This is the fiftieth anniversary year of the Port Huron Statement, the founding declaration of Students for a Democratic Society, issued as a “living document” in 1962. The SDS call for a participatory democracy echoes today in student-led democracy movements around the world, even appearing as the first principle of the Occupy Wall Street September 17 declaration.
As a signpost of the early 1960s, the Port Huron Statement (PHS) is worth treasuring for its idealism and for the spark it ignited in many an imagination. The Port Huron call for a life and politics built on moral values as opposed to expedient politics; its condemnation of the cold war, echoed in today’s questioning of the “war on terror”; its grounding in social movements against racism and poverty; its first-ever identification of students as agents of social change; and its call to extend participatory democracy to the economic, community and foreign policy spheres—these themes constitute much of today’s progressive sensibility.
The same spirit of popular participation that inspired OWS drove the electoral successes of Latin American nations emerging from dictatorships in the 1990s. It appeared among the demands of young people in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries in the Arab Spring of 2011. Spontaneous democratic demonstrations erupted in Russia late last year, organized on Facebook by young people seeking honest elections. The PHS was even prophetic in condemning the
1 percent, who in 1962 owned more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock. It may be sobering for today’s Wall Street critics to read in the PHS original draft that despite the radical reforms of the 1930s, the share of wealth held by the 1 percent in 1960 had remained constant since the 1920s.
On the other hand, there are sources of hope now that we couldn’t imagine in 1962. The technological revolution of the Internet and social media is propelling a global revival of participatory democracy. Facebook and Twitter are credited with a key role in movements from Cairo to the volunteer campaign for Barack Obama. 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. These issues were prefigured in the PHS in the briefest of complaints about computerized problem-solving and in the outcry two years later from Berkeley students in the Free Speech Movement, who felt they were being processed like IBM punch cards. The PHS criticized the profit motive behind automation while noting that the new technology, if democratically controlled, could eliminate much drudgery at work, open more leisure time and make education “a continuing process for all people.”
According to Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, published in 1970 and still the most comprehensive history of the organization, the PHS “may have been the most widely distributed document of the American left in the sixties,” with 60,000 copies printed and sold for 25 cents each between 1962 and 1966. Sale made two observations about the Statement:
First, the PHS contained “a power and excitement rare to any document, rarer still in the documents of this time, with a dignity in its language, persuasiveness in its arguments, catholicity in its scope, and quiet skill in its presentation…a summary of beliefs for much of the student generation as a whole, then and for several years to come.”