When I started at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in Spring of ‘68, the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter was lively and large, with maybe 20-40 people attending weekly meetings. Much discussion centered on how to understand and approach race and class in building the antiwar and antiracist movement on campus. These were big issues on a multiracial campus with large numbers of working class students in those volatile days.
To understand the development of the student movement, one must understand at least two of our inspirations, even in oversimplified form:
- Black people’s struggles to destroy America’s Jim Crow system of racial oppression and exploitation inspired all the movements of the ‘60s with their willingness to challenge authority with m ass-supported, often-illegal direct actions, stand against ferocious opponents and force change.
- The international fight to overturn centuries of white, European domination inspired national liberation movements across Africa and Asia. The Cuban Revolution and the Vietnamese resistance especially inspired many youth in the U.S. and across the world.
Back then, hundreds of thousands were fighting racism, an unjust war, and the everyday hassles of living in our class, race and gender-divided America. In particular, the military draft for an unpopular war threatened almost every working class young man and students coming out of college. The communist-led Vietnamese resistance with Soviet and Red Chinese support generated renewed interest in that ideology.
The growing U.S. anti-war movement mounted ever-larger demonstrations and carried out a multitude of militant local actions, yet the government’s war machine consumed more flesh daily. As liberal Democratic Party President Kennedy acted to limit the fight against racism and Johnson expanded the war in Vietnam, more and more people turned against the ‘system’ and to direct action. The question thus emerged: what paths to take?
The sides in our SDS chapter became clear fast.
One side argued that imperialism was a system rooted in national and racial oppression, not especially on class exploitation. This led them to view white working class people as potential enemies with a basic interest in conserving the status quo, not as potential allies.
On the national level, this tendency would split into two factions. One, the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), would become the Weather Underground. For more information on this tendency see Dan Berger’s Outlaws in America (AK Press, 2005). The other, RYM II, turned towards the working class and formed various organizations associated with the New Communist Movements of the 1970s. For more information on that history, see Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air (Verso Books, 2002) .
Our side was led by the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). We had split from the Communist Party USA in 1961 because of our disagreement with their support of the Soviet Union (whom we viewed to be revisionist) and because of their reformist approach to issues here in the U.S. We argued that racial, gender-based, and national oppression take place within our class-divided capitalism and can best be fought in that light. We thought that the exploitation of the working class is central to this system of mindless accumulation, thus giving all workers a stake in fighting our bosses and leading a revolution. In 1969 we published Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism, an essay articulating our differences with the groups that would later form RYM.
PLP’s Marxist-Leninist outlook led us to advance the Worker Student Alliance (WSA), a strategy of students allying with working class struggles, fighting racism in ways to advance class solidarity, and helping win working class support to end the war and eventually overthrow capitalism. This WSA grew from a handful of PLP’ers in SDS in 1966 to become the largest of organized SDS factions by the 1969 convention.
Below are two stories from members of the WSA branch of SDS, reflecting on 1968 in Chicago.
Story #1: Organizing Students Against Marine Recruitment
by Stu Smith
Lifelong activist and communist.
As a young PLP’er in 1966, I started organizing students at UIC. African Americans were fighting racism, students were concerned about the draft and opposition to the Vietnam war raged, but little of the tumult had arrived at UIC.
My goal at UIC was to build a student movement that would act against the imperialist war in Vietnam, support movements among African-Americans and sup port for workers on the job or in their community.
How to begin? While I had some experience at organizing before this, it was always with others or in the lead. Here I was on my own. One of the first things I did after enrolling was to try to develop a plan for developing an SDS chapter by talking to the couple of contacts we had at the school. Yet soon after starting school we learned the Marines were coming to recruit at UIC. I talked to the couple of contacts we had. One said we could do nothing as we were too weak and isolated. The other said we had to try to do something. This person called on her brother and his girlfriend as well as a member of another radical group to try to act.
The five of us sat down and talked about what we could do to deal with these recruiters. Indeed we were weak and didn’t believe we had much support on campus. Yet the Vietnamese were fighting and dying to free their country from U.S. domination and others throughout the world were actively supporting that struggle. In the end we decided we would confront the Marines and question them about the war and imperialism. Clearly students couldn’t object to dialogue and an exchange of ideas.
The recruiters set up in a common area on the second floor of the student center. It was outside of the cafeteria in a large open space. Recruiters, as well as others, were given a small booth with room on top for information. People who want information would walk up to talk to the people staffing the booth. The area was busy with students coming to the cafeteria as well as using other facilities in the building. On the first day, the Marines got their booth assigned, then went to the booth and prepared to meet with students who wanted to kill for imperialism.
On the first day the Marines showed up, the five of us went up to the booth and asked questions. The Marines refused to answer, refused to defend the murderous adventures they were recruiting people for. Our activity was confrontational but not directly interfering. A large crowd gathered to watch. It included some of the “professional” movement types, those that talk a good game but do nothing. More importantly it included over the course of the day hundreds of students. Most agreed with us but a good number disagreed. Yet this action was a spark to start discussion but wasn’t enough to go further and build an organization.
Day Two-something More
We evaluated what we did that first day. It was still just the five of us. We decided to go a step further. It was clear that students were interested in what was going on. There was a dialogue going on and it was clear many students shared our outrage at the war in Vietnam. While we wanted to put a clear political analysis of the war out there, that would take time. What the students picked up on was finally someone was acting.
We decided to sit on and around the recruiting booth. Since w e were only five, we decided to leave when the administration told us we would be facing discipline if we didn’t. That second day we got to school early and sat in the chairs and on the booth. When the Marines appeared they looked at us and went directly into the administrative offices. Several hundred students were around, some just to get breakfast but many others to see what would happen. While I can’t speak for the others, I was nervous and scared. Confrontation isn’t natural for me and it is difficult to do. Yet we had to speak out and to act to stop the war and eventually to change the system.
After a short time a representative of the administration came out. He told us the booth was reserved for the Marines and that we were blocking their use of it. He never told us to leave! So we didn’t and the Marines did.
For several days after this action, there were intense discussions in the second floor area where recruiting took place involving hundreds of students. We put several of the booths together so people could sit to talk about the war, recruiting, imperialism, capitalism as well as freedom of speech. The discussion, while heated, remained non-violent.
Based on this action- this spark- an SDS chapter was built that had several hundred active members. The chapter carried out many actions over the next few years including leading a complete shut-down of the university. ?
Story #2: The REA wildcat strike of Spring 1968, Chicago
by Earl Silbar, Lifelong activist and recently retired GED teacher
In the spring of 1968, our SDS debates about class, race and nationalism were tested. Close to campus, a group of African-American Railway Express Agency (REA) workers started a picket line, demanding that REA, the UPS of its day, end its many racist practices. The conflict was on. The question became, “Would the majority white male workforce respect or cross their picket line?”
Faced with this impromptu, unofficial picket line, the white workers quickly honored this wildcat strike (unauthorized by the union through legal procedures). The majority white workers endorsed the anti-racist demands, added demands to change work practices and add benefits and in effect, they stood against their own alleged “white skin privilege” and for a fight to improve life for all. Their solidarity blew our minds. Most of us had never seen such class-based, anti-racist solidarity by white workers. The media constantly portrayed them as fervently patriotic and physically attacking anti-war marchers. We believed in the ideas of working class organizing, yes, but most of us had never experienced or seen such class solidarity in action. Seeing is believing in a more profound way, at least for me. Naturally, this strengthened our convictions and brought greater interest in our ideas among students looking for ways to change society.
Our WSA politics led us to their picket lines right away, where we met some of the workers and invited them to campus to tell their story. Some did. From that meeting, we brought interested students to the picket lines, both to support their struggle and exchange ideas. We also had a few parties where people got to know each other.
One incident stands out: we showed the movie Salt of the Earth for strikers and students. Banned and blacklisted when it was made in the 1950s, it brought to life a miners’ strike organized by the mainly Mexican-American workforce via their left-wing union. Facing overt company racism, anti communist attacks, and a court injunction against picketing, the workers had to confront their own sexism as the women took over the picket lines. It was a hugely effective event for us all. REA strikers and their wives were openly crying by the end, and it was a shared moment that will never be forgotten by those there.
The Union Intervenes
After some days on strike, the union officially endorsed the strike and the workers demands in order to bring it to a close. The union officials called a mass REA union meeting where they proposed an end to the walkout in exchange for some concessions by REA. Since we were not union members, normally we wouldn’t have been able to participate. However, many of the active workers fought to have us invited and succeeded. I was chosen to be our spokesperson to that meeting.
Workers’ Response to our Communist Message
Since most of the workers hadn’t actively been on the lines and had only heard about us, I began by explaining that we were anti-war. Most of the workers had been drafted, served in the Army, and saw themselves as ‘loyal Americans.’ As I spoke, they were dead silent, many with hostile expressions and arms crossed , with no nodding heads. Telling them that we saw this as an imperialist war, promoting Corporate America’s global domination at working people’s expense brought no improvement. I began to explore how these same corporations exploited the U.S. workforce, using examples we’d learned from our days supporting them and hanging out. Discussing this as part of a wider capitalist system basedon exploiting the working class, I explained that we saw the answer in a working class revolution and a country run by and for working people that we called communism. Heads began nodding and smiles came to more faces as they recognized themselves and their own struggle in this context. At the end, I told them that we were with them, whether they decided to end the strike or continue. The ice had cracked, and they rose to give us a standing ovation. ?
Ideas have consequences, and both sides bear responsibility for the demise of SDS. After walking out of the 1969 “split” SDS convention, the other side took over the national SDS resources such as the membership database and office. According to then Weatherman leader Mark Rudd, “we destroyed SDS. […] Funny how, unintentionally, you can wind up doing the work of your enemies for them. The FBI should have put us on the payroll.” For two differing views on this by Weathermen leaders, see Mark Rudd’s interview (http://www.satyamag.com/mar04/rudd.html) and Bill Ayers’ book Fugitive Days (Beacon Press, 2001).
Within a year after that final SDS convention, the PL-led SDS was mostly dead despite growing movements for women’s and gay liberation, radical workers’ fights, anti-corporate environmentalism and rebellious anti-war activism by active-duty military personnel.
The situation held great potential, but we and others were not up to the challenge as personal fears and the political weight of Stalin-era communism choked that future for PL and the WSA. For one take on our failures, see “Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party” by D.S. Sumner, R.S. Butler (Jim Dann and Hari Dillon) in The Reconstruction Press, 1977.