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Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement

Posted on Oct 24, 2016

By Tom Hayden

(Page 4)

The Achievements of the ‘60s

SDS could not survive the decade as an organization. In part, the very ethos of participatory democracy conflicted with the goal, shared by some at Port Huron, of building a permanent New Left organization. Not only was there a yearly turnover of the campus population, but SDS activists were committed in principle to leave the organization in two or three years to make room for new leadership. Meanwhile, it seemed that new radical movements were exploding everywhere, straining the capacity of any single organization like SDS to define, much less coordinate, the whole. Administrators, police and intelligence agencies alternated among strategies of co-optation, counterintelligence and coercion. SDS disintegrated into rival Marxist sects that had been unimaginable to us in 1962, and those groups devoured the host organization by 1969. (I would argue that one of them, the Weather Underground, was an authentic descendent of the Port Huron generation, rebelling against the failure of our perceived reformism.)

But it would be a fundamental mistake to judge the participatory ‘60s through any organizational history. SDS, following SNCC, was a catalytic organization, not a bureaucratic one. The two groups catalyzed more social change in their seven-year life spans than many respectable and well-funded nongovernmental organizations accomplish in decades. [53] If anything, the ‘60s were a triumph for the notions of decentralized democratic movements championed in the Port Huron Statement. Slogans like “Let the people decide” were heartfelt. The powerful dynamics of the ‘60s   could not have been “harnessed” by any single structure; instead the heartbeat was expressed through countless innovative grass-roots networks that rose or fell based on voluntary initiative. The result was a vast change in public attitudes as the ‘60s   became mainstreamed.

In this perspective, the movement outlived its organized forms, like SDS. Once any organizational process became dysfunctional (national SDS meetings began drawing 3,000 participants, for example), the movement energy flowed around the structural blockages, leaving the organizational shell for the squabbling factions. For example, in the very year that SDS collapsed, there were millions in the streets for the Vietnam Moratorium and the first Earth Day. In the first six months of 1969, based on information from only 232 of America’s 2,000 campuses, over 200,000 students were involved in protests, 3,652 had been arrested, and 956 suspended or expelled. In 1969-70, according to the FBI, 313 building occupations took place. In Vietnam, there were 209 “fraggings” by soldiers in 1970 alone. Public opinion had shifted from 61% supporting the Vietnam War in 1965 to 61% declaring the war was wrong in 1971. [54] The goals of the early SDS were receiving majority support while the organization was becoming too fragmented to benefit.


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When a movement declines, no organization can resuscitate it. This is not to reject the crucial importance of organizing, or the organizer’s mentality, or the construction of a “civil society” of countless networks. But it is to suggest a key difference between movements and institutions. The measure of an era is not taken in membership cards or election results alone, but in the changes in consciousness, in the changing norms of everyday life, and in the public policies that result from movement impacts on the mainstream. Much of what we take for granted—voting by renters, a five-day workweek, clean drinking water, the First Amendment, collective bargaining, interracial relationships - is the result of bitter struggles by radical movements of yesteryear to legitimate what previously was considered antisocial or criminal. In this sense, the effects of movements envisioned at Port Huron, and the backlash against them, are deep, ongoing and still contested. 

First, American democracy indeed became more participatory as a result of the ‘60s. More constituencies gained a voice and a public role than ever before. The political process became more open. Repressive mechanisms were exposed and curbed. The culture as a whole became more tolerant.

Second, there were structural or institutional changes that redistributed political access and power. Jim Crow segregation was ended in the South, and 20 million black people won the vote. The 18-year-old vote enfranchised an additional 10 million young people. Affirmative action for women and people of color broadened opportunities in education, the political process and the workplace. The opening of presidential primaries empowered millions of voters to choose their candidates. New checks and balances were imposed on an imperial presidency. Two presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were forced from office. 

Third, new issues and constituencies were recognized in public policy: voting rights acts, the clean air and water acts, the endangered-species laws, the Environmental Protection Agency, the occupational health and safety acts, consumer safety laws, non-discrimination and affirmative action initiatives, the disability rights movement, and others. A rainbow of identity movements, including the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, staked out independent identities and broadened the public discourse.

Fourth, the Vietnam War was ended and the Cold War model was challenged. Under public pressure,  Congress eliminated military funding for South Vietnam and Cambodia. The Watergate scandal, which arose from Nixon’s repression of antiwar voices, led to a presidential resignation. The U.S. ended the military draft. The Carter administration provided amnesty for Vietnam-era deserters. Beginning with Vietnam and Chile, human rights was established as an integral part of national security policy. Relations with Vietnam were normalized under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, a former McCarthy and McGovern activist, and Sen. John Kerry, a former leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  [55]

Fifth, the ‘60s consciousness gave birth to new technologies, including the personal computer. I remember seeing my first computer as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in 1963; it seemed as large as a room, and my faculty adviser, himself a campus radical, promised that all our communications would become radically decentralized with computers the size of my hand. “It is not a coincidence,” writes an industry analyst, “that, during the 60’s and early 70’s, at the height of the protest against the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, personal computing emerged from a handful of government- and corporate-funded laboratories, as well as from the work of a small group…[who] were fans of LSD, draft resisters, commune sympathizers and, to put it bluntly, long-haired hippie freaks.” [56] While it is fair to say the dream of technology failed, there is no doubt that the Internet has propelled communication and solidarity among global protest movements as never before, resulting in a more participatory, decentralized democratic process.

The ‘60s, however, are far from over. Coinciding with their progressive impacts has been a constant and rising backlash to limit, if not roll back, the social, racial, environmental and political reforms of the era. Former President Clinton, an astute observer of our political culture, says that the ‘60s remain the basic fault line running through American politics to this day, and the best measure of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. It is important to note that the ‘60s revolt was a global phenomenon, producing a lasting “generation of ‘68,” sharing power in many countries including Germany, France, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Northern Ireland, South Africa and South Korea, to name only a few.

Social movements begin and end in memory. The fact that we called ourselves a “new” left meant that our radical roots largely had been severed, by McCarthyism and the Cold War, so that the project of building an alternative was commencing all over again. Social movements shift from the mysterious margins to the mainstream, become majorities, then are subject to crucial arguments over memory. The  ‘60s are still contested terrain in schools, the media and politics, precisely because the recovery of their meaning is important to social movements of the future and the suppression or distortion of that memory is vital to the conservative agenda. We are nearing the 50th anniversary of every significant development of the ‘60s, including the Port Huron Statement. The final stage of the ‘60s,  the stage of memory and museums, is underway.

Next Page: Students,  the Universities and the Postmodern Legacy

[53]One exemption to this rule is the National Organization for Women (NOW), which has managed to balance the catalytic and bureaucratic poles since its inception in 1965. Another is the Sierra Club. In both cases, the grass-roots membership plays a key role in the energy flow through the organizational machinery.
[54]All figures in Zinn, pp. 490-492.
[55]The then-secret Pentagon Papers quote administration advisers in 1968 as saying “this growing disaffection accompanied as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” In his memoirs, President Nixon wrote that “although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy ... I knew, however, that after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by the war.”  Note that these concerns were based purely on cost/benefit calculations, not on moral or public policy grounds. In Zinn, pp. 500, 501.
[56]John Markoff, “What the Dormouse Said, How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry,” Viking, 2005. See New York Times review, May 7, 2005.

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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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