[sixties-l] Review of SDS Film--Rebels With a Cause PLEASE POST

From: RUSSELL,JAMES W. (Sociology) (RUSSELLJ@easternct.edu)
Date: 01/09/01

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    The following review appeared in the December 2000 "Radical Historians
    SDS and Historical Memory
    Jim Russell
    Rebels With a Cause, Helen Garvy, director.  VHS 109 minutes.  Available
    from Shire Films 408-353-4253 and sdsrebels@aol.com.
    	With over one hundred thousand members in college and university
    chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)-the subject of Helen
    Garvy's intriguing new documentary Rebels With a Cause-was the largest and
    most significant of the 1960s new left organizations in the United States.
    	Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, tells an
    insider's history of the organization built around the voices of
    twenty-eight of its leading activists.  Despite a sparse use of visual
    images, narration, and music, she was able to avoid the talking heads danger
    inherent in such a technique through tight editing where one interviewee
    picks up the thread from the thoughts of another.  The effect is that of a
    seamless compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
    	While other films about the 1960s capture the energy and excitement
    of the student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this
    film captures the thinking that went into the activism.  It is the best film
    record we have so far of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the
    United States.
    A Rapid Evolution
    	The SDS story begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization
    concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the
    Cold War, and the danger of nuclear confrontation.  The Port Huron
    Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression
    of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding.  "We are people
    of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in
    universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
    	The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as
    a northern student adjunct to the southern civil rights movement.  But it
    quickly moved from support of the southern struggle to attempting to spark
    parallel struggles in the North.  Through its Economic Research and Action
    Projects (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community
    organizing projects in nine northern cities with the avowed aim of creating
    an interracial movement of the poor.  "We were very serious organizers,"
    Casey Hayden says in the film.  "We intended to change the world."
    	Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War
    progressively began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic
    community organizing agenda.  The ERAP projects began to wither, as did a
    number of civil rights projects in the South.  
    	Nineteen sixty-five was a pivotal year in this transition.  On April
    17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest U.S. intervention in
    Vietnam.  Twenty-five thousand people, exceeding all expectations,
    participated.  Six months later, over one hundred thousand would attend a
    second March on Washington co-sponsored by SDS and a range of other
    organizations.  The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a
    couple of dozen to well over a hundred.  Thousands of new members joined up.
    	SDS was now deeply enmeshed in struggling against America's foreign
    policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home.  Then in
    December Casey Hayden and Mary King added still another front by circulating
    a letter that called upon women in SDS and the movement in general to
    initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women."  This call
    would add gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization
    sought to redress; and it would mark the beginning of militant women's
    activism in the movement.
    Rival Leaderships
    	For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth
    of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism.  But the movement defied any
    kind of central control, and a succession of SDS national leaders struggled
    to establish a clear role for the organization.
    	An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party
    (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads in SDS
    year by year, and its opponents in the national leadership grew increasingly
    rattled as they sought to fashion alternatives to PL's brand of
    Marxism-Leninism.  The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring
    factions, one controlled by PL and the other by the future Weather
    Underground.  In early 1970 the national office closed.  
    	The SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years later,
    but it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such
    by its original activists.  Garvy therefore does not include the PL "SDS" in
    her treatment.  The Weather Underground experience is portrayed, though,
    because its leading activists, a number of whom speak in the film, had roots
    in SDS.  
    	Garvy treads cautiously in this part of the film.  The Weather
    campaign of clandestine bombings continues to be an issue of sore dispute
    among SDS veterans.  She includes both a point-blank denunciation of them by
    former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation that the
    Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale
    marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war.  "In some ways," Jane
    Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't
    agree with them.  I could fully understand the frustration out of which
    their rage came."
    	Not all of SDS's long-term survival problems as an organization were
    due to its internal dynamics.  It is now known because of documents released
    through the Freedom of Information Act-and widely suspected then-that the
    FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its
    activities through the COINTEL Program.  The full extent to which government
    agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains
    unknown.  There are still unreleased files and much of the content of the
    so-far released files is blacked out.
    Leaving Out the Left
    	The thrust of Garvy's treatment is to situate SDS as a phenomenon of
    homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots
    democratic movements.  What she chose not to show was that SDS was also a
    phenomenon of the American Left. 
    	SDS was as much an outgrowth of and entangled in left-wing politics
    as it was a spontaneous response to the issues of the time.  A number of its
    original activists came from left-wing, including communist, families.  The
    organization itself began as the student affiliate of the Cold War social
    democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history
    of intra-left warfare against communism.
    	The LID parentage would prove increasingly problematic in the years
    ahead, especially as the Veitnam War became a major issue; leading members
    of LID supported the war.  The final straw in the relationship came at the
    1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its
    constitution that barred communists from membership.  SDS's "anti
    anti-communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly
    anti-communist LID and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months
    	Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the
    traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist, and Soviet-aligned groups, which
    it dismissed, as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political
    life.  Nevertheless, it had to both struggle with those groups and take part
    with them in coalition activities.  Indeed, the infiltration of SDS by PL
    hastened its demise.  Thus, historical events of the Left  from the split
    between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split contributed
    to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
    	Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the
    interests of producing a film for wide consumption-how many ordinary people
    would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans on screen reminiscing on
    their differences with the Trotskyists or other leftist tendencies?
    Nevertheless, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty
    political struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS's history.
    Linking the Past to the Present
    	Rebels With A Cause can best be described as oral history in the
    form of a film.  As such it is a faithful record-without the left-wing
    contextualization-of that part of the 1960s movement.  It is especially good
    as an antidote to the cynical interpretations of the main media that dismiss
    the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with
    sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  
    	But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film contributes to
    the transmittal of historical memory to later generations.  It is an
    especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their
    struggles to those of the recent past.
    	In this respect, the motivations behind the making of Rebels With a
    Cause are comparable to those of Patricio Guzmn in the making of Chile:
    Obstinate Memory.  Guzmn earlier in his epic The Battle of Chile had
    chronicled the 1973 military coup d'etat in Chile against the democratically
    elected socialist government of Salvador Allende.  
    	During the full period of Pinochet's military dictatorship, Guzmn's
    documentary could not be shown in Chile, despite it winning numerous
    international awards.  After the end of the dictatorship, Guzmn returned
    from exile to Chile and interviewed Allende supporters, including his former
    bodyguards.  He also showed The Battle of Chile to university students and
    recorded their reactions to seeing this part of their suppressed history.
    	Guzmn's new documentary, beautifully constructed from these
    interviews and reactions, is built around the theme of historical memory of
    a time of great hope that ended horrifically.  Some of the Allende loyalists
    he interviews speak with great pain about the events; others, still
    suffering from the trauma, have repressed them.  Students from an upper
    class private college rationalize the coup while students from a more
    working-class public university have trouble containing their emotions upon
    viewing a tragic part of their history that they had been prevented from
    	Guzmn, like Garvy, chose not to dwell upon the intricacies of
    left-wing politics during the time, important as they were for a fuller
    	What happened in the United States in terms of revolutionary hopes
    and state repression does not hold a candle to what happened in Chile.  But
    the same issues of historical memory are involved.  I was therefore curious
    to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the
    1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film.  
    Keeping Alive a Memory
    	Unlike in Chile, there had been no military censorship to prevent
    transmittal of the memory.  But would other mechanisms keep students from
    knowing this history?  Would they consider the events to be too remotely in
    the past to have any relevance to their lives? 
    	I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach-Eastern
    Connecticut State University, a working-class campus not at all known for
    student activism.  As one might expect, reactions and interests varied.
    What I was most struck by was that while all of the students had heard of
    the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
    	The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as
    they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history.
    The antiwar movement is another matter, though.  It is largely ignored by
    the media and schools because it is still controversial-both in terms of
    whether citizens should have protested that war and, most importantly, for
    the dangerous example it set for how citizens might respond to present and
    future wars engaged in by this country.  
    	With Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource to keep
    alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American
    Jim Russell (russellj@easternct.edu) was the first editor of New Left Notes,
    the SDS national newspaper.  He is currently working on a novel about
    slavery and the Texas War of Independence.

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