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January 09, 2005

The Port Huron Statement

John Deigh: January 9, 2005

Last Month there appeared in the New York Times Book Review (12/19/04) a review by Christopher Hitchens of three books about the 1960s counterculture.  Caricature of this movement has become standard fare for celebrity pundits, and Hitchens, who has some obscure claim to being "of the Sixties" is no exception.  The caricatures, thanks to the movement's excesses and the self-absorption of many of its icons, have always been easy, and by now they're trite.  Even TV sitcoms have dropped 'the aging hippie' from their cast of stock characters.  During the 1960s the efforts of the student left to bring about social change became intertwined with the counterculture, and subsequently, as our memory of the period blurs, those efforts and the seriousness of purpose behind them have lost their separate identity.  The loss has been a boon to social critics of the right.  After all, how hard can it be to dismiss the political movements of that period if you identify their ideals with the simplistic utopianism of Woodstock?  Here is Hitchens on the subject, as he hits his stride in the penultimate paragraph of his review:

If you look back to the founding document of the 60's left, which was the Port Huron statement . . . , you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto.  It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity.  It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and "the idiocy of rural life."  (p.11)

Strangely, Hitchens himself appears not to have followed his own instruction and looked back at the manifesto he calls the founding document of the 60s left.  For what he says about this document completely falsifies its contents.  (See Tom Hayden's reply in today's NY Times Book Review, letters). 

The Port Huron Statement is about democratic ideals.  It's about America's emergence from World War II as the beacon of those ideals and about our country's failure to be faithful to them.  The chief failings the document pointed to were the oppression and disenfranchisement of black Americans throughout the Jim Crow South and the quietism produced by the Cold War.  To the authors of The Port Huron Statement, these failings were reflected, on the one hand, in the domination of Congress by Southern segregationists and, on the other, in the control of economic and foreign policy by military and business elites, what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex.  Universities too were criticized for their complicity in this complex and their ready acquiescence in modi operandi that discouraged political controversy and dissent on campus.  To remedy these failings, the authors set out an ambitious agenda for social change and a program for mobilizing students to become, through active participation in democratic institutions, agents of that change.  They did not call for a return to agrarian simplicity; they weren't troubled by bigness or anonymity or urbanization.  They were troubled by the specific anti-democratic forces they identified, those blocking progress in the efforts to dismantle the machinery of Southern segregation and those promoting passivity among Americans by using the tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union to keep up a constant, if low level, fear of nuclear holocaust, a fear that became real and high-level several months later when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.  Their concerns had more to do with Thoreau's "mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation" than anything like alienated labor in Marx's sense.  They owed their ideas to Hobhouse and Dewey, not to Marx, who had no presence in their thought, vague or otherwise. And the dynamism of capitalism was a given, as it must be in any twentieth century political tract.

Why should we care about a forty year old political manifesto?  What possible importance could it have for us now?  The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union is no more. The South's system of apartheid has disappeared, and there has been significant progress in bringing black Americans into the mainstream of American life.  It's important to keep the historical record accurate, to be sure.  But on a blog?  The reason The Port Huron Statement remains an important document is that it is a model political manifesto of the American left.  It puts forth a simple but very powerful idea, democracy that enlists the active participation of its citizens in its institutions, and it uses this idea to analyze the social conditions of its time, to criticize, in view of those conditions, the political and economic institutions that produced them, and to propose remedies that would move the country toward being a more truly democratic republic. The American left, as far as I'm aware, has produced nothing like it since.  After nearly ten years of relative peace and prosperity, our country is now embarked on an open-ended and costly war on terrorism, whose enemy is even more ill-defined than "the international communist conspiracy" of yesteryear, and the legislative and executive branches of our government are now firmly in the hands of a political party that is bent on reducing the role of government in the country's economic affairs, which plainly means increasing the influence of large and powerful private corporations in shaping our lives.  The American left, never an especially unified force, seems to have fractured into a cluster of pressure groups vying for support for their signature issues.  So divided, it cannot hope to mount effective opposition to the authoritarian and plutocratic trends that have set in and are being furthered under the cover of policies to spread democracy and freedom to the Islamic Middle East and to create an ownership society. Following Hitchens's instruction and looking back to The Port Huron Statement would be one way to see how to articulate and organize a full political program for arresting and reversing these trends.

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