This article appeared in the April 16, 2012 edition of The Nation.
This is the fiftieth anniversary year of the Port Huron Statement, the founding declaration of Students for a Democratic Society, issued as a “living document” in 1962. The SDS call for a participatory democracy echoes today in student-led democracy movements around the world, even appearing as the first principle of the Occupy Wall Street September 17 declaration.
As a signpost of the early 1960s, the Port Huron Statement (PHS) is worth treasuring for its idealism and for the spark it ignited in many an imagination. The Port Huron call for a life and politics built on moral values as opposed to expedient politics; its condemnation of the cold war, echoed in today’s questioning of the “war on terror”; its grounding in social movements against racism and poverty; its first-ever identification of students as agents of social change; and its call to extend participatory democracy to the economic, community and foreign policy spheres—these themes constitute much of today’s progressive sensibility.
The same spirit of popular participation that inspired OWS drove the electoral successes of Latin American nations emerging from dictatorships in the 1990s. It appeared among the demands of young people in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries in the Arab Spring of 2011. Spontaneous democratic demonstrations erupted in Russia late last year, organized on Facebook by young people seeking honest elections. The PHS was even prophetic in condemning the
1 percent, who in 1962 owned more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock. It may be sobering for today’s Wall Street critics to read in the PHS original draft that despite the radical reforms of the 1930s, the share of wealth held by the 1 percent in 1960 had remained constant since the 1920s.
On the other hand, there are sources of hope now that we couldn’t imagine in 1962. The technological revolution of the Internet and social media is propelling a global revival of participatory democracy. Facebook and Twitter are credited with a key role in movements from Cairo to the volunteer campaign for Barack Obama. For the next generations, perhaps the most important issue for participatory democracy will be ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing information. These issues were prefigured in the PHS in the briefest of complaints about computerized problem-solving and in the outcry two years later from Berkeley students in the Free Speech Movement, who felt they were being processed like IBM punch cards. The PHS criticized the profit motive behind automation while noting that the new technology, if democratically controlled, could eliminate much drudgery at work, open more leisure time and make education “a continuing process for all people.”
According to Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, published in 1970 and still the most comprehensive history of the organization, the PHS “may have been the most widely distributed document of the American left in the sixties,” with 60,000 copies printed and sold for 25 cents each between 1962 and 1966. Sale made two observations about the Statement:
First, the PHS contained “a power and excitement rare to any document, rarer still in the documents of this time, with a dignity in its language, persuasiveness in its arguments, catholicity in its scope, and quiet skill in its presentation…a summary of beliefs for much of the student generation as a whole, then and for several years to come.”
Second, “it was set firmly in mainstream politics, seeking the reform of mainstream institutions rather than their abolition, and it had no comprehension of the dynamics of capitalism, of imperialism, of class conflict, certainly no conception of revolution. But none of that mattered.” More recently, historian Michael Kazin wrote that the Statement “is the most ambitious, the most specific, and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American Left.”
Who We Were, What We Said
I wrote the first notes for the Port Huron Statement in December 1961, when I was briefly in an Albany, Georgia, jail cell after a Freedom Ride to fight segregation in the South. The high school and college students engaged in direct action there changed my life. I had never met young people willing to take a risk—perhaps the ultimate risk—for a cause they believed in. Quite simply, I wanted to live like them. Those feelings, and the inspiration they gave me, might explain the utopian urgency of the Statement’s final sentence: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” (I have no recollection of where this exhortation originated.)
Even today I find it hard to explain the “power and excitement,” the “dignity” and the “persuasiveness” of this document, which sprawls over 124 pages in book form. Though I was already a student editor and a budding pamphleteer, I remember myself, just 22, as a kind of vessel for channeling a larger spirit that was just in the air—blowin’ in the wind—and coursing through the lives of my friends.
The Port Huron attendees insisted that it begin with an emphasis on “we,” to be followed immediately by a section on values. And so we described ourselves as a new generation “raised in modest comfort, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” This was an uncertain trumpet compared with, say, the triumphal tones of The Communist Manifesto. Why did it resonate with so many activists?
In fact, a few sons and daughters of former Communist Party members were present, but their previous family dogmas and loyalties lay shattered by the crushing of the democratic Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the revelations about the Stalinist gulag by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. There were also children of New Deal democratic socialists now experiencing liberal middle-class lives, and there were plenty of mainstream idealistic student leaders, graduate sociology students, a few pacifists and a number of the spiritually inspired.
Though they were not at Port Huron, there were other philosophical searchers at the time who practiced participatory democracy. Bob Moses, perhaps the single greatest influence on the early SDS and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), could be described as a Socratic existentialist. The Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio described himself as a non-Marxist radical shaped by secular liberation theology who was “an avid supporter of participatory democracy.” We were all influenced by Ella Baker, an elder adviser to SNCC with a long experience of NAACP organizing in the South. Ms. Baker, as everyone referred to her, was critical of the top-down methods of black preachers and organizations, including her friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She argued that SNCC should remain autonomous and not become a youth branch of the older organizations. She spoke of and personified participatory democracy.
SNCC played a direct role in shaping my values, as it did with many SDS founders. SNCC’s early organizing method was based on listening to local people and taking action on behalf of their demands. Listening and speaking in clear vernacular English was crucial. Books were treasured, but where you stood, with whom and against what risks was even more important, because if the people you were organizing couldn’t understand your theories, you had to adjust. This led to a language and a form of thinking cleansed of ideological infection, with an emphasis on trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.
The right to vote was no intellectual matter, as it was for many on the left who felt it was based on illusions about where real power lay. Again and again, SNCC organizers heard rural black people emphasize how much they wanted that right. Typically they would say, “I fought in World War II; I fought in Korea; and all I want before I die is the right to vote.” (Many decades before, the 22-year-old Emma Goldman learned from a similar experience, after an early lecture in which she had scornfully dismissed the eight-hour day as a stupid token demand. When a worker in her audience replied that he couldn’t wait for the overthrow of capitalism but that he also needed two hours less work “to feel human, to read a book or take a walk in daylight,” the experience gave Goldman the consciousness of a great organizer.)
The Values section of the PHS reflected our eclectic, existential, sometimes apocalyptic, take on life. “We have no sure formulas, no closed theories.” We would accept no hand-me-down ideologies. “A first task of any social movement is to convince people that the search for orienting theories and the creation of human values is complex but worthwhile.” We agreed with French existentialist novelist Albert Camus, who argued that a previous generation of revolutionaries had sometimes rationalized horrific slaughters in the name of future utopias like “land reform.” Still, we wanted to argue, carefully, for a restoration of the utopian spirit amid the deadening compromises all around us. We wrote that “we are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present” (the same phrase later employed by Margaret Thatcher). Our diagnosis of the prevailing apathy was that deep anxieties had fostered “a developed indifference” about public life but also a yearning to believe in something better. “It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal.”
We even thrashed out basic views of human nature day after day, not the usual subject of political platforms. We asserted a belief that “men [are] infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love.” (Use of the term “men” was unquestioned; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was one year away.) This formulation followed long discussions in which we repudiated doctrines of pessimism about the fallen human condition, as well as the liberal humanist belief in human “perfectibility.” It may have been influenced also by the Vatican II reforms then sweeping the Catholic Church. The formulation about “unrealized potential” was the premise for believing that human beings were capable of participating in the decisions affecting their lives, a sharp difference from the dominant view that an irrational mass society could be managed only by experts, or the too hopeful Enlightenment view of Tom Paine that our world could be created anew.
What Participatory Democracy Meant
Much was omitted because in 1962 awakenings just around the corner were not anticipated. Many of us read Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir, but the first women’s consciousness-raising groups were two years in the future and would be provoked in part by our own chauvinism. American combat in Vietnam was unseen over the horizon, though the PHS opposed US support for the “free world’s” dictators, including South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published just two months after Port Huron, but all the Statement observed about the environment was that “uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources.” There was no counterculture, no drug culture, no hippies—all that was to come. The folk music revival was at its peak; the Beatles were just ahead. The Statement would need major updating, but its passionate democratic core was of permanent value.
What did we mean by participatory democracy? Obviously the concept arose from our common desire to participate in making our own destiny, and in response to the severe limitations of an undemocratic system that we saw as representing an oligarchy. At its most basic, it meant the right to vote, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “not with a mere strip of paper but with one’s whole life.” It meant simplicity in registration and voting, unfettered from the dominance of wealth, property requirements, literacy tests and poll taxes. It meant exercising the right to popular initiatives, referendums and recalls, as achieved by Progressives in the early twentieth century. And it meant widening participation to include the economic sphere (workplace democracy and consumer watchdogs), neighborhood assemblies and family life itself, where women and children were subordinates. It meant a greater role for citizens in the ultimate questions of war and peace, then considered the secret realm of experts.
Participatory democracy was a psychologically liberating antidote to the paralysis of the apathetic “lonely crowd” depicted by David Riesman et al. in the 1950 sociological study by that title. The kind of democracy we were proposing was more than a blueprint for structural rearrangements. It was a way of empowering the individual as autonomous but interdependent with other individuals, and the community as a civic society. Without this empowerment on both levels, the PHS warned, we were living in “a democracy without publics,” in the phrase of C. Wright Mills, the rebel sociologist who was one of our intellectual heroes.
The Statement’s economic program was an extension of the New Deal and a call for deeper participatory democratic reform. Proposals for a government-led poverty program and “medical care…as a lifetime human right” anticipated the Medicare legislation that came in 1965, and the PHS’s concept of a government-led anti-poverty program foreshadowed the Office of Economic Opportunity, a project envisioned by John F. Kennedy and adopted by Lyndon Johnson.
But the Statement also called for economic democracy, as distinct from the New Deal’s more bureaucratic approach: the major resources and means of production should be “open to democratic participation and subject to democratic regulation.” There was a danger of “bureaucratic coagulation” and too much emphasis in Kennedy’s New Frontier on “problems are easiest for computers to solve.” There should be experiments in decentralization, we said, devolving the power of “monster cities” to local communities seeded with more developmental incentives. Returning to the Statement’s moral focus, since a human being’s economic experience has “crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics,” we insisted that there be incentives beyond money or survival, ones that are “educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated; encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity, and a willingness to accept social responsibility.”
Not that Marxism was irrelevant to the Port Huron gathering. Most of the participants were shaped and informed in part by Marxist traditions. But the convention was never intended as a revival ceremony for Marxism. The document at one point mentioned a need to bring together “liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance and the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system.” Even those at Port Huron who were children of the Old Left had concluded that moral values and democracy were more important than any ideological renovation of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism or anarchism. It seemed we agreed that we were something new: a movement, perhaps an embryonic blessed community. When those from an earlier tradition pointed out, sometimes vehemently, that we were not only not new but descendants of the left, the New Left became our hybrid brand. No one had complained when that label was suggested in 1960 by C. Wright Mills, in his open “Letter to the New Left.”
Breaking the Political Stalemate
According to Michael Kazin and others, the role of the American left has been to make lasting cultural and normative contributions while never actually coming to power. We were dreamers too, but dreamers who had a plan for achieving political influence and power.
The Kennedy administration was in a crossfire between two opposing forces: the civil rights movement versus the dinosaurs of the Dixiecrat South, on which the party depended for its national majority. By risking their lives daily in sit-ins and voter drives, SNCC and rural black people would soon crumble the foundation of Dixiecrat power.
The Port Huron Statement articulated a strategy of “political realignment,” in which the goal was to end the “organized stalemate” in Washington and open the possibility of a more progressive party. Realignment was embraced by King, Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington, and was the implicit agenda of the vast March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in August 1963. Soon Northern students were streaming south for the Mississippi Summer Project, in 1964, whose aim was to unseat the state’s white Democratic delegation and replace it with a democratically chosen slate, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, at the convention that year in Atlantic City. By 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, establishing federal oversight of Deep South voting patterns.
The energy of some SNCC and SDS organizers also overflowed into the nascent farmworkers’ organizing efforts in the Southwest at around the same time. The PHS condemned the disenfranchisement of migrant workers while also citing them as a potential base for rebirth of a “broader and more forceful unionism.” In 1964 the government’s hated bracero program was forced to its end. Political realignment was advanced that same year when the Supreme Court decreed that voter representation must be based on population rather than the land holdings of growers. By 1966 the United Farm Workers was bringing new energy to the labor movement; that same year, Congress moved to include minimum-wage protections for farmworkers, who had been excluded for the previous twenty-eight years under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The UFW’s four-year global consumer boycott of grapes was a channel of participatory democracy that attracted thousands of new activists.
One link between these events was the leadership of United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther; his brother Victor; and a top UAW officer, Mildred Jeffrey, the mother of a key SDS founder at Port Huron, Sharon Jeffrey. The Reuthers helped fund and support the early SDS as well as the UFW and the Southern voter registration campaigns and marches.
The overall strategy of realignment envisioned participatory democracy directly connected to a new social movement, one capable of forging a new governing majority on a national scale, with young people as shock troops building a “bridge to political power” composed of liberal Democrats, peace groups, organized labor and the civil rights movement. For the first time, students were thinking of themselves as “agents of social change.” The buoyancy of this strategy, perhaps carried on the innocence of the young, was a momentous break from the culture of the left in those times, which was dispirited by McCarthyism, bogged down in poisonous factional disputes and weighted with the ideological language and baggage of a Marxism that remained foreign to most Americans.
Assassination and Vietnam Destroy the Great Society
The Port Huron vision of winning seemed entirely possible to those who debated the strategy and set forth earnestly to carry it out. But even the “best and brightest” among the young radicals were thwarted by our inability to predict the future.
First, there was the assassination of John Kennedy, which devastated any rational basis for strategy. The assassination of a president simply wasn’t factored into any models we took seriously about reform or revolution. Whether or not the Kennedy killing was part of a larger conspiracy, as many still believe, a mood of paranoia took root in the New Left, in which it seemed that any notions of peaceful democratic transfers of power were illusory. It may be wishful thinking, but I believe the evidence is that Kennedy would not have sent 100,000 ground troops to Vietnam, as his successor did (after promising not to). For most of us, Kennedy, as well as other national leaders assassinated that decade, including JFK’s brother Robert, King and even Malcolm X, had been central figures in the transformation we hoped to see. The power of the independent movement came first, but it was also necessary to pressure the president to follow, to recognize and legitimize and legalize the victory and pursue a transition to a more participatory and egalitarian democracy.
The Port Huron Statement correctly predicted that if nuclear war with the Soviet Union could be prevented, there still would be an ongoing “international civil war” between proxies of the United States and Soviet Union. Cuba was one such focal point, and Vietnam became another. The Vietnam War diverted public attention and drained resources from the budding War on Poverty. I was one of many hundreds who moved into inner-city neighborhoods to engage in community organizing against poverty, establishing groups that took over local boards in Newark, New Jersey. But Vietnam wrecked all that, plunging our young movement into five years of draft and war resistance, and provoking an escalated militancy against the warmakers. The Vietnam escalation was accompanied by hundreds of uprisings in black communities, with the cost in lives still uncounted and billions of dollars wasted. Any possibility, however remote or delusional, of our being the left wing of Johnson’s Great Society was rendered impossible and was rejected in disgust.
The consequences for realignment were far different from our predictions. As a result of the civil rights movement, there came a generation of white liberal politicians like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, along with a huge complement of black elected officials from the South, from local sheriffs to Congressmen like John Lewis (a SNCC member) and Jim Clyburn (vice chair under Charles McDew of the South Carolina State student movement in 1960). The climate of officially sponsored terrorism ebbed in the South, and leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson would eventually run impressive presidential campaigns where none had been possible in the previous century. Barack Obama, born in 1961, the year the Freedom Rides began, very much owes his election to the voting rights reforms that brought about this realignment. As Attorney General Eric Holder said at SNCC’s fiftieth reunion in 2010, “there is a direct line from that lunch counter to the Oval Office and to the…Department of Justice where the attorney general sits.”
On the other hand, as Richard Flacks, a principal author of the PHS, has noted, we underestimated another realignment: the flight of white Southern voters from the Democratic Party, predicted by Johnson and encouraged by Nixon’s 1968 “Southern strategy.” This resulted in two backlash victories by Republicans (Nixon, Reagan) and the transformation of the white South from solid Democratic to solid Republican. The civil war between so-called red and blue continues to this day, with the red lines eerily drawn around the Old Confederacy and much of the West where the Indian wars were fought.
I believe the Port Huron vision of a progressive alliance would have succeeded in bringing a new governing majority to power in 1964, with a likelihood of avoiding the Vietnam War, were it not for the murder of Kennedy and Johnson’s subsequent escalation of it. This argument may be criticized as purely hypothetical, but it tries to capture the immensity of our dream and how close it seemed to our grasp. It is also a measure of the depths of despair we fell to in the years to come, a despair that lingers today among those who experienced both the beautiful struggle and the bitter fruit.
There was a third obstacle to the PHS dream, besides the assassinations and the Vietnam War. For want of another term, it was the system itself, or the powerful paradigm we defied but could not defeat. By “system” I mean the intersecting (though not coordinated) hierarchies of banks, corporations, the military, media and religion, dominant then as now (though there are far more women and people of color at the upper levels today). This was the “power elite” described by Mills. His concept of power was broader than that of an economic ruling class. It was an establishment far more flexible, even liberal, that had presided over the growth of the white middle class in the 1950s.
By “paradigm” I mean an understanding of power as cultural hegemony or dominance, a thought system in which there seems to be no alternative. The oppressive paradigm the PHS tried to discredit was the cold war between two blocs engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. We were the first generation in history to grow up with the Bomb, to learn to hide under desks or in bomb shelters, to be exposed to the mad logic of “mutual assured destruction” and the cynical realpolitik of “free world” and Soviet blocs controlling alliances of servile authoritarians. We went through a near-death experience during the Cuban missile crisis. And we knew the grim math: the trillions spent on weapons were dollars that could have been invested in economic development, healthcare and education. President Eisenhower had a name for this system—the military-industrial complex—and we noted that he dared name it only as he was leaving office. This paradigm at first froze us in fear. The legacy of McCarthyism, if continued in the 1960s, would mean that all our work, from the sit-ins to the Freedom Rides to the Port Huron Statement, would be marginalized as taking the wrong side in the cold war.
The Statement therefore included a twenty-page attack on this cold war mentality, half devoted to a proposal for phased nuclear disarmament, half to a welcoming attitude toward anti-colonial revolutions. Our proposal was to de-escalate the bipolar nuclear confrontation. We differed with most of the left-liberalism of the time by suggesting that our own government was partly to blame for the cold war, and by denying that the Soviet Union sought to take over the world by force. There was a growing peace movement, which many in our ranks eagerly joined. Despite, or perhaps because of, the nuclear near-miss over Cuba in 1962, President Kennedy became an important critic of the cold war before his assassination. It appeared that the SDS demand for new priorities was being recognized when Kennedy initiated and signed a partial nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union in October 1963.
SDS, the CIA and the Power Elite
As the killing of JFK and the Vietnam escalation were burying the original hopes of SDS, a new radical resistance was taking root, and with it new ideological searching. The second generation of SDS, and the movement generally, was learning hard lessons from experiences not available to us in 1960–62. Black people who played by the rules would see those rules changed when power was threatened. Leaders were assassinated if they moved in a progressive direction. Politicians lied about taking us to war. Vietnam seemed to prove that militarism and imperialism were central to American society, whether liberals or conservatives were in power.
And finally, the power elite ruled beyond, or behind, elected officials. To take one example among many, official disclosures in 1984 revealed that John McCone, Kennedy’s CIA director, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and Bechtel executive, conspired with the FBI in a “psychological warfare campaign” against the Free Speech Movement and to elect Ronald Reagan governor of California. Rampant conspiracy theories seemed to negate the prospects of popular movements and peaceful transitions through elections. But even if the paranoia went too far, as it usually did, there were still grounds for believing that manipulators were behind the curtain.
In 1961 at a National Student Association convention I found a yellow pad with a chart identifying SDS in a box on the left, Young Americans for Freedom on the right and an entity named Control Group in the center-top. Six years later Ramparts magazine revealed that the secretive Control Group included CIA agents whose work was to promote a pro–cold war global student movement. The CIA also ran covert operations through the AFL-CIO’s international affairs department. Tom Kahn, special assistant to AFL-CIO president George Meany and later director of the federation’s foreign operations, was the very person at the League for Industrial Democracy who in 1961 tried to fire Al Haber and me, locking us out of SDS headquarters in New York because he believed the PHS was soft on the Soviets.
The CIA’s role in the AFL-CIO and foreign policy came to light as the byproduct of hearings into tax-exempt foundations by Representative Wright Patman in September 1964, confirming our worst suspicions. AFL-CIO staff were also involved in the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and in controlling Saigon’s labor federation, protecting the flow of US military supplies into South Vietnam’s ports during the war.
The importance of this sojourn into left-wing history is that SDS and SNCC (and King, among others) were unaware of the company we were keeping. The unmovable obstacle to the coalition we hoped to build with organized labor was the secret pro–cold war element within liberalism, directly and indirectly tied to the CIA, which was fiercely opposed to our break from cold war thinking. On the one hand, the UAW’s Reuther brothers helped fund and provide conference quarters at Port Huron; supported the March on Washington and the early UFW organizing effort; and were frustrated by Meany’s archconservative views. On the other hand, the right-wing AFL-CIO foreign affairs department carried on the anti-communist crusade with its covert operations. The Reuther wing was tied to Johnson’s leadership and unwilling to break from Meany. There was no way, in other words, that the New Left could have joined organized labor in 1964–65 around the Port Huron foreign policy vision, because the AFL-CIO was shackled to the CIA without our knowledge. The Reuthers were the great hope, but they were loath to break from Johnson over the Mississippi delegation battle in Atlantic City and over Vietnam. When the UAW finally broke from Meany and demanded a cease-fire in Vietnam, SDS and SNCC were too radicalized and factionalized for it to matter anymore. Death, our old nemesis, also intervened. On May 9, 1970, one week after the National Guard killed four protesting students at Kent State, and after Walter Reuther demanded an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, he and five others were killed in a charter-jet crash.
Marxism Replaces Participatory Democracy
While the Port Huron Statement was criticized by an older generation as too far left, an opposite attack came from the mid-1960s generation. In 1966 new SDS leaders rejected the PHS as “too reformist.” It was certainly true; the PHS did envision reforms—substantive rather than token, rapid though not overnight—and revolution was seen more as an undefined aspiration or long-term hope. Radical reform depended on independent social movements in combination with awakened progressives within political institutions rather than any revolutionary conquest of state and corporate power. The new generation claimed that this strategy was based on delusional liberal hopes.
Why was it so necessary for SDS leaders to reject Port Huron as “reformist”? The main reasons were external—the escalation of the Vietnam War and the draft by the liberal Democrats—but there was an internal dynamic as well. The new SDS leaders, in search of an ideology, turned steadily to Marxism, then to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism.
This was a stunning turn for a “new” left, because it implied a broad rejection of many of the new social movements as basically “reformist” too, since none of them were led by Marxists and none (except the Black Panthers) favored vanguard parties. The implication was that no genuine explanatory framework existed for a radical US social movement outside Marxism, a thesis that ignored or downplayed deep historical currents of populism, pacifism, religious reform and slave rebellions in American history. Most of the thinkers who inspired the early SDS—Mills, John Dewey, Camus, Lessing, James Baldwin—were shelved in search of an ideology that only Marxism seemed to offer.
Soon the open, participatory structure of the early SDS was being penetrated and disrupted by the Progressive Labor Party, a tightly disciplined, highly secretive organization dedicated to recruiting SDS members in support of a communist revolution on the inspiration of China and Albania. It proved impossible to dislodge from the organization, and pushed all internal discussions in a poisonous sectarian direction.
Beginning in 1968, the Weatherman (later the Weather Underground) faction surfaced as new “communist revolutionaries,” inspired by the revolutions in Vietnam and Cuba, and the Black Panthers at home. Instead of the Port Huron concept of a majority progressive coalition, they favored forming clandestine cells behind enemy lines, a formulation that regarded the white American majority as hopelessly racist and privileged. Their ideological heroes included Lin Piao, a leader of the Chinese Revolution, along with Che Guevara and the young French intellectual Regis Debray, with his foco theory that small bands of armed guerrillas could set off popular revolutions and their vision of a “tri-continental” alternative to the “revisionist” Soviet Union. For an American hero, the Weathermen turned to John Brown, who led a suicidal uprising against slavery. That uprising was vindicated to the Weathermen (and many African-Americans) by the vast swelling of support for John Brown during and after his martyrdom. Perhaps it would take a vanguard of martyrs to incite an American revolution, or so the thinking went.
These were compelling notions to many SDS radicals desperate to stop the Vietnam War and disillusioned with liberalism’s default. But by 1969 less than eight years after its founding, the factional wrangling killed SDS.
The Movements Rise Again, With SDS Underground
I am not describing these post–Port Huron Marxist tendencies as mad delusions, as many have. That brief generation tried to make sense of the terrible and traumatizing events of the time. Nor was their deep paranoia unjustified. In late 1967 Johnson screamed at his top advisers, “I’m not going to let the communists take this government, and they’re doing it right now!” Fifteen hundred Army intelligence officers, dressed as civilians, conducted surveillance on 100,000 Americans. Two thousand full-time FBI agents were deployed, with massive use of informants and counterintelligence programs. J. Edgar Hoover’s orders to “neutralize” protest leaders are well documented. Scores of young people were killed or wounded, well beyond the widely remembered shootings at Kent State and Black Panther offices. One victim of an assassination attempt in 1969 was Richard Flacks, a key participant at Port Huron. He was targeted politically by Hoover and the Chicago police “red squad” before being attacked in his office with a claw hammer by someone who was never apprehended. SDS was banned on many campuses. Police or troops occupied at least 127 campuses, and 1,000 students were expelled in the spring of 1968 (which, as Kirkpatrick Sale notes, made them instantly draftable). Softer counterinsurgency techniques included the screening-out of the “protest prone” by admissions officers and the use of psychological counseling to “treat” alienated students. Making the paranoia all the more justified was the palpable sense among many of us that we had been abandoned by our parents; a 1969 Gallup survey indicated that 82 percent of Americans wanted student demonstrators expelled. If that was true, what was the point of depending on mainstream public opinion?
But the heightened militancy became disconnected from a comprehensible narrative that the wider public might have understood. In abandoning the Port Huron vision and strategy as times worsened, SDS was offering a fringe analysis at best, and was no longer able to invest leadership and organizing resources in the vast swelling of campus and public protest.
Indeed, the greatest outpouring of youth, student, GI, liberal, feminist and environmentalist sentiment—of perhaps any previous era in American history—occurred after SDS had closed its doors. It included the November 1969 Moratorium against the war, up to that point the largest peace march in American history; Earth Day 1970, for which
20 million turned out; and the May 1970 student demonstrations against the invasion of Cambodia, in which 4.3 million took part at half the colleges in the country.
Less than two years later, the Democratic Party was taken over by progressive forces, and the old insiders like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and George Meany were suddenly outsiders. This was much too rapid and radical for most voters, as the 1972 presidential election results showed, but the PHS prophecy of realignment had proven to be more feasible than anyone had imagined.
The ’60s movements stumbled to an end largely because we’d won the major reforms that were demanded: the 1964 and 1965 civil and voting rights laws, the end of the draft and the Vietnam War, passage of the War Powers Resolution and the Freedom of Information Act, Nixon’s environmental laws, amnesty for war resisters, two presidents forced from office, the 18-year-old vote, union recognition of public employees and farmworkers, disability rights, the decline of censorship, the emergence of gays and lesbians from a shadow existence… Perhaps never in US history had so many changes occurred in so short a time, all driven by the vibrancy of participatory democracy.
Those who warned us of the system’s unbendable durability, like Howard Zinn, a mentor I dearly loved, seemed at times to undervalue these achievements while celebrating the very movements that made them possible. For Zinn, the reforms at best were reluctant concessions “aimed at quieting the popular uprisings, not making fundamental changes.” But were all those reforms meaningless? Or were they democratic improvements, as I would argue? As if to prove Zinn’s thesis, the global cold war quickly morphed into the rise of neoliberal globalization, the militarized war on narcoterrorism and, by 2001, the “global war on terror.” The old threat of international communist conspiracies was replaced by alleged new threats from the narcoterrorists and global jihadists. The secrecy of the state expanded even in times of peace. And in response, new movements arose across the planet against war, sweatshops, hunger and environmental destruction. The elite of the World Economic Forum, flying into Davos on corporate jets, were challenged by the World Social Forum, in which thousands of campesinos, indigenous people, workers, students and artists made their way to Porto Alegre, Brazil. Porto Alegre showcased a model of “participatory budgeting,” in which local citizens are directly involved in decisions to allocate public funds for neighborhood needs.
Starting in the 1980s, pro-democracy movements flourished across Latin and Central America in the wake of guerrilla campaigns. After these democratic transitions came the uprisings across the Arab world. Where the uprisings were repelled or derailed, the only unifying forward path still seemed to be through and toward participatory democracy. In 2009 came a movement echoing the 1961 Freedom Rides: undocumented students taking the risk of deportation while demanding passage of the DREAM Act. Last year’s revolt against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, which continues to this day, was another show of participatory democracy in action.
Participatory Democracy and Occupy Wall Street
Finally came Occupy Wall Street. I don’t know whether history begins anew or just repeats its sputtering cycles again and again. What is clear enough is that the Occupy movement began without pundit predictions, without funding, without organization, with only determined people in tents, countless Davids taking on the smug Goliath in spontaneous planetary resistance. While Occupy could not and would not agree on making detailed demands, it did agree, as noted earlier, on “direct and transparent participatory democracy” as its first principle.
There is endless speculation these days about the future of Occupy Wall Street. Since I was pleasantly surprised by its birth, I am not one to predict its growth. I prefer to wait and see. Across the Western world, the smoldering division is becoming one between unelected wealthy and foreign private investors and the participatory democracies of civic societies with their faltering elected governments.
Of course, there are differences between the Port Huron Statement and the Occupy Wall Street manifesto, but they should not be overstated. One of the major differences has to do with anarchism, or “direct democracy,” which plays a major role in the thinking, structure and practice of many Occupy activists. The early SDS certainly identified with the Wobblies, the anarchists who organized the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts; the Haymarket Square martyrs; and the historic wildcat strikes across the Western mining country. We sang of Joe Hill; knew all about “Big Bill” Haywood, Emma Goldman and Mother Jones; and lamented the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. But we believed that social movements should insist on the democratic reform of state and corporation, not expect their overthrow or implosion. We carefully avoided adopting any of the previous ideologies of the left, including anarchism, in our search for something new. Ours was a democratic populist heritage, in which, we naïvely believed, many factions could bloom but none could choke our growth.
Once again today, there are questions about whether reform is legitimate or enough. Strict anarchist theory suggests that any reforms only legitimize and strengthen structures that should be toppled or dissolved. But the early SDS saw no alternative to winning reforms from the state and corporate sectors. We were fully aware of the dangers of being co-opted into the system, the managed cooling of street heat, the predictable countermovements that would rise up. Even a philosophical anarchist (or “libertarian socialist”) like Noam Chomsky has written in favor of radical reform:
There is a state sector that does awful things, but it also happens to do some good things. As a result of centuries of extensive popular struggle, there is a minimal welfare system that provides support for poor mothers and children. That’s under attack in an effort to minimize the state. Well, anarchists can’t seem to understand that they are to support that…. Minimizing the state means strengthening the private sectors. It narrows the domain within which public influence can be expressed.
I don’t mean to say that all Occupiers oppose reform. But there is a broad suspicion of seeking reforms that require alliances with top-down organizations, especially with progressive elected officials. The same dilemmas arose in the ’60s in the relationships between SNCC and the national civil rights leadership, and between SDS and the liberal Democrats we blamed for starting the Vietnam War. In retrospect, however, it’s impossible to reach a majority, much less the 99 percent, while rejecting coalition politics. Nevertheless, some Occupy theorists seem to believe they can do so. For example, Micah White, a brilliant editor at Adbusters, writes that “an insurrectionary challenge to the capitalist state” will be mounted by “culture-jammers” who create “fluid, immersive, evocative meta-gaming experiences that are playfully thrilling and [that] as a natural result of their gameplay” a social revolution will arise as “pure manifestation of an anonymous will of a dispersed, networked collective.” It is as if the pure insurrectionary act, memorialized as performance art, is more important than the construction of any alliances, or any consequences that flow from it.
There is something new, however: an engine of decentralized democratic power available to Adbusters, Occupy, Facebook and WikiLeaks that was not available at Port Huron. When I first saw a computer in 1964 it was the size of a room, and the professor who predicted microprocessors seemed nuts. We have come a long way from the Free Speech Movement’s outrage at IBM cards, to the exploding vista of instant information and interaction that has played a critical role, from the Zapatista uprising and the Battle of Seattle to the recent eruptions of interactive, live-streaming, participatory democracy all over the world.
There is a utopian belief that downloading and freeing information, especially secret information, will bring about a decentralized revolution—anonymously, one might say. The download replaces the overthrow in the imagination of some in this new movement. The invention of open-source technology may be the single greatest pathway to participatory democracy in our lifetimes, not only in coordinating social movements but in making democratic decision-making possible without passing through representatives or gatekeepers. But like it or not, organizing the reform of existing institutions is also needed, if only to protect the open source or the whistleblowers. The vast constituency of Occupy surely knows that a participatory future cannot be protected without engaging in some sort of politics in the present.
A useful model was implicit in the Port Huron Statement, one transmitted from our parents’ generation, the last until now to weather Wall Street scandal, foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment (without any safety net). Our parents wanted a New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt to meet their basic needs, just as black people in Mississippi wanted the vote and Kennedy, and workers wanted the eight-hour day in Emma Goldman’s time. After waiting several years for Wall Street to self-correct, the people of the 1930s began demanding what became the Wagner Act, Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Writers Project, which made life better for generations to come.
These reforms came about, as Zinn would rightly warn, as pragmatic institutional responses or concessions meant largely to restore order. But the New Deal itself was driven by a chaotic, eclectic, sectarian, combative, fanatic and passionate energy, and included anarchists, communists, musicians, muralists, liberals, progressives, prairie populists, industrial union organizers and, yes, reformers, from Al Smith to Upton Sinclair to Eleanor Roosevelt. What became the New Deal was pushed from below by insurrectionary strikes in Seattle, factory occupations in Flint, and writings and art from government-subsidized poets and intellectuals who interviewed the poor, the migrants and the unemployed, and who created great works like “This Land Is Your Land” and The Grapes of Wrath. It was a splendid bedlam of participatory democracy, which led neither to socialism nor fascism but to Keynesian economics and a vision of the state as an instrument that can sometimes be bent to the popular will and public interest. After twenty years of celebration, we decided in 1962 that those New Deal reforms were stagnating and insufficient, and that it was time to begin again.
We are not as badly off as Americans were in the 1930s, of course, if only because of the safety net reforms that were achieved in that earlier dangerous time. Globally, however, the unfettered appetites of capitalism have created an intolerable human condition. It is time for a participatory New Deal, to bring the banks and corporations under the regulations and reforms they have escaped through runaway globalization. This year marks the first presidential campaign in our lifetime when the gluttony of Wall Street, the failures of capitalism, the evils of big money in politics and a discussion of fundamental reform will be front and center in election debates. No doubt the crisis that gave rise to Occupy will not be fixed by an election, but that’s beside the point. Elections produce popular mandates, and mandates spur popular activism. It’s time to organize a progressive majority, and the vision and strategy of Port Huron is worth considering as a guide.