“To Remake a Movement”: Another Take on SDS and the SDS Convention of 2007

By Mike GW of the Antithesis Collective-NYC NEFAC and NYC Students for a Democratic Society

This was originally a brief report sent out after the SDS Convention to friends and comrades who could not make it to Detroit. Two months after the convention, it has been rewritten and expanded in response to a recent document that could not go unanswered. Read on to learn more about the organization, the convention, and the raging debates that followed.

About 200 students and observers converged on Detroit’s Wayne State University from July 27 to 30, 2007, with the ambitious goal of rebuilding SDS as a national force to be reckoned with. There was an organization, a structure to build. There was a vision, a politics to work out. There were internal problems to confront, there were actions to endorse, and all in all, there were some 70 proposals to be debated and submitted to the membership for ratification.

Over the course of three days, from 10 in the morning until 10 at night (or later), the members of the new SDS took on and, for the most part, met this daunting task. To this end, they tried out a monster of a procedure mixing up consensus and voting. It was a painful process, but it was an all-too-rare experiment in direct democracy, and it was just the beginning of what will have to be a much longer, even harder process.

As another observer wrote back in August, “The convention was largely focused on forging the connections and trust necessary to struggle
together, as well as building an organization that embodies the new society – a society in which everyone participates in making the decisions and structures that affect them” (Matt Wasserman in The Indypendent).

But where was everyone else who’s supposed to participate in this new society? SDS as a whole remains utterly unrepresentative of the students of most schools and universities in the U.S., with its majority of rather affluent white students. Still, it’s doing better than its predecessor on some fronts, with what may be a majority of women and a sizable element of working-class students.

With the critical goal of taking on the rampant patriarchy and racism within SDS, the planners allotted a lot of time for caucuses and “allies”: people of color/white allies, working class/“class privileged allies” (a.k.a., the bourgie kids), women & trans/male allies (which I helped out with), and high school/older allies. While the caucuses were valuable, the feeling of many of those involved in the “ally groups” was that they were "more symbolic than real."

We talked a good talk, but it remains to be seen whether SDS will actually start walking the walk when it comes to struggles around class, race, and gender.

That said, many of the “vision” proposals approved at the convention took these struggles seriously. The vision that came out of this discussion – from the “Principles of Unity” to the joint “Visions for a New SDS” drafted by myself and five other authors – was of an organization committed to fighting “alongside people’s struggles and movements for liberation,” and “grounded in the work of combating systems” like capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

At the same time, there were other “visions” rolled out that seemed radically disconnected from people’s struggle, visions in the clouds that wouldn’t deign to come down to the trenches, aiming instead to design a blueprint for the future. In particular, many found problematic the prominence of Michael Albert, a well-heeled thinker who doesn’t speak for SDS but was nonetheless given the closing speech and more thanks to his adoring disciples.

The pareconists and after-capitalists are only one among a number of factions that have already emerged within SDS. There are factions within factions among the old-school reds, whom so many love to hate, but who have done little harm and some good. There are at least two wings of anarchists and anti-authoritarians: The first are the “organizers” (myself among them). The other wing are the “anti-organizers,” and those the old SDS would call the “Action Faction.”

These divisions resulted in an epic four-way face-off over what our national structure would be, a faceoff between federationists, anti-organizers, pareconists, and “democratic centralists” that lasted into the night. The members ultimately adopted an elaborate but thoroughly democratic federation structure culled from three proposals. It remains unclear how the new structure is actually going to work, but it holds promise for SDS’ future.

Under this structure, the ultimate power to make the decisions remains with the local chapters, who have to ratify proposals with a super-majority, while working groups implement their decisions nationally, national caucuses exist to fight oppression, and a rotating, recallable “spokescouncil” is made up of a delegate from each chapter to make sure things get done. The convention also agreed to membership requirements for individuals as well as chapters.

As SDS organizer Daniel Tasripin recently argued, in defense of such an organization, “The work of actively changing conditions on the ground – building up the capability to wage further struggle, of uniting disparate struggle together into a common battle, agitating and building up militancy where there was once apathy – these are matters where large scale organization, along with a large-scale commitment, becomes necessary” (NYC Indymedia).

The convention ended with a whirlwind series of endorsements of major actions and campaigns in the upcoming months, including the call for monthly actions as part of the Iraq Moratorium, the “No War, No Warming” mobilization in October, a handful of further actions against the war, and crucially, resolutions in support of the “Justice Will Be Served” and “Break the Chains” campaigns, both involving immigrant workers’ struggles.

It’s telling that our “Resolution on Student Solidarity with Workers and Communities,” approved by our Working Class Caucus, was almost bumped off the agenda (as were the two labor campaigns). Still, it was ultimately endorsed by the convention. It stated that Students for a Democratic Society “will commit to practicing solidarity with workers and communities” and that it will be “consistently relevant, responsive and accountable to those most directly affected.”

And so we went home to do the work of making SDS a real live organization. Two months later, we can see some of the work has already fallen short. The proposals coming out of the convention have yet to be formally submitted to the membership. National working groups, caucuses, and the spokescouncil do not yet exist. SDS hasn’t done all it said it would do to support the campaigns and actions this fall.

But it looks like it’s on its way. Local chapters are organizing and growing, and they’re involving themselves in struggle in ways they (not to mention the old SDS) have not done before. Can SDS turn itself into the organized, democratic, relevant, responsible, accountable, inclusive, strategic and winning force that it aspires to be? The future, as always, is unwritten.

Postscript:

A Libertarian Answer to an “Anonymous Libertarian Analysis of the SDS Convention”

Original document here:
“Anonymous Libertarian Analysis of the SDS Convention”

What we find in this analysis hardly lives up to the name of the “libertarian left” which title it claims. If I was writing a document like this, I would have signed it “anonymous,” too—it’s that embarrassing to anyone who identifies as an anti-authoritarian.

To turn race and ethnicity into an “artificial identity group advanced over the interests of the class,” and to equate any kind of anti-racism with “liberal identity politics,” is to deny the very real and persistent presence of racial injustice and oppression in our midst. To do this is to perpetuate the historical exclusion of people of color, their struggles and their concerns from the ranks of our organizations. To do this is to condemn our organizing to utter irrelevance.

As a class struggle anarchist, I am struck by how poor is the author’s analysis of class. Kelly Lee and I recently wrote in our pamphlet: “It is impossible today to speak of class without speaking of racialized poverty and a racialized division of labor.” And as “Anonymous” would learn if s/he studied history or actually went out and organized in a workplace or community, race and class cannot be separated in our society, nor can white supremacy be wished away.

All anti-authoritarians share the author’s opposition to “centralized organization.” But it’s hard to see how this has anything to do with the author’s attack on the federative structure. We also agree that the “informal leadership” is a real problem within SDS. But that’s exactly why an actual structure is necessary. There’s nothing undemocratic about having delegates from chapters on a rotating, recallable spokescouncil, or marginalized groups having their own spaces in SDS.

Those in solidarity with immigrant workers can’t help but be astounded by the author’s slandering organizations like the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association and campaigns like “Break the Chains” as “business union campaigns” from either a “Maoist sect” or “the historical dead-end of traditional unions.” I would love to hear what the author’s got in mind to top the work that these immigrant worker-led movements are doing for their own liberation.

The author makes a total of one valid point: Students need to start seeing themselves as young workers, not just as “students.” But they’re not going to do it by reading screeds with no understanding of the realities that young workers are facing today, realities that have a lot to do with race, with organization, and yes, with unions. Student-workers will only gain their consciousness through the process of struggle. It’s too bad “Anonymous” hasn't gained theirs yet.