The Port Huron Statement at 50!

By Alexander Cockburn

Fifty years ago, a group of students in the American Midwest issued a document rather portentously titled “The Port Huron Statement.” It was the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and became one of the most famous documents of that momentous and creative decade.

Read any history of the upsurges in the United States in the 1960s written over the past three decades and you’ll at once encounter tributes to SDS as on the cutting edge of radical organizing — in the battles against racial discrimination, particularly in the South; in the protests against the Vietnam War; and more largely in the aim of young people in the 1960s to break the shackles of the Cold-War consensus that had paralyzed independent thought and spread fear of McCarthyite purges through the whole of what remained of the organized left in America, in the labor movement, the churches and in the universities.

SDS was founded in 1960, and in the summer of 1962, it held its first convention just outside the Michigan town of Port Huron, on the U.S.-Canadian border, an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Presented to this gathering was a manifesto initially drafted by a former student at the University of Michigan — Tom Hayden — and revised by committee and finally delivered to the world as the Port Huron statement.

“We are people of this generation,” it began, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. … As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.”

Reading these apocalyptic lines today, a reader is surely struck by the thought that 1962 was somewhat late in the evolution of the Cold War to make these discomfited observations. It was 14 years since President Truman had launched the postwar militarization of the U.S. economy. By 1950, U.S. military advisors were in Indochina; by the mid-1950s, America’s imperial jackboot had crushed reform in Guatemala and Iran. In 1961, President Eisenhower, a year before the Port Huron statement, bid farewell to his presidency with his famous warning that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must … be alert to the … danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite.”

Ironically, Ralph Williams, a Texan who drafted the speech under Eisenhower’s close supervision, included a warning against “the tendency for orderly societies to break down into mob-ridden anarchies, e.g., student riots, ” but this was cut, leaving as Eisenhower’s main rhetorical bequest to John Kennedy, inaugurated three days later, the warning against “the military-industrial complex.” Originally, the speech referred to “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” but eventually, it was decided not to give Congress so stiff a finger.

The 1960s rolled into motion.

Students began to head south to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960. So the Port Huron Statement was not generated in a vacuum, nor were all its propositions entirely novel. But no single radical document from that era captures so vividly the angst so many young people felt as they sought to struggle free from the deadly conformism of the 1950s. Professors were terrorized by the fear of being fingered as pinkoes. In political science departments, original works by challenging thinkers were sterilized in carefully edited anthologies.

The Port Huron statement reverberates with an underlying anxiety of loneliness and alienation. Beyond liberalism and socialism there was a fundamental issue of self-realization, of fulfilling one’s potentiality — a theme that came from Paul Goodman, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy and anarchist author of “Growing Up Absurd,” a hugely popular text among the radical young on both sides of the Atlantic. The section of the Statement titled “The Society Beyond” depicts the newly aware students surrounded by a vast doldrum of “apathy” with the entire society depicted as an alienated realm of false consciousness.

The cultural task of students was to depict the real despair that lay beneath the high paying, working class jobs and the emptiness of tail fins on big cars and fishing boats out front of the holiday tract homes beside the lake. Organized labor is submerged in the vast apathy of the “Society Beyond” and the union leadership hasn’t read Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” to articulate the varieties of alienation. (A job the SDS offers to perform.)

A very short chapter of a couple of paragraphs on “the economy” begins “Many of us comfortably expect pensions…” and depicts an America of wealthy citizens who are discomfited by the existence of poor people in their midst. These days it sounds like Utopia, and the essential optimism underlines an important point, that the authors of the Statement, despite the initial remarks about the end of the Golden Age of Affluence, actually had little sense of the volatility of capitalism — a flaw in foresight that extended to almost all the major economists of the time.

It was only seven years till, in 1969, the American working class — in its upper, mostly white tiers — reached the apex of capitalism’s rewards in terms of wages and appurtenances, such as large, comfortable cars with baroque adornments, a second car for the wife who did not have as yet to go out to work, labor saving devices in the home, pensions, health benefits and after 1965, Medicare — socialized health insurance for those over 65. From the start of the 1970s onward, it was downhill all the way.

To its advantage, SDS across the past decades, largely captured the strategic high ground in terms of historiography, somewhat exaggerating its actual achievements as against the histories of SNCC or the Black Panthers, many of whose leaders were unable to write histories from the vantage point of tenured academia, since they had been murdered by the police.

Across the past four months, we have witnessed the Occupy Wall Street movement with its encampments — at least for now dispersed by the police — in cities across country, from New York to Oakland. One is struck by the lack of intellectual and organizational continuity. SDS could trace a lineage of ideas back to the early Marx and as the ’60s progressed, to Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Gunnar Myrdal. But it is hard to descry much continuity between SDS and OWS — perhaps because of the evolution of American capitalism and the decline of the old organized left. The authors of the Port Huron Statement saw themselves as sparks of lonely resistance in the vast dark night of American complacency. The OWSers see themselves as representatives of the 99 percent against the 1 percent!

This article was published at NationofChange at: All rights are reserved.

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