The Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement is to the 1960s’ student revolt and antiwar movement what the Declaration of Independence was for the American Revolution.
The founding document of the New Left strove to be one of the “blueprints of civic paradise.” Its goal was to call attention to “the actual structural separation of people from power, from relevant knowledge, from pinnacles of decision making.”
Still remarkably relevant, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the SDS manifesto, which spoke of “a world in upheaval,” while denouncing the “Warfare State,” the “permanent war economy” and “a lifetime saturation with horror.”
[For those interested in reading the entire document: Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962]
The Statement boldly declared: “The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.”
Outraged by racism and economic inequality it dared ask “can we live in a different and better way?” and demanded “majority participation in decision-making.”
Confronting Cold War conformity, the PHS asserted “peaceful dissent should be actively promoted. The first Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, thought, religion and press should be seen as guarantees, not threats, to national security.” Alarmed by nuclear brinksmanship, the Statement closes poetically: “If we appear to seek the unattainable… we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
Much of the protest program was written by then-22-year-old Tom Hayden – a Freedom Rider who arguably was to the Statement what Tom Jefferson was to 1776’s Declaration. Hayden went on to become one of the Chicago 7, the husband of activist/actress Jane Fonda, an elected state representative and senator in California’s legislature, and a prolific author.
He is currently the Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California [TomHayden.com]
In this candid conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine Tom Hayden discusses the Port Huron Statement‘s enduring relevance, Occupy Wall Street, citizen activism and reform, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, the 2012 presidential election, and the endless search for truth and meaning.
Rock Cellar Magazine: 50 years ago, the Port Huron Statement avowed itself as “a living document open to change with our times and experiences.” Was this prescient?
Tom Hayden: I don’t know if it was prescient or mystical. We were about 21 to 22 years old. I had the feeling that sometimes the Statement wrote us. Kind of the way songwriters and poets say, “the muse came, and I was just the instrument of it.” A lot of it is clunky, a lot of it is outdated, but it does have a very compelling ring 50 years later. I think that’s the reason to commemorate it — not to just look back, but participatory democracy as a possible framework for progressive movements in the future, going forward.
RCM: How much of it did you actually write?
TH: I wrote a letter that was a first draft. Then, I wrote a first draft which was – I don’t know – 50, 40 single spaced pages. Then about 50 people in small groups at Port Huron, [Michigan,] which is where there was the United Auto Workers’ education camp – a facility we used – sat around in small circles and discussed each part of it: Values, politics, economics, foreign policy, strategy and tactics and so on, using it as a draft. And then they would report back with any changes they wanted to make and we’d have a general assembly of 40, 50, 60 people – some of them were asleep – that’s important. Then it was given to me to rewrite. So, describe it how you will, that’s how it was done.
RCM: According to the Port Huron Statement “what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era.” Today, 50 years later, is America in a state of decline?
TH: I think we’re going through the kind of endgame for what the Statement predicted. In other words, I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s and came of age in the ’60s, and as any number of people have pointed out, it was a time of unprecedented middle class prosperity. I came from Michigan, where UAW workers were getting 20 or 30 bucks an hour with benefits. And there was not only a middle class, but much more important, the belief in the expansion of middle class opportunities, for Black people, for Latinos, for workers, for people who were disadvantaged or discriminated against.
That was what was unique about 1962: we could perceive that we may have lived through a peak period of middle class opportunity, and we were the discontents who saw how far we had to go. I’m not sure we would have predicted everything that has happened since. But the Statement did make a prescient comment that “1% of the American people owned 80% of corporate stocks and bonds” – the first mention that I know of of the 1%. That’s not in tribute; it’s a recognition of what we saw and how unable we were to make opportunity to happen beyond the racial barrier. And do something about the poverty and underemployment and the middle class lack of opportunity that we see today.
RCM: The PHS notes the existence of poverty in the U.S., but also says “we are a materially improved society.” Do you think we still are?
TH: We have to go back. We were writing about the ’60s, and our parents were the ’30s. The New Deal and labor movement did make some significant material progress: social security, steps towards healthcare, recognition of industrial workers’ right to form unions. All that really mattered. We did point out that poverty remained, discrimination remained that was the agenda.
What is sort of astonishing, if you think about – and this is why the Statement seems so relevant to students who read it today – if you take James Carville’s [and Stan Greenberg’s] new book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!, you’ll see the top Democratic consultants are complaining in 2012 that economic life has been pretty much frozen for the middle class since the 1970s. This is the primary cause – not the only cause – for the rise of the Tea Party, anti-tax movements and for the intense polarization going into this election.
I don’t have a theoretical answer to it. Here’s a theoretical question:
How can the richest capitalist society in history be unable to improve living standards for working class and middle class people for over a 40 or 50 year time period?
Why are more people working for the same wages, but working much longer and with both people in the family having to bring in what one used to? There have been some advances; certainly in civil rights there has been a small growth of a Black and Latino middle class. Women have made enormous advances in terms of opportunity – education and so on.
But the reason we have this boiling discontent is that decades have gone by with people flaunting their wealth and money being thrown in all directions, but the average industrial and service worker is making about the same amount for longer hours and less benefits.
It is amazing; you can say it’s greed. You can say it has some structural causes, like the decline of unions – I agree with that. But why are the powers-that-be so blind to creating this festering well of discontent and populist energy when it would seem so easy to fix if you had any enlightened corporate or banking leadership? It has not happened under either party. A little bit more under Democrats – the differences are important. But it really has not happened; that’s what the Carville book and the statistics show.
RCM: It’s widely said this will be the first generation in U.S. history that will be worse off than the previous generation.
TH: That has been predicted several times in my political lifetime. It’s certainly true now, yes.
RCM: The Statement says “there are few new prophets.” [Co-defendant] Jerry Rubin once said being in the Chicago 7 was like “winning the Academy Award for protest.” You have certainly had an impact on American society – in electoral office and in the streets. Will history regard you as one of those “prophets”?
TH: Well, I’ve tried to be a practical prophet. I’ve spent 18 years in office, I’ve been in I don’t know how many demonstrations. You know, again and again I’ve seen significant progress, but compared to the magnitude of the problems I can see why people give up. I don’t think we could have expected quite how long it was; we probably lacked a sense of history.
For example, if you go back and read the history of the women’s movement over 100 years, resulting in the right to vote in the early 20th century, it was 100 years of faction fights, arguments, electoral/political strategies, lobbying, education, sit-ins, direct action, being arrested at the White House gates… And finally, only because of the additional factor of the power structure’s need to look better in trying to “make the world safe for democracy” (as Woodrow Wilson put it) they got the right to vote by a margin of one vote – in the state legislature of Tennessee, I believe. We barely got it as a constitutional amendment. It took 100 years.
That was our bloodline, our heritage; but I don’t know if it’s sobering. I feel it’s more important to know the truth and how hard it is and fight for what you believe in. And along the way realize that you’ll achieve some of it – in your Berkeley, your counterculture, your Santa Monica, your community – you’ll prevent the worst from happening in your lifetime, maybe. But you may not achieve much of what you dreamed about, even in 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I’m saying we should be satisfied with our role as agents of social change, even if it’s that painful. What’s the alternative? I see none.
RCM: You’re currently married, right? Have children?
TH: I’m married to Barbara going on 20 years. We have a beautiful boy who’s 12. I’ve got another son who’s 39. I’ve got a daughter who’s 41. I’ve got an adopted daughter who’s 40. Couple of grandchildren.
RCM: The PHS discusses: “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today.” Do you yourself feel alienated?
TH: Yes. The Port Huron language liberally borrowed from people who came before, people we respected. There’s a bit of Karl Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, the young Marx, combined with Erich Fromm, the great social psychologist, behind those words. But no, I think you can be personally integrated, socially integrated. That has to do with this question of gaining meaning in life, and that’s different from being a disassociated personality that is subject to addiction or irrational or zany behavior. It’s a distinction I would make. But alienated from the status quo? Definitely.
RCM: And still fighting after 50 years…
TH: Sure, I may be too filled with my temper and my anger at injustice. Some might think I’m too obsessive and put in too much time at this, and I think that’s a fair assessment. But I’ve been married, I’ve raised several children. I spend hours each week playing baseball. I read countless books. I’m proud to have friends going back 50 years. My political career was basically rooted in trying to improve this community of Santa Monica and nearby communities… to improve the quality of life, the schools, the parks and recreation, lessen the gang violence – the sort of work that is more than the paperwork of passing bills, because it’s rooted in local politics.
RCM: You mentioned Marx. According to the PHS: “The economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination; that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.” Is this advocating some form of socialism?
TH: No. The 50 or 60 or 100 people who were there in the beginning included some young people from Communist families, say in New York, in the ’40s and ’50s. They were ex-Communists as a result of Stalin. There were some people who were more social democrats, because their parents had been in the liberal-left New Deal tradition. Most of the others were kind of radical spirits who found an identification more with what became known as “liberation theology.” There was that kind of mix.
So the language you just read is a hybrid formulation that includes all those sensitivities. The document is not now and never was Marxist (laughs) to put it that way. We were accused of being communists by the right wing, and we were accused of being not Marxist by the later radicals of our generation.
I’d say the focus of the Statement is… popular movements realigning the institutions, and creating radical reforms of the kind we thought we saw in the New Deal, and could achieve in the Civil Rights movement and on the campuses. So, people of different persuasions were certainly welcome: libertarians, socialists, plain liberals, democrats, monks, Buddhists, all kinds of people. It’s proper to describe it as a participatory, populist, small “d” democratic strategy to galvanize a majority.
RCM: Are you going to campaign for any candidate during the presidential race?
TH: I’m strongly supportive of Barack Obama, as I was in 2008. And I’ll do everything I can to reelect him. I think it’s going to be very difficult. Most people I know on the liberal-left, not to mention radicals, are so disillusioned with him, that they are just not going to do anything. They’re unconsciously just angry. I supported Obama in 2008 while at the same time being very clear that I opposed his plans for Afghanistan, and a number of other issues.
The more that we push Obama, the more we can make the kind of progress I’ve described. As examples – the progress on gays in the military, marriage equality, “Dream Act” for students – all examples of direct action, very militant social movements combined with political organizing that created a climate that made it possible for Obama to do what we hoped he might do.
RCM: What’s your view of the recent Occupy movement?
TH: The Occupy Wall Street movement has lost unity and direction and it may have already fulfilled it’s one purpose: which was an upstart rebellion and resistance against the Wall Street and big money takeover of everything.
I had hoped they’d be much more of a presence in the debate between Obama and Romney because this election, unlike any election since the ’30s, is about government’s role in the economy versus the free market model of corporate domination and so on. From knowing the Occupy people I don’t think it’s in their blood or consciousness or comfort zone to participate, even as a pressure group in electoral politics. While not officially anarchist they’re philosophically of that school of thought. I hope for them, but I don’t think that they can be counted on to pressure for any reform, because I don’t think they believe in any reform. As a whole group – I’m not speaking of individuals.
RCM: You grew up in the rock and roll generation. Do you currently have any rockers among your friends?
TH: Tom Morello. I don’t want to name drop. I try to listen to whoever the hell my son is listening to, and he completely adores Morello. Morello is an interesting tradition that goes back to the spirituals, the blues, folk music, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dylan and of course rock ’n’ roll.
[Matter of fact (!) Rock Cellar Magazine speaks with the ubiquitous Tom Morello HERE]
I have known or do know a lot of those people and do think they have been a really powerful force on the emotional and subliminal level. And often in the case say of Springsteen – putting our feelings into words. Whether they’re this political, or that political, doesn’t matter so much. Some are very, very political, like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt. But they’re the heart and soul of the movements that grew out of the ’60s.
RCM: Did you ever meet Woody Guthrie?
TH: Never met him. Of course, I love his music, but his story: We had a Depression in the ’30s, and he became iconic because he came out of the dustbowl. I don’t know anybody from Oklahoma, except for [actress] Alfre Woodard. But he became the icon of working class American revolutionary/minstrel man. If you understand his context, listening to the music captures the authentic feel of what it had to be like during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
RCM: We have to of course ask you about your former wife Jane Fonda. What’s your relationship like now?
TH: We have a good relationship, a healthy relationship. We have kids we care about. We’re in communication. We had a parting of the ways over what we wanted to pursue in life after the ’60s. She was a remarkably courageous and defiant person and an early victim of a revived McCarthyism. The kind of thing we see again and again with the irresponsible conservatives, the rightwing, in their attempts to make a laughing-stock of or demonize people who speak out. She was really battered and it’s partly because she was a woman. But also because she was a formidable voice at a time when the status quo was deeply threatened. I like The Newsroom [HBO series co-starring Fonda].
RCM: In your 20s you were considered radical. Even to this day there is a perception among a few that you are somehow un-patriotic, anti-American or a proponent of a violent overthrow of the establishment. At 72, do you even respond to this anymore, or are you able to just shake this off?
TH: It’s not part of my everyday life. I suppose it’s out there, because it’s coming through your brain and mouth.
RCM: Actually, that’s my editor’s question!
TH: Don’t blame the editor. Yeah, there’s a residual feeling but, day to day, I try to recognize that what people are dealing with is something very traumatic for which they need a scapegoat. There’s people out there who lost loved ones in Vietnam that were marched off to an insane, illegitimate war, and came back in body bags or without legs, and it goes both ways.
People want to blame somebody and it’s very hard to blame themselves or their old man or their grandfather or the president. It takes a long time before people can get there. In the meantime, they have to blame somebody, so they usually blame what they consider to be a foreign influence, without knowing what they’re talking about. On the level of Vietnam-era people our generation did pretty well in trying to stitch together a semblance of unity between those who went into the service and those who resisted the war. We were all lied to: that’s the common thread.
RCM: The Port Huron Statement says: “The goal of man and society should be human independence…with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic: a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness.” Have you found a meaning in life that is personally authentic?
TH: Yeah. The point is to have a meaning in life, to have an authentic life. I think what that means is being part of a culture of literature, tradition, history; communities that try to create a rich quality of life for themselves and their children, in the pursuit of resistance and struggle. That’s proven to be true more than I would have realized in those early days.
RCM: What do you do for fun?
TH: Baseball – at 4:00 this afternoon. Raising a son. Going to movies with my wife. Watching the sun go down. I mean, what more is there to say? I’m trying to really comprehend as deeply as I can everything from the last 500 years that has brought us here.
RCM: As one who has worked for reform from outside the system as well as inside, what do you recommend that individuals do? Practical steps to make the world better.
TH: It starts from childhood with nonconformity, with attempting to create a vision for yourself of a better world based on the good things we already have, but fundamentally based on trying to expand creativity, opportunity, education, invention… and to live a life according to those principles.
Knowing that there will be compromises – but live a whole life along that direction. What the document said about participatory democracy is very important…
Democracy is not just an institutional arrangement. It can be, and should be, and is meant to be a form of psychic liberation for people who are tired of being treated as nothing, as objects, as voiceless, to come into their own and to fully participate.
In our Fight The Power category Rock Cellar Magazine celebrates the willingness of individuals to effect change. We want to hear from people and groups who are fighting entrenched bureaucracies, careless corporations, and ridiculous laws in the name of the common good. Whistle-blowers and muckrakers are welcomed. If you know of any such stories that need to be told – contact editors (at) rockcellarmagazine (dot) com. Thanks for reading!
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