Summing up the 2008 SDS National Convention

Students for a Democratic Society is a radical student organization here in the U.S. Here is a very interesting summation of the 2008 SDS National Convention that took place recently in College Park, Maryland. This was SDS’s third national convention. The other two were in Chicago (2006) and Detroit (2007). Here is a very interesting summation of the 2008 SDS National Convention that took place recently in College Park, Maryland. This summation was sent to me by Doug Michel, a member of SDS at UNC-Asheville and a member of SDS’s interim National Working Committee. I attended all three conventions, and I would like to unite with what Doug is putting foward here. There are some interesting summations by Freddy and Daniel as well, which I would suggest my readers check out. See also this post highlighting some of SDS’s work between the 2007 and 2008 national conventions.

SDS Convention 2008: A Big Step Forward for the Student Movement and the U.S. Left

By Doug Michel

There is a tangible excitement in the air.  Students for a Democratic Society has pulled off a successful national convention in College Park, Maryland, and established a functioning national structure, a national campaign, and a deepened understanding of what it means to be an anti-oppression organization.  It’s been a few weeks since the 2008 SDS convention, and I have been thinking and discussing with others what this means for the U.S. Left.

Coming from the 2007 convention in Detroit, there was a noticeable difference in the amount of political maturity our movement has gained.  Learning from our experiences, reassessing how they have or have not worked, and coming up with a new ideas based on experience is paramount for building a movement that will grow and thrive.  The 2008 convention was about struggling together and connecting with folks to build a foundation for a national movement.  This has deepened our commitment to a united movement against U.S. imperialism.

Combating oppression

Excellent auxiliary and caucus meetings were held at this past national convention.  One in particular that stands out in my memory was the white auxiliary group.  Folks were challenged on a host of scenarios that were drawn from past SDS organizing that dealt with anti-oppression.  Arriving at the correct political line, how to be the best allies, and deepening our understanding of white supremacy and chauvinism and how it manifests in our everyday lives were critical lessons that demands awareness.

On a political and ideological level, we need to continue to dig into what things like national oppression, queer liberation, gender, and class contradictions mean for SDS as a radical student organization that is largely white, hetero, and non-working class.

The real problem that confronts SDS is centering ourselves around and practicing anti-oppression work.  How to be good allies and how to promote solidarity is not merely a political question but a practical one.  We should be integrating and practicing anti-oppression politics in national and local campaigns wherever we can.  The convention was largely about realizing and combating oppression on an ideological level.  We need to take those lessons and show that anti-oppression is fundamental in our movement.

Poising ourselves to take power

The chapter is the bread and butter of SDS.  Without local organizing we would not be where we are today.  Figuring out how to connect the dots is the real endeavor behind building structure and utilizing power to create change.  A lot of folks have written and discussed the specifics of the newly founded National Working Committee (NWC), so I will not dwell on what they are here, but instead will try to present what that means politically.  Here are a few points:

  • Regions will need to be more organized and accountable to both the membership base and our national organization.  This is a great thing.
  • Allowing political space for caucuses and oppressed groups to use authority and represent anti-oppression work in the NWC will promote growth as a multi-national and diverse student movement.
  • Realize that the NWC is the beginning, not the end, of building a viable structure.  Changing and adapting it is part and parcel of a healthy organization.
  • Fetishizing structure for the sake of having a “perfect” structure will lead no where.
  • Sustaining a functional, decision-making structure, while being accessible and transparent is the key to moving forward. 
  • The National Working Committee is an important mechanism that we need to utilize for making administrative and political decisions to achieve revolutionary change. 

National campaigns

SDS is a multi-issue student organization because of our understanding of the interconnections of various problems that make up the wretched system of U.S. imperialism.  However, focusing on a central issue and task brings coherency and unity to an otherwise disjointed Left.  At the 2008 convention, we passed the Student Power for Accessible Education campaign, while all the others did not pass.  While the Accessible Education campaign is a good thing to rally behind, it is not the most relevant to the U.S. and international Left right now.  We need to start thinking outside of the campus and cultivate an internationalist perspective.  There is a real urgency to flesh out a correct assessment of what our movement needs to be practicing, and what is currently the most strategic and relevant.

It is of utmost importance that we find a way to engage the 2008 Elections beyond protesting the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions.  Protesting McCain is a great way to rally a base of anti-Republican students to win over a vast amount of youth into anti-imperialist politics.  SDS needs to initiate and be at the forefront of this movement.

It is not a certainty that Obama will win the 2008 elections.  Those in “red” or “swing states” can particularly attest to that.  While realizing that Obama is an imperialist candidate who has many fundamental problems in his platform, defeating the most reactionary candidate this November will open more political space for the U.S. Left to grow.  We need to come to a correct conclusion that as progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries, we are not above electoral politics.  “Protesting all politicians” will not strategically build our movement, but will isolate us.  If we wait for students to become disillusioned by the “new” regime after the elections, we have already missed out on seizing the opportunity to connect with them building up to the elections.  The most strategic way for us to engage the elections is to build a mass movement against McCain—the most reactionary candidate and the worst enemy of people all over the world.

Daring to struggle

I remember someone during the convention saying, “Great! We have a structure—now we can actually talk about politics.”  In many ways this sentiment is true.  SDS is finally opening up a national space for exchange of ideas and politics—beyond one-on-one or listserv discussions.  Realizing that we are a multi-tendency and pluralistic organization, utilizing a theory journal, and building consensus on basic, radical political questions will strengthen SDS as a national organization, and the Left as a whole.

We need to ask ourselves what does radical and revolutionary politics look like in practice.  What does direct democracy and representational democracy mean in relation to participatory democracy?  What about accountability and transparency makes SDS a healthy organization?  Let’s stop treating important concepts as buzzwords and really flesh out what they mean for our movement.

Sectarianism is at an all-time low and building authentic trusting relationships is and has been an important way to combat what divides us.  Building a culture of constructive criticism and self-criticism, listening to one another, and valuing each other are essential for a unified movement.  While we have grown and matured, there is still a problem with ultra-democracy, the purity of democratic process, and individualism.[1]  Folks are continually realizing the pit holes of “deciding on deciding,” or not having enough “individuals” to decide on something.  Yes, SDS does have a right to decide, and we should do it boldly if we really want to be the leading force of the student movement.

Stepping forward

SDS is the cornerstone of the U.S. student movement.  Now it is up to us to practice that.  We have an opportunity to make this into a truly national organization with national power.

On a more personal note, I have continually been inspired by folks that I meet in SDS.  Thank you to the folks who I have met and continue to foster personal and political relationships with.

The Future is Bright!

I am an SDS organizer at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and a member of the interim National Working Committee.


[1] Ultra-democracy means utilizing too much “democratic” process or “purified” democratic ideology whereby it becomes fundamentally undemocratic.  A few examples are the minority refusing to accept a majority decision, a small group of folks weighing down the larger group with “debate,” a small group preventing decisions in the name of “democracy,” and drawn-out, “last person standing” processes that disempowers folks who don’t have the resources to sit around and argue all day.  Ultra-democracy has an almost entirely internal focus on perfecting our process, rather than primarily focusing on coming up with plans together to fight to change the extremely undemocratic system of U.S. imperialism.


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