The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement is the manifesto of Students For A Democratic Society, drafted by Tom Hayden. Hayden graduated from the University of Michigan, Class of ’61. He was introduced to the SDS by Sandy Cason, an extraordinary speaker and feminist. They married in 1961. Hayden reported on Freedom Riders, and eventually became a Freedom Rider himself. The earliest draft of the Port Huron Statement was written while Hayden was in jail in Albany, GA as a Freedom Rider.

Hayden’s draft was presented at a meeting of SDS members at the UAW’s Port Huron conference center in November 1962. It was thoroughly vetted and adjusted, but in essence it’s Hayden’s vision for what came to be known as the New Left. The SDS eventually became a leading opponent of the War in Viet Nam, and splintered into several groups, including the Weather Underground.

The Port Huron Statement is short and direct. Here’s a link to the text. This excellent article by Louis Menand suggests there are two main influences. John Dewey’s focus on participatory democracy as a moral force is one. The other is C. Wright Mills, primarily The Power Elite, written in 1956. The Port Huron Statement opens with a discussion of values, then turns to critiques of education, politics, and the economy. This post focuses on values. [1]

Hayden begins by dismissing the politician form of values as meaningless rote expressions, obeisance to the views of the ruling class. Students aren’t taught anything beyond those platitudes. Leftist elders aren’t any better: “…our liberal and socialist predecessors were plagued by vision without program, while our own generation is plagued by program without vision.” Hayden asserts the importance of starting from a statement of values:

A first task of any social movement is to convenience people that the search for orienting theories and the creation of human values is complex but worthwhile.

1. According to Hayden the dominant view at the time was that people are little more than stimulus-response machines, consuming and producing, but lacking control over their own lives. He admits humans can be ugly, but he rejects the human “… potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority.”

Human beings are “infinitely precious”, with unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love. We all have the capacity for independence and growth, and the aim of society should be to encourage these potentials. We should search for a life that is “personally authentic”, not one that adheres blindly to ancient limitations, or one imposed on us by an inflexible past and present.

2. “Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty.” In the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, Hayden sees the survival of the human species as only possible through our relationships with others based not in competition but in love.

3.

As a social system we seek the establishment 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.

4. Politics is the way we act collectively to make decisions about our society. Important decisions should be made by public groups. In this way people are brought together out of isolation and into community, which brings meaning to our lives. Politics should operate in ways that bring out alternative solutions so that discussion can be focused on making good social choices.

5. The economy should provide “incentives worthier than money or survival”. He calls for meaningful labor, not rote mechanical labor. Everyone should have a say in the way businesses operate.

6. Violence is abhorrent. It requires the targets to be depersonalized objects of hatred, and that is precisely the opposite of this expression of values.

Discussion

1. I agree with the idea that the left needs both a vision and a program. I’ve written several times about the need for theory that supports the various programs that progressives all support, as here and here. Progressives offer great ideas, but only rarely do they justify their ideas, and the justifications are weak. For example, we say the richest country in the world should X. Or X is a human right. I particularly don’t like implicitly patronizing rationales.

2. Each of these values, and some of the language, resonates with the ideas of John Dewey laid out in the posts in this series. Each of them resonates with other writers we’ve looked at like Elizabeth Anderson. I also see traces of the ideas of Hannah Arendt and other thinkers in works I haven’t discussed here. It’s clear that Hayden and the other delegates learned a lot as undergrads, notwithstanding their disappointment with their teachers.

3. I want to single out the idea that participation in democracy is a form of self-actualization (my word), In neoliberal talk, voters are consumers of politics and political ideas. They are not the generators of solutions, and they have no input into either politics or policy except to pick and choose among the politicians hawking them. Hayden, like Dewey, believes that participating in society is a way to know ourselves, in fact, to form ourselves. Participating in democracy is a virtue.

4. On the negative side, the language of the document is white male dominated. The word “man” is used to mean both women and men. The words women and woman are not used. Here’s an example of this centering.

Apathy toward apathy begets a privately constructed universe, a place of systematic study schedules, two nights each week for beer, a girl or two, and early marriage; a framework infused with personality, warmth, and under control, no matter how unsatisfying otherwise.

This is especially odd because Sandy Cason was a feminist and a potent leader, and a number of women attended the convention. This form of interaction with women became a real problem in the New Left, particularly in the anti-war left, and led to an independent women’s movement.

The document repeatedly addresses Civil Rights, but the New Left was dominated by white men, and did not recruit Black leaders. Black activism was centered in groups dominated by African-Americans, like the SNCC and the Black Panthers.

This, of course, benefited Black and Feminist groups who controlled their own rise to liberation and generated their own forms of leadership and followership. But the divisions made it difficult for the Left to work as a single group on issues affecting everyone.

The document talks about working people, but the SDS is a student organization, with no labor participation. This became a real problem when the SDS turned to anti-war activism, because the Labor movement supported the War in Viet Nam.

This separation of activists is a serious problem, one the left has never solved.

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[1] Pragmatism doesn’t generate values, nor does it deduce values from some fundamental principle. Values are the direct result of culture and lived experience. Therefore there is no proof that establishes their validity. They are subject to debate and discussion. We establish values by persuasion. Dewey treats the subjects of ethics and morality in a number of his works. Here’s a good discussion. I read the form of the Port Huron Statement as following this tradition. Hayden doesn’t attempt to justify his values by reference to any formal standard. He argues for them.

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17 replies
  1. Bet Mulligan says:

    The Port Huron Statement was a life changing document when I read it the first time. I was very young, felt very alone and adrift. It told me there were other who thought like I did and these were important ideas for change.
    The document has flaws but it will live in my heart forever.

  2. Peterr says:

    This is especially odd because Sandy Cason was a feminist and a potent leader, and a number of women attended the convention.

    Hayden’s marriage to Cason only lasted four years, and the male-centric vision you note here was surely part of its demise. Her writing and activism after the Port Huron Statement was written take her on a very different path. For example, “Sex and Caste” from 1965.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Cason’s paper is fascinating. In the introduction, she talks about “a remnant of the first wave”; meaning, I think, that she now sees herself and her comrades as early second wave feminists. The document is open, inviting dialog instead of stating conclusions, which I think would be more in the vein of Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement.

      When she wrote this, the language of feminism was undeveloped. The use of caste, for example, to describe the status of Blacks and women is telling. There are parallels in the treatment of Blacks and women, but the experiences are different.

      She calls this caste system “societally determined”. Today we would say that the categories of “Race” and “Women” are socially constructed, with all that entails for analysis.

      The male response that female caste distinctions are biological seems absurd today. There are biological differences, but that’s just a starting point: what do those differences entail in a free system. Her disgust with this reaction, and the general status of women in the movement is tangible, but she deflects it with the quote from the leading left-liberal magazine, The Nation, leaving the reader to react with her own feelings and no doubt hostility. Her pessimism about the potential for an organized feminist movement is striking, and seems to hold true today.

      I was in college at the time, and I had no idea about the women’s movement. It wasn’t until Law School, where I met a bunch of really smart and talented women, that I began to understand the rage I sensed in some of them and the fiery determination to succeed they all manifested. I now wish I’d read The Feminine Mystique; I”d have better understood my mother.

      • Peterr says:

        My folks were in grad school back then. Mom was fairly conservative, but had a strong sense of justice that pulled her into conversations with some of her more liberal women friends. Similarly, the English Dept at my high school was filled with a bunch of strong feminists who were pursuing or had earned their PhDs at the university, and they definitely brought it into their teaching. I am sure there were some epic parent-teacher conferences when some of the very conservative dads came in to talk about their daughters’ heads being filled with nonsense.

        Those teachers took no nonsense. From anyone.

        • Pete T says:

          Heh…Ed and your posts just above caused soem synapse sparking…

          At Georgia Tech in 1970 – in hindsight a bastion of Southern white male engineering student body though there were a few females. One of the mandates was that EVERYONE had to take three quarters of “English” one of which was Poetry. Who came up with that criteria? Well, we had to take a PT term of drown proofing, but that’s another subject.

          The instructor for poetry was a young woman – quite attractive as an aside, but then you didn’t see many attractive women on campus, but she was upfront that she was going to inject some humanity into us engineering heathens and she was a back breaker when it came to grading.

          In hindsight I suppose she was a rightly justified feminist. I actually liked her – not because of her looks and definitely not because of the grade I earned, but because she projected strength and self assuredness.

  3. Dysnomia says:

    One thing I think it’s important to emphasize is the need for *active* participation by ordinary people in all areas of life. In modern life people have so little real participation in decisions that affect them. We’re “consumers of politics” as you point out, confining our participation to selecting from a curated list of “representatives” every couple years and delegating all our decision-making power to them. We’re mere order-takers at work, under the thumb of the police, all decisions regarding the management of our communities are made by others. This position is dehumanizing. We’re not just cogs in a machine, we *are* mere biological machines fulfilling a function.

    But society can be structured differently such that ordinary people have real decision-making power and can meaningfully participate in the management of their workplaces and communities, instead of only a small minority of people making decisions for the rest of us, and this is a major theme of the statement. This kind of active participation is a humanizing experience. It allows us to grow and achieve our potential as human beings. It has an educative and confidence-building function. Most of us have very little confidence in our capacity for genuine self-management, having so little experience with it. We’ve been convinced that we all need elite leaders to guide us and tell us what we should do. But a bit of real freedom and autonomy whets our appetite for more. People can only learn to be free by being free, or struggling to be free.

    In the workplace active participation means (directly) democratic workers’ control over not just working conditions but over what work is done, and what is done with the product of their labor (genuine workers’ control, not what the Bolsheviks meant by that phrase). In the community, real participatory democracy means direct democracy, ordinary people being actively involved in discussing issues faced by the community and finding solutions.

    *How* to create such a society is the important question. But I don’t think electing the “right” people to legislative bodies, no matter how progressive-sounding their rhetoric, is going to move society in this direction. I don’t think we can rely on elected leaders to ultimately make themselves obsolete.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for this comment. One big problem is that so many people don’t see that being an active participant is possible. So many of our modes of participation have proven themselves more tools for the few who take control than avenues for actual participation. Even if a person wants to participate in decisions about their lives, it’s incredibly frustrating to see that elections don’t change anything significant, and that goes for people of all points of view. This leads to apathy.

      I also don’t think politicians will move us in this direction. They frustrate people-driven demands with stupid arguments; for example, in the minimum wage dispute, we got yet another lesson in how Democrats use Senate procedural rules to ignore demands for a hike. Then we had endless arguments from economics “experts” on the impact of an increase, which are made with utter indifference to the lived experience of actual people and with no regard to the power structures that keep things as they are.

      I think the change has to come from below the political level. That means working people have to recognize that they can demand the ability to control the circumstances of their lives in the workplace and elsewhere, and start demanding structural changes at all levels at once.

      Maybe the pandemic lockdowns will help that along for enough of us to make a difference.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Thank you, Ed Walker, for this post and the others in this series. I remember the Freedom Riders because my parents’ civil rights action intersected with them in passing. By the time I was old enough to read Tom Hayden, he was more celebrity than thought leader–not that these are mutually exclusive.

        I would argue the discussion we are having here demonstrates the obsolescence of the “cog in a machine” view. We just said farewell to a POTUS known to retweet the posts of some of his many millions of followers. Starting with Obama in 2008, national elections have been won by establishing cyber-roots connections with people who might have felt “ordinary” forty years earlier.

        I first participated in democracy in high school when I volunteered for a (losing) congressional campaign in Illinois; my district was not ready for a Democrat. (At all.) But even I can see how profoundly the internet has changed our world. It allows anyone (almost) to reach from the bottom to the top in an instant, with the possibility of being heard. For better and worse, we inhabit a connected universe now. Our philosophical inquiries must accommodate that fact.

  4. Nord Dakota says:

    I thought it was a coincidence but realized that’s the article referenced. What happens when reading EW and the New Yorker while (actually) working.

  5. jaango says:

    Regarding the apathy among our fellow citizens, I favor Mandatory Voting, and where the only viable excuse for not voting is the usage of a medical doctor’s ‘excuse.’ Thus, Dewey and his many followers never addressed this approach to self-governance relative to mandatory voting.

    Additionally, Dewey and his many followers were thoroughly unfamiliar with the Chicano Movement, but still pressed on with the European interpretation for Morals and Values, and the Port Huron volubility was a continuation of such behavior.

    And still, today, I am subjected to the “ask” that is “Your papers please…”

    However, demographics or the pending of such, will add Change to our daily reality.

    • bmaz says:

      This is absolute garbage. If people choose to not vote, that is their right. Jesus fucking christ. And when were you asked “Your papers please”? That is not simply a “Chicano” thing, all people are asked for identification by law enforcement.

      • jaango says:

        Since Arpaio in 2010, I have been stopped 3 times by the police for traffic infractions, and each time I have been asked to show my ‘credentials.’

        As to Mandatory Voting, there are over 8,000 Hispanic Elected and Appointed Officials, and if were “polled”, the overwhelming majority would be quite supportive, given that it’s tiresome to have to ‘listen’ to non-voters’ expression of their opinions, when effectively demonstrating their lack of adequate knowledge on self-governance.

        So, spare my your latest diatribe.

        • bmaz says:

          And right back at you. In the eleven years since 2010, I have been pulled over at least three times and in EVERY one of them, asked for my ID. So, spare me your bullshit.

          • jaango says:

            As to the three traffic infractions, I challenged each, and the court judge agreed with me, and subsequently, tossed each ticket into the trash can.

            And from another perspective, and the former Governor, Janet Napolitano, while sitting, entered into an agreement where she acknowledged the prevalent racism among the law enforcement, and further created a Commission on Anti-racism, albeit the Commission never held its first meeting. Consequently, my fellow Democrats are unwilling to address racism in any rational form, other than in the form of the traditional propaganda touts..

            • bmaz says:

              Well, if so, the tickets certainly were not dismissed because an officer asked for identification. As to Janet, she ceased being AZ governor in January of 2009, well before the 2010 start date you describe, and I have never heard of the erstwhile “commission” you refer to.

    • Dysnomia says:

      I think mandatory voting would be a step backward. It would just be another instance of state coercion. And there are good reasons to *not* participate in electoral politics, which doesn’t necessarily indicate apathy. If we’re considering ways ordinary people can improve their situation, I think direct action is more effective than electioneering. And engaging in parliamentary politics has a moderating, deradicalizing effect, on both voters and legislators. Kyrsten Sinema is an example, but it’s pretty much universal.

      But if you want to reform our current electoral system, I can think of a few improvements that would be much better than mandatory voting:

      1. Ranked choice voting. Voters rank their choices, and a candidate needs 50%+1 first place votes to win. If nobody has that, the last place candidate is eliminated, their votes are transfered to their second choices, and votes are counted again. Repeat until somebody has 50%+1.

      This would open up electoral politics to third parties, who otherwise have very little chance because voters feel they’re “wasting” their vote on a third party candidate. It would at least go a long way to undermining the two-party (really one party with two factions) stranglehold on electoral politics.

      2. Binding mandates. One of the big problems with representative democracy is that the participation of ordinary people is limited to just electing people to “represent” them every few years. Between elections, legislators can do whatever they want, and structural barriers make it very difficult to hold them accountable, even at the polls in the next election. The actual decisions are made at the top (power is centralized, top-down), and ordinary people can only replace their representatives every couple years, and the replacements will almost always make similar decisions.

      One improvement would be to give elected representatives (more like delegates in this case) binding mandates. The people of a district decide in advance how the delegate is to vote on certain issues, and the delegate is bound to respect the decision of their constituents. The real decisions would be made at the bottom (power is decentralized, bottom-up).

      The question of *how* to implement such a system is challenging, since legislative districts tend to have populations much higher than is ideal for this. I think the best way is probably to have a large number of relatively small community assemblies, which elect delegates to multiple levels of coordinating councils with binding mandates. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is basically direct democracy, with a federation of community assemblies electing delegates to coordinate activity. A less radical option though would be to allow the voters of a district to retroactively vote to undo the vote of their representative. If the legislator votes yes on a bill, and the voters of that district don’t like that, they can change the vote to no by a district-wide vote. If enough districts do this, it can change the outcome of the legislative vote.

      3. Recallable delegates. If a delegate acts against the wishes of the people of their district, the people should be able to recall them. A challenge is that recall elections (like for governor) are so unwieldy because the population of the jurisdiction is so high. With a small community assembly of say 1000 people who elect a delegate to a coordinating council, it would be a lot easier to organize a recall. But nonetheless it’s possible to organize recalls at the federal, state legislative and city council levels, and this should be relatively fast (certainly faster than current recall elections).

      4. Popular vetoes and initiatives. Allow the people of a jurisdiction to veto legislation they disapprove of. And jurisdictions that don’t currently allow popular initiatives should allow them.

      • skua says:

        “And engaging in parliamentary politics has a moderating, deradicalizing effect, on both voters and legislators.”

        The observed swing to the right of US voters and legislators over the past 5 decades does not support this. Nor do politics in Britian, India and Poland show this effect.

        The other suggestions that you propose do not seem inimicable to manadatory voting.

        We have voting as an obligation here.
        Disadvantages include;
        just about everyone turning up to vote, even the apathetic and ignorant,
        donkey votes (filling in sequential numbers from left column to right column) benefiting some lucky candidates,
        some people feeling forced into participating in something that they find meaningless.

        Advantages include;
        candidates not having to create fear and anger in efforts to get voters to attend,
        Murdoch etc not benefitting in increased voter turn-out when they effectively increase fear anger and/or fool a large number of electors into believing in a fantasy,
        there being a regular nation-wide ritual (voting) which demonstrates that citizenship comes with both rights and responsibilities,
        an increased number of voters experiencing themselves as having some participation in the political process – this may make them more likely to participate in the political process outside elections,
        elected representatives having demonstrated support amongst the whole population of voters.

        Whether obligatory voting is even legally possible for America I don’t know.
        Practically, with many snowflakes even rejecting the wearing of masks during a pandemic, it would seem outside what the American electorate could cope with.

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