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Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement

Posted on Oct 24, 2016

By Tom Hayden

(Page 2)

The Lasting Legacy of Participatory Democracy

The idea of participatory democracy, therefore, should be understood in its psychic, liberatory dimension, not simply as an alternative concept of government organization. Cynics like Paul Berman acknowledge that the concept of participatory democracy “survived” the demise of the New Left because it “articulated the existential drama of moral activism.” [5] The notion (and phrase) was transmitted by a philosophy professor in Ann Arbor, Arnold Kaufman, who attended the Port Huron convention. Its roots were as deep and distant as the Native American tribal traditions of consensus. [6] It arose among the tumultuous rebels of western Massachusetts who drove out the British and established self-governing committees in the prelude to the American Revolution. It was common practice among the Society of Friends and in New England’s town meetings. It appeared in Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” in passages exalting “the mass of sense lying in a dormant state” in oppressed humanity, which could be awakened and “excited to action” through revolution. [7] It was extolled (if not always implemented) by Jefferson, who wrote that every person should feel himself or herself to be “a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” [8] Perhaps the most compelling advocate of participatory democracy, however, was Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century author of “Civil Disobedience,” who opposed taxation for either slavery or war, and who called on Americans to vote “not with a mere strip of paper but with your whole life.” Thoreau’s words were often repeated in the early days of the ‘60s civil rights and antiwar movements.

This heritage of participatory democracy also was transmitted to SDS through the works of the revered philosopher John Dewey, who was a leader of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), the parent organization of SDS, from 1939 to the early ‘50s. Dewey believed that “democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint community experience.” It meant participation in all social institutions, not simply going through the motions of elections, and, notably, “the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together.”[9]

Then came the rebel sociologist C. Wright Mills, a descendant of Dewey and prophet of the New Left, who died of a heart attack shortly before the Port Huron Statement was produced. Mills had a profound effect in describing a new strata of radical democratic intellectuals around the world, weary of the stultifying effects of bureaucracy in both the United States and the Soviet Union. His descriptions of the power elite, the mass society, the “democracy without publics,” the apathy that turned so many into “cheerful robots,” seemed to explain perfectly the need for democracy from the bottom up. The representative democratic system seemed of limited value as long as so many Americans were disenfranchised structurally and alienated culturally. We in the SDS believed, based on our own experience, that participation in direct action was a method of psychic empowerment, a fulfillment of human potential, a means of curing alienation, as well as an effective means of mass protest. We believed that “ordinary people should have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives” because it was necessary for their dignity, not simply a blueprint for greater accountability.


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Some of the Port Huron language appears to be plagiarized from the Vatican’s “Pacem in Terris.” [10] That would be not entirely accidental, because a spirit of peace and justice was flowing through the most traditional of institutions, including Southern black Protestant churches, and soon would flourish as Catholic “liberation theology,” a direct form of participatory democracy in Third World peasant communities. This “movement spirit” was everywhere present, not only in religion but in music and the arts. We studied the lyrics of Bob Dylan more than the texts of Marx and Lenin. Dylan even attended an SDS meeting or two. He had hitchhiked east in search of Woody Guthrie, after all. Though never an activist, he expressed our sensibility exactly when he described “mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick” in which “there was nobody to check with,” and folk music as a “guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” [11]

The experience of middle-class alienation drew us to Mills’ “White Collar,” Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” or Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd.” Our heady sense of the student movement was validated in Mills’ “Letter to the New Left” or “Listen, Yankee!” The experience of confronting structural unemployment in the “other America” was illuminated by Michael Harrington and the tradition of Marxism. Liberation theology reinforced the concept of living among the poor. The reawakening of women’s consciousness was hinted at in Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” (which some of us read back to back with Clancy Sigal’s “Going Away”), or Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.”  The participatory ethic of direct action, of ending segregation, for example, by actually integrating lunch counters, drew from traditions of anarchism as well. (At a small SDS planning meeting in 1960, Dwight Macdonald gave a keynote speech on “The Relevance of Anarchism.” [12]) The ethos of direct action leaped from romantic revolutionary novels like Ignacio Silone’s “Bread and Wine,” whose hero, a revolutionary masked as a priest, said that it “would be a waste of time to show a people of intimidated slaves a different manner of speaking ... but perhaps it would be worthwhile to show them a different way of living.”[13]

The idea was to challenge elite authority by direct example and to draw “ordinary people,” whether apathetic students, sharecroppers or office workers, into a dawning belief in their own right to participate in decisions. This was the method—call it consciousness-raising—of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a method that influenced SDS, the early women’s liberation groups, farmworkers’ house meetings and Catholic base communities before eventually spreading to Vietnam veterans’ rap groups and so on. Participatory democracy was a tactic of movement-building as well as an end itself. And by an insistence on listening to “the people” as a basic ethic of participatory democracy, the early movement was able to guarantee its roots in American culture and traditions while avoiding the imported ideologies that infected many elements of the earlier left. 

Through participatory democracy we could theorize a concrete, egalitarian transformation of the workplaces of great corporations, urban neighborhoods, the classrooms of college campuses, religious congregations, and the structures of political democracy itself. We believed that representative democracy, while an advance over the divine right of kings or bureaucratic dictatorships, should be replaced or reformed by a greater emphasis on decentralized decision-making, remaking our world from the bottom up.

Some of our pronouncements were absurd or embarrassing, like the notion of “cheap” nuclear power becoming a decentralized source of community-based energy, the declaration that “the International Geophysical Year is a model for continuous further cooperation” and the unquestioned utilization of grating sexist terminology (“men” instead of “human beings”)  in sweeping affirmations about dignity and equality. We could not completely transcend the times, or even predict the near future: the rise of the women’s and environmental movements, the war in Vietnam, the political assassinations. The gay community was closeted invisibly among us.[14] The beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had stirred us, but the full-blown counterculture, psychedelic drugs and the Beatles were two years away. 

Yet through many ups and downs, participatory democracy has spread as an ethic throughout everyday life, and become a persistent challenge to top-down institutions, all over the world. It has surfaced in campaigns of the global justice movement, in struggles for workplace and neighborhood empowerment, resistance to the Vietnam War draft,  in Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed,” in political platforms from Green parties to the Zapatistas, in the independent media, and in grass-roots Internet campaigns including that of Howard Dean in 2004. Belief in the new participatory norm has resulted in major, if incomplete, policy triumphs mandating everything from Freedom of Information disclosures to citizen participation requirements in multiple realms of official decision-making. It remains a powerful threat to those in established bureaucracies who fear and suppress what they call “an excess of democracy.”[15]

Next Page: The Port Huron Strategy of Radical Reform

[5]Paul Berman, “A Tale of Two Utopias, The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968,” Norton, 1996, p. 54.
[6]At various times, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson wrote approvingly of Indian political customs. As one historian described Iroquois culture, there were “no laws or ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails.” These idyllic themes evolved into the 1960s communes, organic gardening and medicine, environmentalist lifestyles, and other practices. See Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States,” Harper Collins, 2003, pp. 1-23. John Adams wrote in 1787 that “to collect together the legislation of the Indians would take up much room but would be well worth pains,” as cited in an excellent collection by Oren Lyons, John Mohawk, Vine Deloria, Laurence Hauptman, Howard Berman, Donald Grinde, Curtis Berkey and Robert Venables, “Exiled in the Land of the Free,” Clear Light, 1992, p. 109. The 1778 Articles of Confederation Congress actually proposed an Indian state headed by the Delaware nation, p. 113.
[7]Thomas Paine, “Rights of Man,” Penguin, 1984, p. 70, 176.
[8]In a Jefferson letter dated Feb. 2, 1816, cited by Berman, p. 51.
[9]Berman, op. cited, p. 53
[10]Retreating both from Enlightenment beliefs in “infinite perfectibility” and negative beliefs in “original sin,” the Port Huron Statement asserted that human beings are “infinitely precious” and possessed of “unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love.” The wording was provided by a Mexican-American Catholic activist, Maria Varela, who quoted from the copy of a Church encyclical she happened to carry. Casey Hayden spoke of those years as a “holy time.”
[11] Bob Dylan, “Chronicles, Volume One,” Simon and Schuster, 2004, pp. 34-35.
[12]Sale, p. 27
[13]Ignazio Silone, “Bread and Wine,” 1936, Signet 1986; see also Miller, p. 53.
[14]For example, the late Carl Wittman, who joined SDS shortly after Port Huron and worked with me as a community organizer in the Newark project, eventually came out of the closet to write “A Gay Manifesto,” a defining document of the gay liberation movement, six years after Port Huron. See David Carter, “Stonewall, The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” St. Martins, 2004. Pp. 118-119.
[15]The phrase is that of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, in a speech to the elite Trilateral Commission in 1976, during the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Huntington noted that “The 1960s witnessed a dramatic upsurge of democratic fervor in America,” a trend that he diagnosed as a “distemper” that threatened both governability and national security. Huntington proposed there be “limits to the extension of political democracy.” See account in Zinn, op. cited, pp. 558-560.


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By Struggling College girl, October 23, 2008 at 11:26 am Link to this comment
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recently received the following assignment:

After reading Port Huron and Sharon Statement declare a new policy statement for your generation in a promise to honor the Free Speech Movement. Are you bold or apathetic? Statements should be clear of purpose, passionate, and serious.

any ideas????
Please Help………..

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By Jim, April 13, 2006 at 11:10 am Link to this comment
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The comments by Mamosa on megalomania and some of the history of the 1960s which Tom Hayden discusses raise, in my mind, some crucial issues that all future social movements will face.
  Tom states that “..the subsequent assinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 permanently derailed what remained of the hopes that were born at Port Huron.”  He goes on to say that “...hope died slowly and painfully…” and that what followed was radicalization, polarization, and that SDS members who choose “ become more radical, sectarian dogmatic and violent…” made those decisions in a context which, more or less, justified such choices.
  Since I was an SDS member who made such a choice (as was Tom Hayden) I think it is important too look as closely as possible at that type of decision. I remember at the time the type of private thought which went through my brain was something to the effect “all right system, you murdered our leaders, you continue with your insane policy in Vietnam, I going to take you on in any way I know how.”  My brain sent me a message as to how to respond to the power of the “establishment” and the logic of that response (greater dogmatism, greater polarizing behavior) simply duplicated the logic of the “establishment” power I was supposedly fighting against.
  That type of decision and choice was made by many hundreds if not thousand of individuals between 1968 and 1970 and it had disasterous consequences for the more Utopian dreams of Port Huron.  The megalomania of the “establishment,” was duplicated to a lesser degree in our decisions as protestors.  We had listened to a message in our heads as to the “proper,” way to respond to unjust power.
  This is part of the reason why the road to “an alternative way of being,” is so difficult. Our brain absorbs a message on how to achieve or challenge power and we go with that impulse when it is the very impulse we should be fighting against.

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By Lee Hirz, April 13, 2006 at 6:05 am Link to this comment
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As a member of various groups that have been trying to attack the issue of progressive politics I have had a stunning reminder of the fact that people are so distracted by the symptoms of our problems that they almost consciously refuse to attack the causes. I have distributed the Port Huron Statement to little avail The people I’ve worked with, while not appathetic and while good intentioned cannot think outside the context of the public arguments, which once framed, do not allow for much vigorous argument.  2020 Democrats is one organization that I held high hopes for, but have not been able to have much an effect on because, while they aspouse to want to create a new platform for the Democratic party, refuse to take the issues of social justice very seriously.  There is an ogranization in England called the Fabian Society which as three basic premises that can be used to frame all of their philosophies:  Liberty, responsibility and fairness, all framed in a global context, but acted on locally.  This country needs a “Fabian Society” like organization that can in the long term develop the intellectual basis for social justice in our American culture.

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By mamosa, April 12, 2006 at 10:52 pm Link to this comment
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The understated passion in your words is more powerful than the history you relate.  I appreciate that.

I was a part time activist in the sixties, a part time student, a weekend hippie, a full time husband and father of two, and a full time employee.  I had grown up unaware and without hunger. 

I woke up about 4:30 PM on my way home from work on November 22, 1963 when the radio announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  Six months earlier he had been my Commander in Chief and I was proud to serve.  That event troubles me to this day.  It changed my life.

I realized that something was terribly wrong.  I committed myself to learning what it was and what I could do about it.  It is deeper than lack of compassion, deeper than dishonesty, and deeper than greed.  It is megalomania, a psychological disorder that propels those afflicted to rise to the top through lies, theft and murder. 

Not all leaders are afflicted, but the ones who are, are fairly easy to spot.  If they fool me once, or lie to me once, I will never trust them again.  Hey Hey LBJ!  Total openness and honesty from wannabe leaders, and everyone else for that matter, is the answer.

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By Eva Periut, April 12, 2006 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
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Sadly, there is little justice where there is such greed and malice of those in power. In fact, I have come to believe most powers that be, care very little, if at all for human suffering, much less seek justice for humanity.  And I would hope that the Israeli lobbying that goes on will tone down its rhetoric for this story and allow the truth of this valiant young woman be told. It would only demostrate our common humanity after all.

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By freespeechlover, April 12, 2006 at 10:26 am Link to this comment
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Thanks for that comment.  It was very insightful and helpful in understanding that time for those of us who were not old enough then to participate in it.

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By Jim, April 11, 2006 at 11:29 pm Link to this comment
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The cultural belief that SDS began to challenge in the 1960s the “absolute impossibility of another way of being,” continues to be the major challenge of the 21st century.  What we in SDS in the 1960s failed to realize was how difficult this challenge truly is.
  Tom Hayden insighfully describes how the call for participatory democracy tapped into the rich tradition of representation ( the Native American tribal tradition of consensus and self-governing town meetings)present at the founding of America.
  He also indicates that particpatory democracy “should be understood in its psychic, liberatory dimension, not simply as an alternative concept of government organization…but as a mode of associated living.” Tom states that many of us were moved by the demonstrations in the South. This was certainly true but what was it exactly that moved us.
  I remember particpating in my first civil rights demonstration in downtown Milwaukee in 1964. I listed to impassioned speeches inside a black church and then suddently the entire congregation black and white walked out of the church and marched into the street together.  This was direct action and it was exhilirating.
But it was more than that, for a few brief moments I also experienced a different way of being, a different sense of individuality, more open and connected to those around me.
  In 1964 I felt a part of, but by 1974 after 10 years of politcal activity I felt above it all, separate from and certain in my righteous ideological stance.  Somehow in 10 years the search for another way of being had simply become a search for power. It strikes me that if such a process is not to continually reassert itself all of us who are interested in changing America must carefully reflect and acknowledge what truly moves us and what internally and externally stops us from following such passions.

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