Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
June 15, 1962
Introduction: Agenda for a Generation
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed
now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest
country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred
by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would
distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality
for each individual, government of, by, and for the peoplethese American
values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of
us began maturing in complacency.
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling
to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation,
symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled
most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the
Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that
we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others"
we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.
We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human
problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing
in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals
take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.
While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled
our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began 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."
Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only
did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered,
but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American
Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak
of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of
totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international
disorder, supertechnologythese trends were testing the tenacity of our
own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize
their application to a world in upheaval.
Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in
the experiment with living. But we are a minoritythe vast majority of
our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world
as eternally functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox;
we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is
that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring
tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will
"muddle through," beneath the stagnation of those who have closed
their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply
are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not
only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press
of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought
that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change
itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to
hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect,
threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows
perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant
institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential
critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel
the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies.
Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements
we seem to have weakened the case for further change.
Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperitybut
might it not better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties about
their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed
indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning
to believe that there is an alternative to the present, that something
can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the
bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once
the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The
search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment
to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human
enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. On such a basis
do we offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort
in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth
century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception
of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.
Making values explicitan initial task in establishing alternativesis
an activity that has been devalued and corrupted. The conventional moral
terms of the age, the politician moralities"free world," "people's
democracies"reflect realities poorly, if at all, and seem to function
more as ruling myths than as descriptive principles. But neither has our
experience in the universities brought us moral enlightenment. Our professors
and administrators sacrifice controversy to public relations; their curriculums
change more slowly than the living events of the world; their skills and
silence are purchased by investors in the arms race; passion is called
unscholastic. The questions we might want raisedwhat is really important?
can we live in a different and better way? if we wanted to change society,
how would we do it?are not thought to be questions of a "fruitful,
empirical nature," and thus are brushed aside.
Unlike youth in other countries we are used to moral leadership being
exercised and moral dimensions being clarified by our elders. But today,
for us, not even the liberal and socialist preachments of the past seem
adequate to the forms of the present. Consider the old slogans: Capitalism
Cannot Reform Itself, United Front Against Fascism, General Strike, All
Out on May Day. Or, more recently, No Cooperation with Commies and Fellow
Travelers, Ideologies Are Exhausted, Bipartisanship, No Utopias. These
are incomplete, and there are few new prophets. It has been said that
our liberal and socialist predecessors were plagued by vision without
program, while our own generation is plagued by program without vision.
All around us there is astute grasp of method, techniquethe committee,
the ad hoc group, the lobbyist, the hard and soft sell, the make, the
projected imagebut, if pressed critically, such expertise is incompetent
to explain its implicit ideals. It is highly fashionable to identify oneself
by old categories, or by naming a respected political figure, or by explaining
"how we would vote" on various issues.
Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of oldand, unable
to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself. Doubt
has replaced hopefulnessand men act out a defeatism that is labeled
realistic. The decline of utopia and hope is in fact one of the defining
features of social life today. The reasons are various: the dreams of
the older left were perverted by Stalinism and never re-created; the congressional
stalemate makes men narrow their view of the possible; the specialization
of human activity leaves little room for sweeping thought; the horrors
of the twentieth century symbolized in the gas ovens and concentration
camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness. To be idealistic is to
be considered apocalyptic, deluded. To have no serious aspirations, on
the contrary, is to be "tough-minded."
In suggesting social goals and values, therefore, we are aware of entering
a sphere of some disrepute. Perhaps matured by the past, we have no formulas,
no closed theoriesbut that does not mean values are beyond discussion
and tentative determination. A first task of any social movement is to
convince people that the search for orienting theories and the creation
of human values is complex but worthwhile. We are aware that to avoid
platitudes we must analyze the concrete conditions of social order. But
to direct such an analysis we must use the guideposts of basic principles.
Our own social values involve conceptions of human beings, human relationships,
and social systems.
We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled
capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles
we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in
the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that
he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the
depersonalization that reduces human being to the status of thingsif
anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and
ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to "posterity"
cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine
of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact
that men have been "competently" manipulated into incompetencewe
see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing the skill the complexities
and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for
minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making.
Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding,
and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to
which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason,
and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human
independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding
a meaning in life that is personally authentic; a quality of mind not
compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly
adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits,
but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences,
one which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history, one
which openly faces problems which are troubling and unresolved; one with
an intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense of curiosity,
an ability and willingness to learn.
This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualismthe
object is not to have one's way so much as it is to have a way that is
one's own. Nor do we deify manwe merely have faith in his potential.
Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human
interdependence is contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed,
however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate
form of social relations. Personal links between man and man are needed,
especially to go beyond the partial and fragmentary bonds of function
that bind men only as worker to worker, employer to employee, teacher
to student, American to Russian.
Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between
man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better
personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of
man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man. As the individualism
we affirm is not egoism, the selflessness we affirm is not self-elimination.
On the contrary, we believe in generosity of a kind that imprints one's
unique individual qualities in the relation to other men, and to all human
activity. Further, to dislike isolation is not to favor the abolition
of privacy; the latter differs from isolation in that it occurs or is
abolished according to individual will.
We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance
by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.
As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual
participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share
in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his
life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide
the media for their common participation.
In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several
that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public
that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating
an acceptable pattern of social relations;
that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation
and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means
of finding meaning in personal life;
that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way
instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression
of personal grievance and aspiration; opposing views should be organized
so as to illuminate choices and facilitate the attainment of goals;
channels should be commonly available to relate men to knowledge and
to power so that private problemsfrom bad recreation facilities to
personal alienationare formulated as general issues.
The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles:
that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival.
It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed,
not manipulated, encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense
of dignity, and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since
it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions
and individual ethics;
that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual
must share in its full determination;
that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major
resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation
and subject to democratic social regulation.
Like the political and economic ones, major social institutionscultural,
educational, rehabilitative, and othersshould be generally organized
with the well-being and dignity of man as the essential measure of success.
In social change or interchange, we find violence to be abhorrent because
it requires generally the transformation of the target, be it a human
being or a community of people, into a depersonalized object of hate.
It is imperative that the means of violence be abolished and the institutionslocal,
national, internationalthat encourage non-violence as a condition of
conflict be developed.
These are our central values, in skeletal form. It remains vital to understand
their denial or attainment in the context of the modern world.
Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills,
committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the
political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.
A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout
the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.
A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar
world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people.
The university is an obvious beginning point.
A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their
relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in
the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political
party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences
and look for political synthesis.
A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies
and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a
community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities
A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can
be understood and felt close up by every human being. It must give
form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people
may see the political, social, and economic sources of their private
troubles, and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity,
moral complacency, and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely
on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The
case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable
personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is
a relevant place for all of these activities.
But we need not indulge in illusions: the university system cannot complete
a movement of ordinary people making demands for a better life. From its
schools and colleges across the nation, a militant left might awaken its
allies, and by beginning the process towards peace, civil rights, and
labor struggles, reinsert theory and idealism where too often reign confusion
and political barter. The power of students and faculty united is not
only potential; it has shown its actuality in the South, and in the reform
movements of the North.
The bridge to political power, though, will be build through genuine
cooperation, locally, nationally, and internationally, between a new left
of young people and an awakening community of allies. In each community
we must look within the university and act with confidence that we can
be powerful, but we must look outwards to the less exotic but more lasting
struggles for justice.
To turn these mythic possibilities into realities will involve national
efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty. They
must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative
bureaucracy. They must make fraternal and functional contact with allies
in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus. They
must import major public issues into the curriculumresearch and teaching
on problems of war and peace is an outstanding example. They must make
debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational
life. They must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci
As students for a democratic society, we are committed to stimulating
this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program in campus
and community across the country. 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.