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Friday, September 01, 2006 

The New SDS: Somewhere Between Moderate Disinterest and Fuck "the Possibilities"

Disclaimer: What follows is an articulation of a singular rather than collective position. I don't pretend to speak for anyone else and nor am I articulating the line of any organization. That said, my views have been largely shaped by a number of friends and comrades, so where props should be due consider them given. By the same token, where mistakes (factual, logical or political) occur, they are my own. Finally, this is NOT my primary area of political work. So if you disagree, flame away but don't expect swift responses to any criticisms or disagreements.

Introduction: Several folks around our ML corner of the blogosphere have taken up discussing the reemergence of SDS as a force in the predominantly white student movement. Comments on a post from back in February recently saw a major revival in the lead-up to and following the group's "founding" convention over at the burningman's Red Flags blog. FRSO/Fight Back! supporter ComradeZero quickly posted a must read report of his first-hand impressions of the conference. Just this past Sunday El Camino posted a write-up from FRSO/OSCL's webmaster Eric Odell containing his own take on the group, its founding convention and its "possibilities."

As many have noted, I've been kinda out of touch lately when it comes to regular blog posting. No apologies, though. Life and current political work have commanded the bulk of my attention. But as a former student activist who worked in and has continued to relate to one sector of the predominately white student movement for over half a decade, I wanted to throw my 2 cents into the mix.

Since the goal of this post is less about winning-over current SDS boosters within our corner of the US left, and more about making an early attempt at a sharper articulation of a position that I know other reds out there share, I'm going to cut to the chase. The current reinvention of SDS suffers from many, if not most of the worst traits of the primarily white student movement, and in light of this, we should abandon this talk of SDS's supposed "possibilities" in favor of a more balanced and materialist approach to work with and within this dingy reincarnation of a once great student organization. This seems expressly true since there is no shortage of already existing national student organizations engaged in solid mass work, such as United Student Against Sweatshops (USAS) or the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition.

In my summation the new SDS's problems can be grouped in four distinct categories:
  • Failure to understand the centrality of race/white supremacist national oppression.

  • Priority on issues and tactics that put the subjective conditions as experienced by a tiny cross-section of the population in the driver's seat, at the expense of tactical and/or political flexibility that might better respond to actual conditions.

  • A most unprincipled exclusion of organized left and specifically red or ML forces, especially those who have proven track records of playing nice with others.

  • Standing issues of student autonomy and control of the group's collective process - the old fogies contradiction.

Failure to understand the centrality of race/white supremacist national oppression: Generally speaking the predominately white sector of the student movement has suffered, is suffering, and will likely continue to suffer from a white blind-spot. Of course this shortcoming is anything but static, and it prevalence can and does fluctuate from group to group and within all groups over time. From my limited vantage point, the new SDS seems to suffer from this affliction in truly intense ways.

The fact that only 5 to 10 percent of the participants were people of color/oppressed nationality is but a symptom of a much larger problem. A problem that is rooted in the issues and tactics that the new group's base is focused on, and a problem that a group dominated by the type of anarchists that appear to be setting the political tenor is largely unequipped to deal with. Compare these facts with similar stats for, say, United Students Against Sweatshops and SDS's deficiencies shine through all the brighter.

USAS has been repeatedly dissed on by many leftists I know, and the line of argument often flows from USAS's perceived whiteness. And yet their February 2006 conference was at or near majority people of color in terms of attendance. This too is symptomatic of attempts to include work and attitudes of student of color at all levels of the organization.

Despite the continued relative whiteness of USAS's base, and the former pervasiveness of an imperialist "save the brown-people" ideology, the group has put years of effort into fostering a real anti-racist consciousness. As part and parcel of this work, USAS has poured considerable amounts of effort into forging ongoing relationships with several MEChA chapters, and supporting the development of multi-issue student groups at HBCUs. It has intentionally adopted a politics of direct solidarity juxtaposed to one of charity. Even the mission statement like quote that crowns the back of every USAS t-shirt printed embodies this political perspective: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you've come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." - Lila Watson

As far as conference culture goes, USAS has long since abandoned the overtly patriarchal, white-supremacist practice of "stacking caucuses" - as in placing caucuses against each other so that a Black working-class lesbian gets to pick which aspect of her lived-experience is primary on that given day, or worse yet holding caucuses concurrent with major decision making sessions (which at least based on a causal glance at the convention's schedule and Eric's summation is what appears to have happened at the recent SDS gathering). It bases travel subsidies largely on the gender, nationality, class and sexuality of the proposed conference delegations from member groups, and USAS national organizers take the job of focusing leadership development energies of emerging oppressed nationality chapter leaders very seriously.

USAS has robust and active caucuses that meet, plan and conduct on-going work outside of its two yearly conferences. These caucuses all have standing representation on USAS's board (which is made up entirely of current students).

If people have examples of the new SDS doing any of the following, share them. 'Cause at present I haven't heard a peep about anything coming out of SDS that could hold a candle to USAS's aforementioned efforts.

Subjective Feelings / Material Reality: Although I would certainly list the issue of white-supremacy and the group's white-blindspot as the central contradiction facing SDS's internal functioning and general sustainability, the issue of white-guy adventurism (which is obviously related) is one of similar importance vis-à-vis their politics and methods of work.

Speaking of the type of student work with which I am most familiar for a story in Freedom Road Magazine Issue #3, one student organizer involved with UTK's Progressive Student Alliance described the following contradiction: "Sometimes students want [the campaign] to go a certain way, to integrate a radical tendency that the workers may not be ready for in the beginning. I think the best way to overcome that is to be deeply involved with the union as opposed to just acting—to get in there and get to know the people, and to meet them where they are at...Some students only have a short period of time to be campus activists, and they want to contribute something. But patience is key if working folks are to lead their own struggle.”

This quote is obviously referring to class-contradictions that naturally arise in student-labor coalitions, but I feel that the principle can and should see a larger application within the predominately white segment of the U.S. student movement.

Fundamentally the beauty of student work is two fold: 1) students have the ability to go through a radicalizing process at a much faster pace than possibly any other segment of the U.S. population - thus allowing waves of youth to embrace radical politics and intense, militant forms of struggle; 2) this subjective reality can, when the objective conditions allow for it, greatly influence the subjective conditions of other strata of society. This dialectic is the heart of student work, but it has to be respected if you don't want shitty student work that is utterly isolated from the world outside of the campus.

The revamped SDS does not appear to have any real analysis of what the material conditions facing society as a whole currently are outside of ultra-left sloganeering. Yet these material conditions are the necessary precondition for students to be able to influence or jump-start qualitative leaps in the consciousness of other segments of the populace) . Instead the subjective realities as experience by a few mostly white dudes is given priority to set the organization's direction, leading to extremely militant action that, if it impacts other people at all, has the effect of turning broader parts of the population off to struggle.

Shouting down Bill Clinton is great; UTK's Progressive Student Alliance received international coverage after a similar disruption at a Dick Cheney event here in Knoxville. But that doesn't build a group's base. Likewise, must of the students who we need to be entering student work at a time like now are not ready to shout down Cheney, Bill Clinton, or even Bush right now. And that says nothing for how few students are willing to get the shit kicked out of the by cops while trying to delay troop deployments to Iraq by 8 days.

Although I said that the principle of coalition building with other strata that softens student militancy should be adopted by more than just student-labor activists, I don't mean to make completely universal claims here. Many solid activists and organizers have done amazingly militant work and not fallen victim to these pitfalls. I'm thinking specifically of SLAM here. But that said, some white kids choosing to blockade a port while facing state-power with fists a-swinging two days after a group's first meeting ain't like several years of base-building and political education that wins large waves of oppressed nationality and white youth over to a perspective that taking militant action in the streets is the only means to win what they know they need. It seems more like the early 1995 mistakes that former Love and Rage members reference in the Fire by Night Organizing Committee's self-reflective "After Winter Must Come Spring" (Also, check out the pamphlet re-do put out by the FRSO/OSCL for more discussions of FbN's problems with SLAM members that help contributed to the NYC chapter's dissolution).

Exclusion of Party Left Forces: Much has been said of this on Red Flags and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that such positions draw the completely wrong lessons from SDS 1.0 while betraying the aspect of the original SDS's politics that made it possible for a small student group to be propelled to an international stage. Also, it seems a little coincidence that a group whose political outlook is so heavily influenced by the idealism and individualist adventurism of the RYM1/Weathermen is so openly disdainful for left organizations created in large part by non-SDS oppressed nationality students and RYM2 partisans. The Weather Underground abandoned party building (any attempt at broadly based organization for that matter) from the outset, and this legacy fits extremely well within the white, petit bourgeois intellectual paradigm employed by many of the so-called anarchists that appear to be finding a new home inside this reanimated SDS. Through the total lack of accountability of SDS's left-liberal graduates and you have the perfect stew for some nasty anti-communist sectarianism.

Old Fogies: It's rather weird when the sum-up of a student conference and more than half the pictures from said conference are being written by and are show-casing old people. I love me so old people, don't get me wrong. Locally I feel like some of my work's biggest handicaps flow from a lack of veteran fighters I can really relate to. But I don't think that 30-something folks should be setting the tone of student work - let alone senior citizens! It's creepy, and it does not bode well for the group's long term sustainability. And that's all I've got to say about it.

Conclusion: My basic position is as simple as this post's title. Both my personal feelings, those of others I know, and my recommendations to the broader left is to maintain something like moderate disinterest in the new SDS. I agree with Eric Odell's general impression that this group has not yet figured out how to translate their web success into a non-virtual organization. Emails and websites won't end the wars; neither will ultra-personal decisions to blockade Washington state ports for a week and a half. The group's current white blind-spot is already huge, and threatens to utterly eclipse any ability to engage in effective summation of actual conditions.

The world certainly cries out for things to be done, but that does not mean that we need a new multi-issue student organization, especially not one with as many deficiencies as people seem willing to acknowledge the new SDS has.

At the end of the day we must at least be honest with ourselves, and fundamentally this means recognizing that just because we desperately want the possibilities of a new upsurge of kick-ass student activist to exist doesn't mean that it's there. And it certainly doesn't mean that this SDS is the fount from which such an upsurge will flow, because in fact it's far from it. Imagined possibilities are the U.S. left's most useless creation, and when it comes to the fictitious possibilities embodied by the new SDS I say fuck 'em.

I'll start with the same disclaimer you did -- this is just my individual opinion.

I appreciate your analysis and insights, and I'd say they are all correct as far as they go. But I'd say I disagree on the conclusion.

Lets put it this way -- if you were on campus looking to start a new progressive student group this fall, and you were starting out with a few mostly white progressive/radical activists, what would you start? I'd start an SDS chapter, no question. Even given all the very serious shortcomings and contradictions that exist in SDS so far, which are very real and very problematic.

You say, "The world certainly cries out for things to be done, but that does not mean that we need a new multi-issue student organization, especially not one with as many deficiencies as people seem willing to acknowledge the new SDS has."

I disagree with you -- I think there is a very desperate need for a real national multi-issue radical student organization. Sure, the student movement on individual campuses can get along without such a formation, but there is a serious vacuum that I don't see how you can deny. The lack of such a thing hurts the student movement and the left overall in the US.

Saying that of course does not make it any easier to will such a thing into being. And starting one is easier than maintaining and growing one over time, and this effort may flop under its contradictions. But how can you say there is not a need for a multi-issue radical student organization in the US? And how do you envision something else emerging in the white section of the student movement without having to deal with the exact same contradictions over again? (i.e. those contradictions exist because they have a social basis that isn't going away in the near future)

If you are someone with an already existing student group (USAS, PSA/PSU/PSN, single-issue anti-war group, etc) do you transform it into SDS? I'd say no, at least at this point. But to ignore or not relate to the reemrgence of a potentially viable national radical student organization I think would be a mistake. 

Posted by LS

This is a fun discussion, Nelson, because even though I disagree with the basic thrust of your post, it does also contain a lot of thoughtful points.

I absolutely agree about the need for SDS to be careful about creating terms of engagement within the group, either on the level of ideology or of action, that "slam the door" and make it hard to draw in new people at the base. And of course keeping the National Question central is key.

One main overall theme that I disagree with, though, is the comparison between SDS and USAS. Most fundamentally, SDS has been around for about eight months, while USAS is a mature organization that's something like a decade old. I don't think that's a proper comparison.

Since my knowledge of USAS is limited, I'd like to make a comparison instead between SDS and the group I know best -- the Student Environmental Action Coalition. Eight months into SEAC's lifespan would be the spring of 1989. At that point, SEAC could have been written off very easily by someone not paying close enough attention as nothing more than a bunch of liberal do-gooders with no real radical potential. And in fact SEAC was completely ignored by pretty much the entire left at that point. The main kind of work being done at that point was efforts to get recycling programs on campuses and bans on styrofoam in school cafeterias.

(My own SEAC chapter at the U of Minnesota-Twin Cities that I helped found in response to the original call to build the national SEAC network actually made that precise error. We disaffiliated from national SEAC for about half a year starting in the spring of 1989 because we decided they were too liberal and reformist for us. Possibly the biggest political error I ever made. Instead, we went in May to the founding conference of the Youth Greens, a left split off of the national Greens' youth caucus to form an independent organization. That national conference drew all of 50 people. The group lasted less than a year. Come the fall of 1989, when SEAC's first national conference drew 1700 people to Chapel Hill, NC, we did a serious reality check about where the masses were at and rejoined SEAC.)

If you look just a few years later to the period of SEAC's maturity, you see a profoundly different picture than at its beginning. You had many advanced groups doing a whole host of quite radical campaigns. You also had a deep commitment to an environmental justice orientation on the part of the organization's leadership and the advanced and much of the intermediate of its base. And this commitment was not just abstract; it was manifested in a real and substantial way in the organization's structure, campaigns, trainings, programs that were funded, etc. SEAC had a real impact on the balance of forces in the environmental struggle, won some real and major victories for the people, and turned out a whole pile of committed revolutionaries.

This is the point I was making in my article about potential, and I think it's a pretty big mistake to dismiss it, no matter how many silly, frustrating, and embarrassing shortcomings SDS exhibits at the moment in the beginning phase of its development. Nelson, I think you're tending to reify SDS into something that will always be what a snapshot taken at the first national convention depicts. The fact is that one can already see interesting shifts in thinking since that date less than a month ago. And if people with more advanced thinking and practice engage themselves positively in SDS, such quantitative shifts will build up over time and quite possibly do what they tend to do: lead to qualitative transformation.

Another basic difference between USAS and SDS is that the organizing work of USAS leaders is greatly enhanced by a steady influx of money from unions. If that funding source dried up, it's probable that USAS as a national entity wouldn't continue on in its present state. On the other hand, SDS has sprung up out of and is being propelled fundamentally by the felt need by many of the advanced among the masses of students for a national, multi-issue, radical student organization. This is one of the most basic features of a Mass Line orientation -- uniting with the felt needs of the masses as expressed in their own motion. (Necessary aside: And then working through a "from the people, to the people" methodology to advance the struggle, to favorably alter the balance of forces and create new conditions in which to raise the fight to a qualitatively higher level, to win victories for the people and hurt the enemy, to win the advanced to revolution and socialism, to raise the consciousness of the broad masses, and so on.)

I'm also trying to figure out why you're so dismissive of this felt need for multi-issue student organization when, if I'm correct, the group you yourself come out of at UTK is itself multi-issue and is not a USAS chapter proper. Shouldn't we try to create many more groups like yours?

Regarding the assertion that the highlighted actions of the new SDS are adventurist, I have to disagree. In general, it is the proper and vital role of students to be pushing the boundaries. It always is, everywhere you look around the world. Of course, this also means that left errors are the biggest danger in the student movement, but that just goes with the territory -- just like right errors tend to be the biggest danger in the bulk of the labor movement, because that movement *in the present period* mainly consists of struggle around the terms under which workers want to sell their labor power to capital.

And in particular, regarding the Olympia actions, here are the words of a leader in the BTHN campaign: "This may prove to have been the most important anti-war action in the country this year. As was the case with the Vietnam War movement, it has taken a while for the conditions for militant actions of this sort to ripen. Well-meaning criticisms were also directed at actions like Stop the Draft Week in Oakland during the Vietnam War. Time will tell whether conditions are yet broadly ripe for such actions, but the results from Olympia seem more promising than not."

Also in particular, the shouting down of Bill Clinton did seem possibly to have had a positive effect on building the Pace SDS chapter, as they were clearly the strongest presence at the convention. It also galvanized SDS and even broader forces within the whole New York area. And the fact that Hillary Clinton canceled a recent speaking gig there indicates that it's had a real effect.

Nelson, you call for a "balanced and materialist approach," but I'm not really seeing that in your post. I fear that you're falling a little bit into a "critiquist" error -- one-sidedly detailing all the real and perceived shortcomings and then writing the whole thing off on that basis. I mean, c'mon, is "dingy" a materialist characterization? In my piece I went carefully through what I thought are SDS's main negatives and limiting factors, and I nevertheless came to the conclusion that nothing there poses an absolute limit on SDS's future development. Sure, things could go wrong in any number of different ways, but that's never not the case.

You say, "The world certainly cries out for things to be done, but that does not mean that we need a new multi-issue student organization, especially not one with as many deficiencies as people seem willing to acknowledge the new SDS has." The thing, though, is that it's not about what "we" need. It's about what the masses demonstrate that *they* need, including the white, middle-class, ideologically confused, error-prone masses. SDS stands out in the student movement sector in terms of the degree of motion taking place at present, and we would be following something other than the Mass Line if as revolutionaries we fail to engage with it to some significant degree.

Posted by Eric Odell

(Note: I drafted all of this before I even read Eric's recent response on this very blog. So read it with that in mind.)

Well, Nelson, you're nothing if not blunt! For a minute I thought you were dumping ML for a while and instead channeling Trotsky's injunction to "tell the truth, no matter how bitter." Others are going to argue that Nelson's post is far too denunciatory and impatient with inexperienced young activists. To some extent I want to unite with those criticisms of Nelson's post, but I can't avoid the sneaking feeling of sympathy with where Nelson is coming from. I think he has standing to comment harshly, even if it comes off as excessively vituperative at points.

Nelson is only a few years out of the student movement, and still very close to actual student activists (who are mostly in the predominantly white section of the student movement, if I am correct?). I am only a few years at remove from a similar experience, though my connections with student activists are now nil. I suspect that the sharpness of Nelson's comments come from the same feeling that I have: when I was a student activist, I too made plenty of mistakes -- including ultraleft ones -- but I was never as presumptuous as the statements from this "New SDS" group indicate that they are. I had very little patience with adventurism back then, and I fought against white-guy posturing in favor of a disciplined, mass-organizing outlook when I was  a student activist -- so why the hell should I let up in my criticisms now? More often that not I didn't know what the hell I was doing as a student activist, but the difference was that even then, I recognized that fact and always tried to learn from people who knew more than I did before making a lot of grandiloquent statements. From what I know of student activism at the University of Tennessee, this is the same kind of practice that Nelson and his comrades aimed for. So on an emotional, gut level, I unite with most of what Nelson has said here.

Before I go on, though, let me address some shortcomings in Nelson's post:

(1) I want to push back against the use of the phrase "white, petit-bourgeois intellectual" to describe the milieu out of which anarchist infantilism comes. Two of those characterizations are correct: it is definitely white, and it is definitely petit-bourgeois. And yes, that definitely matters. But it is far from "intellectual." In my experience, these are the same circles that depreciate study and intellectual rigor the same way they depreciate discipline and accountability when it comes to matters of organization and action. To the extent that these people come out with any kind of analysis, it is always the kind of arid abstraction that is typical of sectarians of every stripe. With these people it is a lot of process-fetishist stuff about "consensus," "non-hierarchical, decentralized, horizontal organization," and opposition to "authoritarians," whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. But sectarian anarchist pieties are functionally no different from Trotskyite pieties about "workers councils" or McMaoist exhortations to "bombard the headquarters" or "read Bob Avakian." They all have a lot in common with eachother and nothing at all in common with intellectual work, save in the way medieval scholasticism has something in common with real theory, or the way astrology has something in common with astronomy. More intellectual work and more genuine intellectuals would be a good thing. Think about Gramsci's concept of "organic intellectuals" before you criticize intellectuals as a category.

(2) The critique of the "white blind spot" needs to be done more carefully and with more specifics if it is to be effective in actually moving people to constructive action. Nelson is correct in putting the issue front-and-center, because it is not one shortcoming of an organization among many; it is fundamental. But it is a reflection of the broader society that the student movement is as segregated as it is. It is not an easy thing to overcome. And in the predominantly white section of the student movement, there are many people who are going to interpret this critique as unfair or even opportunist so long as it is not accompanied by some suggestions about what ought to be done about it -- nay, more than suggestions, but real demonstrations of strategies that work. Nelson is correct that the skewed issue emphases and anarchist adventurism so typified by the "New SDS" is both a symptom of the "white blind spot" and also tends to intensify it. But if you want that message to get through to young and inexperienced activists in the predominantly white section of the student movement, you have to spell out what you mean and give some specifics, as well as ideas about what they need to do differently. This is very hard to do in written polemics; almost always, it can only be done effectively in the course of struggle. If you ignore the "New SDS," then you write them off -- and I'm not saying from the outset that that would be an inappropriate choice for activists like Nelson who have other priority areas of work, but it is not out of the question that other advanced cadres might fruitfully struggle alongside people from the "New SDS" and thereby bring them along. That's the only way they will ever advance.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the most important student organization of the 1960s also had a strong culture of moral witness and "putting your body on the line," in this case one derived from liberal Protestant Christianity. I am of course referring to SNCC. And they did not have a white blind spot! The other side of the coin, of course, is that SNCC also had a mass-organizing outlook, and its best cadres like Bob Moses excelled in nitty-gritty, disciplined work among the masses of the most oppressed. They had respect for the fears and the real dangers that the masses faced, and they usually knew not to get too far ahead of the people -- even as they also demonstrated exemplary individual moral and physical courage in the face of the White Citizens Council, racist rural sheriffs, and nightriders.

These are the kinds of historical lessons that need to be imparted to young activists in the predominantly white section of the student movement, but their real import is only going to be understood through the experience of common struggle combined with patient, unity-struggle-unity work by advanced cadres. Statements and caucuses at conferences are not unimportant, but we are falling into the same process-fetishist trap as the anarchists if we accord them more importance than they really have. We are only going to solve problems like this by real action on the ground. Every activist conference I've ever attended -- without exception -- has been good only for "recharging the batteries" (i.e., getting inspired again), meeting up with interesting people who are doing the same kinds of work, and getting creative ideas from others. But speeches from the floor, resolutions, and statements at conferences are only as good as the people who have to go home and actually implement them.

Given all of this, simply pointing out the "white blind spot" in an organization is not enough. For many young white activists, it is actually not quite a blind spot, because they are acutely aware of it; they just don't know what to do about it. Sometimes, pointing out the glaringly white racial composition of a room or of the people around a table ends up sounding like a collectve recitation of the act of contrition: everyone says they're sorry for their sins and then carries on as cluelessly as before. And to a certain extent, it is understandable if inexperienced activists from the predominantly white section of the student movement react in a bewildered or frustrated fashion to such criticisms, since they do not want the issue of who isn't at the table to paralyze action by those who are at the table at a given moment. Which brings me to the related point:

(3) The commenter "LS " makes a fair point: if you were a white student activist starting out right now, with a mostly white group of radical student activists, what would you do? The answer is most assuredly not "nothing." So what would you do?

At this point, I start to unite with Nelson's criticisms once again. Because unlike LS, I would not see much point or promise in hooking up with the "New SDS." There are a lot of things I would do:

(a) I would look for an anchor organization in town. Most likely this would be a progressive, organizing-minded union local. It may be a poor people's organization, a workers' center, a Jobs with Justice affiliate, an immigrants' rights organization, or even a progressive church or faith coalition. Furthest down on my list, by preference, would be a "peace and justice center" of some type, since these are usually the kind of group that is made up of nice people, but which is not doing the kind of base-building work among the oppressed that I would want to emphasize. After finding that anchor organization, I would build a student solidarity campaign that would allow the student activists to interact with both the base and leadership of the anchor organization.

(b) If there are live student issues -- tuition, affirmative action, open admissions, racial profiling by campus police, etc. -- I would try to organize around those. On these issues, I would try to interact fruitfully with the student government -- maybe even participate in running people for the student government -- while combatting the tendency of student activists to get sucked into this kind of thing as a thing-in-itself rather than as an organizing tool. Absent avenues to effectively organize around "purely" student issues, however, I would maintain the emphasis on a broader issue important to the anchor organization.

(c) After a period of activity in a broader campaign by the anchor organization, I would attempt to build an autonomous campus-based campaign that is related to the issue. In my own student activist days, we moved from activity in a county-wide living wage campaign to setting up a campus-based one. Maybe if your student activist group is focused on supporting immigrant rights, you could initiate a campus-based campaign for a university code of conduct, trying to secure guarantees that the university will never call ICE or the FBI on its students or workers, for instance.

(d) I would attempt to build a large student periphery which would receive regular communications (e-mail, newsletters, phone calls at event time, etc.) from our student activist group's campaign. At the core would be an increasingly cadrefied group of hardcore activists. There would be an emphasis here on study and theoretical development, as well as debriefs and sum-ups of the concrete work, conducted regularly in both formal and informal settings.

And there are a lot of other things I would do. But all of them would be geared towards organizing a base on my own campus. All of them would be geared toward organizing the unorganized instead of just talking to other activists all the time -- except insofar as talking to other activists helps accomplish the real mass work. To the extent that my organization would hook up with a national student organization, it would have to make sense in this context. If I am not mistaken, USSA is very weak these days, and has been "decerted" on a number of campuses, but it is still around and is a good framework for doing work around "purely student" issues as well as others, since they provide resources like the Grassroots Organizing Weekend (GROW). (USSA is also genuinely multiracial.) I always found it fruitful to attend the student/labor plenaries before each year's Jobs with Justice annual meeting; if those are still going on, that is also a good thing for people to go to. Does SLAP still do its National Student/Labor Day of Action on April 4? Nelson has written some interesting things about recent developments in USAS of which I was not aware, so they may be worth hooking up with as well.

But in the case of USAS -- or any organization, really -- it is important not to overestimate what a national student organization has to offer. Most of these efforts to form national or even regional student organizations are premature and even illusory. I am not much interested in a national organization unless there is buy-in from a critical mass of well-organized local chapters. Critically, this has to include at least some financial commitment as well, whether that be from dues paid out of student fees (as in the case of USSA), from dues collected from voluntary student organizations (which strikes me as virtually impossible to pull off in the current political climate), or from people who are disciplined and knowledgeable enough to write a credible grant to a progressive foundation. There should be enough money to support a national office with at least a few full-time staff who can drive meaningful national programs and campaigns. Otherwise, there's no point apart from getting together and slapping eachother on the back every year or so.

This "New SDS" has every sign of being hundreds of miles wide and a few micrometers deep.

I've actually interacted with a few of the "old fogeys" that Nelson references here. Some of them are nice folks. But they are not the kind of people who are going to help nurture a new predominantly white section of the student movement. It's not just that the presence of too many older folks can overwhelm and deform the development of student activists, although that is part of it: I am 28, and I would not even think of interacting with an undergraduate student movement in the way these people appear to be doing. But it goes beyond that, because the inspiration and advice of some from the older generation ought to be welcome: it's just that these are not even the right old fogeys!

The cartoonish sectarianism is the stuff of comedy when it is not annoying, too. The fact that the so-called "IWW" is featured at these conferences is all the proof that I really need. The spectacle of one organization that no longer exists attending the conference of another organization that no longer exists so vividly reminds me of the opening passages of the Eighteenth Brumaire that it almost seems too easy to point it out. Were it not for this, the ban on tabling by "red" groups would not bother me as much as it bothers Nelson. I have little patience for the sectarian red groups, and while I probably would not have voted to exclude them, I could unite with the wish and the democratic right of any mass student organization to want to hold a conference free from disruptions, not only by groups like PLP or the Sparts, but by some of the "less bad" ones like ISO or RCP. From what I've seen, the only red cadre groups that behave in a principled fashion (most of the time) towards mass movements are FRSO/OSCL, the CPUSA, what's left of the Committees of Correspondence (of which, in the interest of dislosure, I am a lapsed member), and to some extent Solidarity (though I differ strongly with their line and practice). I've never seen FRSO-ML in action, so "no investigation, no right to speak." But all of that said, even if the sectarian groups are annoying, their exclusion here was not about giving a mass student movement room to grow. It was about one sectarian tendency (the anarchist one) excluding its competitors, and was therefore no different from the ISO excluding the RCP from its own conferences.

To sum up, then, my attitude toward the "New SDS" is not quite as harsh as Nelson's "fuck 'em." I wish them well. But in practice, my attitude is pretty much the same. There is no indication that this group will go anywhere. If they do, I may be pleasantly surprised. But I would not recommend that revolutionaries spend any time on them. Some saintly ones among us -- with a good deal more patience than people like Nelson or myself -- may want to have a try at separating the wheat from the chaff, but I'm betting that it will be a low-yield field. 

Posted by John Lacny

Did I say this was fun or what? 

Posted by Eric Odell

As a student activist and organizer working in Knoxville, I've got to say that it's unclear to me how the new SDS is at all relevant to our work here, or anyone already engaged in work any moreso than an already well established organization (and here I unite with Nelson's support of work from within USAS, for reasons that I explain later). And, to respond directly to Eric's assertion that there is a broadly felt need in the national student movement for such an organization--that is, Eric's reading of the mass line--I would question from who and why. Radical, multi-issue student organizations--specficially USAS--are already in place to connect with students in a variety of projects, from direct labor solidarity work to anti-recruitment work.

Even a quick blush of the way USAS works is telling: if the membership at any given conference decides, literally any project can be taken up by the organization as a whole; more practically, any project can have some sort of organizational resources, and can be carried out in the name of USAS. USAS, too, is already a multinational organization, has a radical analysis, is supported by a range of other radical organizations outside of the traditional trade union donor network that is so often used to describe the limitations of USAS, and is literally directly responsive TWICE A YEAR to the 'masses,' so to speak, and the mass line within the student activist movement.

So why a new organization altogether? Nelson I think rightly points out that people already doing student work on a national level are confused about the "felt need" for an organization when one already exists, particularly an organization that is predominantly white. This isn't to say that the student movement is inaccurately reflected by SDS; it is to say that USAS has already begun and has had successes in its struggle to undo racism and priortize the voices of people of color, women, working class people, and queer folks.

Forgive the scattershot nature of an early morning (for students on a long weekend, anyway) post from work. My point is simply to RE-EMPHASIZE Nelson's post from the perspective of an actual student and student organizer--given the lack of such a presence in this discussion: why a new organization? Why not deal with one that exists, has won victories and provent its ability to win more, and one which has already begun to struggle--and indeed begun to overcome--some of the deficiencies that are so clearly seen in the new SDS. Why take resources from USAS, for instance, to give them to something new?

Posted by Thomas Walker

Spurred on by this posting, I've posted up a writeup on the SDS convention at length on All Out. These are mostly variations on that theme in response to that.

I'm a student and an activist; I'm a part of one of the groups mentioned in the writeup actually; I won't say which one to preserve my pseudonym, other than it's not an SDS affiliate.

I don't think either Eric's post here or my post to All Out, is suggesting USAS or other student activist groups drop everything, liquidate, and roll into the New SDS. I'm certainly not going to do so with my group.

In assessing my own experience as a student activist, I think there are two errors that can be made. One is what I'll call "ambulance chasing" -- letting the novelty of new projects seduce you away from work within an established base. The ISO makes this error constantly; I think you'll recall how they folded their participation in USAS with the arrival of the NEW big thing the Nader campaign.

The second error that I'll describe, which my group suffered from to its own detriment, has been "core cadrification", a concept which the UTK folks will probably know. For those in the audience, it's when mass groups (especially student-based mass groups) have a well-seasoned core that has a high level of consciousness that starts to outstrip that of its base, and subsequently makes the decision to close a group off to those of "less" consciousness.

Now, I'm kind of concerned with the phrasing of the point that Thomas Walker puts out there: "Why take resources from USAS, for instance, to give them to something new?" Because in my experience, the idea that activism is a zero sum game -- that what one group gets is inherently at another's loss -- is one of the warning signs of core cadrification.

To elaborate on why that kind of thinking is a danger, my own group got very full of itself at a certain point. We had a well-developed politics, made some real hardcore actions, and had changed the tenor on campus from one of complacency about the war in the Middle East to one of militant opposition against it.

But in that process, we made a pretty stupid decision not to communicate clearly with our allies -- we justified on the grounds of "security culture", not wanting to get dragged into any meetings a Trot might show up at, and so on -- and as a result, actions took place throughout our shared world in a bizarrely discrete fashion. One campus wouldn't know what the next was doing; heck, some groups on campus wouldn't know what we were doing.

In the end, we didn't have the support we needed when push came to shove, and we're probably not better for it.

So in general, I think we should always weigh the merits and demerits of new student activist projects carefully. But there's a danger in closed spaces of making the knives so sharp because the stakes are so low.

Speaking in particular of the New SDS, indeed they have deficiencies. I've written at length on them. But the question is, how do we deal with these deficiencies? They are not insurmountable, and certainly not when looked from the perspective of the united front and mass-line.

We work to find that section that is advanced, build unity with them to go forward, then we work to address the intermediate and then the backward elements. We win that which can be won at a given moment, we hurt common enemies, and then move on from there.

Textbook united front building.

I may be mistaken, but I do not think there's all that much pressing in USAS, UTK, PSN, etc. that there is no ability to, say, send around a letter calling for a day of action of some sort, or to float a letter to be signed, or to build some relationship with the New SDS that can be beneficial for all concerned.

Rudimentary steps in dealing with a rudimentary organization that quite possibly has some legs under it.  

Posted by Modern Pitung

In response to Lacny's points in particular:

While trying to stay away either from McMaoism or unprincipled criticism, there is an oft-forgotten bit of "Combat Liberalism" that still rings true, about regarding oneself as a veteran and "disdaining minor assignments while being quite unequal to major tasks"

Are some anarchist tendencies -- sectarianism, red-baiting, "process" fetishism, et al. -- a problem for the movement? Yes. But let's not make mountains out of molehills.

In answer to the things you mentioned, John:

1) The ban on "party groups" tabling was wishy-washy at best - as are most decisions made through a consensus process that state that there was no consensus decision. So the ban folded pretty quickly -- as in, as soon as tabling started.

2) By far worse than the supposed ban on reds tabling was the amount of credence reds seemed to give to it. There were plenty of chances to get literature out, besides tabling inside the U. Chicago building where it was held.

3) On the whiteness of the convention, it was pretty undeniable. Mostly, I think it stems from the New SDS being a new and volunteer-based organization.

I did meet a number of really good activists of color, of any number of orientations (red to slightly red to unorthodox anarchist to ortho-anarchists). They were good connections to make, and I think they'll bear fruit inside or outside the New SDS.

I think a common position we all held was that most of us are used to being bombarded by whitey. We're people of color in America (or was that AmeriKKKa?) So we were not going to just kvetch about it to ourselves, we were actually going to break it down politically and then move on from there.

4) The citation of Eighteenth Brumaire and in particular the (oft decontextualized) line on tragedy and farce quote cuts both positively and negatively with regard to SDS. Negatively in that I certainly hope that nobody would be so stupid as to repeat the mistakes of either RYM I/Weather or the PLP -- but it's always a possibility.

But it's so far ringing quite positively, as you'll see in Eric's post. It's easy to forget that the first generation SDS didn't even start as SDS -- it was a project of the League for Industrial Democracy, a group of anti-communists. It developed into SDS and flowered as it moved geographically and ideologically got away from East Coast liberalism.

In other words, the original SDS didn't end the way it started, and defied a lot of people's expectations. So too will it be that the new SDS will likely have a different orientation when it ends than when it began. Where it will get determined by discipline, line and good politics -- if we bring discipline, line, and good politics to the table.

In re Modern Pitung's (mistaken) guesses about the lack of "pressing" issues that might actually be held back by a re-allocation of resources to building and struggling with the new SDS "in USAS, UTK, PSN, etc.":

First, I just want to say that I might be mistaken altogether about what's being said, related perhaps most acutely to my confusion around what's being talked about (USAS is an org., UTK is a school, and PSN doesn't even exist [?]), but I'm going to comment (how principled!) nevertheless.

In fact, at least in my experience at UTK, there *is much pressing* which would certainly be held-back by a dedication of resources to planning or coordinating some action in conjunction with the new SDS that didn't fit in with our standing strategy. That is to say, with *limited* resources, which at least our student group has become so familiar with in terms of bodies, energy, and money, it simply doesn't make sense for us to try to additionally engage with the new SDS unless it's directly relevant to and supportive of our very pressing work.

To the degree that I can speak to and about the experience of USAS, which is less, of course, than the mass group here in Knoxville, I would say the same is also true, though as in every situation there are unactive bodies.

If groups have time and energy--and will--to dedicate to struggling with SDS to build the organization, then do so. I would say, and this is the line that us in Knoxville generally unite around, that such groups should first strongly consider the merits and demerits of choosing to work in a new, fledgling organization as opposed to an older standing one.

I'm *not* in disunity about activism and activist organizations being a zero sum game. I do, however, think that activists and activist organizations are in a sort-of 'limited sum' resource crunch.


Posted by T. Walker

I agree with what Thomas Walker  writes here:

"It simply doesn't make sense for us to try to additionally engage with the new SDS unless it's directly relevant to and supportive of our very pressing work. To the degree that I can speak to and about the experience of USAS . . .I would say the same is also true." 

I think this goes back to one of my own points, which is that it's hard to see the relevance of nationwide organizations for student work so long as the on-the-ground organizing is so weak. I know that student activist groups of all kinds are inevitably ephemeral, and so it is even harder to build a national organization there than it is in other social movements -- though I am also not saying it is impossible. Nevertheless I think that on-the-ground organizing geared to building power on individual campuses by "organizing the unorganized" must necessarily take precedence over building a national organization at this point. Otherwise, any organization will end up being miles wide and micrometers deep.

As Thomas says, a national organization has to be relevant to his work on campus, or he doesn't even pay attention to them. So putting limited student resources into a poorly-conceived and premature national effort -- even if it only amounts to a feel-good conference once a year -- is too tempting and expensive a distraction from the harder, less "sexy" work that needs to get done.

I can see where USAS was/is relevant as a support group for a national campaign to get universities to join the WRC and then enforce codes of conduct. I can see even better why USSA is relevant as a national organization organizing and lobbying on student issues, and I think that we ought to have an effective nationwide organization to defend student interests, just as they have in Britain with the NUS. And I can definitely see the relevance of an organization like MECHA which is part and parcel of a live movement for national liberation.

But poorly-conceived organizations -- especially the kind that are mostly based on the Internet and on the nostalgia trips of old fogies -- seem like a distraction and a waste of time. 

Posted by John Lacny

Thomas and John, I think you're both falling into a slightly narrow and parochial outlook. Not to channel JFK or anything, but I don't think the main question we should be asking is "what can broader student activist networks do for me and my group?" When our own local work is exciting and important, that's when it's particularly key to be connecting with other groups to share your experiences and the political lessons you've learned with others. We need to be reproducing the most advanced experiences as much as possible.

Especially when campus groups are led by trained revolutionaries, this should be a consistent orientation. Does this take a certain fraction of energy away from what could otherwise be put into the local work? Of course. But how else do we create two, three, many UT-Knoxvilles, or two, three, many City Colleges?

SLAM, for example, has over its history generally made the error of having an excessive inward focus and doing too little to connect up with other groups that could learn from its practice. It's been trying to correct that error lately, but ten years went by in which the rest of the student movement learned little or nothing from SLAM's cutting-edge work. Not that SLAM's overall character can be fully replicated in most other places, but there is still much that can and ought to be reproduced.

We've already had plenty of discussions about the many profound shortcomings of the new SDS. But in my view (and, I think, that of the folks in SLAM who attended the convention), those aren't really the point. The point is that there is new and real motion happening in SDS; there is a substantial layer of advanced -- just like anywhere else -- who can be united with; and it's a multi-issue organization that can take up and propagate any kind of issue, unlike USAS. That's  why we need to engage with it to at least some extent.

I understand why you all see USAS as being the most valuable for the main work your group is doing right now, and that makes some sense (although, as I've written, there are other important factors besides that). But let me ask you this: Are you all even engaging with USAS to the extent that you ought?

(BTW, John, USSA isn't really a mass organization. It's good that it's there, but it's not for people like us. From what I hear, it's also a mere shadow of its former self.) 

Posted by Eric Odell

Eric's points are fair enough. I agree that activists with experience ought to find ways to share that knowledge and experience with others. I guess I just always felt that, when I was a student activist, my own group was never quite where we wanted it to be. When we attended gatherings like the student pre-conference before the Jobs with Justice annual meeting, I was always blown away by the level and sophistication of some of the work that was going on on other campuses. But I also attended a few ill-conceived "student activist" conferences that were a total waste of time. I guess that's why I react skeptically to anything that looks like an effort to "reinvent the wheel." But Eric is closer to the action on this one, so to the extent that there is real promise in this "New SDS," I wish activists like Eric the best of luck in bringing that out.

I differ with Eric's contention that USSA is not a mass organization. They're definitely weaker than they used to be, but that's not unlike most progressive organizations in this country. But if USSA is not a mass organization, then neither is CWA or SEIU or any union in this country. If anything, USSA is much more of a true mass organization than any other component of the student movement. Only student governments, and not individual students, can join USSA. This forces students who want to be active in USSA to maintain contact with broad masses of unaffiliated, normally inactive students on their campuses. Of course there is that danger that people get focused on winning student government elections as a goal in and of itself, that they spend a lot of time in wrangling with the white frats and sororities who are usually the bulwark of conservatism in student politics, and that they end up focusing their activist lives on arcane student government procedural bullshit that does not matter to most students. But there are dangers like that in all kinds of movements and organizations.

How many leftists have gotten caught up in, say, who was going to win office in a Teamsters local? That's a strategic mistake. But the fact that no one is an individual member of the Teamsters, and instead there are members of locals that are in turn affiliated with the Teamsters and pay per-caps to the International -- all of this does not mean that the Teamsters are not a mass organization. Quite the contrary, in fact.

USSA is analogous to this. The national organization is important, and it provides staff and other resources (like the Grassroots Organizing Weekend) to help student activists on the ground. But it is always a struggle for activists to make it real on their individual campuses, to sink deeper and more lasting roots. There is a lot of space for radicals there. YCL is all over USSA, and their dedicated work there is one reason why the YCL is so multiracial. 

Posted by John Lacny

The US is facing a defeat of epic proportions in Iraq. One would hope that Marxists would recognize this is a defeat from which US imperialism will not recover. This defeat, which is not far off, will open up a period of great upheaval in this country and around the world. Students understand this. We are talking about a generation that grew up with 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq during their formative years. Ask any young activist today what radicalized them, and it's unanimously "the war in Iraq." Not a living wage campaign. Young students recognize how fucked up the situation is and want to do something. They hate imperialism but they don't know how to organize and fight back. That's what SDS can build. That is the kind of organizational and political leadership the network can give.

Now to propose, like Nelson and Lacny, that instead of taking up the urgently necessary work of educating students about the nature of US imperialism, the coming crisis in the US, and how to fight back, that we extend all of our efforts on safer, more stable campaigns around living wage/unionizing campus workers, is not only rightist, is to completely confuse the tasks of US revolutionaries in the current period. 

Posted by Ivan

John Lacny says: "YCL is all over USSA, and their dedicated work there is one reason why the YCL is so multiracial."

Or maybe it is a reflection of the CP's overall liberal and bureaucratic orientation that they choose to mainly relate to student governments in their student work... 

Posted by a snarky comment

We're tangenting, but what the hell. (I know it's not a word, I just felt like making it up.)

I had a fair amount of contact with USSA back (waaaay back) when I was working in SEAC's national office. There was a little organization in DC with social dem politics called Partnership for Democracy which was paying a couple of its own staff to provide advisory support to SEAC. They actually did pretty well in a lot of ways.

One of the things that they did, though, was to try to push SEAC toward building as close a relationship as possible with USSA. There was in particular a joint conference PfD sponsored for the national leadership of USSA and of SEAC called "Crisis in Democracy." It was in the '91-92 school year. So a whole bunch of us in SEAC did the conference and met and networked with the USSA people. They were really smart people, majority oppressed nationality, and clearly committed to progressive change (mostly via the halls of Washington, DC). But none of us in SEAC, irrespective of our individual politics (which ranged from left liberal to solidly revolutionary) could see a way to actually work with USSA. We were just two fundamentally different kinds of beasts, and everyone in SEAC could see it.

This is what I'm trying to get at when I state that they're not a mass organization. Their base is students who have run for student government office and won. This is a point we should absolutely clear about. A mass group is a struggle-oriented group that any member of the masses in a particular population can join -- whether it's students on a particular campus, workers in a particular shop, people in a particular community, etc. USSA flat-out doesn't meet this definition. A collection of elected leaders, of any sort, is not the masses.

USSA members work to provide services to the general student population through the student governments they run. SEAC members were leaders working with regular students in mass groups open to anyone on campus, with the goal of engaging in direct organized struggle against the powers that be. Swiping an expression that was (slightly mis-) used on burningman's blog, this is the difference between servicing the people and serving the people.

As a result, student government activists in USSA don't tend to go on to become mass fighters after college either. They tend to become progressive/liberal elected leaders, functionaries, NGO staff, etc. For me, the fact that the CP/YCL prioritizes work in USSA merely shows the serious problems with rightism and revisionism that the CP faces. It's basically the same strategy as that of the League of Revolutionary Struggle in the 1980s, as I understand it. The result of the LRS's strategy was that at the end of that decade a whole lot of LRS members came to the conclusion that they weren't actually revolutionaries, so there was no point in there being an LRS.

Just to note again, I think USSA is a good organization, and I'm glad it's there. It's great that they're thoroughly multiracial. But doing work in them would not be doing mass work, and so it does not mesh with FRSO/OSCL's strategy in particular. I would also discourage other student activists who consider themselves revolutionaries from doing work in USSA. 

Posted by Eric Odell

I've held off from engaging in much of this debate so far, but I'm a sucker for utlra-left hyperbole so I'll chime in after that last little ditty which identified John and I as "completely confused" "rightists".

My point in the initial piece is not that living wage campaigns are the primary or best way to radicalize students (I don't believe this nor does it reflect my own lived experience). My point is that with already existing national formations (such as the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition), I for one am not buying all the hype concerning the new SDS.

If you can find where I said that we should forego organizing against the war for "safer, more stable campaigns around living wage/unionizing campus workers" please quote it. You won't be able to, but go ahead and try.

Ultimately, I want to agree with one aspect of Ivan, Eric, LeftSpot and Modern Pitung's positions. There are openings where a new SDS could  make amazing breakthroughs. Certainly an awesome multi-issue student organization could give "the kind of organizational and political leadership" that such a movement would need. I just haven’t seen anything that makes me feel good that the new SDS is prepared to start the long, hard work of getting from here  to there.

My claim that, "The world certainly cries out for things to be done, but that does not mean that we need a new multi-issue student organization" was very poorly worded. After seeing how this was taken I wish that I had at least included the word "necessarily" in there, as in “we necessarily need…” But there has few attempts, certainly none in Ivan’s post, to offer concrete evidence that contradicts the last clause of my above quoted statement: "especially not one with as many deficiencies as people seem willing to acknowledge the new SDS has."

If you think that you can get the masses of young students who "recognize how fucked up the situation is and want to do something" to shut down troop deployments at ports around the country in some neo-“days of rage” set of actions, please prove me wrong. I'd be the first to say publicly that I was completely off the mark.

If you can’t, then stick to ultra-leftist sloganeering and name calling. It don’t hurt my feelings from someone to call me a "rightist" with completely impunity on the world wide web. I got over that shit in 7th grade. 

Posted by Nelson H.

People may also want to check out the comments on the above linked summation by Alexander Knight . There are some true "gems" - both in terms of being right-on, and in terms of being way off. 

Posted by Nelson H.

In re Ivan's assertion to know the reason that every young activist was radicalized, I'd like to push back just a little bit. Or a whole lot, actually. I want to say that his assertion is totally, 100% false. While I would agree that the war in Iraq/US empire-building project is what motivates a lot of kids to move into activist work, it's not necessarily what *radicalizes* them. It wasn't what radicalized me, anyway, and given my age, what I spend parts of my days doing, and what I identify as, I think it's safe to say that I'm a student activist.

I know in the mass group here in Knoxville we do a good job of bringing in people who are at first against war (not imperialism; that's a concept WAY more common among advanced activists/cadre, and one that through education we introduce to new activists), and then making connections between our lives here and US foreign policy abroad. We bring people into a group that has the unfortunate or fortunate distinction, as yet to be decided, of being the only activist organization on campus *for anything.* That is to say, I have experience with seeing a transition of activists from being anti-war to anti-empire, and from being anti-empire to workers' rights activists.

To pretend as if living wage work isn't pressing or isn't radicalizing is, to me, a rightist error or at least a reflection of petty bourgeois or bourgeois class outlook that as revolutionaries we should be working against. I would imagine that the folk down at UMiami were radicalized from workers falling to their deaths while cleaning windows. But hey! Taking up that struggle is rightist! (??)

My ultimate point here is that to pit the two against each other is silly, unproductive, and incorrect. Coming from the unique multi-issue tradition that I do, I see that there are possibilities for doing all of this work at once, and making *CONCRETE CONNECTIONS* between them, thereby politically educating our sisters and brothers on campus about "the war at home"--about empire on campus.


Posted by T. Walker

I agree we're starting to range a little far afield. That's OK, though, since a wide-ranging discussion of social movements and the role of students in them is a good thing.

Ivan  and I disagree strongly on "the tasks of US revolutionaries in the current period." As Ivan himself says, students and others are being radicalized because of the war. It is part of the job of any activist -- revolutionary or not -- to encourage that. But revolutionaries have an additional responsibility: revolutionaries must build cadres. Cadres are people who are not only subjectively radical, or who are angry because of some current injustice. Cadres are people who are committed to staying in the struggle for a lifetime, and committed to organizing more and more regular people, right where they are, in this  country.

I gave the examples of living wage campaigns because that is what I know. During my time in the predominantly white section of the student movement, USAS was on the move nationally, and this was in their phase when they were very focused on injustices in foreign sweatshops. I supported that idea in abstract, but I thought that living wage campaigns domestically were more radical, because they could put students in contact with workers in their real communities. It could give them a taste of the stuff that real workers have to face when they try to organize to better their lives: the vacillation, the fear, etc. Being there with the workers who are actually affected is more conducive to building committed cadres than support for a faraway struggle. You can hear about struggles in a foreign sweatshop and end up romanticizing it, because you only hear the glorious parts, where all the workers are sticking together and the only enemy is a cruel and exploitative boss. Unless you're there with the workers, you don't see when workers themselves get scared, get demoralized -- or even sell eachother out. To my mind, it is critical for student activists to learn as early as possible that changing the world is very, very hard work -- that organizing is hard, and that it is usually not very glorious and sometimes very boring and tedious and slow. I want more student activists who go through those experiences and stick it out despite the odds, because then I know they're going to be in it for the long haul. One of them is worth more than 20 people who get into it for a few years or months and then drop out when they realize that it isn't going to be as easy as they thought. "Better fewer . . . "

So, if Ivan can suggest some strategies for the antiwar movement that would embrace this concern, I am all ears. Frankly, I don't know what the hell to do about the anti-war movement. I agree with what someone said about the CPUSA's "bureaucratic" approach to organizing, but that's not a vice that's unique to the CPUSA, I've seen it in all kinds of left organizers. (I also want to draw a distinction between YCL and CPUSA, since I've always been more favorably impressed with YCL activists than with most of the octogenarians.) Some folks end up in key positions in mass organizations, and then they pass nice resolutions -- good positions on the war, immigration, or what-have-you -- and think that they've done something. But formal positions don't matter much unless you take it to the rank-and-file. How do you do that? I'll tell you straight-up that I don't know the answer. It's not easy.

What I do know is that the most effective anti-war organizing in the past couple of years has not been on campuses, nor has it been at the anti-war demonstrations called by either of the NYC-based "coalitions." It has been of the Cindy Sheehan variety: the vets and military families organizing. I am not saying that student organizing is unimportant, nor am I saying that demonstrations are irrelevant. But I am calling the question: if you're a student anti-war organizer these days, how do you relate to that deep stuff, that organizing against the war among the basic masses, where it's going to count and where you're going to be better able to build real cadres out of students?

My experience with USSA is different from Eric Odell's. I know of USSA leaders who have gone on not only to non-profity, NGO-style groups, but to grassroots organizing. Long-time Jobs with Justice leader Fred Azcarate is a former USSA president (I think!), and a lot of the Jobs with Justice staff are former USSA activists. There are union organizers who are former USSA, too. I don't accept Eric's strict criteria for what qualifies as a mass organization. Unions are mass organizations, and it is not easy to join them -- you either have to work in an existing union shop, or you have to go through a grueling NLRB organizing process (or card-check if you're lucky). And it is possible to get involved with USSA activities whether or not you're a member of student government. They're a mass organization, they're just structured differently. There is a definite tendency for people involved in student government activities to isolate themselves from the base, and to see getting elected to student government as an end in itself instead of a means to an end. We need more people in student governments who use those positions as an organizing and mobilizing tool.

Student governments are not governments. They are analogous to unions. They have a broad mass constituency (the rank-and-file members of a bargaining unit, or the student body on a campus at large) made up of regular people with politics that are all over the map. Both kinds of institution were acknowledged grudgingly by the people with power (bosses or university administrators), but they will inevitably be ineffectual if they are led by people with bad politics and no vision. When real organizers get involved in them and use them as a way to mobilize the rank-and-file for progressive ends, then they are a good source of resources for organizing. I remember this from my own experience: during the brief period when the progressive/left forces held a majority on our student government, they organized a campaign against racial profiling by the campus police. When the frats ran everything, nothing positive came from student government. It is understandable that people become disaffected with both unions and student governments if they see no point to them, and if they see the power struggles within them as pointless ideological battles with no relevance to their lives.

All of us have seen left-wing union leadership that is as divorced from the rank-and-file membership as any business union leadership -- folks who pass nice resolutions with good positions on every issue under the sun, but can't take it back to the membership and get them to actually take action on it. Student governments are no different. (If Eric or anyone else is still not convinced of my analogy, then please explain to me the difference between an elected local union leader and an elected member of student government. Why is SEIU or CWA any more a mass organization than USSA on this score? I submit that there is no difference.) I'm sure there's a tendency for people on USSA campuses to get wrapped up in national USSA issues and neglect building their own base on campus; perhaps they get wrapped up in a narrow electoral struggle for a student government election, and start to see their role as getting nice "progressives" elected instead of building a movement. This is really just the "miles wide and micrometers" deep problem again. I would be willing to bet that all of USSA's recent setbacks go back to this problem. There's not been enough training of student activists on how to build a real and lasting base among the broad masses of largely inactive students.

So it still comes down to a question of leadership and of where revolutionaries should spend their time. And there is a lot of potential for revolutionaries to work creatively in a milieu like USSA which has a well-developed concentration of students of color. 

Posted by John Lacny

I already posted my brief response to Nelson's "Fuck the Possibilities" post soon after it was posted, where I disagreed with Nelson and said that I think SDS does have potential to be something important and should be built. I've been thinking for a few days and making notes about how to respond in a deeper way to the points raised by Nelson and John Lacny here. With the flare up in discussion today I decided to pull my thoughts together and chime in again. I wrote just about all of this up as somewhat scattered notes before today's exchanges so I apologize in advance if I repeat some themes that have already been touched on in today's posts.

What I've appreciated about Nelson, John and T. Walker's posts, as well as the posts by Eric and by Modern Pitung, is that they draw on actual experiences in the student movement to try to determine the character of the "new SDS" and how to relate to it.

That said, I can't think of a nice way to say that I think Ivan is essentially correct that Nelson, John and T. Walker have put forward a position that is wrong and *is* essentially rightist. I think they don't recognize the changing objective situation and are clinging to a status quo when there is a possibility of creating larger advances. If I am misunderstanding what they wrote in a way that does not give them the benefit of the doubt, then I apologize in advance and am willing to stand corrected. But from what I understand of Nelson and John's position, I disagree with it pretty strongly. I think Eric and Modern Pitung are more on the right track.

Nelson's criticism of and cynicism toward the Olympia SDS group organizing direct action to stop the war machine is the most glaring example that something is wrong with what he's advocating. There are certainly things to criticize most anarchists for, but mass direct action to try to stop military shipments is not one of them. Actions like that should be upheld and united with, as Eric correctly points out in his reply.

But that's not the only problem with what Nelson and John are arguing. In Nelson and John's posts they seem to start from some preconceived criteria of what a 'correct' student organization should be like, then they apply that checklist rather mechanically to the new SDS, and it doesn't match up so they are cynical about it.

Rather than this type of formulaic approach to the new SDS, I think we need to look at it dialectically – look at where it is now, how it developed, the political context it came up in, and the potential that is created by the mix of objective and subjective conditions. Nelson and John seem to start from abstract criteria, rather than starting from an assessment of what the main issues and contradictions are in society and therefore whether there is potential, and around what issues there is potential, for real mass motion on campuses in the 2006-2007 school year.

I'll go out on a limb and say that if there is going to be any sort of mass upsurge on campuses in the 2006-2007 school year in the predominantly-white section of the student movement, it's going to be anti-war activism. And it's possible that there will be more student motion around immigrant rights, following on last spring's unprecedented Chicano and Latino-led student walkouts that shook the Southwest and the entire country (though that is unlikely to be as big in the predominantly-white section of the student movement).

Nelson and John don't really even address building the anti-war movement on campuses, except Nelson's passing comment that the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition already exists (though NYSPC is just a coalition of already existing student organizations, not to mention that it is 'heavily influenced' by the CP). They also haven't mentioned the immigrant rights upsurge including mass student walkouts last Spring in all they said about the student movement. They're not addressing the rapidly changing conditions in which new students coming up are developing their political consciousness and understanding.

It's like they're stuck in a treading-water mindset (keep USAS going as-is; work with USSA even though they're weak and not even a mass organization as Eric correctly explained; work with NYSPC though they don't seem to even have campus chapters per-se, etc), rather than being willing to entertain the idea that there really could be a mass upsurge around the central issues that are dividing US society that could qualitatively raise the level of student activism and possibly propel the student movement to a higher level of organization.

In replying to one point in my earlier post about what a new student activist should do on campus, John says that starting a new SDS group is not the thing to do. He says the thing to do is to link up with a union, workers center or other similar organization and do a campaign on campus supporting or working with them. Nelson similarly seems to uphold that as the thing to do for new student activists on campus this fall, by his repeated upholding of USAS in opposition to the 'new SDS'.

While it's correct to want to focus on a campus target and build a base on campus, a USAS-type anti-sweatshop or living wage campaign is not the only way to do that. I think both Nelson and John are essentially missing the boat of where things are at in 2006 by counterposing living wage and anti-sweatshop type campaigns to anti-war or immigrant rights student organizing. In his most recent reply Nelson clarifies that he is not counterposing USAS-type campaigns to anti-war work, but I think his original "Fuck the Possibilities" post certainly gives that impression – it upholds USAS repeatedly and claims at one point that it is the issues the new SDS is focusing on (which I took to mean anti-war activism) that is responsible for some of their main problems.

I'd like to talk a bit more in depth about USAS. In 1999, USAS was a great advance in the student movement nationally. On the wave of the anti-globalization movement, USAS filled a vacuum on the campus left. USAS has succeeded because their main campaigns seized on that time-tested truism of the student movement – students move around big moral and political issues, especially if you can find a campus target to focus on. USAS nailed it perfectly with the anti-sweatshop campaign focusing on University administration contracts with sweatshop labor to produce University logo apparel. Then they branched into living wage campaigns supporting campus workers, which has a similar appeal but with a closer-to-home focus. This was a very good move. There have been many exceptional, militant, and victorious campaigns in the last 6 years led by USAS groups.

So I am very supportive of USAS-type campaigns, and have participated directly in one campus struggle of this type. But despite its general correctness, there are a couple weaknesses with the USAS model. On the anti-sweat campaigns, once you win a campaign to get your administration to go sweat-free, there's not much left to build a proactive mass campaign around; at that point you're mostly talking about sitting on committees to ensure follow-through and compliance. Likewise if your school at this point still has not gone sweat-free, it's probably hard to maintain the momentum after a number of years not getting anywhere. I know of more than one campus where this is the case, where there was an upsurge around an anti-sweat campaign a couple years ago, but it has more or less petered out at this point because the administration hasn't budged and doesn't appear like it's going to.

With the living wage campaigns focusing on campus workers, the problem is two-fold: first, not every campus has unionized workers, and some unions on campus are run by bureaucratic hacks that don't see the need for or don't want to mobilize student support. I've seen some of those cases with my own eyes up close. Another factor is that union contracts are usually for at least 2 years, and in some cases they are for much longer, so even if you can support campus workers during their contract campaign one semester or school year, what do you do in the non-contract years? Most unions don't even mobilize their own members during non-contract years, let alone think about building ongoing student support.

There is also the fact that the initial motion that produced USAS -- the anti-globalization movement most specifically -- has to a large degree petered out. Meanwhile, we are now 3+ years into the occupation of Iraq, 5+ years into the occupation of Afghanistan, on the heels of the devastation of Lebanon and the ongoing occupation of and increase in attacks on Palestine, and on the cusp of possible US invasion of Iran or Syria.

In other words conditions are different than two years ago – the US is losing the war in Iraq, the majority of the US public has turned against the war, and the ruling class is much more divided about what to do about their increasingly-obvious defeat in Iraq than they have been up to this point. In that context, war is the major moral and political question in the society as a whole, and that is where the motion on campuses is most likely to be in 2006-2007.

I think USAS-type campaigns are very good, and should be promoted, built, united with, etc. On particular campuses with good union leaderships that actively work with student supporters, there are still likely to be great campaigns supporting campus workers, and I think it would be wrong for students who are in the midst of doing that work to just drop it and do something else.

But I think in the current political context, those types of campaigns will not be the main motion among progressive student activists. If we really want to see masses of students in motion and in a process of radicalization on a scale not seen since, well, SDS, then we are talking about focusing primarily on the war.

So, if I'm right, that the main motion on campuses in 2006-2007 (especially but not exclusively in the predominantly-white section of the student movement) is likely to be anti-war activism, then the question is what should progressive student activists do about that. Prior to the new SDS, the ISO has been the largest campus left presence nationally. The ISO runs the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN), a national network of student antiwar groups that has mainly focused on counter recruitment over the last year or so. The ISO essentially retains control over the CAN, so I doubt Nelson or John would advocate joining/building the CAN in any real way. And I have a hard time believing that they seriously believe that the National Youth & Student Peace Coalition is really the best vehicle for centering a growing mass student anti-war movement.

Then out of the blue appears this new SDS, brought into the world by old social democrats and young student would-be wobblies. As I said in my previous post, and as Eric has also ably made the case, the contradictions in the new SDS are real and serious, but there is a real potential there that simply cannot be ignored or put aside, despite Nelson and John's attempts to belittle it. Whatever other faults some of the old SDSers and young IWWers who initiated the new SDS have, they just may have helped set something in motion that is really important here.

Another thing that's wrong with Nelson and John's position (and T Walker's reply as well) is what seems like a sort of provincialism and narrow thinking. I think Eric addressed this well in his recent reply. I’d like to speak to this too. The line seems to be something like, 'we have our good student group on our campus, so there's no need to pay attention to or interact with a multi-issue national radical student formation that emerges if it doesn't cater to the specific needs of our campus group at the moment'. The frustrating part is that this line is justified under the banner of supposedly being more mass oriented, broader, etc, but it ends up being more narrow and denying the possibility (or the reality as in the case of the last Spring's immigrant rights walkouts) of a real student upsurge.

John can't see the point of building a national student organization that isn't foundation-funded with an office staff, etc. I'm not against a student organization having an office, funding, and the like. But I think it is a very technocratic way of looking at things to say that is the decisive question. In the 1980s the Progressive Student Network (PSN) didn't have paid staff and much of the time didn't have an office. It did have a number of people who were highly dedicated to building it and keeping it going - including but not limited to some very dedicated communists from Freedom Road Socialist Organization. It's certainly nice if a national student organization can provide resources, campaigns, etc, to campus chapters. But the insistence on the decisiveness of that stuff I think misses the main benefit of having a national radical student organization -- and that is to provide *political direction* -- both ideological and practical -- and a pole of attraction for radical students who would otherwise be dispersed and more easily succumb to liberal politics that would predominate on their campus.

My personal experience speaks to that in a real way. I was in a Progressive Student Network (PSN) campus group in the late 1980s. In the early 1980s my campus PSN group had been part of the national PSN network, but in the intervening years it had fallen out of contact with the national network. When it lost touch with the national network, the politics of my campus group got more liberal, and a more off-campus focus developed (helping feed the homeless near campus, that type of stuff).

When we hooked back up with the national network, going to the national meetings that Lacny derides as more or less pointless "backslapping" sessions, it raised the level of politics of the core leadership of our campus PSN chapter, and strengthened the left within our group. It gave us the courage to go back to campus and organize protests (something which hadn't been done much for the couple prior years). It got us to see the importance of doing campaigns rather than just doing a series of random, unconnected events throughout the year. It helped our group in any number of ways, and without a national staff or foundation funding. Over the next several years the PSN group on my campus became a significant force on campus. The group would have probably continued along as a small marginal grouping but it wouldn't have become the force it did without the political influence of the national PSN. This is not primarily a question of providing resources, but of providing political leadership.

Nelson says, "The current reinvention of SDS suffers from many, if not most of the worst traits of the primarily white student movement, and in light of this, we should abandon this talk of SDS's supposed 'possibilities' in favor of a more balanced and materialist approach to work with and within this dingy reincarnation of a once great student organization."

Of course we should be balanced and materialist in assessing the new SDS. But I don't think that's what Nelson is doing here. Really the logical conclusion of this sentiment is that it is wrong to do work among white students that are not already advanced on a whole range of questions. Again, I think the experience of my PSN campus group is important here. We always had a lot of white folks in the group who were all over the map ideologically (anarchists, social democrats, animal rights activists, etc) and who had a range of understandings (or lack thereof) of things like the centrality of the national question / racism in US society. Yet despite that, our campus group brought all those people together to do lots of great work and we had a real impact on our campus.

Our interaction with the national PSN moved our core people forward on key things like understanding the centrality of national oppression and being willing to grapple with the existence of and use words like "imperialism". Also (and this is something very important to think about in the current period) the national PSN was important in putting out a clear line in support of Palestine, which was important for me and others I worked with in starting to get past a lot of the soft Zionism that pervades the US peace movement and has influence on a lot of campuses. We learned and deepened our understanding while we were engaged in struggle, which was greatly helped by the positive influence of more advanced groups and individuals in the national PSN.

Nelson continues, "This seems expressly true since there is no shortage of already existing national student organizations engaged in solid mass work, such as United Student Against Sweatshops (USAS) or the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition."

This is sorta true, I guess, but again is a treading-water way of looking at things and not a way of looking at things that recognizes the possibility of broad advances over the current state of affairs on the student left. Yes, there are some national student organizations already doing some mass work on some campuses. But there is undeniably a vacuum. It is well and good that there are some single-issue (and sorta-multi-issue like USAS) national student organizations. But it would be much better if there were a national, multi-issue radical student organization that could take initiative around the war(s), immigrant rights, living wage campaigns, anti-racism campaigns, etc.

In another place Nelson says, "The fact that only 5 to 10 percent of the participants were people of color/oppressed nationality is but a symptom of a much larger problem. A problem that is rooted in the issues and tactics that the new group's base is focused on, and a problem that a group dominated by the type of anarchists that appear to be setting the political tenor is largely unequipped to deal with. Compare these facts with similar stats for, say, United Students Against Sweatshops and SDS's deficiencies shine through all the brighter."

Is what you're saying here that the focus on the war and advanced tactics used by the new SDS are the reason for its being predominantly white? If that's what you're saying then I think this is one-sided at best if not totally wrong. First, the existence of a predominantly-white section of the student movement is a material fact, regardless of what issues are focused on. Regardless of what issue they're working on, the task is winning white progressives to a consistent anti-racist politics. The question is not simply about how many non-white people are in the room.

Second, if I'm reading this right, Nelson seems to be implying essentially that advanced tactics are a "white thing" or an "anarchist thing". And that is just wrong. The examples from the not-too-distant-past of people of color-led, red-leaning groups that engaged in direct action and advanced tactics such as STORM and SLAM in the 1990s-early 2000s should put the argument to rest that advanced tactics are just a white anarcho thing. If Nelson's understanding of SLAM is that advanced tactics were a mistake or were only promoted by white folks in SLAM, that is incorrect on both points and is a complete misunderstanding of SLAM's history and politics.

And let's just look back 5 or 6 months – when Chicano and Latino students all over the Southwest (and around the rest of the country) organized massive school walkouts in April and May. I think it's safe to say that there were very few white folks or anarchists playing leading roles or even participating in those walkouts. So I don't think it's quite right to say that advanced tactics are responsible for SDS's whiteness either.

There are many other specific points that would be worth engaging, but I've already written enough so I'll wrap it up for now. I'm not convinced that the new SDS will live up to it's potential; it may fizzle and collapse under it's contradictions, as most efforts to build a multi-issue radical student organization have done fairly quickly since SDS's collapse in 1969. But the new SDS is the most significant advance in a while toward a multi-issue non-sectarian radical student organization in the US. For that reason alone it should be supported. Should people who already have other groups (USAS, PSA/U/N, etc) change them into SDS? I don't think so. Existing groups obviously will assess where they're at and decide for themselves what to do. If the new SDS is gonna fly, it will mostly be new groups making it happen, not the existing cohort of student groups. That seems to be the experience so far anyway.

I think SDS is the best shot in a while at creating a broad, non-sectarian radical framework for the student movement that can unite people around action against the war, while providing a multi-issue framework to allow people to move around other issues too. Yes, the new SDS has contradictions. But it also has potential. The objective conditions may be just right to make it work. I think the role of revolutionaries is to unite with this and help move it forward.

Build the student movement! Build SDS!

Posted by LS

On "rightist," polemics and online discussion.

This is a fairly interesting thread, and even better, what's being discussed is the painfully real issue of how a small number of revolutionaries, some affiliated with left groups, others seeemingly independent, should apply their limited resources-- time, attention, &c.--to move the struggle forward. I don't think there's been a single post of more than a paragraph here that didn't have something I found insightful or challenging.

I write this time on a single topic, a note that entered the discussion in Ivan's sole post so far. It had a promising start: I agree that the US ruling class is buying itself a world of hurt with its looming defeat in Iraq, and even though everyday folks here will be stuck with the tab, a massive defeat for the Beast is a good thing for the world's people and may well (Marxism's record as a predictive discipline is a bit mixed to justify the confident "will") usher a new period of radical upheaval.

What I didn't like was Ivan's second para, in which the arguments were made against clear distortions of Nelson's position (even though he may have bent the stick a tad in the anti-New SDS postion in his original post). Still, what I felt even more perturbed by was the introduction of the political epithet "rightist" to describe the postion on the student movement Ivan atributes to Nelson and John.

The net and blogging provide a fascinating way to track the dynamic which has developed since. Nelson commented on the dis, and his comments indicated that he unsurprisingly felt he himself had been called a "rightist." Then LS united with the label, calling Nelson and Lacny's positions "essentially rightist" and tagged T Walker with it too. Which is where things stand as I write.

There are a couple of aspects to what is going on that deserve consideration. One thing is this tendency to substitute labels for more specific analysis, which tends willy-nilly to shift the terms of the exchange. Another is the use of an unecessarily specialized left vocabulary. "Rightist" here is a commie term of art, if you will. Reading back through this whole exchange, I felt that some hypothetical new SDSer finding it through a link like the one Nelson put up to Alexander Knight's blog would be able to follow the exchange and perhaps even be impressed by the level, the sincerity and the civility of the discussion. But she might well trip over "rightist" when we are talking about an entirely different phenomenon from the commonly understood one used by John Lacny in the post where he asked "How many leftists have gotten caught up in, say, who was going to win office in a Teamsters local?"

This call to avoid the introduction of disparaging shorthand characterizations of people's political positions and people themselves in blog discussions probably is a display of hopeless idealism on my part. The internet and blogosphere are notorious for incivility, flame wars and snark, fueled by anonymity and, as Nelson points out, impunity. The style is reminiscent in some ways of the the old SDS and the successor New Communist Movement of the '70s, or of the more ardent ortho-Trot groups today. Me, I've cranked out my share of stilted, invective-filled polemics: "Back to the swamps of Bernsteinism if you must, Mssrs. of the [insert name of rival sect here], but don't try to drag US from the high, hard road of..."

While I still have a retired practitioner's aesthetic appreciation of a nice foam-flecked denunciation on a blog or in the latest issue of "The Proletarian Worker," I haven't done that shit in years and hope that one of the lessons new generations of radicals draw from that whole experience is that for all the real pleasure there is in in blaggarding some other little outfit, as a rule it doesn't do fuck-all to advance the struggle and may retard it in significant ways.

Well, you can say that I'm a dreamer, but I think that despite some slippage, the strength of this thread has come in part from adhering to the spirit shown in Eric's early comment: "Did I say this was fun or what."


Posted by lao hong han

In re LS and thinking that good student groups shouldn't relate to SDS unless they directly apply to said student groups' work as provincialism and narrow thinking:

I think this is both right and wrong. Right in that if a student group without direction or focus found SDS, it wouldn't be bad altogether. (Although, as I had said before, there are more experience national student organizations or coalitions which have a much longer and tested track record in providing direction and skills to kids who need both.)

I think LS' error is in not contextualizing student work, and not recognizing the complexities of contemporary student work's limitations. That is to say, at UT-Knoxville, I'm firmly convicted we have a really fucking good student group, doing really good work, esp. in terms of student-worker unity. I'm also firmly convicted that our student group doesn't have the resources to struggle with SDS and all its contradictions at this point, nor do we have the resources to dedicate to doing actions that fit within SDS' vision and strategy (per se, I guess, there's a chance that we might). We're already deeply involved with USAS (one of our strongest members is now a regional organizer for them), our own labor work, and developing real anti-imperialist and anti-racist consciousness on campus. And we have all of that to do with 25 regular folks, only 15 of which do work consistently, and only about 7 of which do advanced organizing work. I'm wondering, then, without money (and to be sure we have nearly none), and with a bunch of folks who have standing committments, how *we're* going to connect with SDS.

I just don't see it happening. In thinking about this issue, I'm coming, as we so often do, from the real experience of my own student work and organizing. I'm not necessarily envisioning us as a paradigm of student groups, and I'm not wishing SDS into non-existence. I am saying that I think the more radical elements in terms of being pro-SDS should take time to recognize that it is *totally legitimate* that some student groups might write SDS off as a waste of time in the given period in the context of the work they're already doing.

For people outside of student work, it might be easy to will us students into realizing your own visions of the way the student movement should run. But I think it's important that we consider that within the student movement, there are not hegemonic material conditions, and that not ever student group will be able to help build SDS.  

Posted by T. Walker

And lastly, I think it's important for us to remember that there is the great chance that the central task for the student movement right now is not to build SDS.  

Posted by T. Walker

T. Walker raises a good question. S/he says "I think it's important for us to remember that there is the great chance that the central task for the student movement right now is not to build SDS."

I'm interested in folks' answer to the question that T. Walker implicitly raises. I'll ask a bit more specifically, what do we all think is the central task (for revolutionaries) in the student movement right now? 

Posted by LS

I think that both of T. Walker's most recent posts are on the money. While there is always a danger of getting too caught up in local issues, or developing a "small mountain kingdom" mentality, the work at UKT seems commendable. Further, if a group, student or otherwise, has developed an actual base working in particular social movements, it's important to think two or three times before ditching that base out because another contradiction has come to the fore.

As Ivan points out, the failing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are the most important factor shaping political developments in the US today. Does it therefore follow that the Knoxville folks should deprioritize the campus labor work they've been doing for years and concentrate overwhelmingly on organizing against the occupation (which I believe they've been doing as well)? Only a concrete analysis of concrete conditionos can tell us that. To what extent would it really mobilize more students and workers, promote a deeper understanding of the empire and train future revolutionaries?

And on the flip side, there is a price to be paid for issue-hopping. The ISO, which has had the most success in campus organizing of any group calling itself socialist since the first Gulf War, has made a number of sharp turns, most notably from anti-death penalty organizing to anti-war work starting in 2003. At their recent national do in NYC, Socialism 2006, there was one tiny table about the death penalty stuff. I have no way of knowing how many folks who were active in that earlier push chose to bail because of this, especially given a certain revolving door problem in the ISO anyhow. Not only that, observers saw indications there that another shift in ISO focus--towards immigration work--is underway. We'll see how well that turns out...

As far as SDS being the central task for student activists, I very much doubt that Eric or LS, who have been the strongest advocates of checking it out in this discussion, would argue that. If I personally had to place a bet, I'd lay short odds the thing won't exist in three years. The point is that whenever there is spontaneous motion toward higher leels of national multi-issue organization anong students, it behooves revolutionaries to pay attention and even consider lending a hand.

LS in an earlier post reminisced about the Progressive Student Network (PSN), which was the main campus outfit of this type from the early '80s through the mid-90s, at least in the Midwest and on the East Coast. In 1988 some unaffiliated campus activists hooked up with resurfaced Yippee leader Abbie Hoffman and some other old heads to call a national convention at Rutgers (New Brunswick) to form a new group. Thanks in large part to Abbie's impressive media talents, it got a ton of attention in left and liberal circles. A big bunch of PSNers went, and not primarily to say "This is lame and we're much badder, so hook up with us," but rather to do investigation, build ties with the advanced and see how the new group, dubbed the Student Action Union, might move the student movement as a whole forward.

(The perceptive folks in this discussion will doubtless have noted some striking similarities with the new SDS project. The Rutgers conference unsurprisingly had a similar "whiteness" problem in demographics and, more important, in understanding of national oppression.)

It wasn't mauch of a shock that, despite this running start, the whole thing kinda trickled to a close by 1992, but I don't know anyone in the PSN who thought that it was a mistake to attend the conference or, subsequently, to try and keep up on and maintain ties with the SAU. 

Posted by lao hong han

This is a real interesting discussion that I feel a little inadequate to participate in, for time reasons. But Nelson encouraged me to so here are a few thoughts. This isn't meant to form a coherent argument, and I also apologize in advance for simplifying or generalizing some stuff. In fact I may just end up rephrasing things that have already been said in my own less technical way :)

In the spirit of disclosure, I'm a student at Georgia State University in Atlanta where my main campus activism has been peace and with Black groups, not labor. But I was in USAS leadership for a couple years, and we had a now-defunct SLAP affiliate of the JwJ chapter here. And I'm a member of Solidarity and UNITEHERE.

My overall impression of SDS. Honestly I doubt it will last for more than a few years: student groups don't tend to be long lived without some kind of non-student movement base and it's not clear that SDS has rooted itself in anything, notably the Latin@ movement. Regardless, we should be enthusiastic; I'm eager to see where it goes. The bottom line, as several folks have identified, is that this crowd of mainly white, anarchist oriented students *exists* - and the fact they're seeking organization of this kind is good. Of what kind do I mean? Well, compared to the anarchist crowd around Seattle '99 and other stuff which tended to shit on anything prior to the zapatistas, the attraction to a historical organization and some of its veteran cadre is a positive direction. Also, even if this implodes in a few years - around a hundred white student radicals met each other in the context of discussing political theory and organization, were exposed to the intervention of the PoC caucus, and so on. Just in Georgia, I've tapped the SDS pole to get in touch with a couple people already.

Let's be realistic about the significance of "Students for a Democratic Society." Lots of the interest among MLM people seems to be sparked by the name; aside from the participation of the MDS veterans, however, it's not clear that SDS should be seen as "inheriting the organizational legacy" anymore than the present day IWW recalls the 1910s. I propose people substitute "Radical Kids Incorporated" for SDS when attempting an analysis, this might help reduce some of the historical baggage.

A big strength of 1960s SDS was that it grew organically out of the student wing of the Black freedom movement (similar for the white anti-apartheid movement in the 80s). As far as contemporary student groups go, there just hasn't been a vibrant powerful Black movement within our political memory. So kneejerk anti-racism, support for nationalism, and so on among white students has got to be infused in a subjective way like has happened with USAS.

So what should students focus on? I was hoping Katrina solidarity would be a bigger deal than it has been, but, that's that.

USAS is what I've got the most experience with and I think has an impressive track record - almost a decade old and seems to be be getting stronger. I think many of the strengths were outlined well by Nelson in the initial post, I'd also add that two of the three current staffers are Mexicana. There has been a pervasive "anti-politics" atmosphere in USAS, including any discussion of movements outside of the student world. I think that more cohesive red participation in USAS with this as a focus would be fruitful.

Ultimately the weaknesses of the student left mirror those of the left as a whole. It's a little pie-in-the-sky to talk about "what student revolutionaries should focus on" when the end result is going to be a pissing contest, or competition for "market share" within this hypothetical movement between red groups. Honestly, I think that the ISO does commendable student work and CAN has been pretty impressive *overall* (focus on movement building, orientating students towards MFSO and IVAW milieu, etc), along with USAS and whatever structure develops out of the Latino movement that's a pretty good array of student groups.

One final note: we often think of student lack of rootedness in the "real world" as a weakness, which it is. However, this can also be a strength as students can form a natural left wing on certain issues - take the antiwar movement. I think that with more organization and direction, student participation could act against the problem of election cycle demobilization.

Ok, that's it... again, please forgive the lack of organization in my writing!

ps. I think John has convincing arguments in the abstract about USSA, but I haven't been impressed with them, the tendency towards bureacracy is too high. Also it's much more plausible for a small group of students in a conservative environment like a big public southern school or HBCU to affiliate with USAS and run some campaigns than try to take over their SGA. A friend of mine that just graduated from Spelman College who was integral to the campus left there successfully won a SGA president campaign with disastrous results for movements on that campus. 

Posted by isaac

From my encounters with the New SDS, you're moving a bit in more correct direction (re: getting in touch, seeing the growth out of the ).

I think it's worth saying that comparisons between first generation and New SDS suffer from a bit of their own nostalgia about the old group. First, thinking that first generation SDS started out looking anything like what it ended up is just plain wrong -- it started out as a student auxiliary for the League for Industrial Democracy, with a shitty anti-communist politics of its own. Its race politics were as dicey -- a lot of it being the sort of liberal poverty pimping that SDS's own membership would decry. And let's not forget that guys like Lyndon LaRouche, Motherfuckers -- people with bad politics of one type or another -- were active in the original SDS.

So let's get down to brass tacks on this: why did the first generation SDS go from a reformist organization to a launch pad for revolutionary organization? Because Marxists made a conscious effort to join with the organization, to get their points in, and to work the hallways -- and didn't let the baggage of the LID and their exclusion clause intimidate them. Of course, some did better than others: the PLP ended up just pissing off everyone else; the SWP/Mobe proved a bit timid. But those who united most effectively brought good politics to the table, brought some savvy in their dealings with forward and backward elements, and eventually helped persuade a couple hundred thousand people to actively call themselves revolutionaries.

Not too shabby for a group founded by white Northeastern liberal elitists. And we can say the same with this one -- if we put some effort into it. 

Posted by Modern Pitung

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