Activism & Solidarity

Students for a Democratic Society & the American Left

50th Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement

By Linda Gordon

The 50th anniversary of the 1962 Port Huron statement, founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, arrives at a time when renewed progressive activism in the US has rekindled. From Wisconsin’s continuing struggle against a tea-party governor out to destroy labor unions, to the nation-wide Occupy movement, to the explosion of fury over the killing of Trayvon Martin, the number of Americans engaged in political thinking has increased geometrically.

A long, wordy and in retrospect somewhat naïve document, the Port Huron statement nevertheless articulated some of the values and organizing methods of the American New Left.

To understand its importance, you have to register that the American New Left was an assemblage of movements, stretching from the 1950s civil rights struggles—especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), through the white student movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement, taking in also the environmental activism that continued throughout. These movements shared a rejection of the Old Left’s hierarchy and loyalty to the USSR, a recognition of the need for new analyses of injustice and exploitation, an anti-authoritarian impulse, a strategic search for new agents of change (people of color, students, women, gays), a tactical reliance on direct action and civil disobedience, a rejection of conformist culture, and a creativity in pioneering new cultural and communitarian forms.

Port Huron was liberal with regard to strategy, recommending that students continue to work within the Democratic Party; it spoke for a relatively privileged constituency—university students–whose major concern was alienation from the consumerist, conformist pressures of Cold War culture. But it contained key elements that came to characterize the best of the American New Left. Its rejection of anti-communism was, in hindsight, an absolutely necessary condition for further Left growth, given how anticommunism had been used to eviscerate the labor movement and the reach of Left intellectuals. More radical was its call for the rejection of material incentives as a desirable basis for work and life. A call for a world where “work” was sought for self-fulfillment—“that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirected, not manipulated”–this was a dream available to prosperous people in a strong economy. Moreover, it was also a youthful dream, one of people with little experience of the labor force. But precisely because of this proud assertion of a utopian aspiration, because it rejected charity and benevolence and refused to be practical, it gripped a generation of students—and the post-WWII expansion of public higher education in the US had made that group far larger than previously.

Closely related was its implicit call fora prefigurative politics. Hints appeared in its discussion of apathy among students:

The significance of these scattered movements lies not in their success or failure in gaining objectives … [but in] breaking the crust of apathy and overcoming the inner alienation ….

The idea is that one overcomes alienation through activism, which creates a democratic community, that must prefigure the society we would like to live in. The attachment to this prefigurative vision, to creating a new world inside the old, was the more passionate because of how it was continually belittled. In one phrase or another, more experienced elders (and some practical youngsters too) were constantly telling the New Left that it was unrealistic. Southern black elders thought SNCC and other militant groups were impatient at best and courting death at worst. Democrats told SDS to dress better, cut their hair, avoid provocation, and make alliances in the mainstream. Liberals told the women’s liberation activists not to antagonize to avoid shocking people. Rejecting that sort of advice was close to the core spirit of the New Left. Prefigurative politics was a two-way proposition: you couldn’t achieve democracy without practicing it now, and if you didn’t practice it now, you would lose even the vision of and the commitment to a democratic world.

SDS sticker from 1969. Reproduced under a CC licence thanks to Students for a Democratic Society Archives & Resources

The most consequential aspect of the prefigurative was the demand for participatory democracy in the movement itself, a predominant theme in the whole New Left. Participatory democracy caught on not only because it was democratic but also because made activism more fun. And in that pleasurelies another aspect of the prefigurative: one of the almost secret truths about social movements is that they are fun. If participatory democracy works, no one can be a mere listener and no one can tune out, but everyone speaks and feels that his/her views count. It requires putting in energy and is therefore tiring, but it can also help prevent boredom and feeling left out or disregarded. At the same time active participation makes it harder for a group to make irresponsible, unencumbered decisions.

Participatory democracy also issued a directive that in attempting to organize—to reach out to new people—one had to begin by listening. This radical idea has had to be re-invented frequently, as it is so easily lost and so difficult to practice.

Participatory democracy reached its fullest expression in the women’s liberation movement, and specifically in its practice of consciousness raising. Having discovered that Marxism could not comprehend the myriad ways, both subtle and ferocious, that male dominance maintained itself, women had to invent new analyses. They did this through empirical research, by gathering evidence from other women through consciousness raising.Opening personal experiences to group analysis, these developing feminists soon reclassified their experience as social, not personal; once that was understood the search for causes and strategies for change began.

No one has yet figured out how to make democracy participatory for whole cities or countries. And when it was understood primarily as a process within an organization, it could even become an obstacle to organizing. It became a purism that turned the focus too much toward how meetings and organizations were run, a focus on how members of the group worked together. But through these small participatory-democracy groups SNCC, SDS, and women’s liberation groups did some of their best work. One feminist group initiated a clerical-worker organizing campaign that ultimately became the Union 9 to 5 (now SEIU local 925). Another group took the early version of Our Bodies Ourselves into housing projects in Somerville where they met working-class women’s rage about their lives, and their response to the book: “why weren’t we taught this in school?”. Mothers for Adequate Welfare formed out of an SDS project. Other groups campaigned for day care. Today Occupy is once again generating such a multiplicity of projects while remaining committed to participatory democracy.

Looking back at Port Huron today is a reminder to historians to continue studying activism less through its leaders and more through its grassroots. Participatory democracy can’t transform the government or economy but it can bring people into activism and create victories that in turn build democratic confidence; it has limitations and potential for abuse, but it is a value too great to toss out.

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