Students for a Democratic Society

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a radical student activist movement in the United states founded in 1959. As part of the New Left movement in the United States, the organization developed rapidly in the mid-1960's, before dissolving in 1969.


It developed from the youth branch of a socialist educational organization known as the League for Industrial Democracy which descended from the Intercollegiate Socialist Society which was started in 1905. SDS held its first meeting in 1960 at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Robert Alan Haber was elected president. Its political manifesto, known as the Port Huron Statement, was adopted at the organization's first convention in 1962, based on an earlier draft by staff member Tom Hayden. This manifesto criticized the political system of the United States for failing to achieve international peace and failing to address social ills in contemporary society. It also advocated non-violent civil disobedience as the means by which student youth could bring forth a "participatory democracy."

At Port Huron, Tom Hayden clashed with Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, over the perceived potential for totalitarianism. Hayden said, "While the draft Port Huron Statement included a strong denunciation of the Soviet Union, it wasn't enough for LID leaders like Michael Harrington. They wanted absolute clarity, for example, that the United States was blameless for the nuclear arms race.... In truth, they seemed threatened by the independence of the new wave of student activism...."

From 1965 to 1969

At first, SDS focused on peaceful efforts to promote the civil rights movement and improve the conditions of the inner-city ghettos. However, it came to be known for the leading role that it played in student opposition to the Vietnam War. While SDS remained non-violent, it became increasingly militant, and certain SDS factions had a reputation for violent confrontation, including the Progressive Labor Party's Worker Student Alliance, the (Revolutionary Youth Movement I, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement II).

SDS formed the core of a movement in the 1960s known collectively as the New Left, or simply "The Movement." This was loosely associated with other prominent student activist organizations such as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a coalition of student groups at the University of California, Berkeley that was formed in response to a prohibition on political activities on the Berkeley campus.

SDS split up in 1969 amidst internal discord, with its more radical remnants continuing as the PLP/WSA, Weather Underground Organization, and the Revolutionary Union. A few former SDS leaders went on to successful political careers, including Tom Hayden, who later served in the California State Assembly (1982-1992) and State Senate (1992-2000).

The SDS was the organizational high point for student radicalism in the United States, and thus has been an important influence on student organizing in the decades since its collapse. Participatory democracy, direct action, radicalism, student power, shoestring budgets, and its organizational structure are all present in varying degrees in current national student activist groups. Though various organizations have been formed in the years since, as proposed national networks for left-wing student organizing, none has ever approached the scale of SDS, and most have lasted a few years at best. Several attempts have been made at reviving the name, including a circa-2003 organization with a few chapters at colleges in the Midwest and Northeast.


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