Students for a Democratic Society
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest student organization and among the largest anti-war organizations in the United States in the 1960s. Initially, it organized in a decentralized and informal manner, albeit with a hierarchically-organized National Office and a male-dominated culture. Its early manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, called for participatory democracy and self-management. A few of the student chapters adopted anarchistic politics, including the University of Texas–Austin chapter and the MIT chapter. Some of the non-student members were also Anarchists: the ‘’Anarchos’’ group that included Murray Bookchin, the Black Mask chapter, and the Louis Lingg Memorial Chapter. There was overlap with the Industrial Workers of the World. By 1969, the Weathermen, a Maoist faction, had taken leadership of the organization. SDS dissipated as Weathermen shifted their energies away from grassroots organizing and toward high-profile attacks on government and corporate property.
At its peak, SDS had about a hundred thousand official members.
While SDS was committed to building a decentralized and democratic society, it had mixed successes in organizing themselves along these lines. On one hand, SDS chapters acted autonomously and formally organized along relatively horizontal lines. On the other hand, the establishment of the National Office during the 1962-1963 school year initiated a minor bureaucracy within the group. Moreover, on an informal level, charismatic men tended to dominate organizational processes. People give somewhat differing accounts.
According to SDS member Mark Rudd, “SDS was always a loose confederation of local chapters, more of a conglomeration than a single unified organization. Each chapter could decide what issues to work on and what positions to espouse. There was no constitution to guide it, only the Port Huron Statement from 1962, which provided an orienting spirit of “participatory democracy,” whatever that was. In 1969 it wasn’t likely that too many of the active members, though, had even read our founding document.”
In his study on SDS, Kirkpatrick Sale notes:
SDS almost without even thinking of it became an organization of officers at the top and bureaucratic administrators below, constitutions and bylaws, parliamentary meetings and points of order, conventions and committees, mimeograph machines and official documents, letters in triplicate and bills paid monthly, lists of members and calculations of dues, accounts receivable and payable, mailing lists, files, phones, a central office. Plus all the attendant habits and characteristics that this suggests: the dominance of males, especially those who can talk and manipulate (sexually or politically) best; the emphasis on form, legality, precedent, rules; the unconscious division into those who lead and those who follow, those who talk and those who listen, those who propose and those who do, those who write the pamphlets and those who mimeograph them.
SDS elected its executive committee at annual conventions. In 1963, presidents were limited to one year in office, and in 1967, the offices of president and vice-president were abolished. In 1968, the national secretary was replaced with three secretaries. Crucially, the National Office always had “little power over the chapters.”
SDS member Cathy Wilkerson describes the challenges of women in the group who were caught between SDS’s denunciation of “separatism” and the women movement’s emphasis on autonomous women’s organizations:
Women within SDS had to denounce separatism, you know, every five minutes in every discussion of women’s issues or they would not be allowed to continue. Yet when women tried to get together with separatists they were again challenged to say that working with men was bad, you know, all the time.
Parts of this section come from the article Weather Underground and Anarchy.
In 1960, members of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), a small Old Left group, looked at how they might retune the organization to fit the era’s ethos. They changed their name to Students for a Democratic Society and shifted their central emphasis from labor unionism to supporting the civil rights movement. In 1962, SDS published the Port Huron Statement. A manifesto drafted by Tom Hayden, it charted the values of the newly-named organization.
The Port Huron Statement called for “participatory democracy,” in which society’s decision-making would be made by “public groupings” and would bring people “out of isolation and into community.” The manifesto also called for an economy that would be accountable to democratic regulation and would based on “self-directed” labor. The Statement took issue with racial discrimination, war, alienation, and environmental destruction. The concluding section called for a “new left” that would tackle all these issues and not be afraid to voice radical demands to that end: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
Several SDS chapters openly embraced an anti-authoritarian politics. The chapter at University of Texas-Austin adopted many habits of the youth counterculture, including smoking lots of marijuana and growing their hair long but also scorning highly formal or bureaucratic organization. According to old-guard SDS members, this chapter’s members “were instinctive anarchists, principled and practiced antiauthoritarians.” The chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, named Rosa Luxemburg SDS, was advised by Noam Chomsky, the Anarchist professor of linguistics. With members including future Participatory Economics co-founder Michael Albert, the group blockaded Dow Chemical’s campus recruitment event and organized along with other radicals in the Boston area.
Anarchist politics were not restricted to students. Black Mask, an Anarchist street gang that engaged in militant direct actions—such as briefly breaking into the Pentagon during an anti-war demonstration—affiliated with SDS. The Louis Lingg Memorial Chapter in Chicago was named after one of the Anarchist martyrs of the Haymarket affair. Its statement of purpose declared opposition to “law and order.” In New York, Murray Bookchin organized the Anarchos Group that briefly coordinated an anti-authoritarian caucus within SDS.
SDS were at the forefront of the movement against the Vietnam War. Following the Plei Ku attack in Februrary 1965, “SDSers were prominent in leading actions at Brown/Pembroke, Carleton, Michigan, Minnesota, Rutgers, Baltimore, Boston, and New York, and in sponsoring a five-hundred-strong picket of the White House on February 20.”
1,000 people organized by the Student Afro-American Society, SDS, and other groups occupied five buildings at Columbia University from 23 April to 30 April 1968. Police arrested more than 700 people. Kirkpatrick Sale describes the occupation as a moment when many SDS members realized that they had revolutionary aims. Along with various Marxist groups, the anarchistic Yippies played a role in the occupation.
By the time of its 1969 national conference, SDS was dominated by three Marxist-Leninist factions. Anarchists distributed a pamphlet by Murray Bookchin criticizing the dominant factions for clinging to an outdated ideology. It was titled “Listen, Marxist!”:
“All the old crap of the thirties is coming back again—the shit about the ‘class line,’ the ‘role of the working class,’ the ‘trained cadres,’ the ‘vanguard party,’ and the the ‘proletarian dictatorship.’ […] When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past?”
The 1969 conference became the site of a power struggle between Maoist factions including Progressive Labor (PL) and the Weathermen. The former rejected youth counterculture and black nationalism, while the latter supported both. Borrowing a line from a Bob Dylan song, the Weathermen circulated their manifesto “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” It called for a white youth vanguard to engage in underground actions in support of black and Third World revolution.
In the summer of 1969, the Weathermen moved into collective houses and began heavily promoting the “Days of Rage” that would kick off in Chicago on 8 October 1969. They hoped that thousands of people would show up and brawl with police. Members publicized the initiative on college campuses and even commandeered high school classrooms in attempts to recruit people. A few days before the action, Weatherman blew up a statue at Haymarket Square commemorating the police officers allegedly killed by Anarchists in 1886.
When the day came, only about 150 to 250 people actually showed up. Confronting a massive police presence, they started breaking windows of banks and other businesses. Police fired shots, wounding three people.
The Black Panthers’ Fred Hampton denounced the Days of Rage as irresponsible:
We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, it’s chauvanistic, it’s Custeristic. And that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred. And they call it revolution, and it’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly. We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided. They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.
The Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman questioned the strategic value of Weather’s violence, calling it “Gandhian violence for the element of purging guilt through moral witness.”
Weatherman found themselves extremely isolated and alone after the Days of Rage. At this time, they decided to go underground and start calling themselves the Weather Underground Organization. They also decided to abandon the above-ground group SDS, since they wanted to focus on underground activities. Rudd later regretted the decision:
The destruction of SDS was probably the single greatest mistake I’ve made in my life (and I’ve made quite a few). It was a historical crime. The war was far from over—hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, and we had yet to invade Cambodia and Laos. It would continue for five more years. We should have tried to use SDS to build as broad and powerful a movement to end the war as possible. Yet my friends and I chose to scuttle America’s largest radi- cal organization—with chapters on hundreds of campuses, a powerful national identity, and enormous growth potential—for a fantasy of revolutionary urban-guerrilla warfare. None of us in the Weather leadership, to my knowledge, were police agents either. We did it all ourselves. For decades I’ve been contemplating the wonder of this fact.
- Andrew Cornel, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 269.
- Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 141.
- Sale, SDS, 75.
- Irwin Unger, The Movement: A History of the American New Left 1959-1972 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 89-90.
- Cathy Wilkerson, “The Women’s Movement and Women in SDS: Cathy Wilkerson Recalls the Tensions,” History Matters, 17 February 1985, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6916/.
- Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘’SDS’’ (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 15-70.
- Sale, Port Huron Statement, 1962, http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SDS_Port_Huron.html.
- Cornell, "Unruly Equality ", 270.
- Cornell, "Unruly Equality", 271.
- Cornell, "Unruly Equality ", 258-260, 270, 272.
- Sale, SDS, 173.
- "How Black Students Helped Lead the 1968 Columbia U. Strike Against Militarism & Racism 50 Years Ago," Democracy Now!", 23 April 2018, https://www.democracynow.org/2018/4/23/how_black_students_helped_lead_the.
- Sale, SDS, 437-441.
- Jonah Raskin, "Up Against the Ivy Wall: the Columbia Insurrection at 50," Counterpunch 6 February 2018, https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/06/up-against-the-ivy-wall-the-columbia-insurrection-at-50/.
- Murray Bookchin, “Listen, Marxist!” in Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), 195-196.
- The Weather Underground directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel (2002), 1:30, https://vimeo.com/33006390.
- Sale, SDS, 602.
- Irwin Unger, The Movement: A History of the American New Left 1959-1972 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 173.
- The Weather Underground, Quote starts at 25:51.
- Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (London: Verso, 1997), 36.
- Rudd, Underground, 190-191.