The 50th anniversary edition of SDS, the classic story of the 1960s Students for a Democratic Society, has just been published, with a new introduction by me, and an enlarged index in which many modern-day politicos will find their names. A handsome paperbound edition, a hefty 769 pages for only $24.95, it was published as an act of love by the New York City-based Autonomedia, which had also earlier published my No More Mushrooms: Thoughts on Life Without Government.
In retrospect, we can see that, although the organization collapsed after just ten years of existence, it did make a mark. As I say in the introduction, it was “a major factor in the creation of a New Left in America,” which was no small thing given that the only left politics up until then was a moldy Marxism, a kind of Maoism, and an anti-Soviet socialism, none of which took hold in this country or was likely to. This was a homegrown politics, taking its impulses not from Europe but from dissatisfactions and distortions in the American experience
I am compelled to add that, alas, that New Left did not last very long, and its residue took two not-so-positive courses. One became a kind of Marxism that followed a Gramscian path into American universities where it matured into a woke radicalism of a most unpleasant and confrontational sort. The other developed into a form of the old “democratic socialism” that Mike Harrington once championed and Bernie Sanders promoted in his 2016 and 2020 candidacies, a kind of Big Mother government enlargement. Both represent politics that the SDS in its serious years, as expressed so well in the Port Huron Statement of 1962, would have rejected out of hand.
SDS was important, too, in opening up for a generation a critique of the American government, dropping the scales from the eyes of the Silent Generation, and showing how on Vietnam not only the military-industrial and the chemical (Dow) complex but also the university complex was complicit in American misdeeds. It was the initial and for a time the largest organization against that war and its student-disrupting draft, eventually forcing a President to resign and leading eventually three-quarters of the population against the official military policies of their government in a time of war.
That generation, too, was the leader of white support for the civil rights movement, instigating the movement for women’s equality, and the cause of sweeping reforms in campus life and governance. It did not anywhere cement its broadest vision—of participatory democracy and community empowerment— and yet wisps of those ideals still remain in the political world.
Over the years I have been contacted by college students wanting to start a new SDS and I’ve always encouraged them. They were the sort that were put off by the Marxist lines and talk of government panaceas, but wanted something more positive than Ron Paul’s libertarianism and found it nowhere. They saw in SDS, in its better phases, the kind of regenerative politics they dealt the country needed. None of their efforts met success. But if there are others that are in search of a possible model, the story of SDS is a good place to start. And here it is redux.