Reflections on the First SDS Northeast Conference

  • Posted on: 26 April 2006
  • By: worker

<table><tr><td>Reflections on the First SDS Northeast Conference
by m(A)tt
CLASH collective, Hartford, CT

I have had a very odd past year. One might even call it prophetic. When I was re-reading one of my favorite books, Live from Death Row by Mumia abu-Jamal, the author had a major break in his murder case. While I was reading Los Macheteros about the historic robbery of the Wells Fargo by members of Los Macheteros here in Hartford, CT, Filibero Ojeda Rios, a Machetero leader, was assassinated by the FBI, in direct, albeit delayed response to that very robbery. Right around the time of the renewed unrest in France, I was reading up on the riots and general strikes of May and June 1968. And while I was reading for the first time a copy of James Miller’s book, Democracy is in the Streets, about the Students for a Democratic Society, which I have owned without ever seriously reading for literally years, SDS materializes from seemingly nowhere. Scary. But also very cool.</td><td><img title="They said STD, right?" src="files/pictures/tom_std.gif"></td></tr></table><!--break-->

A lot of the people I’ve gushed to about the new SDS have just rolled their eyes, saying it’s just nostalgia for an organization long past, that was so problematic it isn’t even worth recreating. I knew it was nonsense at the time, but today’s conference blew that assertion out of the water. In the months before the MLK Day announcement, I had become very interested in the sixties, specifically the parts of it even the Left doesn’t usually talk about. The way they tell it, it was one Marxist-Leninist group after another in an endless parade of red banners, culminating in the biggest lie the Left has ever told: they stopped the war. There is a special place in hell for those who buy into their own propaganda.

I’ve been reading up on the “Cuban Revolution� from the anarchist perspectives of Sam Dolgoff and Frank Fernandez, in their books The Cuban Revolution: A Critical Perspective and Cuban Anarchism: A History of a Movement, respectively. (Cuban Anarchism, by the way, can be bought from See Sharp Press for $5/copy. I bought ten!) I also greatly enjoyed Dancin’ in the Streets, which is collected writings from The Rebel Worker and Heatwave magazines, with includes a great short history of the IWW, Surrealism, Situationists, Provos, Anarchism, and other anti-authoritarians in the sixties, which also, prophetically, talks about the many SDSers who additionally held IWW red cards at the time and how they were vital in snatching the One Big Union from the jaws of oblivion. And as I mentioned before, May ’68 has been another of my focuses, enjoying a first-hand account of the general strike, factory occupations and other happenings by Dermot Sreenan called “Paris 1968: When France Rebelled,� and of course also Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communsim, which is the first book I’ve ever been chastised for reading. In honor of that young ISO member, I highly recommend it. I also regularly distribute the chapter of that book, The Russian Revolution Destroyed: The Nature and Strategy of Bolshevism. A fine read.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. The SDS conference was a welcome break from reading about history, in exchange for making it. We had the opportunity to hear about all the great work and actions SDSers have been doing around the region, from anti-Coca-cola campaigns to counter-recruitment to free speech fights to immigrant solidarity. We are, without even trying, the true embodiment of SDS.

Aside from Robert Ross’s poor choice of a venue to grind his axe, the elders in attendance who offered their wisdom were each wonderful and unique. Bernadine Dohrn, showing her inherent female supremacy by taking the high road and declining to use a captive audience to settle scores from 37 years ago, was eloquent, down to earth and insightful. But I think the speaker who stuck out in my, and probably everyone else’s minds, was Carl Oglesby. He began his remarks by saying, “What have I done to deserve this?� He expressed regrets and doubts about the past, and not a dry eye was to be found when he talked about the Townhouse explosion that claimed three of his friends. “Beautiful friends,� was a term he used a lot. But perhaps the most important part of his remarks was a story he told about being sent to Cuba by Dohrn, in the hopes of rekindling his revolutionary fervor. When he got there, he was shown cane field after cane field. But at one point they came upon an irrigation system. The small river running through the field had been dammed, but there was a huge crack in it. The next dam down the river wasn’t holding water at all. But the one after that was working quite well. The tour guide explained, everyone who knew how to make dams left for Florida, so they had to figure it out for themselves. Carl finished his story and remarks by saying that that’s what revolution is about. It cuts through all ideology and dogma: You have to learn what you don’t know how to do. My two-dimensional words hardly do his any justice.

During the workshop sessions, I went to both discussions on SDS’s structure. We started with a brief introduction to the original organization’s structure, and its strengths and weaknesses. We then made a list of things we wanted out of a national organization. We listed things like coordination, skill sharing, resources (propaganda, training, funding), basic administrative, and perhaps most importantly in our minds, was security. Our concern was that if SDS continues to explode in the way it has, which we consensed that it probably will, we might be unable to handle that, much in the way the latter day organization could not. This might manifest in administrative duties becoming overwhelmed, as well as infiltration by the State and by people whose ideologies are hostile to our own values. One brother said it well, that as soon as we become successful, we would have to assume that that will happen. The best thing to do about it is damage control.

This process of drawing our needs overflowed a little bit into the next workshop session, and not long into it, we began the task of discussing how those things ought to be provided. A core consensus was on what we didn’t want: orders from above, and orders from adults. This brought up the question of how we define membership. If we want to be an organization of young activists to assert ourselves in society as well as the Left, how do we reconcile that not all youth are students, and not all students are youth? After we fiddled around with the concept a bit, I suggested that instead of having some sort of cut-off point, we ought to use guidelines when appointing people to offices and committees, keeping in mind that we want this to be a youth organization controlled by youth for the benefit of youth.

The question of how to assign tasks, such as the ones described above, was left for the most part unresolved. Some felt that some level of executive power was necessary in order to keep the organization efficient and coherent. Others, however, believed that assigning people these tasks did not constitute electing people to positions of decision-making. This view was reinforced by the idea that most information that we wanted to be distributed to the rank and file could easily be posted on the internet for easy viewing. Myself and a coupe others, however, recognized that while people assigned tasks were not in a position to make policy decisions or steer the organization in one direction or another, there were small, everyday decisions that person would have to make, many of which would be unintentional. For example, how is a male in that position going to respond to a request from a female, as compared to another male? How is the official going to utilize his control of information to influence and manipulate the organization? And most obviously, what do we do about an official who just plain doesn’t do her or his job? So, there needs to be some recognition that with every position of responsibility, there also comes power, and that power must be checked, and the person kept accountable to the membership. This can be done in a number of ways, either through a system of checks and balances via other organization bodies, and/or through direct recalls by the membership (which I believe is preferable).

This of course made me realize that the whole task of building a national structure that remained democratic without becoming inefficient or weak would be an evolving one that would require us to study intensely the experiments and projects of the past and today in the practice of participatory democracy and power from below. I recommend that a very, very bare bones structure be put in place this summer at the founding convention. Something that can fulfill the most immediate needs of the chapters, but also leaves a great deal of room for revision and addition. I cannot imagine having a mature structural identity before two or three year’s time. Very few of us are on the same page in terms of an understanding of power and process, and we need to develop some sort of collective memory of our own tradition, even if we do not come to the same conclusions based on it.

The conference’s call for SDS chapters to support the May Day general strike is a clear indicator that we are on the right track, and we have a solid idea of where our loyalties are: to the downtrodden. Civil rights are still a core part of SDS’s values, and direct action even more so. I think SDS has unprecedented potential. We can, quite literally, change the world. We are young, we are informed, and godamnit, we are right. And something that has everybody rightfully worried, from Leslie Cagan to Brian Becker to Bill O’Reilly to Dick Cheney: we are many, and growing every day. Look out motherfuckers: SDS is back.