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Participatory Democracy: From the Port Huron Statement to Occupy Wall Street


This is the fiftieth anniversary year of the Port Huron Statement, the founding declaration of Students for a Democratic Society, issued as a “living document” in 1962. The SDS call for a participatory democracy echoes today in student-led democracy movements around the world, even appearing as the first principle of the Occupy Wall Street September 17 declaration.

As a signpost of the early 1960s, the Port Huron Statement (PHS) is worth treasuring for its idealism and for the spark it ignited in many an imagination. The Port Huron call for a life and politics built on moral values as opposed to expedient politics; its condemnation of the cold war, echoed in today’s questioning of the “war on terror”; its grounding in social movements against racism and poverty; its first-ever identification of students as agents of social change; and its call to extend participatory democracy to the economic, community and foreign policy spheres—these themes constitute much of today’s progressive sensibility.

The same spirit of popular participation that inspired OWS drove the electoral successes of Latin American nations emerging from dictatorships in the 1990s. It appeared among the demands of young people in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries in the Arab Spring of 2011. Spontaneous democratic demonstrations erupted in Russia late last year, organized on Facebook by young people seeking honest elections. The PHS was even prophetic in condemning the

1 percent, who in 1962 owned more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock. It may be sobering for today’s Wall Street critics to read in the PHS original draft that despite the radical reforms of the 1930s, the share of wealth held by the 1 percent in 1960 had remained constant since the 1920s.

On the other hand, there are sources of hope now that we couldn’t imagine in 1962. The technological revolution of the Internet and social media is propelling a global revival of participatory democracy. Facebook and Twitter are credited with a key role in movements from Cairo to the volunteer campaign for Barack Obama. For the next generations, perhaps the most important issue for participatory democracy will be ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing information. These issues were prefigured in the PHS in the briefest of complaints about computerized problem-solving and in the outcry two years later from Berkeley students in the Free Speech Movement, who felt they were being processed like IBM punch cards. The PHS criticized the profit motive behind automation while noting that the new technology, if democratically controlled, could eliminate much drudgery at work, open more leisure time and make education “a continuing process for all people.”

According to Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, published in 1970 and still the most comprehensive history of the organization, the PHS “may have been the most widely distributed document of the American left in the sixties,” with 60,000 copies printed and sold for 25 cents each between 1962 and 1966. Sale made two observations about the Statement:

First, the PHS contained “a power and excitement rare to any document, rarer still in the documents of this time, with a dignity in its language, persuasiveness in its arguments, catholicity in its scope, and quiet skill in its presentation…a summary of beliefs for much of the student generation as a whole, then and for several years to come.”

Second, “it was set firmly in mainstream politics, seeking the reform of mainstream institutions rather than their abolition, and it had no comprehension of the dynamics of capitalism, of imperialism, of class conflict, certainly no conception of revolution. But none of that mattered.” More recently, historian Michael Kazin wrote that the Statement “is the most ambitious, the most specific, and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American Left.”

Who We Were, What We Said 

I wrote the first notes for the Port Huron Statement in December 1961, when I was briefly in an Albany, Georgia, jail cell after a Freedom Ride to fight segregation in the South. The high school and college students engaged in direct action there changed my life. I had never met young people willing to take a risk—perhaps the ultimate risk—for a cause they believed in. Quite simply, I wanted to live like them. Those feelings, and the inspiration they gave me, might explain the utopian urgency of the Statement’s final sentence: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” (I have no recollection of where this exhortation originated.)

Even today I find it hard to explain the “power and excitement,” the “dignity” and the “persuasiveness” of this document, which sprawls over 124 pages in book form. Though I was already a student editor and a budding pamphleteer, I remember myself, just 22, as a kind of vessel for channeling a larger spirit that was just in the air—blowin’ in the wind—and coursing through the lives of my friends.

The Port Huron attendees insisted that it begin with an emphasis on “we,” to be followed immediately by a section on values. And so we described ourselves as a new generation “raised in modest comfort, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” This was an uncertain trumpet compared with, say, the triumphal tones of The Communist Manifesto. Why did it resonate with so many activists?

In fact, a few sons and daughters of former Communist Party members were present, but their previous family dogmas and loyalties lay shattered by the crushing of the democratic Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the revelations about the Stalinist gulag by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. There were also children of New Deal democratic socialists now experiencing liberal middle-class lives, and there were plenty of mainstream idealistic student leaders, graduate sociology students, a few pacifists and a number of the spiritually inspired.

Though they were not at Port Huron, there were other philosophical searchers at the time who practiced participatory democracy. Bob Moses, perhaps the single greatest influence on the early SDS and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), could be described as a Socratic existentialist. The Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio described himself as a non-Marxist radical shaped by secular liberation theology who was “an avid supporter of participatory democracy.” We were all influenced by Ella Baker, an elder adviser to SNCC with a long experience of NAACP organizing in the South. Ms. Baker, as everyone referred to her, was critical of the top-down methods of black preachers and organizations, including her friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She argued that SNCC should remain autonomous and not become a youth branch of the older organizations. She spoke of and personified participatory democracy.

SNCC played a direct role in shaping my values, as it did with many SDS founders. SNCC’s early organizing method was based on listening to local people and taking action on behalf of their demands. Listening and speaking in clear vernacular English was crucial. Books were treasured, but where you stood, with whom and against what risks was even more important, because if the people you were organizing couldn’t understand your theories, you had to adjust. This led to a language and a form of thinking cleansed of ideological infection, with an emphasis on trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.

The right to vote was no intellectual matter, as it was for many on the left who felt it was based on illusions about where real power lay. Again and again, SNCC organizers heard rural black people emphasize how much they wanted that right. Typically they would say, “I fought in World War II; I fought in Korea; and all I want before I die is the right to vote.” (Many decades before, the 22-year-old Emma Goldman learned from a similar experience, after an early lecture in which she had scornfully dismissed the eight-hour day as a stupid token demand. When a worker in her audience replied that he couldn’t wait for the overthrow of capitalism but that he also needed two hours less work “to feel human, to read a book or take a walk in daylight,” the experience gave Goldman the consciousness of a great organizer.)

The Values section of the PHS reflected our eclectic, existential, sometimes apocalyptic, take on life. “We have no sure formulas, no closed theories.” We would accept no hand-me-down ideologies. “A first task of any social movement is to convince people that the search for orienting theories and the creation of human values is complex but worthwhile.” We agreed with French existentialist novelist Albert Camus, who argued that a previous generation of revolutionaries had sometimes rationalized horrific slaughters in the name of future utopias like “land reform.” Still, we wanted to argue, carefully, for a restoration of the utopian spirit amid the deadening compromises all around us. We wrote that “we are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present” (the same phrase later employed by Margaret Thatcher). Our diagnosis of the prevailing apathy was that deep anxieties had fostered “a developed indifference” about public

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