Richard Flacks on Tom Hayden
Posted on Jun 12, 2008
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:
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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