For a Revolutionary Socialist Youth Movement!

From Revolutionary Marxist Caucus Newsletter, No. 5, December 1970

The need for a revolutionary socialist youth organization, open to all political tendencies seeking revolutionary change, was clearly demonstrated by the spontaneous upsurge of students and workers over the Cambodia-Kent State crisis. Whether SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] can develop into such an organization depends both on its internal structure and its ability to put forth a long-term revolutionary perspective. American society cannot be revolutionized through campus based activity, but only through a mass, working-class socialist party. As part of its socialist propaganda, SDS should fight for the formation of such a party. While SDS cannot substitute itself for the Leninist party, substantial sectors of radicalized youth can center their activities around those vital issues—imperialism, chauvinism, nationalism, workers’ power—which will contribute to the development of such a vanguard organization.

The last few years have seen increasing fragmentation and exclusionism on the left. Blacks and other minorities have limited themselves to their ethnically exclusive organizations. Many radical women have focused groups exclusively concerned with the issue of women’s oppression. The left is beginning to look like a group of capitalist firms competing for scarce natural resources, as if there were a limited pool of resources available to fight oppression and each political group had to justify its claims on that pool. Thus, SDS has witnessed meaningless debates about whether the oppression of women is as important as the oppression of blacks in American society. It’s obvious that the trade union movement would never have been built if coal miners and steel workers had spent their time arguing which of the two groups was more exploited. When the left becomes divided along social group lines, it is inevitable that a sense of hostile competition will develop. Many women’s liberation activists see working-class-oriented groups as blind to the social oppression of women. Many black militants regard the women’s liberation movement as a middle-class diversion or implicit mockery of what they see as their more vital struggle. SDS cannot think of itself purely in negative terms—anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc. Our goal is not to fight particular aspects of social oppression, but to end them all by overthrowing capitalism and constructing a socialist society. An end to the oppression of blacks and other minorities, the abolition of the "second sex" position of women in society, as well as an end to the exploitation of workers cannot be achieved through pressure group politics, but only through socialist revolution. If the left and SDS is not to become a collection of competing interest groups, it is necessary to affirm that struggles against particular forms and aspects of oppression must be part of an overall strategy to establish a socialist world order.

Why Proletarian Socialism?

Progressive Labor members have often argued that SDS should support workers’ struggles because workers are the most oppressed section of American society. This is not true. Groups such as welfare recipients, sharecroppers, convicts, and reservation Indians are poorer and more degraded than the typical factory worker. Workers’ struggles are decisive not because workers are "worse off" than other groups, but because private property and the exploitation of labor is the central axis on which this society rests. Social power depends on control of’ productive resources. Only the working class is capable of destroying the power of the capitalist class and reconstructing society for the benefit of all of humanity.

If one speaks of being "pro-working-class", one should want the working class to have power and not simply endlessly fight their exploiters. Workers’ power, whatever one may call it, is socialism. To describe oneself as "pro-working-class", without having a socialist perspective, is, at best, to be an advocate of trade union militancy, and, at worst, to accept the permanent exploitation of the working class.

The "Socialist Issue" in SDS

SDS should define itself as an anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialist youth organization with a working class perspective. It has been argued by Progressive Labor that SDS should not call itself socialist since everybody in SDS does not have to be a socialist. In fact, this is dishonest since the overwhelming majority of SDSers are socialists and many of our leaflets and articles talk about imperialism and capitalism, thereby implying a socialist analysis of society. Agitation against the ruling class and for workers’ control must play an important part in our program. This does not mean that every SDS member will agree with it. Taking a stand in favor of a socialist solution to the oppression we fight will not prevent us from recruiting many newly radicalized young people who do not yet understand the need for a socialist perspective but want to participate in SDS. Having a set of secret positions which we do not forthrightly acknowledge is more likely to drive them away.

SDS’s fear of the word "socialist" is made ridiculous by the example of the Young Socialist Alliance, a group which is to the right of SDS on every single issue, and yet calls itself "socialist". Despite its being politically to the right of SDS, the YSA is able to pretend to be more radical than SDS by its willingness to break with capitalist ideology. The YSA has been quite successful in recruiting newly radicalized youth who see that the only solution to the problems of war, racism, and misery caused by capitalism is socialism.

As already noted, for the past few years most SDS members have considered themselves socialists—and revolutionary socialists, at that. Why then has the organization failed to come out for socialism? Most of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Progressive Labor (PL), the current SDS leadership. As self-avowed Leninists, one would think PL would take a lead in fighting for a socialist perspective in SDS. Instead, they have done everything in their power to oppose one. A major reason for this is a desire to keep SDS at a low political level so that "really serious" people who want to be socialists are more attracted to PL, the self-styled revolutionary party.

Members of PL in SDS usually act as if PL were the mass party of the American working class, to which every serious socialist in SDS naturally owed their allegiance. Apart from its incorrect and continually changing politics, PL’s claims to be a working class party are downright laughable. PL has far less than 500 members, the overwhelming majority of whom are students or college educated white collar workers. PL doesn’t lead as much as a single trade union local anywhere in the country and couldn’t get one percent of the vote for any electoral position anywhere. Lenin advised the British communists, who were twenty times larger and fifty times more proletarian than PL, to join the British Labor Party, the party of the British working class, as a revolutionary faction.

There is no real working class party in this country. One has to be built. Members and supporters of Progressive Labor would do a genuine service to the cause of the American revolution if they gave up their self-deluding posturing and joined with revolutionary socialists, in SDS and elsewhere, to build a workers’ party, in reality and not merely in name.

For Non-Exclusionism

Non-exclusionism is one of SDS’s most valuable assets and one which its membership must constantly fight to protect. The former SDS leadership almost destroyed SDS by trying to turn it into their own "party"-type organization. Recognizing the need for some kind of democratic-centralist vanguard party, they decided to purge "outside cadres" (particularly Progressive Labor) from SDS and turn the large and politically heterogeneous organization into a party with their politics. While it is clear we need a vanguard party which has the correct Marxist-Leninist program, we also need SDS as a non-exclusionist group of many tendencies and independent radicals in which each tendency can seek to win adherents to its politics and to convince a majority of the SDS membership to follow its leadership. In this way, SDS can continue to attract newly-radicalized youth who can participate in united action (anti-war, anti-racism, strike support, etc.) while continuing to discuss political views upon which they do not all agree.

Since SDS members hold widely differing views on politics and tactics on almost every subject, every political and tactical position SDS takes (except for the vaguest formulations like "We fight racism") will necessarily not find unanimous agreement among the membership. Does this mean that SDS should not take clear political positions? Of course not. If we tried to do this we would restrict ourselves to low level actions and campaigns. Moreover, any political organization has politics. To claim otherwise just means SDS’s politics would be submerged, making a mockery of open discussion and democratic determination of policy. Anyone who has been in SDS for several years knows that in most SDS chapters, talk about "participatory democracy" was simply camouflage for subterranean maneuvering by leadership cliques.

If we are to put forth intelligent programs and undertake struggles, then we must not be afraid to put forward political positions. Since we will never be unanimously agreed on every issue, this means the politics of the majority of the membership will dominate so long as they are the majority. SDSers who disagree should be able to argue for their positions and try to win over a majority of the members to them, and must be assured full representation, proportionate to their strength at the time, on all SDS leading bodies and a forum for their views in New Left Notes. In fact, however, the successive leaderships of SDS have never pursued this kind of policy. New Left Notes is not now and never has been representative of the differing opinions inside SDS. At the 1968 SDS Convention, the grouping which later became the WSA caucus was not able to elect even one member to SDS’s leading committee although they represented a substantial minority of the Convention delegates. Our organizational set-up is not noticeably different now.

Leninists and Independents

Since its inception, the relationship between SDS and outside alleged revolutionary organizations, particularly those practicing "democratic centralist" discipline, has been controversial. The early SDS excluded reds out of cold-war anti-communism. The Klonsky-Dohrn faction tried to counter Progressive Labor/WSA’s attack on main-stream New Leftism by expelling all members of "outside cadre organizations".

Members of SDS in "external cadre organizations" certainly have the right and responsibility to publicize their group activities within SDS, to recruit independents, to fight for their political line and to play a leading role in the organization. What they do not have is the right to turn SDS into a de facto youth group of their own organization. Since becoming the leadership of’ SDS, members of PL have tried to force through a privileged relation between PL and SDS. Internal SDS meetings have been used to organize Challenge sales. PL has been the only adult revolutionary organization invited to speak at rallies organized by SDS. In the November 21, 1970 issue of New Left Notes, there is an article entitled PLP, CLP, and Liga Socialista Celebrate Workers International Solidarity Day, which begins, "For hundreds of SDS members, who are members or friends of Progressive Labor Party..." (and what of the hundreds of SDSers who are not members or friends of PL—do they get equal time?). These kinds of articles in NLN clearly give the impression to an unknowing person that SDS is PL’s student group.

SDS has also witnessed the opposite political attitude—that members of outside revolutionary groups are second class citizens to be tolerated as long as they work hard and don’t make trouble. Students new to radical politics and serious independents should welcome the presence in SDS of politically experienced groups, offering comprehensive and definite policies for SDS.

It has been argued that Leninists in SDS have an advantage because adhering to democratic centralism, they vote as a bloc. This was one of the Klonsky-Dohrn faction’s arguments for expelling members of PL. The history of SDS shows that this argument is a red herring. Throughout SDS’s history like-minded members, with no ties to outside organizations have formed factional groupings with whatever discipline was needed to push their politics. The old SDS had the Praxis group, the Revolutionary Union, RYM II and the Weathermen. SDS now has such factional groupings as the Revolutionary People’s Caucus and the Midnight Special group. Disciplined caucuses, open to all SDS members and based on a definite program, are far more democratic than the clique politics all too common in the radical student movement.


  1. SDS should define itself as an anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialist youth organization with a working class perspective.
  2. SDS must constantly reaffirm its non-exclusionist principle in practice. This means guaranteeing proportional representation to all political viewpoints within SDS on leading bodies and in the pages of New Left Notes.
  3. SDS should not have a privileged relationship with any adult "revolutionary" organization, e.g., SDS business meetings should not be used to organize sales of publications of such "revolutionary" groups. If SDS organizes a united front rally, all groups should be invited to speak on the basis of agreement with the demands of that rally.

Posted: 18 June 2005