In March 1962, a 22-year-old student journalist and activist named Tom Hayden sat down in his Manhattan apartment to begin work on an “agenda for a generation,” a manifesto that would distil the fears and hopes and values of the student movement then rising on American campuses. Three months later, members of the newly formed Students for a Democratic Society, the leading organization of the New Left movement, came together to debate and edit Hayden’s draft at a five-day retreat near Port Huron, northeast of Detroit.
The final, approved text, adopted as SDS’s founding document and known ever after as the Port Huron Statement, sets out a vision of bottom-up “participatory democracy” as the common thread binding the various left-liberal causes – civil rights, anti-poverty, anti-nuclear, peace, labor, free speech, campus reform – and a life-affirming answer to the conformism and apathy of the time. The historian Michael Kazin called it “the most ambitious, the most specific, and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American Left.”
The utopianism of the Port Huron Statement took a beating amid the convulsions of the mid-to-late Sixties – the Vietnam war, the killing of JFK, infighting, FBI infiltration. But the “movement spirit” it crystallized inspired real change, and its insistence on grassroots democracy resonates today, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.
Hayden, who went on to serve 18 years in the California Senate, is a writer, teacher, and activist. He sat down recently with RollingStone.com to talk about innocence, experience, and the Port Huron Statement at 50.
The opening sentence of the Port Huron Statement reads, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” Remind us what you and your fellow students were feeling uncomfortable about.
It’s an expression of a troubled middle-class consciousness among young people feeling that the world prepared by our parents isn’t something that we want to settle for, and is even rather scary.
Talking of scary, the statement talks about your sense that yours “may be the last generation in the experiment with living.” How palpable was that fear?
The fear was of the world blowing up was very real. We were raised with atom bomb shelters in the backyard and nuclear saber rattling. This was not hypothetical: Within three months of Port Huron, there was the nuclear standoff between the United States and Cuba. It was in the air, an atmosphere of terror. Dr. Strangelove, which came out later, in 1964, expressed the mood – madmen talking about Mutually Assured Destruction, aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at each other.
At the same time, along with the fear, it talks a lot about apathy.
On campus, as student government activists, campus editors, the first thing you face as an organizer is that nobody is interested. I think it’s partly a protection against anxiety. Also, this was a time, coming out of the 1950s, of complete conformity,
And time of prosperity – “at least modest comfort.”
That was a difference between then and now. We were middle class, which meant we ourselves were not at risk from imminent economic crisis. The cost of tuition was $100 a semester, as I recall. But on the other hand there was 30 or 40 percent poverty rate. We were inspired by the birth of the student movement against racism and poverty – by young people our age in the South who were fighting to bring down the walls of segregation and do something about poverty at the same time.
You went into the South, too.
The people in SDS, like myself, were really brought into this by the Student Nonviolent Coodinating Committee. We made a blood oath to spend five years at the risk of our lives to go into the worst areas of the Deep South, where there were large numbers of blacks who could not vote, and end the Jim Crow system. We saw that this was the foundation of the white conservative seniority system in congress. The white Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party had figured out that if you disenfranchised all blacks and won elections repeatedly, you could use the seniority system to take over the Congress as kind of a way to reignite the Civil War and win politically. So our contribution was, I believe, to think politically how to strive for a majority and change the Democratic party, the government, and the world. It might sound naïve, but I don’t know if people understand how important a certain naïveté is when you’re about to risk your life.
So, from the beginning the idea was to work outside the system but also within it?
There’s something particular about America where the possibilities for genuine electoral politics on the left are smothered by the Democratic Party. But if you don’t run as a Democrat, if you don’t try to influence the Democratic Party, you lose on the issues. I think the argument of Port Huron is that it’s two tracks – both independent social movements and working within the system. You need both.
What else was happening at that time on the outside track?
A big part of the plan was to awaken a student-power movement, with the right to have a voice in decisions affecting their lives on campus; the right to participate was at the center of all of this. At the same time, people were organizing farm workers in the Southwest in what became the UFW.
And tying it all together was this idea of “participatory democracy,” the idea at the heart of the Port Huron statement. Explain what that was.
The person who invented the term was Arnold Kauffman, a professor at University of Michigan. At its heart participatory democracy is the idea is that change comes from the bottom up. And we saw it again and again: People who were considered irrelevant marginal, unqualified, poor people in the black belt, turned out to have information that was absolutely vital to solving their problems – people like Fannie Lou Hamer. That’s the potential that participatory democracy seeks to unlock.
And it went beyond politics. You thought of participatory democracy in pretty expansive terms.
Yes, it was meant as a way for a person to become a more whole and creative human being and exercise his or her full potential, because the alternative was to be a zombie, a deadened person. But it also meant voting, Thoreau said, “Vote with your whole life, not just with a thin strip of paper.” It meant – and means – referendums, initiatives and recalls, non-violent civil disobedience, direct action, community organizing, union organizing. If you only participated a few minutes each year in voting, you’d be a shrunken person in terms of your human development. If you had no way to have a voice at the job, you would become an automaton. So the idea was that to become whole you had to participate in all the spheres of your life.
By the middle of the 1960s, the idealism of Port Huron had given way, in part, to disillusion. What happened?
Foremost was the killing of John F. Kennedy. He was not the leader, but he was an essential ingredient in what we were trying to accomplish. He had initiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets, had spoken out against the Cold War itself and the nuclear arms race, had become gradually more interested in Civil Rights. Also – and this may seem naive today – we didn’t really think presidents would run for office telling lies on such a grand scale as promising never to send American ground troops to Southeast Asia. We didn’t much like Lyndon Johnson, but we voted for him precisely because he said he wasn’t going to start a war in Vietnam.
And on top of the external shocks, there were internal problems.
You started to get fights between descendants of old tribes, the anarchists talking about 1937, and the Trotskyites talking about the Stalinists, and the Marxists breaking away from the Soviet models and the Fidelistas and the Ho Chi Min activists and the Maoists, and forgive me if I’m leaving anybody out. Suddenly, what had been a homegrown ideology based on homespun participatory democracy became a hot house of factions fighting over whether the red book was right. Then we had the problem of COINTELPRO, the FBI counter Intelligence program which started targeting the New Left in ’67. I was on a special list of people to be neutralized; much of that has yet to come out. So you didn’t know who you were sleeping with or who you were around, and with that came paranoia and fear.
The early movement was committed to nonviolence, but that didn’t last. Why not?
I was never a moral believer in nonviolence, because it had a cult aspect. I thought that it was a tactic, and a powerful one. And yet there was nothing that the advocates of nonviolence could do about the emergence of the Black Panther Party. The perception that we had failed led to the Black Panther Party, so we couldn’t go out and lecture young blacks in the slums to be nonviolent, as Martin Luther King found. So we became infected by all sorts of ideas about confrontation. By 1966-67 SDS had denounced the Port Huron statement as reformist, and reformism was like some kind of faded illusion.
Even so, a lot of movement’s goals ended up being achieved. How did that happen?
There was this unexpected turnaround in 1970, when the more moderate establishment people started to began to think they had to concede on many of these issues in order to restore stability and protect our own institutional role. So, all of a sudden, the Voting Rights Act passed – 26 million people were enfranchised who weren’t before, the end of the War in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia, the first congressional action to impose oversight on the CIA and the FBI, the toppling of two presidents by internal domestic strife, the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, which disgorged thousands and thousands of secrets. Even Nixon’s signing of the environmental laws after 20 million people assembled on Earth Day. So the establishment did reform partly in order to remain the establishment. But those reforms should not be belittled. They came at the cost of bloodshed and a virtual civil war.
Do you think the idea of participatory democracy still has life in it?
Yes. You might call it something else – grassroots democracy? It’s the only platform I can think of that has American roots and speaks to needs that can’t be fully met by existing institutions. The goal of institutions is to absorb individuals and make them voters and consumers and employees, not to raise their participation in the society or meet their basic moral and material needs. But participatory democracy is also reformist, because who could be against democracy? We just want a little more democracy. And more after that.
In your introduction to the recent edition of the Port Huron Statement, you quote the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, who asked, “What would happen if men remained loyal to the ideals of their youth?” Do you think people should remain loyal to those ideals? Have you?
I don’t think you can, and you shouldn’t. I really don’t like to contemplate the 65-year-old hippies that I see now and then. They remind me of my father – the World War II people who never stopped talking about their primal experience in life, which happened when they were 20. There are other experiences in life, one of which is that you have to make compromises. When you’re young, the possibilities of purity are highest, and you’re like an eagle that can see something far away that nobody else can see with their tired vision. The eagle at the top of the tree is looking seemingly forever and sees what he’s looking for, and everybody else is saying, What’s the eagle doing? But that’s only one dimension of life, to see like an eagle.
So do you leave idealism behind?
It’s too simple to say you’re idealistic when you’re young then you sell out. I recognize the primacy of that revolutionary yearning in young people. I think it’s the most important thing in the world at this time. I can’t help it if I have thought of where it might go based on what I’ve seen. You don’t navigate challenges and remain unchanged. Not that you don’t sometimes yearn to be young again, but you’ll never see the world the way you did when you were truly young.