It’s important to recognize that the New Left, the seedbed of Weatherman, was begun in recognition of the exhaustion and enfeeblement of the Old Left orthodoxies, including Marxism-Leninism. By the early 1960s, it was increasingly obvious, as made clear in the Port Huron Statement—the founding document of SDS—that the world was adrift on a sea of social, economic, and cultural changes. The old contest of classes—oppressed industrial workers versus capitalist exploiters—that had captured Marx’s imagination in the nineteenth century no longer served fully to explain the upheavals of the twentieth. Modern industrial society had created institutions and forms of mass politics and culture—and, equally important, vastly increased levels of consumer production—that called for fresh thinking. Traditional strategies of reform were obsolete. For the young authors of Port Huron in 1962, the archaic doctrines of past radicalism, including Marxism-Leninism, helped neither to interpret the world nor to change it. As for the USSR, it was just another stodgy, oppressive, and bureaucratic state structure, not the dream of socialism. Yet in the late 1960s, SDS and its Weatherman outgrowth did become part of a worldwide movement among young people seeking a vehicle for change in a fundamentally socialist direction; this was why the example of Castro’s revolution seemed so promising. Castro, after all, had been denounced by the traditional Cuban communist party as a reckless “adventurer,” a petty bourgeois “putschist.” Mao Tse-tung, for his part, had sided with the peasantry and then, during the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, seemed to regard young students as the spear of perpetual revolution, capable of unseating authority and unmasking corruption. Students (and young people more generally) appeared to embody a kind of revolutionary zeal and idealism that seemed synonymous with their very youth.
Perhaps a new kind of Marxist-Leninism could be invented. After all, the traditional working class, hostage now to relatively well-paying factory jobs, seemed hopelessly addicted to consumerism and, at least in the United States, irredeemably racist as well. Regis Debray, a young French intellectual who had befriended Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, became one of the leading proponents of a new kind of Marxist-Leninist analysis. His book Revolution in the Revolution?, translated into English in 1967, tried to tease out general lessons from the Cuban example, where a small group of militarized and daring revolutionaries had overturned the system via direct attacks on the police and the army, without strenuous politicking with the working class. Debray’s ideas proved to be enormously influential among aspiring revolutionaries all over the world, including Weatherman. They took inspiration from Debray’s tale of successful exemplary violence enacted by a handful of committed revolutionaries, and the idea that oppression was, at heart, psychological, and thus could be overturned by sheer revolutionary action and will. Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean psychologist, was influential with young leftists as well: he ennobled violence as a necessary purgative required for the oppressed to rid themselves of the impotence and psychological suffocation imposed by their oppressors. As Mao had put it in another context, under certain conditions only a spark is needed to set off a prairie fire.
SDS began in 1962 as a youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy. The LID was founded at the beginning of the twentieth century by such luminaries as Jack London and Upton Sinclair; it was socialist but (by the 1920s) anticommunist. SDS originally had a commitment to nonviolent socialist reform, as well as to what the Port Huron Statement called “participatory democracy”—an ideal its members sought to realize in marathon meetings where wide consensus was sought before any action was taken.
The Port Huron Statement forbade the participation of anyone believing in a totalitarian creed—that is, anyone who was a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. But the anticommunist plank had been approved only after a fierce battle led by Michael Harrington against younger SDS figures. Later, the younger leaders prevailed when the prohibition against antidemocrats (communists) was abolished by a vote at the national convention in spring 1965. That autumn, SDS also broke with LID, which had provided much of its funding, primarily over LID’s support of the Vietnam War. Many in SDS, seeking the widest alliance against the war, saw no reason to spurn outright communists in that effort. Their willingness to countenance such cooperation was a major element in the break with their old patron.
SDS in its early years, despite a fuzzy democratic socialist inclination, possessed no systematic ideology. Important in only a few universities, it reached out from campus to the poor and especially to black people. This was not just compassion: to reform society in a socialist direction, SDS knew it needed a larger and more powerful social lever than students. Thus SDS founded the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) to organize the poor in various cities, including Newark and Cleveland. SDS also always had a special interest in working-class youth.