a combination of ideas that challenge the existing social system and others that accept many of the assumptions designed to maintain that system. In particular, SDS accepted the prevailing idea, put forward by theorists on both the right and the left, that capitalism in the United States had overcome its most basic contradictions.

While the New Left rejected both the Stalinism and anti-communist social democracy that dominated the U.S. left, the ideas that influenced it were not the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. Primarily, they were the ideas of a generation of theorists who, reacting against revelations of the crimes of Stalin and under the pressure of the post-war boom, argued that the ideas of Marxism were no longer relevant. As Tom Hayden wrote at the time:

The traditional left expectation of irreconcilable and clashing class interests has been defied.... It appears that the American elite has discovered a long-term way to stabilize or cushion the contradictions of our society.11

SDS activists were influenced more by the ideas of sociologist C. Wright Mills than those of Karl Marx. They attacked the stultifying bureaucratism of corporate liberalism and promoted decentralized decision making and semi-communal living. The latter, argued Hayden,

stems from the need to create a personal and group identity that can survive both the temptations and the crippling effects of this society. Power in America is abdicated by individuals to top-down organizational units, and it is in the recovery of this power that the movement becomes distinct from the rest of the country and a new kind of man emerges.12

American workers were seen as, at best, bought off by the system and, at worst, part of the problem. A challenge to the existing order would have to come from "marginalized elements," a vague concept whose definition would change over the course of the decade from "the poor," to radical students, to movements in the Third World. Non-ideological really meant that New Left activists rejected the ideologies of the Old Left and of Marxism. The ideas of workers' power, class struggle and working class self-emancipation were seen as irrelevant, though it was much less clear what was to replace them.

Out from the ivory tower

For much of the early sixties, SDS remained a small minority on campuses, if it existed at all. Most of its activity was organized through the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), where SDS members would work in inner-city neighborhoods to organize a poor people's movement. "It was an incredible movement," writes Kirkpatrick Sale, in his history of SDS.

Thousands of students turned from theory to action, from classrooms to slums, going south to register voters in impoverished Black communities, organizing unemployed workers in the decaying inner cities, running tutorial projects for Black high-school students through the North...or simply dropping out to work and live among the people.13

The ERAP program was, indeed, successful in taking the ideas embodied in the Port Huron Manifesto and putting them into practice. It helped solidify SDS as the main radical organization on northern college campuses and gave many activists their first taste of community organizing. Numerous parallels were drawn at the time to the community organizing and voter rights campaigns of civil rights organizations in the South.14 Yet within a year, most participants recognized that by its own standards of building a poor people's movement, the programs were a failure. As Mike Parker noted:

Alas, the poor are not easy to organize. Their neighborhoods destroy instead of build social cohesion. Once they are organized, their demands--street repairs, garbage collection--can be met.... And finally, because they are unemployed and only marginal to the society, the social power they possess is little greater than that of students.15

While the ERAP program continued on in some cities, SDS increasingly focused on building a student base on campuses.

The first explosion of student activism that drew national attention came not around the question of the war, but around the issue of free speech. SDS participated in, but did not lead, this fight. The struggle was provoked by attempts by the administration at the University of California to prevent students at the Berkeley campus from setting up tables and distributing literature on campus. The free speech fight that ensued brought together not only students from SNCC, CORE, SDS and various left organizations like the Independent Socialists, but student Democrats and even some Republicans. Students began with candlelight vigils, then moved to defying the new rules by setting up tables on campus and ended up organizing mass sit-ins and building takeovers. The struggle clearly gave expression to years of pent-up frustration, as shown by this first-hand description of a spontaneous mass action after campus police to arrest and take away an illegal "tabler" (Independent Socialist activist Jack Wienberg) in a police car:

A crowd starts gathering, and some people sit down in front of the police car, and behind the police car. The police don't like this. Luckily at this stage it was only campus cops.... In a while it is noon, there are 3,000 people around this police car in Sproul Plaza. Around the car hundreds are sitting down; they don't want it to be moved.

Then somebody gets on top of the car--the cops let him--to talk to the crowd.... And then this incredible dialogue began. People got up on top of that car from before noon Wednesday, they were talking until two in the morning. All different points of view were offered. The top of that car was a platform thrown open to anybody who wanted to come up and say what he had to say. I have never heard anything like this in my life. It was a continuous dialogue that went on for 15 straight hours.16

During the 1964 elections, SDS took an ambiguous position on Democratic presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson. While a number of SDS leaders opposed Johnson, they were unwilling to take a public stand against Johnson, who was running against Republican Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was on the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and had captured national headlines when, in a televised debate, he mused aloud about using nuclear weapons to defoliate Vietnam. Many activists argued that in the 1964 election, Johnson, running as a peace candidate, was the "lesser evil." The national SDS leadership refused to take a position on the election, while SDS's Political Education Project supported campaigning and voting for Johnson, in effect giving Johnson their endorsement. They printed thousands of buttons that read, "Half the Way with LBJ." When Johnson was elected and actually escalated the war, activists would swing in a much more radical direction. "Half the Way with LBJ" was replaced with "Hey, Hey, LBJ! How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?"

Vietnam: "The sharp cutting edge"

In 1964, the dictatorship that the U.S. was sponsoring in South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse. It could not survive without the direct intervention of the U.S. military. In early 1965, the U.S. began aerial bombing of Vietnam; and in the spring of 1965, Johnson sent in the Marines, beginning an escalation that would eventually put 500,000 American troops in the country. Suddenly, what had seemed like a small skirmish in a far-away country was at the center of American politics.

In response, a group of faculty at the University of Michigan organized the first teach-in. It was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. after classes had ended and continue as long as necessary. Three thousand students showed up and debated the war until 8 a.m. the next morning. In the months that followed, more than 100 colleges held similar events. The largest teach-in was at UC-Berkeley where 36,000 students attended a teach-in that lasted 36 hours.

Suddenly, small groups of radicals and leftists found they had a mass audience. On May 15, 1965, at the national teach-in in Washington, D.C., the Marxist biographer of Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, gave a speech to 1,000 people on the Cold War. But the teach-ins weren't just meetings of radicals. Representatives of the government were invited to defend the war and debate antiwar activists. In Berkeley, Independent Socialist Hal Draper debated the war with a representative of the State Department. Each time, the official representatives of the government were soundly defeated.

When the teach-ins started, the government established a "Truth Team" to tour the country. At each stop, the government officials found themselves unable to justify the U.S. foreign policy to the assembled students. One early participant in the teach-ins, a young assistant at the State Department named Daniel Ellsberg, found himself unable to defend the government when questioned about its 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. Ellsberg would go on to release the Pentagon Papers, exposing Washington's long history of violence and deceit in Vietnam. In his memoirs he wrote: "I lay in bed and thought: This is the system that I have been working for, the system I have been a part of. It's a system that lies automatically, at every level from bottom to top--from sergeant to commander-in-chief--to conceal murder."17 The government's "Truth Team" disbanded after a few months, never to be heard from again.

For thousands of students, the teach-ins and early demonstrations were eye-opening. The growing realization that this was not a war for the liberation of Vietnam came as a tremendous shock. Most people had been brought up believing in the Cold War idea that the U.S. was a force for good in the world against the evil forces of communism. Most people still assumed that the war in Vietnam was simply a bad policy--one that stood in contradiction to the American ideals of democracy and self-determination rather than a logical outgrowth of U.S. imperialism.

Many activists drew their ideas from their experiences in the Southern civil rights movement. If activists could protest and show the injustices of these policies--show that they are wrong, that they are not in keeping with American democracy--the people in power would stop them. The realization that Vietnam was not the exception to U.S. foreign policy, but the rule, led thousands of activists to begin asking larger questions about American society.

In April 1965, SDS called the first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam. They expected a few thousand people to attend. On the day, 20,000 people, mostly college students, arrived in Washington. Paul Potter, then president of SDS, gave a speech that captured the outrage:

Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation that...respected the integrity of other nations and other systems; and that engaged in wars only as a last resort.... If at some point we began to hear vague and disturbing things about what this country had done in Latin America, China, Spain and other places, we remained somehow confident about the basic integrity of this nation's foreign policy.... The withdrawal from the hysteria of the Cold War era and the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy has done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country.

The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy.... The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today.

What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose...that consistently puts material values before human values and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?

We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.18

Or as one demonstrator put it more succinctly: "Oh God! Everything they told me was a lie!"19

In part, it was the belief of many protesters in the basic soundness of the institutions of American capitalism that accounted for the rapid radicalization of SDS and the New Left when it was confronted with violent repression and lies after raising basic criticisms of those institutions. As Hal Draper noted, it was precisely the New Left's non-ideological character that accounted for its explosiveness:

This was the explosiveness of uncalculated indignation, not the slow boil of planned revolt...the first discovery of the chasm between the rhetoric of Ideals and the cynicism of Power among the pillars of society.20

Thousands of activists could begin by questioning the Vietnam War and end by questioning the whole society they lived in.

"From protest to resistance"

SDS mushroomed from an organization of 2,500 in December 1964 to an organization of 25,000 in October 1966. SDS chapters sprang up on dozens of campuses, and at the 1966 national convention at Clear Lake, a new generation of leaders pushed aside the old SDS elite.21 The new leadership tended to be younger, having entered politics through the antiwar movement. Whereas the old leadership had come mostly from a handful of traditionally liberal--often upper class--schools, the new leadership tended to come from state schools, often in the Midwest. The new forces in SDS, grouped around what was known as the "Prairie Power" faction, combined a critique of the national office with demands for a more decentralized structure for SDS and a greater focus on campus organizing and the war.

The paper that defined the new direction for SDS was written by Carl Davidson and was titled, "A Student Syndicalist Movement: University Reform Revisited." The paper took up the criticisms of the university that had been part of the Port Huron Statement and developed them in a much more radical direction. The universities "produce the know-how that enables the corporate state to expand, to grow and to exploit more efficiently and extensively both in our own country and in the Third World," wrote Davidson. "Without them, it would be difficult to produce the kind of men that can create, sustain, tolerate and ignore situations like Watts, Mississippi and Vietnam."22 A radical student movement that focused on student control of the universities, Davidson argued, could be the basis for a new radical movement for much wider social transformation.

The Clear Lake Convention was the beginning of a radicalization that was captured in the slogan adopted later that year, "From protest to resistance." As Sale notes:

By this point SDS had to move on to some form of resistance, both as an expression of the mood of its leaders and as a means of creating an identity for itself in the absence of a national program or national publicity.... It needed to orient itself around students, both because they formed its logical and historical constituency and because other constituencies were unavailable or unapproachable. And it needed to keep pointing itself to the questions of fundamental social change rather than absorb itself in single issues and the reformist danger therein. Hence, student power.23

The growing militancy in SDS was paralleled and accelerated by the radicalization of the civil rights movement. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which legally ended Jim Crow segregation, shifted the focus of the civil rights movement away from the South to the northern cities. The move was highlighted by a series of urban rebellions beginning in 1964 in Harlem and most strikingly in 1965 in Watts, Los Angeles. The end of Jim Crow had done little to alleviate the problems facing Blacks in the North--poverty, unemployment and police brutality. Activists were confronted with a structural racism that was intertwined with the very heart of capitalism in the U.S. And in the North, activists were increasingly at odds with--if not in outright opposition to--their liberal supporters of a couple years earlier. More and more, Black activists were turning from the call for "civil rights" to the demand for "Black Power."

Both slogans--"From protest to resistance" and "Black Power"--were often clearer on what they were breaking from than what they were advocating. "From protest to resistance" remained silent on just what type of resistance was going to be necessary to stop the war or how a movement for student control could begin to challenge to power of the U.S. state. "Black Power" always meant many things to many people. Still, the significance of the new positions was that it reflected the conclusion on the part of some of the most influential left-wing organizations in the country that U.S. society and institutions were rotten to the core. The people who controlled the levers of power in America couldn't be relied on to listen to peaceful protest. Instead, masses of people would have to openly and forthrightly resist the government--by burning draft cards, organizing solidarity, building an antiwar movement in the army and through armed self-defense.

Beginning in 1967, SDS organized a series of direct actions aimed at not just protesting the war, but disrupting the "war machine." One such action was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967, where the local chapter of SDS organized a demonstration to prevent Dow Chemical, the largest producer of napalm, from recruiting on campus. They distributed leaflets on campus and on October 17, activists led several hundred students into the university's Commerce building where Dow was recruiting. University administrators called in the police, who attacked the demonstrators, breaking windows and hauling students out through the broken glass. The front steps were covered in blood. Suddenly the mood changed:

Instead of running away, which maybe we thought we would do, we circled around to the front. By the time we got there, there were 1,000 other students. The second the cops started clubbing heads, the entire situation changed dramatically.... Suddenly, fraternity boys, athletes, all sorts of normal people who were just going to classes, people who were a little ambivalent about the war but who would never go to a demonstration, were unbelievably outraged and were eager to wade into the crowd and sock the jaw of a cop.24

In the months that followed, SDS chapters on dozens of campuses protested their administrations' involvement in defense research, military recruitment on campus and the draft. At Berkeley, the local SDS chapter was active in coordinating a weeklong series of demonstrations and direct actions against the local draft board. Each time, the response was the same: The administration or the city would respond by calling in the police to arrest and often beat student demonstrators. Thousands of outraged students who up until that point had been on the fence were pushed into the antiwar movement.

These students discovered that far from being noble institutions of free thought and debate, their universities were nothing more than corporations; the war and war contracts were big business; that students were simply commodities. Suddenly, they were confronted with the huge gap between the myth of college as a place of learning and the free exchange of ideas and the reality of their schools' involvement in the war, and the often violent ways the administration reacted when students began questioning. Many activists began to see their schools as part of a single system that put the expansion of profits and its own global power before the needs of ordinary people. SDS's arguments for a student power movement resonated with a growing number of students.

Student antiwar groups increasingly began to see the war not just as a mistaken policy, but as an outgrowth of a social system based on competition and profit. The New Left, and SDS in particular, moved from being antiwar to anti-imperialist. The slogans on antiwar demonstrations changed from "For a Negotiated Peace" and "Bring the Troops Home" to "U.S. Out Now!" and "Victory to the NLF [Vietnamese National Liberation Front]." All of this boiled over in 1968.


It is hard to capture the feeling of 1968 in an article 35 years later; most of all it is hard to capture how quickly things happened. In January, the NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a coordinated military assault on U.S. forces in every major Vietnamese city. They captured the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Newscaster Walter Cronkite announced that the war was now "un-winnable." On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, just six months after coming out against the war in Vietnam. In the days that followed, riots broke out in 100 cities. In April and early May, students and faculty at Columbia University went on strike for six weeks. Even under the communist dictatorships, the mood of rebellion spread. In Czechoslovakia, Russian tanks put down a mass movement of students and workers. In Poland, students rioted. And perhaps most spectacularly, on May 6, students in Paris led an occupation of the Sorbonne University which resulted in running street battles with the police. In response, 10 million workers struck against the government. For three weeks, France teetered on the brink of revolution. Then in October, a demonstration of 5,000 students and workers in Mexico City was gunned down, killing hundreds. At the Olympic Games in the same city, American Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest as they accepted their medals.

The feeling was that on one side there were millions of people fighting for justice and democracy and on the other there was simply barbarism. People had to make a choice: Which side are you on?

In the U.S., this crisis came to a head in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. A few months earlier, President Johnson had announced that he would not seek re-election. As the war in Vietnam escalated and it became clear to even members of the ruling class that the U.S. could not win, Johnson's approval rating plunged to less than 35 percent. A loose coalition of activists including members of SDS called for a national protest at the convention.

In numerical terms, the demonstrations were a failure. Organizers had predicted 100,000 people would show up. Fewer than 10,000 actually did. While 1968 would be remembered as the year of the new revolutionaries, there was actually a lull in the antiwar movement. The reason was that most students were hoping that the Democratic antiwar candidate, Eugene McCarthy, would win the election and end the war.

McCarthy's opposition to the war was not nearly as idealistic as it was portrayed by his supporters. In fact, McCarthy was quite conscious of his role in taming the antiwar movement and bringing it back into the fold of the Democratic Party. In the press conference announcing his candidacy, McCarthy said:

There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America--discontent and frustration and a disposition to take extralegal if not illegal actions to manifest protest.

I am hopeful that this challenge...may alleviate at least in some degree this sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government...[and] that it may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which I think is currently reflected in a tendency to withdraw from political action, to talk of nonparticipation, to become cynical and to make threats of support for third parties or fourth parties or other irregular political movements.25

McCarthy had nearly taken the New Hampshire primaries, but even his bid to save the credibility of the Democratic Party was a threat to the Democratic Party establishment, which was backing the pro-war Hubert Humphrey. Although the turnout for the demonstrations was less than expected, it was the conduct of the Chicago police that made headlines.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, was determined to make sure that the convention went off smoothly and he nominated Humphrey for the presidential nomination. The first night of the scheduled demonstrations, Daley sent his police into Grant Park where demonstrators were congregating, and police beat and gassed hundreds. The next night, the demonstrators were joined by 400 religious leaders. They had spent about an hour discussing the relative merits of nonviolence and self-defense when the cops began launching tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Hundreds more were beaten. The following night, 10,000 people marched to the Hilton Hotel, where many of the convention delegates were staying. There, beneath the windows of the hotel, Chicago police cornered demonstrators and charged the crowd, swinging their clubs. Demonstrators, reporters and bystanders were all beaten indiscriminately.

Delegates kept leaving the floor to watch films on TV of the violence. McCarthy was reported to have witnessed the scene from his window and called it "very bad." Senator George McGovern described the fighting he saw as a "bloodbath" which "made me sick to the stomach." He had "seen nothing like it since the films of Nazi Germany."

Inside the convention, Daley's crew was just as crude. Delegates who raised questions about the war were hauled off by Daley's goon squad. When reporter Mike Wallace raised questions about the treatment of the delegates and students outside, he was punched in the jaw. The Democratic machine was not going to let anything get in their way of nominating pro-war Humphrey to the candidacy. This sham of American democracy was broadcast to millions around the country. Thousands of people who had come to Chicago supporting McCarthy and the Democratic Party, left as revolutionaries.

The rise and fall of SDS

In 1968, the revolutionary left exploded. What had been a movement that prided itself in being non-ideological quickly turned to revolutionary politics:

Propelled both by the escalating crisis in American society and by the manifest bankruptcy of its earlier liberal, reform-oriented approach, SDS politics went through a very rapid evolution to the left, from liberal protest in 1964 ("Half the Way with LBJ"), to anti-imperialist resistance in 1967, to varieties of anti-capitalist revolutionism today [1969]. What began as a movement in many ways resembling a super-idealistic children's crusade to save the world, was becoming increasingly grim and increasingly serious.26

According to one poll in 1969, more than one million students considered themselves revolutionaries and socialists of some kind. The debates of the Old Left--reform versus revolution, the working class and the need for a revolutionary party--now took on new significance. In the fall of 1968, more that 350,000 said that they strongly agreed with the statement that some form of "mass revolutionary party" was needed in America.27 SDS reached a peak of 100,000 members; and then it collapsed almost as quickly as it had risen. At its national convention in 1969, SDS split into two rival factions, one dominated by the Maoist-turned-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party (PL) and the other called the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which promptly split into two rival factions itself.

PL had formed in 1962 as a pro-China split from the Communist Party. In 1966, it had folded its own youth group and joined SDS. As a coordinated group of experienced organizers, PL was able both to become a leading force in SDS, and, at a time when SDS was radicalizing rapidly, was able to put forward a coherent (if highly distorted) version of Marxism. In response, the SDS National Collective, which in the preceding years had been more of a loose collection of individuals than a unified political leadership, began to consolidate itself around a more coherent set of politics to counter PL's increasing strength. PL was able to gain a hearing at a time when many SDS activists were looking for a way to take SDS in a more revolutionary direction and this pushed the National Collective towards adopting a "we're more revolutionary than you" posture to outflank them. As SDS leader Bill Ayers recounts, "[PL] kept growing in strength, so I felt like we had to know some Marxism in order to talk to the Marxists.... So we became Marxists ourselves, even though we were the silliest, least intellectual group of Marxists ever."28

At the 1969 National Convention, members of the National Collective, who joined with other activists hostile to PL to form the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction, accused PL of leading an undemocratic group intent on destroying SDS for its own political purposes. Then, in a decision that was just as undemocratic, the national leadership of SDS expelled PL and promptly walked out of the convention. RYM held another conference in an adjoining hall and declared itself the "real" SDS and then promptly split into two factions itself, RYM I and RYM II. PL remained in the initial hall and declared itself the "real" SDS. Within a year, both "SDSs" had collapsed.

Some form of split was probably inevitable. SDS had existed for most of 1968 in an uneasy balance--something between a mass student radical organization and one that increasingly identified itself as revolutionary Marxist. Those two models, a broad, radical student group and a tighter, more ideologically homogenous Marxist organization were at odds with one another. But to explain why so little of lasting significance came out of the break-up of SDS, it is necessary to look to the politics of the various factions and try to understand why they were unable to provide a way out of the impasse in which SDS found itself in 1969.

The politics of the revolutionary left

The dominant tendency inside SDS, and the revolutionary left more broadly, was one or another version of Stalinism, which looked to variations of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, China or Cuba as the model for socialism and socialist revolution:

At the 1968 convention there had been strong anarchist and "non-ideological" tendencies; by the 1969 convention, these had all but disappeared. Everyone thought himself or herself a Marxist; most were Maoists; and while some found it hard to swallow, the bulk of the leadership openly identified with Stalin.29

The dominant current was not of the revolutionary transformation of society from below by the working class, but revolution from above by a committed, highly disciplined minority.

PL paid the most lip-service to the working class, but it was an odd sort. They argued that students should be organized into Worker-Student Alliances (which oddly contained almost all students and few workers) to organize around workers' demands. But PL's conception of "relating to the working class" consisted of aping some of the crudest stereotypes of working-class life. PL members in SDS were always conspicuous for their short hair and button-down shirts. Drug use was forbidden. And in a combination of Stalinism and pandering to the most backward ideas among workers, PL was noticeable in its hostility to women's rights and its outright opposition to gay liberation. The Worker-Student Alliances encouraged students to get jobs in factories, but usually only for the summer. PL denounced all nationalism (and by extension, nationalist groups like the Black Panthers, and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam) as counter-revolutionary, and in keeping with its Stalinist heritage, saw its own organization as the one true representative of the "world proletariat." PL harassed, pushed out and in some cases physically assaulted political opponents. Theirs was a Stalinist caricature of Leninism--indeed they were followers of Stalin's "Third-Period," in which all left forces outside the communist parties were routinely denounced as counter-revolutionaries.

The RYM factions looked to the revolutionary nationalist struggles in the Third World as the model for socialist revolution. They argued that the main struggle was between nations, between the imperialist First World and the exploited Third World. The RYM I faction, later renamed the Weatherman, took this idea to its logical extreme, arguing that the majority of Americans were bought-off and the best that revolutionaries in the U.S. could do was "destabilize" the current system to strengthen resistance elsewhere in the world. After the collapse of SDS, they turned to terrorist activities--bombings and bank robbery. While these activities did little to wound the U.S. state, they did further isolate the new revolutionaries and give the state an excuse to up the level of repression against all of the left.

The RYM II faction claimed to maintain a more orthodox Marxist tradition, stressing the importance of the working class and the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Yet these ideas were distorted through the lens of the RYM II faction's identification with Maoism.30 Like RYM I, RYM II believed that workers in the U.S., and white workers in particular, benefited from the privilege of living in an imperialist nation. The conclusion was that struggles by workers against speed-ups or against layoffs and especially for better pay, were not struggles against exploitation, but would actually increase the exploitation of people in the Third World. Workers in the U.S. could only struggle if they renounced their privilege, that is, if they fought only in the interests of oppressed people in the Third World, not their own interests.

While the differences are important, the often intense divisions within SDS tended to overshadow the similarities between the various factions. As Jack Weinberg, an SDS and Independent Socialist member noted at the time: "The differences between the ways in which PL and the national office leadership functioned in the course of their struggle in the SDS, shouldn't be allowed to obscure the fact that they both shared similar organizational and political precepts."31 Among all the major factions, the workers were seen only as objects of the revolutionary struggle, never the subjects--a class to be liberated, not a conscious participant in its own liberation. Revolutionary organization was seen not as a way to unite the most class-conscious sections of the working class with other revolutionaries to influence the independent struggles of the working class, but as a hyper-centralized party that would lead "the masses" to revolution.

The strength of the Stalinist currents in SDS was increased by the weakness of the Trotskyist tradition. The largest Trotskyist organization in the U.S., the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), played a central role in the various national coordinating committees that organized the semi-annual mass antiwar demonstrations in Washington as well as in the youth wing, the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC). But the SWP always looked at the antiwar movement as a single-issue movement and reacted with outright hostility to any attempt to inject more radical, anti-imperialist politics into it. It dismissed SDS as a petty-bourgeois, semi-anarchist group, and while it had a large presence in the SMC, it made no attempt to influence the debates inside SDS. Instead of playing the role of the revolutionary left-wing of the antiwar movement, the SWP gave a left cover to the pacifists and liberals who dominated the coordinating committees.

The one group that did try to raise the ideas of socialism from below inside SDS were members of the Independent Socialist Clubs. They stressed the importance of building a current that looked to the self-activity of the working class as the force capable of ending the war and overthrowing capitalism. They argued that organizing against the war should be connected to support for the independent struggles of workers, such as building solidarity for a national strike against General Electric--one of the U.S. military's largest defense contractors--that broke out in 1969. They stressed that while the struggle against racism and chauvinism had to be a central part of any attempt to build a working-class movement in the U.S., it was also important to understand that those divisions could be broken down only in the course of struggle, not through the exhortations of mostly middle-class students. ISC members Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson wrote in 1969:

We must understand that racism hurts the entire working class in more than a moral way. It materially impedes the class as a whole in a rather immediate sense.... We believe that combating racism among white workers must proceed simultaneously with attempts to raise their consciousness of their interests as workers, and with attempts to move them in struggles around those interests.32

Members of the ISC were hampered by their small size (at the time of the SDS conference they numbered only 100) and until 1969 they did not have a national focus on SDS. While they got a significant hearing among activists at Berkeley, where they were strongest, and among members of SDS chapters in New York, Long Beach, Detroit and Chicago, most independents tended to drift towards one of the larger factions. Objective difficulties made it hard for the ideas of socialism from below to gain a large hearing.

The basic problem was that student radicals had come to the conclusion that a revolution was needed--that war, racism and poverty were not simply bad policies, but were the outgrowth of a system based on the exploitation of the vast majority for the benefit of a small minority, and that system could not be changed through the existing channels of the Democratic Party. But the movement didn't have the power to make a revolution. Students could shut down the universities. They could battle the cops in the street and get media coverage. They could force the issue of the war into the mainstream--which was no small feat given the corporate control of the media--but they didn't have the social power to bring to bear on a ruling class that could not afford to lose Vietnam.

This gap between the aims of the movement and its insufficient social weight is responsible in part for some of the aspects of the late sixties that are often seized on by critics: its intense verbal radicalism and its willingness to substitute itself for a broader movement. Disconnected from a wider working class movement, whose own struggles were still at a relatively low level, New Left activists often looked to more and more militant actions of a committed minority, whose sheer will to change things could substitute for the actions of the mass of workers and oppressed. The Weatherman faction, which turned to terrorist activities after the collapse of SDS, was an extreme manifestation of this. The language and slogans of the movement didn't become means of connecting with and winning influence among a wider layer of people being radicalized, but instead were ways to shock "Middle America"--to spark wider layers of society into action (or at least out of their apathy).

Many students had looked to the Black movement as a movement with a mass social base, but the suppression of the urban rebellions and the increasingly violent repression facing groups like the Black Panthers showed that Black activists were running up against a similar problem.33 Increasing numbers of radicals began to seek out socialist politics as a way out of the impasse, but the ideas they found were generally one or another variant of Stalinism.

The Stalinist distortions of socialism, which stressed the role of a committed minority, hyper-centralized organization and the cult of personality around Stalin or Mao, intensified rather than helped correct many of the difficulties of the student movement--its isolation, dogmatic approach to theory and stress on voluntarism. The isolation of the revolutionary left from wider layers of students, let alone workers, in turn, only increased the appeal of ideas that looked to movements in the Third World as the central force for change. As members of the Independent Socialists in SDS noted at the time of SDS's collapse:

Totally alienated from the established social order, in search of a revolutionary perspective and yet cut off from any ongoing mass opposition, it has been only too easy for the U.S. left to cast longing glances elsewhere for its own salvation.

The problem is that U.S. revolutionaries, familiar only with one of the most politically backward working classes in the world, have tended--despite all the recent talk about an orientation toward the working class--to lose sight of any perspective focused on an internal transformation of the society by its own rank and file.34

The Cold War--both the repression of the left during McCarthyism and the dominance of Stalinism within the international socialist movement--meant there was little in the way of a genuine revolutionary socialist alternative rooted in the working class. The long economic boom following the Second World War and McCarthyism had all but destroyed the once strong connections between the socialist movement and the workers' movement in the U.S. The McCarthy witch-hunts purged thousands of working-class radicals from the trade union movement--radicals who could have been a bridge between the radical student movement and the simmering anger in the working class. As student radicals drew closer to revolutionary politics they had little knowledge of, let alone experience in, workers' struggle or the rich history of American workers' fights against war and exploitation.

The tragedy of SDS is that the largest left-wing student group in the U.S. broke up just as struggle was beginning to break out on an even larger scale, and in particular, among two groups that did have the power to halt the war machine--workers and soldiers. As the war dragged on, more and more soldiers began to turn against it, partly because of their own experiences in Vietnam and partly because of their contact with antiwar activists.35 At home, the rising cost of the war was becoming an increasing drain on the economy. Unable to raise taxes to support an unpopular war, the ruling class launched a dual strategy. It ran up a massive debt and launched the beginning of a "one-sided class war" that continues to this day. The opposition against the war that had been simmering for years in working-class communities began to converge with the beginnings of opposition to attacks on the shop floor. It was this period that saw the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit among Black auto workers--but that is a topic beyond the scope of this article.36

Even on campuses, the largest student demonstrations took place not in 1968, but in 1970 when U.S. forces invaded Cambodia and National Guard troops killed four white students at an antiwar protest at Kent State University and two Black students at a demonstration at Jackson State. In response, a nationwide strike shut down 448 campuses and included the participation of over four million students and 350,000 faculty.37 Nixon was forced to retreat and pull U.S. troops out of Cambodia. By the time the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the revolutionary left was a shadow of what it had been in 1968.

Unfinished tasks

The history of the 1960s shows the tremendous speed with which radicalization can take root, even in this most conservative of countries. It emphasizes the need for revolutionaries to be part of this radicalization and to fight for leadership within it.

Also, the history of SDS shows how that radicalization developed initially from politics based on moralism. Yet even at its height, SDS shared many of the assumptions of the far left of the day--Third Worldism, the rejection of the centrality of the working class and an integrated class fight against racism and imperialism. One legacy of the New Left is the prevalence of many of these ideas today.

Still, we find ourselves in a different environment than the activists of the 1960s. Today, the Stalinist regimes that claimed the mantle of international socialism for 50 years have largely been discredited. We are not organizing at the tail end of the longest sustained boom in capitalist history, but in a period in which working-class living standards have been under relentless assault for 30 years. Many new activists see the working class as, at the very least, an ally in social struggles. The current period presents new challenges--not the least of which is rebuilding a left from very tenuous strands. However, the possibility of rebuilding a left on the ideas of workers' struggle and socialism from below are greater than they have been in two generations.

As Issac Deutcher said at the first teach-in at Berkeley:

Once the divisions begin to run within nations, progress begins anew, the progress toward the only solution for our problem, not of all our problems, but of the critical political problems and social problems, the only solution, which is a socialist world, one socialist world. We must, we can and we must, give back to class struggle its old dignity. We may and we must restore meaning to the great which mankind is still living; the ideas of democracy and socialism--yes, the idea of socialism.38

That, ultimately, is the unfinished task of this generation.

1 Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 78.

2 Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London and New York: Verso, 2002), p. 9.

3 Sharon Smith, "Twilight of the American Dream," International Socialism Journal 54, Spring 1992, p. 3.

4 Quoted in Philip A. Klinkner, The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 254.

5 "Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962" available at

6 Ibid.

7 Quoted in James Miller, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 113.

8 Ibid, p. 114. George Meany, the personification of pro-capitalist "business unionism," is famous for boasting that he never walked a picket line.

9 Ibid.

10 Quoted in Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London and Chicago: Bookmarks: 1998), p. 43.

11 Ibid.

12 Quoted in Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, The New Radicals: A Report with Documents (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), p. 35.

13 Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 95-6.

14 Even at the time, numerous parallels were also made to the Russian Narodniks, who, like their SDS brethren, were predominantly radical students who left the universities to lead a life among the people. In his chapter on ERAP, Sale quotes the Narodnik leader Pavel Axelrod in a passage that could have been written for SDS: "He who wishes to work for the people must abandon the university, forswear his privileged condition, his family, and turn his back even upon science and art. All connections linking him with the upper classes of society must be severed, all of his ships burned behind him.... [He] must, so to speak, transform his whole inner essence so as to feel one with the lowest strata of the people, not only ideologically, but also in everyday manner." Quoted in Sale, p. 95. Axelrod later became a Marxist.

15 Michael Parker, "SDS: Copping out of American life," in New Politics 7, no. 4, October 1969.

16 Michael Rossman, "The Wedding Within the War," in Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, eds., "Takin' it to the Streets": A Sixties Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 105.

17 Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking Press, 2002), p. 296.

18 Quoted in Fred Halstead, Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam Warฺ(New York: Monad Press, 1978), pp. 41-2. Halstead's account of the anti-Vietnam War movement is a very useful source of information, although it reflects very heavily the outlook and perspectives of the Socialist Workers' Party at the time.

19 Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 154.

20 Quoted in Harman, p. 42.

21 Some of the most extreme critics of the sixties today, such as Todd Gitlin or former California State Senator Tom Hayden, were among the early leaders of SDS.

22 Quoted in Sale, pp. 290-1.

23 Sale, p. 295.

24 Fraser, p. 153.

25 Halstead, pp. 365-6.

26 Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson, "SDS and the Movement," reprinted in The New Left of the Sixties, Michael Friedman, ed. (Berkeley: Independent Socialist Press, 1972), p. 181.

27 Elbaum, p. 17.

28 Joan and Robert K. Morrison, From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (New York: Times Books, 1987), p. 317.

29 Quoted in Harman, p. 176.

30 The principles of unity adopted by the RYM II faction at the convention included along with its support of the national liberation struggles in Vietnam and Cuba, support for the communist dictatorships in North Korea and Albania.

31 Weinberg and Gerson, p. 196.

32 Ibid, p. 216-7.

33 By 1969, groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords were moving away (sometimes more in rhetoric than in practice) from earlier ideas of nationalism towards more class-based political strategies. The rise of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was the clearest sign of this development.

34 Weinberg and Gerson, p. 194.

35 For more information on the antiwar activity among GIs see Joel Geier, "Vietnam: The soldiers' rebellion," International Socialist Review 9, Fall 1999.

36 For more information on the workers' rebellion of the late sixties and early seventies see Dan Georgakas, "Revolutionary struggles of Black workers in the 1960s," International Socialist Review 22, March-April 2002 and Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1998).

37 Elbaum, p. 27.

38 Halstead, p. 59.

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