September 4, 2015
Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement
Posted on Apr 10, 2006
By Tom Hayden
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.  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.  The goals of the early SDS were receiving majority support while the organization was becoming too fragmented to benefit.
Square, Site wide
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.
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. 
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."
 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.
New and Improved Comments