More on the Movement for a Democratic Society and the “new” Students for a Democratic Society (Updated)
by Brenda J. Elliott
In his September 21, 2008, article Meet the Movement for a Democratic Society, Trevor Loudon of The New Zeal, wrote:
Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) held its first national convergence at Loyola University, from November 8 through 11 (2007) with the participation of the newly inspired SDS, Students for a Democratic Society.
RBO, never to let rocks remain unturned for long, poked around here and prodded a bit there and, along the way, came across the MDS Austin website, which helps to fill in some gaps.
In MDS Austin’s report on the Convergence, it is clearly stated that MDS was formed in August 2006 in Chicago, hometown of veteran SDSers Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Mike Klonsky, Carl Davidson, and Marilyn Katz, to name a few.
In an undated article on The Center for Labor Renewal website, veteran SDSer Paul Buhle wrote (emphasis added):
The new [SDS] organization of several thousand members and perhaps 200 locals, active or seeking to set down roots, is vastly more working class, in the broadest sense, than its precursor. No longer the “Brightest and Best,” it seems to be appealing to the very rungs of the working class struggling to hold their own amid am imperiled empire. How to make the most of this prospect alongside an institutional labor movement seemingly headed ever downward, is a good and valuable question. The role of a vital Movement for a Democratic Society (whose ruling Board includes Jerry Tucker and Bill Fletcher, Jr, but also a host of older, Movement notables like Manning Marable, Angela Davis and Mark Rudd) may be the answer “if we can get it together.”
The MDS – SDS Relationship
The first item on the MDS Austin web page is a statement that describes the relationship between MDS and SDS:
The Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) is a multi-issue activist organization affiliated with the newly revived [see below] Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Many of its members are veterans of the New Left in the 60′s and 70′s.
A second mission statement, found among the online pages of the SDS publication The Rag, comes from the March 2007 “MDS Call” signed by Alice Embree and David Hamilton, both of MDS Austin.
Many of us came of age in the sixties, inspired by the activism of that era. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student organization at that time, was based on a vision of participatory democracy – the radical idea that people should have control over the decisions and resources that affect their lives. A younger generation is organizing SDS chapters on high school and college campuses today. [...]
We hope to build a diverse movement and encourage leadership from all who participate.
RESIST – Movement for a Democratic Society – November 9, 2007
The “newly revived” Students for a Democratic Society
Christopher Phelps wrote April 3, 2007, in Wiretap magazine:
The notion of re-creating SDS was the brainchild of Jessica Rapchik and Pat Korte, high school students in North Carolina and Connecticut, respectively, who met on an antiwar phone hookup in the fall of 2005. Upon discovering their mutual dissatisfaction with the existing left, they hit upon the notion of reviving SDS.
The “newly revived” Students for a Democratic Society was announced January 16, 2006, by veteran SDSers Thomas Good and Paul Buhle and Stonington, Conn., highschool senior Pat Korte in a press release which stated:
Several chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) announced today, Monday, January 16, 2006, their intent to form a national organization and hold the first SDS national convention since 1969. “It seemed appropriate to make this announcement today, on the observed Martin Luther King day”, said SDS regional organizer Thomas Good (right). “We have an anti-war movement that is addressing the issue of stopping the bloodletting in Iraq but the civil rights issue remains unaddressed”, he added. The national convention is scheduled for Summer 2006 and will be preceded by a series of regional conferences occurring on the Memorial Day weekend. [...]
At his request, members of Korte’s informal network of student activists from across the country began contacting Good and very quickly the informal network was replaced by a national structure that now includes a website, discussion forum and mailing list, all of which are now based at studentsforademocraticsociety.org.
The “new” SDS was quickly assisted by veteran SDSers (emphasis added):
Korte, realizing that the original SDS suffered from not having alot of veteran activists, WHO UNDERSTOOD THE IDEA OF STUDENT POWER, reached out to some older activists, including several members of the 1960s era student organization, to help ground the project and provide logistical support.
The first original SDSer to come on board was Alan Haber (left, with Pat Korte), president of SDS 1960-62. [...] Connecting these chapters and their organizers proved less difficult than Korte and Good initially thought. Technology was the key. [...] The new technologies of communication and independent media make this more possible than ever”, said SDS founder Alan Haber. Korte and Good took this advice and ran with it.
As the project coalesced, Good, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) contacted labor historian Paul Buhle, co-editor of a graphic history of the IWW (“Wobblies”) and former SDSer from the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter.
Here we have explained the clear line of highschool student anti-war activists who reached out to veteran SDSer Tom Good connected to the creation and expansion of the “new” SDS, which was assisted and supported by veteran SDSers Alan Haber and Paul Buhle, followed by the January 2006 news release. Within a few short months, in August 2006, MDS, a support organization made up of veteran SDSers, emerged to support the “new” SDS.
st National Convention of “new” SDS
Alexander Knight reported September 8, 2006, in ZMag on the first national convention of the “reborn” SDS held August 4 -7, 2006, at the University of Chicago, “attended by an estimated 200 students and activists” from across the country.
One person contacted early on who proved to be instrumental to the group’s success was Tom Good, a gray-haired Wobbly who had been too young to join the original SDS. When Tom got on board with the new SDS, he set about creating a website (newsds.org), listserv and other networking tools to bring together SDSers from around the country. The internet proved itself as a “terrific organizing tool,” and the group’s membership exploded. Within six months over 1,000 members had joined SDS via the website, representing 150 chapters around the country. Many of those who initially joined were former members of the original group during the Sixties, while most others were inspired by the group’s history from the Sixties. As Tom put it, “the name recognition [of SDS] is huge.”
Knight emphasized the intergenerational nature of the SDS gathering, as well as the role MDS was playing (emphasis added):
One of the first, most unique features that one notices about the new SDS is its intergenerational character. In every SDS gathering, amidst the students and youth you will find a healthy representation of “first generation SDSers,” friendly people who insist they are not trying to guide or lead the new organization, but are present to provide help and experience whenever necessary. In fact, SDS is organized into two distinct components, the student and youth component, Students for a Democratic Society, and MDS, or Movement for a Democratic Society, which is a vehicle for original SDS members and other non-students. The two groups appear to coexist harmoniously, as the older folks, while providing much-needed financial aid and some lengthy motivational speeches, seemed content to spend most of the convention manning tables and occasionally leading panel discussions, while largely allowing the younger members to be the loudest and most decisive voices. Save a few examples, most members, young and old alike, viewed the intergenerational nature of SDS as a strength.
Once again, we have verification that MDS acts as both mentor and financial support for the “new” SDS.
What about the “new” SDS?
Christopher Phelps added April 3, 2007, in Wiretap magazine that some 1960s SDS veterans like sociologist Todd Gitlin, SDS president from 1963 to 1964, were skeptical: “‘What was often brilliant about SDS,’ he says, ‘was that it was attuned to its moment. It didn’t recycle the Old Left. It was the New Left.’”
Additionally, Phelps wrote:
Race today is not quite the study in black and white that it was in the ’60s. Now as then, there are few African-Americans in SDS, but proportions vary. Of the five who started Wayne State’s chapter in Detroit, two were African-American, one Asian and one Latina, says Carmen Mendoza-King, 21. If SDS is not as heavily white as it was in the ’60s, this is mostly a result of subsequent waves of Asian and Latin American immigration. [...]
SDS is loose, more movement than organization. Anyone can sign up online. The group now claims more than 2,000 members, but it is hard to tell what that means. There are no dues, and therefore no funds, no staff, no office and no national publication apart from the website. The group has no elected national leaders and no basis for national decision-making. Paradoxically, these weaknesses provide some strength. The very elan of SDS is anti-bureaucratic. SDS enables regional and national linkages while preserving local control. Its appeal is that it is self-creating, do-it-yourself, free from centralized discipline or external control.
This explains why SDS displays such variety and vitality at the chapter level.
More on the MDS mission
On August 17, 2007, prior to the first MDS Chicago Convergence to be held in November, Thomas Good wrote in Radical America, the online magazine he and Paul Buhle edit (emphasis added):
The project known as Movement for a Democratic Society has a number of faces. We initially formed to offer support to SDS but we also exist as an activist organization in our own right.
Here, from the pen of one of its members, we have confirmation that MDS was “initially formed” as a support organization for the “new SDS.”
Good, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the coverage the MSM had given to MDS. All that began to change on March 19, 2007, when “a number of MDS activists participated in the Wall Street civil disobedience”:
… three MDS activists were arrested along with 40 other activists. Four days later three more MDS activists were arrested for occupying the office of chickenhawk Congressman Vito Fossella – in an action that involved several organizations working together.
The press coverage, Good wrote, “was excellent.” The campaign was named the “Fossella Five” and, Good added,
MDS remains at the heart of this effort to force Congressman Fossella to meet with peace activists. See fossellafive.org for more about this campaign which is being coordinated by several organizations: Peace Action Staten Island, MDS and World Can’t Wait.
he November 2007 MDS Chicago Convergence
Further down on the MDS Austin website is a lengthy account, including “some impressions” by Thorne Dreyer (left), David Hamilton (center), and Jim Retherford (right), who represented Austin MDS in Chicago.
On the “Positive” side, the trio reported:
It was a great opportunity to network with veteran movement activists. In various workshops we heard from Carl Davidson, Kathy Kelly (Voices for Creative Non-Violence), Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Paul Buhle, Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, Mike James, Al Haber, Bob Brown (ex-SNCC) and several others. Most of the above were major figures in sixties SDS. Haber was the co-author of The Port Huron Statement.
On the “down side,” they reported
… there were only about 100 people total participating, mainly from Chicago, but also from NYC, Austin, Baltimore, Florida and a few other places, including several local SDS folks. This reflects organizational infancy. We’re not yet a national organization. That means, like SDS of old, the action will be local and the national affiliation will be largely symbolic, but useful for such purposes as the positives listed above.
Another observation was that
The famed MDS “Board” (Chomsky, et al) is very largely window dressing. Four of them (out of about 50) were there and three of those have full plates in other movement activities that seem to take precedence over building MDS. We can’t say if the board luminaries lack commitment or if MDS hasn’t found appropriate ways to utilize them. If MDS is to develop into an important element in the US left, it will be from the ground up, not from the top down. This is really not a negative so much as a realization, but more national structure and direction should clearly be a goal.
They also provided an overview of the various workshops.
Muhammad Ahmad who had earlier in the day been interviewed by Michael James for Heartland radio did a workshop which centered on the experiences of the Black [Power] Movement in the 60s. In 1968 Ahmad then Max Stanford was in jail facing serious charges. He stayed in jail for a year before his attorney was able to get the charges dismissed. Michael Klonsky, Mark Rudd, Bruce Rubenstein, and Penelope Rosemont discussed the implications for the movement of the persecution of black radicals with Ahmad.
Another, which sounds more like a discussion or a roundtable, included Bill Ayers:
Thomas Good, Bill Ayers , Elaine Brower, Alan Haber, David Hamilton, Devra Morice and others representing New York, Chicago, Austin, Ann Arbor, etc. discussed current forms of popular resistance against the war and then joined by others began a necessary and long needed discussion of the future of MDS.
At yet another session:
Carl Davidson explained the political means of ending the war by cutting the funding to the war budget and urged voting for peace candidates. He also noted there was plenty of room for work on Civil Disobedience, GI resistance, and that a popular upsurge of sentiment against the war was necessary.
Another interesting comment was about Mike Klonsky, a familiar name to regular RBO readers:
Michael Klonsky recounted the first days of his arrival in Chicago as National Secretary of SDS as the West side erupted in flames and fury after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He mentioned that none of us expected to live to see 30. Klonsky has a forthcoming book on those days.
As Paul Buhle wrote at The Center for Labor Renewal blog:
New SDS is mirrored–for those looking in the mirror after their SDS youth and seeing their aging selves–by the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). It was a good idea of 1970 that, like so many other good ideas of that year, never actually happened. Not everyone in MDS, an avuncular relative to New SDS, was actually in the old organization. Many a middle aged labor radical can trace a youngster’s background there, along with the civil rights movement, and some, of course, not nearly so radical anymore.