A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed
reviewed by Henry Berger - August 07, 2008
Challenging prevailing interpretations of the Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) that attribute the collapse of the 1960s activist organization to multiple and fractious splinterings, University of Tennessee (at Martin) historian David Barber argues that SDS, and the New Left of which it was a part, failed because their white male, middle class leaders and members were unable and unwilling to rid themselves of the dominant white cultures understandings of race, gender, class, and nation that always placed white people on top in American society (p. 3, 228).
In successive chapters, Barber asserts that SDS was incapable of imagining, let alone acting, outside the box of white male supremacy. New Leftists, he elaborates, did not question their own racial identities (p. 16) and as a consequence rejected demands by black power advocates such as Stokeley Carmichael of SNCC and the Black Panther Party that SDS organize white communities against racism (p. 51), purge itself of white racial assumptions and practices, and refrain from trying to control and dominate black people and their organizations.
Nor would SDS shed its male supremacist chauvinism and arrogance, Barber declares, thus denying the New Left important and experienced female leadership that could have strengthened the New Left, educated its base, broadened its approach and its appeal (p. 230). At the same time, Barber contends, SDS claims to ownership of radical ideology prevented it from comprehending and acting upon theoretical and pragmatic insights of black radicals and revolutionary nationalist movements in third world countries connecting Americas imperial empire abroad to the nations racial colonialism at home. That intellectual leadership, Barber notes, had ... placed the black struggle inside the larger struggle over colonialism and empire (p. 73).
A viable, expanded, and more influential leftist movement was the ultimate casualty because of the refusal of SDS and the New Left to change their fatally flawed racial, gender, and class assumptions and practices. Those within SDS who defied those existing elitist categories were defeated. In the end, Barber writes, Americas white [male] supremacy bested the struggle these young white people waged against it (p. 229).
A self-proclaimed veteran of 1960s activism, Barbers book is a mea culpa that leans heavily on hindsight interpretations of motives and beliefs of those he accuses and condemns. There is, however, no explanation in his study as to why some SDS participants and, more generally, some New Leftists challenged the systemic status quo of the 1960s while others, the majority according to Barber, did not. Barber also takes as a given that the New Left and SDS were always synonymous.
Studies on the Left (which receives no mention in Barbers book), a major publication of the New Left (A Journal of Research, Social Theory and Review) launched in the autumn of 1959, did address early on matters of empire, revolutionary nationalism, and race. The radical journal in its Winter 1962 issue featured a lengthy essay about these interrelated topics by African American intellectual Harold Cruse (also absent from Barbers account), Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American, considerably before Stokeley Carmichael turned Black Power into a slogan in 1966 (the meaning of which the charismatic Carmichael self-servingly redefined on numerous occasions thereafter) and well before the Black Panther Party came into existence, also in 1966.
William Appleman Williams and a number of his graduate students, as well as New Leftist writers like C. Wright Mills, were early contributors to Studies on the Left. Williams, whom Barber approvingly cites as the primary source of former SDS President Carl Oglesbys book, Containment and Change (1967), fought racism in the U.S. Navy in which he served during and after the Second World War and spent his professional career writing and teaching about Americas imperial behavior abroad. The nations historical expansionism, which began with the countrys inception, Williams explained, was fueled by perceived and ideologized social, racial and economic imperatives within a marketplace system, insights Barber charges were rarely articulated and never acted upon by SDS.
In one of the best and most effective chapters of Barbers book, The New Left and Feminism, 1965-1969, the author writes more perceptively that [i]n defending its male supremacy the New Left [i.e., SDS] strengthened the feminist tendency that sought to forego all struggle save that which it defined as `womens` struggles (p. 96). The same, however, can also be said of all of the causes taken up by activist groups, whether liberal, conservative, or radical, in the 1960s and was a major factor in the ultimate decline of the many organizations attempting to make changes in American society, Barbers claims nothwithstanding.
Barbers analysis remains doubtful too on other grounds. Vanguardism (elitism, according to Barber) was hardly unique to white male radicals as any serious review, for example, of black and female activism of the period demonstrates. Moreover, while dismissive of SDS, which he maintains was doomed to failure anyway, Barber vastly overestimates the political possibilities during the era of alternative radical ideas and actions he thinks SDS should have embraced. Indeed, Barber concludes that to have done so would have exacted a heavy price, a price he says the majority and minority of SDS were unwilling to pay, and that SDS would likely still [have] los[t] in the effort (p. 233).
That said, many of the core issues raised in the 1960s by the New Left, including by SDS, have become central to current social, political and economic national discourse and developments, most tellingly in the present presidential contest. Perhaps, then, the New Left did not altogether fail.