Celebrating 50 years of the Port Huron Statement, and considering its relevance today, in Michigan and beyond

I’m a few days behind in my New York Times reading, but, a few days ago, they ran a story about the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, and I wanted to be sure to share a link. The Port Huron Statement, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, was the primary founding document of the organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Authored primarily by recently-graduated U-M student, and editor of the Michigan Daily, Tom Hayden, the document, completed in 1962, laid out the vision of the young, educated New Left, and “offered participatory democracy as the antidote to an over-managed, bureaucratic society.” Ambitious, visionary and thoughtful, the Port Huron Statement gave voice to our nation’s nascent youth movement, and artfully articulated the pent up demand for change that was blowing in the wind. It predated the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the full-fledged launch of the modern women’s liberation movement, kicked off by Betty Betty Friedan, and the release of the earlier referenced album by Bob Dylan. It could probably be argued that it was the watershed moment that launched what we today think of a “the sixties” in earnest. And, according to many, it was the intellectual predecessor of the Occupy movement of today. Here, with more on that, is a clip from the New York Times piece linked to above.

…But by invoking the spirit of John Dewey, Albert Camus, C. Wright Mills, Michael Harrington and Pope John XXIII, by at once championing and chiding organized labor as a victim of its own success (the S.D.S. began as the student arm of the League for Industrial Democracy), by elevating the university to the apex of activism and by validating liberalism and the two-party system, Tom Hayden and his colleagues forged a manifesto that still reverberates.

“While most people haven’t read it, it’s still extremely relevant” for its guiding principles, said David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist who has been active in the Occupy movement.

“For a long while I thought the Port Huron Statement was a relic of a hopeful past,” Mr. Hayden recalled last week. “But frequently students would read it and say how surprised they were at its sounding like the present.”

Mr. Hayden, who was steeled by a Catholic social conscience, was 22 when he began drafting the manifesto in March 1962 in his Manhattan apartment. He was a budding journalist from the University of Michigan whose job as the principal author of the collaborative manifesto was to synthesize an inchoate angst that had been germinating in several nascent, and largely unpopular, political movements.

Its guiding vision was codified by Arnold Kaufman, a philosophy professor at Michigan. He called it “participatory democracy” and, while S.D.S. would fracture, his concept would in ensuing decades be codified in school decentralization, community planning boards and freedom of information acts. At academic conferences during this anniversary year, including one recently at the University of California, Santa Barbara, scholars and grizzled activists are revisiting the document. Its last sentence was an apocalyptic downer: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”…

As for how relevant it is today, I’m not so sure. It’s been two decades since I’ve read the whole thing, and, at present, I’m just a few pages into it. While much of what I’ve read thus far rings true, I suspect that Hayden is right when he implies that it may no longer be enough to put your faith in elections. At least, that’s what I think he’s getting at in the following statement, which was offered in response to a question about whether or not the Port Huron Statement could serve as a manifesto for the Occupy movement. “This new generation,” Hayden said, “whether anarchist or simply disillusioned by stolen elections, is far more cynical about politicians and elections.” I may be reading too much into that, but I suspect he thinks that perhaps the situation today, given the amount of corporate money involved, demands a somewhat different tact. Here, for those of you who are interested, is the introduction to the Port Huron Statement. (The entire document can be found here.)


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

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal . . . rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nationstates seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than “of, by, and for the people.”

Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology — these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through”, beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity — but might it not better be called a glaze above deeplyfelt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. On such a basis do we offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.

It’s kind of amazing (and depressing) that we’re still puzzling over these same things, now some 50 years later, isn’t it?

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  1. Jeane Kirkpatrick
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    If you’re a peace activist, chances are you’ll be locked up soon. BofA and GoldmanSachs, on the other hand, have carte blanche to rape your ass (as long as they donate handsomely to President Obomney’s election campaign . . .)


  2. Knox
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    You mean there was a time that University of Michigan students were relevant and engaged?

  3. Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    We still are.

  4. Edward
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I need to read this. Based solely on what is presented here, though, it sounds as though Hayden thought, as a young man, that change was achievable at the ballot box. Now, though, I think he’s conceding that the game, given the power of corporate money, is rigged. At least that’s the impression I’m getting from his comments in the Times.

  5. Meta
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Speaking of C. Wright Mills, Truth Out had a good tribute the other day. He died right about the time the time the Port Huron Statement was issued.

    C. Wright Mills, the radical Columbia University sociologist who died 50 years ago (March 20, 1962) at age 45, would have loved Occupy Wall Street. In the 1950s, when most college professors were cautious about their political views and lifestyles, Mills rode a motorcycle to work; wore plaid shirts, jeans and work boots instead of flannel suits; built his house with his own hands; and, in a torrent of books and articles, warned that America was becoming a nation of “cheerful robots,” heading toward a third world war and was being corrupted by an economic elite.

    In three books published between 1948 and 1956 – “The New Men of Power,” “White Collar” and “The Power Elite” – Mills challenged the widely held belief that American society, having triumphed over the fundamental problems of the 20th century (depression, war and fascism) had become a model of economic success, political democracy and social well-being. At a time when social scientists and journalists were extolling America’s post-World War II prosperity, Mills warned about the dangers of the growing concentration of wealth and power.

    Mills’ most influential book, “The Power Elite,” published in 1956, challenged the predominant view that America was a classless society and that all segments of society – farmers, workers, middle-class consumers, small business and big business – had an equal voice in its democracy. Instead, he described the power structure created by overlapping circles of business, military and political leaders whose big decisions determined the nation’s destiny, including war and peace.

    The academic and media establishment attacked Mills’ caustic critique of what he called the “American celebration.” His was a lonely voice among academic sociologists, but his books sold well, suggesting that at least some Americans were not happy with the postwar status quo. His writings eventually struck a chord with a significant segment of the American public and with the small but growing radical movement on college campuses. In a 1961 article, “Who Are the Student Boat-rockers?” in Mademoiselle magazine, student activist Tom Hayden listed the three people over 30 whom young radicals most admired. They were Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington and Mills.

    Many of Mills’ ideas, considered radical in his day, are now taken for granted. His phrase “power elite” – criticized by conservatives and liberals at the time – is widely used today by the mainstream media. Public opinion today has now swung in Mills’ direction. Even many Americans who don’t agree with Occupy Wall Street’s tactics or rhetoric nevertheless share its indignation at outrageous corporate profits, widening inequality and excessive executive compensation side by side with the epidemic of layoffs and foreclosures. Most Americans now recognize that the biggest corporations and the very wealthy have disproportionate political influence. A Pew Research Center survey released in December found that most Americans (77 percent) – including a majority (53 percent) of Republicans – agree that “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations.” Pew also discovered that 61 percent of Americans believe that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” A significant majority (57 percent) think that wealthy people don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

    Read more:

  6. maria cotera
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Related to this, professors at the University of Michigan and former activists who were involved in the drafting of the Port Huron statement (and SDS) will be convening for a conference this fall to celebrate and reflect on the 50th anniversary. I can post a schedule to this blog, once it is finalized. It looks to be quite an interesting gathering.

  7. Tommy
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    If I recall, the SDS wasn’t noticed by those in the mainstream until violence was involved – both upon them and by them. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you …. just sayin!

    The last time the Power Elite was scared shitless was in the late 60’s; before that probably was the workers’ movements in the teens and 20s. Not a surprise that ‘Power’ has shifted toward the ‘Elite’ for the last 30+ years. Occupy has a chance to do so – but the lack of coordination efforts or clearly defined goals will not help their cause.

  8. Ted
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch had the following to say….

    Fifty years ago, a group of students in the American Midwest issued a document rather portentously titled “The Port Huron Statement.” It was the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and became one of the most famous documents of that momentous and creative decade.

    Read any history of the upsurges in the United States in the 1960s written over the past three decades and you’ll at once encounter tributes to SDS as on the cutting edge of radical organizing — in the battles against racial discrimination, particularly in the South; in the protests against the Vietnam War; and more largely in the aim of young people in the 1960s to break the shackles of the Cold-War consensus that had paralyzed independent thought and spread fear of McCarthyite purges through the whole of what remained of the organized left in America, in the labor movement, the churches and in the universities.

    SDS was founded in 1960, and in the summer of 1962, it held its first convention just outside the Michigan town of Port Huron, on the U.S.-Canadian border, an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Presented to this gathering was a manifesto initially drafted by a former student at the University of Michigan — Tom Hayden — and revised by committee and finally delivered to the world as the Port Huron statement.

    “We are people of this generation,” it began, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. … As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.”

    Reading these apocalyptic lines today, a reader is surely struck by the thought that 1962 was somewhat late in the evolution of the Cold War to make these discomfited observations. It was 14 years since President Truman had launched the postwar militarization of the U.S. economy. By 1950, U.S. military advisors were in Indochina; by the mid-1950s, America’s imperial jackboot had crushed reform in Guatemala and Iran. In 1961, President Eisenhower, a year before the Port Huron statement, bid farewell to his presidency with his famous warning that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must … be alert to the … danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite.”

    Ironically, Ralph Williams, a Texan who drafted the speech under Eisenhower’s close supervision, included a warning against “the tendency for orderly societies to break down into mob-ridden anarchies, e.g., student riots, ” but this was cut, leaving as Eisenhower’s main rhetorical bequest to John Kennedy, inaugurated three days later, the warning against “the military-industrial complex.” Originally, the speech referred to “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” but eventually, it was decided not to give Congress so stiff a finger.

    The 1960s rolled into motion.

    Students began to head south to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960. So the Port Huron Statement was not generated in a vacuum, nor were all its propositions entirely novel. But no single radical document from that era captures so vividly the angst so many young people felt as they sought to struggle free from the deadly conformism of the 1950s. Professors were terrorized by the fear of being fingered as pinkoes. In political science departments, original works by challenging thinkers were sterilized in carefully edited anthologies.

    The Port Huron statement reverberates with an underlying anxiety of loneliness and alienation. Beyond liberalism and socialism there was a fundamental issue of self-realization, of fulfilling one’s potentiality — a theme that came from Paul Goodman, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy and anarchist author of “Growing Up Absurd,” a hugely popular text among the radical young on both sides of the Atlantic. The section of the Statement titled “The Society Beyond” depicts the newly aware students surrounded by a vast doldrum of “apathy” with the entire society depicted as an alienated realm of false consciousness.

    The cultural task of students was to depict the real despair that lay beneath the high paying, working class jobs and the emptiness of tail fins on big cars and fishing boats out front of the holiday tract homes beside the lake. Organized labor is submerged in the vast apathy of the “Society Beyond” and the union leadership hasn’t read Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” to articulate the varieties of alienation. (A job the SDS offers to perform.)

    A very short chapter of a couple of paragraphs on “the economy” begins “Many of us comfortably expect pensions…” and depicts an America of wealthy citizens who are discomfited by the existence of poor people in their midst. These days it sounds like Utopia, and the essential optimism underlines an important point, that the authors of the Statement, despite the initial remarks about the end of the Golden Age of Affluence, actually had little sense of the volatility of capitalism — a flaw in foresight that extended to almost all the major economists of the time.

    It was only seven years till, in 1969, the American working class — in its upper, mostly white tiers — reached the apex of capitalism’s rewards in terms of wages and appurtenances, such as large, comfortable cars with baroque adornments, a second car for the wife who did not have as yet to go out to work, labor saving devices in the home, pensions, health benefits and after 1965, Medicare — socialized health insurance for those over 65. From the start of the 1970s onward, it was downhill all the way.

    To its advantage, SDS across the past decades, largely captured the strategic high ground in terms of historiography, somewhat exaggerating its actual achievements as against the histories of SNCC or the Black Panthers, many of whose leaders were unable to write histories from the vantage point of tenured academia, since they had been murdered by the police.

    Across the past four months, we have witnessed the Occupy Wall Street movement with its encampments — at least for now dispersed by the police — in cities across country, from New York to Oakland. One is struck by the lack of intellectual and organizational continuity. SDS could trace a lineage of ideas back to the early Marx and as the ’60s progressed, to Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Gunnar Myrdal. But it is hard to descry much continuity between SDS and OWS — perhaps because of the evolution of American capitalism and the decline of the old organized left. The authors of the Port Huron Statement saw themselves as sparks of lonely resistance in the vast dark night of American complacency. The OWSers see themselves as representatives of the 99 percent against the 1 percent!

  9. Ted
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    You raise a good point when you say that lack of coordination and clearly defined goals will hurt the Occupy cause, Tommy. I understand why the Occupy forces are reluctant to issues a “manifesto,” but, by not doing so, they may be hurting the cause more than helping. If I’ not mistaken, there was a great deal of satisfaction before the launch of SDS, but it took the formation of the group, and the publication of the manifesto for things to really start to coalesce.

  10. Tommy
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I am hoping that with time things will coalesce. This election year is a prime – the prime – opportunity to stir up some shit and get some attention (not violence) on an international level. But without organization it will not happen. Playing the ‘I am the 99% and a victim of corporate greed’ can only go so far. We all know that the cards are stacked against us, but getting together and singing kumbaya and camping out in a park is already stale. It’s like bringing a billy club to a gun fight.

  11. Busy Dying
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Tommy and Ted,

    When you critique OWS for “having no manifesto,” you’re unwittingly proliferating the counter-insurgent talking points of Fox News. It’s precisely Occupy’s lack of “central command” that makes it the ferocious and beautiful thing it’s been (albeit opaque to those who consume rather than forage for their news and history).

  12. Posted March 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Given the laws they are rapidly passing to take away our right to assemble, I predict that next occupations will be the jails, prisons and work farms. Since they are privatizing more and more jails the occupy movement will become the next driver of economic prosperity and bubble economics. If enough OWS folks go to jail, prosperity will be right around the corner.


  13. alan2102
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Jeane Kirkpatrick: “If you’re a peace activist, chances are you’ll be locked up soon.”

    WHAT peace activists? There aren’t any. The peace movement disbanded as soon as Obusha was sworn-in. Which is good, because there haven’t been any wars to be active against since then. So you can relax, Jeane! No wars, and no peace activists going to jail.

  14. Mr. Y
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    There is a great deal to be said for keeping the movement leaderless, and resisting the temptation to issue a manifesto. There is also, however, an argument to be made for creating something concrete that people can rally around, hand to friends, nail to phone poles, etc. My opinion as to which direction is best has been changing. I’m inclined to say now that, at the very least, a list of demands, like those shared some time ago by Michael Moore, is necessary if we’re to keep the momentum moving forward. The movement could choose to expand beyond them, but, at least, it would give our various cells around the country, a common starting point to build from.


  15. tommy
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Ferocious and beautiful it may be, but the longer it goes on without a cause other than we are victims of a system that favors the 1% the more irrelevant the movement becomes. It got cold and we went home, but we’ll be back when it gets warm again is a movement is not going anywhere soon.

    I think that OWS opened up a space – the space needs to expand, soon. Making a mess of a park ain’t gonna cut it anymore. Without a cause, it will quickly become a joke. This is America – the land of short attention spans and an incredibly dumb populace. Good luck.

  16. Dudist
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    You know, The Dude was one of the writers of The Port Huron statement. The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft.

  17. Meta
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Monday marked the 50th anniversary of that first Dylan album.

    The self-titled debut, released on this day in 1962, was not a big seller for Columbia Records, causing some to question why producer-executive John Hammond signed the raw young troubadour.

    Looking back, the original album notes heralding Bob Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut were both insightful and prescient. Clearly inspired, New York Times writer Robert Shelton (under the pen name Stacey Williams) called the then 20-year-old Dylan “the most unusual new talent in American folk music,” “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded,” “a songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness,” and “an uncommonly skillful guitar player and harmonica player.”

    Despite this high and accurate praise, Dylan’s album debut was not a big seller, causing some in the industry to question the wisdom of Columbia Records producer John Hammond’s strong belief in the talent of the raw young troubadour. The esteemed Hammond — who discovered the likes of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and later, Stevie Ray Vaughan — was the person responsible for signing Bob Dylan to Columbia, and he produced the eponymous first record as well.


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