Commentary Magazine

SDS, by Kirkpatrick Sale

Young Revolutionaries

by Kirkpatrick Sale.
Random House. 752 pp. $15.00.

In April 1967 someone at the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) came across a cartoon showing dozens of smiling children fleeing through a school gate and six angry guards helplessly chasing after them. “By instant and common agreement,” writes Kirkpatrick Sale in SDS, “the cartoon was made part of the official letterhead of SDS stationery.” This anecdote reveals a good deal more about SDS, its image of itself as well as its conception of American society, than Sale is able to do in over 750 pages. His book is too long, much longer than the subject deserves. It is filled with thousands of organizational details that could be of interest only to the devotee. Sale selects his material without discretion, and the only thing that holds the book together is the chronological chain of events.

Sale traces the early history of SDS from 1960, when it was the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), through the Port Huron statement of 1962 and the eventual dispute with the parent LID over the question of whether Communists should be excluded from membership in SDS. By October 1965, when the formal break took place, the two organizations had almost nothing in common. The LID was labor-oriented, anti-Communist, reformist; SDS looked to campus youth and the very poor as agents of change, and in a very short time it had moved from being “anti-anti-Communist” to being thoroughly pro-Communist, with its own internal divisions paralleling those in the Communist world. In the later 60's it evolved into an organization committed to revolution and, for many of its members, to terrorism as well.


SDS never had much use for ideology. The early SDS'ers claimed that ideology was a carry-over from the past, whereas they were introducing something fresh on the American scene. This antipathy toward ideology was part of a more general anti-intellectual-ism that became more pronounced as time passed. In 1964 Tom Hayden proclaimed, “Theories don't mean a thing”; five years later the education secretary of SDS announced with pride that neither he nor the two other national officers had read a book in a year. By that time the ideological vacuum had become filled with quotations from Lenin and Stalin, as well as Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara.

SDS suffered badly from its failure to develop a coherent ideology. In 1963 the organization undertook its first major political effort, the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) that encouraged middle-class students to abandon the campus for work in the “real world” of the slums. The move was opposed by Al Haber, the past SDS field secretary, who felt that the proper role for students was organizing and educating on campus. “‘In the world,’” Haber observed, “has come to mean ‘in the slum.’ Besides being slightly sick, this suggests a highly-perverted analysis of American society.” But for most SDS'ers, the alliance of students and the poor (they made each other “feel real,” according to Hayden) was the new instrument for changing America.

ERAP failed miserably, and by the mid-60's, with the escalation of the war in Vietnam, SDS returned to the campus and attempted to develop a new perspective. According to Sale, SDS discovered at this time that students themselves “felt trod upon by the society, in ways maybe not as obvious but just as pervasive as those used upon the poor.” Radicalism came to be defined as the struggle for the liberation of oneself, as opposed to liberalism which was “action for others.” This theory did not hold up to the challenge of the Maoist Progressive Labor party (PL) within SDS, which insisted on a platform of identification with the proletariat. PL went into SDS to raid the membership, and its doctrinaire cadres had an easy time of it, using time-honored totalitarian tactics to take over chapters and, ultimately, the whole organization.

The National Office faction of SDS could not handle PL. At first it turned to the Communist party for ideological assistance, then tried to ride on the prestige of an alliance with the Black Panthers, a tactic which backfired at the 1969 convention. (Among other points of difference, the Panthers could not abide the Weathermen, whom Bobby Seale attacked as “those jive bourgeois national socialists and national chauvinists.”) In desperation, the National Office faction moved to expel PL; since PL wouldn't leave, the National Office then led its own followers out of the convention.

The National Office faction eventually split into two factions, the only one of significance being the Weathermen who were carried along by the momentum of escalating extremism. After a few experiments with revolutionary violence, the Weathermen went underground. A subsequent explosion in a New York townhouse that several young terrorists had transformed into a bomb factory constituted a fitting dénouement to the history of SDS in the 60's.


“Why is it no one can talk from an SDS perspective?” National Secretary Greg Calvert asked in 1966. The answer is that SDS had no point of view that could be clearly articulated. The various attempts to develop new “perspectives” could not alter the fact that the consistent driving force behind the American New Left was guilt, a revulsion of affluent youths against themselves. As one SDS'er put it, “The fight to destroy the shit in us is part of building a new society.” Within the Weathermen communes this fight took the form of a collective effort to stamp out the individuality of every member, to the point where no one could even go for a walk without the entire group's discussing it. But the disease had infected the movement long before the rise of the Weathermen, and Sale's book is worth reading if only as a case study in the steady and apparently inexorable descent of America's “best” youth into nihilism and totalitarianism.

In retrospect this descent may be seen to have begun in the decision to break with the LID over its policy—which Sale castigates—of excluding “advocates of dictatorship and totalitarianism” from membership, and to have reached a logical conclusion in the subsequent takeover of SDS by PL. But the New Leftists were hardly the innocent victims of the PL cadres; by the late 60's they had become full-fledged totalitarians themselves, just not as well-organized. To the PL chant, “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-tung,” the New Leftists would respond, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.” They saw Cuba and North Vietnam as revolutionary models, extolled the Palestinian terrorists (this evoked “strangulating outrage” among some Jewish SDS'ers, according to Sale), and had only contempt for “bourgeois civil liberties.”

Sale, who completely shares the New Left view of America and seems to have learned nothing from the collapse of the movement based on that view, sheds no light at all on the process by which the romantic idealists of the early SDS turned into the primitive authoritarians and terrorists of the late 60's. He simply blames America for alienating “the best of the generation.” (It should be noted that Sale is not too friendly toward PL, though he is willing to grant its “unselfish devotion to the workers' cause.”) And because of his emotional identification with SDS, Sale is unable to assess accurately the movement's true political impact.

Thus, though at one point he obliquely hints that the tactics of SDS may have strengthened Nixon's “law-and-order” appeal during the 1968 election, Sale quickly drops the point to return to the drama of the revolution. And though he admits that the Weatherman rampage through Chicago in 1969 was “tactically foolhardy,” it was nonetheless in his view “a genuine act, however feeble, of revolution.” Commenting on a similar movement in Russia three-quarters of a century ago, George Plekhanov offered greater insight:

Thus in the name of revolution, the anarchists serve—the cause of reaction; in the name of morality they approve the most immoral acts; in the name of individual liberty they trample under foot all the rights of their fellows.


If SDS was significant, it was so not as an organization (unlike, for example, the American Communist party) but as a quasi-political expression of the cultural upheavals of the 60's. In the perspective of the ensuing years those upheavals have come to seem less and less a revolution and more and more a counterrevolution, an obstruction to genuine change rather than an enlargement of the possibilities of progress, and certainly not that great leap forward in the name of humanity so avidly proclaimed by the New Left and its intellectual apologists at the time and now eulogized by Sale in this book. The “lesson” of SDS is a negative one, the lesson drawn by Plekhanov, and it is one that needs to be remembered if a commitment to democratic social change is ever to be wedded to an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of organized political action.

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