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LOCAL Interview :: Protest Activity

Students for a Democratic Society Revived: An Interview with Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle, Brown University lecturer and ex-SDSer, talks about the history and meaning of this year's start of a new SDS.
In January 2006, a Connecticut high school student took the initiative to revive the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the most important radical organizations of the 1960s.

Restlessness among American students emerged at the end of the 1950s, and a minority of them began expressing dissatisfaction with the conformity of suburban life. They saw through the commodification of culture and yearned for authenticity. They shrugged off the materialism and false optimism of their parents. They also began to resent the elitist and autocratic manners of their university administrators.
The 1962 Port Huron Statement, drafted by SDSer Tom Hayden, announced a radically different vision for America, for all peoples of the world, for the young. During the next few years SDS engaged in a variety of actions inspired by the growing civil rights movement, but it was the escalation of the war in Vietnam that transformed it into a formidable national movement.

SDS dissolved in 1969, but the activists cherished the spirit of rebellion. They witnessed the end of the awful Vietnam War, and lived through the resurgence of conservatism during the 1980s and 1990s. A charge that young people had become apathetic toward corporate domination and American chauvinism was punctured when thousands—students, greens, unionists, anarchists, and locals—gathered in Seattle to protest corporate globalization. Students and others created new spaces for themselves, in cities, on campuses, and in cyberspace.

The memory of SDS never died, and from the start of this year a new SDS is spreading across the nation. Its call for participatory democracy, free speech, and above all, its denunciation of war and militarism has found new ground during Bush II, when neoconservative oilmen and religious fanatics seek to redefine American idealism. Several veteran activists—Al Haber, Tom Good, Tom Hayden, and Paul Buhle among others—have either joined or lent their support to this movement only to see the New SDS grow to over 100 chapters with nearly 600 members as of last April.

I spoke with Paul Buhle about the meaning of this revived student organization in a time of war, uncertainty, religious fanaticism, and corporate hegemony. Like many veteran SDSers, Buhle has kept the memory of the left alive as an activist and as one of America’s foremost historians of the Left. He is currently Senior Lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University—the site of the recent regional conference of the New SDS. He is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association's Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95) for Students for a Democratic Society. He started the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University, 1976- ), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.

Q: How did you get involved with the original SDS back in the 1960s?

A: I became aware of SDS in the Spring of 1965, when someone decided not to go to DC to the April demonstration, and gave me their seat on the small chartered plane. An SDS chapter had existed at Champaign-Urbana but had folded, and its participants remained active in a community-organizing project across town. It started again in
September, and I joined at registration. Soon, I'd been made a Master of Ceremonies because much of the chapter was from Chicago (and Jewish), while I symbolically represented the majority "downstate" students.

Q: Like many New Left groups at that time, SDS went through several stages of activism, personnel changes and the familiar infighting. What did you feel was a constant value of the ‘60s SDS organization?

A: SDS's value throughout was transcending the Old Left categories of Communist and Cold War Socialist (a category which, lamentably, had come to include most varieties of anarchist, although not the pacifists around LIBERATION and the War Resisters League, etc). By appealing for direct democracy rather than the usual call for involvement in
"junior" organizations (the Young Democrats and Republicans, Young Socialists or Communists, etc), SDS caught the generational wave and empowered people to act on their own, in the name of a de-centralized society with empowerment for the powerless. It was also, of course, deeply generational in turning against the Cold War/Nuclear Stasis
and the Security State that liberals and social democrats had come to accept as natural (and a powerful source of unionized labor).

Q: How would you describe SDS’s political ideology during the 1960s?

A: THE PORT HURON STATEMENT defined SDS and, remarkably, still does. Drafted collectively, redrafted by Tom Hayden, it was (and is) what serves as "ideology." It owes to many sources, but the most important is the experience of the civil rights movement.

Q: We tend to view student activism as a 1960s phenomenon. As a historian, can you point to some precedents?

A: Old Left observers of the 1960s movements could look back to student antiwar activism of the 1930s, including several years (1933-35) of widespread student strikes against militarization. These ended with the rise of Fascism across Europe and the mobilization successes of the Popular Front among students. There were student
movements of some significance around Henry Wallace in 1948 and against the Korean War, but these were pretty well suppressed thru fear-mongering. Many of the CULTURAL features of the 1960s movements were seen in the late 1940s, from personal bohemianism (also gay and lesbian impulses) to jazz and folk music, interracial dating, and so on. The return of folk music in the late 1950s was a predictor of student response to politics and culture.

Q: What was its relationship with Communist parties, including non-Stalinists?

A: Communist Party connections were few, except in the odd sense that many of the PARENTS of SDS members had been communists and were bitterly disillusioned with organizations...but still anti-imperialist, involved in civil rights or peace movements
locally, and these folks gave their kids the self-confidence and hands-on experience to provide our on-the-ground leadership in many places. The CP had little attraction for young people in the 1960s.
Maoists or anti-revisionists entered SDS by 1965, and at first seemed dull but not especially bothersome. When various dreadful things took place, the rush from anarchism to Maoism was the final blow in SDS. But in my view, ANY Leninist movement would have the same effect, because the impulse to use organizations only to gain memberships (or create Front Groups) is basic. "Stalinism" ceased to have a useful connotation for many of us because of the many splits within the Communist world, because so many eclectic forces (e.g., in the Anglophone West Indies) identified with "Communism" in some generic way, and because our problems came so overwhelmingly from other directions. "Stalinism" was a charge throw at us by liberal-socialists or plain liberals, and it was essentially a form of red-baiting: if you want the US out of Vietnam now, you must be soft on Stalinism, etc.

Q: SDS dissolved in 1969. Tell us how SDS’s revival came about in 2003?

A: The revival of SDS had been quietly urged by Al Haber for years (though I didn't hear of it myself), and was picked up by a high school student in Connecticut, Pat Korte. Tom Good, who edits the IWW virtual newsletter in Greater New York, took up the initiative on ML King Day and I began writing essays then for web and other sources. Many SDSers simply came over with their existing campus groups; or broke off from "Front Groups" that had been established by varieties of vanguard groups; or simply heard about it on-line.

Q: Why do you think a revival happened?

A: The "how" is also the "why" and vice-versa, because MOST of the membership of several thousand found out about SDS either on the web or by reading about the 1960s in classroom books, high school or college, and/or being urged by a friendly teacher who knew or guessed that such a student was interested in connecting the 1960s with the
present day. The much higher proportions of high school students and community college students (rather than big, prestigious university students) is terribly significant, because the demography of THIS SDS is very different, and because so much is post-9/11. Young people who did not grow up apathetic.

Q: Leftist groups have been springing up everywhere. Why do we need another left student organization like SDS?

A: Why SDS? Because it suggests "the sixties" as a time when young people challenged the system and met the crisis of empire with an active call for peace. Secondly, because SDS, notwithstanding its early demise, nevertheless DID transcend the Old Left categories and did not become (like so many liberal student efforts) essentially a stepping-stone into the academic or think tank systems, giving in at every step to the demands of empire, that is, US global control. SDSers were outside that, proudly outside, without becoming fans of State Capitalism (except, lamentably, of the Third World variety; and even that was more ambiguous until capitalism re-established its
hegemony in the early 1980s).

Q: Do you see parallels between the political climate today and that of the 1960s?

A: One of my favorite New SDSers is a punk singer, a Latina from New Jersey who discovered Beat poets and the IWW on the Web when she was in high school, told me that it was perfectly obvious why there's room for SDS again today: You had the Vietnam War era, and this is our war era. She was right. As W[illiam] A[ppleman] Williams suggested long ago, only when the Empire finds itself in an intractable dilemma, delivering death and poison every day but still unable to conquer, is there an opening for the American Left. And only when the ruling groups fall out with each other sharply is there room for counter-strategies.
There are many differences, but to my mind, the key ones include the global warming awareness, only a few years ago a source for apathy and denial. And the drift of Latin America away from total US control. The degree of ecological damage since the 1960s is
incalculable, of course.

Q: In general, what are or will become the major issues and project of the New SDS?

A: Major SDS issues? I judge from web discussions and what was said in workshops by our New England chapters, at the first big regional conference (Brown University, in April): Getting the US out of Iraq is central to everything. But free speech on campus, especially in community colleges and private trade schools, is crucial because so little free speech exists there. Militarization is everywhere evident but again, community colleges and high schools have taken the brunt. Immigrant Rights is way up in the agenda and way up in possibilities of community links, especially with students from those communities. So, anti-recruitment, anti-militarization and antiwar seem to me central on many campuses. But many other issues can be found.

Q: What arguments do today’s SDSers raise regarding US foreign policy, corporate control, alienation, and the War in Iraq?

A: Arguments among SDSers would be difficult to assess because the loudest (most frequent) discussants often do not represent ordinary folks. SDSers of the 1960s preferred organizing, or arguing among the pro-war crowd (including the "we can't leave now" crowd) rather than arguing among themselves and that instinct proved right. I suspect
everyone who joins New SDS wants the US out of Iraq now. And no war upon Iran. And no US bases anywhere abroad, no corporate control of the natural wealth of any other peoples. These are natural positions owing far less to any Marxism (more distant than ever in this generation in any dogmatic sense, but useful, as many anarchist materials are useful) than to a basis sense of human rights and planetary survival.
SDS' appeal is to the student as student, and as young person. SDS' renewed appeal to former members such as myself is that it was, despite its failures, the best movement that we have known in our 40 some years of activity. It shares a political DNA with the IWW and with the Civil Rights Movement, and is a particular form of "American radicalism."

Q: You have been active as a sort of senior advisor to the New SDS. Are there any “lessons learned? for the old days that may apply today?

A: Applying "lessons" is always a dubious task. My proposal for members of outside (i.e., Leninist) groups for the new constitution is that they may participate in general meetings but not join or vote. The problem here is that most SDSers never did join formally and may not again. An "anti-communist" clause as demanded by the League for Industrial Democracy (a decade before it became neoconservative) is unworkable and inappropriate because it would demand an anti-imperialist clause as well...no Cold Warrior would be allowed to attend, etc., also unworkable because so many young folks
grow up naive, join the military for economic reasons or just follow orders. SDS' strength was in dialogue with all kinds.

Q: As a historian of the left, where do you see SDS—both the old and new—in the span of American radicalism?

A: SDS occupies a large space in radical history, an extraordinary space for its 9 year (so far) existence. Primarily as a generational movement. Second in being an antiwar, anti-imperialist movement without becoming a Communist movement. Its influence was, for a few years, astonishing, thanks in part to the publicity that it generated. It returns very much via the Web, and that part, at least, is consistent. The anarchist movement had largely faded by 1920, the Socialist movement (despite some returns and influence) by the middle 1930s, and the Communist movement by the later 1950s. So we've seen
nothing like a mass movement since....notwithstanding big upturns in various spots, anti-nuke, immigrant, etc....until the realities of 9/11 hit home bringing a new and scary military-industrial politics and the beginnings of a new mass movement.
Whether SDS emerges successfully on a large scale or not, some movement very much like it is certain to do so. This is my judgment of the situation. Not only in the US but in many other places.

For more information visit www.studentsforademocraticsociety.org/

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