SDS Shifting From Protest to Organizing

The least successful SDS projects so far, as SDS intellectuals are aware, have been those dealing with the middle class.

(The CRIMSON is reprinting this article by Richard Blumenthal '67 by permission of the Nation magazine, where it appeared in the May 22nd issue under the title of "SDS: Protest is not enough.")

Members of Students for a Democratic Society marched last month in the Spring Mobilization, and cheered faithfully when Stokely Carmichael denounced the "cruel and senseless" war in Vietnam. But they demonstrated without the high expectations and hopes of past protests. SDS did not participate in organizing the march, refused initially to endorse it, and finally came to support it only ten days before it was scheduled to occur. Both the mood of the marchers and the attitude of their organization reflected a significant shift of strategy within SDS.


In building a movement or radical social change. SDS is turning from the tactics of protest and confrontation--marches, pickets and sit-ins--to those of organization and resistance. Although the students will continue to utilize dramatic, "one-shot" incidents of protest to attract publicity and membership, they are shifting, as national vice president, Carl Davidson, puts it, "to dig in for the long haul, to become full-time, radical, sustained, relevant." Marches, says a Chicago SDSer, "are just not enough. They won't stop this war. More important, they won't stop the military industrial complex, the powerful institutions that decide the fate of people in this country .... We must do more than marching."


The shift in tactics is an attempt to extend the organization's appeal to new constituencies beyond the campus. While SDS has always aimed at inspiring a "broad-based" movement, it is now consciously appealing to adults, particularly among both the middle and working classes, and planning to increase such activities in the future. In organizing these groups, SDS is endeavoring to develop an "ideology"--a more systematic theory of social change for the American power structure.

A Third Stage

The new approach signifies the beginning of a third stage in the development of the New Left organization. At the beginning, following its break with the parent League for Industrial Democracy. SDS stressed community organizing among people excluded from the system; mainly Negroes and poor whites. Members opened a Community Union Project in Newark, financed by the United Auto Workers, and built similar Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP) in other cities. Since 1965, however, SDS has concentrated almost entirely on students, and its main issues have been the war in Vietnam, the draft and "student power." During this second stage, it has endeavored, primarily by protest and confrontation, to organize new chapters on campuses throughout the country.

The organization has grown in the past two years from 1200 national members in 30 chapters to more than 6000 in 227 chapters. There are now in addition to these national members, about 30,000 chapter members, who participate in the activities of local groups but do not pay national dues. The organization employs a national staff of ten in Chicago, with nine traveling organizers (soon to be increased to 39) in the field. But most of the new chapters were organized by local student radicals without help from the parent organization." "They write us and say they've got this chapter and ask to be recognized," says national chapter correspondent. John Veneziale. "Sometimes they wait for months before contacting us; there are probably a lot we still don't know about." Membership is now growing most rapidly in smaller institutions, state teachers' colleges and junior colleges, particularly in the Midwest.

Alienation Appeal

With the tactics of direct action--picketing, campus recruitment by war oriented corporations or sitting in a against university social rules--SDS has appealed to a vague sense of alienation among students, without defining a radical ideology. Unlike the old Left, which spent much energy on theory and analysis, SDS has been purposely anti-ideological, even anti-intellectual. Members have tried, as national secretary, Greg Calvert, puts it, to "build a movement out of people's guts." Rejecting the dogmatism of the old Socialist and Communist parties, they have stretched their ideological tent to include anyone feeling the frustration and anomie of "dehumanizing" modern society.

Their evolving ideology, such as it is, focuses on the inability of the individual to make meaningful decisions in society. Individuals, according to the SDS analysis, are deprived of power over their own lives by a corporate elite which manipulates human beings economically and politically. The few who own the means of production, in alliance with the military, control all aspects of society. Their crass materialistic values reduce human beings to "consumers of things." This depersonalization, combined with the separation of most people from power, produces a sense of apathy and resignation.

In place of this structure of decision making, SDS proposes "participatory democracy"--a decentralized system without real leaders in which every man would have an equal voice. It strongly rejects the contentention of liberals that reform can be achieved through established parliamentary institutions. Numbers of supporters--or votes--do not count for political strength, since "representative" bodies only disguise manipulation by the industrial military elite. Thus, the so-called "new middle"--a group of student leaders who recently wrote President Johnson expressing "responsible" doubts about the war--fails to recognize that the Vietnamese conflict is only one manifestation of a corrupt structure, and that it will be followed by other imperialist ventures unless the system is radically altered. SDS members spurn coalitions with such liberal groups, fearing that their radicalism will be diluted.

The reliance on action--confrontation and protest--rather than ideology has enabled SDS in the middle phase of its development to include a wide variety of personalities and interests. The organization can claim as members blue-collar militants of the Progressive Labor Party, as well as three-piece suit liberals from ADA. There are anarchist hippies, humanists, Communists and an increasing number of former members of Young Americans for Freedom, a liber tarian laissez faire capitalist group. About 85 per cent of the membership, according to Davidson, serves merely as "shock troops." These are younger members, usually in the "long hair Bobby Dylan syndrome," who turn out for demonstrations but do not go beyond gut reactions to a systematic critique of society. Davidson classifies the remaining 15 per cent in two groups: the "super-intellectuals" and the "organizers." The intellectuals, mainly graduate students, dominate the discussions. The organizers are full-time, professional radicals.

And yet, despite the apparent success of their past approach in augmenting this diverse membership, many SDSers now believe that the organization must develop a longer-range strategy. The tactics of confrontation have gained headlines but have not altered government policies. Most members regard anti-war activity with a mounting sense of frustration and impotence. They often begin speeches with the disclaimer: "Well, probably nothing we can do now will prevent escalation ...." And many fear that the radical commitments of the membership will wane unless it comes to view short-run set-backs in a longer-range "critical radical perspective." If the shock troops do not understand tactics in terms of consistent and systematic radical analysis, they will eventually desert the movement.