SDS and the legacy of the New Left today
Platypus Review 153 | February 2023
On August 26, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member Erin Hagood gave this article as a teach-in for the Platypus chapters of Columbia University, New School, and NYU.
STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY (SDS) was founded in 1960 as a transformation of the student wing of LID (League for Industrial Democracy). The social democratic inheritors of Walter Lipman’s Intercollegiate Socialist Society, LID had banned Communists from its organization in the 1940s and had a close relationship to organized labor in America. At its UAW-funded retreat in Port Huron, MI the “Port Huron Statement” was authored and the organization was refounded as the SDS.
Founded in the same year as the New Left Review, a British journal and inheritor of the New Reasoner journal of E.P. Thompson and John Seville, the SDS called in its Port Huron Statement for a “new Left” of liberals and socialists, embracing students and the campus environment rather than a party, to meet the “disturbing paradoxes” of their time.
The Port Huron Statement contains sentiments that many of us today will find familiar. For example, it bemoans that “one-percent of people own 80% of shares” in U.S. capital, it denounces the racism of America, which remains a “white country,” it worries about the “military industrial complex” and the threat of global nuclear holocaust, and above all it criticizes the deadlock within mainstream American politics. The conservative Republicans and the Dixiecrat Democrats ruled the country as a uni-party. It calls for liberals to denounce the Dixiecrats and reestablish a two-party system based on participatory democracy. “Liberals” for the SDS means non-Dixiecrat, New Deal Democrats.
The Port Huron Statement has an ambivalent relationship to its historical inheritance. It celebrates the gains of the New Deal but criticizes the discrimination and liberal failures that keep black Americans from reaping its profits. It inherits some of the anti-Communism of LID, but believes that the anti-Communism of the Cold War creates a quiescent population unable to criticize the system in America.
Of its old Leftist teachers it says:
The people who should be our friends in the enterprise of understanding rival ideologies are often of little help. The radicals, socialists, and liberals of an earlier generation—those to whom we might turn for understanding—blur their analysis of “the Russian question” with a curious rhetoric and sectarian overtone. They have fought the battles with, or against, the Communists—in labor unions, civic and welfare groups, and political campaigns. They have struggled ideologically as members or fellows of the communist movement in the United States before making their personal break. They have perhaps made their peace with the order they once fought against and find occupation with the communists to be a mask for their own timidity in the face of a new generation of radicals not ready to make the same peace with society. They are trying to “get by” in a society that would be hostile in the extreme were they to ever let down their anti-communist shield. So while the older radicals are indispensable for information and advice, and while our sympathies parallel theirs on nearly every domestic issue, they tragically coalesce with the less-informed, conservative and even reactionary forces in performing a static analysis, in making Russia a “closed question.”
It feels that the American workers are unrevolutionary, so it sets its sights tentatively and provisionally towards the struggle of the “negroes, the students and the third-world anti-colonialists.”
In the context of a quiescent labor movement, it orients itself towards campus because the university has social influence, because it is the center of intellectual life, and because, despite its place in the American military industrial complex, it is “open to individuals of nearly any viewpoint.” It hopes the students will provide the necessary energy to reconstitute the Left and to break through the “Dixiecrat-GOP coalition” that it feels runs American political life. Finally, it believes campus is a “more sensible” place than a party for liberals and socialists to discuss their political differences and look for “political synthesis.”
David McReynolds, former Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, described the SDS as a home for the politically homeless youth of the New Left. As the Communist Party cracked up (again) in the 50s, rattled by the Khrushchev Secret Speech and the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, neither the remnants of the Communist Party nor the moribund Socialist Party could act as a political home for the youth who were galvanized by the civil rights movement that was sweeping the nation and offering a criticism of the world of their parents.
The SDS immediately began to organize around the civil rights issue, putting its students in contact with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which were already in the early 60s arguing for the separate organizing of black and white workers. The white activists should “organize their own,” so the phrase went. SNCC would later vote in 1967 to expel white activists from their organization, but not just yet. Inspired by Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), SDS formed the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), funded by the UAW, to create an interracial movement of the poor. The lack of success by ERAP was met by dissension from the rest of the SDS, who attempted to return the SDS’s orientation to campus and to the students.
In 1965, President Johnson ramped up the war in Vietnam dramatically. The SDS protested the war with marches in DC. In his interview with Spencer Leonard, Carl Davidson describes joining the SDS through this march and being “revolutionized” by the SNCC “Black Power” program in 1966, spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael.
Davidson helped lead the takeover of SDS by the “Prairie Power” group, which he describes as a group of anarcho-syndicalists taking up Black Power and trying to understand what it means for students:
We tried to get rid of the social democrats in charge of the organization. Basically, we represented a younger New Left, less dominated by the old factional battles of the Left in New York. None of us had any idea who Max Shachtman was or any of those people. We saw ourselves as more in the tradition of the IWW and we were radicalized mostly because of the war. So, we threw those guys out and took over the organization. One of the first things Greg Calvert and I did was to put out the slogan “From Protest to Resistance.” We had to go beyond just having protests and build a revolutionary resistance movement. Greg picked up on the word “resistance” because he had spent some time in Europe during the Algerian War. He spent some time in Tunis supporting the Algerian revolutionaries resisting the French. That was some of the core of what Prairie Power really meant. It had nothing to do with the return to old ideas of Prairie Power. We picked up on the spirit of that, but really it was a way to move SDS towards a more radical anti-imperialist position. Once we got into national offices, we had to reshape the politics, and that is what we did.
In 1967 Davidson and others in the newly formed “Praxis Axis” of the SDS authored the Port Authority Statement to break with the social democratic past of the organization once and for all and turn towards revolutionary Marxism. The Praxis Axis looked towards André Groz, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, French neo-Marxists and others, recovering Marx to explain “class” and develop a revolutionary “praxis” through a criticism of the New Left. Of the New Left they write:
The new left, in its development of a partial praxis, has within itself the possibility of co-optation or absorption through the developing aspects of American capitalism; however, it also contains the seeds of a total revolutionary praxis with the potential for transforming American society from top to bottom, into a society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto).
They look to the creation of a “New Working Class” composed of black workers, students, and women which will replace the traditional working class and, along with the “underclass” of the subaltern, renew the revolutionary energy of the class. The “Action Faction” criticized the “Praxis Axis” for focusing too much on theories and ideas and not acting. The Workers-Student Alliance, a front of the Maoist “Progressive Labor” (PL) group, was also forming a significant caucus within the SDS.
The attempt to sidestep the party debates of the Left was short lived. After the failure of the 1968 DNC protests, led by the SDS, the factional struggle within the SDS began.
Progressive Labor took the position that all nationalist movements — such as Black Power and the Vietcong — were reactionary. They criticized the SDS’s protest orientation towards the Democratic Party and wanted a reorientation towards the working class. The Revolutionary Youth Movement — including Praxis Axis and Action Faction members — emphasized the revolutionary character of the Youth and Black Power. A fight over orthodoxy ensued. Everyone called his enemy a “revisionist.”
Tensions rose ahead of the 1969 national convention. PL members clashed with the supporters of Black Power (which PL called “pussy power”). Bobby Rush accused the PL of deviating from the Marxist-Leninist line on the right of the national self-determination of peoples while the PL claimed they were following Lenin and Marx against Stalin’s abandonment of the international working class. RYM voted to expel the PL associated Workers-Student Alliance, but this immediately unleashed faction fights within RYM.
Davidson believed RYM got caught up in action and forgot the possibilities of creating a theory of a new working class and returning to Marx. David Gilbert, in his interview with Spencer Leonard, voiced the opposite opinion: “RYM was a strategic breakthrough that accomplished what we tried and failed to do with the ‘new working class’ theory. RYM affirmed the youth rebellion but saw it as a bridge to involving more whites on an anti-war and anti-racist basis. Youth were rebelling because they were the least integrated into the structures of imperialism.”
RYM split between the Action Faction, which became the Weathermen, and the Praxis Axis who wanted to focus on building a “vanguard party” rather than pursuing terrorist actions to wake up the people in the style of the Weathermen.
This Marxist-Leninist turn on the New Left carried into the 70s and affected the entire Left. Why did the crack-up of the New Left and the failure of its strategies raise questions of the history of Marxism? Why did it prompt a return to Lenin?
Was the failure of SDS that it hadn’t attempted to build a “vanguard party” and didn’t have an adequate “class theory”? Was it that it had abandoned the working class?
But these questions were already posed a decade earlier at the founding of the SDS in 1960. Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin were attempting to “realign” the existing parties through the civil rights movement, against A. Phillip Randolph’s selling out of the black working class to the popular front via welfare-state defense programs, to create a party of “white and black labor” that would take advantage of the manifest crisis of the mainstream parties. And the Socialist Workers Party was in the middle of breaking up over questions of Cuba and the orientation of Trotskyism to Black Power, nearly a decade before the SDS split. In many ways, the SDS came to the party too late, after and unawares it marched onto the scene of politics blissfully ignorant of the battles its mentors — Trotskyist, Communist, Socialist, or otherwise — had been fighting since the end of WWII.
In 1956, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno discussed the creation of a new manifesto:
Adorno: Shouldn’t we really have to think everything out from the beginning? Write a manifesto that will do justice to the current situation. In Marx’s day it could not yet be seen that the immanence of society had become total. That means, on the one hand, that one might almost need to do no more than strip off the outer shell; on the other hand, that no one really wants things to be otherwise.
Horkheimer: We still have something of a breathing space. We must not lose sight of that in our discussion of theory. We cannot be active politically and yet every word we write is political. We have to say clearly that the Communist Party is not a whit superior to the liberal politicians in the Federal Republic. The claim that new constellations are possible has echoes of Trotsky.
Adorno: The fact that art exists is not rendered immaterial by the statement that what really counts is revolution.
Horkheimer: Art is actually not different from what we have in mind, but we have to articulate it.
Adorno: We should not blind ourselves to this.
Horkheimer: We need to make explicit matters that Picasso can remain silent about. It must become quite clear from our general position why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.
Adorno: We must be against Adenauer.
Horkheimer: But that is only true as long as we list the reasons that make it possible to keep on living in the West. An appeal for the re-establishment of a socialist party.
Adorno: With a strictly Leninist manifesto.
Horkheimer: Then we would be told that such a manifesto could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless. At best, it might have some success in France and Italy. We are not calling on anyone to take action.
Adorno: Practice is a rationally led activity; that leads ultimately back to theory. Practice is driven on to theory by its own laws.
Horkheimer: Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools.
Adorno: That means that theory and practice cannot be separated.
Horkheimer: That is conformism.
Adorno: For a form of behaviour to be practical I must reflect on something or other. If I have the concept of reflection, the concept of practice implicitly postulates that of theory. The two elements are truly separated from each other and inseparable at the same time.
Horkheimer: Theory is required to reflect; it must know why.
Adorno: What makes theory more than a mere instrument of practice is the fact that it reflects on itself, and in so doing it rescinds itself as mere theory.
For Horkheimer and Adorno the crisis of the Communist Party in 1956 posed not the necessity of action but the need for theory to reflect upon itself. To write a new manifesto would be at best premature and at worst absurd, because it would be meaningless where it might have use and useless where it might have meaning. The sundered halves — theory and practice — may not simply be put back together again, but the critical distance of theory from practice must be taken as a task for the recovery of what was liquidated by history — the party.
The SDS recognized this historical condition, if perhaps accidentally and ambivalently, through its various attempts to return to Marx which ultimately tore the organization apart.
A student from CUNY Hunter College’s YDSA recently told me that he felt the DSA was like the 19th century German Social Democratic Party (SPD) because it was full of revisionists, anarchists, and Marxists all fighting it out. I am not so sure this is the case. If anything, the late SDS (whose co-founder Michael Harrington later founded the DSA) is the more appropriate historical rhyme. Both organizations were full of students trying to change Leftist politics. Both were founded, or revived, relatively late in the lifespan of their generation’s historical experience — too little, too late — to signal not the birth but the death of a generation on the Left. And perhaps both will run aground on the question of how to be a “true Marxist” — certainly the SDS veterans who now participate in DSA meetings are wary of such an outcome.
The Platypus Affiliated Society was founded in 2006 in the context of a “new-SDS” created in opposition to the Iraq War. Members of the old SDS addressed this new organization, advising them not to repeat their past mistakes and to plot a new path for themselves. Platypus took this as a signal that questions about the meaning, purpose, and goal of Marxism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and the Left could be reopened and re-examined. That part of the spirit of the SDS, however small, that sought to step back and question the world and the Left of its time was reanimated for a new generation.
But that moment feels very far from us today. The harsh invective to shut up and act is, in the context of weakness and disarray on the Left, stronger than ever. The difficult labor of working through past political failures has been suppressed for another generation. I’m told the climate doomsday clock in Union Square will be hitting zero soon, so before my time is up, I have just one question: Why? |P
 Students for a Democratic Society, “Port Huron Statement Draft” (1962), available online at <http://www.sds-1960s.org/PortHuronStatement-draft.htm>.
 United Auto Workers.
 Spencer Leonard, “‘Through the lens of the national liberation struggle’: An interview with Carl Davidson,” Platypus Review 117 (June 2019), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2019/06/01/through-the-lens-of-the-national-liberation-struggle-an-interview-with-carl-davidson/>.
 David Gilbert, Robert Gottlieb, and Gerry Tenney, “Prospects for the New Left, the New Working Class, and America,” in “Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority Statement’” (1967), available online at
 Spencer Leonard, “‘On the side of the oppressed’: An interview with David Gilbert,” Platypus Review 117 (June 2019), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2019/06/01/on-the-side-of-the-oppressed-an-interview-with-david-gilbert/>.
 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?,” New Left Review 65 (Sept/Oct 2010): 56–58.
 Young Democratic Socialists of America.
 See Chris Cutrone, “The Millennial Left is dead,” Platypus Review 100 (October 2017), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.