A friend Brian recently wrote a letter to the rest of Students for a Democratic Society about the way (majority-white) youth activists often attack one another and cut each other down. It talks about some of the internal SDS dynamics, but is pretty illuminating of some of the struggles young activists are up against when they organize today. I thought I would share it here.
Dear SDS Family,
Recently at the National Convention, we passed a vision statement committing ourselves and the organization to, among other things, what we called “long haul struggle” or “organizing for the long haul”. By taking on this commitment we are saying, organizationally, that we understand the level of dedication and long-term, patient (yet urgent) work it will take to lead us on the path to victory. If we are serious about this commitment and about winning, this is a discussion that should begin at all levels of the organization: “What will it take to build a community of loving support and what will it take to organize for the long haul?” In other words: “What will it take to build a community that can support us in our work, make us feel loved and supported? What will it take to build a community which prevents burnout and makes our organizations, selves, identities, friendships, comradeships, relationships, partnerships, and political alliances stronger and more effective?”
I have been organizing with SDS since it re-formed in 2006. I am inspired everyday by the level of passion I see in my friends all around the country; their commitment, their militancy, the quality of their politics, and the seriousness of their work. My political work with Pace SDS has been a huge part in my entrance into college life, my move towards more individual freedom, and the development of a group of friends who have been more supportive than anyone else ever in my life.
I have also learned and grown as an organizer a tremendous amount. I started dealing more intimately with personal issues of privilege, power, and oppression. Awakening as a radical never seems to end. It seems like it’s a never ending process of learning– with each step bringing new emotions, growth, and progress. Sometimes it’s scary and sometimes it’s frustrating—though it always seems rewarding. Over the last year and a half, one of the biggest things I’ve learned is the value of listening—of really trying to understand where people are coming from and why they are coming from there. I’ve noticed things that inspire me—like how groups of people can work together in ways I never imagined possible. I’ve also noticed many things that scare me.
One of these things is the negative elements within the culture of SDS. The elements within it that act as a pull that lurks in the darkness, ready to draw us away from activism forever if we have a breakdown, or become cynical, or say “fuck the movement”. What I am talking about are the elements that lead to burnout, nonsupportive movements, and alienation within the left itself.
How can we make a movement that is more fun to be in than the rest of society? What would it take to really have our movement and our organizations, foster our friendships, relationships, and partnerships, instead of destroying them and driving us apart? What must we do to be able to call ourselves “comrades”— with it really meaning something… instead of it being just another empty word?
I have been thinking about all of this a lot lately. Truthfully, I think making our movement more supportive starts with the small things. Like beginning to understand the level of work it takes to pull off a national convention, or a national action camp, or a major protest, or a political campaign; not just the big glamorous stuff, but also the nitty-gritty work: the phone calls behind the scenes, the endless political conversations, the web work, the thousands upon thousands of e-mails written, the event setup and on-the-ground preparation. All of the things that has, thus far, fallen onto the shoulders of a large group of committed folks; the same committed group of folks who have unfortunately had to endure constant ridicule and the pain of having their lives and political work constantly being put under a microscope. Why do some people talk shit about them behind their backs, denigrating them and their work- as if people who do work are somehow less worthy of respect than everyone else?
Whenever I see this, I am tempted to feel as if a lot of the lovey dovey, ‘let’s hug everyone and tell them we love them’ attitude of so many SDSers is just a farce. Often times, in claiming to want a loving and supportive community we often contradict that desire at the same time. Our actions don’t line up with our words. In short, we treat each other not with the level of respect I would think we would treat others who want an egalitarian society—a society of peace, justice, equality and self-management—but rather we treat each other like shit.
I’ll say it again.
We treat each other like shit.
We project all of the hatred, anger, and frustrations we have towards this god-awful society and the mindless zombies who run it onto each other.
Perhaps all of that is too harsh. But I fear, unfortunately, that for the most part I am right on with most of this.
And then there is this issue of “autonomy”. Again, I will be perhaps more blunt than I should be. Somewhere in the process of radicalization, individuals in our new left came to the strange conclusion that autonomy from the state, from management, and from the capitalists—from all of the bastards that we hate—should then be also transferred to the movement. In all the confusion, “autonomy” somehow began to mean “autonomy” from each other. We all started to bicker about how we were oppressing each other; about how imperfect structures meant we couldn’t do any work at all. An unwritten policy began to surface- that individual and collective mistakes always have to be blamed on someone in order to distance ourselves (individually) from our collective bullshit. (Oh yeah… And of course, initiative should always be looked at as suspect!)
How can we possibly go through the process of being our new selves, before we deal with the process of becoming our new selves? It’s as if learning has no place, and individual fuck-ups mean those individuals need to be ridiculed, isolated, and torn down; all so we can isolate the “imperfect people” from the self-proclaimed turbo-activists.
How this thought process came to this conclusion is far beyond my ability to reason, but I do know that this is perhaps one of the most counterproductive ideas on the left today. It is a huge part of the “treating each other like shit” phenomenon. It seems that this is one of the major sources of the “let’s put all of our great organizers under a microscope” culture of SDS. Most importantly, it is fundamentally opposed to our values of solidarity and collective responsibility.
We need a lot of people to win. A really, really, really, really lot of people. “Building SDS” isn’t an abstract concept. “Building SDS” occurs when we actually take risks and struggle for social change. None of us will ever be perfect. But the question that remains is: “Will our community be a loving, supportive one? Or will it be one that isolates us and alienates us just as much as society at large?”
That is the question.
All I know is that if we are to get anywhere, we have to stop bickering amongst ourselves and begin to really respect each other, support each other, and work with each other to build the new world we all long for.
In the spirit of offering solutions and models for moving us forward, I would like to highlight two SDS chapters that seem to be experimenting in the type of community building (mentorship, institutional memory, supportive friendships/comradeships/kinship/relationships) we all should strive for. Both Lancaster SDS and Rutgers New Brunswick SDS/Tent State have been practicing interesting models of interpersonal support, and community and network building that we can all learn from. Their models deserve careful study.
One final thing…
I am a revolutionary. I know a lot of SDSers hold radical or revolutionary beliefs. I know a lot of us really want to build a new world. I am pretty optimistic in that I think if we do our jobs right we can actually win such a world in the next few decades. So here is a final question I think is useful for us to keep in mind:
“Are the things you are doing today—your actions, your attitude, the way you relate to others, your relationships, your strategy— capable of sustaining your involvement and the involvement of those around you for the next 20 or 30 years?”
That is a question I think we should all seriously ponder. What we obviously need is a loving, supportive community capable of sustaining long-haul revolutionary organizing. Let’s begin an ongoing discussion about that—and let’s start winning.
Loving support, hope, and solidarity,
Pace University and NYC SDS
845-649-2146 | email@example.com
PS: We Will Win!