Medicare-for-All, Mass Mobilizations and Lessons from SDS for DSA
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Lately the question of the effectiveness of mass mobilizations is coming up often in debates about where Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) should put its resources. Specifically this revolves around discussions of Medicare-for-All and whether DSA should support a march in Washington DC or alternatively a national day of action. Debate sometimes gets heated, with some arguing this is the Left’s chance to lead on an important issue, while others are skeptical of marches and mobilizations in general. At the DSA 2017 convention in Chicago, a vote for a march in DC failed, heavily influenced by pamphlets written by DC DSA members which made arguments against the march. Despite this vote debate and some planning continues. How can we bring more context to these debates?
Looking to the past gives us a better sense of what mass mobilizations can do to energize local groups and campaigns. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) dealt with the question of mass mobilizations often. Before begrudgingly joining Vietnam mobilizations, SDS was primarily a small research, writing and policy club helping the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with civil rights issues and attempting community organizing of their own with Education, Research and Action Projects (ERAPs). Although they are now thought of as an important force in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, throughout its history SDS was lukewarm on mass mobilizations at best. In a phrase that could as easily be uttered today, SDS often said “don’t mobilize, organize.” Several years of watching and learning from the civil rights movement led many older SDS organizers to prefer local projects modeled on SNCC, like their own ERAPs in a dozen or so poor neighborhoods throughout the country. After mobilizations and the attention that came with them, SDS shifted towards campus anti-war organizing with a new energy and spirit of resistance. If membership, local action, and protest escalation are seen as important indicators, then anti-Vietnam War mobilizations helped turn SDS into one of the most influential radical groups of the 1960's.
In April 1965 SDS organized the first large anti-Vietnam War demonstration in DC with upwards of 25,000 people, but the plan only passed at the SDS National Convention when most ERAP supporters left the room after 7 hours of debate. SDS leaders remained sour on mobilizations, so when another anti-war march was called for later in 1965 the SDS National Council chose not to endorse stating they had “better things to do that weekend.” Only 5,000 turned out. One of the march organizers would later say he never forgave SDS for that. When the SDS National Council chose to endorse the next Vietnam mobilization in October 1965, they also made it official policy that SDS was against mass marches. About 100,000 people participated nationwide anyway, including 50 SDS chapters. Again in April 1967 SDS leaders told the anti-Vietnam War Mobilization Committee that they’ll have nothing to do with another march, only to change their mind when it was clear that local SDS chapters were already organizing. When the Pentagon was surrounded by 100,000 anti-war demonstrators in October 1967, SDS only gave its half hearted support and urged that any SDS members participating advocate for immediate withdrawal.
In all of these cases, the opinions and policy of SDS leadership on the National Council or in the National Office did not match the enthusiasm for mobilizations at the chapter level. While older SDS organizers thought they knew better and said “no more parades,” new recruits on campus were more likely to want to take action and “speak truth to power.” SDS chapters often played an important role during these mobilizations, from logistics and speaking slots to tearing down the fence surrounding the Pentagon. Despite SDS’s reluctance on mobilizations, the media and government were quick to turn SDS into a primary target for responsibility. Newspapers and TV across the country reported on the mobilizations, often accusing SDS of near-treason and working at the behest of Communists. The FBI, House Internal Security Committee and House Un-American Activities Committee put out statements against the mobilizations and focused on SDS specifically.
Yippie organizer Jerry Rubin wrote at the time,“Walter Cronkite is SDS’s best organizer” with maps of student demonstrations broadcast to the entire country on the evening news. Without question the escalation of the Vietnam War is responsible for the politicization of young students and the growth of SDS during this period. But by no means was SDS the obvious choice for a curious anti-war student. Media coverage of the mobilizations combined with a gut reaction against redbaiting led rebellious youth around the country into SDS. Newcomers on campus saw SDS as the leading national anti-war group despite older members concerns about focusing on a single-issue like the war. In December 1964, before Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam, SDS had 1,365 members. After the mobilizations and organizing campus actions, SDS grew to around 35,000 members by April 1968. The next year saw that number grow around 80,000 to 100,000 members. So many new people flocking into SDS bolstered projects already in place and the enthusiasm for action was infectious. Early on, some joined ERAPs before the projects were disbanded largely as a failed experiment in bringing white student organizers to poor communities. But the biggest impact would be felt on the campuses, where growing SDS chapters started organizing local anti-war actions.
In February 1966 the Selective Service changed its policy making lower-level students eligible for the draft. It required students take an intelligence exam and universities to provide class rankings to the draft board. As the exam neared in May 1966, University of Chicago SDS led an occupation of an administration building for 5 days demanding an end to the class ranking policy. This would preface the 1966–1967 school year, when SDS chapters around the country were setting up anti-draft unions, disrupting speeches by pro-war and liberal figures, researching university connections to the war, leading successful student strikes against military recruitment and class ranking, getting elected to student government, getting arrested at sit-ins and even chaining the wheels of buses at draft induction centers. During the April 1967 mobilization, 150 people joined Cornell SDS burning draft cards in New York City. More than 50 colleges reported Vietnam War protests in the 1966–1967 school year. The next year saw that number rise to 327, including high schools. Action escalated with the “two, three, or many Columbias” campaign which drew inspiration from the 1968 Columbia student strike. Finally the escalation crescendoed to “bring the war home” and what was arguably the first black bloc in US history at the epic failure of the Days of Rage in Chicago 1969. This was the last mobilization before SDS dissolved and the Weathermen went underground.
How can we apply this history to DSA’s debate around Medicare-for-All and mass mobilizations? As a member of the DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus, my instinct is against top-down decisions made to put resources towards another worthless march in DC. But that sounds an awful lot like what leaders of SDS said during their debates. With hindsight it is clear that the mobilizations, including marches in DC and national days of action, helped SDS grow and defined the organization. The mobilizations also drove Richard Nixon crazy and ultimately ended the War in Vietnam. The question before DSA is whether a Medicare-for-All campaign will have the same impact. Will mobilizing support for a march in DC and coordinated national day of action bring new membership, new energy, and raise DSA’s national profile? Using the experience of SDS, this may depend on potential supporters seeing DSA as the defining organization for Medicare-for-All. That may be a tough sell without the corresponding media coverage giving credit (or blame) to DSA. It can also be said that regardless of what the leadership of SDS dictated to membership, local chapters held the real power. Local chapters wanted to mobilize, so they did, without any permission.
There is a major difference between how debates about mobilizations went in SDS versus DSA. Support for mobilizations and marches in DC often came from the grassroots chapters and new members of SDS, not national leadership. In fact it was national leadership that took the position against marches. The case seems to be the opposite in DSA, with national leadership taking the pro-DC march position while the grassroots is skeptical of wasting time and resources. Especially those chapters like DC which would de facto be given much of the organizing responsibility.
This piece is not meant to conclude the march debate, only to give greater context. DSA has begun claiming that we are “the largest socialist organization since WWII.” This is only true if you erroneously exclude SDS. We must look to SDS for lessons. The growth of SDS from a debate club with 1,500 members to almost 100,000 members of a radical, anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialist organization is intimately tied to mobilizations against the Vietnam War. Experienced organizers can become jaded and see marching and protest as inconsequential, just as the leaders of SDS did. They argue local community organizing is the correct direction to take. My question is, why not both?