Students for a Democratic Society protest in a Marquette classroom, 1970. Photo credit: Marquette University.
On Monday, April 13, the Democratic nomination contest de facto over, I learned that Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), would refuse to endorse Biden, in accord with a contentious decision DSA made during the summer of 2019 not to endorse any other Democrat for president if Bernie Sanders was not awarded the candidacy.
I re-joined DSA in 2017, after Trump’s election and the burst of enthusiasm for Bernie’s candidacy. I had joined sometime near its founding and then lapsed out. Now a retired professor of sociology, I was among the founders and early officers of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and remained deeply involved in it throughout the nineteen-sixties. With friends and fellow activists, I worked to try to realize its vision of democracy and equality in the United States and around the world.
When I learned of DSA’s decision, I was immediately reminded, again, of the potentially disastrous consequences of dividing the Left at such a critical moment. As I wrote in an essay for the American Prospect in 2016, the Left had to learn from the catastrophic mistakes made by the German Left in 1932 – 33. Nach Hitler, Uns! — “After Hitler, Us!” — was the slogan of the KPD. Together, the German Social Democrats and Communist Party had a larger total vote than the Nazis, but the two parties hated the other — with fatal implications for German politics.
At dinner, I expressed my anguish, and my wife suggested that I reach out to “those people on the list” to do something. She was referring to a listserv of some hundred SDS veterans. Every decade or so, SDS founders and national leaders had come together in rigorously unpublicized reunions. Helen Garvy, now a filmmaker and author, had maintained a list of those who attended, and we all had access to it — but it was just a list of people to whom one sent very occasional notes. Then in February 2017, an immense memorial service was held at UCLA to commemorate the life and work of Tom Hayden, who had died five months earlier. Many of us SDS veterans attended the memorial service. Leni Wildflower, now an educator and consultant, compiled a list of attendees, and after the service, there was talk of staying in touch. Thus was born the listserv.
As with many such lists, the vast majority of subscribers are passive readers and the majority of traffic is generated by a small number of communicators. But as we sociologists say, it is a network with high levels of trust.
Many of the letter-signers are currently DSA members, as am I; many more were Sanders supporters, as was I. And most of the signers of that letter were abstainers or third party-voters in 1968; some, too, refused to vote for the Democratic Party candidate again in 2000. Despite some variety, those two experiences have chastened these veteran organizers about the risks involved in sectarian postures.
But another evolution is involved as well — orientation to electoral action. Historians like to characterize the “New Left” of the sixties as anti-electoral. This wasn’t true of the SDS when it drafted its Port Huron Statement, though it became true of many activists later in the decade. Still, many years later, I asked a panel of experienced community organizers to reflect on their strategic views and how they had changed since the sixties. Unanimously, they reported that they regretted their neglect of electoral strategies in their community work in the seventies and eighties.
In any case, on Monday, April 13, I wrote a note to our listserv with the subject line “Can our voice defend democracy and help beat Trump?”
Briefly restating the fears I had publicly expressed four years earlier, I then wrote:
Over these many decades, it has appeared to me that we are no longer a single political group. Our ties are often — per Lincoln — the mystic chords of memory. But there may be a late (last?) political contribution we might make as a group.
An open letter from the veterans of the New Left urging a) DSA to change its stance; b) Supporters of the Sanders Campaign to join the Anti-Trump Front (I write the phrase with a wry smile) — would this make a difference? Could we amongst ourselves negotiate this amicably? I do not know the answers to these questions but among us, we can answer them.
I was surprised and not quite emotionally prepared for the next week.
In the first place, my old friends and comrades responded with a rush of enthusiasm and shared concern that surprised me. I quickly drafted the letter, sent out a copy to a few wise editors and sent a draft to the list the following day. Todd Gitlin was closely in touch with me and he (and others) urged we seek to publish it at the Nation. He agreed to broker this, as he was the one with the closest contacts there — and in the world of journalism in general.
The draft was tweaked by a variety of comments, but since it was not a platform, not everybody’s issue of primary concern was included. It is a measure of the high trust in the network that this did not keep people from signing on. There was some delicate discussion about signing and signers. One person after some discussion signed the letter — and then, 24 hours later, removed their name.
The Nation posted the letter online on Thursday, April 15, and we all pushed it out on Facebook and to personal contacts. The response was immediate. First scores of others wanted to be added, so the original 65 became about 85; then more came in, and the Nation sensibly declined to become our permanent database manager.
Next came the criticisms. This is perhaps not the place to detail the discourses that sprang up around the letter. Carl Davidson has recently remarked there are two types of people who are interested in electoral politics: those who see it as a matter of strategy, and those who see it as a form of self-expression. Over the years, our folks moved, Steve Max adds, from self-expression to strategy, while DSA did the opposite.
As the contact addressee, I received some heartbreakingly angry responses. One person calls himself a “loser” who gave up hope after Bernie was beaten. Another prefers fascism to Wall Street capitalism (Biden). Yet others call for a more nuanced approach than ours: for example, vote for Biden where it matters but whomever you wish if you are in a non-competitive state.
It’s far from clear whether our open letter will have any impact at all. I have just learned though that the DSA National Political Committee has declined to urge members to consider voting for Biden in swing states.
Still, the idea of networks has a renewed vigor in my thinking as a result of this experience. And so does learning from history. And so does solidarity. I have been deeply gratified at how many people share our perspective. I hope we may yet persuade more on the left to join us.
Read “An Open Letter to the New New Left from the Old New Left” by the former leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society.
Robert J. S. Ross is a research professor of sociology at Clark University’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise.