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Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement
Posted on Apr 10, 2006
By Tom Hayden
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.”  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.  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.  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.”  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.”
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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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.” ) 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.”
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. 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.”
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