June 11, 1962—Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), perhaps the most influential of Sixties radical groups, began its founding convention in Michigan. By the end of the week, the nearly 60 members gathered together had issued its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, which critiqued social injustice, America’s consumer culture, and the nuclear-arms race.
The group’s chief challenge, however, was to the liberal administration then holding sway in Washington. By the end of the decade, SDS would self-destruct, but not before engaging in a fratricidal conflict with the more traditionally liberal Johnson administration over the Vietnam War.
Unlike the “Old Left” of the 1930s, the New Left came of age in a time of abundance. That legacy filled them not with thanks, but with overwhelming guilt, as evidenced by the opening lines of the manifesto, which was based in no small part on a draft submitted by 22-year-old Tom Hayden (pictured): "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." (Hayden himself, raised in comfortable suburban Detroit, would spend several years in the early Sixties assuaging his guilt by working to alleviate poverty in urban Newark.)
Crucial to the manifesto—and to the arc of subsequent radicalism in the 1960s—was the notion of participatory democracy—open debate and action in the streets to effect change and testify to principle—as opposed to liberalism, which, in its desire to use constitutional government to resolve conflict, had become, in the view of SDS, perverted by elites.
In recognizing what Henry David Thoreau called “quiet desperation,” the Port Huron Statement offered a contemporary version of the soulless industrialization outraging the New England transcendentalist, minus the hymn to nature. (That would come later, albeit without the rhapsodic prose, in the last decade, when Hayden turned his attention to sustainability issues.) Commercially, however, it did considerably better than Walden had in its first few years, going through four editions and 60,000 copies in four years.
While reflecting the preoccupations of its era, the Port Huron Statement picked up other changes in the cultural atmosphere that became increasingly apparent with time. Its disdain for bureaucracy—what students saw firsthand in colleges and what they dreaded in the outside world—was something that, oddly enough, they shared with right-wingers. (See George Wallace’s rage against “bearded bureaucrats.”) But much of the rest of this critique had been expressed in bestsellers such as Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System and William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.
But one of its prescriptions for this condition—the elimination of hierarchy—has become a defining characteristic of protest movements of the last several years, from the left and the right: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
Differences in background and viewpoint inevitably divided Old and New Left, a schism demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in literary critic and Dissent editor Irving Howe’s 1982 memoir, A Margin of Hope. He writes of a visit by several SDS leaders, including Hayden, to his publication’s editorial board. While praising the “evident sincerity” of the young men, including the brilliance of Hayden, he criticizes the latter in no uncertain terms:
“Pinched in manner, holding in some obscure personal rage, he spoke as if he were already an experienced, canny ‘political’; after the meeting a number of Dissenters remarked spontaneously that in Hayden’s clenched style—that air of distance suggesting reserves of power—one could already begin to see the makings of a commissar.”
In some ways, Howe’s depiction of Hayden as unwilling to reconsider other points of view is misplaced—or at least time has allowed him some further opportunities to reflect. In his meditation on his ethnic background, for instance, Irish on the Inside, the onetime street agitator came to understand—though without excusing—how big-city bosses such as Richard Daley had chosen political machines as a means of protection against a hostile, prejudiced, anti-immigrant society.
But to this day, he seems, as Howe rightly noted three decades ago, tone-deaf to the very real dangers once posed by the Soviet Union. In 2005, for instance, he noted that radical Islam had arisen in “the vacuum created by the failures of political Arab nationalism (and the end of the Soviet Union, which, whatever else may be said, supported non-religious revolutionary movements).” That “whatever else may be said” is a rather brisk sweep under the carpet for a host of very real human-rights violations he was slow to criticize while that state still existed.
By 1969, SDS had collapsed, riven by the sectarian divisions endemic to radical movements. Before its disintegration into mindless political street theater, however, it had sparked a backlash. Ronald Reagan’s first campaign, the California gubernatorial race against Pat Brown, was launched by attacks against the Berkeley campus, especially in the wake of the SDS-inspired “Free Speech” movement there in 1964. And by destabilizing governments led by liberals, it sparked a belief in the crumbling of law and order that made many Americans look longingly to those who promised an end to incoherence—the once-despised ideologues of the right.
Gauzy nostalgia now clings to the Port Huron Statement, so much so that its very mention evokes an entire era and set of attitudes. In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” claims to have helped draft the original version of the document. In an episode in Season 2 of Mad Men, one of the young Turks newly hired at Sterling Cooper speaks virtually verbatim from the document to a skeptical Don Draper. It's an interesting denouement to one of the major radical American documents of the last century.