Simply to the Point
We Want a National Student Movement.
He who by profession has become a slave of trivial details is the victim of bureaucracy.
-Antonio Gramsci (Selections from Cultural Writings)
Imagine if all the boys in jail
Could get out now together
Whadda you think they’d want to say to us?
While we was being clever
-Joe Strummer (Bankrobber)
The 2008 National Convention of Students for a Democratic Society quickly approaches us as I am writing in the month of that coming convention. I am also one of a good many people who have put out a proposal for some sort of coherent national structure for SDS that goes beyond the work that is being done by the good volunteers who have kept our name relevant and let it have national importance for young people developing consciousness across this country. I, like many SDSers’ interested in building a national organization, have been engaged in this subject for about little over a year. That engagement was not just simple contemplation, but a painful but necessary struggle over our direction with fellow SDSers’. We all came to it with some clues, some thoughts, and some pretensions of what is needed to build a national student organization on the basis of egalitarianism and liberation vs. hyper-global capitalism and US Imperialism. The 2006 & 2007 National Convention served as a point of the necessary dialog and struggle in our movement about the direction that actively creates possible openings for serious systematic change. Undoubtedly the 2008 National Convention at College Park will be similar.
People coming to the National Convention will largely be people who believe SDS is a vehicle for opening up those radical possibilities, but we currently have more than 4 serious proposals at the current time that deal with the question of national structure and many more proposals which deal with some level of the nuance of national work. Direction is still very much in the air and the question is, can we come out of this gathering with anything less than a coherent idea on our way forward in doing national work? It is in the opinion of myself that anything less, which occurred in the previous two conventions (despite the progresses we have made), will signify a point of crisis for our organization in building that movement. In the short period we have before ourselves the task of seriously exchanging thought and opinions about what we need before we come to the National Convention. I hope this will be one of those sparks. Hopefully publishing this may help people understand my own thoughts and thoughts of others that have helped me in creating my proposal.
My proposal entitled, National Working Committee, is simply the end result of discussions, contemplation, and investigation of what could work for SDS. It will of course strike anyone at first read that I use the word “committee,” that I have decided not to frighten easy at the word “represents,” etc. I think a year ago now, if I put this proposal up for serious consideration by SDS it would certainly have been laughed off as ‘X’ or ‘Y’ [insert sectarian wedge issue] because it might codify us as “Students for a ‘Representative’ Democratic Society” as someone, I remember fondly put it, at the last national convention. So why don’t I shy from these words now? Many in SDS, after the shortcomings of our last convention to get a practical structure and the frustration of national work based on sheer volunteer work, see a simple and honest structure as the main priority of moving forward.
How Can We Sum Up Our Historical Experiences?
On the particular question of structure, as I have stated before, there has been great debate in SDS for some long time. The 2006 National Convention proved for many simply not possible to bring the question to manifestation in any serious way but began the process of discussing it. In the 2007 National Convention, structure was the main issue of contention, and there were many different visions on the floor that were being debated.
Three main proposals were seriously debated – Sailish Keys, a Tiered Council Proposal, and a Council Federation – which showed the active divisions of SDS. People were largely pulled to one or another proposal based on politics, region break down, and sometimes downright personality. The Sailish Keys proposal took off with largely anarchists who didn’t want any form of leadership within SDS, but this was the smallest fraction of the three. The Tiered Council proposal was put out by people in NYC and found its base there, but found support amongst Marxists, Anarchists, people into ParEcon, etc. It was the second largest grouping. Last was the proposal that was passed, the Council Federation, which won most of the support in the room, it was an amalgamation of many different proposals with a number of theoretical checks and balances. It was this proposal that passed at the Convention floor after the authors of the Tiered Council proposal pulled their proposal and their supporters allowed the Council Federation to pass.
So what happen? Why isn’t this passed proposal on our national structure from the 2007 National Convention not our structure today? We’ll a stipulation that members of SDS at the 2007 National Convention agreed upon was ratification by chapters after the convention, and it didn’t pass. But it wasn’t simply that it was unpopular for the rest of SDS, it was also the fact that people at the 2007 National Convention, and even those who were authors of the proposal, came to have serious doubts about whether or not this would work in practice and even if it was desirable to have. So people on the national scene even began to doubt it and let it get killed in the ratification process. The proposal that was passed wasn’t certainly my favorite for the reasons they began to doubt it.
The Council Federation idea was simply unworkable, it called for ‘spokes people’ from every chapter to be on a national ‘spokes council’ that discussed national work and topics, but couldn’t resolve to do anything without a necessary ratification of the chapters that the spokes people represented. This process would have meant 50, 60, 70 people finding someway to communicate with each other to speak about these topics. Could you imagine a 70 person conference call? Further a process of the necessary check of ratification from chapters would take months to happen. Simply what this proposal suffered from was down right bureaucratic mechanics, this wasn’t certainly the intention of its authors but would have objectively meant it. It tried to find all the right mechanics to stop centralization that it created a nightmarishly complicated legalistic structure.
The Problem of Mechanical Attitudes toward Organization
Simply what in fact all three proposals, some more than others, suffered from was trying to find the right mechanics to stop this group or that group, or for not becoming “authoritarian.” The solution to what are political questions became questions of form. We began asking the question in the negative sense, “what form would stop this?” People feared that the organization could degenerate into different splits like 1969 and asked what kind of form will prevent a new PLP or Weathermen from taking over, rather than asking what consciousness do we need to develop to have an organization that can deal with such problems in a healthy manner. People in the end were reduced to cogs, when in fact we are active contingent agents a part of this organization, dealing with questions as they come up.
Solutions that often try to find the right mechanics, the right legalistic form, always suffer from not putting questions to people as they come but rather tries to squash the question all together. The problem is of course this is quite misanthropic way of saying “can we trust ourselves,” that “we may fuck it up.” However the problem is that ready made solutions are not found in the question of form for mass movement organizations like ourselves. In the end, no matter what the form is, we are freely associating with each other. We need to deal with those questions in a political manner, opening up space for such discussion, trusting SDSers’ to think for themselves, leading this organization how they want to lead it.
It is actually the fundamental basis for my proposal and a position of myself that this perspective is not a healthy attitude in building any organization with a character of a mass type, a character that is fluid and developing. My proposal may therefore be the shortest of the national structure proposals for this very reason, I simply don’t think we need all these checks for possibilities that are not on the horizon yet, we need to actively build a movement in the always changing present, and that is going to require different ways of thinking of what we want and are thought through that consistent change. The solution then becomes struggle and finding unity on what that is and not a simple canned formula. I would like to think in the end my proposal is summed up as finding the simplest way to carry forward national work with as much maximum accountable participation.
Leadership, its Coming Out of the Closet
If you invoke the word leadership in the year of 07′, an SDSer’ might give you a look like you just twisted your head around and began convulsing or you just strangled a kitten (shock and disgust are what I am going for). Hell, what I am saying? There are still people that will probably give that look; however more and more we are talking about developing needed leadership & specifically leadership around women and people of color in our organization. I am first and foremost someone who thinks we need national leadership, and whether you like it or not, its already there. It exists through the volunteering and dedication of a few people who get our jobs done, it exists in every chapter as well, when people see things through with work. Further how could SDS articulate its politics as a radical, anti-capitalist, organization for liberation if people weren’t providing some leadership in articulating that?
The question is simply more complex than do we or do we not need leadership. It is also simply more than just legitimizing current dynamics of leadership. We need a process of developing organic leadership, thats accountable to the people and can be openly challenged. We then need a more dynamic sense of what leadership means based on raising people’s consciousness, lifting people’s heads up. As what became a rallying cry at the northeast regional convention in Philadelphia, we need people to “step up, step up” not just “step back, step up.” In other words, organic leadership doesn’t develop in the void of leadership, it develops when you actively facilitate it, when you begin raising ideas with people, teaching and learning with people, leading in your own right. With the void of leadership you only get hyper-volunteerism by people who have the time, the ability, and the resolve to carry things through. These people are needed of course, but sole reliance on this volunteerism means the uneven development of leadership within organizations around more able people based on existing social relations. We begin to reproduce the conditions and relations of society within our organization when you rely on volunteerism as the basic level of national work.
My proposal stands with this view in that it creates a formal body of a national character that allows for the ability for people to volunteer through national working groups, but at the same time develops organic leadership by the selection of people from regions and people from established caucuses Without this formal process, national leadership will likely remain highly in the hands of volunteer work.
We need a coherent national body to carry forward national work in order to build a national student movement. Can I be over stressing ‘National?’ Some people might have wigged out already because of my overuse of the word, so I’ll use a word of more comfortable in SDS. Autonomy, and I fucking mean it. Autonomy is needed, its real, and it will always be that way in SDS. While we need developed national work, I am not proposing a national body to hand out its directives to chapters, and anyone who does think that is going to happen is fooling themselves. As an organization of free association, this means that chapters are largely going to be free to carry forward their local work in whatever ways they feel, if of course in the last instance they remain committed to the principles that define SDS as a national organization (liberation, egalitarianism, feminism, etc). I have also left clearly open in my proposal for chapters in regional blocs to be left to their own processes.
I wish I can write more on the topic, but simply, chapters and regions are largely left to their own devices because this proposal is asking for a national body that carries forward national coordination and simple administrative tasks when necessary. It in theory meddles none with local or regional affairs, of course unless special circumstances arise (e.g. Two chapters claiming to be CUNY Hunter SDS).
My proposal is openly out there for all to see and discuss with me, hopefully we can get it passed. But of course, SDS is a living organization and this is living document ready for revision, collaboration, etc. It will most likely take some new revisions soon. If you think some points need to be developed, you want to collaborate, or talk about this you should get in contact with me. Maybe you just simply support it or you have a bone to pick with it, just drop a line. We need to openly talk about this, think about other proposals and ways to forward SDS.
As they say and have said in Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere.
CUNY Hunter SDS
You can find the information about the 2008 National Convention of Students for a Democratic Society here.
My proposal on national structure is found here amongst other proposals. It is entitled National Working Committee proposal. It will be posted up in a day or so on this site.