Outline of sds talk, Peter Bohmer11/1/06



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Outline of SDS Talk,

Peter Bohmer11/1/06

1.1996 Reunion of SDS, basis of movie, Rebels With a Cause

In western MA, 150 people attended—supposed leadership of SDS—I was there—3rd reunion

Media--people sold out, “Big Chill”, not true. More like from integrity and rage, to integrity and concern.
2. What was SDS- a central group of New Left, old left, big issue—pro or anti Soviet Union? SDS moved beyond that, formed by undergraduate and graduate college students--Michigan, Swarthmore, Berkeley, elite universities—went way beyond that; mainly middle class students of liberal or left parents-parents values--not lived out--spur to action. Cuba important to some of new left as inspiration for radical change. . Attempt now to rebuild SDS. Brendan will talk about after movie.

1962-1969 national organization. By 1970 local chapters, died by 1971, increasingly at non-elite universities, SF State, Northeastern , some high schools, mainly white, ½ women; however many less women in leadership of SDS at individual campuses or nationally.


3. Key principles--participatory democracy-all aspects of life, political and economic, profound alienation from bureaucratic structures; inspired by civil rights movement--direct action--politics as more than voting, having the right views, but a way of life.

Multi-issue--not just peace or civil rights group; national--newspaper, organizers, discussed in Port Huron statement, 1962 meeting, written by Tom Hayden, break from cold war and anti-communism; not clear on capitalism, or systematic causes of racism, inequality, weak on gender, emphasized poverty of spirit, less poverty of material life. Became more anti-capitalist, pro –liberation later in decade.


4. SDS grew rapidly throughout 1960's, opposition to Vietnam a key part of it, increasingly militant, raising social cost of the war, not dollar cost as guiding strategy.

Explain—disrupt country—militant actions—fear of them spreading--so people in power would end war.

Vietnam affected me fundamentally--on every part of my being—

deepening my analysis, commitment—war not just a mistake.

Also growing militancy of Black and Chicano movements such as Brown Berets, Mecha; also spurred SDS to become more militant and radical;

Many other important groups of New Left, SNCC, BPP, Young Lords, Women's Liberation groups such as Red Stockings, Bread and Roses, various women's unions defined themselves as autonomous; own organization but worked with mixed groups, anti-Imperialist. New Left had profound effect on country, raising social cost of war--built anti-war opposition although movement didn’t gain popularity proportionately as was became less popular. Lie of spitting on GI's; New Left inspired movements of the poor—NWRO; other groups--Asian Americans, Latinos, part of world wide ferment.


Also important victories—consciousness, prevented even more destruction, e.g., U.S. using nuclear weapons in Vietnam; also contributed to Vietnam syndrome (greater skepticism since to t U.S. military intervention abroad).
Bernice Reagon--Sweet Honey and the Rock in interview in book, “They Should have Served that Cup of Coffee’--Civil Rights and Black movement most central to new left of 1960's, many leaders of SDS—their initial involvement in civil rights movement
1967-1968--growing radicalism of SDS, need for revolutionary change; also internal and external change, personal is political, anti-capitalist, change system built on profit.—Best of New left; at the same time--increasing dogmatism towards end, slogans; many thought revolution was on the agenda----easy solutions, lack of analysis
New left—focus on youth, putting body on the line, anti-imperialist, read Fanon and Malcolm X rather than Marx.--
Big debates—all still exist today;

domestic versus international-challenge challenge is to combine them e.g. Vietnam war vs poverty—need to do both, still today, Iraq and poverty, inequality; global justice should include challenging neoliberalism at home (U.S.)


Work off campus vs on campus—bring issue of national importance to campus, e.g., ROTC, Dow Chemical. Many people left campus—later resented it –not just SDS, e.g. Chicano student movement.

local vs. national demos—both—avoid false dichotomies


violence and non-violence—from strong non-violence to some romanticization of violence—property damage not seen as violence—need to build support for any actions—self-defense—in examining tactics--does it builds movement; is it tied to mass movement?

cadre versus mass organization—building of organization of revolutionaries-

Structure and leadership-sharing skills is good leadership.
SDS—national conventions—set program, chapters interpreted it, regional

Structure—national newspaper, centralized and decentralized.-one year anti-ROTC, other poverty, anti-racism—adapted to local campus.


Race, mainly white--critical support, follow leadership of third world people and groups (third world meant people of color inside U.S. also)—mainly Black, white. anti-racism more central in new left than today

Women—women as part of New Left and response to it, problem of machismo, male posturing—growing movement within and outside, varied nationally—progress from 1970 to today. In Boston women’s liberation coalition, Bread and Roses, demanded an down that in all actions, major new left coalitions, at least ½ of leadership, i.e., tactics committee, speakers, dealing with media be women. Not an excuse but less sexism in SDS, more interest in ending male supremacy than society as a whole.


Confrontation is often necessary. I am also not saying that only men are militant—need for confrontation with those that have power. Rather women should play a central role and reasons for militancy must be more than to show one’s commitment.
By 1969-maybe 100,000 members-most colleges had a chapter, many high schools, radical was a more positive word than today, radical mean left

Not true that most people, students, young people were radical in 1960’s’s----more people in demonstrations than today but still SDS, New Left removed from most people--e.g., Kent State—majority of people in Ohio. supported murder of four students. Some arrogance by SDS.


Boldness, hope—very positive, belief that we can make a difference. People today are more serious but more cynical
me--revolution became real, systemic analysis--war continuing, not just a mistake. 1968 Democratic convention, beating in the streets; murder of Fred Hampton, made me more serious, committed
1969--SDS Convention in Chicago—Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and their worker student alliance-- anti youth culture ; largest group there, strongly criticized by BPP, Fred Hampton
Other groups--

Weathermen--support for third world revolution through showing one could fight to attract white youth--bombings of military corporations--no interest in mass movement—destroyed SDS

Commitment admirable as was focus on challenging white supremacy but not admirable was romanticization of third world (inside and outside U.S.) , contempt for white working class.
Others-called themselves Maoist, as did Progressive Labor party (PLP) waving Red Book, many people have guilt over that today-e.g., some supported Khmer Rouge (insane); belief in vanguard party of revolutionaries--idea of participatory democracy by these groups seen as petit-bourgeois. had short cut to revolution

PLP –growth of dogmatic Marxism; very anti youth culture, any nationalism, saw workers as socially conservative—tried to imitate their stereotype of working class.


SDS as national organization collapsed by end of 1969

At MIT, Rosa Luxemburg SDS--tried to be independent but without national organization lasted only one year after decline of national SDS. Decline of SDS is one reason why May 1970 and massive student strike was not sustained, no national organization.

Structure: Cells-talked to everyone, cells—consensus within a cell of 8 to 10 people. Whole group—80 people majority; example of cells. Fraternity students; grad students in city planning; outreach; anarchist. Cells welcomed new people. There was a women’s caucus but Rosa Luxemburg SDS was somewhat male dominated—no official leadership but certain people had more power; the good speakers. One positive thing we did was that we went out to talk to everyone, knocked on the doors in the dorms, even in the fraternities, in the student center.
Strengths of SDS--Challenged Vietnam, Participatory democracy, commitment of people, community, boldness, courage, sprit, contributed to building a massive and radical student movement—increased student power on campus, supported calls for more Black and latino students, faculty, Black studies departments.
Negative--Increasing dogmatism, overestimated base, male domination--women did a lot of the work, men the big speakers—need to change that
Need for theory and practice, vision, to fit U.S today--meaningful work, economic equality, environmental justice, not economic growth, link race, class, gender and sexual orientation to capitalism, globally

Need to be long-distance runners for reform and revolution—not sprinters
Difficulty today, 2006---feel more isolated, not part of vibrant left,

By left, I mean commitment to equality, anti-imperialism, diversity—to a qualitatively different society, not capitalist; change from below

Back to SDS Reunion--In discussion of how we've changed, what we thought world would like in 1996 if we were alive.

I didn't think we would win in my lifetime but was sure I would be part of vibrant movement for participatory socialism—hasn’t happened, leads to feeling of marginalization.


Few people in Olympia, particularly my age with my views of reform and revolution or radical change is not central part of their lives. Cynicism has grown--temptation to let private life take over- true of a lot of the people at the SDS reunion—most hadn’t sold out but less thought about changing whole society and overthrowing a capitalist system.

Soul searching at reunion about dogmatism, divisiveness, more modest about changing the world. Almost all still defined themselves as part of the left although many felt there was no left in U.S. now, only leftists.

Passing on knowledge--concern of youth (15 children of SDS leaders attended including my son, Inti) and of gray haired veterans. In 1960’s, we felt we were starting over--good and bad; concern by activists of 1960’s about sharing knowledge, lessons, not leading revolution.

Building a cross generational movement is important—how?

So important to build movement that crosses generations—share experiences, need for veterans of left to not control younger people—respect new ideas, courage, older people have stuff to share but they must listen not demand to be followed because of their history. Cultural difference, needs to be overcome, particularly hard for whites.
Summing up—

Importance of analysis but also to act—most militant proposals, actions aren’t necessarily the best although they may be —must consider consequences—explain what we are doing—realize actions will alienate some people but must consider short and long run likely impact, also goals. e.g., blocking freeway. Yes to decisive action but don’t substitute one’s anger for what is strategic—key goals are building movement, popular consciousness and raising social cost and/or corporate cost to those with power of what one is opposing, e.g., homelessness, repression, war, anti-abortion, environmental racism.


Arrogance and cliquishness—major problems ii 1960’s, still today. We need an oppositional culture and community to support us when we are challenging corporate power and the state—need to stand up for one’s views even if it goes against the mainstream, majority, alienates some people. However, we must realize others are capable of change, SERIOUS mistake, usually unconscious, of contempt for working class, our superiority;. Unfortunately true of Weather people, true of many radicals at Evergreen—speak up, act--but show respect for others (not for ruling class). So while building alternative cultures, be respectful of those who seem more mainstream. Romanticizing working class people, Native Americans, Zapatistas, prisoners is also objectifying people—that is the other side of the same error.
Attack Wal-Mart but not people who go there. Don’t be a poser of being the most revolutionary, this isn’t a game or a party. Avoid cliquishness, talk to new people at meetings; go to where people are at, not wait for them to come to our events, reach out respectfully to working class people. Our goal is a majority movement for radical and revolutionary change, step by step linked up with people around the world struggling for liberation and human dignity. .
Don't romanticize the 60's, millions stood up but some serious errors, class arrogance, sexism, romanticization of revolution; taking shortcuts. In the U.S. it was not a revolutionary period, dogmatism; increasingly fought each other.
Let us build on what was best—speaking up and acting against our government and the immoral Vietnam war, solidarity; challenging racism sexism. Build on this-—build movements that are truly inclusive—that challenge sexism and racism within and without, that are democratic and radical, that oppose the U.S. role in the world without demonizing our troops, that develops an analysis, vision and capacity to change society that builds principled unity.
Learn, teach—build SDS and student power; also other groups, show solidarity, build coalitions —link global justice to the struggle for economic and social justice at home. –develop a vision of a society based on meeting human needs, on environmental sustainability and meaningful work not on profits, where class, race and gender oppression are challenged and overcome —a participatory democracy; and work towards it in ways big and small, on and off the job, as students and afterwards, over your lifetime. You can look yourself better in the mirror that way.
So they were mistakes but don't let those in power rewrite that history to trivialize or condemn SDS and the 1960’s. We made a positive difference. In building SDS and other groups, let us study the 1960’s and build on the best from the social movement of that and other periods, but also learn from the errors and not repeat them.
Liberals and conservatives don't want to stress mass action, or the power of students and social movements to change history—that is why they condemn or trivialize SDS and the 1960’s. Most activists from the 1960’s haven't sold out, we accomplished more than those in power will ever admit but the problems today are least as severe as then—e.g., the U.S. government openly tortures people-we need to speak up and act—a key issue of today.
Students can’t change societies by themselves but have played a major and significant role in movements for liberation and revolution throughout the world and throughout the last 100 years. e.g., Cuba in 1953, France in 1968, Nicaragua in the 1970’s, South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s, anti-WTO protests in 1999, and you can do it in the U.S. today. Thank You!

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