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Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, August 06, 2012

Socialist Student Activities

The Student League for Industrial Democracy, the collegiage off-shoot of the League for Industrial Democracy, like all adolescents, wanted to assert its independence from its parent.  In 1935, it merged with other groups to form the American Student Union.

The American Student Union (ASU) was a national left-wing organization of college students of the 1930s, best remembered for its protest activities against militarism. Founded by a 1935 merger of Communist and Socialist student organizations, the ASU was affiliated with the American Youth Congress American Youth Congress. The group was investigated by Dies Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1939 over its connections to the Communist Party USA.  With the group's Communist-dominated leadership consistently supportive of the twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy, the Socialist minority split from the group in 1939. The organization was terminated in 1941.

Communist International, or the Comintern, as it was known, held a theory based on its economic and political analysis of world capitalism, which posited the division of recent history into three periods. These included a “First Period” that followed World War I and saw the revolutionary upsurge and defeat of the working class class, as well as a “Second Period” of capitalist consolidation for most of the decade of the 1920s. According to the Comintern's analysis, the current phase of world economy from 1928 onward, the so-called “Third Period,” was to be a time of widespread economic collapse and mass working class radicalization. This economic and political discord would again make the time ripe for proletarian revolution if militant policies were rigidly maintained by the Communist vanguard party (Comintern), the Comintern believed.

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, the party line of the world communist movement was changed from the ultra-radicalism of the so-called “Third Period”, which shrilly condemned Social Democrats as “Social Fascists," to a new phase of broad left wing cooperation known as the Popular Front.  Efforts immediately followed on the part of the Communist Party-sponsored Natioanl Student League (NSL) to unite with its Socialist Party counterpart, which in the middle 1930s was effectively the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID).

Initial peace feelers extended by the Communists to the Socialists were rejected in December 1932, but with the European situation worsening two joint conferences of the rival left wing groups were held in 1933 — one in Chicago under Communist auspices and another in New York City headed by the League for Industrial Democracy.   The two groups decided to retain their separate existence but to work together on matters of common concern, which paved the way for several joint activities which took place in 1934 and the first half of 1935.

In June 1935, Joseph P. Lash of the SLID proposed at a meeting of the organization's governing National Executive Committee that the organization should appoint a committee to negotiate a formal merger with the NSL. The NEC of SLID was divided on the matter, but after extensive debate ultimately resolved to appoint a six-member negotiating committee.

Following negotiations between the two participating groups, a Unity Convention of the NSL and SLID was held over the  Christmas holidays at the YMCA building in Columbus, Ohio.  Thus, the American Student Union was born. 

There was discord in the ASU over the organization's changing position to European armament after
1938, with the Socialist-oriented members generally favoring continuation of the organization's historic
opposition to militarism and Communist-oriented members arguing in favor of rearmament and
collective in Europe. The break came the following year, however, with the November 1939 Soviet
invasion of Finland.   The ASU leadership, consisting by that time of a Communist majority, dutifully
supported the military action of the Soviet Union, prompting the Socialist minority to split the
organization.

The ASU continued forward as a more clearly-defined Communist youth organization from that date
and entered a period of organizational decline. The group held its final convention in 1941.

The Student League for Industrial Democracy continued on with its work.  Its parent organization, the
League for Industrial Democracy still wanted to have a campus presence.  In the late 1930s and early
war years they organized summer institutes to educate students in union organizing and sponsored
lecture tours by Joel Seidman and LeRoy Bower.

After the war, with the campus population swelling with returning veterans on the GI Bill, renewed
interest in the LID began to be felt at the grassroots. The first post-war campus chapter was founded by
Frank Wallick at Antioch College. The LID engaged Jesse Cavileer and Elizabeth Healy to begin an
organizing tour of the country’s colleges, setting up SLID chapters at City College of New York,
Brooklyn College, Harvard and Cornell.

During the Christmas break of 1946-1947, a provisional conference was held at the Rand School to
reconstitute SLID. It was attended by representatives of 30 colleges and three high schools.  Forty
delegates from twelve schools attended the SLIDS first official post-war convention in April 1947 at
the Labor Temple in New York.  Papanek was elected president, John Roche vice-president and
Hannah Kaiser secretary. The convention passed a resolution banning all “totalitarians” from
membership, a measure designed to keep out Communists and other infiltrators. The Cornell chapter
was tasked with publishing a national organ, SLID Voice.

SLID enjoyed popularity in the immediate post-war years, before the concept of the Cold War and
McCarthyism had set in. By 1948 it had 700 members. The group’s activities during this period
included collecting funds to aid striking workers, walking on picket lines, toured Saskatchewan,
Canada (which had recently elected a social democratic government), successfully protesting against
segregation at the University of Michigan, less successfully against censorship of student publications
and organizing an annual leadership institute at Port Huron, Mich., at a facility jointly owned by the
Michigan CIO and the UAW.  Internationally the group led protests against the 1948 coup in
Czechoslovakia and repression against student activists in East Germany.

The SLID’s second official post-war convention was held in December 1947 at Wayne State
University in Detroit, in conjunction with a conference on “Community Sources of Prejudice.”
Fifty-one delegates from 16 colleges were present. The following year four regional committees were
formed: Ohio, Michigan, metropolitan New York and Upstate New York. Most of the organizers had
no difficulty establishing SLID recognition on campus.

The fortunes of the group declined sharply in the 1950s, and near the end of the decade it had under 100
active members.  Because of the escalating Cold War abroad and the dramatic rise and decline of the
Henry Wallace Progressive Movement (a third-party candidate running for president under the
Progressive ticket, endorsed by the Communist Party) at home, the SLID canceled its 1949
convention. Instead they met in April 1950, at the Rand School, where they approved more plans for
summer institutes and student opinion surveys. They also began to co-sponsor a lecture series with the
Young People’s Socialist League and Students for Democratic Action called "Conflicting Ideologies
of Our Time" which featured such speakers as Daniel Bell, Aaron Levenstein, and Ruth Fischer. SLID
also acquired one of their most famous leaders that year, James Farmer, who became Student Field
Organizer.

Farmer was a civil rights activist and leader in the civil rights movement.  He was the initiator and
organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state t
ransportation in the United States.

By the June 1951 convention in Detroit membership was down to 500. Farmer set out on an energetic
organizing tour of the Midwest from October 1951 to October 1952, visiting 22 colleges and 10 high
schools. The next spring, he also toured the West Coast.  In February 1953, Harry Lewak became an
organizer in New York. Through these efforts the SLID was able to maintain an active presence on
several important campuses, including Antioch, Oberlin, Harvard and Wayne, but the organization was
still in decline. In reference to group’s situation, its 1953 convention announced the beginning of  
“Operation Bootstrap,”  a series of initiatives to revive the group.

Factional problems also hindered the SLIDs progress. Bogdan Denitch, a Shachtmanite member
organized a “Red Caucus” with SLID and took control of the CCNY Evening Session chapter. 
Schachtmamism is a form of Marxism associated with Max Schachtman. It has two major components:
a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the Soviet Union and a third camp approach to world politics.
Shachtmanites believe that the Stalinist rulers of Communist countries are a new ruling class distinct
from the workers and reject Trotsky’s description of Stalinist Russia as a “degenerated workers state.”

This group tried to change the nature of SLID toward a more Leninist “disciplined” group. After a
two-year fight with the National executive Committee they were expelled.

By the mid to late 1950s SLID had about 100 members and possibly three active chapters, the most
important one at Yale. The 1957 convention drew 39 delegates and the 1958 convention only 13. A
report of an organizing tour of the mid-west in 1938 recorded on functioning chapter at Madison,
Wisconsin, three to eight members at Ann Arbor, and one member each at Oberlin, Ohio State, Indiana,
Purdue and Minnesota.

SLID was represented at the founding convention of the National Student Association in Madison,
Wisc. in September 1948, and remained affiliated through the 1950s. According to Andre Schiffrin,
leader of the Yale chapter and later SLID president, none of the SLIDers were aware of that group’s
ties to the CIA.  In early 1952 SLID became an associate (non-voting) member of the International
Union of Socialist Youth.  It had to be an associate member because of its status as a tax exempt
“educational” association, which allowed union subsidies to LID and SLID.  In 1953, SLID affiliated
 itself with the Young Adult Council, the U.S. division of the World Assembly of Youth.

The fortunes of the group began to turn around in the late 1950s when Al Haber joined the SLID
chapter at Ann Arbor.  He was able to launch a radical student political party, VOICE.  Haber was
elected SLID vice-president in 1959, and became, successively, field organizer and president in 1960.
At his suggestion the group changed its name to the Students for a Democratic Society.

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