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MDS Talk in 3 Parts

Feb. 17, 2007 

Part I:  The Death of SDS 

     I come before you this morning as one of the principle authors, almost forty years ago, of a totally failed strategy.  In the course of things, my little faction seized control of the SDS national office and several of the regional offices.  We then made the tragic decision—in 1969, at the height of the war—to kill off SDS because it wasn’t revolutionary enough for us.  I am not proud of this history. 

     So there is no reason in the world why you should want to listen to me, except for the fact that over the last thirty seven years I’ve reflected continually about the complex of errors that led to the death of SDS and also on my part in this historical crime.  As a result I’ve come up with some hard-won conclusions. 

     I often read references in historical literature and commentary to SDS “self-destructing.”  This seems to refer to a constellation of generalized forces including Maoist sectarian infiltration, the development of various brands of Marxist dogmatism among the “regulars,” the drive toward hyper-militancy, violent confrontation, and ultimately “armed struggle,” all within a bitter context of government repression.  In some renditions of the death of SDS story there is the consoling air of historical inevitability—no matter what we in the national leadership would have done, SDS was destined (by the God of History, I suppose) to implode. 

     But I don’t agree.  I remember a certain meeting with no more than ten people present—out of a national membership of 12,000 and perhaps ten times that many chapter members—at which we in the Weatherman clique running the NO decided to scuttle SDS.  I remember driving a VW van with Teddy Gold from the NY Regional Office in the basement of 131 Prince St. to the Sanitation Dept. pier at the end of W. 14th St., just a few blocks from here, and dumping the addressograph mailing stencils and other records from the Regional Office onto a barge.  These were insane decisions which I and my comrades made unilaterally, to the exclusion of other, much better, choices.  We could have, for example, fought to keep SDS in existence so as to unite as many people as possible against the war (which is what the Vietnamese had asked us to do) while at the same time educating around imperialism.  I often wonder, had we done so, where we would have been a few months later, in May, 1970, when the biggest student protests in American history jumped off?  Or today, when imperialist war rages yet again, would we have had to reinvent the anti-imperialist movement almost from scratch? 

     Alas, with all the best intentions of promoting revolutionary solidarity with the people of the world, the Weatherman faction by killing off SDS did the work of the FBI for them.  Assuming we weren’t in the pay of the FBI, we should have been. 

     Obviously this is a harsh critique.  But it gets even worse:  our hyper-militancy and armed struggle line created a deep division which weakened the larger anti-war movement and demoralized many good people.  This was totally unnecessary.  Also we provided a gold-plated gift to the media and the government enabling them to characterize the entire movement as violent and therefore deranged.  As a tragic coda, three of our own beloved comrades were accidentally killed by bombs they were making just two blocks from here, in the townhouse on West 11th St. 

     The subsequent Weather Underground did not, of course, lead to the growth of a revolutionary movement in this country.  It led to isolation and defeat.  The guerilla foco did not help build either a revolutionary army or a mass movement.  One thing I’m absolutely certain of, having learned the hard way, is that political violence in any form can never be understood in this society.   

     No amount of rhetoric around revolutionary heroism and solidarity with the Third World can mask the Weather strategy as anything other than sure revolutionary suicide.  Revolutionary suicide may serve some psychological or existential function, but politically it produces nothing.   

     So the greatest lesson I draw from my disastrous history is the left must absolutely stay away from violence or any talk of violence.  The government is violent, we oppose their violence. 

     Let’s jump ahead almost forty years to the current war on terrorism.  Right now six people are in prison for violation of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, the forerunner of a law which last year was broadened and renamed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, related to PATRIOT II.  Their crime was advocating an economic boycott and direct action against companies doing business with the Huntingdon Life Sciences Lab, which does animal testing.  Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, terrorism is defined as causing $10,000 or more economic damage to a company dealing in animals, including even loss of business.  Look how the government and the corporations it serves have narrowed legal political activity:  classical nonviolent tactics, such as a boycott, which have been used for generations in the labor and civil rights and national liberation and anti-nuclear and feminist and gay and disabled and environmental movements are now labeled as terrorism.  And the confused public doesn’t say a word. 

     Part of the confusion stems from the fact that elements of both the animal liberation and earth liberation movements have insisted on their right to destruction (or liberation) of property.  The FBI, thrilled with this gift, has labeled them the #1 domestic terrorist threat, which is utter nonsense of course, but useful for the purpose of repression. 

     Another case: two broken windows at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, one at a Nike store, the other at a Starbucks, constituted the entire justification for fifteen million dollars of anti-terrorist police funding and for a complete city-wide lockdown during the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in Miami in 2003.  The New York Times for years repeated the lie of violence and mayhem in the streets of Seattle, even when shown evidence to the contrary. 

     To this day anarchist groups defend their right to commit property destruction, as if the morality of this form of self-expression (which, by the way, I don’t dispute) trumps the political damage.  Last week I picked up a zine produced by an SDS chapter and there it was again:  an argument for property destruction based on the apparently moral principle that it’s legitimate to use a small amount of violence to stop a larger violence.  The writer even intelligently tells an old parable about the Buddha killing a really bad guy to prove her point.  However, this timeless argument, which I myself used uncounted times back in 1969, includes no recognition of the practical reality that any sort of violence stemming from the left—or talk of violence— is guaranteed to get us isolated and smashed. 

     Our goal is always to build a mass movement.  SDS and MDS have to repeat tirelessly, again and again and again and again, that our movement is completely, 100% committed to nonviolence, that we will never use violence.  The reason:  we have no desire to commit suicide.  This is a long struggle and the repression will only get more intense.  So let’s not play into the hands of the enemy. 

     Note please that I am advocating here for total nonviolence solely on practical grounds, not even touching on other quite valid moral, ethical, and spiritual arguments.   
 

Part II:  It’s the War, Stupid! 

     In its infinitely long and involved seven year odyssey from Port Huron, 1962 to Chicago, 1969, SDS sought first of all to be a multi-issue radical organization, under the guiding principle that everything is related to everything else.  Yet the reality of the matter is that the organization really took off in numbers and activity with the escalation of the U.S. attack on Vietnam, from the spring of 1965 to 1968.  I was attracted to the older SDS organizers at Columbia because they were the smartest and most politically active people around:  they explained the true nature of the war—a counter-guerilla insurgency—in a way that no one else did and they put it into a larger context, national liberation and the struggle against U.S. imperialism.   Using the lens that they handed me I began to understand black liberation, Cuba, China, the class society, anti-communism, the Cold War, and a lot more.  But for me and for thousands of others like me, it started with Vietnam. 

     Here we are again, another imperialist war.  To any thinking person it is a daily atrocity and a contradiction to every mythological tale of American goodness, generosity, and morality.  Public opinion has viscerally turned against the war—mostly because we’re losing—yet there is still no wide-spread anti-war movement to touch people, to give them a deep understanding of what it’s all about and ways to act meaningfully against it.  And we are still not using the war to explain imperialism, always our larger goal. 

     SDS chapters are now looking in all directions for ways to organize, including free speech, student syndicalism, healthy food, living wages on campus.  All good.  Fortunately, some have finally settled on trying to mobilize other students against the war.  University complicity in the form of recruitment, investment, and research is a good strategic way to approach other students.  It’s worked in the past, for example at Columbia in 1968, and it will work again.  But if you look at the whole history of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the sole tangible way in which it was successful at stopping the war—since we never elected an anti-war president or Congress—was the resistance within the military.  In Vietnam the army was mutinous and unreliable.  The war planners were forced to start withdrawing the Marines as early as 1969 precisely because they were scared that the mutiny would spread to their elite force.  In time the U.S. had no choice but to withdraw all ground troops. 

     The anti-war resistance is growing within the military.  Soldiers hate and resent the horrible position they’ve been put in in Iraq.  We need to support them in whatever way we can.  Fortunately we have an educational tool which tells the story of the successful military resistance to Vietnam, the recent documentary “Sir, No Sir!”  I suggest all SDS and MDS chapters view it for both internal and external chapter education programs.  Support demonstrations for Lt. Watada will probably be needed again in March.  Maybe chapters could adopt a resister, of whom there are many others besides Lt. Watada. Counter-recruitment efforts will help deny the military manpower.  Outreach to active duty GI’s and National Guard and reserve should also become a priority. 

     On the last point, there’s an awful lot of confusion about the so-called volunteer army.  The basic fact of the U.S. military is that it’s made up of citizen soldiers.  People sign up for all sorts of reasons—from the need for a job or education all the way to misguided patriotism.  The contractual relationship involved in volunteering does not obviate their status as pawns of the system.  These soldiers are no different from us and need to be approached as such.   

     We are fortunate to have in the anti-war ranks organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Vets for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Courage to Resist. SDS and MDS should join them, follow their leadership.  I would also like to suggest a project for the future MDS Radical Education Project, to uncover the hidden history of the hundreds of SDS members who worked in GI coffee houses, newspapers, and other military organizing and legal-defense projects.  Perhaps this history will show the current SDS and MDS new ways to support the resistance in the military and push forward the larger anti-war movement. 

     As we develop a diversity of issues, let’s not forget that the war is by far the best school for learning about imperialism.  The goal of this government is global domination through the use of violence. (That’s straight Chomsky). Exxon stations and Walmart stores may constitute the booty of empire, but the bomb and bullet are still the means.

      
 
 

    

Part III:  A few thoughts on MDS 

     The dreary e-mail battles leading up to this meeting were actually quite useful.  SDS now knows not to get too intimately involved with us grayhairs, or at least to keep some distance. Young people should organize themselves; old people need to get our shit together.  Please don’t yoke yourselves to us too closely because we’ll probably bring you down.  There is absolutely no doubt now that the generations need to keep organizationally separate for awhile. 

     But SDS needs help in the form of money and other physical resources, skilled lawyers and other professionals, and an intergenerational dialogue.   That’s the first key function of MDS.  SDS has asked us for help, especially money and skills in pulling together organizer trainings called Action Camps for this summer.  I’ll work on this and I hope other people join me. 

     Thanks to Bruce Rubenstein, Paul Buhle, Tom Good, and the other MDS Inc. officers, the organizational form to collect and channel money to SDS is off the ground.  One element of this organizational form is the MDS Inc. board, though it’s not clear how we will function in relation to a future MDS structured into chapters and regions. 

     It would have been ideal to have built MDS from the ground up, but that’s not what happened.  So we’ll have to work outside of a logical sequence.  We can develop functioning MDS chapters to work in parallel with SDS chapters and regions and to absorb students who graduate and want to continue organizing along comparable political grounds.  When this future decentralized, autonomous MDS gets going, it will have to create a regional and national structure and possibly even merge with SDS in a joint functioning entity.  As a consequence there’ll certainly need to be a revision of the MDS Inc. structure to reflect the evolving organizational reality.  Maybe we could even drop the INC, which so many young people find objectionable, though personally I think it’s kind of funny. 

      One final lesson of the last few months:  MDS has to figure out some way to tame the depressing tyranny of the verbose armchair listservers.  These discussions go on and on endlessly, completely disconnected from actual organizing and real people’s struggles.  There must be a lot of angry frustrated old guys out there with lots of time on their hands.  This situation is totally weird.  It’s as if the ego-driven ideological quibbling of SDS in 1969 has lain dormant all these years, only to reemerge like some long-sleeping deadly virus two generations later.  For myself, I don’t care who leads, who makes decisions:  let’s just do some work that needs doing. 

     MDS begs the question posed long ago by the poet R. Zimmerman:  “What do you do to get out of/ Going through all these things twice?”