Participatory Democracy and the New Left

The Port Huron Statement

Feature photo: Blue Water Bridge, Port Huron, Michigan

Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

 “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.” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Final sentence of The Port Huron Statement, 1962.

Twenty-one year old Tom Hayden wrote the first draft of The Port Huron Statement. He presented it for debate, review and revision to a group of about fifty mostly young, white, male, elite university students attending the first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) convention. The convention was held at a United Auto Workers (UAW) camp in Port Huron, Michigan from June 11-15, 1962. The Statement countered the post-Joe McCarthy-Cold War rhetoric of the Old Left generation, rhetoric that no longer held sway over this group of ambitious, independent-minded young people (Flacks, Barbara Haber chapter p. 141).

The convention and resulting Statement would mobilize young people from across the nation to undertake participatory democracy* actions intended to change the world. Fifty years after The Port Huron Statement was written Hayden characterized participatory democracy as: “…participation in direct action was a method of psychic empowerment, a fulfillment of human potential, a means of curing alienation, as well as an effective means of mass protest. We believed that ‘ordinary people should have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives,’ because it was necessary for their dignity, not simply a blueprint for greater accountability (Hayden p. 7).”

In 1962 there was no women’s movement, resistance to the Vietnam War was in the future, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published two months after the Port Huron convention, and Mario Savio’s Berkley Free Speech Movement was two years in the future. As Hayden stated in 2015, “There was no counterculture, no drug culture, no hippies—all that was to come. The folk music revival was at its peak; the Beatles were just ahead (Flacks, Hayden chapter, p. 20).” According to convention participant Richard Flacks: “By the summer of 1960, a critical mass of young people on a number of campuses were searching for a political identity rooted in the left. They had been galvanized to thought and action by the southern civil rights movement, the fight against the remnants of McCarthyism, and the growing worldwide debate about nuclear testing and the arms race (Flacks p. 224).”

The Port Huron Statement second edition, December 1964**

The Port Huron Statement opens with a discussion of values. Society, the Statement asserts, should encourage individuals to be independent thinkers who help to solve society’s problems yet who have control of their own quality of life. Further document sections encourage student activism; criticize the lack of political discourse regarding national and international issues; and, expose the tendency to value profit over fiscal responsibility. While identifying the military-industrial complex as the basis for the United States economy, the Statement predicts that industry automation as well as anti-labor/right-to-work legislation would result in dire consequences for the working poor. The Statement attacks the United States foreign policy of deterrence, the Soviet Union suppression of opposing ideas, and continuing racial discrimination.

The Statement concludes with a section called “Alternatives to Helplessness” and a call to universities and students to step up and take action to right wrongs. The primary focuses: assist the civil rights movement; make discussions of war and peace relevant; hold politicians responsible for their decisions; re-energize the idealism of organized labor; and, reform the Democratic Party. In other words, the Statement calls for engaging ordinary citizens in participatory democracy to solve difficult societal problems. In Hayden’s words: “This is the challenge that SDS took on: to argue against ‘unreasoning anticommunism’, to demand steps toward arms reductions and disarmament, to channel the trillions spent on weapons toward ending poverty in the world and at home (Hayden p. 15).”

Tom Hayden, politician and anti-Vietnam War activist, speaks at the LBJ Presidential Library on Wednesday, April 27, 2016, as part of a three-day Vietnam War Summit. Photo: LBJ Library, DIG613871_jjg- 155, LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin 04/27/2016. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

Some of the SDS convention participants were “red diaper babies,” sons and daughters of former post WWII Communists who left the Communist Party after Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev exposed the brutality of Joseph Stalin in 1956 (Miller p. 136). Others were sons or daughters of the Old Left. Robert Alan Haber, a co-author of the Statement, was a child of university professor William Haber, a New Deal economist and dean of the liberal arts college at University of Michigan. (Flacks, Robert J.S. Ross chapter p. 128). Participant Sharon Jeffrey’s mother Mildred was the UAW law officer who, along with UAW’s Walter Reuther, funded and supported SDS in the early days. Robert J.S. Ross summarized the appeal of The Port Huron Statement to convention participants:

“Our critique of contemporary democratic practice leading up to Port Huron can be summarized briefly: citizenship as broadly understood was part time and passive. You listened, you voted, and you were done. Democratic rights did not extend to the economy, so power over everyday life was exercised by corporate bureaucracies beyond the reach of workers and community members. Democratic rights excluded black people by law and practice, while economic inequality excluded the poor from the community of citizens. And finally, the political parties were morally compromised and politically inert; potential opposition was entombed in Cold War orthodoxy and unable to challenge—to speak truth to power (Flacks, Robert J.S. Ross chapter p. 132).”

Hayden and the Statement’s reviewers and revisers were well read and inspired by historical and contemporary writers and thinkers. Participatory democracy had its roots in Native American traditions, the Quakers, and the writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau (Hayden p. 5-6). Thinking behind the Statement was informed by, among others, the writings of sociologist C. Wright Mills of Columbia University, author of The Power Elite about the immorality of power and the “powerlessness of intellectuals” in the 1940s and 50s (Miller p. 80); philosopher Arnold Kaufman of the University of Michigan; Harold Taylor, former president of Lawrence College; philosophical existentialist Bob Moses; philosopher and founder of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) John Dewey; and, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Program Director James Farmer (1961 Freedom Ride). (Flacks, Hayden chapter p. 18 and Robert Cohen chapter p. 111).

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), originally called the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), was created by the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) in 1960 to recruit young people.*** The Port Huron Statement was not universally appreciated by LID. “Old Left” radical socialist and LID member Michael Harrington (The Other America) attended the convention and strongly disagreed with parts of the Statement. The month after the convention, the LID board, comprised of representatives of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Jewish Labor Committee, and Socialist Party among others, “…charged that the Port Huron convention was ‘unrepresentative of the organization, undemocratic in its operation and outside the basic principles of the LID in its actions’”. The board also thought that convention attendees were communists, probably because one member of the Communist Party attended as an observer (Miller p. 130)

In 1963, after the Statement was revised and published, SDS undertook two projects to advance the idea of participatory democracy. The Peace Research and Education Project studied United States military and foreign policy (Miller p. 173). The Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) initiated 16 projects in the low income neighborhoods of Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Boston and other cities. The aims of the project were to organize the poor, attempt to alleviate poverty and counter racism. ERAP preceded President Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty (Flacks, Jennifer Frost chapter. 149).

By 1965, in addition to breaking from parent organization LID over philosophical differences, the focus of SDS shifted to anti-Vietnam War activism (Miller p. 235). The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago tested the cohesion and leadership of the SDS organization. Many different organizations participated in massive Chicago Grant Park demonstrations during the convention. Violent police-demonstrator clashes were seen on television the world over.

Hayden and others were accused of fomenting the violence and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in defense of the demonstrations. But in March 1969, the Chicago Eight (Hayden, Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, Abie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Friones, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale) were tried in a Chicago federal court for instigating a riot during the convention. Black Panther Bobby Seale was removed from the group and tried separately after which the group became known as the Chicago Seven. On February 20, 1970 the Chicago Seven were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was overturned on appeal in the fall of 1972 and the group acquitted in 1973 (Hayden p. 22).

Mayor Richard J. Daley, future mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois delegates at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago, IL react to Senator Ribicoff’s nominating speech in which he criticized the tactics of the Chicago police against anti-Vietnam war protesters. Photo: U.S. News & World Report collection at the Library of Congress dated August 28, 1968. Source

By 1969 the SDS organization had ceased to exist. Fragmented by infighting, it was taken over by groups such as the Weather Underground, the Progressive Labor Party and rival Marxist sects (Hayden p. 26). Hayden points to several factors that led to infighting and the end of SDS: the Vietnam War, which took attention from SDS anti-poverty actions; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; white southern voters leaving the Democratic Party; and above all, the group’s “inability to predict the future (Flacks, Hayden chapter p. 24-25).” In addition, an SDS major supporter, Walter Reuther of the UAW, was clashing with right wing conservative George Meany (Flacks, Hayden chapter p. 28). All of these events and issues split the organization into opposing factions.

Nevertheless, in its short history, SDS had written a manifesto that inspired students worldwide to act in defense of those who were poverty stricken, against the Vietnam War and hostile governmental actions, and in support of equality for all races. For a number of people participatory democracy had become central to interactions with governments and power elites. And students (and universities) had undertaken actions to change social norms.

The hope of the writers of the Statement was that in the future “…it will offer inspiration to young activists, not to accept our ideas, but to rethink the world for themselves, and to act reflectively, courageously, and collectively to change it, as best they can (Flacks, Barbara Haber chapter p. 147).” Prophetically, in 2015 Hayden stated: “For the next generations, perhaps the most important issue for participatory democracy will be ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing information.” Tom Hayden (Flacks, Hayden chapter, p. 17)

Hayden died in October of 2016.

* The term participatory democracy was coined by University of Michigan philosopher Arnold Kaufman in a 1960 article called “Participatory Democracy and Human Nature”(Flacks, Jane Mansbridge chapter, p. 200).

**The convention copies of the first draft written and distributed at the 1962 Port Huron convention by Tom Hayden were probably mimeographed. The August 1962 first printing of the document that was revised at the convention consisted of mimeographed pages. A second edition that is still available was printed in December 1964.

***Prior to 1925 the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) was called the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, founded by Upton Sinclair in 1905. Prominent members included Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Norman Thomas, Walter Lippmann, and John Reed (Miller p. 28). LID’s student organization, Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID)(1946-1959) was succeeded by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1960. In 1969 SDS was succeeded by the SDS-Worker-Student Alliance which was dissolved in 1974. SDS was resurrected in 2006.

The books:

Brick, Howard and Gregory Parker, Editors. A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement and Its Times. Middletown, DE: Maize Books. March 21, 2015.

Flacks, Richard and Nelson Lichtenstein, Editors. The Port Huron Statement. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2015.

Garvy, Helen. Rebels with a Cause. Los Gatos, CA: Shire Press. 2007.

Hayden, Tom. The Port Huron Statement, A Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2005.

Miller, James. “Democracy is in the Streets,” From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1987.

Students for a Democratic Society. The Port Huron Statement. New York, NY: Students for a Democratic Society, Student Department of the League for Industrial Democracy. 1964.

Students for a Democratic Society. The Port Huron Statement. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company. 1990.

Read The Port Huron Statement here:

Content copyright 2018 Karen Rodriguez

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