The Principle of Participatory Democracy

DSA Night School
January 30, 2024

The New Left is an umbrella term given to a political movement made up primarily of college students during the 1960s.  Students for a Democratic Society was the main political organization of the New Left and is best known for leading opposition to the Vietnam War.  At its height in 1969, SDS had a membership of around 100,000, roughly twice the size of DSA today as a proportion of the US population.  The term “New Left” was adopted from a 1959 essay by the sociologist C. Wright Mills titled, “Letter to the New Left,” which differentiated the new social and political movements of the 1950s from the Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Socialist parties of the “old” Marxist left.  Mills and the New Left put more emphasis on immediate participation in democratic struggles against racial discrimination, the Cold War arms race, and McCarthyite limits on employment and free speech than on trade union struggles and the future goal of socialism, although most new leftists did believe in the eventual need for socialist economic planning of some kind.

Although critical of the Old Left, the New Left actually originated as an offshoot of a debate within the Trotskyist movement in 1939/40 regarding the nature of Stalinism and the prospects for revolution in both the Soviet Union and the capitalist west. Trotsky’s side in this debate is Leon Trotsky: In Defense of Marxism (1939/1940).  Trotsky granted in these writings that if WWII did not result in a working class revolution, then Marxists would have to rethink their entire theory of historical development.  Dwight MacDonald, a former Trotskyist, began this rethinking with the establishment of “politics” magazine in 1944 and in a lengthy 1946 essay, The Root Is Man.  C. Wright Mills published articles in “politics” and shared many of MacDonald’s views on the inadequacy of traditional Marxist theory.  Mills’ association with MacDonald and the beginnings of a distinctive New Left perspective on the American political and social system is covered in Kevin Mattson, Intellectuals in Action.

For the history of the New Left in general and SDS specifically, Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, are basic.  The Marxist phase of the New Left is covered in Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air.  Many source documents on SDS are available at, and documents of the Marxist New Left are collected at

My interpretation of New Left history is here, You Can’t Use Weatherman to Show Which Way the Wind Blew.

—Gil Schaeffer


Vietnam War begins.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term the “New Left” in his essay titled Letter to the New Left, in which he distinguished the new post-WWII social and political movements from the Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Socialist parties of the “Old Left.”

SDS outlined its conception of “participatory democracy” in its manifesto, The Port Huron Statement.

Bernie Sanders arrested in Chicago.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first mass protest against the Vietnam war.

Final SDS national convention was held.

Weatherman rally in Chicago (Days of Rage)

Rally at Fort Dix

National student strike against the invasion of Cambodia at the New Haven May Day Rally.

George Jackson was killed at San Quentin Prison.

Vietnam War ends.

Sources & Further Reading


Miller, Jim. “Democracy is in the streets” : from Port Huron to the siege of Chicago. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society. Vintage Books, 1973.

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

Elbaum, Max. Revolution in the air : sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London, New York: Verso, 2002.

Harding, Neil. Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions. United Kingdom: Haymarket Books, 2009.

The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels
Vol. 1:  Hunt, Richard N. Marxism and totalitarian democracy, 1818-1850. London: Feffer and Simons, Inc., 1974.

Vol. 2:  Hunt, Richard N. Classical Marxism, 1850-1895. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.

By Topic

Bernie Sanders’ 1963 Arrest

Students for a Democratic Society

The Port Huron Statement (1964)

March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam (April 17, 1965)

May Day Rally (May 1, 1970)

Student Strike of 1970


Ono, Shin’ya. You Do Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

The New Left

Fort Dix

GI Coffeehouses

C. Wright Mills

George Jackson

Participatory Democracy

Dangers of Sectarianism 

Mark Rudd’s Lessons From SDS and the Weather Underground for Today’s Radicals 

Half the Way with Mao Zedong (

Bayard Rustin Showed the Promise and Pitfalls of Coalition Politics (

The U.S. is Not a Democracy

America Is Not a Democracy (January 29, 2024)

Quoted in the Presentation

Hal Draper

Steve Hamilton, On the History of the Revolutionary Union (Part One)

Lenin, The Drafting of 183 Students Into the Army

Engels, Friedrich. The Principles of Communism (1847)

Marx & Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party (February 1848)—————————

Marx & Engels. Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (March 1848),the%20parliament%20of%20the%20German%20people.%20More%20items

Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891

Engels. Reply to the Honourable Giovanni Bovio (1892)

Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Second Congress Programme of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, adopted at the Second Congress of the Party (1903)

The Socialist Party Platform of 1912

By and About Gil Schaeffer


Princeton War Debate Taken to Ball Field; Pacifist Team Beats R.O.T.C. in Touch Football Game

You Can’t Use Weatherman To Show Which Way The Wind Blew: The Unfinished History Of the New Left; Participatory Democracy, Marxism, and the Goal of a Democratic Constitution

Taking Democracy Seriously – Socialist Forum Author Tag: Gil Schaeffer

KeyWiki – Gil Schaeffer


Cosmopod Interview –  A Participant’s History (October 30, 2023)


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