Remembering Tom Hayden (1939-2016): My Friend and a Lifelong Change Maker

The activist and lawmaker leaves behind a life worth studying.

Richard Flacks

The dream of a left rooted in American history and reality and able to speak to and for an American majority is generations old and yet to be realized. (Photo by George Rose/ Getty Images)

If you were on the campus at Ann Arbor at the dawn of the 1960s, you’d have been aware of Tom Hayden’s writings in The Michigan Daily, the substantial and influential University of Michigan student newspaper. He first came to notice for his travels to the South to cover scenes of the civil rights struggle. Then, during the summer of 1960, Hayden was reporting from California on the new breed of student rebel at the University of California, Berkeley, on farmworker conditions in Delano and on a conversation with the father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller. And then, there was Hayden at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, watching John F. Kennedy’s nomination and interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. as he led pickets in the streets outside the convention arena. In the fall of 1960, Hayden became editor-in-chief of the Daily, writing full-page articles declaring the birth of an American student movement. He was 20 that year.

"He insightfully saw how personal struggles for individual self-determination and moral coherence could fuel a collective commitment of youth to social change."

Mickey and I, just married, were in Ann Arbor, where I was working toward a Ph.D. in social psychology. We’d gone there from New York City, both of us red diaper babies, disillusioned with communism’s betrayals, harboring no expectations that we’d ever find a way to restore political hope, enjoying instead our breakaway from the provincialism of the city and discovering cultural possibilities unknown to New Yorkers. Ann Arbor was humming with film and electronic music festivals, happenings,” coffeehouses and bookstores, where young writers and artists could find voice and space that would not have been possible in the big city. Hayden’s articles in the Daily became part of that ferment. We read them avidly, seeing them not as mere reportage, but as an effort to construct an exciting political myth that Cold War apathy and conformism might be replaced by a new, youthful protest and dissent, spawned by the civil rights movement, seeking possibilities for personal commitment and social renewal. We weren’t yet ready to believe his storyline, but we certainly wanted to hear it.

In March 1962, Hayden delivered a well-advertised speech at the university on student social action.” That speech changed my life. Here was a young man from America’s heartland, putting into words what Mickey and I had been groping and hoping for: that in the United States a new left was needed and possible, that it had to break with many of the fundamental suppositions of all the factions of the traditional left and with Cold War America, that it could come in part from students. He insightfully saw how personal struggles for individual self-determination and moral coherence could fuel a collective commitment of youth to social change. I remember coming home right after the speech and telling Mickey: I think I’ve just seen the American Lenin!” This wasn’t a reference to the substance of Hayden’s talk, which was quite self-consciously antithetical to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, but to his evident gift for making the hope for a movement seem a practical possibility.

Hayden’s speech that day was a trial run for what became, by the summer of 1962, a fuller draft of The Port Huron Statement — the manifesto of the newly organizing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Hayden was recruited to the SDS creation project by Al Haber, a fellow Ann Arborite. SDS would have happened without Hayden, but his writing and speaking gave it a genuinely new political voice and outlook. He was, appropriately enough, elected first president of the new formation at the Port Huron convention and that set the path for his life journey.

Protests to politics

That journey, looking back, was quite an adventure: from student journalist to SDS leader to community organizer in the Newark ghetto, then on to North Vietnam in the midst of war, the Chicago streets leading anti-war protests and a Chicago courtroom as a defendant in the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Eight. This was followed by his partnering with actress Jane Fonda in life and in working to end the war.

In the mid-1970s, he seized new mainstream political openings, running for the U.S. Senate in California, building a statewide electoral organization and winning a seat in the California Legislature. In the state legislature for nearly 20 years, he pioneered alternative energy development and, along the way, crafted a spiritual perspective on environmentalism, discovered his Irish heart and tried to rouse the University of California to serve egalitarian purposes. After he ended his adventures as a mainstream politician, he returned to a movement-centered role, in the streets of Seattle and Miami, in Mumbai and Chiapas, in Bolivia and Cuba, exploring and reporting newly-emerging movements for global justice, and, in the last decade, trying to foster a new antiwar movement to try to stop the specter of the long war.”

Hayden was the author of 22 books, including the soon to be published Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement. He had the mind and talent to be one of the great journalists. (He much admired James Agee and I.F. Stone). He also certainly could have been a major academic social scientist. (His master’s thesis on C. Wright Mills, published as Radical Nomad, is one of the best critiques of Mills we have.)

Hayden, however, chose a different path — to change the world rather than merely interpret it. From those early Ann Arbor days, he insisted on living inside the fierce contradictions and dilemmas inherent in political engagement. Engagement demands advocacy and at least some sacrifice of the intellectual’s claim to being an independent truth-seeker. His destiny, he thought, was to lead. His fierce ambition might have led him into single-minded power pursuits. Fortunately for himself and for the rest of us, he channeled that ambition toward opposition to status quo institutions.

His special value as a leader was his keen strategic sense. That sense, fused with his ambition, led him to run, in California’s Democratic primary, for U.S. Senate in 1976. He lost the race to incumbent John Tunney but won 1.3 million votes. That popular base was a foundation for creating a statewide electorally-oriented organization that was aimed at reshaping the Democratic Party around an economic democracy” agenda. The Campaign for Economic Democracy helped develop a number of local leaders and campaign organizers but ultimately failed to fulfill its original vision. Still, it was a springboard for Hayden’s electoral future — nearly 20 years in the state legislature.

Lessons from a life worth studying

Ever since Port Huron, I’ve felt that Hayden was as much, or even more, a teacher than a leader. Hayden was a man of the left, but he wanted a left that struggled to win. Accordingly, from the time, at age 20, that he committed himself to the left, he wanted to change some fundamental habits of thought and styles of action that he found there.

He was guided by a fairly coherent philosophical pragmatism, learned from his Michigan professors like Arnold Kaufman and Kenneth Boulding, from immersion in the writings of Mills, as well as now neglected heroes of the late 50s and early 60s, Albert Camus and Paul Goodman. Our passion and our action, this pragmatism says, should be guided by our experience, rather than ideological doctrine, theory or concealed thirst for power. Here, Hayden teaches, are some tips for activist practice:

  • Take institutional claims seriously and see if they are practiced by those in power. Challenge elites to live up to their claims, to justify their actions, rather than simply dismiss their claims as phony.
  • Oppose structures of authority that block ordinary people from, in the language of Port Huron, participating in the decisions that affect their lives.” 
  • Try to figure out, by observation of relevant cases, by experimentation, by dialogue, how social empowerment and participatory democracy can be made real.
  • The most practical strategies by which ordinary people can make life better are those that empower people and expand their voice.
  • Internal leftwing battles about tactics and strategy should be replaced by strategic and tactical experiment and discussion. These battles — working within or without, revolution vs. reform, what is a true socialist, etc. — can’t be resolved on principle or in the abstract. Trying to do that is destructive in many ways.

The dream of a left rooted in American history and reality and able to speak to and for an American majority is generations old and yet to be realized. Hayden came to see such a left worth dreaming. And his life work helped make it more possible. It’s a life worth studying, not just honoring.

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Richard Flacks, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Cultural Politics and Social Movements (co-editor, 1995); Beyond the Barricades: The 60s Generation Grows Up (1989); Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (1988), and many articles on social movements, left culture and strategy.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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