2006 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) conference
Friday night report back from chapters.
“Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution. The basic reason why all previous revolutionary struggles in China achieved so little was their failure to unite with real friends in order to attack real enemies.”- Mao Tse-Tung.
This is an attempt to accurately report my own observations and experiences as a participant of the first national conference of the newly revived Students for a Democratic Society. I hope this won’t be the only written account of a participant for broader consumption, but I felt I had to write this to answer the people who have called me asking how it went. There was to much to simplify in a few simple sentences over the phone. I had to write this to at least touch upon the nuances, if not dive completely into them.
There were a lot of people watching this event hoping to see a phoenix rise again. They have their doubts and reservations though. The last 30-40 years have seen a lot of radical groups rise and fall. While people are hopeful for a revolutionary organization to end all revolutionary organizations, they aren’t ready to devote their time and energy into a group that has a name, but no action. I know many people who are waiting to see what this new SDS will do before they become involved with it.
But they are watching. While some might brand the new SDS as something which is a throwback to the 60’s, as just a bunch of history nerds trying to relive the mythical days of yore, I thought that using the name was a brilliant tactical move for several reasons. For one, you have the name recognition. Around 40 years of students have been involved with, or studied SDS. It has name recognition that reaches beyond many comparable left student organizations of today. For another the name implies the core of what I feel every socialist, anarchist, communist, pacifist and other left activist has been striving for. Not bourgeois democracy but real democracy- in the workplace, in our communities, in our personal relationships with each other. Also, the name is something that multiple sectors of the left can unite around- provided no single leftist trend monopolizes their hold on the organization. Almost every trend of the left, from Trotskyists to Anarchists to Maoists and even some progressive liberals has a history in SDS, and would be interested in being a part of the new SDS.
With that said, I felt that there were two contradicting directions the conference went in. On one hand it was very unorganized on the other, there was a sense of being a part of history. Everyone there knew that activists who weren’t there would be interested in it. Everyone knew the previous history and the impact that SDS had on national (and international) politics. It’s just a shame that the conference was so half-assed.
The organizing for the conference was mainly handled by a student who almost single handedly reserved rooms at the University of Chicago and found a Unitarian church that would provide crash housing. A miscommunication with Chicago Food Not Bombs led to FNB being unable to provide food. By the end of the conference, the student had gone something like four or five days without sleep. Despite the lack of organization, about 200-300 people attended and on average I would say 100 people were there throughout the conference. Not bad, but not great. I’ll explain later in this piece.
Friday night was fun because different chapters gave report backs from their various schools and locals. One of the highlights was Olympia SDS, which had attempted to shut down a Navy port which was shipping out military supplies and troops to Iraq.
Saturday, there were a number of workshops. I arrived late, but was still able to have a few people come to a workshop/discussion on researching the radical history of students’ school’s. I’ve been working on a history about DePaul and was able to chat with students from CUNY about the riots there that led to open admissions there in the late 1960’s. In the next block of workshops I decided to skip the anarchist revolution workshop to go to the white privilege workshop. The person who was supposed to moderate it was not there so the group went around and discussed their experiences of white privilege especially in organizing. I heard later that the anarchist revolution workshop had a discussion between those who were more down with Crimethinc-ish drop out of society, crusty lifestyle as sustaining anarchist revolution and those who were more into organizing in communities and workplaces IWW style revolution.
Then during the lunch break, a number of Chicago activist held a Chicago SDS meet. One of the ideas we discussed was focusing on a victory campaign. To have the whole city zero in on a particular reactionary element, and defeat it. Chase it off a particular campus, shut it down for good.
This would be decided at an assembly in early September. Invites to the assembly would be sent out not just to SDS chapters but one student was selected to compile a list of all student/youth left groups in the Chicago area. We discussed how this list would be more than just anti-war and anti-sweatshop groups but would include groups with sympathies for SDS or would be obvious allies of SDS- Black student groups, Latino groups, Socialist clubs, Queer groups, Feminist groups and others. While the list was made, the assembly hasn’t happened yet.
The Chicago meet went long and cut into the speech by Micheal Albert. What I did hear him talk about was basically about not alienating the people we’re trying to organize and win over to the revolutionary movement. He used the example of a sports bar. How many people have gone into one and tried talking to people there and getting them to get active in some way? I found myself agreeing with him on this point. How often have leftist groups in the US broke apart, over some esoteric historical tidbit that happened 100 years ago in a country on the other side of the planet. I’m sorry but debating whether the Kronstadt rebellion was an imperialist invasion or an Anarchist revolt doesn’t prevent immigrants from being deported. Doing a sit in or week long occupation of an INS (or is it Homeland security now?) office does. Debating whether or not insurgent groups in Iraq are fighting for national liberation or fundamentalist reaction doesn’t end the war- blockading recruiting centers and naval ports does. Arguing over the finer points of great writers like Marx and Lenin doesn’t create workers assemblies, organizing unions does.
I was the moderator for a workshop in the next block, but felt shorted because of the way it was printed on the program. It was supposed to be a workshop on drafting a proposal for a national action. However the way it was printed on the program, it read like DePaul students were talking about some sort of action. One of the SDS veterans I know told me later that if I wanted to get SDS to adopt a national action, I should have just written up a proposal of my own and handed out copies. Next time I will, but I thought it would be more democratic to have a workshop draft a proposal. Anyway, the workshop turned into more of a brainstorm, a productive and exciting one though. We discussed how SDS was different than other student left groups because it could be multi-tendency and multi-issue. We also discussed how it had the potential to be more militant than other student/youth left groups. A lot of the actions we brainstormed were borrowed from the animal rights movement and SHAC such as house demos and other forms of disruption and making politics personal for the various war profiteers.
Saturday night, there was a silent vigil on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, on the site where the Atom was first split at the U of C. Later that night there was a more militant protest against gentrification and Hyde Park. I didn’t really like how either of them turned out. I made it to the Hiroshima vigil a few minutes late, I was unaware that it was planned to be a silent vigil. There was a lot that went wrong. For one, SDS didn’t have it’s own flier explaining why they were all sitting there. Second, Chicago’s most well known anti-semitic crack pot, Geoffrey, was there handing out his ridiculous fliers. Third, how are you supposed to confront someone like Geoffrey at a silent vigil? A number of Jewish students (who were all vigorously opposed to the racism that is Zionism), were offended by Geoffrey, one of which told me that this was the first time that he ever felt attacked as a Jew. This same student, would go up to every person Geoffrey gave a flier to, in order to explain that all the people sitting there were not affiliated with such drivel. Those Jewish students weren’t just mad at Geoffrey though, they were frustrated that other students didn’t step in to escort Geoffrey out of there. Many didn’t know what Geoffrey was about and those who did, weren’t sure how to deal with him. Another problem with being so unorganized.
I had heard about the late night march against gentrification, but decided not to go. Something about it didn’t jive with me. There was a community forum near U. of C. on gentrification earlier in the day, but none of the organizers of the late night march attended it. It seemed to me to be like the days of rage- rash, imprudent and impulsive. This critique is not to take away from the need for militancy, or the occasional impulsive action.
I think that Dostoyeski has a great point in Notes from the Underground in that sometimes it’s better, when you are hit, to hit back without thinking about it, because once you think about it, you rationalize why you shouldn’t hit back. But those organizing the night march weren’t the ones who had been hit. They weren’t the people gentrified out of Hyde Park.
Further the night march didn’t seem to have a clear focus, target or point. It seemed like it was trying to create a militant protest that wasn’t possible under those circumstances. As Mr. Guvarra explains in Guerrilla War, one of the first rules of Guerrilla war, is that you never fight a battle that you can’t win. Each militant encounter has to lead to victory.
Anyway, I’ll defer to people who were actually there to further discuss what happened or debate the merits or this particular action.
The next morning I attended the counter-recruitment workshop, which went over a number of ways recruiters lie to people and ways to prevent them from meeting their quotas.
One of the big disorganized failures of the conference was its ability to have neat and orderly caucuses. At first, all the caucuses, six of them, were scheduled for the same time slot. However, some people rightly attempted to redo the schedule so that, for example, a Latino woman wouldn’t have to choose between one or the other caucus. However I was frustrated that the Marxist and the Anarchist Caucuses were both scheduled to be held at the same time. Also, the People of Color caucus was unable to meet in the morning, because the building was not opened early enough, and ended up being at the same time as the Anarchist and Marxist caucuses, a scheduling disaster. I went to the Marxist caucus, where there were all unaffiliated communists. There were far more people in the Anarchist caucus though.
Following that, was a workshop that was supposed to be a brainstorm on the national structure of SDS. All hell broke loose. First of all, the people of color caucus had not ended, which a number of white activists didn’t realize. Then the conversation broke down as the stack became long, and a few people made motions in terms of voting. There was general confusion as no one was sure what was taken care of first- stack or motions? No one was sure if Roberts rules of order were being used. Where the motions for voting in that session? For a voting structure for the next year of SDS? Where the 100 some people there really supposed to make decisions on how SDS would run? The woman who was moderating and taking stack was shouted down as people abused the direct response.
Part of the issue was that SDS had not adopted any sort of decision making structure. Which became an issue organizing this Chicago conference. When groups like the International Socialist Organization, Revolutionary Communist Party and World Can’t Wait asked to reserve tables, anarchists and others on the organizing e-mail list stated that they didn’t want this various self-proclaimed vanguard groups to “dominate” or “take-over” SDS the way the Progressive Labor Party did in the 1960’s. They didn’t want to give the Leninist groups tables, but had not problem with giving Anarchist groups tables. Myself and a few others said that it was silly to exclude those groups because they often evolved out of SDS, many of their members were political amatuers and didn’t fully understand or agree with their parties line, not all the members of those groups buy into “the cult of bob” or whatever, and most importantly, we need to unite with our friends and allies against the real monsters. There was no consensus, how were we supposed to decide? Those groups in dispute were sent a letter stating that we have no way to decide such disputes and to come as individual members and/or try reserving a table next year.
While I’ll admit, there is a serious issue at stake. All these various “vanguard” parties (an even certain anarchists) are convinced they have the truth and thus treat every coalition, ally, etc as something to recruit for their organization. I feel that none of these groups has the perfect and correct strategy/program/etc., by the simple fact that if they did, the revolution would have happened all ready, or we would at least be farther along than we are. But the point is- how does SDS balance it’s need to bring these people into the fold of a broad revolutionary umbrella group so we can all work together on stopping the capitalist system with the concern that these groups don’t give a fuck about SDS or umbrella groups as they already have the truth/correct revolutionary strategy and only want SDS members to join them?
I mean how many groups are convinced that they alone can lead the revolution? All based on their analysis of Trotsky or some other dead Russian. None of these groups have a broad base of support or even have guns. How are you supposed to lead a revolution without either? It’s silly really. It seems like many groups are content to make a theory and bash it into people’s heads, and blame everything on “why won’t people just accept our truth!”
That’s not how (social) science, or Marxism, is supposed to work though. It supposed to be a process of tests, competing theories (different strains of the left) are worked out through scholarly debate, more tests (actions, protests), while sharing information. Eventually, the different schools of thought are able to agree. But the scientists are not supposed to act uncomraderly, or sectarian. In other words, prove your theory by making the revolution, not by brainwashing us and shouting at us because we don’t completely agree with your parties line.
A good example is in the movie The Take. It documents the recovered factories movement in Argentina. All these capitalists abandoned countless business in Argentina, firing all their workers and not even giving them their back pay. These owners had subsisted off of corporate welfare from the government for years and just abandoned their workers, left them to starve. The workers got organized though. They formed cooperatives, and are seizing, expropriating the factories and workplaces. These cooperative run the business democratically. Everyone gets the same pay, managers are elected and they hold factory assemblies once a week to vote on pressing issues. In The Take, they document how one of the workers in the cooperative was actually going to vote for the conservative candidate in the Argentine presidential elections. While the other workers disagreed and explained to him that this candidate would take away the cooperative, they didn’t become dogmatic, self-righteous or kick him out of the cooperative. They saw the structure of the cooperative and the freedom it gave them all as being more important than the complete ideological unity/purity of those in the co-op. Their fellow worker wouldn’t be convinced by their arguments, but by actual real life events.
A quote from Mao’s little red book, “Our comrades must understand that ideological remolding involves long-term patient and painstaking work, and they must not attempt to change people’s ideology, which has been shaped over decades of life, by giving a few lectures or by holding a few meetings. Persuasion, not compulsion, is the only way to convince them. To try and convince them by force simply won’t work. This kind of method [force] is permissible in dealing with the enemy, but absolutely impermissible in dealing with comrades or friends.”
People’s political opinions take shape over time based on their own experiences. You’re not going to convince someone out of the bat of the need for revolution. Instead start by asking them to come to an anti-war protest, or a queer kiss-in. If they stay involved long enough, and get pushed around by the authorities enough, and think about the structures in their lives enough, the rest will come naturally. We’ve spent to much time be ruthless to our own, and thus have been unable to fight the real enemy.
Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent from the SDS conference. So in this national structure workshop, there was a push to adopt some sort of temporary voting structure to make decisions like who gets to table, etc. However, I felt that the most vocal spokesperson for this move, was so wigged out from not sleeping, that the way he was presenting the proposal was condescending and not helpful.
While all of this was happening, the People of Color Caucus was writing a statement. They filed into the room everyone else was in, and read it. The statement mentioned that members of the Caucus had felt alienated at certain points by the overwhelming white conference and that the history of SDS was that of a predominantly white (sometimes a white-ally to POC) group. The statement challenged the new SDS as to whether it would continue to be a white dominated group or if it would attempt to be a multi-racial group. I thought that the statement was good and constructive. I also though that this SDS conference had integrated a lot of the ideas about multi-racial organizing that the original SDS found controversial, today it is standard to have caucuses and workshops on privilege in student left groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and SDS. Back in the 60’s, you would have had some dogmatic class reductionist Marxists who declared that such things diverted attention from the class conflict. I couldn’t disagree more, they add different dimensions to our analysis and action against the class system.
The time came for the next block of workshops to begin. There were a number of workshops I wanted to go to. John Wilson’s defending academic freedom seemed like a good one, as did the Participatory Economics workshop which featured Micheal Albert. I decided to go to the National Guard Civil Disturbance Techniques workshop. The person leading the workshop had been in the National Guard, but applied for Conscience Objector status. I thought that they did a great job with it, he showed different formations, with diagrams, and he had us do some practice runs with PVC pipes as billy clubs in different formations. Then we did a test riot control with some other SDSers where they faked a riot and we contained it. I felt the workshop had a downside in that it was overwhelmingly male and not everyone took it seriously. Still I felt that such a workshop was a good step towards more militant and organized actions.
Next day, Monday, there were a few workshops, but it was the closing plenary that was most productive. The first thing the plenary did was to decide upon rules for that meeting. Roberts rules of order were adopted, an older Movement for a Democratic Society member was selected to moderate, while one woman kept time and another kept stack and track of motions. We also decided that anything this meeting decided would be labeled as being decided by the 2006 SDS conference, not SDS as a whole. As for voting it was to attempt consensus, failing that, there would be a brief discussion followed by another vote that would require ¾. Among the things decided, were to have at least 2 regional conferences in the next year and a national constitutional convention in a year. Attempts to create a committee and a temporary voting structure were voted down due mainly to time concerns. MDS stated that they were planning on fund raising among older SDS veterans and that the money would be managed by a committee with MDS and SDS members on it. The money would be used for bail, travel scholarships to conferences and other things. There was discussion about how to make the website more interactive. The easiest decision was to support the IWW Starbucks union and to take action of some sort against the firing of union organizer Daniel Gross. Also we heard a brief report back from the womens caucus. The queer caucus was unable to meet as far as I know.
There was also talk about how the next conference might not be a national conference, but an international one as there were chapters in Germany, Nigeria and Mexico already. There was some discussion on what membership would look like, the difference between chapters, affiliates, allies, etc.
I asked some of the older generation SDS activists who were there, like Carl Davidson and Alan Haber, what they thought about this conference compared to the 1960’s SDS. They seemed optimistic, pointing out that at Port Huron there were only 40 people and that the political level of the people at this was much higher. However I worked on housing for the first Campus Anti-War Network conference at Loyola. There were far more people at that in January 2003 than at this SDS conference. While some would like to point to the anti-war movements size at the time and that demonstrations have gotten smaller since then, I felt there were really two things to blame as to why this conference wasn’t bigger. The lack of organization was crucial. How late was it before we knew it would be at the U. of C.? The workshops didn’t get arranged until a week before, we had no way to decide controversial issues (and still don’t). Also people were unsure what this SDS was about. Who was behind it, what’s their motive for bringing it back? Will it be worth my time as an activist or will I accomplish more with other groups? The other thing I think prevented people from attending- there were far more anarchists there than any other tendency.
I probably identify with the anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-commies than any other tendency. Not so much because I feel they have the best theory (actually I think many are seriously lacking and could use some serious time devoted to study) but they have a dedication to militant action that marxist-style communists have been lacking in this country for a long time. It’s their belief in propaganda by the deed.
However I think that the attitude many of the anarchists at this event took intimidated and blew off our obvious allies in the struggle. I feel that SDS will die of ideological inbreeding and lack of new bodies if it remains so overwhelmingly anarchist. I’m less concerned that the ISO or some other socialist group will “co-opt” SDS than I am of the experts of co-optation- the democratic party.
No other group has as much to benefit from a disorganized left than the democratic party.
No other group has the potential to lead the student and youth movement down a non-revolutionary path than the hope of Hillary or Obama for President bandwagons. While political nerds know that Hillary supports the war, and Obama has made statements in support of bombing Iran and Pakistan as early as 2004, many really cool people only get a shallow coverage of them, and assume that since Hillary is a woman and Obama is Black and Bill O’Rielly hates them, they must be good right?
The Donkey bandwagon is even more dangerous now that the Clinton and Soros funded Center for American Progress is pouring millions of dollars into training “student activists” the same way that right wing groups like Young Americans for Freedom has in the last few decades.
Until we abolish the wage system and institute a gift economy, we need millions of dollars for radical student activism, to fund campus newspapers, legal challenges, travel expenses, and all sorts of supplies needed for protests, but that money isn’t going to come from Soros.
Soro’s group isn’t calling for the immediate end of the Iraq war, it sure as hell isn’t anti-imperialist. Soros on capitalism? Soros is the definition of global capital, look it up in a dictionary and you will see his face right next to a sweatshop. Genuine progressive and radical student groups need to prevent people like Soros from subverting progressive students and leading them to ineffective and pro-government actions.
Like I said, there have been a lot of people asking me about this conference. There was one activist who recorded the whole thing on cassette and promised to put it up on Indymedia. So if I missed any important points, the tapes should have them covered.
I felt that the conference had a mixed result. I think the greatest failure of it was that it didn’t decide on organizing some sort of national action- whether it be a major march/mobilization or a day of autonomous actions. However I felt that there were important contacts and networking done. Looking back 5 years from now, I hope that we’ll be able to point to this conference as being the seed of something more historic and exciting. The success of SDS, like the success of the Left, won’t come from conferences, but will come from actions that not only shut down the system, but inspire others to take part and join the struggle.