The Port Huron Statement Turns 50


As we wait for the definitive manifesto of Occupy Movement to be written—if that is possible given the diverse range of opinions and voices that are associated with it—this is arguably an opportune moment to look back 50 years at another radical grouping, which did succeed in putting together and consolidating its ideas in published form.

 

June 11, 1962 may not be recorded in many history books or memories as a particularly important date. Yet, the 60 or so people who gathered in a nondescript union training center in the rural outskirts of a small lakeside Michigan town were about to make a major impact on the U.S. political landscape.

 

Five days later, the meeting had ended and the Port Huron Statement (named after the town) had been written. The 24,000-word document did not have a huge circulation but it did express a set of influential ideas for a whole range of 1960’s groups struggling for change. Anti-Vietnam war protestors, Civil Rights activists and students dissatisfied with the materialist and conformist values of their institutions, all looked to Port Huron for a set of ideas and a language with which to express their hostility to the society that surrounded them and for a program with which to create a better one.

 

Even at the time, the Port Huron participants—members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other progressive organizations, plus a small number of older leftists—sensed the significance of what they were doing. Starting with a first draft written by Tom Hayden—imprisoned Freedom Rider, SDS leader and editor of the University of Michigan campus newspaper—the assembled activists put their democratic beliefs into action. Spread around the United Auto Workers central hall and cluster of cabins, small groups worked tirelessly on developing the arguments of what would become the final version of the Statement. As views were exchanged over coffee and meals, in a process that sometimes led to fierce debate and disagreement, the 60 activists began to put together a progressive agenda that would shape the new left politics of the coming decade. “We all thought we were making history,” says Paul Booth, one of the participants.

 

The Port Huron Conference participants were not influenced by any one single person or text. True, Tom Hayden was an enthusiastic disciple of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, the news of whose early death on the very day on which he completed the first draft of the statement, was devastating. Mills had recognized that a new mass society meant that traditional class-based loyalties and forms of action were increasingly outmoded and that new types of protest—including those of American students—were increasingly relevant. However, other contributions are also important, including such figures as academic Arnold Kaufman, who had first stated the idea of participatory democracy; French writer Albert Camus, whose La Peste focused on the necessity to resist evil; and 1950s intellectual Paul Goodman, who judged American institutions as incapable of providing meaning for ordinary citizens. The influence of the Beats and early Dylan suggest interesting links between an embryonic counter-culture and the more politicized student movement.

 

A number of strands then—some academic, some more broadly cultural and artistic—are woven into the final statement. As such, it might be better to read it less as a straightforward political manifesto and more as a creative attempt to make sense of the state of the nation at a particular historical moment while identifying its deep divisions and failings and finding ways forward that would improve the lives of the majority. Not only does the document address basic issues of poverty and national security, but also more intangible matters related to what it means to live a fulfilled life in a rapidly changing world.

 

The document’s description of what is wrong with America is certainly inclusive. Big inequalities between rich and poor, serious problems with party political arrangements, and a misguided approach to foreign relations are all key strands of the diagnosis, which has, at its heart, the recognition that living a meaningful life in an advanced country is out of reach for most Americans because of the de-personalization and commodification to which they are subject. With unfulfilling jobs and bombarded by “hard-sell, soft-sell” lies from a manipulative advertising industry, individuals, it is argued, are treated more as economic units, rather than as human beings possessing “unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.”

 

This is less the language of political scientists and conventional economists and more the language of political philosophers influenced by Freud and early Marx and the soon-to-be-published One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse.

 

The impoverishment to be found in mainstream American life is reflected within the university campus. Made passive by “inner emigration,” students concentrate on “playing it cool,” abiding by the rules and obtaining the conventional markers of academic and social status. In words that echo those of David Riesman’s influential, The Lonely Crowd (1950)—there is “no real conception of personal identity except one manufactured in the image of others.”

 

Yet, the Port Huron activists were concerned with more than matters of philosophy and social psychology. Connected to them and connected to each other, were the topical political issues of the day—racial discrimination, the Cold War, Vietnam, poverty. Living in an economy dominated by the “military-industrial complex”—a phrase borrowed from Eisenhower— one of their major themes is the psychological impact of the nuclear bomb on American life. Instead of an open society, citizens hide behind a “shell of moral callous,” confusing dissent with disloyalty. The arguments of the supporters of deterrence—arguments still heard today—are acknowledged in the statement, but are also exposed as inadequate. The key point is powerfully made: “The symmetry of threat and counter threat leads not to stability, but to the edge of hell.”

 

If nuclear conflict is one shaping force within American culture, race is certainly another. Refusing the easy liberal approach that things are improving, albeit slowly, the Port Huron participants recognized the role of the wider colonial struggle in stirring the anger and aspirations of Southern blacks against oppression—an oppression that also meant that the white man and woman, fearful of moving outside their “immediate close-up world…loses his [sic] personal subjective freedom.” The latter insight reveals how novelists like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison repeatedly make telling links between the political and the psychological.

 

Toward the end of the statement, the question of whether it is possible to change things for the better is raised. The broken political system—with its internal party splits, its localized organization, its disenfranchised groups and unrepresentative lobby interests— seems to pose too much of an obstacle to progress. What increasingly counts is the “politics of personality and image” rather than the politics of practical policy-driven reform. Yet, while acknowledging the difficulties, the Port Huron activists also offer hope, setting out what the “major goals of a domestic effort would be” and “an alternative to helplessness.”

 

In proposals that resonate today, the authors argue for:

 

  • creation of democratic institutions to campaign on key issues
    and the elimination of those that promote “fear and apathy” 
     
  • limitations on the irresponsible power of corporations 
  • regulations on the market to meet people’s needs  
  • an educational system that faces outwards to the world

 

Admitting that the goals are longterm, the Port Huron activists saw new directions for the radical groups in society seeking change. The recent switch of the Southern civil rights movement to voter registration and legal remedies, it was argued, were two potentially effective responses to the evil of institutionalized racial discrimination. Similarly, they call for the peace movement to take on a more mainstream role in American life and become “an opposition viewpoint within the centers of serious decision-making,” forging relationships with local communities.

 

Furthermore, a revitalized labor movement was to “constitute itself as a mass political force” by speaking to the nation as a whole rather than to narrow interest groups. Lastly, the Democratic Party, compromised by its “tolerance of the perverse unity of northern liberalism and southern racism,” requires a “new spirit.”

 

One final and most important source and resource for reform was to be the university—an institution that can serve as a “potential base and agency” for social change. Cooperating with other liberal forces in society, a “new left” of students and faculty must “wrest control of the educational process” and help people “see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society.”

 

What is striking 50 years later is that, despite occasional lapses into the trite and the mystical and despite an almost total blindness to the situation of women, the Port Huron analysis of American society, together with its program for action, still has relevance.

 

Writing in 2002, Tom Hayden and Dick Flacks are right to remind us that the 1962 document was regarded at its conception as “living…open to change with our times and experiences” and to claim that it still spoke “to all those trying to create a world where each person has a voice in the decisions affecting his or her life.” Times have certainly changed, but radical groups working outside the political system, such as the Occupy movement, can continue to look to the statement for ideas and inspiration.

 

Z


 

Mike Peters teaches literature and other subjects in the adult education sector. He lives in the UK, on the outskirts of London.