The Port Huron Statement at 40

The Port Huron Statement at 40

On its anniversary, two of its authors assess its relevance for today.


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.

The two of us had arrived in Port Huron from different paths that symbolized the cultural fusion that happened at the beginning of the 1960s. Tom was a Midwestern populist by nature, rebelling apolitically against the boring hypocrisy of suburban life–until the Southern black student sit-in movement showed him that a committed life was possible. Tom was drawn to the mystique of citizen action and away from left ideologies based on systems far different from America, with its vast middle-class status system. Many others at Port Huron were mainstream student leaders inspired by the civil rights movement, the South African antiapartheid movement and even the youthful ideals of John Kennedy’s New Frontier. Dick, on the other hand, was a New York “red diaper baby” whose parents had been fired as schoolteachers during the McCarthy period. Disillusioned by both Stalinism and the conformity of cold war America, he and his wife, Mickey, questioned whether an effective left could be built at all from its quarrelsome subculture of factions. The fusion of these paths yielded a vision informed by a democratic American radicalism going back to Tom Paine, one that attempted to transcend the stale dogmas of the dying left as well as the liberal celebration of the New Frontier as Camelot.

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.

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.

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