In the movie The Big Lebowski, the aging, stoned hippie played by Jeff Bridges announces that he helped write the Port Huron Statement. We don’t remember the “dude” being there, but it’s gratifying that the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society still lives in the nostalgia and imagination of so many.
A glance at the web will show tens of thousands of references to “participatory democracy,” the central focus of that document, which still appears as a live alternative to the top-down construction of most institutions. Participatory democracy has surfaced in the campaigns of the global justice movement, in utopian visions of telecommunications, in struggles around workplace and neighborhood empowerment, in Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed,” in grassroots environmental crusades and antipoverty programs, in political platforms from Green parties to the Zapatistas, in participatory management theory, in liberation theology’s emphasis on base communities of the poor and even in the current efforts of most Catholics to carve out a participatory role for laity in their church. The Port Huron Statement appears in numerous textbooks and has been the subject of thousands of student papers. This continued interest is the more impressive, since the statement was never marketed or even reissued as a book. It was produced only as a mimeographed pamphlet in 20,000 copies, which sold for 35 cents. We were jaundiced toward the very notion of public relations.
Recent celebrants of the Port Huron Statement include authors Garry Wills and E.J. Dionne, who see in its pages a bright promise of rational reform that was later lost, when they say SDS became too radical. At the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Bork says the “authentic spirit of Sixties radicalism issued” from Port Huron in “a document of ominous mood and aspiration” because it embodied a millennial vision of human possibility. The former radical David Horowitz reads the statement as encoding a “self-conscious effort to rescue the Communist project from its Soviet fate.” At different moments, both Democrats and Republicans (under Richard Nixon) have invoked the rhetoric of participatory democracy in campaigns. This perplexing spectrum of reaction reflects, we believe, the statement’s attempt at a new departure from the conventional dogmas of left and liberal thought.
Did we succeed, and if so, how? This year’s occasion of the Port Huron Statement’s fortieth anniversary provides a chance to ask whether its importance today is primarily symbolic and nostalgic, or whether, as we believe, the core of the statement is still relevant for all those trying to create a world where each person has a voice in the decisions affecting his or her life. It remains, as we described it then, “a living document open to change with our times and experiences.”
The original idea, conceived at a winter meeting in Ann Arbor in 1961, was modest: to produce an organizing tool for the movement we were trying to spread through SDS. Then the statement became more audacious. The roughly sixty young people who finalized the statement during a week at a United Auto Workers retreat in Port Huron, Michigan, experienced what one could only call an inspirational moment. As the words flowed night and day, we felt we were giving voice to a new generation of rebels.