[Fwd: Lemisch critique of SDS film], nblackstock at earthlink.net

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Mar 22 07:37:24 MST 2001

>    While "Rebels With a Cause" is often moving and evocative, I also find
>it stunningly uncritical, self-congratulatory, first-person heroic,
>triumphalist -- and thus at odds with much that the SDS I knew stood for.
>Largely avoiding the question of why SDS collapsed, and presenting little
>about internal conflicts within SDS, the film won't help younger people who
>encounter related conflicts and dangers in the new movements that they are
>    I welcome comments, criticism, discussion, forwardings, postings, etc.
>    Jesse Lemisch   utopia1 at attglobal.net

Rebels With a Cause

In many ways SDS was the organizational expression of the 1960s
radicalization, just as the Communist Party was of the 1930s. Given that
fact, it was only a matter of time when a documentary film maker would take
a stab at SDS using the example of a film like "Seeing Red", which was
based on the CP. Directed by Helen Garvy, an SDS veteran herself, "Rebels
With a Cause" combines interviews with other SDS'ers--now mostly in their
fifties and sixties (listed below)--and film footage from the era. Like
"Seeing Red", the general tone is one mixed with feelings of accomplishment
and ruefulness about mistakes made under the pressure of events.

At its peak in 1968, SDS probably had over 100,000 members--mostly college
students radicalized by the war in Vietnam. According to Kirkpatrick Sale's
article in Buhle-Buhle-Georgakas' Encyclopedia of the American Left, these
members were organized in 350 chapters and the national organization
operated with a budget of perhaps $125,000 a year. (Sale is the author of
"SDS".) In less than a year, the organization imploded--largely a victim of
youthful frustration with the inability to stop the war in Vietnam.

SDS was a project of the League for Industrial Society, a social
democratic/trade union formation with close ties to Max Shachtman. This
early history is documented in Maurice Isserman's "If I Had a Hammer". In
1962 the group met in Port Huron, Michigan and voted to adopt a resolution
authored by Tom Hayden that became known as the "Port Huron Statement."


Unfortunately the main ideological input to SDS was a mixture of anarchism
and populism rather than the kind of Marxism that had been developing in
the 1950s at Cochran and Braverman's American Socialist magazine. Unlike
similar formations in Europe, the Americans opted for a mixture of Paul
Goodman and C. Wright Mills rather than to try to resurrect a Marxism that
had been heavily tarnished by Stalinism and Trotskyist sectarianism.

The interviewees describe their involvement with the early SDS, prior to
the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Mostly their activity consisted of
moving to impoverished neighborhoods in the South or the northern cities
and attempting to organize people around very minimal demands, such as
getting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, etc.

All this changed in April 1965 when SDS called for a national march in
Washington against the war in Vietnam, which drew more than 20,000
people--ten times more than the organizers expected. This march went on
despite heavy pressure from the social democratic godfathers of the
organization. What the film does not mention is the role of Trotskyists in
the Young Socialist Alliance in applying pressure from the other direction.
To the credit of SDS, they had adopted a non-exclusionary policy to work
with Marxists which was as much of an aggravation to figures like Michael
Harrington as was protesting the war in the first place.

After 1965, SDS never called for another mass demonstration. It had
developed the ultraleft notion that since the "system" was the problem
rather than the particular war, it was a waste of time to march against the
war. Fortunately it did not retreat into empty theorizing which
characterized some of the Marxist sects, but threw its energy into
extremely militant campus-based actions.

The most famous of these was the student strike at Columbia University--my
employer--that effectively shut down the campus in 1968. This action was a
fusion of two distinct protests, one against campus complicity in the war
and the other a protest by mostly minority students over plans to build a
gym in Harlem over the objections of local residents. After taking over the
offices of President Grayson Kirk, they rifled through his files and
discovered documentation of university complicity with war research. Those
files were turned over to students outside the occupation who made them
public. Kirk eventually lost his job over the ensuing scandal and the
strike itself. The gym was never built.

This protest and similar protests around the country electrified the
student population in the United States which began to join SDS by the
hundreds and thousands. Rather than thinking coolly and calmly about how to
maximize their power, the SDS leaders began to lose track of who they were
and what they represented. In anguish over the continuing war, they sought
a shortcut to ending it using their own militancy rather than the social
power of the working class. That power could have only been tapped by
seemingly "safe" actions such as the mass demonstrations in Washington and
the Moratorium.

The SDS'ers kept raising the level of militancy at demonstrations, using
the chaotic street battles at the 1968 Democratic Party convention as some
kind of model. What they could not understand is that bloody heads were not
likely to encourage other students to follow their lead, despite all the
press coverage. This is a lesson that obviously has to be transmitted to
the new generation of radicals that is coming together around WTO protests,

At the 1969 SDS convention ultraleftist frustration came to a climax with
the formation of the Weatherman faction. This group of several hundred
honestly believed that by raising a ruckus in the US, the war effort in
Vietnam would be weakened since imperialism would be forced to fight on
several fronts. In 1969, after the Weathermen were defeated and scattered
by cops in a adventurist street action they called "The Days of Rage", they
decided to up the ante rather than analyze their failure. A small group
within the Weathermen formed the Weather Underground which would embark on
a terrorist campaign. The only thing that got blown up was the Greenwich
Village townhouse of leftist lawyer Leonard Boudin, where comrades of his
daughter Kathy accidentally set off an explosion in a basement bomb
laboratory on March 6, 1970.

Even though the SDS had ceased to exist as an organization, the tens of
thousands of activists who had formed its ranks continued to do excellent
work in their neighborhoods and college campuses. It is quite possible that
a sizable minority of left academics today spent some time in SDS. Many
local institutions such as food co-ops, Sister City projects for Nicaragua
in the 1980s, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear groups, etc. depended on
cadres who went through the SDS experience.

My own analysis of SDS and what it represented could not find expression in
this documentary. Rather than seeing SDS as a necessary outcome of student
frustration with a seemingly endless war, I see it now as a spontaneous
expression of indigenous radicalism that a Marxist current can ill afford
to ignore. This was the posture of the Trotskyist movement which oriented
to the antiwar committees that built the mass demonstrations and viewed SDS
as the enemy. While these antiwar committees were hotbeds of activism, they
were generally devoid of the kind of analysis and debate that marked a
typical SDS chapter. SDS'ers tended to be the natural leadership of the
campus, while antiwar activists tended to be more interested in ending the
war than changing the system by and large. The small minority that believed
capitalism was some kind of problem were recruited into the Trotskyist
movement, where they were condemned to sectarian irrelevance in the long run.

One Maoist group, the Progressive Labor Party, chose to work in SDS but
their heavy-handed style led to needless polarization and partially to the
ultimate demise of the organization. If a Marxist current is given the
opportunity to work in a broad-based mass movement in the future, it will
have to be on a different basis than the kind of mechanical "democratic
centralism" of the past. Obviously this was what SDS needed, but no such
Marxist current existed. Maybe we will be more fortunate the next time.

"Rebels With A Cause" is being shown at the Screening Room in NYC, at 54
Varick St. www.thescreeningroom.com.

Interviewees included Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Carl Davidson, Carl Oglesby,
Bernadine Dohrn, Casie Hayden, Steve Max, Jeff Shero, Mike Kleiman, Richard
Flacks, Bill Ayers, Kathy Wilkerson and Juan Gonzalez.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list