The Wisconsin Socialist Studies Project
The formalization of the Students for a Democratic Society in the summer of 1962 was a curious time. Six months earlier, the world had been roiled by a fearful astrological event called “The Great Conjunction.” While it was of no moment at the time to Christians and Jews, Hindus and other religious groups trembled in fear that the end of the world was coming. Feb. 4-5, 1962 was to herald the coming of a great apocalypse. Some feared it meant the birth of the Anti-Christ. Ironically, Barack Hussein Obama had been born exactly six months earlier, in Hawaii, under the eventual trajectory of the Great Conjunction. New Agers (as they came to be called) hailed it as the coming of the Age of Aquarius.
The last couldn’t have been more wrong, from an astrological standpoint. Yet the world did not physically end that day. But it was the beginning of a terrible transformation for those who loved freedom. The creation of the SDS was one of those catastrophes, a group of young radicals intent on shuffling off their radical fathers’ radicalism.
Here’s a little more history on how the Student League for Industrial Democracy paved the way for the Flower Children, the Hippies, and SDS:
The coming of the Great Depression had a radicalizing influence on many students, who saw world capitalism in a state of chaos. Members of the Intercollegiate LID energized by the 1932 Presidential campaign of Norman Thomas (the presidential candidate on the Socialist Party ticket in 1928), as well as competition with the Communist-led National Student League.
In 1932 the student members of the LID held their own national convention which abolished the old Intercollegiate Student Council of the LID and elected instead a new National Executive Committee and national chairman, Maurice Newfield. The new independent organization began to issue a new national magazine, Revolt, (later named Student Outlook) and in 1933 formally adopted the name “Student League for Industrial Democracy” (SLID).
Between 1933 and 1935 SLID participated in protests over violations of student free speech, the reception of a “good will tour” of students from Fascist Italy, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and instances of radical discrimination, often in conjunction with the NSL.
One of the group's most dramatic activities was organizing the National Student Strike Against War on April 13, 1934 and 1935, commemorating American entry into the First World War. The first strike, coordinated only with the NSL, drew 25,000 students nationwide, 15,000 of which were in New York City. The second demonstration however, in April 1935, drew 175,000 students, 160,000 outside of New York, and was co-sponsored by the National Student Federation of America, the National Council of Methodist Youth, the YMCA and YWCA, the Interseminary Movement, the youth section of the American League Against War and Fascism, among others. An important aspect of the two annual strikes was an Americanized version of the Oxford Pledge, in which students vowed, “We will not support the government of the United States in any war it may conduct.”
The Student League for Industrial Democracy proclaimed its goal to be the establishment of “a classless cooperative society in which men will have an equal opportunity to achieve the good things of life.” They took a Fabian approach to this long-term objective, advocating a minimum program which included the organization of labor, expansion of merit-based academic scholarships, defense of civil liberties and academic freedom for professors (to politically proselytize), and opposition to “any manifestation of militarism in education, especially the R.O.T.C.”
With the Student League for Industrial Democracy and the Communist-led National Student League working together so often, there arose sentiment in favor of amalgamating the two organizations. The NSL proposed this first in December 1933, and again the next year. The leadership of the SLID, however, was weary of the NSL uncritical view of the Soviet Union and less than democratic nature of the NSL.
Due to the unprecedented size of the April 1935 student strike, however, pressure from within the SLID ranks became difficult for its more cautious leadership to contain. This was especially true on the West Coast, where the local SLID members felt that anti-fascist unit was a pressing need in the wake of a local Red Scare. With its California chapters already planning an amalgamation conference for the fall, in June 1935 the SLID National Executive Committee relented by appointing a committee to discuss the merger with representatives from the NSL.
By October they arrived at an agreement to merge the two organizations at a convention that December into a new group to be named the American Student Union. But by 1960, a new generation of students that grew up during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s rebelled against their fathers and formed Students for a Democratic Society, embracing a worldview of Communism.
Robert Alan Haber, a graduate of the University of Michigan was SDS’ first president. FBI files at the time indicated his official title as Field Secretary, the former organization having dispensed with the “fascist” titles of President and Vice President.
Described variously at the time as “Ann Arbor’s resident radical” and “reticent visionary,” Haber organized a human rights conference in April of that year which marked the debut of SDS. He invited four organizers of the 1960 NAACP “sit-ins” against segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., to the first meeting.
Haber’s father was an enthusiastic supporter of FDR’s New Deal with socialist-progressive sympathies. Haber’ parents named him after former Wisconsin governor, congressman and senator Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., advocate of the Wisconsin Idea political reforms in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Wisconsin Idea refers to a series of political reforms reforms of the late 19th century and early 20th century whose strongest advocate was La Follette, Sr. The Wisconsin Idea was created by the state’s progressives to do away with monopolies, trusts, high costs of living, and “predatory wealth”, which they saw as the problem that must be solved or else “no advancement of human welfare or progress can take place.”
Reforms in labor and worker’s rights were one of the major aspects of the Wisconsin Idea. The progressive worker’s compensation program was first introduced by German immigrants, who were abundant in Wisconsin. The system was adopted from the existing Bismarckian system in Germany. The idea was that the employer was obligated to take care of his employees and keep paying them as they grew old. Many of the reforms were based on traditions and customs brought to the state by German immigrants. The emphasis on higher learning and well-funded universities stressed by the Wisconsin Idea was derived from the education system of Germany. Progressives also proposed the first state income taxes, as well as submitting the idea of a progressive tax. They also passed legislation prohibiting pollution and police brutality.
The Wisconsin Idea would go on to set an example for other states. The progressive politicians of the time sought to emulate and ultimately transcend the states of the east coast in regards to labor laws. Wisconsin progressives wished to make Wisconsin into a benchmark for other states to strive towards. Although many of the reforms went through in 1911, conservative opponents of the progressive party took control of Wisconsin in 1914, thus minimizing the effects of the reforms. The Wisconsin Idea would continue to be a revolutionary precedent for other universities, and its educational aspects are still relevant today. LaFollette, Sr., was the man who implemented much of this legislature, and he was among the earliest supporters of direct election of senators, which is now a national practice. These progressive politics also helped pass the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution.
These proposed reforms, all of which were eventually adopted, included:
- Primary elections, allowing the rank-and-file members of a political party to choose its nominees rather than caucuses usually dominated by political bosses.
- Workers’ compensation, allowing workers injured on the job to receive a fixed payment in compensation for their injuries and related expenses rather than forcing them to go to court against their employers, which at the time was extremely difficult and had little realistic chance of success.
- State regulation of railroads in addition to the federal regulation imposed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).
- Direct election of U.S. Senators as opposed to the original method of their selection by the state legislatures, eventually ratified as the Seventeenth Amendment.
- Progressive taxation, where the wealthier pay a higher rate of tax than the less-affluent, made possible on the federal level in part by the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment
The SDS may have rejected their fathers’ anti-Stalinism (to be absolutely correct). But their fathers and mothers had laid the foundation for the next step in Progressivism, the eventual death of Capitalism, and the demise of freedom.
Tomorrow: The Socialist Sixties