Before there was Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park there was Students for a Democratic Society and Port Huron. When it was written in 1962, the Port Huron Statement announced the birth of the radical student group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and with it the launch of what would become the so-called New Left. The manifesto’s legacy has since been sullied by the destructive history of SDS, which within a few years splintered into a bevy of revolutionary Marxist and militant organizations – most notoriously the terrorist Weather Underground – that came to embrace the very form of communist totalitarianism the Port Huron Statement professed to reject.
That morally stained history has not prevented SDS veterans, led by the document’s principal author, Tom Hayden, from periodically celebrating the Port Huron Statement as something it never was: a reformist treatise that succeeded in spirit even as it failed to transform America in line with SDS’s radical vision. Hayden has been the leading propagandist of the Port Huron Statement’s supposedly lasting cultural importance, penning and delivering near-annual tributes to the document while divulging little about its troubling history. The latest of these commemorative efforts occurred last week at New York University in New York City, which hosted a two-day conference on the Port Huron Statement to celebrate its 50-year anniversary and to reflect on its historical impact.
Headlined by Hayden, who delivered the keynote address, the conference was a class reunion of sorts of 60-era radicals. The audience was full of aging activists, their nostalgia for the political currents of the sixties betrayed by their graying ponytails, Che Guevara T-shirts, and well-thumbed copies of The Nation. Several said they had been present when the Port Huron Statement was issued in 1962.
Their goal seemed to be to convince themselves that the Port Huron Statement still mattered. Hayden touched on the point directly in his keynote remarks, when he suggested that the document remained historically relevant. “To understand history, you can’t leave it to the historians,” he said. Instead, Hayden left it to himself, and the resulting account was woefully incomplete. Rather than revisit the past, Hayden preferred to rewrite it.
Hayden stressed that the major contribution of the Port Huron Statement was introducing the world to the notion of “participatory democracy.” Hayden described the term in bland terms to mean a call for greater social and economic participation. But as an honest reading of the Port Huron Statement confirms, “participatory democracy” was never a call for democracy at all, but rather a coded prescription for a radical insurrection against established democratic institutions. Thus, it’s not surprising that all of the movements that have embraced “participatory democracy” – from Mexico’s anarcho-communist Zapatista guerillas, to Nicaragua’s communist Sandinistas, to most recently the street thugs and hooligans of Occupy Wall Street – have been unabashedly radical.
Hayden could not bring himself to be more honest about another aspect of the Port Huron Statement, namely it’s opposition to “anti-communism.” As Hayden told it, SDS came under criticism in the 60s for being insufficiently supportive of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. “We were on trial because our views were not anti-communist enough,” Hayden explained ruefully, to sympathetic agreement from the audience.
But that too was a historical whitewash. Not only did the Port Huron Statement reject liberal anti-communism but it embraced its converse, “anti-anti-communism.” The Soviet Union might have been totalitarian and repressive, the authors’ conceded, but it was wrong to “blame only communism” for the Cold War given that the United States, with it’s “monstrous” military structure, its “corporate economy,” and its “imperialist” foreign policy, was not clearly better – and in any case had “done a great deal to foment” Soviet suppression and aggression.