Is PL Killing SDS?
Late last year, when a now-legendary article in Newsweek proclaimed the death of SDS, the idea raised cries of "bourgeois anti-communism" and "bosses' lies" from those who were still active in SDS and thought it could continue to function.
But in spite of these disclaimers, the fact is that SDS-which was once a large, vibrant, and politically powerful group-is now in serious disarray. Throughout the country, once-active chapters have either dissolved or lapsed into inactivity: at these campuses where there are still hints of the group's existence-such as at Harvard-the numbers are small and the activity is isolated from the student body as a whole.
Even among those few who remain active, deep political divisions have emerged. One region of SDS-a cluster of chapters in the New Orleans area-has unilaterally with-drawn from the national organization. And in Boston and New York, groups within SDS have formed an "Anti-Imperialist Caucus" to combat the influence of the national leadership. All of these activities have been directed against a group that is now in almost complete control of SDS: the Progressive Labor Party.
The opponents of PL in SDS have many objections to the way their organization has been run during the past
two years. They point out that the influence of PL has caused SDS to soft-peddle the war as a major issue. They complain that PL's perspective of revolution has led SDS to focus exclusively on a set of demands-such as higher wages and improved conditions for workers-which have only limited relevance to the student movement. And, most of all, they criticize the bitter, sectarian manner in which PL treats those who do not agree with them.
The current conflict around PL is easy to trace. Ever since its entry into SDS, in fact, PL has been a focus of heated controversy. A fledgling labor movement, PL decided in 1966 to have some of its younger members join SDS in order to link radical antiwar sentiment to trade unionism and, more important, to increase the membership of the party. But PL's Marxist orientation did not jibe well with the SDS of 1966, which was a loosely organized, free-wheeling coalition of anti-war and civil rights groups. A resolution to expel PL members from SDS was nearly approved in 1968.
BY THE time SDS convened in Chicago in 1969, the lines of battle were nearly drawn. PL and its sympathizers maintained that the only way to end the Vietnam war was through a radical working-class movement in the United States; the national leadership of SDS believed instead that students should demonstrate in support of the NLF to strengthen the morale of the Vietnamese rebels. PL objected to this: the NLF leaders, they declared, were "revisionist"; after all, they had agreed to sit down with the Americans in Paris, and they were receiving the bulk of their foreign aid from the Soviet Union, the original Communist country gone bad. In short, PL charged that the NLF was "selling out the struggle of the Vietnamese people."
There were other tensions at the 1969 conference; the two factions argued about the Black Panthers, which PL also scorned for advocating community control of police (it bred illusions that local communities could gain control) and for instituting the free breakfast program (it bred illusions that Safeway and other supermarket chains could "serve the people"). But the focus of the conflict was the war. Finally, the national leadership and about two-fifths of the conference stormed out of the meeting room, effectively leaving PL in control of SDS.
At the time, there seemed no clear-cut instigators or victims; the old leadership of SDS had behaved in as crudely factional a manner as had PL, and the national office had instituted a policy of screening PL's articles out of the nationwide SDS publication, New Left Notes. Further, even PL's worst enemies in SDS at the time had to admit that much of PL's influence on the organization had been refreshing and constructive in nature; with their emphasis on the working class, they had added perspective to the anti-war movement and cleansed it of some of its worst elitism.
But minority tendencies often change color when they become majorities and leaders, and many in SDS now feel that PL has emerged as the most intolerant, vindictive faction in a movement which cannot stand the added burden of continuous infighting. Within SDS, PL and its sympathizers now control New Left Notes, dominate the debates at national meetings, and hold overwhelming majorities on the national committees. But if there is now only minimal opposition within SDS to PL's leadership, it is because hundreds of students have privately quit SDS-and whole chapters have bailed out-because they no longer have an influence on the national organization.
The first reason for SDS's general decline after the Chicago convention in 1969 was that it read itself out of the anti-war movement. The Campus Worker-Student Alliance line-which PL pushed hard and continuously within SDS-sapped the organization of so much energy that it did no work on the issue of the war during the period of the Moratoria. SDS thus rendered itself powerless by the time Cambodia rolled around last May. At a time when tens of thousands of students focused on the war as a major national issue, SDS was engaged in its most intensive period of self-proletarianization.
It was this isolation from the antiwar demonstrations which made SDS's shrill condemnation of the Moratoria particularly inappropriate and offensive. If SDS had worked toward an anti-war strategy and lobbied within the Moratoria for radical speakers and viewpoints, then the criticisms would have been more understandable. Instead, SDS held its own antiwar demonstrations in advance of the October Moratorium, with trade unionism as the principal motif ("an American victory in Vietnam will be a terrific defeat for the U. S. worker").
Even if SDS's refusal to participate in liberal anti-war demonstrations was vaguely understandable, its empty denunciations of radical groups supporting the NLF were not. One of PL's principal objections to the NLF was that its leaders had agreed to peace talks with the U. S., and, as PL is so fond of saying, "there is nothing to negotiate." Yet the NLF has made no binding concessions at the talks, and is probably doing no more in Paris than buying needed time. Another of PL's objections was that the NLF is supplied by two "revisionist" powers: the Soviet Union and North Vietnam. But this type of guilt-by-association-true or not-is completely inappropriate in the case of poor, struggling countries under military siege, and does not even concur with Lenin's writings. "What it amounts to," said Ed Goldman, a Columbia student who quit PL late last year, "is that a bunch of white middle-class students are saying that a national liberation organization that has liberated four-fifths of Vietnam is selling out."
PL's entire approach to the Vietnam war is an extremely limited one. As a group which places primary emphasis on economic explanations of American behavior abroad, PL subscribes to the "runaway shop" theory of imperialism. In other words, the U. S. seeks to remain in Vietnam for the sole purpose of extracting labor and raw materials at a far cheaper rate than would be possible in this country. Ignoring most of the cultural and psychological background of American expansionism, PL believes that the principal motivation of the U. S. in the Third World is to utilize foreign sources of labor in order to depress wages and working conditions-and, in some cases, break strikes-at home.
Thus, PL states that if the NLF does not take a firm stand against U. S. involvement in postwar Vietnam-which it has not-it is selling out the American worker as well as the Vietnamese. This emphasis has led opponents of PL in SDS to charge that the party's approach to the war is one of "national chauvinism."
The same kind of reasoning is evident in PL's handling of the race question. Racism is viewed in purely economic terms; it divides white workers from black and makes impossible a united struggle for higher wages and better job conditions. PL believes that the white working class suffers the same consequences of racism-although on a lesser scale-as does the black. Thus, the oppression of black people is measured in dollars and cents; many of the fundamental features of racism are glossed over and the whole issue becomes a footnote to the struggle of the white working class. At the same time, groups like the Panthers, which focus on "consciousness-raising" around ghetto issues and do not pay lip-service to organizing workers as such, are singled out for harsh, unsympathetic condemnation. For this behavior, many members of SDS now charge that PL is racist.
In addition, some SDS members have complained that PL misrepresents real situations in order to make them fit their own explanations of them. Members of Columbia-Barnard SDS mention the ghetto uprising in Asbury Park, NJ., last summer as an example. The blacks in Asbury Park pressed a list of 22 demands on the city government, encompassing such issues as jobs, education, housing, judicial prejudice and day-to-day police harassment of blacks. According to Goldman, who went to Asbury Park as a PL organizer, the party chose to portray the rebellion exclusively as one of blacks fighting for jobs and left the other issues almost untouched. "The economic struggle just around jobs and money is not the only way to get people involved," he commented later. "PL limits its activity to that. In effect, it says that workers are dumb fools who can only relate to economic issues and can only understand them if you underline, italicize, boldface, and capitalize them, as they do in Challenge [the PL monthly newspaper]. It really comes over as a bludgeon."
AS SDS, under the aegis of PL, has grown more and more isolated, the few who remain in the group have made crude, meaningless attacks on other Leftist groups which disagree with them. Opponents of PL are frequently labeled "cops," "anti-communists," "enemies of the party," or, in the cases of a lucky few, "honest center forces who have been misled by enemies of the party." In a typical name-calling display, an editorial in the November 1969 issue of Progressive Labor magazine described the Black Panther-sponsored conference to form a "united front against fascism" as follows: "Except for a few pro-working class people and a scattering of rank-and-file Panthers, what an assortment the rest were: dope addicts, hippies, yippies, freaks, and pot heads."
Even with the gradual disappearance of contact between PL and rival radical groups, there are still instances of this sectarianism; at Harvard, for example, a member of the November Action Coalition who had collaborated with members of SDS on a pamphlet discussing the Center for International Affairs had his political affiliation stricken from the later printings of the pamphlet. Members of SDS had decided that, since they had started and paid for the pamphlet, it should not bear the name of an unfriendly political organization on it-"We were afraid it would buildNAC," one SDS member said later-especially since their own efforts against the CFIA were the only ones SDS would recognize as viable.
In a sense, this sectarianism has been a result of PL's unshakable faith in the correctness of its own line; abrupt changes-usually initiated by the national committees-may come and go, but otherwise, there is only one accepted approach. It is possible, however, that increasing disfavor has forced the party to reaffirm confidence in its own viewpoint. For this reason, there has been less and less internal discussion in SDS and greater emphasis on leafleting and demonstrating-all on the basis of PL's political beliefs. Pro-PL members of SDS often accuse their opponents in SDS of using discussion time as a delaying tactic to avoid taking action. For example, after the last national conference in December, the SDS national committee voted nationwide anti-war protests for March 20 around two slogans: the first was "Smash racist unemployment," and the second was an unspecified anti-war slogan which was left up to the various regions of SDS. At a recent New England regional conference, PL and its opponents spent two hours debating each other on whether the second slogan should be "U. S. out of Southeast Asia. No negotiations" (PL's position) or "Support the People's Peace Treaty." PL won the vote, but it scarcely mattered; thousands of posters and banners outside the meeting room already bore the "No Negotiations" slogan.
MUCH anti-PL tension in SDS surfaced at the national convention in Chicago last December, Opponents of PL grouped around a proposal by the Columbia-Barnard chapter of SDS which berated the national leadership on several scores: its attacks on the NLF, its almost complete silence on the repression of such groups as the Panthers and the Young Lords; and the narrow trade-union economist in which it conceived the old idea of worker-student alliance. The proposal did not assail the worker-student alliance concept, but rather modified it in the context of the student movement. It "must be expanded to include and stress the issues of imperialism and racism as they exist unrelated i. e. [unrelated directly] to the conditions of work," the proposal stated.
Although the proposal was defeated, it garnered nearly one-quarter of the votes at the convention and has become a majority position in such former PL strongholds as the New York City and San Francisco regions. In Boston, PL still holds a huge majority, but the proposal nevertheless has become the organizing focus for the Anti-Imperialist Caucus, which stated at the last regional meeting here that "we intend to stay in SDS to argue our views and make them the leading views in that organization."
One group-from New Orleans-has already made its peace with SDS by walking out of it. According to Ed Clark, a former member of PL and a leading organizer of the New Orleans group, the reason for the walkout was the defeat at the conference of two of its proposals calling for increased internal discussion in SDS. The first was a motion to devote part of New Left Notes "to ongoing political and strategic debates within SDS." This proposal was defeated in favor of one by staff members of New Left Notes which denied that the publication should be an "internal organ-for SDS members only, in effect," but rather an organizing tool of SDS as a whole.
This outcome would have been more plausible if the second resolution of the Clark group-to expand the number of yearly national meetings from one to four-had not also been defeated. Before the split in 1969, SDS regularly held four national meetings a year, even though only one had final decision-making authority. Clark's proposal called for the restoration of the older schedule. The motion was defeated on the grounds that SDS should spend its time and resources on planning actions and confine discussion of tactics to regional meetings. These actions would presumably follow PL's recommendations.
IT IS difficult to speculate how long SDS will survive as even a visible organization as long as PL is the dominant influence in it. As SDS continues to dwindle in size, it also faces increasingly difficult decisions on how it should restructure its political line and re-emerge as viable nationwide radical student organization. With the growth of a viewpoint that opposes extreme sectarianism and favors greater emphasis on internal discussion and debate, there is some hope that SDS may yet be saved.