Bargaining on a revolution?

October 31, 2016

Activist Tom Hayden embodied for many a "spirit of revolution," but what was the content of that revolution? asks Todd Chretien.

TOM HAYDEN, who died October 23 at the age of 76, was the principal author of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in the summer of 1962.

His passing has elicited numerous obituaries and appreciations of his life and work, predictably shaped by the author's affinity or hostility to his point of view. For a political animal such as Hayden, this is only fitting.

If his early endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders last spring came as a shock to many, I hope to demonstrate why it shouldn't have; in fact, this endorsement wasn't a betrayal of his youthful brand of politics, but a natural consequence of it.

In short, Tom Hayden didn't "sell out" or "grow out" of his principles; he remained true to his ideas and himself, at least as far as it's possible to judge from the public record.

To do so, it is necessary to set the stage.

Hayden was born in 1939, which places his coming of age years in the high tide of McCarthyism and the "Happy Days" backlash against women in the workplace and civil rights. The same year he graduated from high school, 1956, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

Tom Hayden
Tom Hayden

That same year, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous "secret speech" admitting many of Stalin's worst crimes. However, later that year, Khrushchev himself ordered a Russian invasion of Hungary to crush an anti-Stalinist uprising of workers and students.

So it's not surprising that the "official" politics of American democracy and Eastern Bloc Communism held little appeal for Hayden. After serving as the editor for the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, he was inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of February 1960 and soon joined in as a Freedom Rider challenging segregated interstate bus service. However, despite taking part in direct action, he was an enthusiastic supporter of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election.


INTELLECTUALLY, HAYDEN became familiar with a variety of influential intellectuals who were calling for a "New Left" to differentiate it from the "Old" Stalinist left. In the U.S., they included sociologist C. Wright Mills and writers and editors William Appleman Williams, Paul Goodman and Arnold Kaufman. They also included English historian (and ex-Communist Party member) E.P. Thompson and French existentialist philosophers and writers Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Civil rights organizers such as, King, Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker contributed mightily to the intellectual atmosphere and also shaped Hayden's thinking.

While these figures differed among themselves, they shared some commonalities: a.) a rejection of Stalinism; b.) an associated pessimism about the role Marx assigned to the working class as the central agent of social change; c.) a sharp critique of capitalism as an economic model and racist/alienating social system; and d.) a belief that students and intellectuals (or young people in general) would lead social movements to challenge the status quo.

Events in the late 1950s and early 1960s appeared to bear out this general framework. After all, the Soviets crushed Hungary's youth, the European and American working classes seemed to have been pacified (at least relatively so) by post-war prosperity, Western capitalism glorified commercialism even as it clung to colonies in Africa and Asia and Jim Crow in the American South, and students and intellectuals manifestly led resistance to all this: from Che and Fidel's youthful guerrillas in the Sierra Maestras, to the heroes of the Algerian and Vietnamese National Liberation Fronts, to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) freedom fighters in Alabama and Mississippi.

Although he focused on England, E.P. Thompson described many of the assumptions that Hayden's generation shared in his influential 1959 essay, "The New Left":

It is a generation which never looked upon the Soviet Union as a weak but heroic Workers' State; but, rather, as the nation of the Great Purges and of Stalingrad, of Stalin's Byzantine Birthday and of Khrushchev's Secret Speech: as the vast military and industrial power which repressed the Hungarian rising and threw the first sputniks into space.

A generation which learned of Belsen [Nazi concentration camp] and Hiroshima when still at elementary school; and which formed their impressions of Western Christian conduct from the examples of Kenya and Cyprus, Suez and Algeria.

C. Wright Mills whole-heartedly agreed with Thompson on many of these points in his own "Letter to the New Left" in the fall of 1960. In it, Mills directs his sharpest criticism against those who advocate working-class politics as the key to social change, arguing that the "labor metaphysic" of "Victorian Marxism" ought to be left behind. After all, he asks,

who is it that is getting fed up? Who is it that is getting disgusted with what Marx called "all the old crap"? Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world--in the bloc, outside the bloc and in between--the answer's the same: it is the young intelligentsia.

Not everyone agreed with Thompson and Mills' conclusions. While Mills was writing his letter, British socialist Michael Kidron penned a response to Thompson's book Out of Apathy in an article called "Two Left Feet" for International Socialism. In it, he concludes that Thompson, while right to reject Stalinism and a "schematic, toy-soldier approach to revolution and social change," is wrong when he "directs the working-class offstage."


ALL THIS was in the air as Hayden wrote, in the spring of 1962, his draft of the Port Huron Statement. He was not simply "responding to events" from his experience in the South with SNCC; he was entering into an ideological dogfight that had been raging for years.

The Port Huron Statement--both what it said and what it left unsaid--should not be understood as the politics of radicalism at the dawn of the New Left, but as merely one contending version of radicalism.

It's worth stopping here to emphasize the extreme nature of the intellectual catastrophe facing the socialist left in the wake of Khrushchev's secret speech. In essence, the Trotskyists were proven right, but they had long been organizationally defeated (or killed off) by the Stalinists.

Thus, for example, the French Communist Party had 500,000 members while the Trotskyists had (perhaps) a few hundred. In the U.S., the Communists counted 20,000 before the secret speech and 5,000 afterward, while the Trotskyists mustered only a couple hundred.

So what does the Port Huron Statement say? Rather than a long paraphrase, I will simply encourage you to read it for yourself and I will confine myself to a few points.

First, the most powerful sections of the document focus on the alienating atmosphere of America's affluent, yet conformist, society: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."

In there somewhere is the secret to rock 'n' roll's breakthrough and the appeal of folk music. Though well-fed, there is something gnawing in the pit of their stomachs: "Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today."

In answer to these failings, the statement proposes "participatory democracy" and an economy "subject to democratic social regulation," along with a bevy of legislative expenditures on welfare, education, health and housing and the abolition of anti-democratic institutions such as the House Un-American Affairs Committee--the McCarthyite witch-hunters old kangaroo court.

Hayden also calls for a "peace race" in place of an arms race while lamenting that "quite unexpectedly the president ordered the Cuban invasions."

In order to achieve these laudable goals, the Port Huron Statement looks to various forces. First, there are the social movements. Among these, civil rights is championed as the most dynamic, but the peace movement also gets a nod, and it's hoped that labor might regain its "missing idealism."

Second is the Democratic Party itself. Although, imperfect, Hayden points to "real efforts to establish a liberal force in Congress," while declaring that "an imperative task for...publicly disinherited groups, then, is to demand a Democratic Party responsible to their interests."

Third, and most important for the statement, is the student movement. "The university [can be] a potential base and agency in a movement of social change..." Why? Because "any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools." Further,

A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.

The Port Huron Statement helped provoke a lively debate, and the process was, as labor activist and historian Kim Moody recounts, open to amendments "from Brother Marx" with respect to the role of the working class in social change.

It represented an all-around summing up of the "common sense" of what was in 1962 a very small percentage of radicalized students and many potentially fruitful seeds mixed freely together with less productive ones inside the Port Huron Statement grab bag.


WHICH BRINGS us back to Tom Hayden's radical politics. Although he moved sharply to the left along with the rest of the student movement by the mid-to-late 1960s, Hayden never really transcended the pluralist conception of capitalist democracy upon which the Port Huron Statement rests.

He rejected working-class revolution, in its place upholding a strategy for social change centered on a permanent process of reform and counter-reform, or as he concludes the Port Huron Statement, a struggle between the "unattainable" and the "unimaginable."

If Hayden avoided the cynical historical revisionism of his fellow SDS President Todd Gitlin, it may be because he never strayed all that far beyond the politics he started with.

In the maelstrom of 1968, as thousands of fellow SDS and the Black Liberation Movement activists gravitated toward revolutionary politics, Jeff Greenfield reports seeing Hayden at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral, "weeping in a corner of the cathedral, mourning a man many of his associates saw as a wholly corrupt, irredeemable creature of the political system."

Although Hayden would soon after help plan protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, this was not because he had rejected the Democratic Party as a vehicle for change, rather he believed that the wrong driver had gotten to the wheel.

Through the Nixon years, Hayden kept up his antiwar activism, but by the mid-1970s, he formally entered Democratic Party politics in an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate and by forming a close alliance with Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown. By 1982, Hayden himself won election to the California State Assembly and then State Senate, where he remained firmly ensconced in those chambers' left wings until he was termed out of office in 2000.

After a string of failed electoral campaigns, Hayden enthusiastically joined the 2008 Obama campaign. He presented his thinking in the book The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama in 2009 in which he brings his political analysis full circle. Although not explicitly modeled on the Port Huron Statement, the strategy he lays out is fully consistent with his earlier beliefs:

1. Movements arise from prophetic minorities at the margins

2. Movements enter the mainstream when they reach a range of about 25 percent support

3. The "Machiavellian Elites" then divide among themselves with moderates for and conservatives against granting reforms

4. The movement itself then divides between those willing to accept reforms within the system and those "sectarian, rigid" factions who want to fight for more

5. Social change occurs when the short-term interest of social movements and moderate Machiavellians coincide

6. The success of the reform relaxes the movement's base while inflaming a countermovement


THE LONG Sixties contends that his theory of social change worked because, among other things, important reforms were, in fact, won during the 1960s: voting rights for African Americans, the end of the Vietnam War, checks on the imperial presidency and the FBI and CIA, the Freedom of Information Act, etc.

Of course, these are all important, even historic, gains. But each of these victories has been, if not fully overturned, then gutted to a large degree over the last couple decades when we account for mass incarceration, the 30-year war in Iraq and the Middle East, presidential drone kill lists, the USA Patriot Act, etc. And climate change, declining working-class living standards, and the New Jim Crow only compound the defeats.

Hayden acknowledges this backsliding, but argues that the Long Sixties made Barack Obama's election possible and, writing in 2009, he expected the new president to extend and deepen those gains, to serve as the "cradle" of social movements for the next 30 years. I will let readers judge for themselves how far that thesis has been borne out.

Back then, at least Hayden could fit his support for Obama into a narrative of expectant social change. In 2008, there was no question which candidate represented the "wrong driver at the wheel" and which one could make the "Democratic Party responsible" to the movements' interests. Hayden quoted a letter he received from his son in 2008:

It amazes me that the DNC [types are] supporting the Hillyaryites' claims... Why can't they celebrate that for the first time in a generation young people stood up to be heard?...It was a dream for you, an idea that you almost attained before it was violently taken away [referring to the Kennedy assassinations]. That dream has matured, it has come full circle...I hope you see your self in this new spirit.

Certainly there was a progressive "spirit" animating the hopes and expectations of Obama's electorate in 2008. But after eight years, can we really say that "spirit" has much of anything to do with the "body" of Obama's presidency? And by 2016, in the face of an even more radical spirit that ignited the popularity of Bernie Sanders' campaign.

Hayden's politics fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. Retreating to a "united front to defeat Trump," Hayden backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. In the process, he described Clinton's tortured relationship to progressive politics:

Hillary is, well, Hillary. I remember seeing her on Yale's green in 1969, wearing a black armband for peace while a kind of Armageddon shaped up during the Panther 21 trial and Cambodia invasion. Even then, she stood for working within the system rather than taking to the barricades. Similarly, in Chicago 1968, she observed the confrontations at a distance. If she had some sort of revolution in mind, it was evolutionary, step-by-step. In her earlier Wellesley commencement speech, she stated that the "prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living." But from there it was a determined decades-long uphill climb through those same institutions that had disenchanted the young Hillary.

What strikes me is that Hayden was telling us more here about himself than about Hillary. I think it's safe to say that Hillary never had "some sort of revolution" in mind, but Hayden certainly did, and probably held fast to that "spirit" right up until the last.

However, his politics always had more to do with mobilizing social movements to bargain with the "institutions" he identified all the way back in 1962. His goal never was to abolish those institutions, and his political legacy stands or falls on a judgment of that decision.

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