[sixties-l] The Port Huron Statement at 40 (fwd)

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    Date: Tue, 13 Aug 2002 16:48:40 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The Port Huron Statement at 40

    The Port Huron Statement at 40


    August 5, 2002

    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
    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
    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
    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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