The Students for a Democratic Society and the Legacy of the New Left

During his introductory remarks to a panel at the recent People’s Summit, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! drew comparisons between popular political mobilizations on the left today with those of the sixties. [Juan Gonzalez to the Bernie or Bust Movement: Don’t Repeat the Mistakes in 1968 that Elected Nixon] (Short clip) The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were the exemplary institution of the new left and their efforts are generally thought to be the beginning of a shift in leftist political tactics. They sought to reinvigorate citizen political action and conducted new experiments in democratic organization, bringing many invigorated young people into political consciousness and helping create the political tumult of the sixties. Gonzalez explicitly referenced this movement when he compares them to the Bernie Sanders campaign, hoping that we will learn the lessons provided by their attempt and, what Gonzalez believes to be, their failure. But who were these people and what moved them to play such a role in politics? Was their upstart institution and the ideas that formed it a failure upon which we can blame the election of Richard Nixon as Gonzalez claims? Is the implied conclusion that #BernieOrBust supporters should fall in line with the establishment left and a neoliberal Hillary Clinton justified and have we actually gained anything from the radical “participatory democracy” philosophy of the SDS?

In attempting to answer these big questions, I want to share a reading of James Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets so that we may come to an understanding about what it is that moves these “grassroots movements.” There seems to be wide consensus, even if tacit, that the Bernie Sanders supporters comprise a “Movement” as opposed to a typical campaign. This could be a result of the striking similarity of his campaign rhetoric and the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street, with the unmistakable popular excitement common to both. Though I’m skeptical of this word usage for a presidential campaign, the more important issue lies (and everyone seems to be jumping in on the opportunity, from Jill Stein to Donald Trump) in what to do now with the “grassroots support” and “energized populism” that Sanders was able to rouse now that it seems he will not get the Democratic Party nomination. Juan Gonzalez wishes to speak to this mass of people by saying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which he believes the SDS embodies.

The most memorable of SDS demonstrations culminated in a spectacular event that landed on live television for a large audience to see: police rushing into the crowd and beating protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. The democrats would lose the presidential election to the Republican Nixon and at the highest levels of American politics (and, by virtue of being the dominant global power, politics around the world) the left would be fighting a defensive battle against the ascending neoliberalism all the way up to the present. This is what most people will remember and ever since we’ve had to live with a commonsense split between upstart idealistic youngsters and the establishment realists who are supposedly doing the political dirty work of protecting the gains made for labor and the welfare state. On this model, a constant upsurge of fresh young radicals feeds the machine of progressive politics, though relations between both sides are often bitter. This is, of course, the view from the center looking out at the periphery: the state-thinking political strategist would see popular mobilizations as a reserve to tap for its own purposes. If we are to understand these popular mobilizations, we had best treat them and they’re ideas on their own and not what just what they can do for the Democratic Party. So the two big questions I would like to pursue here are: how to interpret the phenomenon of the Student’s for a Democratic Society with respect to the present and what within the legacy of New Left is there to positively retain and what to avoid?

Writing about or speaking to a movement as a whole in broad strokes has dangers of its own. After all, we should not fall into the trap of preaching to a mass of people for the sake of furthering our own agenda without understanding why we feel we can talk to this mass of people in the first place. That is, determining what has shaped this force into a single group that we can designate a ‘movement’ should come before telling them how to behave. Taking a look at the specific history of the SDS brings us to the beginning of a new discourse that still lives on today thanks to the vitality its participants displayed and the wide proliferation of their terms and slogans. Although having a great impact on political thought among a wide range of individuals during its heyday, the SDS has largely been forgotten. It lives on in the memory of those who participated (for those who are still alive) but what was learned, accomplished, or simply expressed in their words and deeds is by-and-large left for the next generation of democratically-inspired youngsters to repeat. Every new generation throws a style and flavor of its own on popular movement-building against capitalism and imperialism on the left, but the resilience of these dominant and dominating trends is partially due to just that: new generations hitting the same roadblocks and breaking down, if in their own unique way. If there is in fact a continuity of the left, as the extreme and unparalleled influence of parent’s political beliefs on their children attests (and even leans toward the left with young people) [Gallup], then this continuity is in a rut when we can’t reach an agreement about the lessons of previous experiments in democracy. Argument and debate can be empowering and productive exercises for sure; leveling criticism at each other and challenging erroneous assumptions instead of relying on tradition as a crutch to fall back on is part of what makes the left worth fighting for in the first place. To prepare the way for the emergence of the new, upon which the left thrives, a new generation of struggle should actually be new, not the mere rhythmic heart-beat of upsurges and lulls.

The first thing that strikes the eyes upon working through James Miller’s book is that Tom Hayden, Steve Max, Sharon Jeffrey, Al Haber, and the rest of the main actors that made up the Students for a Democratic Society had an intellectual (or spiritual) leader for their organization. They all read and discussed C Wright Mills’ work and used his terminology to orient themselves and their political beliefs. Mills was a famous writer for his time and I have seen copies of his most well-known book The Power Elite floating around, but his ideas would not survive into college curriculum or speak to any further generations the way it did for members of SDS. He was more of a populist rhetorician than a systematic intellectual and his firebrand style of writing struck a cord with his target audience. “Mills gambled is academic reputation to reach a larger audience,” writes Miller, “and in one sense, he won: Listen Yankee, his polemical defense of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, sold more than 400,000 copies as a Ballantine paperback.” (p.86) Though inspiring, Mills would not provide a plan of action, only the imperative to act – with democracy in mind. He reached a wide audience and won the hearts of the young and motivated, but the primary term that he positively promoted and the SDS repeated as their credo (or closest thing they had to a credo) was a rather vague one in “participatory democracy.” Citizens are implored to become engaged with politics at a face-to-face level, get organized, and become aware of the greater structures in authoritative politics but like Kant’s categorical imperative, the content was left undefined. There wasn’t a proposed vision for a democratic society or a systematic account of how such a society would operate, only a sense of urgency in creating one by actively working to achieve it. This doesn’t stop a number of values from shining forth in his and the SDS’s writings; what it does is place an emotional demand inside of confused concepts. After all, drawing a large group of committed individuals together with similar beliefs might be impressive, while the ends of such a collective effort stop with the impression itself only to disintegrate. The question always lingers: what do we want? What’s the end game? The answer ‘Participatory Democracy’ would prove to be too unspecific to keep the organization together beyond the sixties.

Mills, via Miller, did speak about an idea in his earlier work that could operate as either an end or a skeleton with which to run an organization. A ‘primary public’ was a concept that allowed individuals to meet with each other and form collective opinions that would then give them a stronger voice. This was an idea from earlier in Mills’ career (dug up by James Miller’s acute research) that was a response to a study done in one mid-sized Illinois city about public opinion and its under-representation. In light of this study, “Mills concluded that “primary publics” – face-to-face groups of friends – actively responded to opinions expressed in the mass media, rejecting some, modifying others, arriving at their own, independent views through the give-and-take of “person-to-person discussion” (p.84) were a model for the enactment and spread of this idea. If the infrastructure and funding for renting out space had been spearheaded by a large organization like the SDS, we might have places where groups of friends could meet and mingle with other groups to unify their voices in a new form of media.

However, it was the theoretical frame for these empirical observations – and not the sanguine conclusions, which he subsequently modified – that Mills would return to repeatedly in his later works. In order to clarify the difference between opinions shaped by the mass media and those formed through face-to-face interactions, Mills defined two ideal types: the “mass ideal-type of ‘public’ in a mass society” and, by way of contrast, “the primary publics” typical of “the simpler democratic society.” (p.84)

The tension between two ideal types in ‘primary publics’ and ‘mass society’ would become Mills’ emphasis in his subsequent writing and would have a greater influence on the SDS. Achieving a politics with more presence (the oft repeated “face-to-face”) as opposed to the distance between the majority of citizens and the decisions made in government is the clear goal, a goal that seems to think it will be reached once people are brought together in simple act of becoming “present.”

In providing a distinction that could be repeated by the students off the top of their head, Mills armed the nascent group with a sense of righteousness and also gave them an enemy to harangue. “In The Power Elite, by describing in detail the trends in modern America toward “manipulated consent” and then reminding his readers of the lost ideal of face-to-face freedom, Mills made outrage easy.” (p.86) The simple act of getting together could be seen as at once liberating and a challenge to the system. In defeating the mass type of coerced complacency, people could hold a meeting and discuss politics with each other to defeat it. The very act of appearing would be its own reward, the means and ends of participatory democracy: “Freedom is an endless meeting,” read a pamphlet in the mid-sixties. But was this freedom limited to being a mere expression of anger in the way the government was run? Miller’s assessment of Mills’ conceptual personae:

“To rouse his audience, he was prepared to sacrifice subtlety, nuance, the patient evaluation of contradictory evidence – in short, the virtues of dispassionate scholarship. His carefully cultivated image – the powerless intellectual as populist outlaw – masked an unresolved tension between an emotional sense of outrage and the conviction, inherited from the pragmatists, that reason ought properly to control man’s destiny. He epitomized a politics of theatrical fury and mythomanic fervor, of high moral seriousness, savage social criticism and peculiarly blinkered self-righteousness.” (p.89)

One might wonder what’s wrong with being passionate about one’s political convictions. While an undeniable utility exists in stirring up a readership, an intellectual can offer more in terms of direction should they become widely influential. As an author moving many individuals into action, Mills had the rare opportunity to become that intellectual leader. As a writer producing books that had a resounding authoritative assurance behind them, the injection of passionate urgency into his readers/followers in the absence of a clear vision cuts away the real complexity of the powers at play when he could be dissecting them. The call becomes louder, the rage increases, but what ties together the inspired readers is nothing but the shared experience of reading the same book and being strongly affected by it. The courage for one’s convictions is glaring, but the conviction itself cannot persist or be reproduced from one group of friends/activists to another. Individuals would complain of the “in-group” phenomenon whereby everyone who had read Mills could speak with each other smoothly but alienate everyone else. In short, the common bond of the New Left would be the shear emotion of anger – a shared dissatisfaction with the predicament of mass society in contrast to the ideal-type of the “primary public,” which nobody had any experience of beyond the reading of a few books.

The emphasis Mills would put into his canonical works rested on the tension between these two ideal types rather than a constructive idea that could be put into practice or a systematic argument for answering why pure face-to-face democracy was superior to mass society. This made his work less endearing to American intellectual culture in the way that Camus’ work would become required reading in France (and elsewhere) and so perpetuate the existential movement, or Dewey’s lengthy tombs would preserve pragmatism. This very same dilemma would unfold within the SDS itself when it faced the problem of either transitioning to an institutional organization with chapters and a headquarters or remaining diffuse. As I already remarked, the SDS would fade away as an institution but its patterns of behavior in fomenting tense commitment to challenging power as such would survive within the New Left. At a critical juncture when it had broken through into the mass media and received many letters asking for membership or literature, nobody was there to process the mail. In the spirit of uprooting the bureaucratic mentality and elitism within the movement, nobody could be counted on to accomplish banal yet necessary tasks. “Elitism was routed, but virtually no mail was processed.” (p.244)

The SDS was built up in the early sixties mainly by the efforts of Tom Hayden and Al Haber. Haber would secure funding from The League of Industrial Democracy (LID), while Hayden would tour the country and forge connections with SNCC, demonstrate in McComb, Mississippi, and hone his writing skill as an activist-journalist. They would forge connections with existing activist groups on campuses across the country, scour university lists and slowly build up a following by talking with individuals face-to-face – as according to their principals.

Using his core list as “an acupuncture map of the body politic,” Haber made the rounds of the different campuses, often with Tom Hayden at his side. “It was custom politics,” says Haber. “I would say to them that what you want to do requires interacting with other people in other places who are doing the same thing you’re doing, people who are doing related things, people who have some connection with a tradition that goes way back in America to 1905, people who are in touch with intellectual currents around the world, people who are writers, who have worked and looked at the situation that you’re dealing with. Get in touch with these other people who are making history relevant; see that you are allied in a task. That will make your writing better, it will make the world you want better. You need an organization for that” – an organization like SDS.” (p.71)

The SDS was then an ur-organization for student radicals that brought disparate student groups together under one national name and coordinated actions. As the organization grew, its members decided that they needed to forge a document that would elaborate on who they were and what they wanted. The Port Huron Statement would be the results of a collective effort at making a declaration of principles for the SDS and would become the first major work of the New Left. Fifty-nine people would come to Port Huron Michigan and stay for three days of deliberation, break-out sessions, and group editing. The finished product is a 43 page monument and it took exhaustive work to complete, but what not everyone knows is that Tom Hayden wrote a series of draft notes that were sent out to members before the convergence. Hayden was the SDS’s star writer and it was his vision that prompted the creation of the document, everyone else edited and refined his draft notes for the manifesto. The writings of a speech that Hayden gave in Ann Arbor Michigan called ‘Student Social Action’ had been circulated just recently in pamphlet form and his language was speaking to a great number of people within SDS.

Other members of the SDS like Steve Max were critical of Hayden’s bookish style. ““I had never gone to college,” explains Max,

We saw a very concrete series of tasks and never quite understood what Hayden and these guys were talking about. You had to know all these books. We didn’t understand that very often it was the courses that students were taking and the books they were reading, by Mills or one of those people, that first started them thinking about politics…”” (p.103)

The talk coming out of this group was very abstract and spoke for their entire generation but sounded like their favorite author C Wright Mills – an author who not everyone had read and didn’t offer a quick and easy theory to digest. Added to that criticism was the uneasiness of their money source at LID for not being anti-communist enough or “soft on communism.” Michael Harrington would also attend the Port Huron meeting and clash with Hayden and Haber over de-emphasizing workers over students and not heeding the lessons of LID’s experience with communist infiltrators seeking to take over their organization. Though Harrington would regret coming down so hard on this group (p.135), his alarmism over the influence of communists over an ambiguously defined group of budding young political activists would be prophetic:

Ignorant of history many of them defiantly remained. And seven years later the organization that they had struggled to set on an ecumenical and open-minded footing would pay the price. In 1969, after several dizzying years of anarchic grass-roots growth and increasingly arcane bickering over strategy among a new generation of leaders who were far more contemptuous of the past than the founding generation, SDS was successfully infiltrated and captured by the Progressive Labor Party – a disciplined cadre of self-styled Marxist-Leninists.” (p.139)

The debate between the LID traditionalists, primarily through the voice of the relatively older Harrington at age 34, and the younger SDS members would continue on after the finalizing of the document. While the students were fresh off of the glowing experience of completing the statement after intense discussion, drunk on the prospect of making history in initiating a mass movement on a supposedly solid footing, LID was furious and “summoned the SDS leadership in New York to an emergency meeting” (p.127) soon after. They wrestled over the lack of a forceful denunciation of the Soviet Union, which LID believed the Port Huron Statement did not contain forcefully enough. Hayden defended himself by saying that they had in fact rejected Communism but then added that America’s general attitude towards it was an overreaction. Without much experience dealing with Communists, which in fact were not powerful on campuses and didn’t exert much influence, Hayden thought that such a defiantly oppositional stance towards Communism would be too restrictive to their experiments in democracy and bolster the persecuting Cold Warriors in the US. “What we want to do is find a way to end the Cold War and increase democracy in the U.S. and we think the two are related. We advocate universal controlled disarmament, foreign-policy initiatives in strengthening of international organization, trying to do what will create political rather than military foreign policy in the U.S. and Soviet Union.” (p.128) Without much experience with the tactics and ideological furor with which a Communist party acted, Hayden and the rest of SDS wanted a peaceful reconciliation with the Soviets on the grand national level and to be able to absorb some of the more humane aspects of communal organizing.

Hayden and Haber left the meeting but were called back for another meeting, this time with more veteran trade unionists. Harrington charged SDS again with being soft on Communism and “united frontism. He accused SDS of committing the venal political sin of

““accepting reds to your meeting… You knew this would send LID through the roof. This issue was settled on the left ten or twenty years ago – and that you could countenance any united frontism now is inconceivable…” And so it went on for two grueling hours. Hayden and Haber were soft on Communism. Ferocious in their criticism of America, they were willing simply to tap the Soviets on the wrist.” (p.131)

The SDS regrouped and held a meeting in which they contemplating leaving LID, but chose to revise key parts of the manifesto instead – just the kind of rapprochement they were advocating for the Cold War. This proved to be enough and both old and young radical leftists chilled out.

In James Miller’s view, the League of Industrial Democracy had been too harsh on the young group. After all,

[a] year later, President Kennedy himself reopened the public debate over Communism and the Cold War by saying, in his famous American University speech in June of 1968, “Let us reexamine out attitude toward the Soviet Union.” By the mid-sixties, it was difficult to read the revised Port Huron Statement and to find in it anything radically different from the positions shared by many mainstream politicians… The blind passion of Harrington’s anti-Communism, by contrast, soon came to seem like an atavism – even to Harrington himself.” (p.135)

However, the SDS was eventually infiltrated by the Marxist-Leninists already mentioned, even in the very same decade. Wouldn’t this suggest that more not less pressure to prevent Communist thinking and ideology from filtering into the organization would have been advisable? The lessons of these Old Left movements could have been passed down to these New Left actors much more effectively but the transition from new to old went by way of an angry shouting match instead. The SDS would harden its skin against such emotionally charged attacks by the old guard and this helped sharpen the generational divide. “At some point, though, the debate had ceased to be about principles, and had become instead a struggle over the autonomy of the younger generation.” (p.138, emphasis added) Had the older group been softer on youth curiosity, the New Left might not have strayed so far away from the Old and the follies of outdated ideologies might not have reasserted themselves in such a scattered manner. Such an episode highlights the lack of continuity amongst the left in general and how raw emotion would come to define the modus operandi of non-institutional progressive-democratic politics.

In the spirit of allowing this new group of political actors to speak for themselves instead of speaking to this raw mass of people, some space will need to be provided for understanding their own concepts and vocabulary. What stands out is the term ‘participatory democracy’: “It became a catchword – used over and over again, to recruit, to convert, to convince.” (p.142) But what did it mean? In Miller’s estimation, determining a precise meaning to ‘participatory democracy’ “leads into a labyrinth.” Like movements to come following the New Left trajectory, ‘participatory democracy’ was a way of eluding a standard definition – one’s actions performed during the effort of participation would come to stand in for the meaning of the term. While an inviting and uplifting concept, the content was left vacant and you the actor (which was usually first the reader) would be left to fill it in. Miller decided it has three qualities:

As a catchword, “participatory democracy” is remarkable for its resonance – its multiple layers of implied meaning… its elasticity – the ease with which it could be stretched to cover a wide variety of different political situations; and its instability – a volatility caused, in part, by its range of different possible meanings and the implicit contradictions they contained.” (p.142)

This helps clarify the deployment of the word; it seemed to be able to do anything so long as it found energetic subjects to cling to. Democracy was already a hallmark of established American politics and used by mainstream politicians including a major party, so there was no risk of reaching a dearth of young bodies to become turned on to it. And who wouldn’t wish to participate in democracy anyways? It is practically baked right into the concept of democracy itself, unless one does not view themselves as part of the people who would be doing the ruling (over themselves) or wish not to participate in their own rule (and so would not believe in democracy). As a concept it could draw new people into a discussion about what actions to take and hold a near undeniable appeal, but it could not provide any direction, any instruction (such as a parent or teacher might give) for what actions would be desirable or how to behave once undertaken. It was like a force of gravity that merely kept wandering comets in orbit without determining their internal composition or flight path.

This effect was intended by the SDS. They didn’t want to be the arbiters of decision-making but merely bring invigorated people into political prominence and say “go.” “To this extent, the ambiguity surrounding participatory democracy in The Port Huron Statement was deliberate: more than an empty slogan but less than a formal doctrine, it was an open invitation to embark on a shared adventure of political discovery.” (p.143) But this open-ended aspect of ‘participatory democracy’ is also deceptive because there are obvious political persuasions of the individuals in SDS, not to mention the entire Unionist, anti-Capitalist background of their financial supporters LID. Seen from this vantage point, the slogans of the manifesto were an ingenious way for building up a following of students, charging them up with political zeal, and unleashing them into actions that would benefit the working class that they would likely very soon join. As appetizing as this sounds, with their indeterminate concept and their autonomy to freely devise the targets of their actions, the SDS could not maintain an enduring institutional presence beyond the exuberance that such a concept could gather. Adding to that is the fact that they were billing themselves as the latest incarnation of an entire tradition that they would claim and send a charge through. Seen from this vantage point, the championing of ‘participatory democracy’ by the SDS was like playing with dangerous fireworks inside of a house. Without the means and will to perpetuate the kind of energy that they meant to inject into politics, such energy could crash and burn the house down in a kind of ‘burnout’ that wouldn’t be constrained to one’s private dejection, no matter how quietly one went out.

Miller interviewed the key members of the SDS in writing his book and many of them placed their organization with a socialist trajectory. Speaking on the meaning of ‘participatory democracy’, Bob Ross said, “[o]ur problem was to find a way to talk about socialism in an American accent”, Richard Flacks said, “[i]t meant an exciting transformation of the meaning of socialism”, and Steve Max said, “[i]t didn’t strike those of us who had more of a formal socialist orientation that it was really the key thing.” And so Miller asks,

[w]as participatory democracy a euphemism for socialism or an exciting transformation of the socialist idea? Was it an epiphenomenon of more fundamental social realities that would arise in due course once some form of socialism had replaced capitalism? Or was it a new form of political organization distinct from and irreducible to any form of economic organization?… Would it focus new attention on political procedures, as a response, in part, to the tendency of socialist and Communist parties to develop into centralized bureaucracies? Or would such a theory emphasize “authenticity” and action, and explore the means by which human beings summoned the will to resist the blind onrush of events and, against all odds, managed to seize control of their lives and make history?” (p.145)

Of course, these questions could not be definitively answered by participatory democracy or the SDS, making them a kind of flurry of rhetorical questions that demonstrates what was left neglected by the upstart organization. But this doesn’t stop Miller from turning to the tendencies in the writings of their most influential member Tom Hayden:

there is a constant tension between civic republicanism on the one had and existentialism on the other: when he follows Mills and his own teacher Arnold Kaufman, he depicts a world of orderly face-to-face discussion among responsible citizens; when he follows Camus and his own enthusiasm for the daring politics of direct action, he depicts a world of clashing wills and romantic heroes, mastering fate thought the hard assertion of personality. It is by no means evident that these images can be reconciled. The will to act can easily be sapped by endless debate. And thoughtful discussion is rarely advanced though heroics.

This tension in Hayden’s thinking suggests that the notion of participatory democracy involves not one, but two distinct political visions: the first is of a face-to-face community of friends sharing interests in common; the second is of an experimental collective, embarking on a high-risk effort to test the limits of democracy in modern life.” (p.146)

What Hayden was doing in his writings for the SDS was mixing these two opposing ideas for structuring human relationships without knowing it. One was a Quaker idea of small community members who both know each other and share the same belief structure, making decisions consensually in a direct-democracy of “rule-by-consensus”, and the other was a “kind of anarchism. Spurning all fixed doctrines and forms they exulted in discovery, improvisation, the drama of unpredictable innovation.” (p.147) This tension continue on unresolved but there lingers a characteristically philosophical motive in Miller’s analysis itself (he’s written extensively about philosophers as a historian after all) to get rid of the conceptual tension and exclude the middle. Could we not ask whether this tension need be resolved or whether it could continue on in a kind of tenuous energy generator for this rapidly growing ‘movement’? Heroes and rhetorical leaders could do the work of attracting new recruits and speaking loudly to the public, while the consensus rules could tighten up the ship and keep those individuals accountable to the larger group. As two tendencies within a single movement, they might complement each other rather than being oppositional and in need of reconciliation. The problem rises, however, when these two different attitudes, one warm and orderly and the other edgy and daring, are not capable of checking each others extremities and spiraling off in their own direction. That this tension is visible in both the behavioral and the literary aspect of SDS goes to show that, even for a group of self-styled intellectuals coming off the writing of a grand manifesto, a conceptual synthesis that could restrain and reinforce the opposites was missing. At least some sort of understanding of the two extremes at play within one’s own organization must be highlighted, so that the split does not drive a wedge through organization and wreck it before anyone knows what hit them.

This is a great tragedy for the left which somehow appears to have never been satisfactorily addressed. By allowing newcomers to leap into what they believed to be novel political organizing, while running into the same dead ends as those before them, the SDS opened up the space for old ideologies to reassert themselves by offering the theoretical rigor that the SDS left absent. The force of the theoretical rhetoric led participants into thinking that a new movement was upon them with new developments in social organization, while, as demonstrated by the SDS itself when it was infiltrated by Marxist-Leninists, these youngsters ironically gave an opening for the old and obsolete to reassert itself:

But Hayden’s disingenuousness at this critical juncture in the formation of the New Left would prove intellectual disastrous in the long run. It left the false impression of historical precedent and helped, as we shall see, to thicken rather than dispel the conceptual fog of rhetoric surrounding democracy. It fostered the illusion that fundamental issues of political theory had been addressed, and settled, when in fact matters of principle had scarcely been touched. It prompted the brightest young thinkers on the left in the years that followed to concentrate on strategy and economics and social issues, while the broader political vision of participatory democracy went largely unexamined. Because the vision was never codified and clarified and passed on as a formal doctrine of democracy, no shared approach to grappling with objections and difficulties was handed down. The final goal was left obscure. There was no emerging theoretical tradition to orient thinking and keep young activists from wandering up the same blind alleys over and over again, no clearly defined principles to forestall fundamental disagreements about what democracy ideally meant.” (p.152, emphasis added)

In an intellectual sense at least, the New Left would become a kind of staging ground for ideologies to continue their old debates. This was a new brand of old styles of thinking that in practice comes closest to anarchist direct action and creating a chaotic and shockingly spectacular scene to challenge authority. This “conceptual fog” would be the novelty, “democratically” giving any speaker the ability to turn any claim to political legitimacy on its head and claim to be doing politics. But wasn’t democracy already elaborated on by the likes of Rousseau and de Tocqueville? And weren’t these students merely asserting their right to engage with what has already been established? The furor over the lack of democracy in America was a hallmark of the SDS, so even though they lacked a clear vision of their own they made their antagonism to the present political structure abundantly clear. They held onto the tension of criticism without an alternative; the results would be a number of new tactics that would keep old ideas resurfacing and activist groups distanced from each other in their slices of the spectrum.

As a strategy of being within the left but autonomously so and champions of democracy but in a radical vs establishment version, SDS held onto a tension both within its theoretical position and outwardly in relation to the politics of the past. The conventional understanding was that by pushing democracy to a radical extreme, they would pull the rest of political spectrum with them – as if politics were a rope in a tug-of-war and one needed to do was tug harder on your end. This strategy only works when there is coordination within the left or right camp and at least an unspoken agreement to support the other more extreme side with which one shares a common base. Too much autonomy would cut the rope off and fracture what little solidarity was amongst the side as a whole. The strategy of agitation was and still is good at attracting attention, especially in the age of mass media, but the heat of militaristic marching and so forth could become too hot to handle. To unhesitatingly decry the liberal establishment yet attempt to draw it closer to you would end up backfiring: “It was never clear why, apart from succumbing to a fit of conscience, the liberal elite should promote experiments and reforms that were explicitly intended to diminish its power.” (p.182) In a negotiation, especially from an organization with mailing lists and planning meetings, one must make concessions and not just make threats.

It’s a point that could weigh heavily on the mind some 40-50 years after the fact. In decade after decade of neoliberal gains and worker wages and rights diminishing, even from policies enacted by the establishment democratic party, the unpatched rift with young radicals and the institutional left is suddenly glaringly obvious. All too often do we hear of idealistic young people making the rushed leap into politics, the crash of disappointment, and the embarrassment at looking back on the whole episode. In the face of discontented citizens’ groups organized on a consensus-style basis, much of what is called the culture-wars have been won by the left, while US imperialism and enshrining of corporate interests at the expense of workers harden their march within the halls of power relatively unabated. While it would be an exaggeration and plainly dishonest to lay the blame on the New Left and the SDS entirely, the reserve of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist seeking a way into politics all too often get spun around in old ideological quarrels, that is, when they haven’t managed to let the voice of anger break through into the mass media. Most of college campus organizing today is relegated to removing individuals from office in keeping with the antagonistic heritage that has become the now “establishment” posture of the new left; that plus winning space within the university for consensus experiments in “safe spaces.” How many people who have entered an organization of this kind with high hopes and dedication, only to quietly filter back into the status quo we’ll never exactly know.

Returning to the tension between the bravado of radical statements and the rule-by-consensus organization, we can see where these two tendencies developed in the course of the SDS movement. On the daring existential side, we can see the police riot that made a splash on television screens across the country with protesters chanting “the whole world is watching!” This interpretation of direct action was the more aggressive version than, say, setting up a protest camp without establishing lines of communication to city officials, and the marchers were by no means passive victims. One of the more illuminating parts of reading Democracy Is in the Streets is that a number of marches, rallies, and gatherings had taken place during the 3-day long convention and a malicious rapport had been established by the demonstrators with the police. Demonstrators had thrown rocks, bottles, and taunts at the cops who shouted back in return. “Fuck pigs, oink, oink!” were met with “Kill the Commies!”

““What had happened outwardly,” wrote one participant, “was that a bunch of people had gotten pushed around by a bunch of cops… But inwardly, what had happened to a lot of people… was that they had understood somehow that they were locked into this thing with the cops (and there was even a sense that it was a kind of drama – though a real drama), and that this was the beginning of it and that it was going to go on and get worse and be very ugly.”” (p.299-300)

There would be three more days of this for a total of four days and nights of skirmishes. On the night of day three, “the street fighting occurred on schedule, yielding 93 arrests, 9 damaged police vehicles and 7 injured policemen.” (p.301) The following day would be the televised attack, the culmination of half a week of aggressive protest near the DNC in Chicago.

And the saturated coverage on television had brought the existence of the New Left inescapably to the attention of all America.

But what had America seen? Was a crowd helplessly chanting in the midst of a police riot the image of participatory democracy? Was street fighting the seed of “a people’s movement”? Was this really what a generation’s moral revulsion against the Vietnam War and idealistic quest for “a democracy of individual participation” had come down to?” (p.305)

At this point the romantic-existential side of the schizophrenic movement shone forth and all of the drum-beating rhetoric of radical commitment had been unleashed in full view of the pubic. Locked in a kind of non-militaristic street battle, the marchers were taken over by the deterritorialized war marching urge but it was the purist anti-authoritarian rhetoric that had got them there. An historic event it would turnout to be, but the case could be made that the left has been in retreat ever since. It is this spectacle that allows someone like Juan Gonzalez to draw the conclusion that the country should hold its nose and vote for Hillary Clinton instead of pursue an alternative.

And then a year later, after the SDS had been infiltrated by the Leninists, a group of ultra-radical individuals formed an organization of their own called The Weather Underground. The Weathermen would go on to perform the Che Guevara-style guerrilla warfare in American cities by blowing up buildings and sending clandestine radio messages.

on the night of October 8, 1969, Hayden had addressed the Weathermen as they prepared to launch their first surprise guerrilla attack, again in Chicago. Armed with helmets, baseball bats and apparently bottomless reserves of arrogance and self-loathing, the Weathermen had assembled after nightfall in Lincoln Park, nerving themselves to smash through their bourgeois inhibitions and “tear pig city apart” in a “national action” they called “The Days of Rage.

Hayden had debated joining them.” (p.311)

I don’t need to write much more about were this would go, except that the overt assumption of violence as a tactic is mostly characteristic of an organization fresh out of ideas, grasping onto the last easiest method to assert a power that it knows itself to be losing: “the growing violence of the movement was defensive, reactive, without constructive purpose.” (p.306) Violence as a political tactic can surely win you power, but to call it a Pyrrhic victory for a group dedicated to an expansion and invigoration of democracy would be an understatement. Some revolutionaries will insist on using violence as merely a means to achieve power, from which they can rule much better than those ruling so in the present, but the track record of these instances is in the modern era is abysmal.

On the consensus side of the SDS tension there was far more success. Sharon Jeffrey would spearhead a breakout organization called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) that would create experiments in communal-style living arrangements beginning in Cleveland. Aiming at the poor, underrepresented ghettos in major American cities she and other members of the SDS would spread the kind of participatory democracy that they had kind-of-sort-of envisioned. Meetings drew on for hours and many just could keep up with the patience needed for allowing every single person to vocally express their opinions on each topic before they moved on or decided on anything. However, out of these experiments would grow second-wave feminism and a more inclusive form of running meetings that many would come to view as more empowering than any other before it. Adopted from the small communities (in an indisputable use of the word ‘community’) of Quakers, rule-by-consensus in these ERAP groups put in an immense amount of effort into ensuring that all participants had a voice in the decisions made.

This form of organizing would survive and offer an immediate way for inspired newcomers to form themselves and make decisions. As a process for a small group of people who think alike, consensus-based rule is a new idea for the left, albeit one borrowed from another community. After the ERAP project fell apart, this form of organization would live on.

In the decades to come, experiments in participatory democracy would be launched by thousands of young people in dozens of different situations. Health clinics, law communes, free schools, feminist collectives, underground newspapers, drug-crisis centers, food co-opts, radical theater troupes – all would try their hand at direct democracy and rule-by-consensus, sometimes ingenuity and a surprising degree of success, sometimes with great difficulty and ultimately failure, but always with idealism and a sense of high hope. For countless young people, the political adventure called the New Left was just beginning. (p.216-217)

With such a diverse set of groups enacting consensus-based decision-making processes it would be wrongheaded to evaluate the idea singularly. The case of the SDS demonstrates the intense strain it puts on participants but also a high sense of accomplishment and degree ownership over the results. In Cleveland, ERAP taught neighborhoods (in spite of serious mental barriers) the inner working of local government, fostered local leaders, and in Newark organized successful rent strikes. (p.211) For an organization swelling with members though, this would create problems in burnout and cliquish behavior. The long meetings became a bigger burden than some could bear and the emphasis on direct experience within the meetings (a mystical ideal of “presence” and the reality of the community) made reproducing this model beyond those already actively participating near impossible. Taking notes and ensuring transparency to the greater SDS is extremely difficult in a meeting where free expression diverts the topics constantly. This requires a high level of dedication that is hard to maintain for the few organizers tasked with it, especially when removed from the highly-charged meetings where the decisions are made. On top of this, many were getting worried about the “elite—isolation—in-groupism… community can also be defined in terms of who is in and who is out.” So here is a tension that remains within the consensus model with respect to building a larger organization: the tendency to limit itself to a small group of those present at meetings (to those with the time and energy to spare) and the burnout that comes with keeping such a group transparent and accountable. It doesn’t surprise me that such a model is most successful in smaller groups who don’t have to answer to a greater institution.

So here we have some of the key traits of the New Left as displayed in their early stage through the Students for a Democratic Society. Their legacy still largely lives on today, together with their unresolved tensions and habits of conduct. While the term “participatory democracy” hasn’t survived as a rallying cry, democracy itself is still an unquestioned ideal and on the lips of every politician. While many are rightfully seeking a way to further their influence in the political decisions made beyond mere voting for representatives, experiments in encouraging democratic participation have mixed results. Building lasting institutions within the student movements has proven difficult and some might eschew the idea of an enduring institution altogether, opting instead for periodic moments of protest, issue-specific demonstrations, or waiting for revolutionary situations from which to cease power quickly. The common traits of the New Left have largely left a blank space with two extremes tendencies that organizations habitually fall into: aggressive/revolutionary rhetoric that whips-up marchers to fight against the police or target power-centers and the downsized consensus model that keeps organizations small, despite heightening the sense of friendship. At their best, mass actions avoid these extremes and a balance of power between the two keeps an even keel. Still, organizing for the long haul in the modern world entails institutions that persist beyond individual/clique interest and excitement.

The difference between mass movements and institutions does not need to be an either/or proposition. There is a strange kind of symbiotic relationship between the grassroots organizing that breaks through into the national consciousness with the force that gradualist institutions never could and the politics of authority that retains its power over the long term, trying its hand at altering government from the inside. No doubt, the relationship is tenuous when many will reject collaboration with the other side and call the absorption of popular mobilization’s rhetoric or tactics “capture” or “co-optation.” On the other hand, people can easily get fed up with the futility of strict adherence to principles of democracy that go so far as to take away all manifestations of power imbalances and/or result in tribalist confrontation with modern forces of authority. That there is a division that persists need not be a purely negative development: it is more helpful to view this division as the reemergence of human relations from the pre-modern world, if only briefly. Negotiating between this rift becomes paramount when disintegration and frustration risk a complete flight into conservative reverence for authority or the escape from politics altogether.

As it turns out, Tom Hayden, for all his tough talk about total commitment and the boldness to challenge the status quo, held contacts within the Democratic Party and had very practical things to say about winning votes and so forth: “In his writing he frequently reiterated the need for daring, boldness, courage and risk-taking; yet he hedged his own political bets, keeping lines of communication open to mainstream reform Democrats well after he had embraced the image of the guerrilla warrior.” (p.272) As a flamboyant writer who roused his readers into action, Hayden became a figurehead who was able to gain the ear of some prominent politicians. He spoke with the governor of Newark during their week-long riots that had seen looting mobs and an occupying national guard shooting at buildings. They tried to hash out a solution to the turmoil and Hayden’s delegitimizing mentality he had worked up over the years seemed to work: the next day New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes withdrew the national guard and the riots ended. They were very polite to each other and “aimed at persuasion”, but taking the hardline against the paramilitary force occupying the city netted the better negotiating position (p.275). Such a proposition for the functioning of a radical institution like the SDS sounds appetizing. It establishes a line of communication between autonomous groups and the centers of power in a way that would let both sides (and the people at large) reap the benefits. A similar positive result could be seen in Cleveland when ERAP taught whole neighborhoods how local government works and produced community leaders.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary furor that swept across the globe would overtake the SDS and push it back into the old ideological mode. From the successes of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s popularity to the moral outrage over the atrocities in the Vietnam War to the cultural explosion of the sixties, the tide would turn against collaboration. The SDS had

veered sharply away from its original commitment to nonsectarian radicalism. For more than a year, SDS had been the target of a takeover attempted by the Progressive Labor Party, a Marxist-Leninist cadre of Maoists. With its disciplined, puritanical style and dogmatic commitment to create a dictatorship of the proletariat in America, the Progressive Labor faction stood against most of what once had defined the New Left as new. The Party’s show of revolutionary rigor nevertheless had a profound impact on the intellectual climate within SDS. “Sitting in an SDS gathering,” complained two veterans, had become “a hellish agony,” with “intellectualization and parliamentary manipulation” replacing “a sharing of experiences and consensus decision-making.” This was putting it mildly.” (p.285)

One could argue it was the intellectual vacuity of their “participatory democracy” non-credo slogan that paved the way for this kind of reassertion of the same problems that plagued the Old Left. Equally point to global developments and the heady feeling that a new era was coming and the time was ripe for world-wide revolution, which is beyond the scope of the SDS. These moments of world-historic opportunity will surely rise again and if the outcome is to truly be new then we must learn from the what was new and fresh in the New Left and what was a straight up failure.  Without education, each new generation will have to learn the same lessons of the previous one and get caught in a cycle of long-term impotence.

In the summation of Paul Booth (one of the few SDS organizers who tried and failed to solidify it into a “permanent institution” as it rose to popularity):

““The direct-action model for political influence was about speaking truth to power,” he says. “It was a theory that you could be influential because your thoughts were good and right, and you made the necessary sacrifices to get to a podium to speak. We didn’t start out with very good ideas about strategy, in part because the pacifist–direct-action people who influenced us weren’t into strategy, they were into witness. And then there were the academic influences, and they weren’t into strategy because they weren’t into activity. Unfortunately, the Old Left didn’t influence us: we viewed them as intellectually bankrupt. But they were the only people in the society who knew what mass action was, who knew what a mass organization was or how you worked in one.””

We can see the problem being one primarily of continuity between generations. To not repeat the same mistakes, the Left must now learn not just from the Old but the New Left as well – trying again at the New.  The point becomes, from the long-view of processes, to not let the passion of democracy vanish after a generation assimilates into modern society but let them share their experiences with the next.  The point becomes to avoid a situation like this: [Democrats will Learn all of the Wrong Lessons from Brush with Bernie], which in turn leads to a public so disillusioned about democratic change that it will turn to any ideological savior in the spotlight.


Miller, James, Democracy Is in the Streets. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1988.


Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher, Occupier (until there is a better idea).

7 thoughts on “The Students for a Democratic Society and the Legacy of the New Left”

      1. think he’s out trying to convince us that we should switch from supporting Bernie like positions to voting for Hillary, so it goes in party politics too bad there isn’t a real alternative that can scale up, guess we just do what we can in the cracks of the everyday.

      2. That’s too bad he’s calling for party unity in the face of an unsustainable trajectory. I cheer and would help many grassroots movements and other non-electoral strategies but without a continuity from moment to moment in each “struggle” they can become wasteful and lead to recalcitrant burnout and so on. Restatements.

        I think the Bernie moment is something new and I don’t even think it is over: the anti-politics people were kind of caught in their ideology cul de sac when faced with an actually electable person.

      3. oh yeah they’re badly out of touch with how bad things really are.
        my experience of fellow bernie supporters is that they aren’t so much a movement as collections of usual suspects (we all know who we are) and that when it comes down to issues what is most important/timely or how to organize wouldn’t likely agree on much and so in a sense were saved from all those all too familiar tensions by the Dem party machine. It’s a very old problem really (familiar to those of us fond of writers like Del&Guat) that one either falls into the tyranny of the means or remains fragmented, the very little time left to try and shift big issues like climate change is one of the more brutal/tragic aspects in that we don’t have a large enough scale party at hand to really do more than protest the powers that be and no time or means to organize one, partly why I focus instead on what can be done locally to try and keep as humane as possible in the piling up rubble, things are bad and getting worse and we need some radically different coping adaptations/mechanisms cuz trying to forge relations after things have gone to shit is not a mode of working that usually goes well.

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