“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank.
Student activism is not a new concept. For ages, the youth have been at the forefront of protests and change. From the French Revolution to the rise of democracy in Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall to anti-corruption movements from India to Romania, the youth have never shied away from being politically outspoken.
This student activism has been embodied through student groups. These groups existed throughout the world throughout the 20th century. However, they grew in relevance after the Second World War as platforms of protests against war, poverty, racism, and corporate greed. They were particularly influential in the 1960s when student movements championed the causes of civil rights and social equality. These groups influenced innumerable people, including many of the political leaders and public personalities of today.
While the countless student organisations of the period had their own local successes to boast of, one organisation accomplished more, received more media attention, and influenced more people than any other student organisation: the Students For a Democratic Society (SDS).
This is the story of the SDS: probably the most influential student group in history. Centred in the United States, they championed civil rights, world peace, and participatory democracy. This is the story of a group of influential and motivated youngsters fighting for a better tomorrow.
But firstly, to understand the rise, relevance, and fall of the SDS, it is important to understand the state of society and the world in the 1960s.
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Background: The turmoil of the 1960s
The 1960s was a tumultuous decade for the world. It was in this decade that the Cold War reached its heights, that the threat of nuclear warfare was pronounced, that the issues of social inequality and economic inequality dominated the forefront of public debate and agitation. In this era, political leadership became universally more corrupt or weak, and public faith in elected representatives plummeted.
The result was a social crisis.
This crisis not only precipitated divides between liberals and conservatives or the rich and the poor. It also precipitated a sharp divide defined by age. Older people, veterans of the World Wars, were enraged by what they perceived as a degradation of values. Younger people were disenchanted by the status quo, which they viewed as overly militaristic and a threat to individualism and liberalism.
The US in the 1960s
“The thing the ‘60s did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” – John Lennon.
Maybe because it had a front-row seat to the events of the Cold War, maybe because of the Civil Rights Movement, or maybe simply because it was better documented, the 1960s were particularly eventful for the United States of America.
Central throughout the countless debates the US faced in the 1960s were pacifism and civil rights. The escalating economic and human costs of the Vietnam War – brought to American homes by the newly introduced television – caught a generation’s imagination. At the same time, the cause of civil rights for African-Americans – personified by the nonviolent resistance of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. – mobilised youngsters across the country, leading to innumerable protests and marches. These protests were largely nonviolent but at times – like after the assassination of King – turned into violent riots and vandalism.
Therefore, the Vietnam War and race relations defined America in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the growing LGBT movement and feminism’s second wave joined hands with civil rights activists and anti-war protestors to portray a motley front against a government that seemed to be stubbornly anti-LGBT, anti-feminism, anti-civil rights, and pro-war.
The US Congress and the White House witnessed a sharp decline in public trust in this decade. This feeling grew throughout the 1960s until 1972, when the Watergate scandal cemented public distrust of the government and made it commonplace. This sentiment continues to this day – not just in the US but around the world.
At the forefront of the movement for social equality and world peace were students – American youngsters from around the country, more liberal than their parents, more frustrated with the system, more eager for radical change.
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Why were students so radical in the 1960s?
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel.
Following the Second World War, the US experienced a baby boom. This involved high birth rates around the world; in America, by 1965 four out of ten citizens were under the age of 20. The demographic born in this period are called the “baby boomer generation.”
This rapid increase in youth population was accompanied by rapid economic progress. During the Second World War, 17 million new civilian jobs were created, industrial productivity increased by 96%, corporate profits doubled, full employment was achieved, wages increased, savings increased, housing improved – a stagnant economy was energised and became the world’s largest and most productive economy.
This meant that the average American family was rich and well-off in the years following the War. This meant that students in this era, being ensured a financially stable living and future, could easily afford to look to society and analyse the problems developing in America.
The rise of student activism in the 1960s
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
This atmosphere of social consciousness resulted in the formation of several student groups. These groups were almost universally opposed to war, loathed the political establishment, supported gender equality, championed LGBT rights, and joined hands with civil rights activists.
Additionally, these groups embraced the counterculture of the era: they experimented with recreational drugs, questioned traditional family values, were inspired by Oriental beliefs and religions, and were, in general, extremely rebellious.
This is mainly why this era is known for its liberal ideals, protest poetry, anti-establishment music (especially in the rock and folk genres), and widespread experimentations with psychoactive drugs, sexuality, spirituality, democracy, and liberalism. The decade of the 1960s was the era of hippies and/or activists.
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The SDS and what set them apart
“Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation that … respected the integrity of other nations and other systems; and that engaged in wars only as a last resort … If at some point we began to hear vague and disturbing things about what this country had done in Latin America, China, Spain, and other places, we remained somehow confident about the basic integrity of this nation’s foreign policy … The development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy has done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country.” – Paul Potter, President of the SDS, 1965.
To spearhead student activism in this era, against the backdrop of war and corruption, was a group named as the Students for a Democratic Society – or the SDS.
The SDS traced its beginnings to 1905 as a socialist group. It would only emerge to nationwide significance in the 1960s as a proponent of the New Left (explained later).
The SDS focussed mainly on many issues but were guided by one umbrella ideology: that American society could be reformed only by recognising the interconnectedness of all of America’s problems, be they social, economic or political in nature.
The SDS viewed itself not as a single organisation with specific or set goals but as a part of a larger “Movement” that looked to transform society through the formation of new institutions and the reform of existing institutions. Humans beings, the SDS believed, were “infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love” and should not be manipulated.
Unlike most other groups of the time, the SDS refused to subscribe to a single ideology; they welcomed people of almost any political affiliation – liberals, socialists, conservatives, and communists. The group’s inclusivity and universality attracted many members since they would not be required to possess any dogmatic political beliefs and could be active in a variety of causes within a single organisation.
Additionally, the structure of the SDS was crucial for its expansion: its structure was extremely decentralised. As such, independent chapters could easily be formed in universities and thus the movement spread and grew rapidly.
The SDS and the “New Left”
“The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy … The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam, the more we are driven toward the conclusion that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today.” – SDS protest speech.
The New Left was a political movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which was mobilised by labour issues and social equality. In the United States, it was defined by counterculture and student activism. Essentially, the New Left in the United States was defined by the SDS.
The SDS were not Marxist; as mentioned before, they included individuals of all shades of political opinion. They were united by the belief that the traditional working class had fallen prey to “pillars of the Establishment”.
This ideology took the shape of the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto and constitution of the SDS. According to the aspirations of the SDS, the New Left must have “real intellectual skills” that could be utilised in an environment where political life and academic life exist adjacently in a complementary relationship. A New Left must be “distributed in significant social roles throughout the country” and must consist of young people.
The Port Huron Statement
The Port Huron Statement was the political manifesto of the SDS. It was written primarily by Tom Hayden, a student of the University of Michigan and then the Field Secretary of the SDS, with help from 58 other SDS members. It was completed on 15 June 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan, for the group’s first national convention.
The Port Huron Statement has been described as “a seminal moment in the development of the New Left” and a “classic statement of [its] principles”.
The 25,700-word statement viewed race and Cold War–induced alienation as the two main problems of modern society. It “articulated the fundamental problems of American society and laid out a radical vision for a better future”. It issued a non-ideological call for participatory democracy, “both as a means and an end”, based on non-violent civil disobedience and the idea that individual citizens could help make “those social decisions determining the quality and direction” of their lives.
Also known as the “Agenda for a Generation”, the Statement formed the ideological basis for the SDS movement and made “participatory democracy” a household term.
The full text of the Port Huron Statement can be read here.
The rise of the SDS
In April 1965, the SDS called the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War. They expected a few thousand people to attend. On the day, 20,000 people, mostly college students, arrived in Washington.
“What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose … that consistently puts material values before human values and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyse it, understand it and change it.” – Paul Potter, President of the SDS, 1965.
The crowd began by questioning the Vietnam War and in the end questioned everything about the society they lived in.
In the months following this historic protest, the movement grew by leaps and bounds and the SDS became the platform for America’s disillusioned youth to contribute ideas and voice their frustration.
The dominance of the SDS
“These students discovered that far from being noble institutions of free thought and debate, their universities were nothing more than corporations; the war and war contracts were big business; that students were simply commodities. Suddenly, they were confronted with the huge gap between the myth of college as a place of learning and the free exchange of ideas and the reality of their schools’ involvement in the war, and the often violent ways the administration reacted when students began questioning. Many activists began to see their schools as part of a single system that put the expansion of profits and its own global power before the needs of ordinary people. SDS’s arguments for a student power movement resonated with a growing number of students.” – Geoff Bailey.
The SDS grew from a loosely knit group of 2,500 in December 1964 to a nationwide movement of 25,000 in October 1966. Chapters of the SDS sprang up on dozens of campuses. The movement took the form of protests, festivals, travels, interactions, marches, speeches, and limitless debate.
As the movement grew in influence, it also became more radical. Younger leaders assumed leadership positions in the SDS, countering the conformist liberalism of their predecessors with a more proactive liberalism – embodies by the New Left. This shift was captured in the slogan the SDS soon adopted: “From protest to resistance.”
Beginning in 1967, the SDS organised a series of campaigns aimed at not just protesting the war but disrupting the “war machine”.
One such action was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967, where the local chapter of SDS “organised a demonstration to prevent Dow Chemical, the largest producer of napalm, from recruiting on campus. They distributed leaflets on campus and on October 17, activists led several hundred students into the university’s Commerce building where Dow was recruiting. University administrators called the police, who attacked the demonstrators, breaking windows and hauling students out through the broken glass. The front steps were covered in blood.”
Suddenly the mood changed: the students became enraged by the reaction to other students protesting. This led to mobilisation and expansion for the SDS like never before.
“Instead of running away, which maybe we thought we would do, we circled around to the front. By the time we got there, there were 1,000 other students. The second the cops started clubbing heads, the entire situation changed dramatically … Suddenly, fraternity boys, athletes, all sorts of normal people who were just going to classes, people who were a little ambivalent about the war but who would never go to a demonstration, were unbelievably outraged and were eager to wade into the crowd and sock the jaw of a cop.” – Ronald Fraser, A Student Generation in Revolt, 1968.
In the months that followed, SDS chapters on dozens of campuses protested their administrations’ involvement in defence research, military recruitment on campus and the draft.
Each time, the response was the same: The administration or the city would respond by calling in the police to arrest and often beat student demonstrators.
However, each time, another thing always happened: thousands of outraged students who up until that point had been on the fence were pushed into the anti-war movement.
The decline of the SDS
“Student anti-war groups increasingly began to see the war not just as a mistaken policy, but as an outgrowth of a social system based on competition and profit. The New Left, and SDS in particular, moved from being anti-war to anti-imperialist. The slogans on anti-war demonstrations changed from “For a Negotiated Peace” and “Bring the Troops Home” to “U.S. Out Now!” and “Victory to the NLF [Vietnamese National Liberation Front]!” All of this boiled over in 1968.” – Geoff Bailey.
By 1968, the Movement grew more extensive, more radical, more diverse, more Leftist, and more decentralised. Some form of split became inevitable. “SDS had existed for most of 1968 in an uneasy balance – something between a mass student radical organisation and one that increasingly identified itself as revolutionary Marxist. Those two models, a broad, radical student group and a tighter, more ideologically homogenous Marxist organisation were at odds with one another.”
With rising fissures within the movement and the growing radicalisation, the SDS lost its appeal as a non-ideological, inclusive platform. Furthermore, the decentralised structure which had enabled the movement to spread across university campuses became the movement’s greatest weakness: by the end of the 1960s, with no firm leadership, the SDS became directionless and full of divisions.
The Movement began in the form of nonviolent protests against war and corporate greed. As the Vietnam War escalated and the Civil Rights Movement expanded, the SDS grew in scope and ambition. It added more chapters, included more members, and aspired for more goals. This growth of the SDS in such a short time made it easy for factionalism to spread in the Movement. Eventually, the SDS grew too large and too complex to be maintained by its decentralised structure.
Impact and legacy
Over 45 years after it fell apart, the SDS remains the most influential group in the history of student activism. Participatory democracy, direct action, radicalism, student power, shoestring budgets, and its organisational structure are all present in varying degrees in current student activist groups.
Though numerous student groups have been formed in the years since 1970, none has approached the scale of the SDS, and most have lasted a few years at best.
“The Students for a Democratic Society was the force which had shaped the politics of a generation and rekindled the fires of American radicalism for the first time in thirty years, the largest student organization ever known in this country and the major expression of the American left in the sixties. [The 1960s was] a decade perhaps as fateful as any the nation has yet experienced, a decade marked by political and cultural upheavals still reverberating through the society, a decade of sit-ins and pickets, teach-ins and mass marches, student uprisings and building takeovers, ghetto rebellions and the destruction of property by arson and bombs, a decade notable for setting a considerable part of its youth against the system that bore them, against its traditions and values, its authorities and its way of life. A decade of defiance.” – Kirkpatrick Sale, “SDS”, 1973.
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