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Richard Flacks on Tom Hayden

Posted on Jun 12, 2008
book cover

By Richard Flacks

(Page 2)

Tom, however, chose a different path—to change the world rather than merely interpret it. From those early Ann Arbor days, he insisted on living inside the fierce contradictions and dilemmas inherent in political engagement. Engagement demands advocacy, and therefore at least some sacrifice of the intellectual’s claim to being a disinterested truth-seeker. Accordingly, these “Writings” don’t tell stories or express ideas for their own sake; each of them is making a point in an ongoing debate with the powers that be and reflects a persistent effort to challenge the complacent and the passive.

But some of these pieces are deeper and more durable than topical advocacy. Tom has had, from his earliest work, something to teach both activists and intellectuals about the tensions and connections between them. He’s been guided by a fairly coherent philosophical pragmatism, learned from his Michigan professors like Arnold Kaufman and Kenneth Boulding, from immersion in the writings of C. Wright Mills, as well as now neglected heroes of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s Albert Camus and Paul Goodman. Our passion and our action, this pragmatism says, should be guided by our experience, rather than ideological doctrine, theory or concealed thirst for power. Here, Tom suggests, are some ways to make our experience useful for making change:

  • Take institutional claims seriously and see if they are practiced by those in power. 
  • Challenge elites to live up to their claims, to justify their actions.
  • Oppose structures of authority that block ordinary people from, in the language of Port Huron, “participating in the decisions that affect their lives.”
  • Try to figure out, by observation of relevant cases, by experimentation, by dialogue, how social empowerment and participatory democracy can be made real.

It is through such ongoing efforts to organize from below, to win voice for the voiceless, to de-legitimize elites, that fundamental change happens. And, he teaches, whether or not transformation is possible, that struggling for democratic voice and empowerment is the essence of practical strategies by which ordinary people can advance their interests.

In 1976, at age 36, Tom made a turn to electoral politics after 15 years as a movement leader. He decided to run in the California Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate, opposing the incumbent John Tunney. Not only was this a break with his longstanding political identity, but it was an affront to the interests and sensibilities of party professionals. Running for the Senate was presumptuous for a political upstart, it threatened a perfectly respectable liberal incumbent, and it was bizarre to imagine that a former revolutionary ex-Chicago conspiracy defendant, spouse of Jane Fonda, might have a chance in the political mainstream. The move was also questioned by many on the left—as an opportunistic betrayal of principle which would legitimize one of the two corporate-dominated political parties and undermine the effort to build a mass movement.

Tom’s pragmatism, however, allowed him to see that the mid-1970s might be a moment when the electoral process could be open for a genuinely democratic possibility. The generation of the 1960s was now grown up and ready to be an electoral force (“The radicalism of the sixties is the common sense of the seventies,” he declared). The economy was in stagflation (and the Keynesian strategies to revive it seemed no longer viable). Rising global competition in manufacturing was leading to declining real wages for American workers for the first time since World War II. A new awareness of environmental peril was rising; newly asserted demands for economic justice were being expressed by women and minorities. In Europe and the United States speculation was growing that corporate capitalism was in crisis, no longer able to manage its manifold contradictions. New paradigms were in the air: “Eurosocialism” and “Eurocommunism,” Ralph Nader’s crusade against corporate domination, and a variety of ideas about how to empower communities, workers and consumers. Tom’s campaign decided to issue a new Port Huron Statement-style manifesto, and gathered a number of academics and activists, myself among them, to write a campaign platform which we called “Make the Future Ours.” Some passages from this lengthy effort are reprinted in the “Writings.” The key idea was captured by the phrase “economic democracy,” coined by Derek Shearer, a term that paralleled and focused the “participatory democracy” of SDS at Port Huron.

In reality, however, the Hayden for Senate campaign did not operate as a vehicle for new vision. Instead the logic of big-time campaigning—and the availability of Jane Fonda as effective fundraiser—led to a series of negative TV ads aimed at Tunney’s vulnerabilities, featuring Henry Fonda and other Hollywood figures. These ads boosted Hayden’s poll numbers into the 40 percent approval range. In addition, there was a sizable grass-roots organization, and Tom undertook a 1,000-mile walk down the California coast. To win the race was always a long shot, but garnering 1.3 million votes led the media to take Hayden seriously as leader of something new on the political scene.

An internal premise of key organizers was that the campaign, when it was over, would be the foundation for a permanent progressive electoral organization in California, and within a few weeks after the June primary race, the “Campaign for Economic Democracy” came into being. The CED became a significant electoral force in several cities and counties over about five years. It came to an end as Tom focused on his own political career, getting elected from Santa Monica to the California state Assembly, while many other CED activists found niches in government, party politics and mass media.

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By Ed Harges, June 23, 2008 at 5:30 am Link to this comment

re: By DHFabian, June 22 at 4:57 am:

My theory is that America’s race issue hides our poverty issue.

The existence of racism allows social Darwinists to claim that there’s nothing really wrong with capitalism itself. The fact that blacks are so disproportionately poor can be used to suggest that, if only we could conquer racial discrimination and let pure capitalism work “fairly” for all, poverty would be reduced to a tiny fraction of the population who are simply so lazy and stupid that they deserve to be poor.

In Scandinavian countries a hundred or more years ago, everyone could see that the masses of poor and miserable were blond and blue-eyed like everyone else, so racial discrimination could not explain their plight. Nor did it seem reasonable that such a large portion of the population were simply contemptible and deserving of being poor.

Thus, the Scandinavians were more open to the idea that capitalism itself may have flaws.

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By DHFabian, June 22, 2008 at 5:57 am Link to this comment
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As an older American, one thing continues to trouble me: Poverty and the struggle for economic justice have been written out of our history. We do mention the “working poor”, but once someone falls below that point, they no longer exist in our eyes. This is the first time in the long history of America’s progressives that we have lost all concept of the social AND economic deterioration that results from the social policies that we have today, where the poor have completely been pushed out of the public discussion, and the only “solution” consists of telling the poor to “get a job”. We aren’t connecting the dots to understand how the sudden creation of a massive bottom wage/no rights/no choice workfare workforce impacts wages and working conditions for all Americans. This is the result of both widespread ignorance about the causes and impact of US poverty, and the “mainstreaming” of the the corporate “war on the poor”. If mentioned by today’s Progressives at all, it is in terms taken from the corporate political playbook.

Empathy and compassion are traits about which Americans crow (a lot), but they disconnect this from our own social policies. Even the progressive media has somehow overlooked the horrendous impact of our welfare “reform” on the poor. 
  I understood just how completely the progressive socio-economic agenda was highjacked when we “celebrated” the anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in the ‘90’s.  I didn’t see a single item mentioning how our welfare “reform” directly violates this celebrated international agreement.

Sans empathy and compassion, I would have expected the progressive souls among us to call for applying international human rights standards to our own citizens. From our welfare policies to our prisons (now more accurately described as a penal gulag) to our international policies, the US has become a leader in violating fundamental human rights. If we can’t stand up for the rights of the powerless among us, anything we say about international human rights is meaningless—and most nations of the world are keenly aware of this.

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By Double U, June 18, 2008 at 5:07 pm Link to this comment

Well, Tom Hayden has an interesting history, but he’s no Michael Albert.

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By Ed Harges, June 14, 2008 at 8:05 am Link to this comment
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Tom Hayden became a harsh critic of the Israel lobby and warned of its harmful influence, including and especially in the Democratic party. He wrote a scathing account of his experiences dealing with the pro-Israel fanatics who control “liberal” politics in California.  It was published here at Truthdig. Here are some quotes and a direct link to the Truthdig article:

Editor’s note: In this essay, veteran social activist Tom Hayden, drawing upon his own rude political awakening to the realities of Israeli and Middle East politics during the 1980s, warns that the Israel lobby in the U.S. aims to “roll back the clock” and “change the map” of the region and that its neoconservative supporters will probably try to use the current Middle East crisis to ignite a larger war against Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran….

Twenty-five years ago I stared into the eyes of Michael Berman, chief operative for his congressman-brother, Howard Berman. I was a neophyte running for the California Assembly in a district that the Bermans claimed belonged to them.

“I represent the Israeli defense forces,” Michael said. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Michael seemed to imagine himself the gatekeeper protecting Los Angeles’ Westside for Israel’s political interests….

Hayden’s regret at his support for Israel’s barbaric 1982 assault on Lebanon:

“I decided we should go to the Middle East—but only as long as the Israeli “incursion,” as it was delicately called, was limited to the 10-kilometer space near the Lebanese border, as a cushion against rocket fire. Benny Navon assured me that the “incursion” was limited, and would be followed by negotiations and a solution. I also made clear our opposition to the use of any fragmentation bombs in the area, and my ultimate political identification with what Israeli Peace Now would say.

There followed a descent into moral ambiguity and realpolitick that still haunts me today. When we arrived at the Israeli-Lebanon border, the game plan promised by Benny Navon had changed utterly. Instead of a localized border conflict, Israel was invading and occupying all of Lebanon—with us in tow. Its purpose was to destroy militarily the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) haven in Lebanon. This had been Gen. Ariel Sharon’s secret plan all along, and I never will know with certainty whether Benny Navon had been deceived along with everyone else.

For the next few weeks, I found myself defending Israel’s “right” to self-defense on its border, only to realize privately how foolish I was becoming. In the meantime, Israel’s invasion was continuing, with ardent Jewish support in America….

Hayden was later disgusted with himself for the fact that he caved to pressure from the Israel lobby and expressed support for this massive crime against humanity.

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By Dick Howard, June 13, 2008 at 9:17 pm Link to this comment
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A 60s sds’er in 68, in Paris and elsewhere.

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By mikel roe, June 13, 2008 at 9:53 am Link to this comment
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Yes we’re oldsters now but the range of political sensibilities remain just as pronounced as they were “in the day”.  May I recommend  PLP was and still is the antithesis of New Left liberalism and Tom-foolery.

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