Winter 2009 - Volume 12 Number 1
|Reviews||A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008
It’s been roughly forty years since “Sgt. Pepper,” “Light My Fire,” the “Summer of Love” and the police riot in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention that nominated Hubert Horatio Humphrey and guaranteed the election of Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s been roughly forty years since EXPO ’67 and since Pierre Trudeau’s won the expanding minds and open hearts of Canadians. It’s been about forty years since the utopianism of Woodstock, the dystopianism of Altamont and the “massacre” at Kent State University. It’s also been about forty years since North American youth traded in SDS for the Bee Gees.
Having lived through the sixties, taught at universities and colleges in both Canada and the United States and found myself involved on the margins of what some might call “radical politics” of the time, I have occasionally reflected on both the bloated visions of the “revolutionary” potential of the “counter-culture,” and the ease with which “the movement” collapsed. I have also spent some time considering the hysteria of the “right-wing” elements, which came to dominate both Canadian and American politics in the last part of the twentieth-century, and which continues to have occasional panic attacks despite being manifestly in control of the political agenda not only under the likes of Stephen Harper, George W. Bush, Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, but also under ostensible liberals such as William Jefferson Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Barack Obama.
If student radicalism was ever a serious hope (or threat, depending on your perspective), its lasting appeal been hard to spot ever since the Beatles broke up, Phil Ochs and Abbie Hoffman committed suicide and Islamic extremists replaced godless communists as the bogeyman du jour.
This is not to say that goodly number of issues such as misogyny and homophobia have been raised, nor to deny that some progress has been made on those fronts. As well a sort of spongy awareness of environmental degradation has occasionally come to the fore and, though there has been little serious action to combat climate change, water problems from draught and desertification to the lack of clean drinking water for the bottom billion members of our species, there has been some awakening and a growing awareness of the ecological disaster now more than dimly in view. Finally, it has been hard to avoid thought about the toxic power of global corporations which, through systematic bad acts, have lost some of their moral authority, but who have seen as many of their victims rally to the side of fundamentalist religion, “populism,” and racism as to “progressive” political attitudes and action. So, though we may imagine her unelectable as the “leader of the free world,” Sarah Palin is attractive to American voters, Wal-Mart wins North American customers and Canada’ New Democratic Party is still waiting for the electoral breakthrough that it has been anticipating for a little more than forty years.
What happened? Why, despite ample evidence of a growing gap between rich and poor, a massive assault on trade unions, an abundance of corporate fraud and malfeasance, have North Americansincluding the “baby-boomers who flocked to the streets to protest in the 1960s and who frolicked at rock concerts to their parents’ disgust and dismayfailed to maintain or to pass on their youthful idealism to successive generations, which are now transfixed by YouTube, addicted to videogames and tweeting themselves into terminal narcissism, while remaining indifferent to (or merely cynical about) changing anything other than the tunes on their iPods?
As a “pre-boomer” myself, I have been seeking instruction. I know that part of the answer is that the sixties weren’t really the sixties. Most of the people who came of age between, say, 1963 and 1970 had nothing to more than usual to do with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. They were as dull, apolitical and careerist as any other generation. They were simply unnoticed or have been conveniently forgotten as both radicals and reactionaries overstated the ubiquity and influence of long-haired, weirdos in search of social change. President Nixon spoke of his support among the “silent majority” of Americans. There was a silent majority among the students of the day as well; it’s just that the civil rights activists, the anti-war demonstrators and the pot-heads got all the publicity. Gracie Slick sang “Revolution” on the Jefferson Airplane album, “Volunteers,” and a remarkable number of people took it seriously. This, however, does not explain why the “movement” so precipitously declined in organization and effect. A more thorough answer is provided David Barber in his new book, A Hard Rain Fell.
For those who somehow missed the sixties, who never caught up with the sixties or are increasingly nauseated by superannuated hippies recalling times that probably never were, it may be important to remind or inform people that the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was created in 1960 when the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) changed its name to expand its range of concerns. It wanted to appeal to a more diverse audience and to gain “relevance” in the emerging youth culture then dominated by jazz (Dizzie Gillespie), beatniks (Allen Ginsberg), folkies (The Kingston Trio) and the politics of nuclear disarmament. Socialist in origin, SLID was the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy. It had been around for over half a century and it sought a new beginning, especially among the male, white middle class.
The defining moment for SDS came in 1962 when the Port Huron Statement was produced as a sort of manifesto for the transforming organization. Largely written by Jane Fonda’s future husband Tom Hayden, it made a powerful appeal to youth, and it offended a number of “older” leftists such as Michael Harrington because of its refusal to denounce “communists” and “communism” with sufficient clarity to ease the concerns of the “anti-communist left.” To the younger folk, “old left” bickering meant being mired in antique factional battles; to the old left, the younger folk were naïve. The eagerness to seize new opportunities for a broad, progressive new generation won the day.
For seven years, SDS was the focal point of the “New Left,” and scared the pants off the “establishment” and the “old left” alike. The older generation of trade unionists, American Democrats and Canadian social democrats were united with conservative forces in both countries in their perception of the unkempt, uncivilized and uncontrolled young people as constituting the elements of authoritarianism, irrationalism, extremism and unregulated spontaneity that could as easily produce a new Fascism as a new Bolshevism, neither of which were to be tolerated. Indeed, if anything, the old left was even more anxious and more determined to speak out against the new militants, activists and alleged fanatics.
Though these internecine squabbles were rarely noticed by the bulk of the people at demonstrations and rock concerts, David Barber’s interest in SDS and the movement is certainly more than nostalgic; so, an exploration of the organizational politics and the competing ideologies of the activists merits attention. His recapitulation of the era is, of course, not unique. A number of serious review of the movement and its major sustaining institutions have appeared of late. It is, after all, almost precisely forty years since SDS fractured, split into its RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) and WSA (Worker-Student Alliance) factions and further splintered in self-destructive contests about tactics, doctrines and not a few egos which were at odds about how best to deal with a revolution that seemed to be leaving them behindas irrelevant as the old LID seemed at the start of the 1960s. By 1970, for all practical purposes, even the factions had ceased to exist.
The life, the times and the demise of SDS may be taken as a short-form version of student radicalism with its wide-eyes, cankerous boils and convulsive self-importance visibly on display. Where Barber’s treatment is superior to most books about SDS is in its focus not so much as the personalities or even the policies of the main players, but in the structural fissures that led to its dissolution. It is Barber’s view that SDS came to an unsavory end not, as many suppose, because it became too radical in the wake of the impact of the Tet offensive that lead to Walter Cronkite’s famous criticism of the Vietnam conflict, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the student strikes at a number of American universities, culminating in more than a few broken heads and arrest records on the files many an American and an occasional Canadian youth. SDS did not founder because some of its members urged stronger, even violent action to achieve its objectives. It came apart because it failed to cope with competing interests and organizations.
As a participant in civil rights demonstrations led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1965, it was clear to me that a more militant version of Black Power was inevitable, and it came in the form of the Black Panther Party. As well, the beginnings of a militant feminism was plainly apparent in the latter part of the decade, when North American women began to build on the foundations established by writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Freidan and, among other things, to rebel against their treatment by the male-dominated radicals and free spirits of the movement.
To the leaders of SDS, however, the goals of Black Power advocates and Radical Feminists were distractions from the more serious aims of a united progressive movement led, of course, by SDS. The self-defined “vanguard” of the incipient revolution, SDS leadership alienated its natural allies, and found itself condemned by the more vocal critics of racism and sexism as outmoded in much the same way that the SDS founders (often the same people) wrote off the old-fashioned leaders of LID less than a decade before.
Barber’s approach is more thematic than chronological. It examines larger issues of theory, middle-range issues of strategy and particular issues of tactics in the phalanx of young, middle-class, White men who grappled with questions of imperialism, racism and chauvinism, but did not always do so effectively either from a philosophical or an organizational point of view. Moreover, he argues, SDS operated in a heady environment of yeasty rebelliousness that encouraged its leaders to believe their own press coverage and press releases all without the benefit of personal experience, sage advice and counsel from their elders or openness to the urgency of the demands of people with fresh new ideas and perspectives that might have expanded their own influence, but were rejected with the sort of condescension that betokened the break-up of the New Left before the 1960s had come to a close.
Barber has been criticized in turn for making too much of SDS, just as the SDS made too much of itself. He has also aroused objections from those who take a less romantic view than he does of other radical groups. He criticizes SDS undervaluing SNCC and the Black Panthers. These competitors, however, were not innocent of their own brand of male chauvinism. Likewise, if SDS was insufficiently alert to the complaints and concerns of feminists, there has been a steady stream of resentment against parts of the women’s movement which dealt inadequately with the struggles of women of colour.
Though these are legitimate concerns, another problem that has been identified is Barber’s principal focus on the national SDS leadership and his neglect the links (or the absence of links) between middle-class SDS “intellectuals” and the White working class. Elitist and overly theoretical, the vanguard of the vanguard, so to speak, often held itself aloof from actual organizing. It also kept a distance from other parallel individuals and groups with which it coexisted, but with which it failed to build coalitions including with more anarchistic elements such as Abbie Hoffman’s “Yippies” (except, perhaps, in the spotlight of the trial of the “Chicago 8” wherein Hoffman, Hayden and, for a time, Bobby Seale occupied seats and shared the celebrity of their positions at the defence table, charged with inciting to riot, conspiracy and numerous lesser offences.
These concerns, however, do not detract from the valuable, if somewhat limited, exploration of a political organization and a social movement which aimed at nothing less than the transformation of American values and the creation of a just, equitable and free society. Barber succeeds in producing a sympathetic account of the ambitious goals of SDS and the entire youth movement. He does a fine job of assessing the dynamics and inherent conflicts among people whose objectives are mutually reinforcing but whose priorities do not allow for the cooperation necessary to achieve them.
A Hard Rain is therefore an excellent introduction to a movement, an ideology and a cultural climate that is uncertainly recalled and often inadequately analyzed both by its admirers and its opponents. It should, as well, be of interest to young progressives todayespecially those who have been disenchanted by the inspired promoters of the sort of change they can no longer believe in and by the uninspired leaders of political parties which seem happy to trade ideals for the chimera of political success.
Should the current generation of students, or the next, or the one after that ever engage with the genuinely critical political problems of the day, an examination of the failures of the past should be helpful in constructing a successful path to the future.
Incidentally, Mark Ruddthe SDS leader of the Columbia University students in 1968 and a formative influence on the “Weather Underground” which typified the “violent” and “extremist” wing of the SDS has, since he turned himself in to the authorities in 1977, been released and has had a successful career teaching mathematics at the Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Recently retired, he is now devoting himself to promoting a reorganized and revitalized SDS, which was begun in 2006 by two high school students named Jessica Rapchik and Pat Korte. They contacted the very first SDS president Alan Haber and launched what they call a radical multi-issue organization on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The new SDS has over a hundred chapters in the United States and Canada. It is said to have more members than the original SDS at its peak in the 1960s. It is garnering far less publicity, at least in the short run, which might not be a bad thing.
As for the future: Who knows?
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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