Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, June 1, 2012

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement

When I first attended the University of Illinois in 1963 there was no radical organization on campus. I joined the local NAACP, helped to establish a small Independent Socialist Club, and was active in our local imitation of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, originally Students for Free Speech and then SCOPE (the Student Committee on Political Expression). But in fact the political ferment of youth was well under way. Red diaper babies and those with experience in the Southern Movement joined with others whose reaction to poverty, racism, and the Cold War had opened their eyes to an America they had never learned about in civics class. Soon we had Friends of SNCC, Students Against the War, and Students for a Democratic Society. I attended the organizational meeting of SDS in Champaign-Urbana and remained involved until the breakup in 1969.
The Port Huron Statement was adopted by the first national convention of Students for a Democratic Society in June of 1962. On the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion, I offer a few comments on this seminal statement by the leading radical group of my generation, the most significant statement of what was called the New Left. The text of the Port Huron Statement is readily available online.

What differentiated the New Left from its elder parent was first of all inclusiveness. The youth of SDS annoyed their paternal institution, the League for Industrial Democracy, by welcoming all who cared to work together. For decades the Communist Party, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers, and other elements of the Old Left had insisted on the value of a dogmatic ideology and had mercilessly excluded those who did not toe the line. Often splinter groups splintered yet again, maintaining fierce polemics against those with whom they agreed on most issues. The actual enemy, of course, was much more difficult to combat than one’s fellow activists. In its early years, SDS was a model of breadth, including numerous Democrats as well as every variety of libertarian, socialist, communist, and anarchist with a good number of unclassifiable elements tending toward the yogic and vegetarian.

The youth-centered character of the movement of the sixties was novel. While it is true that most photographs of insurgent crowds anywhere in the world show predominately young and reckless men, earlier movements such as abolitionism, trade unionism, social work, the struggles for socialism and women’s suffrage in America were not age-based. Progressive movements around the world have often been campus-centered, but these often included significant participation by faculty and other elements of the intelligentsia. SDS, as a university group inherently youth-dominated, began by challenging the assumptions of the parent organization, to the frustration of comparative elders such as Michael Harrington.

Part of the reason that the movement was youth-oriented was the Selective Service System. The specter of the draft obliged every young man to decide where he stood on the Vietnam War, and I am typical of the educated people in my age cohort in having spent years evading the draft. The poor, both in cities and rural areas, were more likely to simply enter the military without reflection. Resistance to military service alone accounts for the large numbers temporarily swept up in the movement greater by several orders of magnitude from the number of committed civil rights activists in the early sixties. Put upon by huge demonstrations in the spring of 1970, Nixon adopted the air war strategy and relaxed the draft, causing the mass movement to evaporate once people did not feel their own lives were in jeopardy.

A further factor in the youth-consciousness of the New Left was the coalescence of the left movement with the bohemian artistic elements and drug culture that associated with the concept of hip in the sixties. This alliance is prefigured in the Port Huron Statement which bases rebellion in alienation rather than actual want. The Old Left focused for good reason on the material want of the masses. To most Marx’s own talk of alienation in the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 seemed tainted with idealism. Yet obvious and continuing inequity in the distribution of goods is not the sole symptom of capitalism’s failure. The very use of labor to accumulate wealth rather than for human fulfillment leads, Marx argues, to the fetishism of money and the replacement of earlier human ties by the cash nexus. (The term is actually older yet and had been used by Carlyle in The Chartists.)

Whereas earlier left movements had typically arisen when people were pushed too far into actual want, and sympathetic intellectuals pointed to that physical suffering as the primary evidence of the need for change, the very first sentence of the Port Huron Statement points in a decidedly different direction. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” The postwar prosperity and the labor movement had combined with neo-imperial profits to bring comparative affluence to a large sector of American workers, and an unprecedented number of people were attending university. Yet the text goes on to speak of “troubling” elements in their experience, “deeply felt anxieties,” “complicated and disturbing paradoxes,” “the emptiness of life,” “loneliness,” “estrangement,” “isolation,” “doldrums,” “malaise.” The language reflects the fact that Existentialism was enough past its crest to have been absorbed by undergraduates by 1962. While Sartre may have influenced the language, the philosopher was not slow to support the students’ cause.

Even in the black community, where the experience of outright injury and insult was universal, the mission statement of SNCC is largely expressed in spiritual language: “The redemptive community supersedes immoral social systems.” For a significant anti-war movement to arise in an aggressor nation is rare, though the American experience has elements in common with the earlier experience of the French in Algeria and the later one of the Portuguese in Africa. Surely it is historically unique for such a sizable political movement to arise from alienation among a population that might seem more privileged than oppressed. The Port Huron Statements records the conscious attitudes expressed by an obscure group fifty years ago which, six years later had spread to millions of Americans and a good share of the rest of the developed world, and, by the spring of 1970 had become normative on campus.

On virtually every issue Tom Hayden and his fellow delegates have been vindicated history. No one today would defend racism, yet the gap in pay and wealth between white and black is greater than ever. By all social standards (such as rates of drug addiction and incarceration) inner-city black communities are worse off than they were before the Civil Rights Act. The Vietnam War is now regarded across almost the entire political spectrum as a colossal mistake, yet America continues to launch neo-colonial military adventures. The students’ concern for the poor received government sanction in the so-called War on Poverty. Yet gains in economic democracy have been rolled back in recent decades, by both Democratic and Republican politicians. The self-critical analysis of the youth of 1962 seems admirable indeed in a twenty-first century USA in which a belief in American exceptionalism, once thought of as indicating erroneous thinking on its face, is required of every politician. Their vision of true community satisfying all its members in the practice of “participatory democracy” has been replaced by unapologetic pursuit of empty riches even by many of the more intelligent among our youth.

Liberal critics of American policies tend to view racism, neo-colonialism, environmental degradation, and exploitation of workers as problems caused by correctable factors such as mistakes, miscalculations, the fruit of unfortunate faulty advice or of stupid, wicked, or ignorant office-holders. It was the wisdom of SDS from the start to recognize what Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) and Martin Luther King eventually came to believe, that all these negative social effects are the result of capitalism, that the flaw is a systematic and institutional requiring radical change. Far from errors, the injustice and suffering are naturally caused by corporations when they function as they are designed to do, privileging the bottom line to the exclusion of all other consequences.

The social movements since the sixties have achieved significant victories in the fields of feminism and gay rights and have mobilized a great many people in support of the environment and in opposition to nuclear weapons and power generation. Yet as long as these struggles are separate, activists will never address the root cause of the evils they combat.

I believe it is more than nostalgia that makes me feel the Port Huron Statement is relevant today. What we once thought of as the grey Eisenhower fifties in fact had far higher marginal tax rate for the rich, a more vigorous union movement, less egregious maldistribution of wealth and a considerably larger middle class. Today the greedy seek an ever bigger share for themselves while offering the rest of us little but junk food, three hundred television channels, and the opportunity to spend a career working without health benefits or pension to make a few fat cats fatter. There is no need to be nostalgic for the sixties. The far-sighted youth who gathered in Port Huron in 1962 set righteous priorities for America that, unfortunately, remain distant goals to this day. For anyone horrified by the violence and venality of our culture, anyone seeking a more meaningful life in true community with compatriots, will find much useful thought in this fifty-year-old document.

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