The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

SDS -- Back from the Dead? January 23, 2006 by RedStar2000

During the 1960s, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most visible radical political movement in the U.S. since the "glory years" of the American Communist Party in the late 1930s.

There are now a small groups of students at scattered American colleges that want to revive it as a new national organization.

I have written about SDS a number of times...

The Legacy of SDS

SDS Revisited

Students for a Democratic Society vs. Leninism

SDS: A Revolutionary Model?

But these are historical treatments...what happened and why.

I never expected to be able to write about SDS in the present tense. And I have no idea at this point what I will be able to say about it, good or bad.

I'm not sure I really believe it yet.


Announcement and discussion...

Home Page...

Message Board...

I will confess that I cannot be "objective" about this one; it provokes an enormous wave of nostalgia in me that undoubtedly affects my judgment.

I was in or around SDS for eight years...and most of that time it was the group that I "did politics" in.

I do not know if SDS v.2.0 will "live up" to its historical reputation or just be another reformist kerfuffle that goes nowhere...except back to the museum.

But if you are a student in the U.S. and have some time to travel this coming summer, you may well want to check them out.

The future may be NOW.
First posted at RevLeft on January 18, 2006

quote (Marx):

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

The principle weakness of SDS was its inability to forge a compelling vision of revolution outside of the Leninist paradigm.

I think "participatory democracy" was on the right track...but by 68, the various versions of Maoism had pretty much "taken command".

That was a tragedy.

Now, perhaps, a second chance...

But don't forget, kids, it has to be a revolutionary vision. At this late date, no version of reformism retains any credibility at all.

And don't let the Leninists fuck you up! *laughs*
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 16, 2006


They became Leninists because they became revolutionaries. In the modern era, the two are inseparable.

That did indeed seem plausible in it just provokes scorn and derision.

Most of the remaining Leninist parties in the "west" are completely permeated with parliamentary cretinism as tactics and servile reformism as ideology. They have precisely the same character as the bourgeois liberals that SDS attacked so successfully in the 60s.

And if that all weren't bad enough, there's "democratic" centralism...a stifling despotism of the party leadership that degrades the membership to the level of soldiers and the masses to the level of pawns.

If SDS v.2.0 catches on, I'm sure the Leninists will come sniffing around again...parasites looking for a new host.

The challenge that a new SDS will face is developing participatory democracy into a coherent revolutionary theory.

I think they could learn a lot from Marx...but they must avoid the 20th century conflation of Marxism and Leninism.

As we all saw, that road leads to catastrophe!
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 16, 2006

quote (Paul Buhle):

Various existing leftwing organizations will probably resent the competition and gripe, or infiltrate. (No statutory standard can keep them from doing so, in my view, and all efforts to restrict membership will be counterproductive.)

Quite true. But this time around, the Leninists must not be allowed to pose as "good guys" who are "for the same things that we are".

They need to be hammered at the first hint of that vanguard shit!

In fact, SDS v.2.0 would do well to explicitly trash the whole idea of "elite leadership" right from the beginning.

That does not mean making a choice "between" Marx and Bakunin or anything silly like that. It just means rejecting out of hand any kind of superstitious reverence for "authority"...especially anyone who claims to possess such authority.

In the "west", Leninism (all versions) is an anachronism...and should be sent to a museum somewhere.

Or to the "dumpster of history". *laughs*
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 17, 2006


Why shouldn't revolutionaries unite, get it together and try to provide leadership?

Simple answer: because it goes to your head.

In the Marxist paradigm, you are what you do. If your self-appointed "task" is to give orders, guess what that makes you over time?

A boss!!!

And you wish to reproach me for a movement that "goes nowhere"?

Ok, I'll concede: SDS was completely unable to establish a "red" despotism that successfully created two modern imperialist countries.

Shame on us!


Let the movementarians try to keep the movement "pure" and unadulterated by real politics -- and let them "hammer" honest activists asking real questions... and sometimes giving real answers.

Real politics? You mean like which "Great Leader" we should all flop on our bellies for?

Real questions? Like which old Leninist mummy supposedly "got it right"?

Real answers? Like "put us in charge and everything will just turn out fine"?


Movements have a political character -- and if you try to keep them "horizontal", you'll get another inbred activists coffee klatch...

Indeed they do have a political character; but what is that character to be?

The old SDS involved many tens of thousands of kids on a "horizontal" basis where even some "no name kids" from some small "no name chapters" could go "head-to-head" against a "national leader" and win.

Think something like that could ever happen in any Leninist party?

True, we did drink tankers of coffee at national meetings of SDS...I still remember a plenary session that lasted around 28 hours or so!

"Letting the people decide" has its price.

Letting the Leader decide costs a lot more.


Or maybe we can actually experiment and try different methods -- then sum them up... even when the conclusions deeply challenge us.

Funny you should bring that up. One of the great strengths of the old SDS was local experimentation. We didn't have anyone with the power to tell us "you must do this" or "you can't do that".

Every SDS chapter was free to strike where they thought the enemy was vulnerable...without worrying about what the National Office would say.

We didn't have "a Party line"...and even our various Maoists never actually had the nerve to suggest that we should -- at least not explicitly.

It was only after the crash in 1969 that the Maoists treated their followers from SDS like "soldiers" expected to "carry out their orders".

To no avail, as their "soldiers" all deserted. *laughs*


Elitism exists within both Leninist parties and anarchist affinity groups. Let's not kid ourselves here.

I completely agree. In fact, of the really elitist groups I've run into over the decades, two of the worst were "anarcho-primitivist" and "council communist".

That's why I hope that the new version of SDS will replicate the anti-elitist "atmosphere" of SDS during the period 1964-67 (roughly).

What's really needed is harsh intolerance for the idea that some people are especially "fit to rule" while everyone else is only "fit to obey".

In early SDS, some members took to saying "we are all leaders".

That was the right approach!
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 18, 2006


There is no way any of these politics will touch the mainstream...

Probably true.

But consider this statement from someone who was actually in SDS back in the late 60s...


In America, if you are not saying things that shock many people, you can't possibly be telling the truth.

S/he's not talking about the 60s there, s/he's talking about now!

SDS was "outside" the "mainstream" and very visibly so. It "shook people up".

People in this country need shaking up...very badly.

They're not going to "like it" least not for the first few years.

Or even decades.

But you know, that's what it really takes to get anything worthwhile to happen.

The idea that it's somehow possible to change the world in a progressive way by "stealth politics" is one that was extensively implemented during the last century. While it had some initial successes (say 1920-50), the results since then have been zip.

In "late" or "senile" capitalism, the "age of reform" is over.

As horrendously difficult as it sounds presently, revolution really is the only alternative to more of what we have now.

The first step is to tell people the truth and shake them up.

And then we'll see how it goes.
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 19, 2006


Nothing short of revolution is ideal, but fighting for shorter working hours, pensions, universal healthcare, universal education, a drastic reduction in the military budget, abolishment of the CIA, etc, should not be discarded simply because they represent "reforms".

They should be discarded because they will not's no longer possible for people to "reform" capitalism from below.

In the "old" capitalist countries, I mean. Reformism "works" in Venezuela and probably other Latin American countries at this time. That's why they're doing so much of it.

When you tell people in the U.S. now to "fight for this reform", you're telling them to put their energies (and hearts!) into something that can't win.

Mostly people won't even listen to reformist rhetoric anymore...they know nothing will come of it.

But think of the people that you do happen to convince. What happens to them as a consequence of inevitable defeat?

Are you one of those who believe that people "have to lose" a whole lot of reformist "struggles" before they'll be "ready for revolution"?

I think that's a bad strategy. When people fight for reforms and lose, it doesn't "make them revolutionary" just makes them passive and demoralized.

And extremely cynical about any possibility of serious social change ever.

Reformism has been so "traditional" in the American left for such a long period of time that it's practically a "sacred cow" -- to criticize it brands one at once as an "ultra-leftist" or worse.

Back in the 60s, all the traditional left groups were critical of SDS for "ultra-leftism"...especially after the 1965 convention that bluntly repudiated bourgeois liberalism.

Thus it is that I hope the new version of SDS will be even more "ultra-leftist"...will become a focus for intransigent opposition to the despotism of capital.

It's what we need!
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 19, 2006


...but try to convince those that have held on to their healthcare (or those who gained better healthcare coverage) that their struggles have been in vain.

Chances are they'll find out when they need to see a I don't have to tell them.

But funny you should bring up healthcare. Want to know what it's really going to be like?

The Doctor is In -- For a Price


I believe revolutionary organizing is important, but movement building of that sort is long and difficult.

Your belief is well-founded. It's without question the most difficult thing to figure out that there is.

And there's no question but that the difficulty of revolutionary organizing underlies much of the remaining appeal of reformism.

Reformism "looks easy". You can do it "in your spare time". You don't have to do any of that "hard thinking". All that's really required is the willingness to publicly embrace the legitimacy of the existing social order...and you're in!

If you're "clever" with words, you can even spin a routine defeat "into" a "victory".

The job market for professional reformists is shrinking...but opportunities remain for the especially unscrupulous.


Fortunately, your views are reserved for only for a lunatic fringe of individuals who have no impact on the struggles and efforts of ordinary people...

Yes, I understand your real sentiments...your use of the word "fortunately" gives you away. You don't want "no stinkin revolutionaries" around to disturb whatever reformist racket you might be running...or perhaps want to run.

Well, you're still safe for a little while longer...the "lunatic fringe" is very small.

But I imagine you must be just a little nervous about the re-emergence of SDS. Considering what happened the last time, who knows what a whole new generation of "crazy ultra-leftists" might do.

Perhaps create a new reality?
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 20, 2006


However, "reform" from below is desirable to resolve IMMEDIATE needs.

That doesn't seem to happen much.

And when it does happen, it's brief and mostly spontaneous in order to remedy some immediate's not "institutionalized".

When professional reformists set up an organization to "fight for a reform", the actual "reform" is a secondary concern. It's mostly upper-class people who want to "feel good about themselves". And, to be fair, an occasional hustler who wants to get out of the shit really bad and is willing to kiss any rich butt to do that.

Some upper class people support the Opera. Others support "orderly social change".

Not much difference.


On the other, you wish to discourage ordinary people from actually taking part in their own paths towards self-management because doing so may entail taking steps known as "reforms".

Not at all. Besides which, people who do "actually take part in their own paths towards self-management" neither request nor require my "encouragement".

But I do think that revolutionaries have something pertinent to say on this subject.

As long as people accept the legitimacy of the capitalist system, it is extremely unlikely that they'll "get what they need" matter "how hard they try".

That may be an "uncomfortable" truth...but it's still true.

It's not our task to "encourage" fact, it's the task of revolutionaries to destroy them.


It seems you wish that people continue to rot in their current situations, regardless of how miserable they may be...

My "wishes" are not a significant determining factor in history. Human misery is a product of capitalism in its normal functioning.

There was a time in the past when it could be significantly reduced through reforms.

It's my proposition that that time is over...that "late" capitalism cannot grant any more significant reforms and must, in fact, abolish those of the last century in order to remain at all viable.

The old American Communist Party back in the 30s could tell people "in good faith" to "fight for reforms"...because reforms could be won.

And were!

I contend that this is no longer possible!

And that telling people now that reforms are "still possible" is grossly mistaken at best and lying at worst.

You are perfectly free to disagree with me about that...but I think you face a "burden of proof" that will break your back. In all of the "old" capitalist countries, we see not the slightest sign of any "progressive reform" even of the most minimal nature.

In fact, reformist parties and NGOs are visibly shrinking in both numbers and political if ordinary people are concluding that they cannot "deliver" on their promises.

What's to be gained by suggesting otherwise?

Nothing I can see.
First posted at NYC Indymedia on January 20, 2006
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