From July 24th until July 28th 2008, the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had its third annual national convention in College Park, Maryland. At the convention, national campaigns were presented and voted on by the attendees. A major campaign introduced at the convention was the Hundred Days campaign, which seeks to organize and engage newly politicized Americans in politics beyond the campaign season. During the first one hundred days of the next administration the campaign will organize two nationwide weeks of action to ensure that the people remain involved in politics after the election cycle. Laurie Rojas, member of Chicago SDS, collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign and editor of The Platypus Review interviews Rachel Haut, labor researcher, member of the New York non-student SDS chapter, and collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign.
Laurie Rojas: One of the most important decisions made during the 2008 SDS National Convention was the passing of the national structure. You were the author of one of the three main decision-making structure proposals, can you talk a little about the most essential characteristics of the structure proposal you submitted?
Rachel Haut: The structure proposal that I submitted and later combined with a structure submitted by two students from Florida SDS was the most minimalistic structure offered. I felt that because there were so few people participating in national SDS, we really didn’t have the capabilities to do anything else outside the convention at this time. So, the structure proposal that we wrote would make our annual conventions the decision making body. Working groups get to carry out the decisions made in the convention throughout the year, and make decisions through that mandate. There were a couple of more details of course, but that was the gist of it.
LR: Retrospectively, why do you think your structure proposal did not pass? Why didn’t it receive majority support?
RH: I felt like all the other proposals had a clear ideological line, and ours didn’t, and that’s why ours would work. A lot of people at the convention thought we were capable of having a national structure that could make decisions throughout the year. I don’t think that. A lot of times they posed the question of what would happen if an emergency situation came up. I don’t think that there are going to be a lot of situations that require a national organization to just jump in. So that wasn’t a concern of mine, but it was for others. I guess they wanted more structure and a mechanism that could facilitate building the national organization while still encompassing our values and principles. Which, at face value, the proposal that passed at the convention didn’t encompass, but with the amendments proposed during the convention, the structure was made more democratic.
LR: What do you think will be some of the challenges presented by the new structure we just passed, with the amendments included? I am afraid that the national working committee is going to spend three to four months just figuring out how they are going to make decisions internally, what decisions they should be making, etc.
RH: One of the big challenges is actually getting the structure to work. I guess we are just going to have to wait and see if people are going to step up and actually do what they committed to and create a decision-making process within the national working committee. I am not too concerned that they’re going to take too much power; I am more concerned that they are just not going to do anything that they said they would and we will come back to the convention next year and have nothing. I do believe that there are people who have been with SDS for a while and that do have an agenda. Most of the people with experience in the national working committee don’t have an agenda. However, there are a few people that might not even have enough experience to know how to hold these kinds of commitments.
LR: What do you mean having an agenda?
RH: They are members of FRSO, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a Maoist organization. FRSO had a split in 1999; there is a FRSO “soft” and a FRSO “hard.” The FRSO hard has a couple of members in the national working committee. I believe that Maoism is in opposition to a democratic society, and thus their position or reason for being in SDS is opportunist. We are attempting to build a student movement not a Maoist movement.
LR: During the convention, people pointed out who the members of FRSO were, as well as who the “crazy” anarchists were. But I never had the opportunity to have an ideological discussion about what kind of differences existed in the organization. There were no conversations where I had a clear representation of differences; I don’t really know the politics or the ideological inclination of the different kinds of anarchists or Maoists in the SDS. I don’t have an image of what they stand for. Why do you think the ideological conversation is avoided? Because it is avoided, and people are really careful to make sure the conversation doesn’t go there. I want to know why we’re steering away from an ideological discussion when it might clearly affect decisions at the national level.
RH: One of the SDS facilitators at the convention told me that the ideological differences need to be discussed and she wanted to do something about it. I said that I didn’t know if this was the right time. She asked why. I said that the kind of conversation concerning building a democratic society has to happen, especially an ideological conversation– because there are differences. However, I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization. Why should we be having these conversations with them, including them in the discussion, if their ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society? To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.
LR: For me, it is important to somehow clearly define where certain types of politics stand and how they affect the organization. This concerns me because there is a lack of clarity about how these differences express themselves. Maybe if these distinctions or ideological differences were put on the table it would allow us to better understand what the organization stands for. Perhaps, we missed a moment to not only separate the politics or the ideology that doesn’t fit the organization, but to more clearly define the goals of the organization itself. Do you really think it would have been damaging to have the Maoists, the anarchists, and everybody else in the room be able to realize whether or not we share goals?
RH: Possibly, except we don’t have a mechanism to be able to say to somebody: “you are not interested in building a democratic society and you are not welcome in this organization.” To put that on that table, but to have no way of questioning it would be premature, or possibly dangerous. I have had lengthy discussions about the fact that SDS has a vision statement, which is very good, well worded, and defines who we are as an organization: we are not a vanguard. What could it mean to write, propose, vote, and implement campaigns that would incorporate our vision? It could possibly allow us to start dealing with these forces. The Student Power campaign and Hundred Days campaign are both working on making us relevant, and are following the vision statements. These campaigns will allow us to grow as an organization. These factional forces on either side are going to eventually drop out or be outnumbered.
LR: So the fear right now is an ideological confrontation could be a major conflict, and that it might precipitate a seriously divisive moment between people who want to handle the problem differently. So is there fear of a major split?
RH: I don’t think that there should be a split; I think that we should just start implementing our vision of strategic campaigns. And we should focus less on certain campaigns, like the proposal to protest McCain that was submitted by FRSO, which is a reactionary campaign that does not achieve a goal. We can be a less viable organization for these people if we are not achieving their goals. We can continue to organize, to build power without catering to any of those forces, we don’t need to have protests to actually get things done, just protests as tactics. This is probably the best first step we can take.
LR: Another significant moment of the convention happened around the campaign proposals. Chicago SDS and NYC SDS chapters submitted campaign proposals that seek to use the coming elections, especially the Obama rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” as a pivotal moment for SDS to coordinate actions, build alliances, organize nationally, and hence grow stronger. In hopes of making our campaign stronger we combined our proposals, and presented them at the national convention. How did the idea for the Hundred Days Campaign emerge in NY?
RH: I think it emerged after talking to some people from Chicago SDS at the Left Forum (March 14-16, NYC). We started the conversation there, went off in different directions, created two different proposals, and then we merged them again. Dave Shukla and I spoke on the SDS panel at the Left Forum about building a revolutionary student movement. Afterwards, some of the people from Chicago came up to us. We got pizza and started talking about organizing something around the elections and about how we’ve got to be relevant. Originally, the woman who initiated the discussion had the idea of doing something right after Election Day. She said we should protest, and we responded that we couldn’t protest the first black American president, but perhaps we could have teach-ins. I am not sure whether it was Dave or I who had the idea for the Hundred Days campaign. At the same time people from Chicago were starting to talk about doing student actions together, and even a week of action was mentioned in those early conversations. We finally came together because we had the same goals; they had just been written a little differently.
LR: I know perfectly well who those people were, Pam Nogales, Greg Gabrellas and Ben Shepard, I remember them coming back and telling us about the Left Forum conversation. Now, as you and I already know our proposal did not pass at the national convention, although we did have majority support. We are still working on getting full SDS support and trying to get it passed by the new national working committee. Why do you think this campaign should be a national SDS priority?
RH: In order to become a viable student organization and powerful force for social change we must be relevant to the elections. How many thousands of students are getting excited about the elections, voting for the first time and getting involved in politics for the first time? I worked on the Nader campaign in 2000, and I remember a couple of people with buttons and pins. But now on the subway in New York I see thousands of Obama pins everywhere. You do not see McCain pins everywhere. You never saw Bush pins or Kerry pins everywhere. It’s a social phenomenon that’s really coming from a grassroots base. I’ve seen bake sales for Obama. There is an incredible development of grassroots fundraising; about 90% of his donors are from small contributions, although about 55% of the money he is getting is from corporations. People hear a great message of hope and change. We also want change, we know that this society isn’t working and we want to propose to new people, and slowly integrate them into the process on the basis of their skills and interests. We need to bring people in through the discussions that politicized us. We need to meet students where they are at. Beyond working with students, it is absolutely essential to work with other organizations that build other social movements. We don’t have the ability to organize workers, but we need coalitions with organized labor and its base. SDS needs to develop into a force for change on the national scene, capable of keeping the Obama presidency accountable and responding when it fails. I think this campaign is a great beginning, because it provides the opportunity to build coalitions and fellowships with other groups with the long term goal in mind of gaining political power.
LR: After the Hundred Days, how will we be able to judge the success of this campaign?
RH: If we have developed working relationships with other organizations that would be a success. Also, being able to figure out what could have improved so that we can do better next time. Knowing that SDS can be part of something big, knowing that we don’t have to lead it, but that we can be a part of shifting this country to the left, that would also be a success.
LR: I want to pull away from the campaign, and look at the big picture in the form of a comparison with SDS in the 60’s and SDS now. What do you think are some of the most pressing unresolved problems that SDS faced in the 60’s that we still face in the present?
RH: Well, first, it’s still predominantly white. A couple of different things come to mind. There are a large amount of students in SDS now who are enamored with the 60’s, who fetishize it, specifically the Weather Underground, and all of their tactics. I believe that the conditions of capitalism have greatly changed since the 60’s movement. We’re in a kind of contradictory situation because the SDS in the 60’s has this great legacy that gives us energy and provides a lot of potential. But it is also a burden. People repeat the same mistakes just because the 60’s were cool. They do these tactics because SDS in the 60’s grew so big. But it failed. Now, under the different conditions of capitalism, we are still repeating the same tactics, and expecting different results– being in a counterculture that’s into drugs and having orgies and trying to make SDS cool again. I don’t see people learning from the lessons of the past, realizing that although SDS grew a lot, it failed. Those tactics might work for a little while, but we need to have long term strategies. We need to build a movement for the long haul that can be about students getting involved in alternative politics.
LR: What is your vision of SDS in 5 years?
RH: I would like to see SDS become a recognized national organization building a democratic society. There has been a lot of emphasis on tearing things down, with the proposals presented at the national convention like “stop I-69”, or stopping the war, instead we need to start building something that can replace capitalism. Let’s build a democratic structure that can mirror the society we want to see developed. I want to see SDS building a movement that teaches people how to organize SDS on campuses across the nation, including in technical schools. We must be a cool, sexy organization that is at the same time efficient at involving new people, and getting them active in campaigns that can achieve immediate short term goals while building something bigger. SDS has to have a place for political discussions, but also has to have a place to be social, and talk about music. We need to be an organization that can train people to do grassroots organizing, and that can sustain itself while it grows and changes.
LR: Would you like to add a closing remark?
RH: I am really excited about the Hundred Days campaign, although we have a lot of work ahead of us. Whether national SDS endorses it, the chapters that partake in the campaign are going to become huge and develop the ability to work with other groups. Those chapters are going to be really powerful, and this campaign will potentially allow them to participate in social change in their areas. I know that’s where I am going to be putting all of my energy.
Postcript—LR After conducting this interview, I now realize that there are terms we on the Left commonly use and, more often than not, take their meaning for granted. For example, I have no doubt that Rachel Haut and I have different ideas of what terms like “ideology,” “democracy,” “radical,” “anarchist” or “socialist” mean. The term “democratic” most clearly expresses this problem in SDS. The result is that both sides of a disagreement can claim to have democratic principles on their side. This represents a larger problem for the Left. We have inherited terminology like “alienation,” “oppression,” “Marxism,” and “liberalism” without a sufficient understanding or agreement about what these terms may mean today. Worse, we have even lost the desire to clarify those terms for ourselves and for each other, often opting for neologisms and neglecting clarification. This clarification is necessary if we wish to advance the possibility of social transformation. The largest and most troubling term we face is “capitalism,” because how we develop our anti-capitalist movement depends on our understanding of what we aim to overcome. If we don’t clarify the full and complex meaning of these opaque terms for ourselves, it will mean that although we are working together we may not be working for the same goals. Then, all the Left is building is its own Tower of Babel. I ask my fellow SDSers, and those on the Left more broadly, to use the Platypus Review as a place to develop a clarification of these terms and, more importantly, our goals.