Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm and Paul Buhle, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (Hill and Wang, 2008)
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Wordsworth was high off the fumes of the French Revolution when he wrote these lines. In the long twilight of the U.S. of A., nobody has been younger or closer to heaven than the Students for a Democratic Society. For those of us born since the 60s, the term SDS holds a hallowed place in left history, right up there with “premature anti-fascist” (the U.S. government’s label for the Lincoln Brigade veterans who fought in the Spanish Civil War). In the case of SDS, so much promise was packed into a catchy palindrome.
Nowadays, a new generation of students facing yet another imperialist war lays claim to the mantle of SDS. Which brings us to Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, a collaboration between SDS vet and scholar Paul Buhle, comic book writer and curmudgeon Harvey Pekar, and the latter’s frequent fellow traveler, artist Gary Dumm. So is this an attempt at left revivalism? An easy-to-read synopsis for the new recruits? What’s the point of such a history, in this form, at this time?
These aren’t questions that any of the contributors manages to answer. In an overview of SDS’ history, Pekar leans hard on Kirkpatrick Sale’s criminally out-of-print SDS, but condensing that brick of a book into a 50-page graphic narrative seems to strip it of much of its coherence. Pekar has always been more into telling than showing, which doesn’t help; panels are often packed with text, and despite occasional moments of visual invention—as when Al Haber, SDS’ first president, juggles word balloons—Dumm’s art rarely tells you anything Pekar’s words don’t already express.
Without much of a defined narrative, the work is instead closer to an oral history, particularly in the remainder of the volume, which features former SDSers telling stories about their experiences. The best of these, like Nick Thorkelson’s account of working on an SDS project in Hazard, Kentucky, or Buhle and Dumm’s account of a student clash with police at the University of Wisconsin, tell stories as only comics can, with images and words amplifying each other’s impact. But most of the others seem more like vignettes, or curiously awkward slices of life that do little to illuminate the complicated history of SDS.
So what do we make of SDS, this mercurial force that put the fear of revolution into America? From it sprung so many of the best minds of the generation—Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Doug Ireland, Mike Davis, Kim Moody, and Jack Newfield are just the more easily recognizable names. On the whole, the group seemed perpetually taken by surprise by events, always at the right place at the right time but often doing the wrong thing.
For the first three years of its existence, SDS had very little to point to in the way of tangible achievements other than its impressive intellectual outpouring. Ahead of the curve on Vietnam, SDS did organize the first major march against U.S. involvement, only to distance itself from many of the marches that followed, essentially abdicating leadership of the anti-war movement. “We are for action that educates, rather than action that demonstrates,” the group explained. Too smart by half, SDS also officially eschewed the teach-in movement, on the grounds that it only educated participants, as opposed to radicalizing them.
And there’s sad irony in the group’s bucking the sectarian infighting of the Old Left in hopes of building an inclusive movement, only to be ultimately disemboweled by wannabe Maoists. Granted, the Maoist Progressive Labor Party had a lot of help. As it turned out, few folks needed a weatherman to know which way the wind blew more than the faction ultimately known as the Weather Underground. Convinced that the time was right for violent revolution, Weather thought they were the vanguard. We saw the best minds of a generation destroyed by madness.
Such convoluted intellectualizing and sectarian infighting isn’t exactly ideal fodder for 50 pages—and maybe not even the full 209 pages—worth of graphic storytelling. What’s lost here (but can be found in Sale’s book) is the continuing tension within SDS over whether the group’s role was to be a revolutionary one confronting the society at large, or whether it should focus on radicalizing students and the university. It’s a tension the new SDS should keep in mind.
As Jim Monsonis, one of SDS’ early officers (and a former professor of mine), wrote in a letter to The Nation, the new SDS “should be very wary of listening to or taking on much more [than the name] from us, and we should steer clear of offering any advice. Because SDS largely failed in achieving its vision.” The curiously truncated endings of Pekar’s stories almost evoke this failure, and its promise: SDS’ ending has yet to be written. And it’s the ending that defines the story.