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THE ONLY thing safe to say about SDS these days is that none of its variations has much in common with the SDS that drafted the "Port Haron Statement" in 1962. That was a group of disaffected students and intellectuals, alienated both from the American dream and the pedantic Old Left squabbles their parents had engaged in thirty years before. Led by Tom Hayden and Al Haber, these children of Hiroshima and Coca-Cola nurtured on Paul Goodman hoped to forge a "New Left" that would revive radical politics after the critical somnolence of the fifties.
We would certainly not consider them very radical today. According to its constitution. SDS sought "to create a sustained community of educational and political concern: one bringing together liberals and radicals, activists and scholars, students and faculty. It maintains a vision of a democratic society, where at all levels the people have control of the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent. . . . It is civil libertarian in its treatment of those with whom it disagrees, but clear in its opposition to any anti democratic principle as a basis for governmental, social or political organization."
The road from participatory democracy to the people's war is neither easy to chart nor encouraging to contemplate. Basically, it is a series of jolting disillusionments about the responsiveness of America to profound social change and unpleasant discoveries about the nature of polities itself. It has taken several years for the sheltered malcontents of the Port Huron days to realize that, underneath it all, politics is a very brutal thing.
In the early days everything was politics. Pot was politics. Peace was politics. Black and white marching together was politics. Saving NO was politics. And wanting to control your own life was the most important politics of all. Controlling your own life remained the theme of SDS activity for a number of years. Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, summed it up best:
There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it. that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
But soon people on the left began to think there was a system, and that the politics of humanist outrage, however estheticalily attractive, was helpless against this system. The explosion of the Northern Ghettoes was a shock to students who had risked their lives by working in the South. Apparently you could risk your life much closer to home if you wanted to. And by 1965, when SDS began to be an important part of the Movement, students had to explain the War. More than anything else the War made radicals not only because it brought the ssytem close to the lives of students, but because it demanded explanation. There is a great need on the left for rational explanation, for ways of looking at events and people that make sense. And the War did not make sense as a momentary aberration, a quirk in an otherwise benevolent foreign policy. The hectic pace of politics in the sixties and the obvious ineptitude (or was it ineptitude?) of those in power forced a radical analysis on these students.
So SDS's days of community organizing and its brief flirtation with student power gave way to draft resistance and anti-war marches. Of course the transition was not so abrupt-at first students were against the War because the Vietnamese should have the right to control the decisions that affect them. But gradually a more coherent and unsettling analysis of American politics emerged.
FOR ONE THING, early in 1967 SDS discovered Marxism. Actually it was thrust in front of its face by the decision of the Progressive Labor Party to disband the May 2nd Movement (a small but militant anti-war group) and send members into SDS. PL was formed in 1964 by a group of dissident ex-Communists who were fed up with the increasingly moderate stance and peaceful co-existence line of the Party. They brought to the rather undisciplined and unideological New Left a coherent, straightforward revolutionary strategy and the discipline of a centralist organization. The children of Hiroshima and Coca-Cola, now veterans of a few years' moral outrage, were prepared to handle neither.
PL believed that political organizing must center around the industrial working class since they were the most oppressed people in society and were the only ones that had the power to change it. Their strategy was to form left-center caucuses in trade unions demanding better wages and working conditions. Hopefully this would lead to crippling increases in the number of strikes and together with other factors, like an unpopular imperialist war, a general strike could paralyze the country and set the stage for the working class (or the Party, at any rate) to seize power.
At the same time students were oppressed by the draft and most would become workers of one sort or another after they left school. This would provide the basis for a student-worker alliance. PL hoped to make SDS into a broad-based anti-War movement from which they could recruit members for the Party.
The National Office of SDS had never given too much thought to the working class, and the New Left as a whole had prided itself on being undogmatic in its analysis and flexible in its strategies. And, anyway, the N.O. exerted almost no control over local chapters and it circulated its position papers to encourage debate rather than enforce policy. Many members of SDS who had previously relied on an inmitive feeling for politics now found that their intuitive notions could not match the clear. if mechanistic, analysis of their PL contemporaries.
There was a tempting logic to PL's explanations. And there was a certain internal logic to the development from control-your-own-life politics to working-class-oriented politics. Students sensed the connection between their spiritual woes and the material woes of the oppressed workers. And if at first the idea of a Ruling Class was only a helpful metaphor, it began to make more sense as the War got worse and inflation made real wages decline every year.
PL was obviously valuable as a minor corrective. It was about time SDS started thinking about poor people, particularly poor white people. But as PL became stronger within SDS, the National Office, under various leaders, frantically tried to concoct an alternative to the PL analysis. In doing so it allowed PL to set the terms of debate. Rather than pursuing their intuitive sense that PL was dead wrong about the dynamics of American politics, and creating a revolutionary vision that comprehended the complexity and uniqueness of American life, the leaders of SDS tried to find an analysis that they could use in maintaining control of the organization and preventing the conversion of the rank and file to PL politics.
Actually, the first of the N.O.'s alternative programs displayed some good insights. At the 1967 convention in Ann Arbor, Gregg Calvert and Carl Davidson proposed their theory of a "New Working Class." They contended that Capitalism had changed in many ways from Marx's day. In the modern industrial system technocrats were far more essential in the industrial process than unskilled workers (an ever diminishing percentage of the work force). These college trained workers could form the basis for a revolutionary movement (shades of Thorstein Veblin). The only problem with the NWC, as its critics pointed out, was that its members were better rewarded and more loyal to the system than anyone else.
PL kept growing where it was strong (mainly Harvard, San Francisco State and Berkeley) and the non-PL leaders of SDS searched for a Maoist alternative to PL. In Berkeley, where things happen about a year before they happen anywhere else, the SDS chapter split in the fall of 1968 when non PL members left to form the Radical Student Union under the leadership of Bob Avakian. Avakian critcized PL for not supporting the sharpest struggles in the movement, such as those over open admissions. (PL was not involved in the Cleaver confrontation and later did not support the People's Park campaign.)
After October, 1968, PL became more sectarian and critical of other radicals in the movement and around the world. Since 1966 they had withheld their support from the NLF and Ho Chi Minh because they had "sold out the people's struggle" by negotiating with the United States. Cuba was a petty-Bourgeois country. The line on Black struggles had also changed-all nationalism was reactionary and separate Black organizations were "Racist." Open admissions demands were reactionary since universities would only brainwash the poor (Had PL appointed itself the student part of the student-worker alliance?).
Last year the National Office, under Mike Klonsky, began to develop the idea of a Revolutionary Youth Movement. This led to the celebrated "Weatherman Proposal." The Weatherman contingent regards the roles of third world liberation movements and Black struggles in this country as crucial to any real change. The revolution is not around the corner, and if it comes, it will be part of an international movement against U. S. imperialism. Because of the nature of this imperialism workers in this country are better off than anywhere else in the world, too well-off, in fact, to ever be the vanguard of a revolution as long as relative prosperity continues. But if the United States can no longer sustain the kind of control over world resources and labor that it has in the past and if internal tensions simultaneously disrupt the system, then it might be possible to radicalize the workers. Aside from being a longshot (but no longer than PL's strategy), the Weatherman proposal is the best argument yet for white radicals not to do anything.
Since it is very difficult to engage a Weatherman in a theoretical discussion, the only thing clear so far about them is that they have balls. Unfortunately it seems to be of the Guerrilla Theater variety-are they interested in hurting the system, or showing that they want to? Why don't they engage in sabotage? Given their analysis it makes more sense to blow up war factories and labs at night than to get in fights every other day.
AT ANY RATE, as everyone knows, RYM walked out of the convention last June and took half of SDS with it. A few weeks later Klonsky resigned from the NIC (National Interim Committee) because of political differences with the NO, now led by Mark Rudd. Together with Avakian he has formed RYM-2 on the West Coast, which is concentrating on building a mass-based anti-war movement.
The New Left started as a middle class phenomenon. For the most part its original adherents had never been close to politics. Black people are close to politics because where they live the coercive instruments of the state are an oppressive fact of their day-to-day lives. Some workers are close to politics because they have four hungry kids and are working more hours than they did twenty years ago. Only the children of the middle class could come up with the idea that politics might be something other than the exercise of power for survival.
And when the fleeting thought has passed through your mind that politics might be the liberation of everyone and everything and you discover it is still the raw and frightening war that Hobbes said it was three hundred years ago, that can be a frustrating experience. That can make you want to pick up the gun. Or become apolitical.
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