Debating the Working Class 50 Years Ago in SDS: Lessons for Today?


“Fifty years ago in August 1966 delegates from across the United States attended the annual Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Convention in Clear Lake, Iowa. Located in north central Iowa and held at a local Methodist camp, it provided a bucolic setting to debate its future. SDS was at a crossroads in 1966. It had evolved into the largest radical student organization in the United States and was going through a major membership and political transformation, according to SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale. For attendees, Clear Lake convention—350 delegates from 140 chapters meeting from August 29 to September 2—was symbolic. Leadership was now transferred from the original members to the newer ones; from those born in the left-wing traditions of the Coasts, to the middle-American activists. It was the ascendance of ‘prairie power.’ The biggest topic at the convention was what direction SDS should take. The small delegation from the Independent Socialist Clubs (forerunner of the 1970s International Socialists) made a quite radical proposal to the convention. ‘The socialist view of the working class as a potentially revolutionary class is based upon the most obvious fact about the working class, that it is socially situated at the heart of modern capitalism’s basic, and in fact defining institution, industry,’ wrote Kim Moody, Fred Eppsteiner and Mike Pflug in Towards the Working Class: An SDS Convention Position Paper (TTWC). It was one of the first attempts to orient the New Left around the rank and file struggles of U.S. workers. Stan Wier’s pamphlet USA: The Labor Revolt was the road map that socialists used to understand the burgeoning rank and file rebellion that began in the mid-1950s away from the media spotlight but by the mid-1960s was visible for all to see. It was front-page news. The settings are very different, but are the debates from a half-century ago relevant today? The year 1966 may best remembered as the year in which during the ‘Meredith March Against Fear‘ in Mississippi, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure) declared, ‘What we need is black power.’ That slogan captured the imagination of a generation of young Black revolutionaries frustrated by the broken promises of U.S. liberalism who demanded a radical transformation of society. …”
Stansbury Forum
Jacobin: Between Students and Workers


A student antiwar protest at the University of Michigan in March 1970.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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