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Appraising the ‘Port Huron Statement’ Fifty Years On

April 22, 2012
by Lawrence Gulotta

That there was a great youth uprising in the 1960s there can be no doubt. What role did The Port Huron Statement (the “Statement”) play? The idea the 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 briefly, college educated new left opinion. On its 50th Anniversary, a nostalgic reappraisal of the document is now underway; in Dissent Magazine (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=4249), the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/sunday-review/the-port-huron-statement-at-50.html?pagewanted=all) and various little presses.

America’s traditional Social Democracy–in the form of the League for Industrial Democracy (“LID”)–made a serious strategic error in alienating the “youth group,” in the early stages of its development. This was a frightful chapter in intergenerational conflict on the Left. Irving Howe referred to Tom Hayden, at one point, as the “Commissar.”

The poetry, phraseology and ideas of the Port Huron Statement predated the Statement and the New Left by at least a decade or more. Paul Jacobs and Michael Harrington, for example, wrote into the statutes of the War on Poverty, “the maximum feasible participation of the poor.” Did these seasoned, legendary activists of the 1950s learn about the politics of “participatory democracy” from the Port Huron Statement? The idea of “participatory democracy,” it seems, was common currency on the democratic Left, and at the LID offices, at East 19th Street, in Gramercy Park, Norman Thomas’ old offices.  SDS maintained its offices at LID, at first, funded by a generous $10,000 grant from the United Auto Workers.

There is poetry in the phrase “participatory democracy,” and many visionaries can claim title to it. I don’t believe Tom Hayden and his comrades have a clear title to the phrase.

I was seventeen in 1967, when a high school mate and I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, headed to the SDS offices (in the West 20s, in a large, drab loft building), put down our $10 membership dues, and joined SDS. I received a SDS membership card and a copy of the Port Huron Statement.  The Statement, together with Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, served as the intellectual foundation of our little group of high school activists. We took the Port Huron Statement seriously. Because of what I read and the zeitgeist of the period, I decided to attend a liberal arts college instead of a technical program my parents hoped for, the more so to be closer to the “movement.”

I entered New York University’s undergraduate school in 1968, in Greenwich Village.  SDS dominated the campus political scene in 1968–1972. During this period of New Left history, the Port Huron Statement was becoming obsolete, replaced by Herbert Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” and Eros and Civilization”, the exalted exploits of the SDS Venceramos Brigade-cutting sugar cane in Cuba during Spring break–and an increasing fixation on a Viet Cong victory. Black Nationalism and separatism was also having a profound effect on the largely white New Left on many campuses.

During my undergraduate years, I rarely met a SDSer who carried a copy in their back pocket or book bag or even quoted from it.  The idea of “participatory democracy” was amended by SDS to include “consensus decision-making” and “criticism/self-criticism sessions.”  The desire for a “participatory democracy” was being replaced by other ideologies.  Moving away from “participatory democracy,”  SDS chapters placed greater reliance and faith on Marxist formulas, “Fidelism,” “third-world revolution.” SDS was developing distaste for “bourgeois democracy. ” Franz Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth and Mao’s Little Red Book were the popular reading material then. By the end of the decade, SDS had become strident, erratic, had organized violent actions against military bases and seized university buildings, to protest the Vietnam War.

On the sunny spring morning of March 6, 1970, I was walking a labor-support picket line with Village Voice writer Jack Newfield, in front of the NYU’s Rubin Hall on Fifth Avenue, in support of NYU service workers, when a mid-block luxury townhouse, four hundred feet away from me, at 18 W. 11th Street, suddenly exploded, sending Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson, two conspiratorial, dazed and bleeding SDSers on to the sidewalk. The bodies of Ted Gold, Diana Oughten and Terry Robbins were sent to the City morgue. This tragic event effectively derailed the radical democratic and crusading spirit of the Port Huron Statement’s participatory democracy vision and disillusioned scores of SDS members and sympathizers.

Some analysts of the New Left have remarked that what is most dated (in the Port Huron Statement) is a, ” sort of naïve belief that human nature itself might be transformed through appeal to idealism, and that somehow our institutions will be malleable in the face of idealism mobilized.” The transformation of human nature has been a perennial idea among Leftists, since the eighteenth century.  Often unacknowledged in its influence on the 60s generation is the iconic line from President Kennedy, at his inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It was a period of hope and change in America, a time when an idealistic Statement could find an audience.

Paul Berman, a well-regarded academic and author notes,  “the statement’s appeal to young people was natural and that neither its tone nor its prescriptions could be blamed for the later atomization of SDS”  Many historians view Robespierre and the Terror as a lineal descendent and the “unintended consequence” of the French Revolution’s “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.” There are those on the Right that argue it was the Port Huron Statement which gave rise to the Weather Underground. In fact, the Port Huron Statement represented a very different ideology than the terse, rigid tracts produced by the Weathermen, just as the French Revolution of 1788-93 represented a radically different ideology, in conflict with the ideas espoused by the polemicists and militants who staged the coup d’état of 1793, propelling Robespierre and the Terror to power. I agree with Paul Berman that Port Huron did not cause or lead to the tragedy at 18 W. 11th Street, on the morning of March 6, 1970.

It has been asked whether Port Huron could double as a manifesto for Occupy. Todd Gitlin, who was president of SDS. during 1963-64. says, “Occupy has learned the lessons of SDS. The primacy of nonviolence is a reaction to the ’60s, as is ‘don’t have hierarchal organizations’ and ‘don’t have visible leaders.’ For the SDS, the prime enemy was apathy. This movement recognizes you don’t have to preach to people, that they’re alienated.” Occupy’s organizational principles seem to have evolved more from the crucible of anarchism, than the activism of SDS.

Insightful supporters of the Occupy movement see no need to look to the Port Huron Statement for guidance. “If you ask me what is the most powerful, personal and collective feeling of people in the Occupy movement, it is a feeling of gloom and doom, that they’re looking toward a black hole future; I’m not quite sure we need a manifesto to say that,” says Kalle Lasn, who was 20 in 1962. Today, he is the editor of Adbusters, whose Twitter tag #OccupyWallStreet branded the movement last summer.

In retrospect, liberals and social democrats never inflicted upon SDS and the antiwar movement the lasting damage and trauma SDS’s extreme and violence-prone political factions, such as the forceful Weathermen faction, were able to inflict on a largely non-violent student movement. It is a pity that the some of the celebrants of the 50th Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement still can’t imagine that the young, new Left of the 1960s was captured by anti-democratic and non-participatory forces that their elders in the LID warned them to avoid

 

 

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