The Port Huron Statement at 50
Posted in Home on November 25, 2020
The Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society, written fifty years ago this June, is the most ambitious, the most specific, and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American Left. It is also, at just over 25,000 words, undoubtedly the longest one. But it had to be lengthy to accomplish its aim—to propose an entire “agenda for a generation.” Consider the variety of topics about which Tom Hayden and his fellow delegates to that SDS meeting held at the FDR Camp in Port Heron, Michigan, had intelligent and provocative things to say: moral values, American politics, the U.S. economy, the nation’s intellectual and academic life, the labor movement, the cold war, the nuclear arms race, the anticolonial revolution, and a vivid description of why the black freedom movement was so pivotal to the birth of a new Left. All this was informed by a sensibility attuned to what one might call the “national psychology.” And that’s just a summary of the first half of the statement.
The second part—“What Is Needed”— glowed with a passion and elegance not usually found in such a long and detailed document. What was needed, according to the thirty-five or so young drafters, included both such strategic aims as consolidating the Democrats into a principled liberal party by expelling the Dixiecrats and details fine-grained enough to delight the heart of any policy analyst. To wit: “there were fewer mental hospital beds in relation to the numbers of mentally ill in 1959 than there were in 1948.”* In addition, the statement combined varieties of prose not commonly featured in one document: existential longings inspired by Albert Camus, a quote from an encyclical by Pope John XXIII, urgent descriptions of the most serious issues facing humankind (then known as “mankind”), and far-reaching proposals for how to go about the prodigious task of democratizing the nation and the world.
Remarkably, most of the activist-intellectuals who accomplished all this were still in their early twenties. Hayden, at twenty-one, was the age at which most students are preparing to graduate from college. The previous year, the Activist, an obscure magazine edited at Oberlin College, had published Hayden’s “A Letter to the New (Young) Left.” After Port Huron, that article read like a textbook example of false modesty: “It is not as though we even know what to do,” Hayden wrote in the Activist, “we have no real visionaries for our leaders, we are not much more than literate ourselves.” Somehow, he and his comrades figured it out. I cannot imagine a group of Americans, of any age, writing such a manifesto today. In our era of high anxiety and blasted visions, we could certainly use one.
But, for all its brilliance, Port Huron was not so much a break with the radical tradition as it was an artful meld of what remained fresh and stirring in the often tortured history of the American Left. Thus, “young,” the adjective Hayden had placed in parentheses, was more accurate than “new,” which remains the word nearly everyone since has affixed to the movement of which SDS played a vital part.
The statement managed to fuse two types of ideological advocacy that are often viewed as antagonists: first, the romantic desire for achieving an authentic self through crusading for individual rights and, second, the yearning for a democratic socialist order that would favor the collective good over freedom of the self. This fusion was wrapped in language whose utopian tone resembled that articulated by other messianic movements in American history—from the abolitionists and Owenite socialists to the Wobblies and Debsian Socialists to such radical feminists as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emma Goldman.
The similarity to the language of the abolitionists was particularly strong. Consider this bold assertion from the Values section of the statement: “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with…popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic….This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” Compare it to the late-life reflection by the anti-slavery crusader Theodore Weld: “The starting point and power of every great reform must be the reformer’s self,“ declared Weld. “He must first set himself apart its sacred devotee, baptized into its spirit, consecrated to its service, feeling its profound necessity, its constraining motives, impelling causes, and all [the] reasons why.” Devout Christians were a distinct minority at the conference; evangelical Protestants were entirely absent. But the SDSers were expressing the same ultra-romantic idea that a free society can be built only by individuals who define that freedom for themselves that had inspired fervently Protestant abolitionists more than a century before.
In this sense, Port Huron demonstrated how the new, young Left—in its rebellion against a managed society and its hunger for an authentic one—was beginning to turn back, if unintentionally, to similar impulses that had inspired Weld and such fellow crusaders as his wife, Angelina Grimke, as well as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker. Both groups insisted that one had to live one’s politics as well as preach them. Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and even about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their “true” nature and to find happiness in doing so.
Whether pious or secular, radicals before the Civil War and their counterparts during the Cold War both struggled fiercely to free their minds and bodies from an evil society and to fill the world with individuals who aspired to perfection. The passion for self-improvement in the cause of social transformation could be found nearly everywhere on the young left in the 1960s and 1970s. “I had to find out who I am and what kind of man I should be, and what I could do to become the best of which I was capable,” confessed Eldridge Cleaver, in a neglected passage of Soul on Ice. In 1970, in his Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman observed, “the New Left’s complaint against democratic capitalism was not that it was too individualistic, but rather that it wasn’t individualistic enough.” In 1977, the black lesbians in the Combahee River Collective asserted, “Our politics…sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” So the final American Left of the industrial age gestured back, in spirit, to the first.
AT THE same time, long stretches of the Port Huron Statement echo not just the spirit but the letter of the social democratic tradition, which these young radicals were determined to transcend. One sees this in the statement’s harsh attack on corporate power and its vision of an egalitarian society that would expand civic participation rather than restrict it, as in both capitalist and communist nations. Michael Harrington bridled at the “anti-anti-Communism” of the section on the Cold War, but he could have found little to argue with in the lengthy list of proposals for economic planning, party realignment, mobilizing black voters, and more.
Even when the statement criticized organized labor, it did so in a tone of disappointment and with hope for its renewal. “Labor continues to be the most liberal—and most frustrated—institution in mainstream America,” the SDSers commented. Then they noted that, although union members showed little enthusiasm for politics, “there are some indications…that labor might regain its missing idealism”: the threat of automation, splits among union leaders over nuclear testing, and the demand by black activists for labor to take a clear stand for equal rights and to organize interracial unions in the South and elsewhere. The statement continued, “Either labor will continue to decline as a social force, or it must constitute itself as a mass political force demanding not only that society recognize its rights to organize but also a program going beyond desired labor legislation and welfare improvements.” SDSers were not in thrall to what C. Wright Mills called “the labor metaphysic,” the idea that only the proletariat could bring to birth a new world from the ruin of the old. But of organized labor’s significance, the statement left no doubt: “a new politics must include a revitalized labor movement.” At the time, not coincidentally, that not-so-vital movement was keeping SDS in business. The United Auto Workers and other unions were the main contributors to SDS’s modest budget, and the FDR Camp, where the meeting took place, was owned by the Michigan AFL-CIO. Moreover, as Nelson Lichtenstein pointed out in his biography of Walter Reuther, most of the program outlined at Port Huron was already the “common coin of the UAW leadership strata.”
THUS, LIKE socialists from Eugene Debs and Crystal Eastman to Norman Thomas and A. Philip Randolph, Hayden and his comrades understood the need to straddle the line between imagining a radically new society and improving the lives of the people who had to live in the deeply flawed old one. So it should not be startling to read in Hayden’s memoir that ”Immediately after the Port Huron convention, [SDS president]Al Haber and I drove to Washington to take our statement to the White House. We met there for an hour with Arthur Schlesinger [the historian and Kennedy advisor]…and he agreed to bring our views to the attention of the president. For the occasion, I wore a tie.”
Of course, early SDSers did break with some hallowed traditions on the American Left: they usually eschewed the socialist label and, most important, they followed the moral lead, the north star, of the black freedom movement. This was a clear break from the labor-centered vision and strategy of a social democracy created and led by white people. But, at the time the statement was written, progressive union stalwarts like Reuther and Jerry Wurf of AFSCME were, at worst, the uneasy allies of most civil rights organizers. And at best, labor liberals and civil rights activists could rock the nation together, as they showed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom just fourteen months after the campers had returned to their colleges and urban enclaves.
And is it even necessary to point out that close to a majority of the participants at Port Huron were secular Jews? That demographic fact also represented a continuity with both the socialist and communist Lefts over the previous four decades. The association of radicalism with opposition to the First World War and the ensuing rupture in the Socialist Party had led, fairly rapidly, to the desertion of most of the white working-class Christians who had been the majority in the People’s Party, the pre-war SP, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Few of their grandchildren rushed to join SDS.
But Jews continued to be prominent in the white New Left out of all proportion to their numbers in the American population—just as they were in Marxist parties from the 1920s through the 1950s. Tom Hayden, Paul Potter, Jane Adams, Greg Calvert, and Diana Oughton, all of whom were raised as Christians, were outnumbered by the likes of Dick Flacks, Todd Gitlin, Paul Booth, Heather Booth, Paul Berman, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, Robin Morgan, Abbie Hoffman, Karen Nussbaum, and Mike Klonsky—not to speak of middle-aged Jewish mentors such as Arnold Kaufmann, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. This ethnic continuity may help explain why, after SDS imploded and disappeared, its more historically minded survivors found much to praise in the Old Left tradition they had once been so keen to bury.
One aspect of the old Marxism that Port Huron mercifully interred was its twin faith in the inevitability that world capitalism would collapse and that a free and equal order would surely arise from the rubble. Carl Oglesby, in a brilliant essay published in 1969, called this faith “almost a carrion-bird politics. Distant and above it all for the moment, the revolutionary cadre circles, awaiting the hour of his predestinated dinner.” The introduction to the Port Huron Statement replaced such grim delusions with the grim realism of the nuclear age: the next global conflict would destroy the human race, not liberate it.
The statement then moved briskly to propose a fresh, utopian alternative to the old vision of state socialism that had been smashed into dust six years earlier by Khruschev’s not-so-“secret” speech and then by the bloody suppression of Hungary’s revolt that he directed a few months later. SDS’s alternative was “participatory democracy.” As Jim Miller wrote insightfully, “p.d.” was, at its creation, a profoundly ambiguous idea that did not become any more coherent over time. “It pointed toward daring personal experiments and modest social reforms,” wrote Miller. “It implied a political revolution” but with a patriotic ring, evoking New England town meetings where neighbors debated and made the key decisions that affected their communities.
What appealed to most of the young people who began to use the term was not so homespun a tradition. It was the promise of participatory democracy to utterly transform the society of over-managed, bureaucratic, formally representative institutions they believed were stifling their independence of thought and action. That is why Mario Savio’s famous speech in 1964 on the steps of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall with his feverish plea to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the “odious” machine became so emblematic and why consensus decision-making turned into the process of choice for many SDS chapters and then for the growing radical feminist movement as well.
The merits of participatory democracy, as an ideal and a practice, should be obvious. Only when “the people” stand up for themselves in their neighborhoods, their workplaces, and the streets of their cities will they learn how power works and how they can use it to advance their own interests. The Port Huron Statement went further, arguing, in one of its most famous lines 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.” Aided by this implicit promise of psychic benefits, the white New Left, at its zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, convinced several million Americans to engage in modes of civic life—ranging from teach-ins to civil disobedience to consciousness-raising groups to running wild in the streets—that were educational, exhilarating, and at times almost orgasmic.
However, participatory democracy was plagued by major blind spots, too. Claimed as the path to the good society, it had no answer to the question of what happens to the vast majority of citizens who have little or no taste for politics. Only an activist aflame with the impatient desire for a revolution could believe that the apolitical masses are a bunch of alienated, sad human beings who would welcome liberation by young zealots they have never met. Most people, after all, prefer to have their orgasms in private.
IT WAS also a serious mistake to equate democracy with participation in a social movement and to view all elected officials as either ineffectual cogs or corrupt parasites in an unjust system. The history of the American Left from the abolitionists to the civil rights movement proves that only when representative and participatory forms of democracy work together do egalitarian reforms succeed and political leaders emerge who can be held accountable to the will of their constituents. Tom Hayden recognized this himself in the mid-1970s when he took to wearing a tie on a daily basis in his new career as a progressive and often successful Democratic politician.
In 2011, we witnessed protests—from Tunisia to Madrid to Madison to Tel Aviv to Cairo to Moscow to Zuccotti Park—that were reminiscent of the kind of change the Port Huronites were advocating. Notwithstanding their vast differences, all these demonstrations sought to bring people out of isolation and into politics without requiring that they abandon their individual desires for the uncertain security of a hierarchical organization. Many of the protests were either organized by or helped to gestate mass movements. In the United States, the Occupiers took up the slogan, “This is what democracy looks like.”
UNFORTUNATELY, THAT is just a partial truth and one that contains the seeds of disillusionment, if not a movement’s decline. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier is skeptical about nearly every mass protest, yet he did recently ask a good question: “Why do demonstrators always confuse the quality of their own experience, their mystical moments of unity, with the condition of their country, with its progress?” Later in the 1960s, I was among the SDSers who imagined that our takeovers of campus buildings and our huge demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and other cities were the tip of a popular rebellion that would not stop with ending the war in Vietnam. In the 1970s, we discovered the need to identify and campaign for peace-minded politicians too. But by the time George McGovern was nominated for president in 1972, he was unable to mobilize the dwindling energies of the antiwar movement without being held captive to its popular image as a band of scruffy, violent anti-Americans.
Since most Americans were not about to become full-time political activists, it was natural for the writers of the Port Huron Statement to pin their hopes for a truly radical, fully democratic society on the only group whose members had the time, the vigor, and the inclination to dedicate their lives to bringing it about: college students of all races with a strong intellectual bent. Academia was “an overlooked seat of influence,” they argued, because of its “social relevance, the accessibility of knowledge, and internal openness. These together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.” The statement added that, to grow, the New Left would require a partnership between liberals and socialists; the university was “a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.”
Just a few years later, that last goal sounded naïve and outmoded, when opposing the war in Vietnam consumed most SDS activists. Since liberal presidents and their appointees had planned and carried out the assault on Indochina, “humanist liberals,” as Oglesby, then the president of SDS, called them in 1965, had to denounce that legacy or else become what he called “grudging apologists for the corporate state.” Soon, on campuses from Palo Alto and Kent, Ohio to Cambridge and Manhattan, SDS members were battling liberal administrators and forcing liberal professors to choose up sides. The grand synthesis of liberalism and radicalism was stillborn.
However, by the end of the sixties, the reigning culture at universities was beginning to undergo a rapid and, for young radicals, a most salutary change. The delegates at Port Huron had not anticipated this. Ironically, they lodged a critique of academic life that was as damning as anything Allan Bloom, the idol of neoconservativism, would say a quarter-century later. “The actual intellectual effect of the college experience,” they complained, “ is hardly distinguishable from that of any other communications channel—say a television set—passing on the stock truths of the day. Students leave college more ‘tolerant’ than when they arrived, but basically unchallenged in their values and political orientations.”
While young radicals did not overthrow the System, they certainly helped alter what passed for “stock truths” in every humanities discipline and in most of the social sciences as well. Alas, the “long march through the institutions” that German SDS leader Rudi Dutschke had called for, was, in the United States at least, more successful in colleges and universities than anywhere else. Ironically, the former student activists who went on to careers in academia did more to create a refuge from the nation’s rightward drift than a mass base for progressive social change. Last December, Kalle Lasn, the editor of Adbusters magazine who helped create Occupy Wall Street, declared, “Revolutions always start at universities.” Perhaps. But they can end there too.
The emphasis at Port Huron and after on the radical potential of the young also obscured an analytical flaw beneath the undeniable excitement of a generation on the move. The fact that the New Left heralded itself as a young Left was critical to its growth—and to its ultimate demise. Radical movements everywhere depend on the zealous energies of people who need little sleep and do not have to worry about the feeding, clothing, and sleep schedules of children. The average age of the Bolshevik leaders who took power in Petrograd in 1917 was all of twenty-six. But never before had an American Left made youth itself a badge of rebellion—or prided itself on breaking away from its older predecessors. Jack Weinberg, the Berkeley radical who coined the famous line—“We don’t trust anyone over 30”—meant it as a rebuttal to the charge that subversive adults were pulling the strings. But few people, inside or outside the Movement, got the joke.
The notion of a “revolution” made almost exclusively by the young was both brilliant and absurd. On the one hand, it expressed the self-confidence of activists from a generation that was both larger and better educated than any in U.S. history. College enrollment tripled during the 1960s to nearly ten million, and few students had experienced the privations of the Great Depression. For many Americans who believed that one can always remake one’s life, the plain-spoken brashness of young radicals was often appealing, even when they disagreed with the point of their protests.
Yet age has no intrinsic political merit, and the impatience of nearly all young radicals and the arrogance of some also led them astray. Contemptuous of liberals, they came to spurn the very idea of inter-class, interracial reform coalitions that was still a live option for the authors of the Port Huron statement. Disenchanted with old formulas for remaking American society, they gave little thought to devising new ones. For the antiwar militants who flooded into SDS after 1965, “participatory democracy” seemed too hazy and abstract both in meaning and application to guide a revolution. Frustration at the lack of an alternative led an aggressive minority in the movement to take up one variety of Leninist dogma or another, while other activists sought to refashion a liberalism cleansed of cold war hypocrisies. Neither project was successful.
So Port Huron’s “agenda for a generation” devolved, perhaps inevitably, into a set of stirring principles for an activist, mostly white minority of that generation. And by the end of the sixties, the visibility of the text itself had faded. Even as a much abridged pamphlet, the statement was not high on the reading list at most SDS chapters. The radical movement had grown much larger, as well as much angrier and prone to an ideological rigidity that had been refreshingly absent at the convention camp. The New Left Reader, a popular anthology edited by Carl Oglesby in 1969, included documents by everyone from Louis Althusser and Fidel Castro to Huey Newton and Mark Rudd—but not a word of the Port Huron Statement.
AND FOR all its capaciousness, Port Huron had nothing to say about three groups that would become major factors in American politics and culture by the end of the decade: environmentalists, feminists, and the New Right. It would be unfair to criticize the Port Huronites for failing to anticipate the coming of Earth Day or the emergence of the women’s liberation movement; Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring wasn’t published until the fall of 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique did not reach bookstores until half a year later. But the conservative Young Americans for Freedom had roughly 30,000 members in 1962. That March, YAF sponsored a rally that filled Madison Square Garden. In a text that devoted thousands of words to the shortcomings of liberalism, some attention might have been paid to what, even then, was its main opposition.
Still, what was produced at Port Huron has aged better than the apocalyptic, hypermilitant pronouncements that drew so much attention forty years ago yet elicit mostly puzzlement or derision today. “I liked both the longing for a total explanation and the uncertainty as to what it might be,” Todd Gitlin recalled about his first reading of the Statement. Indeed, for radicals, a little self-doubt is a valuable thing. In the class I teach about the 1960s, I show undergraduates a film clip of Mario Savio shouting on the steps of Sproul Hall on the Berkeley campus about throwing his body on the machine. Then I ask, “What was this man so angry about?” They haven’t got a clue, although his passion is rather compelling. Huey Newton’s talk of “revolutionary suicide” has, thankfully, no appeal at all. To young Americans who worked hard to elect Barack Obama in 2008 and have sympathized or taken part in Occupy events, the idea of building a movement to restructure the system instead of blowing the whole thing up just sounds like common sense.
BUT THEY need—we need—the utopian spirit of Port Huron as much we do its attention to posing practical solutions to the outrages committed by power elites at every level of society, in the United States and around the world. Fifty years ago, that band of twenty-somethings dared to imagine the making of a more decent, more humane as well as a more democratic society. “We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity,” they declared. That one sentence captured the larger ideal that animated many civil rights organizers as well as the feminist and gay insurgencies soon to come. These movements greatly expanded the scope of individual freedom in America: to work wherever one is qualified, to live anyplace one can afford, and to love and marry anyone who loves and wants to marry you—to an extent unimaginable at the time the statement was written.
Today, the international regime of freebooting capitalism has delivered neither material abundance, nor social harmony, nor security to most of the world’s people. Failed states, religious wars, environmental disaster, austerity in the face of poverty, clashes between immigrants and the native born are common features of current history, as they were in previous eras. But the perception that there is no alternative to chronic crisis but, somehow, to muddle through only exacerbates the problems.
At the end of his book about the Port Huron Statement, Jim Miller rhapsodized that “for anyone who joined in the search for a democracy of individual participation—and certainly for anyone who remembers the happiness and holds to the hopes that the quest itself aroused—the sense of what politics can mean will never be quite the same again.”
For those who believe in and work for beneficial and enduring change, such longings should never be dismissed as merely “utopian.” They are, instead, the very soul of realism—the only way to motivate large numbers of people to join and commit themselves to the lofty purposes of left-wing social movements. As the memorable coda of the Port Huron Statement put it, “If we appear to seek the unattainable…then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” Future writers of manifestos could do worse than to begin right there.