The following is Bernardine Dohrn’s letter to The Nation regarding Christopher Phelps’ “The New SDS“ published in its 16 April 2007 issue. — Ed.
Christopher Phelps has written a timely but ultimately disappointing article about the vibrant and growing student movement. He transforms the tough challenges of movement-building into a set of tepid formulas about what not to do. The new wave of student activism in America and around the world is a hopeful development worthy of our active participation and respect. Yet Phelps focuses on the sectarian divides of the MDS generation rehearsing old political grudges or offering simplistic “lessons” from the New Left, rather than highlighting the steps forward and the common ground between radical organizers.
Our points of convergence (young and old, organizers and activists) are numerous, including the need to strive for participatory democracy and non-exclusion, resist the savage US wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, fight brutal poverty and gluttonous wealth here and globally, act to end catastrophic climate change, racial injustice and patriarchal power, and reject the permanent so-called war on “terror” in toto. Phelps would have benefited from more attention to what led to coordinated anti-war actions on 60 campuses last month, and to the new SDS‘s diverse political campaigns ranging from getting military recruiters out of high schools and off campuses to anti-sweatshop coordination, from opposition to police violence against the community to protest when war criminals speak, from support for Assata Shakur and the new Panther 8 defendants to fights for universal health care — radical youth organizing is broad and deep. This is the power and the inspiration of a vast, left umbrella network with variety and vigor.
Phelps stereotypically characterizes me as a “celebrity” while the male ideologues are described by what they say about politics. I object. Who knows why any speech or article is well received? At the SDS conference at Brown University in Spring 2006, it seemed that the political substance of my talk was what generated the positive response from students: the urgent needs to reject the framework of US military and economic empire, to forge active opposition to white supremacy and grapple with the issue of multiracial organization, and to reckon with the importance of direct action to organizing and educating. I intentionally ignored the challenge to debate the issue of what killed SDS 38 years ago and who was right when, in favor of exploring what we all can do, in solidarity, now. Building bridges between issues, finding points of convergence, and creating an independent radical movement resonates across generations. The last thing the new SDS needs is patronizing elders wagging their fingers with cautionary tales.
Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, is director of the Children and Family Justice Center and clinical associate professor of law in Chicago. She is also a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.