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.

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.


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.


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.

[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.

Freedom And Equality: More on Equality

Posts in this Series. For those interested, I update this post from time to time with additional resources that help flesh out what may be unfamiliar ideas.

The text for this and the previous post is Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter Equality in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, available online through your public library. In the previous post we saw that Anderson describes equality in terms of social relations rather than in terms of material distribution. Relational equality is opposed to social hierarchies. She describes three forms of social hierarchy, command, standing, and esteem, and tests them against the pragmatic values of the good, the righteous or just, and the virtuous or moral. She concludes that these hierarchies are neither good, just, nor virtuous. Next she takes up the arguments of defendes of hierarchy.

Proponents of social hierarchy cannot justify the extremes of social hierarchy, slavery, serfdom, peonage. So they try to defend the less egregious cases. In evaluating these arguments, it’s helpful to think of concrete situations, rather than mere abstractions, because the actual practice of thee social hierarchies has direct impact on real humans. These hierarchies exist in government and other institutions, public and private. Anderson hersolf applies these ideas to the world of work in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), 2019, Princeton University Press.

Defenders of social hierarchies argue that command hierarchies are the only solution to certain kinds of social problems. Specifically, they argue that social order can only be maintained “… under a division of labor in which those competent to rule issue commands and others obey.” Egalitarians point out that almost everyone has the ability to participate in a democratic form of government. There is no obvious way to select those capable of command, certainly not on typical grounds, which she describes as “inscriptive group identities such as such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality. In the real world, these defenses are nothing more than legitimating existing hierarchies of dominance.
Defenders of hierarchies of esteem and standing argue first, that there are differences in virtue among people; some people are more deserving than others, justifying differences in esteem and standing. Second these defenders argue that differences in esteem and standing act as incentives for more productive workers. Following Rousseau, Anderson writes almost poetically:

// Equal citizenship status in a republic provides such a ground. When fellow citizens meet in the public square, they meet as co-sovereigns—as co-creators and guarantors of the republic that makes them free and independent. Each can stand erect before everyone else; no one has to bow and scrape before another. Everyone basks in the glory of the republic they jointly sustain. This basal equality of esteem, of the free citizen and the recognition of that status with all its rights and dignity by fellow citizens, constitutes the essential background condition for the practice of republican virtue*. Thus, genuine virtue requires an underlying equality of esteem.**//

Anderson sees no reason for hierarchies of standing. Rewarding achievement with special material benefits, special privileges or exemptions from constraints binding others leads directly to people seeking those benefits directly instead of by cultivating virtue.

The danger of all three hierarchies is that the holders of high positions will use them for personal benefit, and will seek to pass them on to their offspring or their favorites regardless of talent or virtue, directly, as we see politicians handing their positions to their children, or indirectly, as by establishing standards for the hierarchies that favor their children or protégés. I hardly need to provide examples. Worse, once people become used to their position in these hierarchies, some of them will exploit those below them without compunction, and with no accountability.


1. Anderson says that these egalitarian arguments are better for showing the failures of the current system that for creating a new one. She points out that democracies have the potential to overcome these hierarchies, but only in practice can we find the proper means to do so.

In general, pragmatists argue that the proof of value is in the doing. Each solution engenders its own problems, problems that are rarely foreseeable, so the role of the people as an electorate is to seek solutions to the new problems or to take other routes to the desired goal. There are no permanent solutions to these problems, only approximations, best guesses, and constant evaluation.

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in this sense. She argues in favor of democracy, which enables people to select their leaders and creates means to hold those leaders accountable. In that setting, the exercise of power is not domination: the people can throw out and otherwise punish bad leaders. For example, the US Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice-President, and all civil officers, which includes all judges.

Social hierarchies resist change other than those benefit the entrenched dominant class. They are static. At its best democracy is dynamic. It is never complete. It is a project, a human project. People decide on what is important, and find ways to move toward those goals. There is a kind of organized conflict inherent in democracy, as people urge different goals and different paths to those goals. That conflict is evidence of life, and is only a threat to those who benefit unfairly and unreasonably from the existing arrangement.

2, Anderson argues for relational equality over equality of material distribution. But she is obvious that relational equality requires some material redistribution. That redistribution is subject to social determination, but should include at least sufficient food, clothing and shelter to maintain personal dignity, open access to all educational and job opportunities, additional assistance to those who have not had that access in the past, and special attention to those who are disadvantaged by illness, genetics and other causes beyond their control.

4. This piece by Anderson is beautifully written and quite clear. I have not attempted to cover all the richness of her argument.

*This term relates to the Roman Republic, not to the US party of that name. I discuss this point in an earlier post in this series.

** Richard Rorty makes similar poetic arguments in Achieving Our Country following Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. See the additional materials in the Introduction and Index To Posts.