Dick J. Reavis : SDS and the Great Divide

Image from Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History.

Today’s Red Book and the demise of SDS

Nobody present had repudiated Leftism, but everyone seemed to have reached a consensus that the heedlessness of youth had been our common flaw.

By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / October 29, 2009

A few years ago, the Southern Student Organizing Committee, a white-folks group chartered by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), held a reunion in Nashville. SSOC was integrationist and anti-war, but generally speaking, less flamboyant than the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Because I had been on its staff for a semester, and because old friends urged me, I attended the reunion. Its most-awaited speaker was Gregg Michel, a professor at UTSA, younger than all of the veterans, who had authored a manuscript on SSOC’s history, now available as a book, The Struggle for a Better South. Conference organizers assigned to him the topic that everyone else dreaded to take: the downfall of SSOC.

Michel spoke at a workshop which about 40 of us attended. In unsmiling terms he blamed SSOC’s demise on the Progressive Labor Party, or PL — then a Maoist outfit — and October League, OL, a Maoist party founded by Mike Klonsky, once a leader of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, or RYM faction of SDS. PL had introduced a resolution at a March 1969 national conference of SDS in Austin, calling for breaking fraternal ties with SSOC. The OL, for reasons of its own, later that year persuaded its leaders to disband.

A few SSOC figures had aided in the dissolution, two of whom were present in the room: me, one of the signers of the PL-SDS resolution, and an Atlanta comrade who, on orders from the OL, had burned SSOC’s records. Michel thought we and our ideological comrades were villains, and had written his final chapter in that vein.

Once he recapitulated SSOC’s demise, fearlessly castigating its liquidators, his audience drew its breath. Somebody raised a hand and in a tentative voice said, “Dr. Michel, I think there’s something you don’t understand. You see, in one way or another, we were all crazy in those days!” Laughter followed. Nobody present had repudiated Leftism, but everyone seemed to have reached a consensus that the heedlessness of youth had been our common flaw.

Michel revised his chapter about the End. His villains became more nearly young fools.

SSOC button, 1965. Use of the Confederate flag led to controversy.

In reading recent histories of SDS, with the possible exception of Mark Rudd’s memoir, I have not detected that same let-bygones-be-bygones approach. I last encountered you-guys-were-to-blame bitterness in Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, in which at least three contributors to The Rag Blog had a hand. Their book was apparently compiled to tell members of the new SDS what the organization’s heritage might be.

A Graphic History lays the blame for the August 1969 collapse of SDS at the feet of both PL and the RYM. The book’s heroes are those upon whom it bestows the title “SDS Regulars,” a formerly unnamed group which for awhile kept on keeping on, even after the final SDS convention, held in Chicago. Several prior books took a similar view, and it’s apparently catechism in the SDS of today.

I haven’t given much thought to SDS for several years. But lately I’ve been reading about Depression-era Leftism in the South, and some explanatory ideas have come to mind.

One of them is that in times of upsurge, left-wing factions tend to merge instead of split. Communists gave up their independent unions and joined the CIO when it started rising to its feet, and in turn, the CIO hired red organizers. The Communist and Socialist parties and even a couple of Trotskyist front groups for the unemployed merged when the New Deal christened its job-creation programs, whose employees they brought into a single unionish group, the Workers Alliance.

But when war preparations began restoring the American economy in 1939-40, membership in the Workers Alliance dropped — and the Socialists and Communist quarreled to its bitter end. When the CIO lost ground to an anti-labor crusade that followed World War II, it started purging its reds, a factional or sectarian move, even if the offending sect was labor’s mainstream.

One conclusion I drew was that in organizations that aren’t conquering new territory, faction fights easily take root. Decline invites blame.

In reading Southern history, I have also noted that groups that don’t accomplish their ends soon wither. Committees to free the Scottsboro Boys, initially formed by the Communist Party and the NAACP as rivals, even after agreements to cooperate, became moribund when the accused weren’t set free. Several anti-lynching groups surged during the ‘30s, only to collapse by the decade’s end because they couldn’t get Congress to pass an anti-lynching law.

The Southern Negro Youth Congress pioneered the struggle to dismantle Jim Crow, but its victories were few, and in the end, it was eclipsed by the patriotic fervor of World War II. No organization is given an open-ended lease on life, and if it doesn’t win, it fades, even when sheltered from the blazing sun of factional hatred.

SDS by early 1969 faced several problems, the chief of which was that it wasn’t ending the war in Vietnam. In less than five years, with teach-ins, demonstrations, and draft resistance, it had developed a wide following. In the process it also produced — an experienced leadership!

Early on, SDS leaders had seen that politely asking the nation’s rulers to end the war, by petitioning, for example, would not bring peace. Some of them raised the Frederick Douglas slogan, “Power concedes nothing without a demand!” — but that only underlined their initial innocence: even with Abolition, it had taken a demand — and a civil war. By 1969, most SDS honchos were convinced that keeping on, keeping on, wouldn’t bring results. Concluding that American democracy was a sham, many, and maybe most of them, began to toy with the idea of revolution.

Of course, they could have maintained a big movement by bringing naive freshmen and high-schoolers into new rounds of demonstrations, but perhaps they were too honest to do a thing like that: what’s the point, if it doesn’t accomplish the goal? Even today, how many of us can believe that we would have ended the war had we merely kept on as before?

In the event, something else happened. In November, 1969 the federal government instituted the draft lottery. Its first drawing was held on Dec. 1. Within a day, the anti-war movement lost thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of supporters, those whose numbers had not been called, their parents and girlfriends. From December 2 forward, SDS faced a tougher task, even at keeping on, keeping on. Like the Scottsboro and anti-lynching committees or the Southern Negro Youth Congress, it was not accomplishing its goal, and its base was sliding away, just as Workers Alliance members did when the Depression economy improved.

The downturn in activity that A Graphic History notes as the SDS split approached — which it blames on PL and RYM- — was no doubt owed in part to faction-fighting. But its deeper impetus was probably talk of the lottery draft and the lack of headway towards any peace.

A Graphic History lauds the Keeping On faction, but as I read the record, the war did not end because of their stick-to-it-ness, even despite the record numbers at demonstrations to protest the invasion of Cambodia. Perseverance, sometimes a virtue, can also be a symptom of insincerity or cluelessness.

When I look back on the history of the Dixie Left, it does not concern me that the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was Socialist and the Sharecroppers Union was Communist, nor do I feel afflicted because groups like these did not merge and live happily ever after. What I see in the pages of history is that people who built the Depression-era movements were our forerunners. We might today differ with much of what they advocated, but in their time and in our common place, they were what I would hope we would have been. They were defeated, as we were, because in politics, insurgent movements do not always survive, or win.

I do not think that losing is always attributable to lack of, or betrayal of, the “correct line,” “The Great Helmsman” or anything or anybody of the kind. Failure is not something for which its participants can always be blamed. Were people or factions whom we could name chiefly responsible for the multitudinous setbacks of the Left, we could hope to learn from their errors, and to rebuild a mass Left — tomorrow!

I suppose that those veterans and scholars of SDS who think we still stand a chance of leading the nation will probably continue laying blame; A Graphic History was published last year. And if none of those who admit that we were all crazy in those years is lucky enough to see the Revolution, I suppose it will be because we’ve given up Maoism even in its contemporary form. If we still believed, we’d take A Graphic History as our Red Book — and a few surviving “Regulars,” with the help of the new SDS, would erect grandiose marble statues on our graves.

[Dick J. Reavis — an award-winning journalist, educator and author — was active with SDS and the New Left in the Sixties. He wrote for Austin’s underground newspaper The Rag, and later was a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine. Dick Reavis’ book, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, about the siege and burning of the Branch Davidian compound, was published by Simon and Schuster and may be the definitive work on the subject.]

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13 Responses to Dick J. Reavis : SDS and the Great Divide

  1. Grant says:

    Not sure if any readers will remember me… I’m Grant Cooper, SSOC’s High School Organizer from 1969-1970. Gregg Michel somehow contacted me as he was writing his book, and made plans to drive down to New Orleans to interview me, but apparently got sick and was unable to connect. I did try to recontact him without success. Like everybody else, I have my 2 cents worth to add. I was part of the RYM group at the time, allied with Lynne Wells, etc. I tend to be an optimistic, positive person, so my input would surely have been non-vitriolic. My email is grant@resupro.com and I’d love to hear from anyone from the old days.

  2. Clive says:

    I’m not in SDS, but I am active in student politics. Reading Dick Reavis’ article was the first time I ever heard of SSOC. What was the split over? Were there any real issues of importance or was it really, as Reavis says, about youthful craziness? Also, is that really a Confederate flag in the background of the SSOC logo? What’s that about.

  3. Paul Buhle says:

    Dick Reavis is a fine journalist who shares more than a bit of history with me, but I find his commentary puzzling in several ways. Probably I need to recapitulate the history of SDS: A Graphic History, a little of it, just to try to explain.

    An editor approached me to do this volume (it was not my idea and the relaunching of SDS was still in the future) because the 1960s had become a popular subject on campus and because the editor’s Aunt Alice was a considerable figure in Austin SDS history!

    I had no intention of taking swipes at anyone. In fact, RADICAL AMERICA, the journal that I edited and published (the best-selling issue, RADICAL AMERICA KOMIKS, was a product of Gilbert Shelton’s milieux in San Francisco), had friends in all factions.

    I felt too close to the subject for the main narrative, so asked Harvey Pekar to take on the task, he did a wonderful job, in my view, and Gary Dumm proved to be the perfect artist. But some of the best material was written by a variety of hands and in several cases, by other artists. I wanted a variety of perspectives in art and content. (Even a PLer is present, his story of resistance from within the Army taken from an oral history narrative at Columbia University’s archive).

    The book appeared last year, the paperback this year. It was intended from the beginning to reach young people like my own students at Brown (my most popular class, til retirement, was called “The Sixties Without Apology”) and others under 25. Maybe even oldtimers who like comic art.

    Looking back, I find SDS’s best moments to be the least ideological and the most local, in terms of style and adaptation to immediate conditions. One of the worst things about the 1969 debacle was that dozens of small campus chapters were just starting. They knew and cared nothing about the RYM/PL arguments. And they were right. SDS had lost its way months before the 1969 convention and collapse.

    But I look upon the collapse of the New Left as the inevitable result of young folks coming up against powerful forces way beyond them, as Reavis suggests.

    Last note: THE NEW LEFT REVISITED, an anthology that I coedited a few years back, was best when dealing with the particularities of one place or another. That remains the most interesting area to study, for today’s scholars, and the reason why I admire not only the STFU’s H.L.Mitchell (an old friend of mine, before his death) but also his Southern communist counterparts. He admired them, too, as he used to tell me.

    Paul Buhle

  4. Bob Sam says:

    Must agree that the causes of the dissolution, failure, lack of success and/or any and all other pronouncements on the efficacy of the progressive/anti-war youth movement of the ’60s are not to be found in blame-laying at the collective or individual feet of the movement leaders.

    In my mind a couple of things had more to do with the way that things went than anything else.

    First, Kent State/Jackson State went a long ways toward damping the fires of the movement. People realized at numerous levels of consciousness that the bastards with the guns were clearly willing to use them.

    Second, Bread and Circus. While those who were at risk of being drafted were still outraged at the continuing war, and all with any social consciousness were still concerned with racism, sexism and all ingrained inequities in our society,the fact remained that most folks were really willing to look the other way to just about anything as long as they could still have opera windows on their Monte Carlo and 27 inches of color TV to watch.

    Comfortable apathy is almost never at a shortage in this great land of ours.

    You may find this cynical, however, I prefer to call it realism.

  5. Dick says:

    Paul Buhle is right to say that not all of “A Graphic History” is 100% anti-PL/anti-RYM, but its general history of SDS–Section 1 of the book–is certainly that.
    A piece of text from page 42, for example, says “PLers were reluctant to demonstrate even for civil rights because they feared that it would upset the still reactionary workers whom the hoped to radicalize.”
    When? Where? What is the supposed basis of this slander? Were all PLers perchance white?
    In Austin the Weedon demonstrations were lead by the Black Student Union and the PL folks. Or did the Weedon demonstrations not happen?
    The drawings in the book time and again show PLers wearing suits and ties. We didn’t do that! (The accepted, expected style of dress was that of the “working class,” i.e., short hair, yes, suits and ties, of course not.)
    Not merely PL, but the RYMniks are maligned. On Page 39,
    a drawing is captioned: “And the rhetoric quickly got more unreal. Bernadine Dohrn, testifying before an SDS panel, remarked: “I consider myself a revolutionary communist.”
    Unreal? Benadine did not say that she thought she was a horse. She truly believed that she was a “revolutionary communist” and I’d say, did her part to live up to her version of that ideal.
    And where, if not in an SDS forum, did the authors think a declaration like hers would have been appropriate? I assume that they would not now and would not then have characterized Fidel or Ho as “unreal”–though of course, Fidel and Ho might have also made such declaration when they were young.
    Five pages earlier the book identifies both Dohrn and Klonsky as “SDS Regulars.” I am reminded of a line from the Rubaiyat in which Khayyam, looking at an asymmetry in a vase which represents divine creation, asks “What? Did then, the hand of the Master shake?”
    What, did then the mind of the Regulars shake? If we couldn’t trust the leadership of the Regulars–the heroes of the text– who were we supposed to follow?

  6. As a contributor to “SDS: A Graphic History” who was simultaneously an Austin SDS & Communist Party USA (TX) member, & having known & worked with & not-with Dick since he came to Austin in his civil-rights-worker outfit (overalls w/toothbrush in pocket, in case of jail), I wanna say a coupla things:

    1. I was invited by Paul Buhle to contribute to “SDS:AGH” & enthusiasticaly accepted the task, giving substantive time & energy to it, because I’d seen his graphic history of the IWW, a fabulous, amazing, inspiring tale of a FAILED ORGANIZATION, in accessible, powerful graphic format, with a wide variety of contributors & styles, appropriate for a many-sided story. I’d hoped that “SDS:AGH” would equal “WOBBLIES”. Imho, however, it is weaker, both in artwork & in narrative envelope, than hoped; that’s all. (Paul has heard my fuller criticism with good grace and appropriate self-criticism.)

    2. Alice Embree & I collaborated on two “episodes” of Austin SDS lore. At Paul’s urging – correct, as the graphic format benefits from having “characters” thru whose eyes events are seen – we told a story of 2 coeds, with different personalities but sharing a strong sense of Justice, getting involved in SDS and becoming friends. In the 1st episode, “Mariann” marries SDSer “George”, who is then killed. I’d wanted to include “Alice’s” concomitant romance; extremely strict space limitations + her well-known reserve nixed that. The 2nd episode shows the dissolution of Austin SDS, shows the effects of what was indeed a “crazy time” on the girls, shows them separated by events but vowing to remain sisters wherever life took them (as they, I gratefully report, have done). I’d originally planned the 2nd part to end with something more enigmatic & suggestive of changing times; again, space limitations, + my rather less-well-known shyness, kept it all real.

    In the 2nd episode there is one reference to the split between local SDS “regulars” and the local PL Gang-of-Eight, of which Dick was the leader & the only one (again imho) capable of serious intellectual defense of his positions, although PL seemed to forbid such activity. A well-liked, well-respected anarcho-socialist SDSer, as “regular” as anyone & a good friend to me, suddenly began spouting robo-speak; it was distressing.

    The 1st panels of episode 2 show SDSers talking about the even more shocking news that “Dick” was being expelled by the Maoists, and his wife “Becky” divorcing him. In caricature form, we tried to show how factionalism had hurt SDS’s friendly give-&-take & created surface hostilities, but underneath, there was still concern for the people with whom we had broken bread, sung Wobbly songs & struggled as best any of us knew how for the goals we shared. In case that somehow got lost in the book, Dick, people WERE very concerned for you. Austin SDS people gave a shit about each other, even others with whom they strongly disagreed.

    Our original ep. 2 also had “Dick” & “Larry W”, another “regular” Austin SDSer, along with “Mariann”, reuniting as friends & fellow radicals (& TEXANS!) when both “Dick” & “Larry” wound up in the Army; space limits put this on the cutting-room floor.

  7. Mariann says:

    PART 2:
    Austin SDS was different, maybe, than some, in that we continued to recognize our links along with our differences. Probably that was in part because we were in the South.

    In sum, Al & I didn’t try to explain WHY SDS died – but to show the outside pressures (COINTELPRO!), inner turmoil (people don’t always agree on what is to be done), & the March of Time (you can’t stay in school forever). We also wanted to show that SDS’s death wasn’t the death of our beliefs, struggles, or activity; since it wasn’t!

    The Marxist-Leninist analytic techniques I learned in the CPUSA begin & end with change; in this respect communism is very like buddhism, or physics, or the words of Robert Zimmerman: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

    3. SSOC, with a fine history & energetic, dedicated members, lost out in comparison with SDS due to its apparent innocence of youth culture. SSOC didn’t have the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll energy SDS exuded. I’m serious! SDS recognized organizationally as early as spring, 1968, that it was weak in the South & had to overcome that to be truly national. Vague attempts to bring the groups together with an eye towards possible merger were launched but didn’t float (in one, mercifully short-lived, I was SDS’ Southern Regional Traveler); soon SDS was too eaten up in its own death throes to care. SSOC, however, couldn’t have gone on in its Folk Music style, I don’t think; Youth Revolution – soon to be co-opted – was in full swing & non-Rock-Gods didn’t have a chsnce.

    PL’s role among 60s youth groups appears now to have been that of Angel of Death, giving the coup de grace to the dying.

    4. NO SUIT & TIE?? Dick, don’t even go there; YOU didn’t wear any such thing, of course – nothing sillier than a West Texas feller in suit & tie! – but I have two words: CHESTER WILSON.

    BTW, if there are any takers, I’ll make copies of the unedited Austin stories Al & I wrote (including DETAILED descriptions of persons & places) for $100 each — proceeds to The Rag Blog, how about it?

  8. Anonymous says:

    “Buddy” Ruiz . Remember when he ran for councilman around 1969, and the reactionaries placed “flame” ads showing Watts burning? In retrospect, how outrageous.
    We have come a long way.

  9. Steve Russell says:

    Ah, memories…

    Buddy Ruiz, damned as a fire-breather just off the picket lines by one side and as a GI Forum coconut on the other….

    I agree with Dick that a lot of the problems came from lack of obvious victories. I should state at the outset for those who don't remember that all I ever did with SDS was endorse Port Huron and it was all downhill from there. I am a

  10. Richard says:

    Great comment Steve, You don't amaze me anymore 'cuz I expect it of you. But, thanks again for your sane take on those crazy times. Yeah we did change some little things, and in the process we changed ourselves, for the better… I guess.

  11. Richard says:

    Mariann, My hunnret bucks is in, UOme all the pages. Any other takers?

  12. Leslie C. says:

    Wow! More venom than I would like to see from some of us Medicare aged folks here. I wasn't in sophisticated Austin, just at a kind of backwater SDS chapter in Orange County, California, where of course we hated PL (none of whose members we had ever encountered). Then I went to the '69 convention and ended up with those very ogres, who seemed to be the ones talking about how to live

  13. Leslie — There was a lot of venom felt here vis-a-vis PL at a certain point in time, and we tried to show that in our part of the SDS Graphic History but not to dwell on it, and also to show that people had a human concern for each other way beyond that. But the venom came, I think, from feeling that you KNEW someone, and then having them suddenly refusing to engage in friendly debate, but responding, sometimes en masse, with slogans. Since SDS was also under a lot of pressure from other sources — including people’s occasional personal unpredictability — there was almost a feeling of betrayal when factionalism reared its head in the organization some viewed as a second home.

    When a few of us had joined the CPUSA in 1966, there was also some fairly serious hostility and suspiction, including from some close friends. But we didn’t change how we dealt with people, didn’t act in a bloc within SDS, and didn’t start denouncing people as running dog lackeys of whatever, so the hostility kind of died down after a while.

    On the whole, every SDS chapter I ever knew anything about was truly unique, and it’s good to have your recollections here! In some places, the hostility between PL and “regular” SDS adherents was extremely bad; I saw this on a visit to Oakland in 1969, where a lot of fist-fighting between the factions went on; it was ugly and embarrassing, at least in part because none of the participants were very good fighters!

    Steve, you make a very good point indeed; and it is a constant pleasure to see the Young Gen that our friends produced and, in many cases, have reared as a village. Being able to “Live Good!” and relish it is what we’re here for, imo, and the only reason to take time off from that for Struggle is when the General Welfare has been too deeply harmed and we are on whatever level Obliged to lift a hand. Fortunately for the activist types, we live in a world in which such harm is all too easy to find. But I think all of us who’ve been involved with any of the children of the Movement know that their friendship, trust, and respect is the closest we’re likely to come to Utopia!

    Richard, THANK YOU for your support of the free press; you should have your unexpurgated comic script in hand by now, hope you find it both amusing and educational!

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