Port Huron Revisited
(continued from “From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam”)
(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)
And I wave goodbye to America
And smile Hello to The World
— Tim Buckley, Goodbye and Hello
Like a lot of my friends (to varying degrees), I empathized with the anti-capitalist + anti-imperialist = anti-war rhetoric of the 1960s. As the anti-war movement spread, that ideology spread with it.
My brother, on the other hand, bought in it to hook, line, and sinker. We’ll come back to that in a minute (well, several minutes…) But first…
What is more interesting, as these words clatter across a keyboard in the early spring of 2016, is the extent to which the airwaves, cables and fiber networks have been delivering fresh echoes of the rhetoric that galvanized the boomers in the 60s. As the so-called “millennials” invest their own hopes and aspirations in the political ascendance of Bernie Sanders, it is not hard to find in his message the vestiges of the idealism that infused an earlier generation.
Once the war in Vietnam ended in the 70s, everybody went back about their business. The Yippies of the 60s became the Yuppies of the 80s, and slowly but surely many of us became our parents — only with larger houses and a new generation of sheltered children of our own.
And yet, while we live in our media-saturated cocoons, many of the underlying inequities in the fabric of society we observed in our youth persist: Wealth keeps rising to the top 1% of the workforce and black people are still harassed and killed by white police in their own neighborhoods. So it is not surprising that the rhetorical underpinnings of the 60’s would resonate again fifty years later.
In the 1930s there was “The Left” — unionism, primarily, with some ideological roots in a benign form of socialism. In the 30s, even Communism had its own caché — at least until it became clear just what the actual implementation of that ideology meant, and how far actual Communism had drifted from the utopian ideals it was built on.
In the early 1960s, those same utopian ideals were revisited, updated, and reformulated for the movement that came to be known as “The New Left” — and while that movement had its detractors it nevertheless planted the rhetorical seeds that grew into a national movement that reached full fruition amid the fervid opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Now, in the face of seemingly endless war, intensifying economic and racial disparity — and the mounting threat of environmental jeopardy — a new generation is gravitating toward ideas that are more than 150 years old, ideas that have been filtered through several fresh iterations over the past 100 years — ideas that are bundled up in one of the most freighted, benighted and misused words in the English language: Socialism.
I was first introduced to the essential principles of “socialism” in Mr. Berman’s 11th grade world history class back at Columbia High.
From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
My Time Capsule doesn’t contain any notes from my junior year, but I seem to recall thinking — with all the vagaries of recollections that are a half-century old — that that concept seemed entirely reasonable.
I may also have wondered who would get to decide what any individual’s ‘needs’ were. I mean, I might think I have a ‘need’ to own my own jet plane or a Ferrari (why stop at just one?). Who’s to say otherwise? I could tell that as an actual economic model the theory probably had a few flaws, but on a purely youthful level who can argue with such an egalitarian ideal?
I know, the collective, “we’re all in this together” vision of Karl Marx is anathema to the rugged “every man for himself” individualism of, say, Ayn Rand. But I also believe that the degree of interconnectedness that the “digital native” generation has grown up with lends more to the former than the latter, and we’re seeing that manifest in the tremendous 18–30 year-old turnout pulling levers and pushing buttons for a septuagenarian Senator from Vermont.
If my journals from 1969 offer little indication of how I became sympathetic to the ideals of “socialism,” they offer even less evidence of how or when my brother made the hard-left turn from studious, slightly weird and antisocial high school student to still weird but slightly less anti-social and extremely radical college student. By the time I started keeping the journals, Arthur had already been steeped in “the movement” for several years.
At some point after he’d gone off to Yale, Arthur started coming home firmly dedicated to — and liberally reciting for anybody who would listen — the tenets of Marxist ideology. I think he was a big fan of Chairman Mao. Needless to say he was not much of a hit at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
But oh, how he loved to talk with me about those ideas. I think he considered it his solemn duty as my studious elder brother to recruit me into the cause of violent revolutionary overthrow of the oppressive, capitalist American regime and the elimination of the Ruling Class that it supported. I was willing to go along for the amusement value, but my own ideals leaned less toward the violent radicalism of Karl Marx and more toward the comic idealism of Abbie Hoffman. If Arthur’s inspiration came from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, mine came from Groucho Marx and John Lennon.
The rhetorical seeds of The New Left were planted in 1962 — several years before they would take firm root in the spreading opposition to the war in Vietnam.
During the spring of 1962, a group of students from the University of Michigan gathered in Port Huron to form the “Students For A Democratic Society” — a benign enough sounding name that achieved an unwitting notoriety later in the decade, by then having been reduced to the ominous sounding acronym, “SDS” (take out the ‘D’ and it sounds positively… Teutonic).
The fledgling organization adopted a manifesto — The Port Huron Statement — that was drafted mostly by one of the group’s leaders, a student named Tom Hayden. In later decades Hayden would achieve his own notoriety, first as one the defendants charged with conspiracy to incite the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, later as a prominent legislator in the California General Assembly, and for a while as the husband of another activist, an actress named Jane Fonda.
The Port Huron Statement is a dense, sprawling and comprehensive survey of the myriad and complex issues bubbling beneath the surface of the American dream in the second half of the 20th century.
A document of some 45 pages and more than 25,000 words, The Port Huron Statement envisions a “radically new political movement” in the United States that would reject hierarchy and bureaucracy in favor of a “participatory democracy.” But it begins with a recognition of the historically privileged and unique status of its authors:
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit…
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
The Statement then addresses the glaring inequities that I had witnessed first hand on those uncomfortable drives through places like Red Bank and Newark:
While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal . . .” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.
…and hints at the existential futility of living under the specter of nuclear annihilation:
…the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.
Re-reading Port Huron in the 21st century, it’s not hard to find passages that presage the digitally connected, socially-mediated, gizmo-obsessed culture we find ourselves living in today:
Loneliness, estrangement [and] isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.
There is at least one passage that could have come straight out of a Bernie Sanders stump speech, beginning with:
The wealthiest one percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock…
We live amidst a national celebration of economic prosperity while poverty and deprivation remain an unbreakable way of life for millions in the “affluent society”, including many of our own generation. We hear glib reference to the “welfare state”, “free enterprise”, and “shareholder’s democracy” while military defense is the main item of “public” spending…
Continuing, The Port Huron Statement takes a good hard look at the involuntary complicity of individuals in a system that serves them poorly:
Work… is often unfulfilling and victimizing, accepted as a channel to status or plenty, if not a way to pay the bills, rarely as a means of understanding and controlling self and events. In work and leisure the individual is… a consuming unit… always told what he is supposed to enjoy while being told, too, that he is a “free” man because of “free enterprise.”
The arts, too, are organized substantially according to their commercial appeal aesthetic values are subordinated to exchange values, and writers swiftly learn to consider the commercial market as much as the humanistic marketplace of ideas…
…We learn to buy “smart” things, regardless of their utility — and [endure] “planned obsolescence” as a permanent feature of business strategy. While real social needs accumulate as rapidly as profits, it becomes evident that Money, instead of dignity of character, remains a pivotal American value and Profitability, instead of social use, a pivotal standard in determining priorities of resource allocation..
But the Port Huron Statement is not just a long and detailed listing of America’s dirty laundry. As the document grinds toward its conclusions, it begins to advocate alternatives, starting with a direct challenge to the “military industrial establishment” just a couple of years after Eisenhower first spoke of it:
It is necessary that America make disarmament, not nuclear deterrence, “credible” to the Soviets and to the world. That is, disarmament should be continually avowed as a national goal; concrete plans should be presented at conference tables; real machinery for a disarming and disarmed world — national and international — should be created while the disarming process itself goes on.
(When this passage was first composed in 1962, who would have believed that two decades later, just such principles would ever be enacted? But that’s exactly what happened in the 1980s, when the century’s most conservative President, the since-sainted Ronald Reagan, pursued just such a policy when he engaged the Soviet Union in START — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. The fact of START demonstrates that ideas born of New-Left radical doctrine are not entirely out of the mainstream of America’s self-perception.)
There is entirely too much of the Port Huron Statement to reiterate here. Hopefully you get the gist. In the age of Google it entirely too simple to obtain a copy (←why, there’s one for you now!) and read it for yourself; Maybe try stashing a copy on your iPhone, so you can read it while waiting on the line at Starbucks for a caramel-double-shot-skinny latte. That way, can be reading one of the seminal documents of the 1960s while the guy or gal in front of you is scrolling through the Random Trivia Generator known as “Facebook.”
Port Huron was hardly the final arbiter of all that ailed or needed tending in the turbulent firmament of America in the 1960s. While the statement attempts to address the struggle for Civil Rights, it stumbles in its nearly antiquated vocabulary, relying on the the word “Negro” 36 times in its 45 pages — at just the time when that portion of the populace was beginning to self-identify as simply “black.” As the decade wore on, the next iteration of the Civil Rights movement would be better served by the writings of Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin and Malcolm X among others.
Nevertheless, especially for idealist white, middle-class college students, Port Huron was at least one of the rhetorical anchors for the period; Now it seems that new vessels are looking for the moorings that anchor left behind.
In its final passages, the Statement articulates the goal of a “participatory democracy” — the “Democratic Society” from which the SDS derived the second two-thirds of its name. A generation that in the waning years of its adolescence dared to dream of …
– a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.
–that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
–that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life;
–that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution;
–that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-direct, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics;
–[and that] the political, economic [and] social institutions — cultural, education, rehabilitative, and others — should be generally organized with the well-being and dignity of man as the essential measure of success.
The generation that took to the streets largely to protest the war Vietnam carried in their hearts this vision of a social fabric that serves mankind’s highest aspirations and an economic system that serves a higher purpose than the singular pursuit of profit.
In other words, embodied in our opposition to the war was a social construct that might be labeled “democratic socialism” — if the second of those two words wasn’t so freighted with all of the monstrous character traits of its evil twin — Communism.
The Port Huron Statement delivers a final plea that sounds like something that might have been sung from the stage at Woodstock, suggesting that…
The United States’ principal goal should be creating a world where hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance, violence, and exploitation are replaced as central features by abundance, reason, love, and international cooperation. To many this will seem the product of juvenile hallucination: but we insist it is a more realistic goal than is a world of nuclear stalemate. Some will say this is a hope beyond all bounds: but is far better to us to have positive vision than a “hard headed” resignation. Some will sympathize, but claim it is impossible: if so, then, we, not Fate, are the responsible ones, for we have the means at our disposal. We should not give up the attempt for fear of failure.
Which, come to think of it, reads a lot like something something a Bernie Sanders supporter might say in response to a friend who insists that he should be more “pragmatic.”
Though the Students for a Democratic Society had been active since 1962, the organization didn’t become a household name until the spring of 1968, when the SDS joined forces with the Student Mobilization Committee to sponsor “Ten Days of Resistance” — culminating with more than a million students staging a one-day strike on April 26, 1968.
But the news of that nation-wide movement was dwarfed by the New York-centered media’s focus on just one demonstration — the student occupation of buildings on the campus of Columbia University. That event was, arguably, the zenith of the SDS’s ascendance as an avatar of the New Left.
(The spokesman for the SDS at Columbia University was Mark Rudd, who, coincidentally was a graduate of the same Columbia High School in Maplewood New Jersey that I graduated from in 1969; Rudd came back to Maplewood and spoke to our Student Peace Group when we were planning our leafletting demonstration in the spring of 1969. By then, his 15 minutes of fame were fading, and his national profile would soon be eclipsed by the Chicago 7 (nee 8) — defendants charged with conspiracy for inciting the riots at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968).
I visited my brother Arthur in New Haven once or twice while I was still in high school, when he took me to his SDS meetings — to educate if not entirely radicalize me. Like I said, I found that simplistic, one-line summation of Karl Marx sufficiently appealing that I was sympathetic to my brother’s rhetoric. But I was never as fully committed as he was.
By the summer of 1969 — as Woodstock signaled the apex of the decade — my brother’s SDS was already splintering into the disarray and factionalism that would eventually produce the Weather Underground — among them the violent revolutionaries that blew themselves up in a New York townhouse in March, 1970.
As he graduated from Yale in the spring of 1969, Arthur allied himself with the hard-left faction of the SDS that joined forces with the devoutly Marxist/Lenninist Progressive Labor Party. Like the SDS, PLP was also formed in 1962 following a split with the Communist Party USA, but never achieved the visibility of its New Left sibling.
As I headed off to college — and a draft deferment — that fall, my brother embarked on a radically different course. He decided take the radical ideas of the SDS and the PLP straight into the heart of the beast.
Once he’d graduated from Yale, my brother sat back, did some odd jobs, and just waited to be drafted into the Army.
I, on the other hand, embarked on an active campaign to do precisely the opposite…
(It is nearly impossible for me to listen to the track at the top of this page — the title Track from Tim Buckley’s breakout 1967 album Goodbye and Hello without also hearing in my mind’s ear the track that also ends the album, Morning Glory. This song is as close as Tim Buckley ever came to a commercial “hit” and was covered a few years later by Blood Sweat & Tears.)
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / Cohesionarts.com