Post-60s organizational continuity

Ron Silliman (
Mon, 12 Aug 1996 11:22:16 -0400

Sorry to be responding four days after the original post, but I just
got back from vacation. Rich Cowan's comments about the problem of
organizational continuity (reproduced below) is indeed well posed.

A lot of what went on in the 1960s was fairly loosely organized and
many of the events that characterized the period were situational in
that whatever steering committee was put together for X march disbanded
the day after and some of them (seldom all) would then begin planning
for Y action somewhere down the road. At least that was very much how
it was on the west coast (there were significant regional variations in
the 1960s that would be a topic for its own thread -- SDS was largely a
Progressive Labor front in the SF Bay Area and thus never taken very
seriously there). This of course also meant that well organized
Leninist style organizations could pretty easily go into a situation,
volunteer to do a lot of the grunt work and very quickly inherit most
if not all the key positions in it. The Socialist Workers Party did
some pretty good anti-war work under such circumstances, although I
never did see them do much in the way of party building.

Such free floating activity meant that there was an enormous amount of
volatility in the populace in general, on campus in particular. In
1970, people were speaking of revolution as a reasonable future course
of action without thinking of it as a metaphor.

If the break-up of SDS had little impact the relatively sudden silence
on the campuses in the early 70s represented a significant change (one
could assign a lot of causes here-- Kent State clearly upped the ante,
the shift in public focus from the draft to Watergate turned attention
from something that was threatening every home and every block in
America to something far removed -- Watergate was a spectator sport).
If, in the 1960s, many who participated in these events adamantly
distrusted the organized groups who sometimes were behind them (people
talked a lot of trash about anybody who was perceived as a "leader"),
the absence of organization became a significant question in the early

The Weather Underground was active and in many ways served as a link in
theory and practice between the old SDS and new nutty formations, of
which the SLA was the most visible. An old refrain about "first time
tragedy, second time farce" was on everybody's lips.

Like a lot of 60s activists, I found myself in the early 1970s working
in a specific urban movement -- in my case the prison movement, but for
others it was the farmworkers or tenant organizing or a dozen other
possibilities, including of course union work in factories. There was
none of the positive relief that activists often found in campus
settings. The work was often grim -- I knew some 3 dozen people who
were murdered in the prison movement in the five years I was active
there, a couple of them very important people in my life. Many of the
people active in the prison movement were all but unaware of theory,
even unaware of the antiwar movement of only a few years before. It was
a very different world.

It was precisely then that I and quite a few others began seriously to
look around for ways to connect up what was fairly lonely and isolated
work (by comparison to the 60s), reading much more theory than before
and searching about for organizational forms that weren't totally
destructive (as all the Leninist formations seemed so evidently to be).

The New American Movement (NAM) was largely started by former SDS
activists who were now working in similar urban settings. It began
around 1972. The Democratics Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC --
pronounced D - SOCK) began in the spring of 1973, after Harrington and
his friends FINALLY broke with the Socialist Party over Vietnam
(another long story worth a good look at from this discussion group,
actually). I know that some early organizing documents from NAM were
published in an early issue of Socialist Revolution (now Socialist
Review), but I couldn't find a copy (and I have pretty good collection
-- maybe 85 or 90% of the issues published) a moment ago. Ron Radosh
(!?!) has an account of the founding convention for DSOC in #16.

In the 1970s, NAM tended to be the organization of professional
organizers (I finally joined when I moved over to the tennants movement
in '77) while DSOC was characterized as being much less activist and
much more about putting pressure on the Democratic Party from within,
largely around Harrington. In general, cities could support one of
these two organizations but not both -- SF was a NAM city with a very
tiny DSOC presence. By 1978, the two groups were talking about merging.

I remember at the time being totally opposed to the idea of a merger,
thinking that the old DSOC crowd would use top-down political devices
to siphon off the important work of the chapters. But the reality was
that beyond helping to launch some good left activists into local
political careers, NAM was never as effective as an organization as
were many of its activists back in their own jobs. The two
organizations merged and became the Democratic Socialists of America,
which of course still exists.

A good critical history of the left during that period would examine
how these organizations managed both to survive and yet become
de-linked from what we used to call The Masses.

All best,

Ron Silliman

I finally got active in NAM

>Date: Wed, 7 Aug 1996 08:29:55 -0400 (EDT)
>From: (Rich Cowan)
>To: sixties-l@jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU
>Subject: Re: AntiDraft Policy - a failed standard of the Sixties
>The fact that the antiwar movement lost so much strength when
>Nixon announced the end of the draft points to some major
>weaknesses in the movement itself.
>I'd like some feedback on this proposition, but it seems
>that the movement itself suffered from a lack of coordination;
>it was structured to short-term national responses but not
>really ready to build long-term infrastructure, except maybe
>through local community projects. Some trends...
>1) SDS had split (was that 1969?) into multiple factions, and
>ceased to exist at the national level.
>2) The New Liberation News Service also had an internal faction
>fight, and lost momentum.
>3) Sexism within the New Left alienated women's participation and
>a largely separate movement developed for women's liberation.
>Ramparts demonstrated sexism within the new left.
>4) Students were given the right to vote and much radical energy
>was diverted into more mainstream within-the-system activities
>such as the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS).
>If national coordination could have been maintained through stronger
>national organizations, would the dropoff in energy have been so
>How many organizations started by the new left had a long term
>(10-30 year) timeline? On the Right the Young Americas Foundation
>was started in 1969 by a Vietnam vet and grew gradually to a $300K
>budget by 1983, and now the budget of the group is $3 million!
>Now, I was 10 years old in 1972 so I'd appreciate some words
>of wisdom...
>Rich Cowan
>Center for Campus Organizing * Box 748, Cambridge, MA 02142
>(617) 354-9363 Rich Cowan,