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On Thursday and Friday, April 12–13, New York University welcomed Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, and other SDS veterans + new Occupy supporters and others interested in the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (1962), a statement of idealism and liberal values, and a road map of the decade of struggles for social and political change to come. The first of a two-part series. Illustrated version cross-posted at LeveesNotWar.org.

Early ’60s idealism: The mimeographed mission statement of a new generation

“The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely . . .

“The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. . . . SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

“There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document.”   —Todd Gitlin, April 12, 2012

As we were strolling through Washington Square Park Thursday evening we saw a light shining from the south, from the NYU library at 70 Washington Square South, and, behold, the brightness was the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives on the tenth floor.

We followed the light and found a gathering of luminaries to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, featuring Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, and other SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) members as speakers. In the audience sitting among the ordinary folks like us were history-making New Left activists and organizers you may not have heard of, but their work in the civil rights, free speech, anti-war, and anti-poverty movements changed—that is, made more humane and more democratic—the world we live in today.

Briefly, the Port Huron Statement (1962) was a sort of mimeographed mission statement of the Students for a Democratic Society: a new generation’s call for participatory democracy; an assertion of humane, liberal values; and a critique of the Cold War mentality and the military-industrial complex that were strangling civic action and imagination and diverting precious resources from social needs such as ending racism and poverty. It marked a break from the old left that was anxious to prove itself anti-communist after the ravages of McCarthyism.

Roadmap to the 1960s, blueprint for a generation

SDS, a student division of the League for Industrial Democracy, was founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. The Port Huron Statement, initially drafted by Tom Hayden—22 years old at the time—and elaborated through discussion among fellow SDS members, was adopted at the first SDS annual convention of about 60 members on June 11–15, 1962, at a retreat in Port Huron, about 100 miles NE of Ann Arbor, near Detroit.

The statement, intended to be a living document, guided a generation until, with racial and Vietnam War tensions escalating, around 1967 and 1968, younger activists found it not radical enough. Many of SDS’s ideas, values, and methods, however, live on in the energy and activism of the Occupy movement, the Arab spring, and the Wisconsin public workers’ struggle. We are confident that, like the Declaration of Independence, it will be commemorated on its one-hundredth anniversary, too, and well beyond, as long as there is a United States of America.

We will have more to say in the next few days about the remarks of Tom Hayden and others on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Statement, but we begin our commemoration by sharing the eloquent remarks of Todd Gitlin, who was kind enough to provide a copy to Levees Not War. A cultural historian and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, Mr. Gitlin is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. He was president of SDS in 1964 and 1965 and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War, in 1965. His remarks Thursday night were energetic and charged with an intimate sense of the beauty and love and also frustration and tragedy that characterized the experience of the 1960s and afterward.

On the Port Huron Statement
Todd Gitlin
April 12, 2012
Tamiment Library, NYU

The Port Huron Statement was the clearest, most vivid and energetic articulation of an awakening: one of those great uprisings that are the crucibles of America struggling (against much violence and cruelty) to become itself—a commonwealth of free association and mutual aid.

The New Left wanted to make, out of the lonely crowd, the beloved community—the kernel of a moral awakening that would put intelligence to work in behalf of transcendent values and overcome as much human ugliness as possible.

This beloved community would be bound together in what Carl Oglesby would later call “brute love”—an association of free and struggling individuals joining together what an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”

Brute love was distilled from a fierce chemical reaction (and I’m not just referring to controlled substances) which began with a revolt against racist evil and stupefaction, and developed into an intoxication with the vivid solidarities that are made possible, though never guaranteed, by democratic life.

The intoxication was stirred by a discovery of the bonds that could be forged from a conviction that big changes were not only necessary but possible.

The sense of necessity was both moral and intellectual. It’s interesting: There are not, in the Port Huron Statement, extraordinary insights into the crimes and failure and inequities of American society at the outset of the 1960s:

• white supremacy;

• the military-industrial contempt for human possibility;

• the grotesque brandishing of thermonuclear weapons in the Cold War;

• the triumph of empty labor; and so on.

The keen insight of the Port Huron Statement was that a life of shared value mattered—and that it could be lived in common—and that citizenship might matter and might, for some body of people, be practical. The name that was affixed to that insight was “participatory democracy.”

It was, I think, intended more as a principle of social life than as a way of holding meetings. It was not understood as an alternative to strategy or to the collective work of intellect, but as their fruition.

The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely. The intimation that the world could be remade—starting right now and right here—this was the movement’s idea—all of the movement, as Linda Gordon points out in her paper, not just the white guys.

The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. For some in the movement those values were spoken in an other-worldly spirit; for some not. It didn’t matter. All the eyes were on the prize.

SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.

There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document. Within the lines, there were a lot of intellectual puzzles that the Port Huron Statement could not solve. No one has since. They may not be capable of solution. For example: What if most people do not want, at least not so much, to make the decisions at affect their lives? Shall we then disband the people and convene another one?

But the Port Huron Statement did not say: Follow us from Point A to Point Z. It said: Here we are, a bunch of people, “raised in at least modest comfort,” who are going to make the effort to live lives we are not ashamed of, in order to live in a country we are not ashamed of. And that was a very great thing.

At the same time, we are all well aware of what we could not accomplish in the movements of that time. And that is why we ought to be refreshing the language of values, and reawakening the awakening, and acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with our better angels.

I mean not just ourselves, the core of a movement and its passions. I mean also the vast outer movement. Just as there was a conspicuous ’60s, the one recorded in the photogenic confrontations and iconic images of courage and horror, there was also a subterranean ’60s—less well known but just as important. The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should I do?

That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.

What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.

Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

*

Todd Gitlin is the author of many books. His latest, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, will be published in August by !t books, a division of HarperCollins. It will be available as a Kindle e-book in May.

The Port Huron Statement was typed and mimeographed by some of the people, now in their sixties and seventies, who were in attendance Thursday night. The first mimeographed printing, in August 1962, was of 20,000 copies; the second printing, of 20,000 copies, was in December 1964. Copies sold for thirty-five cents each. It is now a paperback published (2005) by Thunder’s Mouth Press, a good deal at $14.95.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My sentiments exactly (6+ / 0-)

    The Port Huron Statement is the fundamental set of ideas that the campus radicals of the 60's got right. I share the values stated therein and the set of principle for building a caring community. It's getting past the idiots that run the military/industrial complex that makes it hard.

    Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. -Carl Sagan

    by howardfromUSA on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 05:22:26 PM PDT

  •  The Port Huron Statement: Why we still fight /nt (3+ / 0-)

    slutty voter for a "dangerous president"; Präsidentenelf-maßschach; Warning-Some Snark Above"Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Sciant terra viam monstrare." 政治委员, 政委!

    by annieli on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 05:39:19 PM PDT

    •  my work life has been devoted to: (2+ / 0-)
      6. A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.

      But we need not indulge in allusions: the university system cannot complete a movement of ordinary people making demands for a better life. From its schools and colleges across the nation, a militant left might awaken its allies, and by beginning the process towards peace, civil rights, and labor struggles, reinsert theory and idealism where too often reign confusion and political barter. The power of students and faculty united is not only potential; it has shown its actuality in the South, and in the reform movements of the North.

      The bridge to political power, though, will be built through genuine cooperation, locally, nationally, and internationally, between a new left of young people, and an awakening community of allies. In each community we must look within the university and act with confidence that we can be powerful, but we must look outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice.

      To turn these possibilities into realities will involve national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty. They must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy. They must make fraternal and functional contact with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus. They must import major public issues into the curriculum -- research and teaching on problems of war and peace is an outstanding example. They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life. They must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power.

      As students, for a democratic society, we are committed to stimulating this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program is campus and community across the country. If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.

      slutty voter for a "dangerous president"; Präsidentenelf-maßschach; Warning-Some Snark Above"Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Sciant terra viam monstrare." 政治委员, 政委!

      by annieli on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 07:21:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Quite appropriate For Mr. Gitlin to (3+ / 0-)

    tie this document to OWS.  The passing of the torch to this generation -- or, should I say, THESE generations, as OWS encompasses people of all ages.

    I actually admired Mr. Hayden, et al, for their courage in trying to change the world.  My God, what they could have done in this technologically-advanced age, with the power of the internet.

  •  As a young student at UofM during this (5+ / 0-)

    tumultuous time, I joined some of the SDS meetings and shared their philosophy, which I agree is much of what the OWS movement is all about.  We see injustice, we see those in power lord it over those who have none, we see condescension and total lack of compassion for those of us less fortunate or those who have not had the socio-economic advantages of the wealthy. We see the billions wasted on useless wars that accomplish nothing but fear and hatred of our country. We see the working poor and middle class disrespected by politicians and corporate leaders.  Worthy candidates can't make a dent in the big money world of politics. I was in Chicago in '68 fighting for Eugene against the corrupt DNC.  So, nothing much has really changed in those 50 years, except there appear to be even more people willing to sell out their values and souls.

    "George Washington: "The power under the Constitution will always be in the people.... and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled." 1787

    by moose67 on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 05:48:17 PM PDT

  •  The Port Huron Statement (3+ / 0-)

    Walt Whitman meets Tom Paine

    This aggression will not stand, man.

    by kaleidescope on Sat Apr 14, 2012 at 06:43:01 PM PDT

  •  I was six years old (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    enhydra lutris

    when SDS issued the Port Huron Statement. I first learned about both several years later before entering my teens. From that time onward, in combination with the example of the Civil Rights movement, the organization and the Statement were a source of inspiration and vision for me. If my 40 some odd years of activism have in any way helped to advance the goal of a just, equitable and humane society, much credit must go to the pioneers of 1962.

  •  Was the Dude there? Jeff Lebowski wrote it. (0+ / 0-)

    The first draft Of course not the later compromise edition.  

    That's the joke made in The Big Lebowski, the cult comedy by the Coen brothers.  Of course the joke only works if you have READ the thing.  

    I've lived my life according to principals laid down by leftists but the Port Huron statement is a piece of pie-eyed idealism only a mother could love.  Please reAd some of it before you praise the authors.  

    Nothing worth having is won without a struggle.  Ideals are only part of a movement.  Organization, strategy and hard work are needed too. As is compasion for humanity, coupled with the wisdom of understanding wha humanity is comprised of: idealists and those who are "the other kind."

    The anniversary is worth marking, but the struggle continues and to ignore the flaws of the student  movement of the 1960s is foolhardy.  I hope that along with the celebration there was also serious introspection by the authors and dialog with the participants of the Occupy movement.  

    Because in many important ways, like the BIG Lebowski says "Do you have a JOB mister Lebowski? Are you employed...sorry but the  war's over-  the bums lost."

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