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Origins of the Port Huron Statement: Tom Hayden and Erich Fromm

April 28, 2013
by Lawrence Gulotta

The idea the Port Huron Statement was prescient, or as Michael Kazan maintains, “the most ambitious, the most specific and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American left” is an open question. It shaped college educated new left opinion. On its 50th Anniversary, a nostalgic reappraisal of the document is underway; inDissent Magazine (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=4249), theNew York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/sunday-review/the-port-huron-statement-at-50.html?pagewanted=all) and various little presses.

Missing from the analysis is any acknowledgement of the influence Erich Fromm’s ideas had on Tom Hayden and the early New Left. In Lawrence J. Friedman’s new book “The Lives of Erich Fromm Love’s Prophet, page 185, ” Friedman writes,“When Tom Hayden, a leader of the New Left, fashioned his Port Huron Statement in 1962 to launch Students for a Democratic Society, he drew heavily from Fromm’sThe Same Society (1955). Forty-eight years later, Hayden underscored to me that his Port Huron Statement owed much to Fromm’s plea to recover man’s humanism and sanity in a world heading for nuclear war.”

It has been argued that the Fromm-Marcuse debate in Dissent (1955-56) injured Fromm’s academic reputation, apparently not injured enough, so that it didn’t have a strong influence on the thinking of Tom Hayden. The early New Left drew from Fromm’s works, especially Escape from Freedomand The Sane Society, for its inspiration. In the established academic narrative, it is C. W. Mills who receives the lion’s share of the credit for providing the ideas which the New Left incorporated into the Port Huron Statement. Friedman’s analysis indicates a more nuanced interpretation is needed to understand the underpinnings of US New Left’s ideas and influences, in its early period.

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