The Port Huron Statement at 40
In its beginning, SDS was the student wing of one of those historic factions, the New York-based League for Industrial Democracy (LID), whose definition of anti-Communism was so far-reaching that it prohibited working with anyone who sympathized with Castro's Cuban Revolution or blamed both superpowers for the nuclear arms race instead of the Soviets alone. Soon the LID would endorse the war in Vietnam. In those days, The Nation itself was beyond the pale of legitimacy, as was our journalistic hero, I.F. Stone. While the draft Port Huron Statement included a strong denunciation of the Soviet Union, it wasn't enough for LID leaders like Michael Harrington. They wanted absolute clarity, for example, that the United States was blameless for the nuclear arms race. They were offended at our suggestion that the labor movement was losing its vitality. In truth, they seemed threatened by the independence of the new wave of student activism, which they believed should be a kind of youth division of the older non-Communist left, an overreaction that Harrington later regretted. Starting in Port Huron, such frictions continued to wound the New Left through the 1960s, until SDS itself succumbed and splintered under the weight of the very factionalism Port Huron sought to transcend.
Like today, 1962 was a time when many students were waking up, but the vast majority were smothered in apathy. We couldn't resist racism and war, we realized, without first piercing this freezing indifference bred by affluence, conformity and the legacy of McCarthyism. The independent sociologist C. Wright Mills had written a compelling essay titled "Out of Apathy," which helped us understand that apathy was engineered by elites that benefited from our silent condition. Psychologically, it was also a defense mechanism against deeper feelings of helplessness. "Students don't even give a damn about the apathy," the statement dryly observed. Therefore, to "break out of apathy" became the first task in building a movement to challenge what Mills called a "mass society" of drifting individuals without access to power or information. The vast majority of students internalized the message of their elders that they were too young, too inexperienced, too unqualified to make a difference. Most students could not vote, and the universities acted as our substitute parents under the doctrine of in loco parentis. Nor was there much record of student activism in American history to bolster us. In the class discourse of the traditional left, students amounted to nothing. But now the black student revolt in the South was setting an example of a different way to see ourselves in history. On some campuses, professors and students were questioning the cold war arms race. There were stirrings on the fringe, too, where students were listening to Bob Dylan and rock and roll. SDS represented the first defections from the mainstream. The student government leaders and campus newspaper editors who came to Port Huron asserted the notion of student "rights" for the first time. It was natural to call on others, as the opening lines of the statement did: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit..." It was a timid trumpet, not yet a call to the barricades, but the tone touched its audience as true, not rhetorical. The need to declare ourselves, to find our voice, came from the powerlessness of everywhere being treated as "kids."
It was no wonder, then, that the statement was inspired by participatory democracy. Participation is what we were denied, and what we hungered for. Without it, there was no dignity. Parents and professors lectured us, administrators ordered us, draft boards conscripted us, the whole system channeled us, all to please authority and take our place in line. Now it was our turn. What became a worldwide youth revolt began, it should be remembered, in the multiple failures of the elders.
The denial of dignity and the vote among blacks was a window into powerlessness in many forms. Young male students could be drafted to kill, but not to vote for peace candidates. A majority of Americans were denied any participation in decisions that were being made every day in their workplaces. Women were second class in every sphere of life. We agreed on a core principle: We demanded the right to vote as a first step toward a right to a voice and vote in all the decisions that affected our lives.
At the time, as disfranchised students, embracing such an expansive idea required a wrenching re-examination of common assumptions. What, for example, was the view of human nature that underlay our assertion that all people had basic rights to participation, or that democracy was the system best suited to respecting human dignity? All-night discussions ensued, often concluding at daybreak. On the one hand, there were followers of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, influenced by the atrocities of the Holocaust and Stalinism, who had asserted that "the children of darkness," the political realists, were in their generation wiser than "the foolish children of light," the pacifists and idealists. On the other side were the Enlightenment humanists who believed in infinite perfectibility through education and nonviolence as adopted by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The dominant view was that we were children of light. We chose utopia and rejected cynicism. The statement ended on an apocalyptic note: "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." But, reflecting our mostly mainstream backgrounds, we also wanted to be relevant, effective. Agreement was reached when Mary Varela, a Catholic Worker activist, inspired by Pope John XXIII, suggested that we follow the doctrine that humans have "unfulfilled" rather than "unlimited" capacities for good, and are "infinitely precious" rather than "infinitely perfectible." The theological amendment drew no objections and was incorporated without citation.
Participatory democracy sought to expand the sphere of public decisions from the mere election of representatives to the deeper role of "bringing people out of isolation and into community" in decentralized forms of decision-making. The same democratic humanism was applied to the economy in calls for "incentives worthier than money," and for work to be "self-directed, not manipulated." The statement was not an endorsement of the liberal welfare state or the managerial democracy of the New Frontier, but a call for a thorough, bottom-up reclaiming of the public sector for public, rather than military, purposes. Only then might corporations be made "publicly responsible." In today's terms, we were trying to transform the mass society into a civic society, spark a social awareness in the vast world of private lives and voluntary associations that most people inhabited far from the centers of power.