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.)
INTRODUCTION: AGENDA FOR A GENERATION
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?