By Kirkpatrick Sale
Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, was the preeminent radical student-based organization among the white sector of the US Left in the 1960s. It lasted from 1960 to 1969, when it collapsed from factional fighting that led to the birth of the Weather Underground and various groups that made up the New Communist Movement. Many thousands of activists, organizers, and just those influenced by the New Left ideologies and movements of the time, came through the SDS organization. Most importantly, at an estimated 100,000 members at its peak, when it was espousing an anti-imperialist politics, it was the largest mass organization that came close to a Third Worldist politics inside the settler Amerikan nation.
Overall, there has been thousands of pages written about SDS and its many facets. One reason is not only the large number of people involved in the organization but that many of them became heavily involved in academia and politics, and some having prominent careers in these fields. And then are the scholars and activists who have been inspired by them, who have produced more works on the organization. Most of this scholarship focuses on the more liberal and social democratic elements of the organization, and whenever there is a focus on the more radical (especially Marxist inspired) elements it is to attack them or to critique them as going against the supposed organic New Left that came out of Amerikan traditions by upholding something foreign like Marxist-Leninism. We reject this kind of analysis, and see it as correct for revolutionaries to study revolutionary theory. There is correct theory and incorrect theory, and studying past movements gives us insights into arguments that are still around today.
From all the scholarship about SDS, one of the key texts is Kirkpatrick Sale’s book SDS: Ten Years Toward a Revolution (1973), a monumental document for research into the Students for a Democratic Society organization. Written just years after the collapse of the organization, and with access to their extensive archives that were in the hands of a university, Sale’s book is full of first-hand accounts organized chronologically through the organization’s ten year history. Sale’s book is an essential source for research into the organization.
As mentioned above, SDS as an organization has been studied for many things. One area that has been either ignored or shortsighted is the role of youth liberation. This is true in general of analysis of youth movements. One reason would be that youth, meaning those younger than college-aged, are not seen as independent agents of change in mainstream thought. Another is that as young people, they often than not are lacking in any intellectuals of their own. Nevertheless youth have been active in political and social change everywhere, but especially while in SDS. This is important for in our current movements and in predecessors that see a Third Worldist analysis where the First World is populated by a labor aristocracy, one social base that some have seen with revolutionary potential in the First World is youth. Since they have less ties to the capitalist-imperialist system, they are more likely to be willing to rebel against it. Whether this theory is correct or not can be proven, both through practice and looking at history. As SDS was a precursor to modern Third Worldist thought and had a large part of youth organizing in it, it is worth a look at their efforts at this.
Thus, as SDS by Sale is a comprehensive history of the organization complete with first hand accounts, it is a good place to start to look at these questions. To help in filling in the gaps in this research, here I will do a selective review of some of the passages of SDS that deal with youth liberation. Much of the history of SDS is divided into its periods of Reform, Resistance, and Revolution, and thus this review of youth organizing will follow the different strategies used in each of these three periods. I will not go through much of the history itself of SDS, as has been written on extensively by other authors and various accounts are available for anyone looking for them.