Maurice Isserman: How Old Is the New SDS?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He is author of, among other works, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, 1987), and co-author with Michael Kazin of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2000), which will be available in its third, revised edition in March.]

In the summer of 1960, the noted American poet Kenneth Rexroth issued a warning to college undergraduates. The previous spring had witnessed a wave of student sit-ins against racial discrimination in the South, as well as a protest by students in the Bay area against the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. That the famously "silent generation" on campuses in the 1950s was making way for a new generation of student activists seemed a welcome development to Rexroth, who had a history of involvement in left-wing causes stretching back to the 1930s.

But Rexroth was less encouraged to learn that the trend had also reached the ears of the students' left-wing elders — his contemporaries. Writing in The Nation magazine, Rexroth imagined how the aging leaders of all the moribund sects of the American left would immediately conclude "Myself when young!" and dash off for the nearest campus with a stack of application blanks. "As the kids go back to school this fall," he warned, "this is going to be the greatest danger they will face — all these eager helpers from the other side of the age barrier, all these cooks, each with a time-tested recipe for the broth."

I was reminded of Rexroth's sense of unease when I learned last spring that a new group of eager helpers from the other side of the age barrier — this time, my contemporaries — planned to revive Students for a Democratic Society, the principal campus radical organization of the 1960s. When SDS first took form in 1960-62 under the leadership of Al Haber and Tom Hayden, it was a small organization of a few hundred members. Its Port Huron Statement, largely written by the 22-year-old Hayden and adopted at a convention of SDS delegates in Port Huron, Mich., in 1962, called for the creation of a "new left in America ... with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools." By the time I joined the Reed College chapter as a freshman in 1968, SDS had grown into a very large organization — at least by the standards of the American left — with perhaps as many as 100,000 members.

But by that time, leaders of SDS, if not all of its rank and file, had largely forgotten the organization's original goals and values. At a final fractious convention in Chicago in the summer of 1969, a faction known as Weatherman (from a Bob Dylan lyric quoted in its manifesto's title) gained control of the SDS national office. A few months later, Weatherman leaders shut down the organization. True revolutionaries, they believed, should forsake the campuses for clandestine armed struggle. The national office, along with several dozen followers, disappeared into the "Weather Underground," leaving more than 99,000 of us with no place to belong.

The armed struggle did not turn out well: Three Weathermen blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in March 1970 as they assembled a nail-studded dynamite bomb that they planned to set off at an enlisted men's dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Had they been better bomb makers, Weatherman might well have taken scores of innocent lives and, in the process, destroyed the antiwar movement as it had already destroyed SDS.

Historians have debated the meaning of those events ever since. But in retrospect one thing is clear: The legacy that SDS left for future generations of American radicals is dark and complicated, a cautionary example of good intentions gone awry in the midst of a decade defined by tragic and unintended consequences.

So when I heard that a new SDS was in the offing, I did not immediately conclude "Myself when young!" and reach for the application blanks. I felt that even if the organizers were determined to avoid a repetition of past disasters, it would still prove a mistake to revive an organization whose very name imposed on its members the necessity of constantly explaining to skeptical outsiders that, no, it wasn't the SDS of 1969 they sought to emulate, but that of earlier, saner years....

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