The Port Huron Statement at 40
The phrase "participatory democracy" derived from the influence of Arnold Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan who had taught Tom and other early SDSers, and who attended the convention as a speaker. Kaufman used the term to signify that democracy as defined in conventional liberal discourse, was far too limited when reduced to electoral choice and concepts like the free marketplace of ideas. Kaufman's case for participatory democracy flowed directly from John Dewey's writings in the 1920s and '30s. Alongside his mainstream popularity, Dewey was very much a man of the left. One of his longstanding organizational involvements, interestingly, was active membership in SDS's parent organization, LID, which he joined soon after its founding before serving as president and honorary president in the 1940s. Dewey was not at all satisfied with the state of left politics in his time; for most of his life he searched for a "new left" himself an alternative to the ideology and practice of the established socialist organizations of his day. What motivated that search was a deep sense that a radical political and cultural force was needed if democracy in its fullest sense was to be made possible.
Dewey's definition of democracy was explicitly participatory: "All those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them," he declared, adding that "a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint community experience." He argued that such participation is necessary both for the general welfare and for the fullest development of individuals, and that such a principle should be applied not only in the political sphere as we understand it but in the spheres of family and childraising, in school, in business and in religion.
A more immediate intellectual influence on the framers at Port Huron was C. Wright Mills, who died that year of heart failure. Mills was a follower of Dewey, who shared the same desire to establish a real American left. From Texas, a descendant of Irish immigrants, he too was a native populist. Intellectually, he combated the dogmas of Marxism, for example, the idea that the vast American society was controlled by a narrow economic ruling class. At the same time, he rejected the pluralist argument that America was a balanced society of interest groups. Instead he painstakingly constructed the notion of a fluid but uncoordinated power elite that presided over a mass society of apathetic individuals. Mills was a democratic populist whose vision also encouraged "plain marxism," in which he sought to revive the humanistic values of the early Marx that preceded dialectical materialism. In his "Letter to the New Left" Mills passionately urged young intellectuals to see themselves as revolutionary and not to become either compromised celebrants of the status quo or blind followers of leftist orthodoxy. It is interesting, in light of later attacks on the Port Huron Statement as a mask for Marxism, that Dewey and Mills were its primary influences. Port Huron marked a milestone in the search for a genuine American radicalism based on many traditions, but most of all an egalitarian, almost anarchistic belief in democracy. It also anticipated a post-Communist left, if not the decline of the Soviet Union. Quoting Henry David Thoreau, movement activists said: Vote not with a strip of paper alone, but with your whole life. Or as the novelist Ignazio Silone wrote in Bread and Wine, the Italian peasants showed their organizers a new way to live.
The statement also contained a strategic vision of energizing a new insurgency to shift priorities from cold war militarism to the quality of life at home, spearheaded by the civil rights revolution, the revival of peace sentiment, a labor movement committed to organizing and a new consciousness among students and intellectuals in the universities. Michael Harrington's The Other America, recovering attention to the invisible poor, was a bestseller then being read by President Kennedy. Serious advocacy of planned economic conversion from military to civilian production was gaining ground. The President would soon question the cold war itself. For the first time since the 1930s, the possibility of bringing domestic priorities front and center was at hand. Politically, it meant realigning the Democratic Party toward its historic liberalism by splitting off the segregationist Dixiecrat South. Accordingly, the statement called for demonstrations at "every Congressional or convention seating of Dixiecrats," anticipating the challenge made in 1964 by the inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Following the example of SNCC, hundreds of early SDSers established community organizing projects in Northern ghettos in 1964, fully expecting to galvanize social reform--even a gradual revolution--on the home front.
But we could not imagine that Vietnam was just around the corner. The Port Huron Statement made just a passing reference condemning aid to the South Vietnamese dictatorship. Unexpectedly, the American commitment deepened in the year following Port Huron. When the moment of choice arrived in 1964-65, the Democratic administration sent 150,000 troops to Vietnam, guaranteeing that the commitment to ending poverty and racism would ebb. The visionary promise of Port Huron died on a battlefield that triggered a radical polarization instead of reform at home. Our difference with Wills and Dionne is that they blame the New Left for becoming too destructive and extreme in the later 1960s, while we would locate the responsibility for things falling apart on our leaders' choice to create a slaughterhouse in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Port Huron Statement is the fact that it introduced the concept of participatory democracy to popular discourse and practice. It made sense of the fact that ordinary people were making history, and not waiting for parties or traditional organizations. The notion was used to define modes of organization (decentralization, consensus methods of decision-making, leadership rotation and avoidance of hierarchy) that would lead to social transformation, not simply concessions from existing institutions. It proved to be a contagious idea, spreading from its academic origins to the very process of movement decision-making, to the subsequent call for women's liberation. These participatory practices, which had their roots in the town hall, Quaker meetings, anarchist collectives and even sensitivity training, are carried on today in grassroots movements such as the one against corporate globalization. The strength of organizations like the early SDS or SNCC, or today's Seattle-style direct-action networks, or ACT UP, is catalytic, not bureaucratic. They empower the passion of spontaneous, communal revolt, continue a few years, succeed in achieving reforms and yet have difficulty in becoming institutionalized. But while hierarchical mass organizations boast more staying power, they have trouble attracting the personal creativity or the energy of ordinary people taking back power over their lives. Participatory democracy offers a lens for looking at all hierarchies critically and not taking them as inevitable. Perhaps the two strands--the grassroots radical democratic thrust and the need for an organization with a program--can never be fused, but neither can one live without the other.
The Port Huron Statement claimed to be articulating an "agenda for a Generation." Some of that agenda has been fulfilled: The cold war is no more, voting rights for blacks and youth have been won, and much has changed for the better in the content of university curriculums. Yet our dreams have hardly been realized. The Port Huron Statement was composed in the heady interlude of inspiration between the apathetic 1950s and the 1960s' sudden traumas of political assassinations and body counts. Forty years later, we may stand at a similar crossroads. The war on terrorism has revived the cold war framework. An escalating national security state attempts to rivet our attention and invest our resources on fighting an elusive, undefined enemy for years to come, at the inevitable price of our civil liberties and continued neglect of social justice. To challenge the framework of the war on terrorism, to demand a search for real peace with justice, is as difficult today as challenging the cold war was at Port Huron. Yet there is a new movement astir in the world, against the inherent violence of globalization, corporate rule and fundamentalism, that reminds us strongly of the early 1960s. Is history repeating? If so, "participatory democracy" and the priorities of Port Huron continue to offer clues to building a committed movement toward a society responsive to the needs of the vast majority. Many of those who came to Port Huron have been on that quest ever since.