Students for a Democratic Society meeting 1963

Members of Students for a Democratic Society raise their fists at the 1963 SDS National Council Meeting in Bloomington, Ind. (Photo by C. Clark Kissinger)

The Port Huron Statement: Still Radical at 50

A half-century after the Students for a Democratic Society adopted their seminal manifesto, 14 activists–including three people who helped shape the statement–assess its legacy.

BY Port Huron Respondents

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'We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.'

The 14 respondents include:

Tom Hayden, Carl Davidson, Cole Stangler, Paul Booth, Frida Berrigan, Teresa Cheng, Todd Gitlin, Sady Doyle, James Thindwa, Micah Uetricht, Mickey Flacks, Maria Elena Sifuentes, Brittney Gault, Bill Ayers

For five days in June 1962, members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gathered at a UAW camp near Port Huron, Mich., for the group’s first national convention. The result was The Port Huron Statement: a 25,700-word manifesto that articulated the fundamental problems of American society and laid out a radical vision for a better future. It marked a seminal moment in the development of the New Left.

Today, the Occupy movement has lit a match not unlike the one struck at Port Huron. To mark the 50th anniversary of Port Huron–and what we hope is the dawn of an enduring youth movement–In These Times asked 14 activists, ranging in age from 21 to 72, including three people who attended the Port Huron convention, to reflect on what that statement offers us today. Their responses follow, preceded by the portion of the statement they found significant. –The Editors

Carl Davidson: “Our Identity as a New Left”

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

This simple but eloquent assertion is what drew me. It defined politics as generational, and given that we were the leading edge of what was being described as the “baby boom” – of coming-of-age youth – we were more generationally conscious than most. The “silenced generation” of the 1950s stood between us and the labor-oriented politics of the 1930s and the popular front politics of the early 1940s. McCarthyism had separated us from deeper roots, leaving us with our own forms of cultural alienation and revolt – the Beat Generation, crossing the color line, the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll – to help shape our identity as a New Left.

Carl Davidson, 68, an activist based in Pittsburgh, was vice president and national secretary of SDS from 1966 to 1968.

Cole Stangler: “The Obama Generation”

“It has been said that our liberal and socialist predecessors were plagued by vision without program, while our own generation is plagued by program without vision. All around us there is astute grasp of method, technique—the committee, the ad hoc group, the lobbyist, that hard and soft sell, the make, the projected image—but, if pressed critically, such expertise is incompetent to explain its implicit ideals.”

I’ve been told countless times that the era of mass movements, systemic critiques and utopian vision have long passed. Politics, as Francis Fukuyama told us, has been reduced to “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” In many ways, the dilemma of “program without vision” rings perhaps even truer for my generation than for those SDSers who gathered in eastern Michigan 50 years ago.

Many of us came of age politically during the Obama campaign. It’s safe to say that the president’s actions during his first three years in office have confirmed that “hope” and “change” were less emblems of a lofty long-term vision than mere slogans, tools for winning an election.

The Occupy movement is, in many ways, the maturation of the Obama generation. At its core, politics has always been about vision. Reducing it to mere electoral machination and ritual is a fallacy that my generation, like Tom Hayden’s, must challenge.

Cole Stangler, 21, is a former In These Times intern and a junior at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Todd Gitlin: “Visionary Cri de Coeur”

“Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.”

The Port Huron Statement is simultaneously a visionary cri de coeur and an invitation to pragmatic learning.

Visionary urgency is all over the document, e.g.: “. . . These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man … .” Thus the apocalyptic note: “If we appear to seek the unattainable … then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

But invoking a lustrous, far-off future or an apocalyptic potential is easier to do than imagining that future in intimate relation to what can be done here and now. This is where The Port Huron Statement matters most. A spirit that mixes experiment and intellect hovers over it. The movement it heralds is partly an intellectual search. But The Port Huron Statement also appreciates how much a largely white youth movement needs “an awakening community of allies.”

“We are people of this generation,” The Port Huron Statement begins, but it also addresses people of other generations. There is no bravado about what can be accomplished by going it alone. There is a recognition that most people have more everyday cares than the kickstarting of a participatory democracy. Threaded amid the calls for a grand restructuring of institutions there is a becoming modesty about what a New Left can achieve acting alone and what it can achieve by collaborating with the wider population engaged in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice.”

In this spirit, the SDS of the half-decade after Port Huron would be most enthusiastic about the part of Occupy that aims for tangible results through direct action – by resisting foreclosures and evictions, campaigning to roll back gargantuan banks, supporting labor struggles, and more deeply, over the longer haul, aiming to drive money out of politics.

Todd Gitlin, 69, was the third president of SDS and is the author of the forthcoming Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

Tom Hayden: “Voting with Your Whole Life”

“In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles:
–that decision-making of basic social consequences be carried on by public groupings;
–that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
–that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life.”

For all its flaws, the core of The Port Huron Statement–somewhat like the Declaration of Independence – sent a message to be fulfilled by future generations, one that resonates in democracy movements today. That message was a nonideological emphasis on participatory democracy, both as a means and an end.

But participatory democracy meant more than small democratic meetings in the style of the Quakers. It meant “voting with your whole life, not a mere strip of paper,” in the words of Henry David Thoreau. It meant the Progressive Era reforms of recall, referendum and initiative. And it meant extending the democratic process to remote and inaccessible institutional hierarchies, from patriarchy to Pentagon, from plantations to knowledge factories. It meant bringing the banks and corporations under more democratic control and regulation, and also greater bottom-up participation for workers in decision-making, and power for neighborhood assemblies against outside commercial developers intent on building “monster cities.”

Today we face a War on Terror not unlike the Cold War, and a fierce conservative attack on the social, economic and environmental gains of the 1930s and the 1960s. The state’s secrecy is increasing. Corporations have escaped reforms at home to create sweatshops and tax havens abroad. Our representative democracy is being rented. But movements toward participatory democracy have a way of growing again, like flowers in frozen ground.

Tom Hayden, 72, the principal author of The Port Huron Statement, was a member of the original Chicago Eight, indicted on federal conspiracy charges after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Paul Booth: “The Benefit of Hindsight”

“Reading The Port Huron Statement today you can see that we got some things – a lot of things – dead right. But on two points of great consequence we were very wrong.”

Our first, more obvious mistake was that we misunderstood movement building, or the relationship between organization and movement. Like the Occupiers, we were entranced by the concept of participatory democracy, but we were awfully unclear about how to build and sustain mass movements when they sprung up.

After all, we had experienced a decade or more with nothing of the kind. We were ambivalent about leadership roles. We lacked teachers, and the experiences of the 1930s were way before our time. We did our movements a disservice by advocating “no leaders, no structures.” And in a very few years we were faced with the fact that practically none of the publications, organizations or coalitions formed in the ’60s had survived.

All of which leads to the second mistake, which we can now better understand with the benefit of hindsight.

How is it that so much success was achieved, even after the organizational impetus had faded? The answer is that SDS, the New Left and the civil rights movement were not the only forces for that change. They were leading a much wider social force – the liberal-labor coalition that was forged in the New Deal, and predominated in the Democratic Party. For several decades it was the governing majority, and it accomplished many great things in the 1930s and 1940s. (Some, like Social Security and the minimum wage and labor relations law, seemed permanent for a long time, but now are as much at risk as the laws of the 1960s.)

When we composed The Port Huron Statement, we gave scant credence to that coalition. For good reason – the progressive energies of the New Deal coalition were more or less exhausted. Failing to perceive strategic hope in the liberal-labor coalition, The Port Huron Statement in the section titled Toward American Democracy satisfied itself with a rather mechanistic call for “party realignment.” It was not – and is not – a compelling part of The Port Huron Statement.

The New Left and the Civil Rights movement re-energized the majority Democratic coalition. It not only passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, it created Medicare, federal aid to education and a host of other Great Society breakthroughs. We didn’t “create” the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement or any of the other forces that came along to change America, but we opened many doors to change. Even after President Lyndon Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, this was still the effective governing majority that enacted the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Today, the Right has its hands full, attacking the social legislation of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the 1930s and 1940s. Not just the social legislation; every form of social progress we’ve enjoyed is now threatened.

Today’s movement, born last year in Wisconsin, brilliantly combining “movement” and “organization”, focused intensely on winning a powerful majority, will prove more than the match of the reactionaries we’re confronting.

Paul Booth, 68, is the executive assistant to the president of AFSCME and was the national secretary of SDS in 1965 and 1966.

Frida Berrigan: “The Stuff of Revolution”

“[T]hat work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirect, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics…”

The young people graduating from college this year will be burdened by an average of $25,000 in college debt and will face a joblessness rate of nearly 10 percent. What will they do? How will they find educative, creative, self-directed work that “encourages independence, a respect for others,” etc.?

Twenty-one million people in this country have stopped looking for work or are involuntarily working part-time. What about them?

This is bleak stuff, but it is also the stuff of revolution. One of the things that made the Occupy movement blossom so beautifully and quickly and diversely last fall is that large numbers of people walked away from unsustainable or untenable homes and jobs and positions in society – or did not have any of that to begin with – to join this burgeoning, anarchic community. Young people still smarting from bruising and fruitless job searches with their new degrees. Middle-aged refugees from professional jobs handed a pink slip five years before retirement, who realized that their whole adult lives, their whole identities, had been bound up in their careers, were now searching for a new reason for being – full of outrage and resentment and new hope. People so hungry for meaning, community and connection that they would sleep out in the heat and cold and rain, endure long meetings and even longer periods in police holding cells, in order to be fed by one another.

We would not have this rich fervor in a rollicking economy with 3 percent unemployment. SDS saw an opportunity 50 years ago, and we have a new one today. What are we going to do with it?

Frida Berrigan, 38, blogs for Waging Nonviolence and lives in New London, Conn.

Teresa Cheng: “Make It Fun and Inspiring”

“If student movements for change are rarities still on the campus scene, what is commonplace there? The real campus, the familiar campus, is a place of private people, engaged in their notorious “inner emigration.” It is a place of commitment to business-as-usual, getting ahead, playing it cool. It is a place of mass affirmation of the Twist, but mass reluctance toward the controversial public stance. Rules are accepted as “inevitable,” bureaucracy as “just circumstances,” irrelevance as “scholarship,” selflessness as “martyrdom,” politics as “just another way to make people, and an unprofitable one, too.” Almost no students value activity as a citizen.”

Rather than lamenting the fact that students are apathetic, it’s time for student activists to do some soul-searching about why working-class students of color who are angry about corporate greed might hesitate to get involved in a student movement if they think it means joining middle-class white kids who will tell them to stop eating meat. If we want to build a movement and get fellow students to break the rules, we’ve got to make it fun and inspiring.

Today, student movements have made great advances by viewing the university as a site of practical struggle. Universities are economic engines, sometimes the largest employers and largest real estate developers of entire cities and regions, and labor standards at the university can set the standard for an entire region. The best way to get students to value their own citizenry is by mobilizing them to exercise the power they already hold – for example, by demanding that universities negotiate fair contracts and living wages for their lowest-paid employees.

Teresa Cheng, 24, is the international campaigns coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops.

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