May 23, 2013
Richard Flacks on Tom Hayden
Posted on Jun 12, 2008
If you were on the campus at Ann Arbor at the dawn of the 1960s, you’d have been aware of Tom Hayden’s writings in The Michigan Daily (the substantial and influential University of Michigan student newspaper). He first came to notice for his travels to the South to cover scenes of civil rights struggle and the movement then bursting into history. Then during the summer of 1960, Hayden was reporting from California, on the new breed of student rebel at Berkeley, on farmworker conditions in Delano, and a conversation with Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, at the Livermore Nuclear Lab. And then there was Hayden at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, watching JFK’s nomination and interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. as he led pickets in the streets outside the convention arena. In the fall of 1960, Hayden became editor in chief of the Daily, writing full-page articles declaring the birth of an American student movement. He was 20 that year.
Mickey and I, just married, were in Ann Arbor, where I was working toward a Ph.D. in social psychology. We’d gone there from New York City, both of us red diaper babies, disillusioned with communism’s betrayals, harboring no expectations that we’d ever find a way to restore political hope, enjoying instead our breakaway from the provincialism of the City, and discovering at that moment cultural possibilities unknown to New Yorkers. Ann Arbor was humming with film and electronic music festivals, “happenings,” coffeehouses and bookstores where young writers and artists could find voice and space that would not have been possible in the big city. Tom Hayden’s articles in the Daily became part of that ferment. We read them avidly, seeing them not as mere reportage, but as an effort to construct an exciting political myth—that Cold War apathy and conformism might be replaced by a new, youthful protest and dissent, spawned by the civil-rights movement, seeking possibilities for personal commitment and social renewal. We weren’t yet ready to believe his story line, but we certainly wanted to hear it.
In March 1962, Hayden delivered a well-advertised speech at the university on “student social action.” That speech changed my life: Here was a 21-year-old kid from America’s heartland, putting into words what Mickey and I had been groping and hoping for—that in the United States a new left was needed and possible, that it had to break with many of the fundamental suppositions of all the factions of the traditional left and with Cold War America, that it could come in part from students. He quite insightfully saw how personal struggles for individual self-determination and moral coherence could fuel a collective commitment of youth to social change. I remember coming home right after the speech and telling Mickey: “I think I’ve just seen the American Lenin!” This wasn’t a reference to the substance of Hayden’s talk, which was quite self-consciously antithetical to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, but to his evident gift for making the hope for a movement seem a practical possibility.
Hayden’s speech that day was a trial run for what became, by the summer of 1962, a fuller draft of a manifesto for the emerging Students for a Democratic Society. Sixty folks, including Mickey and me, gathered in Port Huron, Mich., in June to debate and rework the draft and lay the groundwork for what was meant to be, and eventually became, the organizational expression of the 1960s’ new left, and the spearhead of a multi-issue student movement. Tom Hayden wasn’t the originator of this breakthrough (if any single person deserves credit, it’s Al Haber—a fellow Ann Arborite, who actually created SDS out of the remnants of the old Student League for Industrial Democracy and recruited Tom and other student leaders to the project). But Tom’s writing and speaking enabled a genuinely new political voice and outlook to come into being. He was, appropriately enough, elected first president of the new formation at that meeting.
Forty-five years later, City Lights, the independent press founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, has published a collection of Hayden’s writings over the last nearly five decades, called “Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader.” Its 600 pages [in one edition] make it a monumental book in more ways than one. It’s fat and densely packed, with some 60 pieces of reportage, advocacy, reminiscence and reflection drawn from some of the more than 15 books Hayden has written or edited, and the hundreds of articles and speeches he’s produced over these years. (Full disclosure: Not only have I been a friend of his for the last 47 years, but I discovered, after getting the galleys, that one of the chapters is a speech Tom gave in my honor two years ago. But what I write here is not a “review”; rather, it uses the occasion of this book to reflect a bit about Tom’s work in helping advance radical democracy in our time.)
It isn’t the size of the book that makes it monumental; it’s the life that has gone into the writing and that is reflected by it. The book’s chapters trace that life: from student journalist to SDS leader to community organizer in the Newark ghetto; then on to North Vietnam in the midst of war, to Chicago streets leading anti-war protest, to Chicago courtroom as a defendant in the conspiracy trial. Then his partnering with Jane Fonda in working to end the war and in life. In the mid-1970s, seizing new mainstream political openings, running for the U.S. Senate in California, building a statewide electoral organization, winning a seat in the California Legislature. In the state Legislature, where he serves for 20 years, he pioneers alternative energy development and, along the way, crafts a spiritual perspective on environmentalism, discovers his Irish heart, and tries to rouse the University of California to serve egalitarian purposes. And, after he ends his adventures as politician, we find him in the streets of Seattle and Miami, in Mumbai and Chiapas, in Bolivia and Cuba exploring and reporting newly emerging movements for global justice. Not many Americans have done so much making of history while, at every juncture, taking the time to be a “participant observer” of the scenes and events one is helping to shape. The writings so produced are of course uneven in style and perspicacity. Some are remarkably moving and insightful: a heartfelt reflection on the meanings of the Irish famine for the American Irish soul; some brilliant appreciations of the meaning of the World Social Forum and other grass-roots resistances to corporate globalization; a weird “journal” of epiphany in the Amazon, and a number of valuable documents and reflections on the meanings of the 1960s, both personal and political. These suggest that Tom Hayden could have been one of the great journalists of our time, given his ability to combine a penetrating style, keen eye and an unusually sharp theoretically informed mind.
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