From August 4th through the 7th, a new incarnation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) will hold its first national convention. This organization will have been around for almost a year when it meets in Chicago. Obviously taking its inspiration from the famed US student organization of the 1960s, the new SDS is an extension and expansion of the hopes and dreams of the group — but it’s also something quite new. Although the new SDS is taking a risk in a number of ways by assuming the name of that 1960s organization, the enthusiasm of the new members that I have met, as well as their understanding of the mistakes and successes of their predecessor, indicates that the new SDS is not a nostalgia buff’s collector item, but the genuine article — a left and democratic youth organization dedicated to effecting radical social change. I was recently at a conference in New York City and met up with one of the upcoming SDS convention organizers: Patrick Korte. We agreed to have an email conversation discussing the new organization. The transcript follows.
Ron: What are the founding organizers’ hopes for the new SDS?
Pat: Our founding hopes are to build a multi-issue, multi-generational, radical coalition that can educate, fight, and build. Rather than build an organization around a particular political ideology (anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism, Marxism, etc.), we can build around the need for unity within the Left, the need to actively combat the oppression in the modern world (US imperialism in the Middle East, racism in our communities, poor public education, etc.) while building new institutions that counter the inadequate existing ones. Through our experiences in tearing down the old, undemocratic society and building up a new, truly democratic society, we can develop an original ideology that we can call our own.
Ron: Who can join SDS?
Pat: SDS is open to people of all ages, regardless of their enrollment status. The reason for this is that we are all students of the human experience, actively learning from one another. For the older members of SDS, a post-graduate division has been created, the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS).
Ron: What is your role in the new SDS?
Pat: Currently I am working on both the local and national level. Locally, I am working in the Connecticut and New York area, focusing on the issues of US military intervention in the Middle East and South America, immigrant rights, student rights, and political prisoners/prisoners of war. On the national level, I have been doing a lot of office work (answering phone calls, responding to e-mails) and helping to coordinate the national convention which will be held from August 5-7 at the University of Chicago.
Ron: In terms of the current organizing group, what is the gender balance? The racial/ethnic mix?
Pat: It’s hard to say since we have grown to be fairly large in a short amount of time and we don’t keep track of that information, but at the events I have attended there has been a diverse racial/ethnic mix and I would estimate that the gender balance on the national level is around 50-50. Unlike the original SDS, the issues of racism and sexism are already being actively addressed and overcome within the organization.
Ron: Are you hoping to recruit students of all skin tones and ethnicities? What about non-students? You probably know from history that the attempt to recruit non-students and the debate on how to do so was problematic in 1968 and 1969. How have things changed since then?
Pat: I believe it is critical for SDS’s success to build a multi-racial coalition, and we have already begun to do so. Regarding non-students, we understood from the beginning that radical change could not be brought about in the US (or the world) by students alone, but it is critical that youth and students lead their own struggles without bowing at the feet of veteran activists — that is why we chose to create a sister organization (MDS) within SDS.
Ron: Are there certain political expectations that people interested injoining the organization should have? Do the organizers have certain political expectations of those that they hope do join?
Pat: There is one political expectation for people interested in joining SDS, and that is a commitment to participatory democracy (active participation in the decision-making process). Most organizers hope that new members fall along the libertarian side of the Left (as opposed to the authoritarian), but for many, SDS is their first experience with political activism, and it is expected that one’s ideology will change through experiences organizing in the community and in the streets.
Ron: What are SDS’ founding principles?
Pat: SDS was founded on the principles of participatory democracy, community education, and a commitment to action rather than rhetoric. We seek for both young and old people to participate in a movement that will tear down the pillars of the old society and build a new world that is democratic and free of poverty, ignorance, war, exploitation, racism, and sexism. The Port Huron Statement, although outdated, is still relevant to this question in many ways. SDS was also founded as a resistance organization as opposed to a protest organization. We are no longer going to plead with the people in power, begging them to serve in the greater interest of the people — they serve corporate interests, and we will do what is necessary to stop them and build a society that puts people before profits.
Ron: Why SDS and not some other name?
Pat: Over the years, many students have been shafted in the American Left, and we believe it is necessary for students to lead their own organization and to determine the direction of their own movement without isolating themselves from the non-student Left. There is also a need for a radical, democratic alternative to the authoritarian and undemocratic organizations dominating the Left and an organization that is issue-based — an inclusive one that allows the participants to develop their own ideology through their experiences within the organization. The reason we chose to keep the name SDS is because it accurately describes us (we are students for a democratic society), the ideas expressed in the Port Huron Statement, the focus on participatory democracy, and the militancy and radicalism that defined the original SDS are much needed in the 21st century.
Ron: Who funds your organization? If it is an outside group, do you think that that connection will affect SDS’ independence? (As you know, the original SDS was originally funded by the League for Industrial Democracy — an anti-communist leftist group. Despite this, they struck out on their own.)
Pat: SDS received no outside funding with the exception of donations we have received from individuals. The majority of funding comes from our own pocket. In the spirit of the original SDS, we have continued the tradition of having a shoestring budget.
Ron: What do you see as the biggest task facing you in the group’s early stages?
Pat: Our biggest task is to create a national and local structure that allows maximum participation of all members of the organization without jeopardizing the need for action.
Ron: As you know, many folks believe that one of the primary reasons the original SDS disintegrated was because its membership policies and structure allowed groups with relatively small memberships to control the organization’s agenda. What are your thoughts on that historical take and does the new SDS anticipate such a situation occurring this time around?
Pat: We want to remain inclusive and we believe that the best way to combat sectarian takeovers of the organization is to create a structure that on a local level allows chapters to function autonomously and on a national level allows maximum participation of the organizations membership in the decision-making process, rather than a select few individuals making decisions on behalf of the membership.
Ron: If so, how do you think it will be handled?
Pat: It is likely that individuals advocating totalitarian principles will infiltrate SDS and attempt to push the organization in a specific direction, but if the membership is actively involved in national and local decisions, then it would be difficult for individuals to take over SDS.
Ron: There are other organizations out there in the US that are organizing around some of the same issues that SDS is organizing around — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, civil liberties — how is SDS different from these groups? And, how are they similar?
Pat: SDS is different because we are focused on student-worker power, we are multi-issue, and we are offering the opportunity for individuals to shape, build, and define an organization. We are similar in that we are against a common enemy (imperialism), and for the Left to successfully fight the Right, we must unite with these other organizations. Unity is critical. SDS is not asking individuals to leave their organizations because we offer a better platform or theory — we exist for the purpose of offering a democratic alternative to authoritarianism without asking individuals to commit to a particular political ideology or party line.
Ron: Do you see the group calling national demonstrations in the future?
Pat: Currently all demonstrations are called for on a local or regional level. I would like to see SDS create a national structure that allows for the majority of the membership to participate in calling for national mobilizations. If we can’t create a democratic process to call for national mobilizations, then we’ll stick to local actions — many which have already proven to be more effective than many of the mass anti-war demonstrations called for by the big organizations in the Left. If we could call for national mobilizations that had the potential to shut down entire cities and cause the war machine to stop functioning on the military, political, and economic level, then national mobilizations would be worth the effort. We need to break away from the stereotypical anti-war mobilization where thousands of people go to Washington, DC or NYC, listen to a long list of speakers touch upon issues most of the audience are already aware of, march around for an hour, then go home — all of this being done after the organization has begged for permission to do so from the very power they are opposed to. We’re not asking permission to stop this war. We’re not asking permission to fight for our freedom. We’re not asking for those in power to do their job right. They are doing their job wrong and we will do what is necessary to stop them. We don’t want to rock the boat, we want to sink the motherfucker!
Pat: Currently we have only 120 people registered but we expect many more to be attending, especially since many SDSers plan on bringing friends.
Ron: What’s the agenda? Etc.
Pat: The convention will be a mass gathering of SDSers collaborating in workshops to discuss issues of structure, local organizing, national organizing, and the issues that affect us today (US involvement in the Middle East/US imperialism, immigrant rights, student rights and power, the prison-industrial complex, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, AIDS, etc.). We want it to be a participatory convention where those in attendance will play an active role in the discussion, rather than a seminar where only a select group of individuals have the floor. We want much of the focus to be on how to effectively combat the problems we are up against (such as how we can sever ties between the military and the education system). The agenda will be available here.
Ron: Are there any plans beyond the convention?
Pat: Yes — in New York we are planning “Iraq Week,” an event focused on the US war in the Middle East. The event will be a mass teach-in followed by a resistance campaign throughout the city. On a national level, we hope to put our goals and values into words and begin developing a national structure. I don’t foresee SDS calling for a national action in the immediate future, but expect teach-ins, sit-ins, takeovers, and acts of resistance on high school and college campuses across the country starting this fall. We also hope to build an international solidarity network, so that SDS can begin fighting US imperialism on a global scale.
Ron: I see SDS as part of a broader movement. Although history will certainly decide the answer to this next question, I would be interested in your thoughts before history takes over. Do you see the group as part of a united front or as an organization that works parallel to other left-leaning organizations?
Pat: I believe SDS is part of a united front against exploitation and empire — part of a broad coalition of radicals that understand change cannot be achieved by working within the imperialist system. Although we have differences regarding internal structure and have varying definitions of democracy, we are all in the same struggle against an enemy that is far to the right of even Nixon.
|For those interested in attending the national conference, a registration form can be found on the SDS Web site.|
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.