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Five questions to the student Left

Pam C. Nogales C., Benjamin Shepard

Platypus Review 7 | October 2008


An interview with SDS member Rachel Haut published in the September issue of this publication provoked widespread comment in radical circles.[1] We welcome the discussion but worry that it remains ensconced within the sterile jargon and petty antinomies of the actually-existing- Left. More fundamental questions exist than, say, the position of sectarian groups within the SDS -- questions that unsettle the comfortable assumptions of radical politics. There’s a temptation to think such of questioning as an irrelevant, academic obstruction to real action. Indeed, most contemporary radical theory confuses more than clarifies. But confused political thinking leads to confused politics and confused politics mean failed politics. Here are five questions that point towards the roots of confusion. We don’t have firm answers to any of them. They trouble us, and occupy our thoughts and conversations.

1. What is Capitalism, and how can it be overcome? The SDS aims to “change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival: racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism, among others.” These systems, with a single exception, are simple forms of domination. A ruling stratum (whites, men) oppresses a given subaltern. Capitalism seems much more complicated; impossible to reduce to the direct and violent oppression of one class by another. How ought the student movement understand the characteristic form of capitalist domination? And what forms of politics are adequate to overcome it?

2. SDS is against imperialism; what is it for?Many anti-imperialists insist that ending American global domination would open the opportunity for revolutionary forces across the world. But such an argument does not specify the possible agents of social transformation. Worse, the position ignores the possibility of reactionary domestic politics. If the United States withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, more reactionary forces -- Muslim theocracy, corrupt nationalism -- could easily take its place. In the absence of a real international progressive movement, the choice will always between bad and worse. How, then, can the (American) student movement help cultivate emancipatory politics around the globe?

3. How does racism matter? The Civil Rights movement eliminated de jure discrimination, and rendered public bigotry unacceptable. But racial inequalities still exist. African Americans have, for instance, a disproportionately high rate of incarceration. Radicals cite such discrepancies as evidence of the continued force of racism. But stressing race risks glossing over the structural, class-bound constitution of poverty. If contemporary American society is, in fact, racist, what is the specific form of this racism? How does this racism relate to the broader social structure of the United States? What political and social changes would render racism, and the very concepts of race that it depends upon, irrelevant?

4. What kind of questions can students ask? Members of SDS often disavow their distinctive identity as students, feeling it an unwarranted and embarrassing privilege. But student life presents unique opportunities -- to read, to discuss, to examine and critique different traditions of politics. But SDS does not, as a whole, take up the opportunity. Fear of sectarian controversy precludes sustained ideological discussion, so the orientation and form of the organization remains unquestioned and uncertain. Serious, honest reflection and conversation can clarify these uncertainties. So, what sort of fundamental questions ought the SDS ask itself and the broader Left? How can it ask them?

5. Why, and how, could the New SDS succeed where the old did not? The Port Huron statement sought to “replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity...” The first SDS failed to meet its own task. Possession, privilege and circumstance still determine social power. So why did the Old SDS fail? And how can the new one succeed? The problem is broader, though. With the passing of the 60s moment, whatever (slim) possibility of international revolutionary change there was has evaporated. No organized political force offers the practical possibility of a qualitatively better future for all humanity. How ought we understand the loss of political possibility? What would make international revolutionary politics possible again? What role might SDS, as a movement in the U.S., at the heart of global capitalism, play in such a process? |P

[1]. See: Freedom Road Socialist Organization (, Kasama blog (, The Daily Radical blog (, Louis Proyect blog (, Revolutionary Left blog (, Marxist-Leninist blog (, and Left Spot blog (