This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the foundational document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The anniversary comes at a time of renewed interests of student-led democracy movements around the world, in an online context we never dreamed about. The Occupy Wall Street movement even invokes “participatory democracy” in its recent manifesto. There will be major conferences on the Port Huron Statement this year at UCLA (where I am teaching a class), UCSB, NYU and elsewhere. Documents prepared for the Port Huron events will be posted periodically at this website.
- TOM HAYDEN
The Port Huron Statement @ 50
By Robert Cohen, for a panel at the Miami Book Fair with Tom Hayden and Martha Prescod, November 2011.
The New York Post has spent the last few month denouncing Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters as 1960s retreads, dirty hippies, and violent radicals. Similarly, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn last week (Nov. 8, 2011) denounced the Occupy Wall Street Movement as “a lark. For Woodstock wannabees, [for whom] it’s a romantic trip back to the Vietnam War protests… . Occupy Wall Street has taken a high-profile part of Manhattan and turned it into an anarchist campground … of the homeless and a haven for drug dealing.”
This evocation of the radical ‘60s, drugs, and anarchy is by now an old trope of the American Right. As Bernard von Bothmer documents in his book Framing the Sixites; The Use and Abuse of A Decade (2010), for generations right-wing politicians, dating back to Ronald Reagan, have used negative images of the 1960s, an emotionally charged caricature of that decade, that amount to demonization, to discredit – or at least try to discredit, even moderately liberal forces for political change. This was what that noise John McCain and Sarah Palin were making was all about during the last presidential race when they used this 1960s-guilt by association discourse to try to slander Barack Obama. Remember? Palin repeatedly trumpeted Obama’a connection to the left-wing “terrorist” Bill Ayers – she said Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” as if the Democratic presidential nominee was an honorary member of the Weather Underground, when in fact Obama was an 8 year old child at the time when Weather formed.
As a historian of the 1960s who has been reading these politicians and their campaigns’ 60s-bashing screeds for decades I find them as significant for what they leave out as for what they use as targets for this demonization. For example, they never mention Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio (the subject of a biography I published in 2009), and they also are averse to mentioning or focusing upon the Port Huron Statement (PHS). In fact, von Bothmer interviewed scores of conservative Republican politicos for his book and not one of them mentioned the PHS or Savio. And I think there are pretty much identical reasons why neither Savio nor the PHS have been major targets of this 60s-bashing. Neither the PHS nor Savio’s speeches are susceptible to being caricatured to fit the Republican cartoon version of the 1960s as a violent, irrational, frighteningly subversive, drug-filled, immoral nightmare. Yes it is true that one or two extreme right-wingers – David Horowitz and Robert Bork – have tried to treat the PHS as a commie plot – but this attempt to mistake the New Left for the Old Left never gained any traction with Republicans involved in the real world of electoral politics, probably because that argument is so over the top (the PHS, after all, criticized both sides in the Cold War, and advocated participatory democracy) that it never had the slightest chance of resonating with voters, especially since the Cold War has been over for decades.
The PHS represents a part of the 1960s that the American Right would prefer we forget, the early 1960s, when SDS activists at Port Huron, SNCC civil rights organizers in Mississippi, Free Speech Movement protesters at Berkeley were organizing non-violently to make America a more democratic, egalitarian, and free society. The only activist students who were violent in the early 1960s were not these organizers on the Left but those racists on the right who at the University of Georgia in 1961 and Mississippi in 1962 fomented segregationist riots to oppose the admissions of the first black students on their deep South campuses. As for the student Left, these activists were doing historic work envisioning a new America, and struggling to push the nation beyond the its Cold War limitations, away from the arms race, away from counterrevolutionary military coups and wars, away from the anti-democratic legacies of Jim Crow and Joseph McCarthy, away from the paralysis of political indifference and apathy, and towards a reinvigorated form of political community that the Port Huron Statement termed participatory democracy. So yes most politicians of the right state away from the PHS statement because they cannot rebut its deeply felt and idealistic democratic faith and cannot handle the questions it raises as to why a wealthy nation is marred by poverty, why an America that prides itself on its peaceful nature is so addicted to the use of force abroad, why its two party system offers so little choice and disengages millions of its citizens, why its universities do so little to use their resources and expertise to battle social inequality, why its black community remains so separate and unequal.
Read into historical context, the PHS (authored by Tom Hayden and 60 or so SDS activists at Port Huron Michigan in 1962) connects with traditions of dissent that go back way before the 1960s. Its challenge to the two party’s system compromises with racism and segregation calls to mind William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ North Star editorials breaking with the antebellum American two party system’s consensus over permitting slavery to exist in the South. The PHS statement’s dissent from Cold War America’s infatuation with military solutions and the arms race calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay On Civil Disobedience, where he explains and justifies his refusal to pay taxes for an unjust war, going to jail in his non-violent resistance. And too Thoreau and the PHS shared a commitment to participatory democracy, displayed when – in referring to civil disobedience – he urged Americans to vote “not merely with a strip of paper but with your whole life.” And as surely as the women’s movement 1848 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments constituted its declaration of independence from a male monopoly on power and voting, the PHS was the 1960s student movement’s declaration of independence from Cold War America’s politics of inequality, its “warfare state” mentality and skewed budget priorities.
Historian Howard Zinn referred to SNCC the civil rights organizers in the black-led student movement, as the “new abolitionists,” who were risking their lives in the struggle to free the South from racism, segregation, and black disfranchisement. And there are a number of levels in which the PHS’ authors can also be seen as new abolitionists. First, because some of the leading figures in SDS and the New Left, most notably Tom Hayden. developed their hyper-democratic politics in part under the influence of SNCC. Hayden had worked with SNCC in its daring freedom organizing in Mississippi and came to Port Huron shortly after risking his life as a freedom rider in SNCC’s daring campaign against Jim Crow in Albany, Georgia. Since activists in that movement were putting their bodies, their very lives on the line, all were active participants in its decisions, and the freedom movement modeled, actually lived and breathed, the ethos of participatory democracy.
The PHS was political, but its concerns were deeply moral as well. This too resembles the abolitionists, for as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted, “the abolitionist movement was based upon a moral not an economic discontent… almost all abolitionists were middle class people who had no material stake” in the slave system, but were founding a movement to abolish slavery out of moral concerns. Similarly, the mostly middle class students who wrote the PHS were fired not by their own economic grievances – and in fact the opening lines of the PHS speak of their having been “bred in at least modest comfort” and “housed now in universities.” They were seeking as Bob Moses, put it to “bring morality to their politics,” unlike their compromising elders who too often seemed to bring politics to their morality.” In fact, the PHS started off not with a laundry list of political demands, but with a morally focused section on “values.” As Tom Hayden explained, “We chose to put “values” forward as the first priority in challenging the conditions of apathy and forging a new politics. Embracing values meant making choices as morally autonomous human beings against a world that advertised in every possible way that there were no choices, that the present was just a warm up for the future.”
I have highlighted the connections between PHS and this long tradition of dissent to show that we can learn much about the PHS if we think about its historical roots and avoid lumping it with sensationalized images of the late 1960s. But while connected to that earlier tradition of dissent we ought not lose sight of what was distinctive about the PHS, about the time of its writing in the early 1960s, for this was a time very different from the polarized world of late 1960s America when so much of the political discourse had been poisoned by violence – the bloodshed of Vietnam and the tragedies of one assassination after another, from Medgar Evers to JFK, Martin Luther King and RFK. The early 60s was a time of promise when liberals and radicals were not yet enemies (before Atlantic City and Vietnam had soured many radicals on liberalism’s opportunism)l it was a perioof when both were involved in extraordinarily deep explorations of the limitations of American political, social, and intellectual life. Reminding us of the distinctiveness of what Tom Hayden has referred to as this “Port Huron moment” of the early 1960s, intellectual historian David. A Hollinger, concluded in our recent e-mail exchange that The Port Huron Statement, whatever else it may be as a historical document, is a compelling example of the political and intellectual creativity of the very special historical moment of the early 1960s. That historical moment is too often conflated in popular memory with events of the later 1960s and early 1970s, which sometimes produced works of a quite different character. Mixing a forthright commitment to “reason” with a candid and explicit celebration of the human capacity for “love,” the Port Huron Statement was a deliberate, non-sloganeering, carefully formulated presentation of a vision of democracy very similar to that developed much earlier by John Dewey. The Port Huron Statement shares a distinctive historical moment with Rachel Carson’s SILENT SPRING, Jane Jacobs’ DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN CITIES, Michael Harrington’s OTHER AMERICA, and Betty Friedan’s THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, plus a number of less politically salient works that continue to provide basic vocabularies with which we discuss central aspects of our culture, including Thomas S. Kuhn’s THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, and Clark Kerr’s THE USES OF THE UNIVERSITY.
What was it that made the early 1960s, the Port Huron moment, such a time of intellectual creativity and searching social criticism? Perhaps it was the relief of finally being done with the dark night of McCarthyism. Or the sense of possibility of democratic renewal fostered both by a young and energetic president -- JFK -- and by the sit-in movement, born in Greensboro and quickly spreading first across the South and then from coast to coast. The Port Huron Statement’s sense of generational mission seems to have been then more than baby boomer egotism, but reflected the fact that by 1962 youth were already beginning to lead the way towards democratic change from the deep South to the White House. And yet this was a youth movement that lacked generational chauvinism; it was not merely willing but eager to build on the insights of dissident elders, symbolized by the attendance at Port Huron of Michigan Philosophy professor Arnold Kaufman whose participatory democracy idealism -- along with that of John Dewey’s helped set the tone of the PHS, as did the critical sensibility of the late Columbia sociologist C, Wright Mills, with his memorable indictment of the American power elites for monopolizing power.
Despite its strong element of social criticism there was almost a sweetness to some of the rhetoric and tone of the PHS, a faith in reason, and an optimism about the possibilities of converting dysfunctional or status quo-oriented institutions like the two party system and the universities into instruments of progressive social change. As Hollinger put it, the PHS offered “deliberate language’ in its effort” to outline a program based on both theoretical reflection and an empirical view of the historical circumstances of the moment. The document's identification of "reason, freedom, and love" as key ideals and "the cultivation of the mind" as central to university education made it a call to action that wedded an upbeat and moderate tone to a radically democratic sensibility.
This was emblematic of, as Mario Savio put it, the New Left’s early and most appealing phase, when it was speaking in plain language, a rhetoric of “communication,” eager to reach out to others and build a mass non-violent movement. A world away from the angry and dogmatic rhetoric of the late 60s, that Savio termed the rhetoric of “confrontation,” a rhetoric born of the Vietnam tragedy, and the urgent need to stop the war and the killing by any means necessary.
Part of what made the Port Huron Statement such an exciting document for students on the Left was that it departed from not just the sloganeering but the hierarchical approach to political organizing that had made the Old Left seemed so archaic and irrelevant. For red-diaper babies, those who came from CP families, like Michael Nash, encountering the PHS as a high school student was “like a breath of fresh air” because its stress on participatory democracy made for a communal approach to decision-making and organizing that differed fundamentally from the cadre-style elitism of his parent’s generation. It was an open and indigenous American radicalism free of all that baggage from the Communist past. The PHS’ authors saw themselves as writing a “living document,” grounded in experience and empirical evidence not dogma, a document that could be modified based on further experience. This was a pragmatic approach to organizing, and a world removed from the “Party line” pronouncements of the Old Left.
Journalist Jack Newfield in his pioneering history of the New Left referred to these new student radicals as a “prophetic minority.” And when you think of how much of the PHS anticipated the imminent student rebellion the word “prophetic” does not seem an exaggeration. Just two years after the Port Huron Conference, Berkeley’s student protesters were – without necessarily having studied the PHS – living its highest ideals. They led a mass movement for free speech in fall 1964, which lived and breathed the PHS spirit of participatory democracy, using consensus decision making, to defeat a hierarchical and repressive campus administration, and generating much thought and organizing to try to realize the PH dream of a university, which instead of being a service station for the military-industrial complex, assisted in a process of democratic renewal by having the campus serve as a base for a freedom movement challenging not only Jim Crow in the South but racial discrimination and poverty in the ostensibly liberal North.
And as to legacies, the PHS ethos of participatory democracy is today literally shaking the walls of power even in the most unlikely of places, Wall Street. The OCW movement, with its General Assembly, its consensus decision-making, its wariness about the status quo/two party system, its refusal – much to the consternation of the mass media – to focus on a few narrow demands but instead to offer a larger (if not yet fully articulated) PHS-style hyper-democratic vision, suggests that the path the PHS generation blazed in demanding accountability and change of the American power elite is one that continues to have immense appeal to a new generation in a new century.