The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and adjusted and accepted by the SDS, asserts that the left needs both a program and a vision. The value section gives the vision. Those values are reflected in the critique of society. Hayden says that social structures of the early 60s were stultifying. Young people go from formative experiences in college to positions in the adult world for which they were prepared.

The fraternity president is seen at the junior manager levels; the sorority queen has gone to Grosse Pointe: the serious poet burns for a place, any place, or work; the once-serious and never serious poets work at the advertising agencies.

No one questions the system. The elites explain this passivity as evidence that people are satisfied with the status quo. But how can that be if people haven’t learned about alternatives, or how to change things, or about the actual power that have? Or, the elites claim that actual issues are disappearing. But they control the media and the education system, so how would we know otherwise? Other elites claim that “democracy never worked anywhere in the past”. But “… how can a social order work well if its best thinkers are skeptics, and is man really doomed forever to the domination of today?”

Universal apathy is reinforced by the existing power structure, which separates the public from full knowledge of the facts, and protects decision-makers from the public. Socially isolated citizens have no way to grasp how their world works. Hayden uses Dewey’s language around “publics”.

The very isolation of the individual — from power and community and ability to aspire — means the rise of a democracy without publics.

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Hayden identifies several reasons for this. First, the policy differences within both of the main parties are greater than the differences between the parties. Mostly this means that the Dixiecrats are more like the Republicans than they are either mainstream Democrats or liberal Republicans. The rigidity is increased by the seniority system in the Democratic Party, where most committees are chaired by Dixiecrats, and the system gives these chairs enormous power to enforce their wills.

Second, there is a bias towards local concerns. Legislators are more interested in trying to stay on the good side of their voters, even when the interests of those voters runs contrary to the national interest. Therefore politics fails to confront national and international issues in a smart way.

Third, whole communities are unrepresented: Black people, particularly in the South, migrant workers, poor people, and urban and suburban people gerrymandered into districts where they do not count

Fourth, all of this is made much worse by corporate power, expressed through lobbying and special access.

These forces work together to calcify politics, and weaken government, especially the legislature. Image and charisma replace thoughtfulness and insight. Voters are confronted with “pseudo-problems”, but actual problems are not addressed, let alone solved, by a weakened government. The confusion and lack of results lead to worse apathy. Politicians do nothing about this state of affairs; in fact, they support it.

The dominant feature of politics in 1962 was anti-communism. Public apathy and ignorance open the way for highly nationalistic, conservative anti-communists. These people took over the Republican party under the leadership of Barry Goldwater.

Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.

The economy has a few elements of social support, but for the most part it contributes to the malaise. Hayden says we live in a “national celebration of economic prosperity”, but millions live in poverty and deprivation. Work is “unfulfilling and victimizing”, but it’s the only means to achieve financial security. We think we are free because we live in a free enterprise world.

People are excluded from control over their work lives. The rich and their corporations run the country. They dominate the fabric of social life. Government is not a countervailing force protecting citizens.

The military industrial complex is another dominant force. The cooperation between corporations and the military is crystalized by the statement of Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, who lauded the creation of the “permanent war economy.”

There’s more, but that gives a good flavor of the critique.


1. The Port Huron Statement was written nearly 60 years ago, and 35 years after the publication of The Public And Its problems. I think it still serves both as a statement of values and as a social critique. True, it doesn’t mention women or the LGBTQ community, and its discussion of racism and the labor movements is weak. Some of the issues are no longer relevant, like the Dixiecrats. But these criticisms can be addressed within its framework.

2. Dewey says that corporations and the rich control political discussion. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the vast majority. Most people can’t even articulate their own interests because of the confusion and dissembling of the wealthy and their minions. Dewey thinks that a good society is one in which individuals have agency in all aspects of their lives.

The Port Huron Statement puts those concerns in the center of the discussion. Hayden adds discussion of the role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it. That shows the influence of C. Wright Mills, especially his book The Power Elite.

3. The critiques of Dewey, Mills, and Hayden of the way democracy is actually working in America could all have been written today, with only minor changes. Mill’s power elites still run things. Issues of social inclusion are still a huge problem. National discourse is still confused by lies and distortions that serve the rich at the expense of everyone else. It is still difficult for citizens to recognize themselves as publics, capable of pursuing their own interests. The average person has little agency. Americans are divided by manipulation of pseudo-issues.

As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs. At the same time, a huge number of Americans are suffering under a catastrophic pandemic and the effects of deteriorating infrastructure, chemical pollution, and climate change.

A significant majority of us want the government to act. Courts offer years of delay to any objection from almost anyone. Most legislators are locked into their ancient games. Legislators who have internalized the values of the rich, or who are corrupt, or just stupid and indifferent, use senate procedure to block necessary changes. The dissemblers and liars raise absurd questions like “do they deserve it?” and “how do we pay for it?”, questions never asked about the demands of the rich. Anything that works for the common good is labeled Communist. Those arguments and tactics have been used at least 120 years.

This history is evidence of another of Dewey’s basic principles: democracy is a project of a community, never a finished product.

33 replies
  1. d4v1d says:

    Nothing to add but ‘amen,’ and to voice appreciation for the elevated discussion this series has been. Fuel and inspiration for the aeonic struggle with powers and principalities.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Amen, indeed. Apathy is the authoritarians’ dream of not having to compete for power with an electorate. Propaganda and disappointment are planned elements of it: the GOP is better at the former, the Democrats at the latter.

    Victimization, at work, in particular, goes hand in glove with apathy. It makes people more vulnerable to propaganda. Business school “human resources” and “organizational development” programs have adopted, for example, a “happiness” model that seeks to keep conflict out of the ever more demanding work place.

    It does so, directly, by punishing it, and indirectly, by creating the myth of the benevolent employer. Any unhappiness or dissatisfaction must, therefore, be the worker’s own fault. Keeping it out of the workplace becomes the employee’s personal responsibility, not the employer’s systemic responsibility. Employees – assocates or partners, in the current manipulative lingo – are persuaded to internalize blame for not being happy and by imposing painful consequences on the unhappy – those who criticize and demand change or unionization. So-called personality tests are used to screen out those not bubbly and malleable enough to get with the program.

    The Orwellian result is that being unhappy in your work – to paraphrase Colonel Saito – is perceived as a personal, not systemic, failure, one that has to be rooted out for the good of one’s workmates.

  3. jaango says:

    I love this discussion on Pragmatism, although I disagree with most of what’s been and what’s occurred in this obvious historical reality. Consequently, I prefer to, and have for many years, addressed Pragmatism for what will occur well into the future, or for the next 20 to 30 years, and where the “lynch pin” of my future is premised on Demographics. And subsequently, what the academicians such as Dewey and etcetera, will be relegated to the National Monument for Criminal Stupidity. (And nonetheless, this Monument will be established on the Navajo, Apache or Yaqui Reservations.

    Yesterday’s Pragmatism has been premised on the European-oriented view of the history of this subject matter, however, I too am over the Indigenous-oriented view of this history, and no, I am not taking the the genocide era of the Southwestern “version” but what has come to the fruition, that today’s view is focused on the Chicano Movement of many years past and will continue far into the future. And how will “unity” be handled and addressed effectively, is this critical subject matter that is Demographics and the relevant impact of the public discussion, regardless of the multiplicity of efforts by the “challenged.” Take, for example, Mandatory Voting that addressed this “indigenous reality” despite the ‘debate’ of rights, freedom and the nonsensical resistance to the compilation “for counting votes.” Otherwise, I must suffer the nonsense that comes at us from the advocacy manifested by the various factions that I call the “free riders.” or what I consider today’s “trashies.” advocating their nonsensical criminal stupidity.

    Now, feel free to disconnect from my brand of pragmatism since I am of a smaller opinion that we should take a few dollars our mindboggling approach to National Security/Defense and Civil Rights, and to the extend that a number of dollars should be made available, that the 350 Insurrectionists be given the opportunity to self deport, and thereby, saving the cost to the taxpayers for prosecuting and housing those that will be plea-bargain their way out of their self-ascribed ‘freedom’.

  4. Silly but True says:

    A significant problem and solution is engaging the voter to vote; without maximum voter percent: those voting approaching those that can, any particular vote will be more susceptible than manipulation. The difference in universe of voting age versus voting eligible (includes felony disenfranchisement, etc) is on order of 5% alone, enough to swing the election when only 50% of people are voting. Get the numbers of people voting up. 1968 was the last time it touched 60% — and that was perhaps good example of interested and engaged electorate caring about _something_. 1900 was the last time 70% voted.

    A good modern example of a horrifying combination of lack of power vs. focused federal effort was the destruction of the local — largely black urban — neighborhood throughout the US sacrificed at altar of the US national interstate highway system. The voiceless were literally steamrolled, with vibrant and historic neighborhoods sliced in half by expressways, throughout every major city across America in 50s-80s and even into 90s.

  5. jaango says:

    Ed Walker,

    Your to be highly commended on your series of posts on “pragmatism.”

    And even though I can be an obnoxious ass-holder, it becomes only a matter of time and where the “marketing and sales” of the Pragmatism Coalition, and which will matter a great deal when the pending demographics kicks into tomorrow’s reality, is critical. Therefore, the unity that amounts to the advocacy for a Pragmatism Coalition, will recreate today’s Democratic Party for tomorrow’s much touted usefulness.

  6. Nord Dakota says:

    Who knows anything about the logical fallacy Kurt Goedel found in the US Constitution?

    • bmaz says:

      It is bullshit that nobody even really knows the exact specifics of. But, of course, any republican democracy, where enough people have any possible path to amend it, can be turned on its head.

    • BobCon says:

      I am gobsmacked that he found just one. It’s a work of many politicians just trying to get through a summer in Philadelphia, not a work by Bertrand Russell attempting to encapsulate pure reason.

      But Godel wasn’t exactly well in tune with the real points of humanity.

  7. Ginevra diBenci says:

    But, but, but. The enervating isolation Hayden described has been radically transformed by our “connected” age. I believe that isolation is now shared online. These cyber connections can help us address the apathy Hayden found. But as we’ve seen, they can can also be exploited for profit and weaponized for the sake of political domination. I just don’t believe we can talk about pragmatism in the 2020s without discussing the Web’s many interfaces with these issues.

    Thanks, Ed, for making me think in spite of a post-vaccine migraine; I read up and learned that this side effect is normal, but a distraction really helps.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I’m not sure about the impact of the web. In the pandemic, we learned we can actually interact directly via zoom, in fairly large numbers, which may be a valuable lesson. I can say that I really miss hanging our with friends in person, for dinner, or a show and a couple of drinks. I miss not actually being with other human beings, talking and seeing their faces as we talk. The zoom get-togethers were not a solution to that problem. Also, I think active participation in groups works better in person. I’ve noticed that a lot of people aren’t able to get the floor in zoom meetings, and it’s not always easy for leaders to keep track of who’s speaking. Also, talky people (bless ’em) can’t always read the signals they’ve been going on too long.

      I hope the migraine goes away and leaves you happily immune to Covid!

      • bmaz says:

        Went to court today for about five hours. Longest by four hours in the 8-9 times I have been since pandemic, and it was good. Was offered to do it by zoom or telephonically, but declined. It was good to be back. I want no part whatsoever of the zoom court crap.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Thank you, Ed. For anyone getting the J & J shot, you might feel lousy the next day; following up to say I’m better today. And even if I’d known about the migraine, I would still have gotten the shot.

        The intersection of Web with pragmatism seems like one of those philosophical conundrums that will not submit to resolution soon; I don’t think we have the language to straddle the concepts, let alone the perspective (a function of language, and vice versa). The existence of the internet exacerbates and paradoxically erases the issues Hayden called attention to. I’m certainly not saying it makes thoughtful consideration any easier.

  8. JamesJoyce says:

    Great piece…

    Merit has been tossed out the window with common sense..

    This is what money buys…


  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Joe Biden is appointing a commission to study the legality and options of reforming the Supreme Court. It will be comprised of 36 top legal minds, including several hard right opponents of reform, but no memorable advocates for it. Moreover, their task is to give Biden a book report – not to recommend reforms or a pathway to achieve them.

    Government commissions are often where facts and reform go to die. They are designed to give political figures breathing room by mimicking action, by taking a topic off the front-page, and by delaying reform in hopes that the energy behind it dissipates. They are typically staffed, as is Biden’s, with the establishment figures with unimpeachable resumes. Their report will be well-researched – within narrow confines – and well-written. It will accomplish its principal objective: delay.

    Pressure for court reform is not likely to go away, but Biden’s process might delay action until after he or the Democrats’ Senate majority is history. That would be a historic missed opportunity, one that might not come again for some time.

      • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

        Seems to me that it is also a signaling device:
        “We’re being polite, we won’t show you the door yet, but if you have any functioning brain cells remaining at this point, you should hear the music slowly starting to crescendo and footsteps coming closer…we’re generously providing you an opportunity to save face, which also frees us from having to pull your ass off the bench where you’ve been for decades.”

        Late, and still not able to catch up, but did see your news of Québécois. Sobering, but what a stoic fighter he must have been.

    • YinzerInExile says:

      Which “Senate majority” is that? The one that has access to the simple numerical majority that the Framers contemplated, or the one that Senators Manchin and Sinema have given to the minority through their devotion to the filibuster in its current form?

      • bmaz says:

        I think Sinema and Kelly might, might, could be picked off to support killing the filibuster, or at least selectively so, and DiFi coming around to at least thinking about it, but Manchin I doubt. He is up for election in 2022 and is likely FAR more worried about that than the good of the country.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The blame for inaction would not be solely Biden’s. Manchin and the pair from Arizona would have much to do with it, as would the no-bipartisanship-at-any-price Republicans, even the nominally “centrist” ones. But it’s an example of the difference between reaction and leadership.

      LBJ had solid majorities, for example, when he passed his landmark civil and economic rights legislation. But he networked, bargained, and extorted like hell to get it: his pet dogs were not the only ones he picked up by the ears or whose peckers he squeezed in his pocket.

  10. YinzerInExile says:

    I was listening to an episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” podcast yesterday, in which Helen Andrews of The American Conservative and Jill Filipovic of The New York Times and elsewhere were debating the question, “Did baby boomers ruin America?” At one point, Andrews attempts to argue that baby boomers (as a comically homogeneous mass) irrationally rebelled against the comfortable prosperity of their own upbringing; as evidence for this proposition, she encourages listeners to read the beginning of the Port Huron Statement. All I could think was that she hadn’t bothered to read the rest of the Port Huron Statement.

    I’m astounded at the continuing relevance of this document as both a critique and a creed. This should be required reading, at least in political philosophy if not in civics. Thanks, Ed, for focusing our attention here.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The title of the debate is nonsensical clickbait. But Helen Andrews either knows no history, lives in an AEI-Cato-Heritage bubble, or is a pathetic liar. I suggest she start with something accessible, like any work by journalist/historian, like David Halberstam.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        “The title of the debate is nonsensical clickbait.”

        Agree, EOH, and to nonsensical I would add cynical. I’m starting to worry about Ezra Klein. He appears to be turning into a New York Times columnist.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Oh, Ezra Klein was a NYT’s columnist long before the NYT hired him to be a columnist.

        • bmaz says:

          Young Ezra was always thus, even if with a baby face and thin resume to start. Neither Klein, Andrews nor Filipovich (who I actually kind of like, at least usually), know diddly squat about criminal jury trials, much less ones involving police officers as defendants.

  11. John Lehman says:

    Under point 1
    “… its discussion of racism……………is weak.”

    Under point 2
    “role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it.”
    -a.k.a. Military industrial complex.

    These two cancers though acknowledged, could have been much more clearly targeted at the time.
    They are both still plagues on our nation and world.

    We are not going to get very far unless people finally learn basic spontaneous respect for all fellow humans. Sure think that almost every businessman in the world would rather be making money in fair trade with people then by bombing the holy shit out them…you know “swords into plowshares”.

  12. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    OTOH, I see Tom Hayden’s point, but OTOH having been raised by a generation that relied upon family and community, and FDR, in the 1930s, and then later went to war, I’d observe that Hayden seemed to lack a sense of 20th century history. He misses how deeply marked some were by years of deprivation – or fear of deprivation – during the Great Depression. They cared plenty about the Social Contract at the Rotary, the parish, the Kiwanis, the school board meetings, and the city council.

    Hayden’s views seem much more a response to ‘mass society’: endless acres of subdivisions, American cars, hula hoops, and mega-school in suburbs. It’s a problem of scale.

    Qu 3, IMVHO, is a topic whose complexion has altered.
    Once upon a time (circa 1963), the wealthy were only about 3x my family’s income, and we were at one another’s houses, as well as different pews in church on Sunday. We knew one another. and everyone had manners (‘Please”, “thank you”, “Mr — “, “Mrs xx”) and it would never have crossed the minds of kids in my neighborhood to walk on anybody’s nicely mowed lawn. Community, with pragmatic solutions to whatever problems burbled up (at least, in my recollection).

    Fast-forward to post-Trump, and the avarice, the garishness, the puerile behavior of the Trump-Kardashian-Celeb scene is revolting. These people have no claim whatsoever to any kind of tax advantages, nor any other privilege.

    One more observation, and I think that it is hopeful.
    At present, in my state, there is a ‘lid’ on campaign contributions while our legislature is in session.
    Despite this, at least one state elected has been kind enough to come on Zoom every 6 weeks or so to update whoever was on a donor list from 2020, and we get updates, questions answered, and it’s kind of community experience. I think of it as more a tutorial than anything else.

    In 2020, I was on numerous Zoom calls – either through a local business group, or the elected officials’ willingness to keep in touch. I think that as long as Zoom group meetings are managed well, with expectations set ahead of time and clear guidelines, it is a new kind of engagement. I believe that it can be horrendously abused, but so far it has been a revelation to actually be able to ask questions, get answers, and feel — at least on some of our state issues — that real, genuine progress is happening.
    I think that kind of Zooming could be a version of ‘pragmatism’ in the sense that people are engaged and up to date.

    (More work for electeds, but you can absolutely get a clear sense of who can think on their feet, and who really understands government. So people who had been passive and given up are starting to trickle in to these. So far, so good.)

  13. jaango says:

    For these past fifteen years, I have been of mind that what Congress needs to do, is pass legislation that would allocate $500 million on an annual basis to establish the national insight for the “Municipal-Owned Internet News Service, and where each urban-oriented municipality would be on the receiving end of a $10 million. And as such, each municipality have the sufficient amount of funds to hire an approximate 50 credentialed journalists to speak and advocate my perspective, that being part and parcel to a Pragmatism Coalition.

    Consequently, the traditional large media outlets would have to live-off the municipal efforts for their “information-gathering” marketing and sales operations. In contrast, the approximately 50 large scale political blogs would have a far larger ‘reach’ when it comes to the highly-oriented and in-depth discussions on relevant public discussions.

    In short, the particulars of any Municipal-Owned Internet News Service, would effectively challenge the scatter-brained Republicans, and subsequently, the concept of the ‘rural’ voter versus the urban’ voter becomes the starting point for the Conservatives’ reciprocity for this debate on public policies.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      I’m inclined to agree.
      One of my kids has worked in media for years, and the tales of small town papers dying is heartbreaking. She had previously worked for an ad firm, and they basically used phone corporation accounts to bleed small local papers: you will take our shitty offer, or you get nothing.

      A lot of those local papers would have been smarter to take nothing, and my kid went in to media after she could no longer bear to be part of such a predatory system in the ad world. A few newspaper bankruptcies later, and still trying to work on something that will bring in sufficient revenue for people to make a decent living.

      The thing about municipalities is that they are data creators: every marriage, death, land use permit, water hookup… all that data could be used to generate information that is not subject to ‘opinion’ of Fox ilk.
      And you could layer on a Facebook type element for local updates.

  14. gmoke says:

    “As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs.”

    My reading of Page and Gillens’ Democracy in America? leads me to believe that this statement is somewhat misleading. I believe their studies of public opinion and legislation show that even the wealthiest get what they want from government only half the time, if that.

  15. Chris Real says:

    The rich want it all, they want everything, but they only get half of it all, half of everything.

    Sounds about right.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Wanting everything and accepting half is not much of a loss – or sacrifice – especially when the half you take includes control of the only institution that might hold you to account: government.

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