SDS: To Live Outside the Law, You Must be Honest: Students for a Democratic Society, unbossed and unowned, keeps on pushin’
by Daniel Tasripin
August 18, 2007, NYC IMC
Following a year that witnessed a new generation of young activists adopt the name and legacy of Students for a Democratic Society, the new organization converged upon Detroit for its second national Convention. There are already attempts by both outsiders and a number of members of the organization to augur what meaning to assign to the convention.
To get it out of the way: it’s disingenuous to suggest, as some have, that anyone in SDS came into this Convention with grandiose expectations of taking part in a world-historic event — or at least, that it would be world-historic in the way that, say, the press casts Bono meeting the President as world-historic.
‘Tis not quite the final conflict, but nevertheless — give us no condescending saviors.
This preface aside, there actually was something in the back of everyone’s head or on the tip of their tongue about what would distinguish this Convention from your standard, humdrum Left event. What the membership expected out of this Convention was a delivery upon the commitment made at last year’s inaugural Convention in Chicago: beyond trading on name-brand recognition, the new SDS would commit itself to being a real live organization.
The devil, as with God, is in the details: the general will was to have a body that could embrace a multitude of chapters and members who each with their own character and ideas, but is still capable of issuing clarion calls to action that brings struggles to decisive resolutions. Further, it has been a near universal opinion that SDS can and must remain a independent and self-sustaining organization – powered by the members and chapters who make it work, not by the unseen hand of funders or sponsors who don’t ever want to see that unseen hand get dirty doing the shitwork. There is a lot within these parameters; it took a year of discussion plus a Convention to give it the attention that deserves.
Beyond a recap of the dry and droll minutiae of some of the decisions made, or worse how they were made – matters which those with a knack for “point-of-process”-ing things to death can have entirely to themselves – what is necessary to convey is the political problem which SDS took on by making that commitment last year.
That political problem which the Convention ended up dealing with: how do we lay claim to the future, mindful that we do not wish to merely repeat the past, but also mindful that the present state of things is nothing with which to be content.
On whether we wish to repeat the past, clarification is necessary. It can be taken for granted that the bulk of the members of the current SDS have no qualms about embracing the name of the organization, even with some of the baggage it brings. After all, the bulk of its luminaries have had nothing but encouraging words to say, and those who jealously guard “their” legacy with the first-wave SDS through disparaging the current SDS are those that chose to be sellouts or merely asinine (or merely asinine sellouts).
Beyond the name, however, there is relative unease with embracing the legacy of SDS. The traumatic experience of the original SDS folding in 1969, just as the campuses exploded, has left a residue across the activist Left. Underneath a certain veil of nostalgia most reporters barely pierce through, there are for the organization those moments of near-paralyzing fear of anything associated with the demise of the original SDS. Among some members of the current SDS that includes everything up to and including what made the original SDS vital to begin with.
Over the past year, there were the microphones getting jammed in front of SDS’ers faces demanding an answer to every absurd question on 60s movement trivia. There were the parades of Boomers approaching those with SDS pins at rallies, beaming with their air of paternalism and “I saw them live” attitude. Under that sort of microscope, the membership has largely adopted classic Freudian defense mechanisms to handle that unspoken fear of just repeating things over again.
In interviews with the reporters of the mainstream press, there is sarcasm (“Yeah, we took on this name so that we could be accused of blowing up toilets.” Nudge nudge, wink wink). At events, there is some light-hearted kitschiness (a purely nonsensical chant of the old RYM-faction slogan, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” – as a motion to define chapter membership passes). Then there is the sublimation of old movement arguments into the current ones, so that stating which faction of the original SDS you’ve read the most on becomes a referendum upon your politics (and the reverse being true as well: ask for discipline, and you’re Progressive Labor in disguise; demand militancy and you’re a Motherfucker wannabe).
All this pressure from the weight of the past, which thus far can only be expressed in punchlines. Still, the name of SDS wouldn’t be adopted by so many chapters if there were nothing good out of it – or if people didn’t find something amiss in the current state of affairs that made a look back somewhat worthwhile.
That unspoken problem of today: the Left in general finds itself both factionalized and unproductive to the point of neutralization. Responses to crises such as Iraq or Hurricane Katrina that should be sparking greater collaboration on a wider scale have instead been used as opportunities for Left organizations to cut each other off at the knees. Dropping a few key buzzwords substitutes for analysis; one can even come up with a dictionary of activistese-to-plain English. “Autonomy” has been perverted to flipping off anyone not in one’s own target demographic. “Consensus” morphs into a shorthand for speaking exclusively with those who already agrees. A “temporary autonomous zone” is a bohemian enclave with an infoshop and a loaded dumpster behind the Whole Foods supermarket. And so on… Twinkle your fingers if you agree.
We have seen since the 1990s that the model of very loose and informal networks have been great for the planning and execution of militant demos. Yet they can be slaves to pre-existing conditions by their reactive nature, to the extent that they set up activists to become hamsters on a wheel; they thrive on summit-hopping and floundered when the War of Terror commenced. The work of actively changing conditions on the ground – building up the capability to wage further struggle, of uniting disparate struggle together into a common battle, agitating and building up militancy where there was once apathy – these are matters where large scale organization, along with a large-scale commitment, becomes necessary.
The importance of creating and sustaining a large-scale Left movement with large-scale organization is understood by the better part of virtually all Left tendencies from the liberal, to the anarchist, to the reds. The responsibilities and difficulties involved in forming and sustaining a large-scale organization and fostering a larger-scale Left tend to be viewed as the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of being Left in the era of No Alternative.
In this existential dilemma, in which a discomforting past and an all-too-comfortable present act as a pair of blinders, what we required from this Convention was to throw off those blinders, survey all of what is in front of us and not just what is immediate, glamorous, or expected of us by outside forces. After all, we take arms against a whole sea of troubles — not some trickle that will disappear with one demo.
It would indeed be wonderful if we had the luxury of only discussing and executing actions – I should know, I had an action proposal (passed, without discussion unfortunately, but passed nevertheless). To everything there is a season, though, and the pressing matter of this Convention was to determine the organization’s work and settling on a means for handling it; if we did not decide, it is highly likely that outside events or actors would force a decision upon us and we would be likely less than equal to the task.
We have now mostly handled questions of a structure and have made opening gambits on vision documents – it will still be up to the chapters to decide whether to ratify them — but the important thing is that the foundations are in place, and they were placed by us and not the Ford Foundation.
The time for action approaches as the semester begins. Students for a Democratic Society emerges from its Convention strong and ready for action — because of the effort made by our members and chapters to put it in a position of strength and readiness. — Daniel Tasripin is a student at Hunter College and is a member of the chapter of Students for a Democratic Society there.