An NYU conference celebrates the founding document of the sixties-era radical left.
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.
The Port Huron Statement’s determined moral equivalency between the United States and the Soviet Union was, in the parlance of the left, no coincidence. Although Hayden did not mention it at the conference, many of SDS’s members were communists, and the movement’s refusal to condemn communist tyranny outright led to a split within the group, as anti-communists like socialist Michael Harrington broke with SDS over Port Huron’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the Soviet Union. The reason for the exclusion became apparent during the Vietnam War, when SDS, led by Hayden, embraced communist North Vietnam against America’s “imperial aggression.”
A habitual revisionist, Hayden insisted to the audience that his goal at the time had been only to end the war. In reality, he and much of SDS were openly cheering for and working toward a communist victory in Indochina. Such was their commitment to the communist cause that Hayden and his then-wife Jane Fonda even traveled to North Vietnam to show solidarity with Hanoi and to make a propaganda video in support in support of the communist war effort. Even when the war’s aftermath and the slaughter of South Vietnamese citizens made the brutality of communist repression undeniable, Hayden refused to withdraw his support for the Hanoi government. He and Fonda declined to condemn the communists’ human-rights abuses and denounced even those on the left who did so as pawns of the CIA.
If Hayden was conspicuously silent on this seemingly critical part of SDS history, he also had little to say about the terrorism that it spawned. In the late 60s, growing radicalism within the group gave rise to a splinter organization, the radical terrorist group the Weather Underground. Yet Hayden had little to say about this chapter of SDS history, and never mentioned the Weather Underground by name. He did however appear to justify SDS's steady drift into violence, noting that Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dhorn “had to go underground” because the left “couldn’t wait” for its revolutionary goals to be embraced by the majority of the country.
If this seemed to shade into excuse-making for the Weatherman’s campaign of terror, Hayden went further still. He explained that, because of the violence of the 60s, today’s protest groups like Occupy Wall Street “didn’t have to commit desperate acts of violence.” That was, in effect, a claim that those earlier acts of violence had been justified.
Hayden's invocation of OWS was very much intentional. One of the conceits of the conference was that the protestors who hijacked lower Manhattan last fall were the political heirs of SDS and the Port Huron Statement. The connection is credible enough. With their class warfare-rallying claims of representing the “99 percent” against the “1 percent,” OWS’s slogans almost precisely echo the Port Huron manifesto’s attacks on the “wealthiest one percent of Americans.”
But the exact nature of the connection was made most explicit by an OWS protestor who took part in a conference panel that was billed as an “intergenerational dialogue” between SDS veterans and OWS protestors. In a rare moment of honesty at the conference, the protestor explained that what united SDS and OWS was their shared commitment to certain ideals, specifically those expressed in works like the Communist Manifesto. Hayden, who took part in the panel, did not dispute the point. Instead, Hayden encouraged to OWS protestors to become even more extreme. Asked for his advice to OWS, he counseled: “Don’t rule out any tactic. Whatever weakens the one percent is useful.” Once again, the clear implication was that violence was justified.
The fact that SDS’s legacy lives on primarily in the fringes of OWS is one sign that it has been relegated to the margins of politics. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the radicalism of the 60s has had no shaping role on American culture. Perhaps its greatest legacy is in the politicization of the American university, which the left has come to dominate.
This takeover was foreshadowed in the Port Huron Statement, which bemoaned the passive conformity of college life in the early sixties and praised radical students “restoring a small measure of controversy to the campuses.” The left’s attacks on the traditional role of the university continued under the Berkley Free Speech movement of the 1960s, which turned academic freedom into a byword for political activism, and ultimately transformed the universities as the student radicals came to command the academic bureaucracy of which they once despaired, shaping the curriculum to conform with their political agendas.
A case in point is the Port Huron Statement itself. Once an attack on the university, it is today taught in universities across the country, including by Tom Hayden himself. At UCLA, Hayden teaches a class on the Port Huron Statement as part of the school’s UCLA “Labor and Workplace” Minor.
Just how far Hayden’s radical generation has succeeded in this transformative mission was illustrated by a conference panel on the “reorganization of knowledge” at NYU in the decades since the sixties. The academic expertise of the panel’s speakers demonstrated the point: they included professors of women’s and feminist studies, Africana studies and “post-colonial drama,” Asian Pacific studies, and “alternative learning.” All were united in seeing political activism as an important function of their instruction.
Daniel Walkowitz, a former SDS radical and now a professor of “social and cultural analysis” at NYU, enthused that since the sixties a “bottom up” perspective had come to replace the history of “dead white males.” David Moore, a professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, noted that while of course the content of his school’s courses was “progressive,” with students regularly interacting with labor unions and community activist groups, a special feature of the Gallantin school was that it allowed students to form their own majors. One student, Moore said, had majored in “Order in Chaos.”
The extent to which radical ideology had advanced in academia was tellingly if inadvertently illustrated by Carol Sternhell, a feminist writer and an associate professor of journalism at NYU. Sternhell explained that feminism had come a long way since the sixties. When she first became interested in feminist politics as a student, she was driven by the idea “that the fact that I’m a woman shouldn’t limit my opportunities.” But she revealed that decades of feminist theory – including the feminist dogma that gender, rather than a biological fact, is “socially constructed” – had changed the consciousness of her students. Now, she said, her students come to her with a different concern: “The fact that I have a vagina doesn’t mean that I’m a woman.” The audience nodded approvingly.
Not only were none of the professors self-conscious about bringing political activism into the classroom, but they reveled in that goal. Jack Tchen, whose faculty biography describes him as a “facilitator, teacher, historian, curator, re-organizer, and dumpster diver,” admitted frankly that he sees his role as a professor and a political activist as one and the same. To that end, he said, his current focus is on creating a “counter-knowledge” that challenges what he called Americans’ “paranoia” about the rise of China. Tchen's main concern was about the challenges of cultivating this “counter-knowledge” in a “neoliberal” and “corporatized” university structure.
Despite the seemingly free rein that these professors have to treat their classroom as an extension of their political activities, the common complaint among the academic panel was that even politically inspired fields of study do not go far enough to promote political causes. Julie Reuben, a professor at Harvard’s School of Education, lamented that even fields like Black Studies have become too focused on academic discipline and not enough on political activism. Today’s courses just weren’t doing enough to “disrupt society,” she said. Those wondering why so many of the OWS rank-and-file are unemployed university students might consider the political priorities of their professors.
The professors’ complaints notwithstanding, it’s telling that even a major university like NYU deems it appropriate to sponsor a conference romanticizing a document as radical and destructive as the Port Huron Statement. Contrary to apologists like Hayden, it was never a reformist statement but a reactionary one, dressing up a revival of communist totalitarianism in a cloak of democratic and populist sounding rhetoric. And if the Port Huron Statement is seen as anything other than a sinister artifact of the sixties, it is only because the left-wing activists' capture of the universities allows them to take seriously what the country rejected long ago.