The SDS: Anti-American Imperialism… in America

Several of the books we have read this term portray Anti-American Imperialism through characters who are situated outside of the United States, whether by birth or by choice. For example, the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, is a Pakistani who opposes American Imperialism in New York City and abroad, and the characters in The Book of Common Praye, and The Sheltering Sky have the privilege of traveling outside the US to witness the violent and imperial side America’s relationship with other countries around the world. We have given less attention to Anti-American Imperialists who come from and operate within the United States. Well, there was Marin, but we totally discredited her.

In this blog post, I want to shed light on an American movement that echoes some of Marin’s ideology. In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society was founded at the University of Michigan, inspired by the African American Civil Rights movement and Marxist movements in Eastern Europe at the time. Its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, uses similar though arguably more substantive language than Marin’s revolutionary declaration. It is truncated below:

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit…

We [have begun] to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration ‘all men are created equal…’ rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers under nourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than ‘of, by, and for the people’…

It is clear that SDS must begin to consciously transform itself from a student movement into a working class youth movement … by emphasizing the commonality of the oppression and struggles of youth, and by making these struggles class conscious... All our actions must flow from our identity as part of an international struggle against U.S. imperialism.

If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

I do not think many would disagree with the examples of social injustice mentioned in this statement, and unfortunately many of the issues regarding racial discrimination, wealth inequality, natural resource exploitation and the United States’ heavy handed and militant role abroad still apply today, despite it being written in 1962. However, many of the SDS’s cronies do not come off as quite so keen or enlightened. In excerpts from Kirkpatrick’s SDS: The Rise And Development Of The Students For A Democratic Society, Kirkpatrick writes:

“The reactionary nature of pacifism, the need for armed struggle as the only road to revolution [are] essential truths which were not predominant within our movement in the past” (354). A Marin quote of I ever saw one.

Bill Ayers, the leader of an SDS purist group called the Weathermen is quoted saying, “We have one task, and that’s to make ourselves into tools of the revolution.” Operating beneath their quest was the wisdom of the insight that the capitalist system operates not only through obvious material and military ways but “infests daily lives and thoughts with a million ideas and patterns which reinforce its power: not just racism and sexism and elitism, but all the other elements of socialization ingrained since childhood-attitudes to property, privacy, material goods, family, competition, collectivization, romantic love, homosexuality, power, status, and all the rest.” (Kirkpatrick, 354)

The Weathermen lived in communes where they attempted to mold their lives in response to this insight. “The fight to destroy the shit in us,” as one woman wrote, “is part of building a new society.” They delved into Mao and Marx, learned karate, and survived on brown rice diets. They tried abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and even pets with varying success. Accustomed property feelings had to be rooted out, so that no one felt attached to “personal” belongings, and in many cases the Weathermen voluntarily limited themselves to a single set of clothes. Individualism and selfishness had to give way to a collective spirit. Nothing, including an individual’s desire to leave the apartment for a walk, was to be decided without group discussion, which seems somewhat absurd. The desire for privacy also had to be uprooted, “smacking as it did of individualism and self-centeredness”, and in several collectives no one was permitted to be separated from another member of the commune (406). Attitudes to wealth and materialism had to be challenged, with the ultimate goal of every Weatherman donating their personal savings to the collective, a step many apparently found difficult to take. Anything “hinting of racism, national chauvinism, or liberalism had to be confronted collectively, dissected, and discarded. Male chauvinism, both in word and action, had to be purged, again through collective sessions often resembling group therapy more than anything else… And accustomed sexual relations were to be scrapped in favor of a freewheeling partner-swapping that would allow people to concentrate on their particular jobs in the revolution rather than on the comforts or needs of any one other individual” (406).

In language and in ideology, it sounds very similar to Marin’s gang of revolutionists holed up in a dirty Buffalo apartment that prides itself in not having liquor, diet pills or white bread. The excerpts from the Port Huron Statement and the habits of the SDS Weathermen help to contextualize one aspect of the 60s counterculture that Joan Didion treats in The Book of Common Prayer.

Also, if anyone’s interested, The Dude references the Port Huron Statement in the Big Lebowski! And here is the link to the Port Huron Statement in full.

– Xanthe Gallate

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