SDS: Not Your Father's Social Democracy
With the young Sen. John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president going strong, especially among the young and the Media (with a good deal of help from his father, Joe Sr.), it looked like America was entering a new youthful decade. JFK was unrelenting in exploiting his beautiful young wife and small children, even after he’d been sworn in.
In this brave new, young world, the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), decided to declare independence from its parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy. “Industrial” bore too much resemblance to that four-letter word – “work” – for the newly-minted Sixties students. LID’s leadership did not “correspond” to the expectations and mood on the campuses. So the students changed their organization’s name to “Students for a Democratic Society” – SDS.
SDS held its first meeting in 1960 on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. Alan Haber was elected president. Their political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, was adopted at their first convention in 1962, originally written by staff member and future husband of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, Tom Hayden.
The Port Huron Statement criticized the United States’ political system for failing to achieve international peace, and further denounced America’s Cold War Foreign policy, and rattled their peace signs over the threat of nuclear war and the arms race. In domestic matters, it criticized racial discrimination, economic inequality, big businesses, trade unions and political parties.
In addition to its critique and analysis of the American system, the manifesto also suggested a series of reforms: it proclaimed a need to reshape into two genuine political parties to attain greater democracy, for stronger power for individuals through citizen’s lobbies, for more substantial involvement by workers in business management, and for an enlarged public sector with increased government welfare, including a program against poverty. The manifesto provided ideas of what and how to work for and to improve, and also advocated nonviolent civil disobedience as the means by which student youth could bring forth a participatory democracy."
In SDS’s view, all problems in every area were linked to each other and they intended to lead a broad struggle on all fronts, rather than on single-issue conflicts. Furthermore, SDS’s was willing to work with groups whatever may be their political inclination and they announced their rejection of anti-communism, a definitely new radical view contrasting with much of the American Left which had always espoused a policy of anti-communism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was a Democrat body, not Republican. Without being Marxist or pro-communism, they denounced anti-communism as being a social problem and an obstruction to democracy. They also criticized the United States for their exaggerated paranoia and exclusive condemnation of the Soviet Union and blamed this for being a reason of failing to achieve disarmament and to assure peace. Yet American communists like Paul Robeson and Frank Marshall Davis were rabidly pro-Stalinist acolytes of the Soviet Union.
The SDS believed in what member Bill Ayers would later describe as “small ‘c’ communism” as opposed to the centralized, Stalinized version of Communism. They were Trotskyites, followers of Leon Trotsky, the first general of the Red Army who would later oppose Stalin and his bureaucratic style. He was thrown out of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party and later assassinated on Stalin’s orders. But don’t feel too sorry for him. After being thrown into prison in 1900, he learned there were two schools of Communism: a militant that sought to overthrow Russia’s monarchy in a military coup and the other, social democracy, which sought to propagandize workers into overthrowing the Capitalist system. He believed in this second, more incremental and “progressive” approach to Communism.
The Port Huron SDS Convention opened with a symbol of this break with the policy of the past years: the delegate of the Communist Progressive Youth Organizing Committee was invited to attend the conference as an observer. The people from the Young People’s Socialist League objected while most of the SDSers insisted on letting him attend. He eventually attended. Later in the meeting, Michael Harrington, an LID member, became agitated over the manifesto because he found the stand they took toward the Soviet Union and authoritarian regimes in general was insufficiently critical, and because, according to him, they deliberately wrote sections to have pique the liberals. Upset the Liberals?
Surprisingly, Roger Hagan, a liberal, defended the SDS and its policy. After lively debates between the two, the draft finally remained more or less unchanged. Some two weeks later, the LID expressed its discontent about the manifesto. As a result, Haber and Hayden, at this time respectively the National secretary and the new President of the organization, were summoned to a hearing on the July 6, 1962. There, Hayden clashed with Harrington over the perceived potential for totalitarianism among other things. Harrington denounced the seating of the PYOC member, SDS’s tolerance for communism, and their lack of clarity in their condemnation of communist totalitarianism and authoritarianism. He reproached SDS for providing only a mild critique of the Soviet Union and for blaming the cold war mostly on the United States. Hayden then asked him to read the manifesto more carefully, especially the section on values. Hayden later wrote:
“While the draft Port Huron Statement included a strong denunciation of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t enough for LID leaders like Michael Harrington. They wanted absolute clarity, for example, that the United States was blameless for the nuclear arms race...In truth, they seemed threatened by the independence of the new wave of student activism...”
The tension between SDS and the LID was greatly increased when SDS called for a national demonstration to take place during the spring of 1965. The LID was very concerned about “Communist” participation but SDS refused to restrict who could attend and what signs they could use. The rift opened even further when, at the 1965 SDS National Convention, the clause excluding communists from membership was deleted from the SDS constitution. During the summer of 1965 delegates from SDS and the LID met in Chicago and New York. The League for Industrial Democracy, SDS’s sponsoring organization, objected to the removal of the exclusion clause in the SDS constitution, as SDS was with LID’s non-profit status which excluded political activity. By mutual agreement the relationship was severed October 4, 1965.
Tomorrow: The Wisconsin Socialist Studies Project.