Z-Net Interview with Tom Hayden on the publication of Writings for Democratic Society


The Tom Hayden Reader


May 2008 | 592 pages | City Lights Books | www.citylights.com


1. Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader presents more than forty years of your writing, thinking, movement work and personal reflections. Along the way you’ve gone from young student journalist, to radical organizer, state representative and back to movement work—with lots of exploring along the way. In Writings you say that you came to age as part of the Beat Generation. How did the Beats influence you, your perspective, your writing, and your identity as a young person in the 1950s?


The Beats continued to influence me, through dialogues with Allen Ginsberg in the late 1960s, to friendship with Gary Snyder through the 1990s. It seems to me that the civil rights stirrings of the 1950s, black writers like James Baldwin, and the San Francisco Beat generation were the cradles of the 1960s.


On the edge of the Ann Arbor campus where I studied were clubs where you could hear Mississippi Delta blues and black poets. Students and young people were attracted there. Downstairs in the Michigan Daily was a literary magazine edited, as I recall, by Al Young—later poet laureate of California.


My roommate, whose brother later became governor of Colorado, walked around campus in a red jacket, white t-shirt and Levis, like James Dean. These were early signs, precursors, of the alternative visions and emerging counterculture just ahead.



2. Was it as a student at Ann Arbor that you first started writing?


I started writing for reasons I don’t really understand, but it was before I began studying at the university. I was the sports editor of the Royal Oak Acorn in tenth or eleventh grade. Then with my closest friends, feeling the sense of things to come, we formed an “underground newspaper” called The Daily Smirker, which made cynical fun of everything at school. As soon as I got to Ann Arbor, I signed up at the Michigan Daily as a freshman reporter. It was September 1957.



3. How was it that Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged you as a young writer to cross the line from detached journalistic observation to engaged political direct action?


 That’s not quite what happened. I hitchhiked out to the Bay Area in the summer of 1960, and traveled to Los Angeles for the first time to cover the Democratic convention for the Michigan Daily. It was there I met and interviewed Dr. King on a picket line for a civil rights plank in the party platform. I walked beside him with my reporter’s notebook in hand. While I don’t remember concretely what he said, the effect was profound and surprising. I began to realize that I was just seeking a byline, while he was risking his neck for freedom. The gentle encouragement was only implied, that I should rethink my life, put down the notebook and pick up a picket sign. I also began to realize that beyond objective detachment and engaged political direct action there was another realm open to me, that of engaged witness writing subjectively about the rise of a new social movement. This was a radical notion, for at the time there was no such thing as investigative journalism or the underground press, not yet.



4. How did you get involved with the Freedom Riders? When you were beaten in streets by white supremacists, was it as an engaged journalist or were you in the South more as a movement organizer, to carry a picket sign?


I was in McComb, Mississippi, in a blend of roles. First, I was there to write a story for the Progressive magazine and a pamphlet for the early SDS. This was fall 1961 before SDS held its Port Huron Convention. Second, I was there as a field organizer for SDS whose assignment was to write and speak in the north about what students were doing in the South. I was with the late Paul Potter, and both of us were interviewing and observing a high school student march.



5. How did your contact with the civil rights movement impact your politics and thinking?


I was affected permanently, and it’s why I so strongly support the movement for Barack Obama today, because it is premised on the unity of African Americans combined with the idealism of a new generation of millions of young people. That was the chemistry of the early 1960s, and it was only the assassinations that prevented my generation from electing a president with a progressive governing coalition. Like Barack, I also had my eyes opened by the intelligence and creating of all the people I encountered knocking on doors in Newark’s ghetto from 1964 until 1968.



6. Your lifework has been shaped by working both within radical social movements that placed pressure on the electoral politics as a means of winning change, and within electoral politics itself. After the Chicago Conspiracy Trial your writing was very much part of the anti-Establishment revolutionary consciousness of the time. Later you made your way into electoral politics as a California state senator. At this point, where do you place emphasis for advancing progressive issues like the abolition of structural racism, the advance of environmental justice, and ending the war?


There is no end of confusion on these questions within the American Left, if there is a Left in comparison with other countries. My life makes sense to me but I realize that it is completely blurred by the categories people bring to these subjects. My friend Carl Davidson, a leader with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and a Marxist theorist of the new working class, and presently at work for Obama, clarified it best for me when he recently said that I always have been “a radical reformer in the American populist tradition,” nothing more, nothing less.


My priorities are:


[1] sorting out my own beliefs independent of any gurus or ideologies,


[2] participating in the building of social movements not only as pressure groups but for their own sake which is the value and dignity they bring to our lives, and


[3] competing for the democratic mandate of voters where possible in the electoral process.


I am an outsider who seeks the democratic affirmation of the voters in order to create a role on the inside. I have survived as an insider only because of the voters in my district. You could say I have been an outsider on the inside, or in Havel’s formulation, an anti-politics politician.


Every other country on earth seems to have both radical social movements and radical or reformist political parties, with millions of people floating in between the categories. All the recent political triumphs in Latin America have been by political parties loosely rooted in social movements. True, there are those who propose a complete abstention from political action, and their critique of political parties must be taken seriously. My experience has been that the voters I most care about—working class, black, latino, environmentalist, women, gay/lesbian and so on—tend to gravitate around both independent organizations and Democratic primaries. Where it’s possible to compete without bringing about the election of worse candidates, they—and I—will be supportive of Green candidates too.


What reforms have been achieved in our country are due primarily to social movements often led by radicals, but also because of the acceptance of those reforms by politicians and courts which could have turned to repression instead. The power of the people led to both the reforms and helped prevent the backlash of repression or dictatorship.


In the new history being written in our lives, we need to embrace the reforms achieved by past social movements as the dreams of our ancestors, dreams that can propel our children.


That we have not achieved a revolution does not mean that revolutionaries should give up their aspirations, but study the contours of history and not let reforms be claimed by those who were on the sidelines until the late and convenient hour.



7. What issues do you feel are being under-discussed, ignored, or just off point in the speeches and debates between Obama and Clinton?


a. What “ending the war” in Iraq actually means has been ignored, primarily by the media. Obama at least has a timetable for withdrawing combat troops, but seems to want to leave a counter-insurgency force of tens of thousands. Clinton only says she wants to “begin” withdrawals, and seems to propose an even larger “counter-terrorism” force behind. This will turn Iraq into something like Central America in the Seventies. It’s never talked about.


b. the mass incarceration strategy toward inner-city youth, masked as the war on gangs and war on drugs, with the U.S. now holding 20 percent of the world’s inmates.


c. Latin America. Not a word.


d. the economic crisis causes a lot of chatter and a few important issues to surface, like reversing the Bush tax cuts. But the terrible effects of the privatization and deregulation policies are not much discussed, mainly because both candidates favored or flirted with those very policies in recent years.


It is a progressive populist moment in terms of a frustrated public opinion. The voters are to the left of the Democrats.  



8. What strategies do you think are most effective in getting these and other peace and social justice issues on the presidential radar during the elections?


It is a bottom up process that has to begin with a handful of committed people. We need community organizing skills, media/internet skills, and electoral skills, and need to locate ourselves in the numerous progressive pockets within electoral districts. We become a “factor” in an elected official’s mind, especially when we meet with the staff and compile a huge sophisticated email list of endorsers and supporters. It helps to have a concrete legislative or regulatory proposal. And of course it is crucial to be integrated into national peace and justice networks. From there it’s a matter of pushing the issue upward over time. There really are no shortcuts unless the presidential candidate, for example, is totally out of line with public opinion, in which case visible demonstrations can create a media effect harmful to that candidate’s image and reputation. At the end of the day, a presidential candidate will only take up an issue where [a] the climate has been prepared, [b] a majority is apparent, [c] it gives an advantage against a rival, [d] it is understandable to the media, and [e] it lends itself to legislative action.


More generally, most progressives operate in the realm of civic society where public opinion is formed and protests arise, not so much within institutions like government. Civic society is a network of associations that rests “below” the institutions, so to speak. Its function, first of all, is to make life as enjoyable and sustainable as possible, and to create multiplying forces to be reckoned with by politicians (who need votes) and businesses (who need labor and consumers).


Here are some examples:


[1] anti-war opinion is pushing the Democrats towards a more anti-war stance, and forcing the Pentagon into relentless efforts to manage public perceptions, often illegally;


[2] the anti-corporate globalization movement has contributed to making NAFTA, the WTO and corporate trade increasingly unpopular, causing a fierce struggle to unfold without resolution in sight; and


[3] the environmental movement has created a movement against global warming that commands attention.


There are limits to what can be done within civil society, however. In my lifetime, the potential breakouts to greater power have been thwarted, for example, by the killings of the Kennedys and King, and by the stolen 2000 election which could have created an environmental presidency. As a result of murders and theft, my generation will never know whether a progressive majority can succeed in winning political power, and what the consequences of that victory might be.


In our current political moment, a military escalation against Iran or a stolen Democratic nomination are potential triggers that would set off a fury in the streets this year.


Assuming Barack is the nominee, we will have to work flexibly on the inside and outside to push for rapid troop withdrawals from Iraq, prevent him from sending more combat troops to the Afghan quagmire, and have enough protective public support to initiate the talks with Iran recommended in the Baker-Hamilton Report.


The same pressure will be needed to steer him away from pro-corporate trade mechanisms like NAFTA and the WTO. And to move toward economic recovery from the bottom up, by re-regulating Wall Street, canceling the Bush tax breaks, launching an immediate public works initiative and setting bold goals for energy efficiency and renewables.


If Barack wins, in a way we will be restarting where we were in 1968 …. Fortunately there is a new generation of young activists who don’t carry the scars and burdens that weigh upon the 60s generation.


I am suggesting the most hopeful scenario, not necessarily the most likely one. But opportunities like this are very rare.



9. The idea of participatory democracy threads throughout Writings for Democratic Society. Can you talk about the concept of “participatory democracy” that was advanced in the Port Huron Statement and that became such an important organizing principle of SDS? Where did it come from? Why do you think it made such a strong impression on young people in the 1960s? How do you see its use and its potential among social movements today?


Participatory democracy is a concept from John Dewey that was transmitted to us by Arnold Kaufman, a philosophy professor at Ann Arbor. It spoke to means and ends. Only through direct action and community organizing could people become participatory agents of social change and begin breaking down the elite walls of experts and remote representatives. The concept included psychological empowerment on a personal level. Also it could be applied as a bottom-up approach to community development, economics and foreign policy. It was provisional and non-dogmatic, like jazz perhaps. No blueprint, not ideological.



10. References to Albert Camus also come up in your writing. What has his influence been on your work?


As I look back, there were two Camus’, the second becoming a shadow on the first. The early Camus writings from the French underground, and The Rebel (1956), were extremely inspirational to many in the New Left, because they were written from a stance of existential, all-or-nothing, resistance, similar to working in rural Mississippi or Georgia. Also he struggled with morality in the midst of doubt and nihilism, with reassuring ideology, which was important to many of us. I still have my 1960 heavily-underlined edition of Resistance, Rebellion and Death that inspired me with passages like this, in the essay “The Artist and His Time,” “the period of the revered master, of the artist with a camellia in his buttonhole, of the armchair genius is over. To create today is to create dangerously.” And this warning, which I quoted in my 1988 memoir: “Seeing beloved friends and relatives killed is not a schooling in generosity. The temptation of hatred had to be overcome.”


In addition to the existentialist Camus, there was a second Camus, the Camus born in colonial Algeria who struggled with his own colonialist self when the Algerian Revolution broke out. He refused to support the Algerian FLN, holding out a tormented hope for a new Algeria that included those of French descent alongside the indigenous Algerians. This Camus, who some simplified into the equivalent of a white Southern liberal, was denounced by many political and academic radicals, causing his earlier writings to fall into obscurity for later generations.


My copy of The Rebel circled and underlined this passage, which remains unforgettable today, for myself and I am certain many others: “In absurdist experience, suffering is individual. But from the moment when a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience. Therefore the first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared, and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single [person] becomes a mass plague. In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the “cogito” in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the whole human race. I rebel—therefore we exist.”



11. You mention Camus’ writings from the French underground being influential. The idea and reality of an underground—politically and culturally—was very much a part of the 1960s and early 1970s and continues to impact American politics today, as in George Stephanopolous bringing up the Weather Underground during a recent debate between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. The idea and reality of a rebel underground surfaces in your work in Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader. What did the idea of an underground mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?


There always is a cultural underground, of course, and an outlaw culture wherever moral injuries are inflicted on the artists. And there undergrounds of another nature, like the early catacombs, that are created by people who have decided that they must resist the state by methods defined as illegal. The Underground Railroad during slavery times would be an example. During the Sixties, all these various undergrounds existed at different times. The beat cultural underground was first. The thousands who defied the passport laws to visit Cuba. Certain Chicano nationalists of the southwestern United States. Many Black Panthers. The Catholic draft and war resisters. Vietnam veterans. The Weather Underground was formed in the late Sixties when some young radicals perceived that a police state was unfolding, that electoral politics was hopeless, that community organizing lacked urgency, and that too many people were enjoyed their racial privileges while villages and ghettos burned. As one can see, this was a spectrum of disobedience, much of it nonviolent or limited to property damage. Most of it is ignored in memory, especially institutional memory, because the underground represents a profound threat to the democratic image on which American power rests. There is little way to evaluate what was effective and what was counter-productive. What seems clear in retrospect is that when the Vietnam War ended and the post-LBJ Democrats came to power, the basis for an underground was undermined and the various undergrounds surfaced back into the mainstream, with a small number arbitrarily caught in the incarceration system for life. Since a first principle of undergrounds is silence, there will be few to tell the stories.


That Barack Obama is charged with knowing and associating with former members of the Weather Underground, the history will be served up with the inquisitorial tone of McCarthy era anti-communist witchhunts, purging of screenwriters and teachers, etc. Barack Obama is correct to point out that he was only five years old when Bill Ayers was carrying out actions that Barack never would have supported. But the smears will not go away.


The Sixties are on trial in this national election. Because of the broad brush of the Republicans and media, all of us who went through that time will be defendants this time. We must stop guilt-by-association techniques. We can denounce or oppose certain methods as we are inclined, but we must defend the idea of the Sixties overall, especially the idea that people should not be persecuted for what they may have thought or done forty years ago.


When I met Bill Ayers, incidentally, it was almost fifty years ago. He was operating a small school center in Ann Arbor. The winds of war, I think, blew him into his late-Sixties militancy. By the time Barack Obama ever met him, Bill was back at creating small schools, counseling in and writing about juvenile halls, focused on inner city youth, publishing books as a children’s advocate. He was right back where he was meant to be, and that’s all there is to that.


By comparison, during my decades in politics I met many Republicans who conspired to illegally raise funds for the Nicaraguan contras who blew up bombs in Managua. I had many Republican colleagues who couldn’t speak out against the bombers of abortion clinics and killers of abortion doctors who were elements of their district constituencies. There were Republicans who ran illegal undergrounds of their own, from secret police units to torture chambers, tiger cages and future Abu Ghraibs. I’m not waiting to hear them exposed on FOX News or any time soon.




# # #


Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader


City Lights Books | www.citylights.com


592 pages | $21.95


ISBN: 978-0-87286-461-0


Is the only value in rebellion itself, in the countless momentary times when people transcend their pettiness to commit themselves to great purposes? If so, then radicalism is doomed to be extraordinary, erupting only during those rare times of crisis and upsurge which American elites seem able to ride. The alternative, if there is one, might be for radicalism to make itself ordinary, patiently taking up work that has only the virtue of facing and becoming part of the realities which are society’s secrets and its disgrace. . . . Radicalism would then give itself to, and become part of, the energy that is kept restless and active under the clamps of a paralyzed imperial society. Radicalism then would go beyond the concepts of optimism and pessimism as guides to work, finding itself in working despite the odds. Its realism and sanity would be grounded in nothing more than the ability to face whatever comes.”


—Tom Hayden

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