Point An Ideal Foundation
by Cosmo Pappas
Counterpoint Idealism of a Bygone Age
by Rory Cahill
The Port Huron Statement (PHS), written by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and published in 1962, lucidly articulates the grievances and aims of a generation’s leading radicals. Pervasive racism, alienation from one’s labor and education, the high reign of Madison Avenue and the advertising industry, the early stages of the Vietnam War, the Cold War and looming nuclear arms race and conflict, anti-colonial conflict, anti-left prejudice in America following the repressive McCarthy era — it was against this disconcerting backdrop that hundreds of students, including then-University of Michigan student and chief drafter Tom Hayden, met in Port Huron, MI. Taking as its primary objective the realization of true “participatory democracy,” the PHS is a document emblematic of the larger social movement of the 1960s called the New Left, taking that name because they viewed themselves as resuscitating the left-wing too-long-absent — that is, excluded — from the broader American political discourse.
Reasoned and sober, the PHS is the product of an extraordinary democratic synthesis that, by its nature, does not allow the adoption of an uncompromising ideological line. Students from all over the leftist spectrum met, debated, and agreed upon a single statement to issue under the title Port Huron Statement. Consensus under any circumstances is a remarkable feat, let alone in left wing politics where four people gathered to discuss politics will emerge with five parties with distinct platforms. For instance, in the chapter “Toward American Democracy,” “partial and/or complete public ownership [of industry]” is endorsed in order to make corporations beholden to the public. It seems to me that the slash-mark was a result of contest, as complete public ownership of all industry is the goal of a radicalism a few shades deeper than the statement’s overall hue. If only seen as a model of democratic dialogue in practice, the PHS ought to be an immense inspiration for today’s left.
Not only in that capacity, though, is it significant to today’s activists. The PHS, by identifying the institutional and structural plagues of society rather than only the superficial circumstances of suffering, admits the possibility of curing them and not simply administering palliatives. The writers of the PHS discerned that if a left-wing movement intends to be successful in its aims, it must critically examine the societal factors that engender unjust circumstances; as is stated in “The University and Social Change,” the last chapter of the manifesto, “[it] must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power.” To first make the assault, the popular base must be built and the “loci of power” identified—not an undemanding intellectual activity. Assuming a tone both militant and erudite, the SDSers make clear here that they are willing to face derision and resistance of the utmost severity in building a mass movement to alleviate the problems they perceived — not hesitant to sing proudly and loudly out-of-tune with the chorus of mass opinion. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida said:
“For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and humanity. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering.”
He wrote this in his 1993 book Specters of Marx in response to the triumphalism of global capitalism sung out following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the PHS and SDS rest on a strong anti-cynicism, the clear-eyed recognition of the world’s woes and the simultaneous refusal to resign oneself to inaction in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. Without a healthy optimism, a movement is fated to fail—this especially, as the problems that the future SDS identified have only compounded in the time since then. This mentality is central to the approach of the Students for a Democratic Society, and it is what leftist social movements must necessarily inherit as praxis for effecting change today—solidarity and compassion coupled with ruthless critique.
The utility of the PHS for a new-New Left does not necessarily lie in its explicit content. To be sure, I do not by any means unequivocally endorse or subscribe to the contents of the PHS—its proposed methods of reform, to my mind, are wildly inadequate to confront the magnitude of domination and exploitation now witnessed under late capitalism. Rather, it is in the pluralistic nature of its composition, the fact that its message relies on a spirit of cooperation and starkly honest interrogation into the narratives, assumptions, and justifications of capitalism in the United States that I see it belonging in the Left’s collective consciousness. The vision for tomorrow and the radicalism of today cannot simply be transposed from the movements of yesterday—it must, however, find inspiration there.
The Port Huron Statement (PHS) is often treated as a manifesto of the radical left in the 1960s. To say that the PHS speaks for an entire generation goes too far, but it gives us a look into the bold vision of the Students for a Democratic Society during their formative period in 1962. At the statement’s core is an argument for justice and the democratization of American society. Racial and economic inequalities are identified and condemned, but so is the homogenizing, restrictive experience of the middle class. Privileged students are called to shake off their apathy and democratize their own lives by fighting for the good of all.
This project was not predicated by external ideologies or professional revolutionaries, but based on a growing consciousness that societal injustice could, and must, be resisted. Inspiration was drawn from defiant African-American students standing up to discrimination, and from the sense that existing institutional powers could no longer be trusted to safely deliver freedom and peace. This emergent ideology was not trapped in Marxist orthodoxy nor the absolutist anti-Communism of the 1950s. The embrace of useful principles, without an overwhelming concern with where they came from, speaks to the essence of the early SDS.
The statement proposes no new political party, but rather envisions a transformation of the Democratic Party into a progressive force — a feat students believed could be accomplished through mass mobilization and constant pressure. While the SDS proposes changes far beyond what many in the Democratic Party would have supported, there is an awareness of the necessity of harnessing political power.
After the turmoil of the late 1960s, the SDS was tarred with the brushes of extremism and self-indulgence, their story caricatured by an ascendant interpretation of history that seeks to dismiss the potential of any progressive force in the United States. This interpretation must be resisted; the statement’s hopes are too important to be marginalized. But fifty years later, we look back on this period and have to ask: what happened? After a half century, the confidence and optimism of the PHS sounds almost naïve. The principles espoused in the text have not been realized in any significant way. Great strides have been made in the movements for the social liberation of women, African-Americans and other oppressed minority groups, in many cases because of the militant activism of young people. The New Left contributed to our social and cultural liberation in ways we are just beginning to understand.
However, these successes should not cloud our judgment of the document and the principles it endorses. The authors of the statement wrote that “many of us can comfortably expect pensions, medical care, unemployment compensation, and other social services” and that “the majority of Americans are living in relative comfort.” Poverty exists, but can be eradicated; the labor movement has been weakened, but can be revived; the world is on the brink of nuclear disaster, but disarmament must be pursued.
In a 21st century where organized labor has been crushed in most American workplaces and neutered through campaigns of scapegoating and intimidation, where more than 46 million Americans lack adequate food, and where the United States has become embroiled in amorphous conflicts which lack regional limits, the optimism of 1962 rings hollow. Many working people can no longer expect pensions, and the limited state benefits many depend on are on the chopping block. Privileged college students of 2012 are not faced with the choice of “selling out” to take corporate jobs, but question the value of a B.A. in a low-wage service economy with little guarantee of advancement or security. When the president defends massive unemployment by simply saying, “that’s how our free market works,” it is difficult to imagine the SDS choosing the Democratic Party as a vehicle for progressive change. The 1960s, a moment of relative affluence, is worlds away from the economic crisis and lowered expectations of the present. LBJ doesn’t look so bad after thirty years of gradual abandonment of our post-industrial cities, the rural poor, and the millions of Native Americans and undocumented peoples ignored by mainstream society.
So what happened? It got much worse. The hopes of a generation for social change came at a time when progress seemed possible. The authors of The Port Huron Statement knew what was wrong with their America; but the core economic and structural problems identified in 1962 have become worse and more difficult to define. Now more than ever, powerful elites rule through a system unwilling to address the needs and desires of the masses. The financialization of global economic life is rapidly removing limits once imposed by the state and with them goes what little control people have left over their destinies.
People around the world and in the United States are reacting to these circumstances with increasing desperation, yet with the violence of conscious powerlessness. It is indeed possible to revive participatory democracy in this era of doubt, but it will not closely resemble the dreams of 1962. It has been the fate of The Port Huron Statement’s generation to watch their bold vision of a truly democratic and more just America vanish over the past forty years, to be replaced by a system which laughs at and crushes any voices of resistance. That era of the PHS ended a long time ago, and its projects, left incomplete, are decayed.
About the Issue
Point author: Cosmo Pappas is a University of Michigan freshman likely majoring in History and Comparative Literature. He is a member of the Student Socialist Union on campus.
Counterpoint author: Rory Cahill is a University of Michigan senior majoring in History and Arabic. He is currently writing his history thesis on radical movements during The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Edited by: Michael Guisinger
Cover by: Lulu Tang