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(en) US, Reflections on the First SDS* Northeast Conference

Date Tue, 25 Apr 2006 20:39:15 +0300

<snip> Aside from Robert Ross’s poor choice of a venue to grind his
axe, the elders in attendance who offered their wisdom were each
wonderful and unique. Bernadine Dohrn, showing her inherent
female supremacy by taking the high road and declining to use a
captive audience to settle scores from 37 years ago, was eloquent,
down to earth and insightful. But I think the speaker who stuck out
in my, and probably everyone else’s minds, was Carl Oglesby.
He began his remarks by saying, “What have I done to deserve
this?” He expressed regrets and doubts about the past, and not a
dry eye was to be found when he talked about the Townhouse
explosion that claimed three of his friends. “Beautiful
friends,” was a term he used a lot. But perhaps the most
important part of his remarks was a story he told about being sent to
Cuba by Dohrn, in the hopes of rekindling his revolutionary fervor.
When he got there, he was shown cane field after cane field. But at
one point they came upon an irrigation system. The small river
running through the field had been dammed, but there was a huge
crack in it. The next dam down the river wasn’t holding water at
all. But the one after that was working quite well. The tour guide
explained, everyone who knew how to make dams left for Florida, so
they had to figure it out for themselves. Carl finished his story and
remarks by saying that that’s what revolution is about. It cuts
through all ideology and dogma: You have to learn what you
don’t know how to do. My two-dimensional words hardly do his
any justice.

During the workshop sessions, I went to both discussions on
SDS’s structure. We started with a brief introduction to the
original organization’s structure, and its strengths and
weaknesses. We then made a list of things we wanted out of a
national organization. We listed things like coordination, skill
sharing, resources (propaganda, training, funding), basic
administrative, and perhaps most importantly in our minds, was
security. Our concern was that if SDS continues to explode in the
way it has, which we consensed that it probably will, we might be
unable to handle that, much in the way the latter day organization
could not. This might manifest in administrative duties becoming
overwhelmed, as well as infiltration by the State and by people
whose ideologies are hostile to our own values. One brother said it
well, that as soon as we become successful, we would have to
assume that that will happen. The best thing to do about it is damage

This process of drawing our needs overflowed a little bit into the
next workshop session, and not long into it, we began the task of
discussing how those things ought to be provided. A core consensus
was on what we didn’t want: orders from above, and orders from
adults. This brought up the question of how we define membership.
If we want to be an organization of young activists to assert ourselves
in society as well as the Left, how do we reconcile that not all youth
are students, and not all students are youth? After we fiddled around
with the concept a bit, I suggested that instead of having some sort
of cut-off point, we ought to use guidelines when appointing people
to offices and committees, keeping in mind that we want this to be a
youth organization controlled by youth for the benefit of youth.

The question of how to assign tasks, such as the ones described
above, was left for the most part unresolved. Some felt that some
level of executive power was necessary in order to keep the
organization efficient and coherent. Others, however, believed that
assigning people these tasks did not constitute electing people to
positions of decision-making. This view was reinforced by the idea
that most information that we wanted to be distributed to the rank
and file could easily be posted on the internet for easy viewing.
Myself and a coupe others, however, recognized that while people
assigned tasks were not in a position to make policy decisions or
steer the organization in one direction or another, there were small,
everyday decisions that person would have to make, many of which
would be unintentional. For example, how is a male in that position
going to respond to a request from a female, as compared to another
male? How is the official going to utilize his control of information to
influence and manipulate the organization? And most obviously,
what do we do about an official who just plain doesn’t do her or
his job? So, there needs to be some recognition that with every
position of responsibility, there also comes power, and that power
must be checked, and the person kept accountable to the
membership. This can be done in a number of ways, either through
a system of checks and balances via other organization bodies,
and/or through direct recalls by the membership (which I believe is

This of course made me realize that the whole task of building a
national structure that remained democratic without becoming
inefficient or weak would be an evolving one that would require us to
study intensely the experiments and projects of the past and today in
the practice of participatory democracy and power from below. I
recommend that a very, very bare bones structure be put in place this
summer at the founding convention. Something that can fulfill the
most immediate needs of the chapters, but also leaves a great deal of
room for revision and addition. I cannot imagine having a mature
structural identity before two or three year’s time. Very few of us
are on the same page in terms of an understanding of power and
process, and we need to develop some sort of collective memory of
our own tradition, even if we do not come to the same conclusions
based on it.

The conference’s call for SDS chapters to support the May Day
general strike is a clear indicator that we are on the right track, and
we have a solid idea of where our loyalties are: to the downtrodden.
Civil rights are still a core part of SDS’s values, and direct action
even more so. I think SDS has unprecedented potential. We can,
quite literally, change the world. We are young, we are informed,
and godamnit, we are right. And something that has everybody
rightfully worried, from Leslie Cagan to Brian Becker to Bill
O’Reilly to Dick Cheney: we are many, and growing every day.
Look out motherfuckers: SDS is back.any individual differences
between them.
* SDS is a US antiauthoritarian anticapitalist network
in building
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