Spread the word!

"Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!" Students for a Democratic Society Meets in Detroit

(Originally written for YP4's blog.)
Although the news media wouldn't let you know it, something remarkable happened at the end of last month in Detroit. Almost two hundred student and youth activists from every walk of life converged on Wayne State University's campus and held the second annual convention of the new, reconstituted Students for a Democratic Society.While those who do know of SDS often see it as an anti-war group, its aims are much broader. Members also seek alternatives to modern corporate-capitalism and fight for greater democracy everywhere -- especially on campus. Coined "student syndicalism" by original SDS activists in the late '60s, student organizers posited that through the formation of mass-based, democratic student organizations they could succeed in transforming the University into a more democratic and egalitarian institution -- one that dedicated its resources to the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged, rather than the defense industry and other corporate interests. It’s clear that now, more than ever, we all need to fight against corporate control of our universities and colleges. Higher Ed has a massive, direct impact on our economy (from the exclusive contracts to sell soda on campus, to the shoes and uniforms our sports teams purchase), and it’s up to us to make its impact a positive one.

Keep the Good, Ditch the Bad: Know Your Roots

While SDS carries its name from the original SDS of the 1960s, this isn't your parents’ SDS. For starters, anarchism -- not Marxism -- seems to now be the dominant organizing principle. Even non-anarchists generally are using and advocating anarchist decision-making structures (spokescouncils, consensus, local autonomy, no central positions of power, etc.). One only has to look at the last two decades to hazard a guess as to why. It was likely a combination of the widely-seen failure of Marxist politics wherever implemented, and the fact that the most inspiring revolutions and social movements (e.g., the Zapatista uprising, the structure of the alternative globalization movement, etc.) were anti-hierarchical and had abandoned the idea of "seizing" government power at all. That being said, gauging from conversations, there was a good mix of Marxist, anarchist, and more or less mainstream progressive viewpoints at the convention.

This anti-hierarchical tendency is also reflected in how the organization is structured nationally. The SDS of the '60s had executive positions such as President, Vice President and National Secretary. The current structure as it was decided in Detroit (it has to be ratified by 2/3 of SDS chapters to be made permanent) has no national President or even a steering committee. All decisions are initiated and made by the chapters themselves; there is a National Spokes-Council (comprised of rotating, recallable delegates, one from each chapter) that administers the decisions and makes sure that the various working groups are functioning well. Everyone in attendance was well aware of exactly how the first SDS met its demise – a combination of sectarian Marxist power-plays and an abuse of power by those in national office – and were committed to avoiding a similar fate.

I also witnessed an SDS that was more than willing to critically examine the specters of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia within the organization itself. A plethora of caucuses and accompanying auxiliaries met and discussed strategies to make SDS (and society at large) as egalitarian and non-oppressive as possible. We were all on the lookout for white or male dominance in workshops and plenaries, and when there was a problem, it was usually fixed quickly.

That isn't to say that there aren't similarities between the two SDSes. For example, the genesis of both old and new SDS came at a time when leftist youth had no real mooring to the previous generation. The original SDS was formed in the early '60s, largely independent from the legendary activism and organizing of the 1930s: war and political repression had either killed or silenced most of that generation. Today's SDS has (as much of the 1990s left had) developed without a strong guiding hand by the radicals of 30-40 years prior. Either they've become outright hostile to radicalism (e.g. Todd Gitlin, the first President of SDS), they've embraced reformist & electoral politics (e.g. Tom Hayden, author of the landmark Port Huron Statement and a former State Senator), or they died or went to jail (e.g. some Weather Underground members). For each generation to grow, it must at least on some level break with the past and stake out new territory, and I'd imagine it's for the best that 9 times out of 10 the older folks don't approve of what the youngins are doing. There are some SDS veterans who have in fact helped in a respectful, hands-off capacity, such as Alan Haber and Michael Albert, who were both observers at the convention.

Long Nights, Early Mornings

Though a few of us had gotten hotel rooms, most of us awoke each day (bleary-eyed from the intense conversations that would stretch long into the night) at the local Unitarian Universalist Church, just a few blocks from WSU. The early wakers would have to navigate the maze of dozing students wrapped in sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and occasionally each other, to the first floor (where there were more asleep). There we found a veritable feast of pastries, fresh fruit, and other delicious sources of carbs to fuel the day’s radicalism (appropriately, the pastries were dumpstered!). A man who works at The Healthy Beverage Company graciously donated about a zillion cans of their Steaz Green Tea Energy Drink (it’s organic!), which was certainly needed to survive long hours of sitting in the same auditorium.

There were workshop sessions on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and topics ranged from peak oil to organizing strategies. That being said, on Sunday the workshop time was cancelled to make room for the ever-lengthening plenaries about national structure. SDSers decided that for many reasons (including the fact that the first SDS convention last year asked this year's to), figuring out a structure was of primary importance, and should be allotted as much time as needed.

A few people have written that they were disappointed by the convention. They either claimed it was hampered by an unorganized adhocracy, or not enough workshops were done, or that we didn’t participate in any actions while in Detroit, or that we spent far too much time on structure. I can see their points, and I sympathize with those who are itching to actually get out there and DO something. However, if we’re to learn anything from the past, we have to acknowledge that structure matters – process matters. The goal of a national SDS is to facilitate and coordinate, not dominate. We trust our local chapters to know what their priorities should be, and to the extent that they overlap with others, we will share resources, information, and insight.

As I got ready for the 9-hour drive home that Monday afternoon, and finally had a chance to process the non-stop activity over the previous three days, I felt exhausted. But in a more fundamental, I felt incredibly energized: denizens of a left so famous for its fractious nature actually came together and agreed on common principles, strategy, and structure (all of which passed by more than two-thirds!). While it may seem so, your rag-tag activist group on campus isn’t alone, not by a long shot. Students from the Ivies to the Community Colleges are banding together and organizing – for peace, for (real) democracy, and for equality.

Parting Shots

I’ll close with two quotes. The first is from Michael Albert’s commentary about the convention (read it in full here):

Today is different. Based on what I saw and heard in Detroit, this new generation doesn't think that waving fists and flashing anger is the measure of a movement. They respect compassion and comprehension. They don't think angrily digging in like an ostrich is meritorious. They honor listening and changing. They know that accumulating arrest records means little without attracting steadily more participants. New SDS members say there are activists who demonstrate, rally, street fight, and then there are organizers who also demonstrate, but who do it mainly for the purpose of building movement membership and cohesion. Organizers, that is, also spend massive time talking to people who don't already agree. New SDSers understand that if you try to prevent a meeting from happening, to do civil disobedience, to shut down a gathering, or to knock down a building, the criteria of evaluation of your efforts should not be did you succeed with your proximate tactic. Rather, what matters is did you attract new long term members, deepen the commitment of existing members, and develop new organizational clout. The new SDS is audacious, just like the old SDS, yes. But the new SDS seems to draw strength not from macho posturing and digging in heels over every attitude they happen to adopt, but from being part of a collective project aimed at full victory.

The second quote is from one of the vision proposals adopted by SDS in Detroit (read it in full here):

The recent first ever U.S. Social Forum was just one expression that something new is happening in our society: the organized Left – having been in crisis and marginalized for decades – is reinventing itself. People of color, queer, working and poor folks, immigrants, indigenous, women and trans people are asserting a united ownership over a Left that is grounded in a serious commitment to long-haul revolutionary change. SDS can play an important role by redefining student radicalism and how it relates to these movements.

We have a choice ahead of us: we can do what has been done before – reinvent the wheel with the same old cycles of activism – or we can build something new together, something informed by the trajectory of our social movements in the past, and grounded in a vision of what the future might look like. We hope SDS will choose the latter.