You might think that a Labor Day post would be a no-brainer for a rank and file trade union activist. Well it wasn't. So instead of something new and insightful I'll stick to echoing views already made by minds far greater than my own.
We need a working people's movement with a real political vision, this is obvious. In a fundamental way this vision must start from the point of recognition that the rule of an employing class is the enemey. It's not just bad bosses or those corporations "still run by the 1950s Organization Man." Our vision must recognize that struggles against patriarchy and white-supremacist national oppression are not supplementary, they are leading fronts in the great narrative of human liberation (and yes, it has best to recognize that there are still great narratives).
This political vision must have the creation of an oppressed peoples' movement as its primary goal. Essentially such a movement must be one of labor and its coalition partners. But here's the rub, those of us who have currently defined "labor" have got a number of things all ass-backwards. We don't need a narrow trade union movement any more than we need a return to economic relations that accompanied the days when +30 percent union density meant millions of white patriarchs in AFL-CIO bargaining units enjoying all the benefits of "cheap bear and overtime."
We also need workers' centers, community coalitions and proletarian control of school boards. We need spaces that advance the leadership of working class people of color while placing "sisters at the center." We need a real labor movement whose vision is defined by folks who don't just look like me.
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.