Sixty years ago, the United States was still in the grip of the McCarthy era. The Attorney General would regularly update his list of “subversive” organisations. Communists and other leftists were denied platforms in many places, including universities. Racial segregation remained in place in the Southern states. And young people were largely depoliticised, attending university in record numbers but showing little interest in changing the world.
And then at a conference held in Port Huron, Michigan, the moribund League for Industrial Democracy decided to relaunch its student arm under a new name: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Few could have expected what happened next.
SDS exploded in growth. The rapid rise of the civil rights movement, including its more militant wing, combined with the Vietnam War completely transformed the country — and especially the campuses. Millions of people were in the streets protesting. Every group on the left, including long-dormant groups like the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) began to grow. The mainstream Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party played a prominent role in the anti-war movement. But no one experienced anything on the scale of what happened to SDS.
By the end of the decade, it had a presence across hundreds of campuses in practically every state. It claimed a membership of 100,000. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in the long history of the American Left. And then, suddenly, in a puff of smoke it was gone.
SDS had increasingly fallen under the control of extremist groups — some Maoist, some anarchist. At its final convention, it was taken over by a tiny Stalinist sect known as the Progressive Labor Party. The minority wing went on to form the terrorist Weather Underground. Within a few months, all the competing factions had largely disappeared.
A number of the saner veterans of SDS found themselves in something called the New American Movement (NAM) which together with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) formed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the early 1980s. DSA struggled for decades to grow, and while it had successes here and there, it never really took off. And then, in 2015, the independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, decided to run for president. Sanders was a democratic socialist, but not a DSA member.
His campaign reinvigorated DSA and the American Left more broadly. Tens of thousands of new members, mostly young people with little experience on the Left, joined DSA. The group expanded to reach 100,000 members.
In addition to recruiting thousands of political neophytes, DSA also attracted some far Leftists who came into the organisation with their own agendas.
After a short while, very little was left of the organisational cultures and values that had sustained DSA for four decades. And nowhere is this clearer than in a statement adopted by the organiaation’s International Committee when Russia invaded Ukraine. Following a denunciation of the Russian aggression, the statement went on to say that “DSA reaffirms our call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict. ” In other words, America was somehow at fault.
For many members of the organisation, especially those who had been in DSA for a long time, this was the final straw. As one long-standing DSA activist wrote this week, “I don’t intend to renew my membership as I feel the NPC statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an utter disgrace. This is not time to blame NATO or the West as this fascist bastard, Putin, dismantles a country and slaughters its innocent civilians. … It is with deep sadness that I see what the national organization has become with the leadership in the hands of sectarian purists.”
Those resignations are not yet on the scale of what brought down SDS a half century ago. But the pattern is clear. For the second time in my lifetime we are seeing the hopes of a new American Left, one with mass support among the young, being dashed by ultra-leftism.
Does DSA need to share SDS’s fate? That depends on the organisation’s members, on their willingness to stand and fight for the values that the group once stood for.
This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.