Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society and later a State Assemblyman and Senator in California, talks with Steve Paulson.
Jim Fleming: Tom Haden was a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, and later, one of the Chicago Seven, “the men charged with, and later acquitted, of conspiring to incite a riot at the ‘68 Democratic Convention. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Haden joined the political mainstream, serving in California’s State Assembly and Senate. Tom Haden stopped by our studio to talk with Steve Paulson about the legacy of the 60’s.
Tom Haden: I often wonder if I was five years older “ I’m 67 or thereabouts “ whether I would have missed the ˜60’s. It happens that I graduated high school the year that Kerouac’s “On The Road’ was finally published. It was also the year of the Little Rock school integration at the point of Federal troops. It was two years after the Montgomery bus boycotts. I think those were precursors of the ˜60’s.
Steve Paulson: And then Kerouac’s book “ that had a big impact on you, didn’t it?
Tom Haden: It had a big impact on everybody. I was part of the hitchhiking generation, but by its very nature it didn’t organize a generation, it touched the feelings of isolated individuals, as did the character of Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye’, who, as you’ll recall, thought the whole world was a mess and you find out at the end of the book that he’s in a mental institution.
Steve Paulson: Uh huh.
Tom Haden: I felt like that, and I came out to California as a student editor, and I interviewed Martin Luther King on a picket line. I was still more drawn to a career in journalism, so I was thinking in terms of how the interview with King would get me on the front page of the Michigan Daily more than to be a suggestion that I should put aside the pen or pick up the picket sign or both.
Steve Paulson: You were the observer rather than the actor.
Tom Haden: I was a kind of observer, I’m ashamed to admit, but I went with students that year to Fayette County, Tennessee because of something I’d read about sharecroppers displaced from the land and we brought them food and that’s where I encountered the first sheriff coming up out of the darkness and my knees buckled and we were run out of town by maniacs with chains and clubs and all of these experiences were personal but also, and I don’t want to dwell on it, but it was quite an incredible time, you know. You had the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis, which brought the nuclear dread right home. We were closer than ever since to an actual nuclear war. That got into your bones. We were all draft age, too. But things were happening. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring’, Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique’, Ralph Nader wrote “Unsafe at Any Speed’, Frantz Fanon wrote “The Wretched of the Earth’. These books all were published in the space of about one year, 1961, 1963. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was formed. This was the blossoming of what I thought must be a social revolution.
Steve Paulson: Uh huh. What, let me take you back to 1962 when you and your fellow SDS’s.
Tom Haden: As long as you know that was 45 years ago.
Steve Paulson: (laughs)
Tom Haden: We’re still talking about something that happened a very long time ago.
Steve Paulson: Absolutely, which has been immortalized in various books
Tom Haden: Not quite.
Steve Paulson: Well, the Port Huron Statement, you were the lead writer of that statement. It has turned into one of the most important political manifestos, I think it’s fair to say.
Tom Haden: I’m not sure. I would say it’s an asterisk for a generation, but
Steve Paulson: (laughs) When you look back on that document, how well do you think it still holds up today?
Tom Haden: Well, it’s got all of the strengths and weakness of sophomoric writing, basically. I mean, there’s a huge amount of utopianism, idealism that only a young person could have written. If you looked at it, this is not Karl Marx, this is not C. Wright Mills, this is not John Dewey, this is a self-confident generation finding its voice, really.
Steve Paulson: And to some degree rejecting an older generation of leftists, too.
Tom Haden: No, there’s a generational friction that I think accompanies all these movements. I regret it because it means that the older Left had been broken by McCarthyism. It’s not entirely a good thing to be new, because it means your predecessors have been completely displaced. The other thing about the Port Huron Statement that I do think is lasting is the notion of direct action or participatory democracy as an alternative to merely voting.
Steve Paulson: So democracy at that time meant you went to the polls, and that’s what it meant to.
Tom Haden: Well, it meant more than that, because I couldn’t vote, I could be drafted. Blacks in the South couldn’t vote, so getting the vote was no small matter. But it was more than getting the vote. It was extending the opportunity to have a voice in decisions beyond the ballot box to the community, to the university, to the workplace.
Steve Paulson: So where did leadership fit into this whole idea of participatory democracy? I mean, your movement back in the 60’s still needed leaders, you were one of them.
Tom Haden: The easy answer is that leaders should be elected and rotated and held accountable, and even that is problematic. But there is a role for leadership, but too much of history is considered in terms of leaders. I cringe at things I’m blamed for and things I’m given credit for. (laughs) It’s all part of the inflation of the individual.
Steve Paulson: Give me an example of that.
Tom Haden: The Port Huron Statement is kind of in between. It is true that I wrote a very long single-spaced draft. It is also true that about 65 people sat for 5 days in small circles breaking it into component chapters and reconceptualizing it and then voting on it and then turned it back to me for a final polish. So do I get all that credit, or does the larger group get that credit? Those are the kind of things that make me cringe.
Steve Paulson: Now when you look back on what happened later in the 60’s, particularly your own involvement in the 60’s, you were certainly one of the most visible activists during that time. Do you feel like you more or less lived out the principles that you had spelled out in the Port Huron Statement?
Tom Haden: Awkwardly. For instance, I’ve always had an extreme ambivalence about the question of leadership. And I’ve come to believe that it could be my weakness, can’t resolve it, or it could be that it’s simply not resolvable given my other beliefs. Sometimes, you know, it’s not resolvable because, in the electoral system we have, if you want to run for office you’re naturally going to inflate yourself, you know, you’re going to take credit for things, you’re going to want your name on bills, because you can’t go to the voters and say, you know, I don’t do anything because I don’t believe in leadership .
Steve Paulson: Right and spoken by a former politician.
Tom Haden: Right. So, you know, it’s kind of the system imposes certain penalties in life, if you choose, for instance, to become involved in politics.
Steve Paulson: Well, I know, to bring our story even closer up to the present here, you teach college students today, I’m sure you give a lot of talks at colleges. What’s your sense of how today’s activists compare to the way you folks were back in the 60’s?
Tom Haden: Today’s activists as opposed to today’s students?
Steve Paulson: Well, I’ll leave that open to your interpretation.
Tom Haden: Well, I think that the 60’s caused a lot of reforms that have become part of the status quo. The Free Speech Movement, you know, that started over the placement of tables.
Steve Paulson: I didn’t know that.
Tom Haden: Yes. It started over moving tables from Sprawl Hall to Bancroft and Telegraph and so on. I don’t think that a university would be foolish enough to ignite anger over an issue like that, although they’re capable of foolishness, I understand that. What I’m saying is that the universities have become like a soundproof room, where it’s really hard to shout and feel that you’re being heard. You can read Leon Trotsky if you wish, you can read Che Guevara’s diaries, you can unearth feminist treasures -- stuff that was forbidden in a time when, that was synonymous with that it must be radical or revolutionary. The forbidden is now permissible. Secondly, the draft is gone, and there’s nothing to get your attention like a military draft. It’s unbelievable existential crisis when you’re in that young and transitional period. And then the other thing that’s not given much attention is, you know, I went to the University of Michigan for a hundred bucks. I can’t remember if it was a hundred bucks a year or a semester.
Steve Paulson: Cheap, in other words.
Tom Haden: Yeah, we had an idea like they have in France and Mexico and most civilized countries, that higher education should be free. State subsidized. A state investment in the future. Kind of like Social Security for the elders and free college education for anybody who wants it and is qualified for the youth. Now it’s been brought under the forces of the market where students, their discretionary time is rationed out very carefully. The competitive stakes are very great when you’re trying to get in. I don’t remember anybody in my generation having to apply to 25 colleges looking for the good fortune of being admitted to one or two. Now we have a market model , not completely, but a market model that’s displacing the old model of college funding, and that’s got to have an effect on behavior, and it’s got to induce more apathy than alienation, I would think.
Steve Paulson: Hmm. Which is interesting, because I know that apathy was one of those words that you and your fellow activists back in the early 60’s railed against.
Tom Haden: We railed against it, but remember that we had discretionary time. I could drop out of the university and nothing would happen. I could go to jail in Mississippi, nothing would happen. I could return, pay my hundred bucks and get back in. This is a treadmill that today’s students are on that we didn’t face. We thought our life, you know, the future, was a treadmill, the grey flannel suit and all that, but nothing compared to the pressure on this generation of students.
Jim Fleming: Tom Haden, talking with Steve Paulson. Haden was one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, and later a state Assemblyman and Senator in California.