Students for a Democratic Society

Students for a Democratic Society

Boone Murdoch

            When the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) first founded their organization they planned on changing the face and tactics of the left in the United States, and in many ways the SDS did. The foundation of the SDS also marked the beginning of the “New Left”, and would put them at odds with other leftist organizations in the United States at the time. The question is whether or not the changes they caused were good for the left as a whole or whether or not their strategies were effective.

The SDS was formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the year of 1960. It was structured organizationally around getting students to join a socialist movement so its rules, documents, and structures were based on student life on campus and work and were less based on workers. They felt that students were not as inclined to join other socialist organizations because they could not relate to them. “Almost no students value activity as citizens. Passive in public, they are hardly more idealistic in arranging their private lives: Gallup concludes they will settle for “low success, and won’t risk high failure.” There is not much willingness to take risks…” (Port Huron Statement) With this new interpretation on how to bring about socialism the SDS came under fire from other socialist organizations.

An example of where SDS came at odds with various Marxist organizations was their failed program Economic Research and Action Project or ERAP for short. Essentially SDS sent organizers and volunteers to the ghettos of the United States in order to try and essentially coordinate the lumpen-proletariat into a revolutionary class. Besides the Marxist claim that the lumpen-proletariat can not be organized into a revolutionary class, which the SDS disregarded, but they were also seen as manipulative and paternalistic. “Why this inability to resolve the definition of an organizer? Why this cropping up of the word “manipulation” whenever we might otherwise have been on the verge of action or decision?”(Rothstein). Rothstein effectively captures the arguments from the SDS’s critics and how the people living in the ghettos of the United States felt they were being treated. “For one thing, ERAP organizers in the beginning did not know how to relate honestly to poor people. Cultural differences were too great to be easily overcome; middle class students, despite the best of intentions, carried condescending attitudes with them into the ghetto.” (Rothstein). This program would later split the SDS with those who supported it and those who felt it was a waste of resources due to its lack of results.

This idealistic view on organizing is rooted in their founding ideologies, “The main and transcending concern of the university must be the unfolding and refinement of the moral, aesthetic, and logical capacities of men in a manner that creates genuine independence.” (Hayden) Here we can see the seeds of a kind of intellectual superiority complex developing. Now with that negative aspect to it their was also a very positive aspect to it, this type of rhetoric was very popular with white middle class students across the United States. This was the SDS’s greatest achievement, they organized what was largely considered an apathetic demographic and held many successful civil rights and anti-war protests on campuses. The SDS showed an effective way to bring together students and push them towards action, but the SDS would later find out that those strategies were not effective outside of their respective college campuses. The Students for a Democratic Society should serve as a lesson for other leftist organizations and student organizations. For the leftist organizations, they should not just try to implant themselves into communities or cultures and try to tell them what they should be doing. Instead it would be better to support other organizations in those communities ran by that community that ideologically aligns with them. For students the SDS should serve as an example that it is possible to fight for your rights as a collective and win.

Primary Sources:

 The Port Huron Statement


This source is the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society and a look into the ideology of the founders of this student organization and the New Left as a whole.

Student Social Action


This document was written by prolific SDS member Thomas Hayden. This goes over his observations of students and their interactions with faculty, society outside of school and each other. He then goes over how he thinks they should participate in politics and resist capitalism.

Secondary Sources:

Rothstein, Richard. “Calisphere” University of Califonia. 3/08/2018.            docId=kt4k4003k7.

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