Setting The Record Straight: Progressive Labor & SDS

The ghost of SDS is alive and well in the anti-war (and more broadly, anti-globalization) movement.

There have been more than a few times where, as an open member of PLP, I have been scorned by other activist-types for some ostensible "sins of the father" in an effort to discredit myself and PLP rather than debate the substantive issues at hand. The audacity of using this shopworn, tired technique never ceases to amaze me. At its base, it is simply anti-communism, and to the extent that it is covered up by the supposed "SDS experience" or "SDS split," the facts are woefully lost, glossed over, or ignored.

On both the anarchist and liberal left in particular--it is strange, indeed, how much they hold in common--there is a deep-rooted paranoia of "communist takeover" of broad coalitions and student organizations. This paranoia flows from the years of SDS, and the massive amount of misinformation regarding this time propagated by the hacks of the SDS Old Guard, and other radical-turned-liberal SDSers sellouts who pathetically turn their increasingly irrelevant SDS street credit into dollars and cents, by peddling reminiscences to Left magazines in the form of articles and interviews. This way, by the time they finally die they will be able to state categorically that they never actually worked a day of their lives.

Founders of "new SDS" Lie About SDS History

In addition, there is now a "new SDS". Made up of high school and college students, the "new SDS" was founded, and is still being misled, by aged veterans of the right-wing of the original SDS -- in fact, by those who split SDS in 1969 and then saw their own anticommunist SDS disintegrate, mainly through their own actions.

These old right-wing founders of the "new SDS" are lying big-time to the high school and college-age members. They claim that SDS ended in 1969.

In reality, their rump SDS disintegrated in late 1969 by their own actions. By the Spring of 1970, which witnessed a huge upsurge in antiwar activism all across the country because of the murder by National Guardsmen of four students on the campus of Kent State University, the right-wing SDS was nowhere in sight, while the "Weathermen" had gone completely underground.

Speaking to a convention of the "new SDS" in February 2007 Mark Rudd, one of the principal leaders of the 1969 split in SDS and subsequently a "Weatherman", admitted that it was he and his faction, not anyone else and certainly not PLP, who are completely responsible for the demise of "their" right-wing SDS.

Rudd said:

I come before you this morning as one of the principle authors, almost forty years ago, of a totally failed strategy. In the course of things, my little faction seized control of the SDS national office and several of the regional offices. We then made the tragic decision—in 1969, at the height of the war—to kill off SDS because it wasn’t revolutionary enough for us. I am not proud of this history.

So there is no reason in the world why you should want to listen to me, except for the fact that over the last thirty seven years I’ve reflected continually about the complex of errors that led to the death of SDS and also on my part in this historical crime. As a result I’ve come up with some hard-won conclusions.

I often read references in historical literature and commentary to SDS “self-destructing.” This seems to refer to a constellation of generalized forces including Maoist sectarian infiltration, the development of various brands of Marxist dogmatism among the “regulars,” the drive toward hyper-militancy, violent confrontation, and ultimately “armed struggle,” all within a bitter context of government repression. In some renditions of the death of SDS story there is the consoling air of historical inevitability—no matter what we in the national leadership would have done, SDS was destined (by the God of History, I suppose) to implode.

But I don’t agree. I remember a certain meeting with no more than ten people present—out of a national membership of 12,000 and perhaps ten times that many chapter members—at which we in the Weatherman clique running the NO decided to scuttle SDS. I remember driving a VW van with Teddy Gold from the NY Regional Office in the basement of 131 Prince St. to the Sanitation Dept. pier at the end of W. 14th St., just a few blocks from here, and dumping the addressograph mailing stencils and other records from the Regional Office onto a barge. These were insane decisions which I and my comrades made unilaterally, to the exclusion of other, much better, choices. We could have, for example, fought to keep SDS in existence so as to unite as many people as possible against the war (which is what the Vietnamese had asked us to do) while at the same time educating around imperialism. I often wonder, had we done so, where we would have been a few months later, in May, 1970, when the biggest student protests in American history jumped off? Or today, when imperialist war rages yet again, would we have had to reinvent the anti-imperialist movement almost from scratch?

Alas, with all the best intentions of promoting revolutionary solidarity with the people of the world, the Weatherman faction by killing off SDS did the work of the FBI for them. Assuming we weren’t in the pay of the FBI, we should have been.

Rudd's whole speech is at his own home page here, and on a website of the "new SDS" here. The "Teddy Gold from the NY Regional Office" blew himself and two other "Weathermen" terrorists up a couple of months later.

These "Weathermen" were building a bomb destined for a party of soldiers and their dates at Fort Dix, NJ -- a bomb that would have killed or maimed a great many US soldiers and their dates! Hard to believe? it's true! See the Wikipedia article on Gold. Fortunately, they blew themselves up instead.

Rudd et al. Killed Off "Their" SDS; The Real SDS Kept On Struggling

Rudd remains an "advisor" to the "new SDS". Having been a "super-revolutionary" -- i.e. a terrorist Weatherman -- Rudd, like the rest of the old SDS right-wing, are now liberals. Though they themselves claimed to be the "real" communists in 1969, they have reverted to overt anticommunism.

But Rudd admits that his group deliberately "killed off SDS". This is true, of course, and it is at least forthright of Rudd to admit it.

Any references to SDS activities -- say, in the New York Times -- after 1970 are to the "SDS-WSA", the SDS that did not split, and in which Progressive Labor Party remained active.

For examples of continued SDS activity -- this is the SDS that included PLP, the other SDS having been "killed off" by Rudd and the rest -- see, for example,

There are many others. These "official" sources prove that the founders of the "new SDS" are lying when they claim SDS ended in 1969. Their SDS ended -- because their sell-out, super-individualist, anticommunist politics doomed it!

SDS -- the real SDS, not the one that was killed off by Rudd et al. in 1969 -- continued to publish its paper New Left Notes until well into 1973. It finally merged into the new "Committee Against Racism" (later the International Committee Against Racism, or INCAR) in early 1974 after the founding CAR Conference at New York University's Loeb Student Center in October, 1973. Even so, individual chapters continued until 1976 or even later.

The "Weathermen" and Splitters -- Anti-working class Terrorists

In late 1970 SDS -- this means the real SDS, SDS-WSA with PLP in it -- put out a pamphlet called "Who Are The Bombers?" It documents how the "Weathermen" tactics of terrorist violence reflected that of the ruling class. For copies, see bibliography, below.

In this light, it is time to set the record straight about SDS and its relationship with Progressive Labor.

Setting the Record Straight

The account of the SDS years most often cited is Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1973 book, SDS. It’s now available online, in a PDF version, for free. Critical of all factions within and around SDS, it is hugely anticommunist. This is why it has been made available for free by the founders of the "New SDS."

There is also a much better book – Alan Adelson, SDS (New York: Scribner’s, 1972). A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Adelson got to know many local SDS leaders. Most important, he wrote the book after the right-wing, anti-PLP SDS had fallen apart in the Fall of 1969, and the only functioning SDS organization left was the one that included PLP.

Adelson’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how SDS functioned after all the right-wingers, National Office, Weathermen, and other anticommunists had done their best to kill it off.

We won’t refer to Adelson’s book in the rest of this article, since it does not cover SDS history up to the 1969 split in any detail, and that history is the subject of this article. But you can download the "Introduction" to Adelson's book here.

And here are a few words from this Introduction:

Begin by forgetting. Very little you've heard and read about Students for a Democratic Society is true any more. Some of it never was. SDS is not the band of crazed young rowdies you probably think it is: high on some dreadful potion of ingratitude and power-lust, rampaging around the campuses and in city streets, flailing away at a society that's been too charitable with such clowns. Neither is it the underground network of arrogant bombers and arsonists whose acts of terror have been in the news so much. Nor is SDS dead, finally expired after ten years of leading violent campus rebellions, as some too quickly relieved members of the establishment have been thankfully pronouncing it lately. ...

“Trashing buildings is a lot of garbage,” SDS declared last Year. The flashy but feeble exercise of student power that used to characterize the radicals is now ridiculed openly by the organization. It may have created the illusion of attacking the system, today’s SDSers say, but in reality it rarely even posed a threat.

 SDS has not grown passive or decided to co-operate in quiet efforts at reform, of course. The old tactics are still sometimes called into play, but the goals are a lot more serious now. SDS has become an amazingly dedicated cadre of college students and postgraduate (or ungraduated) hangers-on committed to battling the systematic evils of our society.

Sale’s data, taken on its own, stands at odds with his interpretation of it. This may appear strange, but is logical to his discussion. Sale is anticommunist – but his evidence does not sustain an anticommunist interpretation. So his book is useful – IF you disregard Sale’s own tendentious, Cold War remarks.

While it would hardly be correct to state that Sale gives a free pass to any organization within SDS, let alone SDS itself and much of its leadership, no one could argue that he comes down the hardest on Progressive Labor. Sale perpetuates the main myths about PLP in SDS:

1. That PLP entered into SDS solely on the basis that it was a fertile recruiting ground for new members (this feeds the communist "infiltration" myth today with regards to mass movements).

2. That PLP insidiously took over SDS (this feeds the communist "hijacking" and "parasitism" myths today with regards to mass movements).

3. That PLP caused the split in SDS (this feeds the myth prevalent today that communists invariably destroy all they come in contact with).

4. That PLP was expelled from SDS.

Yet Sale’s own data proves the opposite of these myths:

1. That PLP entered into SDS to legitimately raise its viewpoints like any other organization, faction, or independent student. In this case, the viewpoint expressed was anti-imperialism. As Sale’s accounts for himself, PLP put forth serious, principled proposals to this effect, some of which were adopted with overwhelming support in workgroups and then quashed by SDS’s NC.

2. That PLP won over large numbers of SDSers and the support of others because of its relentless anti-imperialist, openly communist line. Sale’s own data shows that people in SDS were drawn to PLP by virtue of the merit of its political line, not because of some behind-the-scenes Machiavellian maneuvering.

3. That RYM & RYM II members (Dorhn, Klonsky, and Rudd among others) caused, created, and initiated the split in SDS.

4. That the RYM & RYM II factions, insofar as they "expelled" anyone, merely succeeded in expelling themselves by walking out on the majority of the SDS membership present at the split convention, after exhibiting the very Machiavellian strategy PLP has historically been accused of in SDS. Sale’s own data on this point--in spite of his own interpretation--is backed up by an undercover FBI agent’s own account of the split and so-called "expulsion."

Infiltration? Takeover?

Sale writes

PL was forced to look to the student ranks, chiefly to SDS, where recruitment possibilities seemed much more promising. ... The fact that so many present PLers were students or recent students meant that they would be able to understand and infiltrate student groups far more easily than they would blue-collar ones (323).

The recipe for this conclusion Sale concocts is one part reality, two parts liberal anti-communism. First, Sale quotes then-chairperson of PL, Milt Rosen. Sale writes that "The Progressive Labor Party’s offensive within SDS in the summer and fall of 1968 was not a matter of accident or good fortune: it was a calculated political move based on a decision of the party’s national committee to emphasize recruitment of new members into the party."

An organization that wants to recruit new members? Whoever heard of such a thing? SDS, for example, probably wanted to stay as small and insular as possible. According to sales when Rosen said, "How do we move the struggle from one level to another? ... The revolutionary movement doesn’t come out of the air. You have to raise political ideas among a lot of people. That is the most important thing you can do. It gives the revolutionary Left, our party, much more strength and footing," (322) what he really meant was "We are going to launch an offensive within SDS as part of a calculated move to emphasize recruitment of new members into the party." Unfortunately, the only way to arrive at this conclusion is to mix actual data with the author’s own anti-communist sentiment, as nothing in Sale’s data in itself supports the conclusion at which he arrives.

In fact, the only data in Sale’s possession that points to some underhanded effort by PLP to join SDS simply to recruit new members is hearsay from political rivals of PLP not so skilled at masking their jealousy.

For example, prominent SDSer Greg Calvert, is quoted by Sale as saying, "I am finally convinced that a truly revolutionary movement must be built out of the deepest revolutionary demands and out of the strongest revolutionary hopes..." (208). Yet Calvert did not seem so interested in "a truly revolutionary movement," when Brooklyn SDS member Sue Simensky wrote to him that Jeff Gordon (a prominent PLPer in SDS)

‘represents the views of most SDSers’ at Brooklyn College and that the PLP position was winning adherents at New York regional meetings; traditional SDSers like Max, Ireland, Bob Gottlieb, Sue Eanet, and Sarah Murphy, she said, are loud talkers but people find them ‘pretty much irrelevant.’

Calvert lashed out in response, Sale writes, that "PL politics are not SDS politics and why is it no one can talk from an SDS perspective? ... I know that cadre discipline is impressive, but I do not think that Maoism is the answer to our problems" (206).

Clearly, many SDSers were won over to PL’s line. The fact that, for people like Calvert and Sale, this must be a sign that PLP only wanted to be involved with SDS to gain new members, is patronizing of the good intelligence of rank-and-file SDS members, who evidently needed to be "protected" from the big bad communists. We see that Sale’s data clearly demonstrates a free and willing support of PLP’s ideas, and students did join PLP. How this inherently demonstrates that PLP joined only for new recruits, Sale leaves up to the reader: just remember, they’re communists.

At numerous points throughout Sale’s book, we are given sneak previews of the "takeover to come." As Sale writes, initially there was no real fear of a PL takeover.

At this point, the idea of a PL take over or ‘Communist infiltration’ was still regarded largely as a joke. ... The PLers were thought to have some good ideas, but their ‘Old Lefty phrasemongering,’ as it was called, and their general squareness of dress and attitude chilled most of the other SDSers; Mao and his little red book excited only laughter on the convention floor. The overwhelming attitude was still that the Old Left was old-fashioned and that SDS was too amorphous to get taken over by anything anyway (193).

Sale, quoting SDS leader Carl Oglesby: "Further, it is hard to see how a group could be ‘taken over’ unless it has handles of power that can be seized, some ‘central apparatus’ that can enforce orders. SDS has no such apparatus--only a beleaguered hot-spot in Chicago--and it is a main hard point with us that it shall never shall" (157).

Even Old Guard SDSer Don McKelvey knew that PLP was not aiming to "take over" SDS. Sale quotes--as a footnote, of course--McKelvey, who after a 1967 convention, wrote in a newsletter,

PL people are quite active in SDS, the only ‘ideological Left’ people who were (or who were evident); they seem to be accepted; they certainly were, in general, at the convention ... . I get the sense they were a ‘semi-caucus’ at the convention, and I expect they certainly made disciplined decisions beforehand about what they were going to do. But I got no sense whatever ... that there was any attempt to ‘take over’--they were simply pushing their politics, which were the only genuinely hard-line politics (i.e, definite and clear politics) there" (author’s emphasis).

Just so we don’t take McKelvey’s comments too much to heart, however, Sale, in the same footnote, lets us know he might be sympathetic to Progressive Labor. Sales writes that while independent, "[McKevley’s] politics were not so far from PL’s..." (241).

Farther along in his own book, even Sale contradicts the notion that PL wanted to "take over" SDS, albeit couched in terms of "recruiting." Sale writes,

there is no indication that PL was planning to try to take over the organization, nor would it have made much sense for them: SDS as it was, after all, provided by far the largest source of PL recruits ... and it was far larger and more successful than anything PL could hope to produce under its own egis (394).

Again, we see crazy things like "facts," when viewed through the paranoid lens of anti-communism by Sale, can become a bit blurry or get lost altogether. Sale’s own data, the most contradictory portions of which he simply footnotes, shows that people were drawn to PL’s line because they had "the only genuinely hard-line politics" "i.e., definite and clear politics" in SDS. If SDS leadership wished, for some reason, to prevent people from joining PL, perhaps this was their own failure for not having any "definite and clear politics," as McKelvey so succinctly put it.

Split & Expulsion

The most prevalent myths remaining about PLP and SDS today are that PLP precipitated and caused a split in SDS at the 1969 convention in Chicago, and that the SDS leadership then expelled PLP to preserve SDS, untainted by PLP (with its "definite and clear politics"). Yet the accounts of these events are clear, even by Sale’s own data, although not his interpretation of it. To verify what Sale writes, we can couple it with the account of an undercover Federal operative present at the split.

Part of these myths is another myth: that PLP was maneuvering behind the scenes to bend SDS to its will. The evidence, however, shows the opposite: the SDS leadership in RYM and RYM II were doing the maneuvering to maintain control of SDS against any advance of PL’s line. The first vote of the convention was whether or not to allow a press presence. PLP put forth a proposal to bar the press from the event. Sale writes that "the NO [SDS leadership] regarded the press vote as an indication of a serious threat to its power, and that set the tone for much of the remainder of the convention" (495).

Then, Sale writes,

Jeff Gordon, speaking for the PLers, protested that there weren’t enough workshops on the NO’s proposed agenda, to which Klonsky [an RYM II member in SDS leadership] replied that the NO had decided workshops would only be ‘hunting grounds’ for PLers to operate on new and innocent SDSers. No one thought much of that argument, and the vote was overwhelming for expanding the number of workshops" (495).

In this case, who is guilty of Machiavellian power-play maneuvering? Clearly not PLP.

The power-politicking came to a head when the RYM/RYM II (Essentially, Weatherman/BARU-RCP) SDS leadership, consisting primarily of Bernardine Dorhn (Weatherman), Mike Klonsky (RYM II), and Mark Rudd (Weatherman) touted out members of the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords in an effort to "humiliate PL" (Sale’s words, 396) in light of its rejection of nationalism as a reactionary political philosophy. This is where the FBI informant’s document comes in handy and Sale’s own work falls somewhat short in what may have been a damage control effort on his part to save historical face for the Panthers. As the agent wrote, "This was a prelude to their plan to ‘get’ the ‘racist’ Worker-Student Alliance [PLP]."

First the Peurto Rican Young Lords spoke. Then the Mexican Brown Berets. Finally, came Rufus "Chaka" Walls--a leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party--to the podium. What happened next will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the worst backfires ever. Much of the convention had revolved around the issue of male chauvinism. On this point, Walls had something to contribute.

Here it is well worth quoting the FBI report at length:

"Blacks have the right to self-determination," he shouted. Immediately the hall rang with cheers. "I’m gonna tell you motherfuckers, blacks have a right to choose. I have seen a lot of things around here I don’t like. People says [sic] blacks don’t have a right to choose as blacks. You motherfuckers better get yourselves together."

Walls next turned to the feminists [sic] issue. "About all this male chauvinism," he said. "I’m for penis power myself."

"Revolutionary women have a lot to contribute," Walls said. "I’m glad to see they’re [sic] enough women around here for all the revolution. The way the women contribute is by getting laid."

RYM strategy was fast becoming a disaster. In the back of the hall WSA people chanted, "Fight male chauvinism. Fight male chauvinism."

But Walls was out of control. "Superman," he shouted, "was a punk. He never even tried to fuck Lois Lane."

The chant swelled. Walls could not continue as the din increased. Momentarily Jewell Cook, another Panther, replaced Walls at the microphone and pleaded for quiet. "The Worker-Student Alliance," he said, "comes here and makes a lot of noise, but they’re not leading any fights on campuses." A loud cheer arose from members of the Revolutionary Youth Movement. "But," Cook said, "you got to know I’m with my brother. I’m for penis power myself. The position of women in the movement * * *." [Author's Note: Asterisks present in original document]

The chant against male chauvinism grew louder as the delegates guessed what was coming.

"The position of women," roared Cook, "should be prone." (It is assumed that Cook meant "supine.")

With this utterance the RYM strategy virtually collapsed. ...

Sale’s version of events coincides on nearly every point, but with less detail to exact wording in some places:

Then came Rufus ("Chaka") Walls, the minister of information of the Illinois Black Panther Party, a somewhat older man, with dark wrap-around glasses, flanked by arms-folded "bodyguards," and he lit into the PL "armchair Marxists" with all the macho rhetoric the Panthers had become famous for. He sneered at PL’s claims of being a vanguard party and declared that the Panthers were the true vanguard because they had been out shedding blood and the white left hadn’t even shot rubber bands yet. And then Walls began talking, quite unexpectedly, about women’s liberation: we believe in women in the Movement, he said, we believe in the freedom of love and all that, we believe in "pussy power." Most of the fifteen hundred or so SDSers were stunned--enlightened or not, by the middle of 1969 you didn’t go around saying things like that at Movement meetings. Cries of "Fight male chauvinism" were started all over the hall, picked up delightedly by the PL section on the left of the main floor. Walls paused: we’ve got some Puritan’s in the crowd, he went on, apparently misunderstanding the source of the audience’s discomfort, and then added out of the blue, "Superman was a punk because he never even tried to fuck Lois Lane." That did it. The chant swelled, from PLers who sensed an unexpected reversal of fortunes, but from most others as well: "Fight male chauvinism. FIGHT MALE CHAUVINISM!" Walls, unable to continue shrugged and walked off the podium. The NO leaders, bewildered, quickly conferred. Then Panther leader Jewel Cook took the microphone to try to pick up the pieces with an all-out attack on PL. They aren’t leading any fights on campus, he charged, like the Panthers are--you call up Chairman Mao and ask him who’s the vanguard party in the U.S.

[Author's Note: This is interesting, only insofar as, until split with the Chinese, PLP was the only Communist party in the U.S. officially recognized by the Chinese Communist Party]

The RYM people at last had a chance to cheer, but then Cook continued. But you got to know, he said, that I’m with my brother in this, I’m for pussy power myself--the "fight male chauvinism" chant began again--and the brother was only trying to say to you sisters that you have a strategic position in the movement--the chants were even louder now because everyone knew what was coming, an old line of Stokely Cannichael’s from the SNCC days--the position for you prone! "FIGHT MALE CHAUVINISM, FIGHT MALE CHAUVINISM," the chant was deafening, resounding off the cement-block walls and filling the huge hall. "The house," reported the Guardian, "was in pandemonium."

The RYM strategy lay shattered. The Panthers had humiliated not PLP but their own supporters, and in doing so had neatly managed by a single stroke to turn to dross both of RYM’s chief theoretical weapons [against PL]: its alliance with the vanguard Panthers and its support for women’s liberation.

This sent the RYM/RYM II leadership of the NO into a tailspin. They began to argue, and eventually decided to send the Panthers back to the podium. Unfortunately they didn’t do any better the next time around. By the agent’s account,

This time Cook delivered a written speech. "The Panthers and the Young Lords and the Brown Berets have gotten together," he began, "and adopted a common position. The Progressive Labor-Worker-Student Alliance faction is acting like pigs. They are holding back black and brown people's struggle for self-determination. Immediately after the convention chicken shit P.L. is going to change its position because P.L. is chicken shit."

[Author's Note: PLP did not change its position on nationalism--to which Cook refers--after the convention, or at any point in the future]

The WSA delegates sat silently as Cook continued. "P.L. acts like cops. They act like counterrevolutionaries. P.L. is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky." A few shouts of protest arose. "Chairman Mao supports liberation for all oppressed people."

With this WSA began to chant. "Read Mao, read Mao, read Mao."

"P.L. is counterrevolutionary," Cook yelled.

The WSA faction changed its chant to, "Bastard, bastard, bastard!"

Several Black Panthers walked toward the Progressive Labor Party's literature table on the left side of the hall. As the Panthers stood glaring at those behind the table, Jeff Gordon and John Pennington [PLers] dispatched a group of WSA members who soon surrounded the angry Panthers. The chants continued and soon grew deafening.

Michael Klonsky walked to the microphone and tried to speak. The WSA roared, "Rebuttal, rebuttal." Klonsky glared at the chanters. Ignoring him, Jeff Gordon rose and, surrounded by a dozen WSA delegates, strode to the microphone. His cadre wore red and white buttons on their left shoulders, the insignia of the new WSA security force.

Speaking slowly, Gordon declared: "The Progressive Labor Party will not be intimidated out of SDS." Roaring applause followed. "We support national liberation all over the world. We support the Black Panther Party. When we criticize the Panthers it's in a comradely and constructive fashion. We support self-determination for all the black people in the U.S." As Gordon stepped down the hall resounded to the chant, "fight racism. Fight racism." The leadership of both RYM factions gathered at the rear of the podium. They had lost control of both the agenda and the delegates.

After this point there is a lapse in Sale’s account and the agent’s. Both rejoin when the RYMers stormed off stage into a meeting, leaving the rest of the conference, including PL, to carry on. Sale writes,

The NO leaders—Klonsky, Dohrn, Rudd, and Robbins prominent among them—hastily gathered in a knot at the back of the stage, in heated discussion. Finally Rudd stepped to the microphone and proposed an hour's recess, both to let things cool off and to give the leaders a chance to figure out what to do next. But before the vote could be taken Dohrn wrenched herself away from Klonsky, who was trying to restrain her at the back of the stage, and marched to the rostrum, hair flying, jaw set. We're going to have to decide, she shouted into the microphone, whether we can continue to stay in the same organization with people who deny the right of self-determination to the oppressed—and anyone who wants to talk about that, follow me into the next room. She spun on her heel and marched off the stage down a corridor to the side.

It may have been a planned performance, but if so there weren't many people in on the plan. Klonsky looked stunned and momentarily undecided, Rudd paused and stared into the crowd before following after, and RYM supporters throughout the hall only slowly and somewhat uncertainly got to their feet, maybe fifty at first, then slowly another fifty more. PL went into more chants: "Sit down. Sit down, Stay and fight, Stay and fight." A few dozen more people rose, and a procession out of the hall slowly took shape: "No split! No split! No split!" from the PL section. Finally, with perhaps two hundred in all, the RYM supporters crowded into the corridor at the front, now with their fists raised, and shouting back, "Join us! Join us!" and "Two, three, many Vietnams." That last was an unconsciously ironic chant now, for there was no longer any doubt what was happening in Chicago: two, three, many SDSs.

By the Federal agent’s account,

At 9:45 p.m. Rudd walked to the microphone. "If we go on this way," he said, "we will have fights, not political discussion. I suggest we recess for an hour. Frankly I am suggesting this not only to let the situation cool, we want this caucus to decide what to do."

On the platform behind him, RYM leaders argued Rudd's proposal. Bernardine Dohrn was talking heatedly with Klonsky, who had a pacifying hand on one of hers. Suddenly Dohrn spun away and marched to the microphone.

"Some of us are going to have to decide," she shouted, "whether our principles allow us to stay in the same organization with people who deny the right of self-determination to the oppressed. Anyone who would like a discussion on that, follow me into the next room." She strutted off the podium to a corridor on the left which opened to a large empty room. Rudd moved quickly behind Dohrn. Slowly the rest of the RYM hierarchy followed. Around the room people began to rise and walk out.

The WSA organization started chants. They screamed for the delegates to sit down. Some picked up chairs and banged them against the floor. Others chanted, "Stay and fight." Despite the pleading, at least a third of the people walked out after Bernardine Dohrn. It is suggested that the SDS has never been a unified organization since.

Accounts of what followed are virtually uniform, with one exception: Sale writes,

A little before eleven o'clock that Saturday night, with the statement drafted and approved, Klonsky went out to talk to Jared Israel and tell him that the caucus wanted to come back in and address the rump. Israel agreed, and both men pledged that there would be no violence. Israel made the announcement and the PLers suspended their meeting—they had been holding workshops and passing resolutions all the while the RYM people were out of the room—and waited, curious and apparently fearful of trouble ahead.

Whereas the undercover agent more insightfully concludes,

At approximately 11:00 p.m. Jared Israel of the Worker-Student Alliance concluded a private meeting with Michael Klonsky. He returned to the main floor and asked for attention. "Look" he shouted, "I have information that the RYM people are finally coming back here. When they do, please don't hiss or chant. All we need is for a fight. Then the Chicago pigs will bust us all."

It was subsequently learned that Israel was urging docility because Klonsky and Dohrn had urged it upon him. Docility was critical to the careful plan which had been devised by the RYM delegates.

After this point, both accounts of the split ("expulsion") are fairly uniform. The agent’s report continues,

A file of RYM women left the closed room. A dozen marched through the passageway into the main hall and formed a line about the podium. The women stood shoulder to shoulder saying nothing. The podium itself was unoccupied.

Next a contingent of men wearing green arm bands entered the hall. They encircled the women in two columns.

A double file of delegates followed. Ten Black Panthers were in the lead. The file marched to a point in front of the hall, split into two columns and strung themselves out until the WSA was completely encircled.

It was apparent that the WSA had been duped by the RYM factions. Their disarrayed people were sprawled about in workshops and were completely surrounded. Presently the RYM elite marched unchallenged to the podium.

Bernardine Dohrn stepped forward.

"In the last 24 hours" she cried, "we in the next room have been discussing principles. We support the national liberation struggles of the Vietnamese, the American Blacks and all other colonials. We support all who take up gun [sic] against U.S. imperialism. We support the governments of China, Albania, North Viet Nam and North Korea. We support Women's Liberation."

Backed by the security guard wearing the green arm bands Dohrn continued. "All members of the Progressive Labor Party-Worker-Student Alliance and all who do not support these principles are objective racists and counterrevolutionaries. They are no longer members of SDS."

Too late, the Worker-Student Alliance began to chant. Pointing fingers at the podium in rhythm, the WSA delegates cried, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" But Bernardine Dohrn's group, having declared itself the winner, was walking out. With sheer force and with trickery, the minority had ironically read the majority out of the SDS.

Sale’s account is as follows:

Soon a column of women filed out of the caucus room and surrounded the base of the stage, hands stuck belligerently in jeans, faces unsmiling. Next a file of men, the NO’s "security force," strode out and stood in a line in front of the women, arms folded across their chests, Panther-style. And the rest of the caucus marched in, slowly filing along the walls under the wary eyes of PL's own "security force" along the perimeters. There was an eerie hush. Finally Klonsky, Rudd, and Dohrn came through the corridor and mounted the stage. Dohrn was given the microphone. For the last twenty-four hours, she told the gathering, peering out over the podium into the smoky and ill-lit hall, the SDS caucus has been discussing principles; with that, she was off on another speech, twenty minutes of incisive invective, laying out every real or imagined sin of PL since its inception, quoting, citing, pinning, slashing, a performance so masterful that at least one person was convinced it must have been prepared days in advance. At last she paused. SDS can no longer live with people who are objectively racist, anticommunist, and reactionary. Progressive Labor Party members, people in the Worker-Student Alliance, and all others who do not accept our principles ... are no longer members of SDS.

?For a moment there was silence, and then the PLers started to giggle: a strange noise in this hall after all that had come before, a forced and awkward laughter of nervousness, the break of four days of tension. PLers quickly found their voices: "SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!" Dohrn glared down at the PLers and with a last shout into the microphone of "Long live the victory of people's war"—the slogan, from China's Lin Piao, was the closing line of the "Weatherman" statement—she stormed off the stage and led the walkout from the Coliseum. Hundreds, perhaps seven hundred in all, followed her, their fists raised, chanting a meŽlange of slogans—"Power to the people! Power to the people!" "Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!"— out into the Chicago night.

While estimates of the numbers who walked out with Dohrn and the other RYMers vary, most of Sale’s own sources place it around 500, or a third of the crowd.

In other words, by both accounts, the Weathermen and RYM II, who controlled the SDS leadership -- not PLP -- engaged in underhanded maneuvering through their use of the Panthers, Young Lords, Brown Berets, etc., and then plotted to "expel" PLP from SDS. When it became clear that the majority of SDS would not go along with this, the SDS leadership phrased their walkout as them "expelling" PLP and anyone who supported them. This meant that, as the agent pointed out, a minority in SDS expelled the majority of its membership, proclaiming itself to be the "real SDS." Then that minority raided the SDS offices for mailing lists--according to the agent, "Later that night, the RYM delegates secured the files and mailing lists and the names of contributors in the national office at 1608 West Madison Street." From both accounts, PLP wanted to maintain the unity of SDS, acted democratically within the organization, and were then treated to a failed bum’s rush by the Dohrn/Rudd/Klonsky crowd.


The evidence here is crystal clear. The Progressive Labor Party did not "infiltrate" SDS, its members acted openly as communists and members of PLP -- hardly "infiltration."

Nor did PLP members "take over" SDS, or even try to, by any valid account.

Nor did PLP precipitate a split in SDS, nor was the organization expelled from SDS. Rather, a confused minority simply declared PLP expelled without any form of vote or consensus from the majority of SDS, and then walked out on that majority. Finally, it raided that majority’s National Office. The only way anything to the contrary of these points could be construed is through sheer anti-communist distortion.

In an article, "Rise and Fall of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the U.S." a veteran SDS’er and later PL’er writes that the ‘69 convention was in fact not the first time a move had been made to try and force PL out of SDS. Not only that, but Progressive Labor had been expecting it. This article points out the intellectual dishonesty in the attacks against PLP, and demonstrates the contributions to SDS made by the group:

The 1968 convention was much larger than the one just a year before; SDS had become essentially a different organization in just one year. PLP leaders had warned that there would be an attempt to force PLP out of SDS. Others in SDS thought that PLP was exaggerating.

The party's analysis was based on an understanding that liberals will resort to fascism when they are threatened. Sure enough, a prearranged outburst by a small, police-infested collection of anarchists prompted the National Office leadership to encourage anti-PLP speeches, ending in an attempt to instigate mass chanting of "PLP Out" to drive PLP out of the room and out of the organization. It failed. Many learned an important lesson. The anti-Communists had no unifying political principles except fear that they might no longer be in charge.

When the anarchists got up and denounced PLP for being "Stalinists" who oppose freedom, the SDS National Office gang cheered and applauded. Then when the National Office gang attacked PLP for supposedly betraying Stalin because they found some quotes from Stalin that appeared to be at odds with PLP's line, you could see the anarchists applauding. Interestingly, on the stage encouraging the chanting was Carl Oglesby, who just a couple of years before wrote an impassioned defense of the right of communists to be in SDS.

Part of the attack was because PLP had begun to criticize the North Vietnamese leadership, who were calling for negotiations with the U.S. The only just solution for the Vietnamese people was a total withdrawal of U.S. imperialism, and the abolition of capitalism -- power to the workers. Any negotiations that would leave the Vietnamese people with less than that would be a sell-out.

But even as PLP criticized the Vietnamese leadership, we continued to fight harder against U.S. imperialism than anyone else in the U.S. We organized strikes, boycotts, protests; we brought anti-imperialist ideas to hundreds of thousands of people; we led the way in spreading anti-imperialist sentiment to workers; we fought the police and drew some of the heaviest jail terms in the campus movement. The National Office gang could not convince many serious people that PLP was hurting the struggle.

PLP held its own because PLP members proved through action that we were working to build SDS harder than anyone. Quantitatively, PLP brought hundreds to SDS; qualitatively, the strategy of worker-student alliance gained considerable respect as a result of the France worker-student general strike. But nearly all the national offices stayed under the control of the anti-communist faction, who would soon play down their discredited line about middle class revolution and instead pretend to be Leninists, attacking PLP because we did not mechanically follow every word Lenin, Stalin, and Marx had written.

Indeed, if we read the veteran SDSer’s account at length, we see that,

Liberal anti-Communists outside the movement gave lots of money to the anti-PLP factions within SDS. And the government sent secret police agents, from city, county, and state police, FBI, CIA, and who knows what other agencies, into the movement for generally three purposes: informing, acting like fools or provocateurs, and trying to create splits within the movement. One Trotskyite group in Tennessee had more police agents in the group than regular members, which is no surprise because serious activists had no respect for them anyhow.

Anti-war demonstrations were happening all over. PLP members worked systematically to recruit people to SDS, to fight for the worker-student alliance strategy, and to start new SDS chapters. A serious effort by the SDS National Office leadership could have brought hundreds of new chapters and tens of thousands of new members into SDS.

But the NO gang not only had rotten politics. They were incompetent. They were obsessed with PLP, suppressing articles from PLP members in SDS publications, frustrated that PLP was gaining support for the worker-student alliance strategy and recruiting students to the party. On at least one occasion, an SDS national leadership meeting degenerated into people standing on tables, throwing dishes, and screaming out drunken speeches about which ones of them hated PLP more than the others.

The SDS National Office leadership hated PLP more than they hated the ruling class, and they focused their efforts on protecting their positions, rather than on fighting against imperialism. SDS literature was late in getting out, requests for new memberships were delayed or lost, and the opportunity to start hundreds of SDS chapters was also squandered away. The NO leadership did some organizing. It usually consisted of one of the leaders showing up on a campus, making a speech to hundreds of interested students, insulting them for not quitting school, or for being white, or for not being revolutionary enough, and then leaving the local organization disheartened and in a shambles. The other strategy they developed was to make unprincipled alliances with other leftist groups who were hostile towards PLP.

The veteran SDSer demonstrates that far from using SDS as a recruiting ground--although certainly some SDSers did join PLP--the group in fact brought membership into SDS, both in terms of people already in PLP who participated, as well as working "systematically to recruit people to SDS" (author’s emphasis). His article correctly criticizes the SDS NO for failing to bring in a larger membership, which given Sale’s repeated statements about the disarray, disorder, and disorganization of the National Office, is believable. At one point Sale writes,

The decision not to set a national strategy, coupled with the downgrading of the NO and the belief that SDS could get along without a National Secretary, wrought much trouble in Chicago. A cluster of people put in time in the National Office, but most were woefully inexperienced. (143).

Sale repeatedly mentions mailings sitting in piles for months at a time without going out, high NO staff turnover, insufficient (and at times zero) contact with chapters throughout the U.S., and what was an essentially heavy-handed, dictatorial leadership from the NO by out-of-school, insular Old Guard SDSers, such as Paul Booth.

ale quotes Jeff Shero, VP of SDS, about his experience working under Booth:

I was destroyed by my first six months as SDS Vice President because I had come in with a vision and experiences about how people could relate to each other, like in the civil-rights movement. I was just kind of chewed up by the internal fighting, totally unprepared for that kind of thing, because I thought that if you had a disagreement with someone you just sat down and talked it out. I wasn’t very able to deal with [Booth’s] kind of stuff. By the time of the winter convention I was a psychological wreck.

Sale quotes another SDSer talking about the general structure of the NO: "Participatory democracy," the SDSer said, "is nonexistent within the national office structure. [Working for SDS] is like getting saved by a traveling preacher, who you later find out is a drunkard and beats his wife" (147). These problems only worsened as the years went, through the "leadership" of Mike Klonsky and the split he helped create.

For PL, SDS was merely the beginning of many struggles to come. Most of the other organizations that came out of it can today be summed up by mere epilogues. The Weathermen are now defunct, although Bernardine Dorhn and Bill Ayers (who are now married) continue to revel in the past when it means a little more money; Mark Rudd and Todd Gitlin too. Bob Avakian, from RYM II/BARU eventually went on to found his own personality cult, the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. That PLP still thrives while these others have merely passed on to a life of selling out (or as they likely consider it, "buying in") is a testament to the relative correctness of our line and the collective leadership of the Party.

Further Reading

In addition to the works mentioned in the text of the essay above, see the following:

"SDS: A Profile". Review of Alan Adelson, SDS (see text of article above) in PL Magazine vol. 8, no. 4 March 1972, pp. 39-41.

Alan Adelson, SDS (New York: Scribner's, 1972) -- Introduction.

Who Are The Bombers? SDS-WSA pamphlet exposing the terrorist "Weathermen" as agents of the ruling class, just as former "Weatherman" Mark Rudd admits in his essay (above).

Jesse Lemisch, "Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They're Baack!" New Politics, Summer 2006; and Lemisch, "Sectarian Rage in the New SDS", History News Network Fall 2006.

Lemisch is anticommunist and no fan of PLP, but is rightly angry and horrified by the "cult" of the Weathermen being instilled into the "new SDS" by its aged former "Weathermen" and National Office founders.