March 1, 1988
A confession: I missed the ‘60s. I didn’t, like Tennessee Williams, sleep through them. I studied through them. And ever since, true to form, I’ve been studying the decade, trying to experience it vicariously, at least. As a post festum partisan, I was initially annoyed, then embarrassed, to find so little first-rate writing on the subject. There are some things, of course: Morris Dickstein’s “Gates of Eden”, Todd Gitlin’s “The Whole World Is Watching”, Marshall Berman’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” Richard Flacks’s “Making History vs. Making Life,” and Carl Oglesby’s “The Idea of the New Left,” as well as a few good anthologies, notably those by Oglesby and Priscilla Long. But no satisfactory synthesis.
James Miller’s “Democracy Is in the Streets” is shrewd and stirring—along with Gitlin’s “The Sixties”, the best interpretive history of the New Left so far. Miller has chosen a sharp focus: the birth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the subsequent trajectories of the founders, especially Tom Hayden, Al Haber, Richard Flacks, and Sharon Jeffrey. There’s a lot of psychological detail and atmospheric recreation, using minutes, memos, memoirs, and underground press accounts, plus retrospective reflections by Miller’s principals, whom he has interviewed at length for the book. He also reconstructs the strategic and tactical debates over SDS’s affiliation with the old-left League for Industrial Democracy, the internal organization (or lack of it) of the Economic Research and Action Project, and SDS’s shift from community-based to antiwar organizing. There’s a chapter as well on intellectual forebears, above all C. Wright Mills, whose importance for the early New Left can hardly be overstated. “Democracy Is in the Streets” is neither exhaustive nor definitive, but it’s a generous slice of the ‘60s, served up with narrative skill and political intelligence.
Both those qualities are needed in re____ the fledgling SDS’s relation to its “parent,” the League for Industrial Democracy. Created in 1925, LID initially attracted such eminences as John Dewey and Sidney Hook, but went into eclipse in the 1940s and ‘50s. By 1960 it had become, Miller observes, “a kind of dignified retirement home for aging social democrats.” When a small contingent of student activists from the University of Michigan, led by Al Haber, proposed founding a national student organization under LID’s auspices, the league reacted cautiously—in the end, over-cautiously.
It was like “Fathers and Sons” in reverse. Instead of the younger generation knowing too little, the older generation knew too much: in particular, about the evils of Soviet and American Communism. The LID executive board lectured the SDS executive board relentlessly on the perils of “united frontism” and the absurdity of what has lately come to be called “moral equivalence” as a theory of the Cold War. When the elders judged that the juniors had insufficiently grasped these lessons, they threatened to fire Haber and Hayden as paid organizers and to discredit SDS among liberals. Hayden was unrepentant. “My view,” he told Miller, “was that things were happening very well, thank you, without any assistance from these groups out of the morbid traditions of the left centered in New York City. I’m very much, with faults and virtue, the independent American, arising innocently out of the ashes of the East and Europe.” The groups bickered throughout the early ‘60s and finally separated in 1965, mutually embittered.
Miller is circumspect, but it’s apparent from his account that the elders failed to appreciate the depth of SDS’s determination to “speak American,” to forge a native radicalism unencumbered by ideological conflicts of European provenance. Actually, Miller might have made more of this episode as an example of a longstanding tension in the American left between populism and social democracy. Nowadays the proponents tend to call themselves “radical democrats” and “democratic socialists.” It is, thank goodness, by and large an amicable quarrel; but it does flare up occasionally, for instance in Sheldon Wolin’s remarkably harsh “Atlantic” review of Irving Howe’s “Socialism and America.”
SDS lit on a formula to express its conception of a new, indigenous radicalism, and that formula is in large part what made the New Left new. Central to Miller’s story are the vicissitudes of “participatory democracy,” the guiding inspiration of SDS’s founding document, “The Port Huron Statement.” Widely distributed in the ‘60s, the statement is virtually unobtainable today. Miller reprints it in full, for which we’re all in his debt. Until now I had read only excerpts; and though I’ve always referred to it reverently, I never realized just how good the statement is. It is splendid. Analysis, vision, program, eloquence—all here. With updated statistics and added sections on feminism and mass culture, it could serve in 1988. Though it’s presented as an appendix to “Democracy Is in the Streets,” I recommend reading it first. This will lend extra poignancy to the later history of frustration and failure. For it was a glorious beginning.
“We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.” What program followed from this ideal? At first, community organizing. With the Southern civil rights movement very much on their minds, SDS called for “an interracial movement of the poor.” The Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), begun in 1963, sent small groups of students into Northern cities to mobilize the unemployed, tenants, welfare mothers, and others into a “new insurgency.” The individual projects were improvised and uncoordinated, and vast, exhausting efforts went into figuring out how to apply the principles of “direct democracy” to their internal workings. The Cleveland group, for one, deliberated agonizingly over whether to allot each member a dollar per week for spending money; whether Sharon Jeffrey and Paul Potter, who were lovers, should go to a conference in Berkeley together, and in one nonstop 24-hour session, whether to take a day off the following weekend and go to the beach. Oscar Wilde’s worst fears were realized: life in this embryonic socialist commune was a continuous meeting.
Still, there were gains. The Newark project organized several successful rent strikes, won control of the local War on Poverty board, and had some impact on local electoral politics, The Cleveland project organized a sizable number of welfare mothers, held demonstrations, and put out a community newsletter. In 1966, when the National Welfare Rights Organization—one of the major achievements of the ‘60s—was founded, Cleveland was among its first strong holds, thanks in part to ERAP. And all along, the organizers and their clients were growing steadily in savvy and self- confidence.
ERAP also sparked a potentially fruitful debate within SDS about whether the proper role for radical students was to organize the poor or to humanize the university and the professions. In a 1963 manifesto, “An Interracial Movement of the Poor?,” Tom Hayden argued for activism, denouncing “an ideology of inaction and irresponsibility, pronounced from heights of shelter and sophistication.” In response, Al Haber wrote a penetrating critique of Hayden’s strategy. “Is radicalism,” Haber asked, “subsisting in a slum for a year or two, or is it developing your individual talents so you can function as a radical in your ‘professional’ field and throughout your adult life?” A deep question, which every future student Left will have to answer.
Altogether, ERAP was a promising start. But then came Vietnam. As the stale of American intervention increased, many student radicals were distracted from local concerns. In January 1965, SDS called for a march on Washington that April; in February, the bombing of North Vietnam began. As a result, response to the April demonstration was huge. SDS president Paul Potter gave an electrifying speech; six months later, at an even larger demonstration in Washington, new SDS president Carl Oglesby gave an even more extraordinary one. Potter’s and Oglesby’s oratory, together with SDS’s outreach work on campuses (and, of course, Johnson’s B-52s), attracted a tidal wave of new members This was SDS’s opportunity and, eventually, its undoing.
For the first generation of SDS, “participatory democracy” was supposed to begin at home. Important decisions were made by consensus. Leadership roles were allotted randomly or rotated. No one aspired to build up his or her own expertise or contacts with government, foundations, and the media. As long as SDS stayed small, this decentralized, antibureaucratic style worked fine. But when SDS grew into a mass organization, it proved disastrous.
The early members had shared in formulating the group’s strategies and ideals, and were all committed to thoroughgoing social transformation. Later members often joined simply to express opposition to the war. These new members—nearly 100,000 by 1968—needed direction, or at least coordination, which the national leadership was reluctant to provide. Decentralism degenerated into chaos. Correspondence went unanswered; publications went undistributed; policy went unformulated; administrative decisions went unmade. SDS conventions turned into marathon encounter groups. (My favorite anecdote from Miller’s book: “At one meeting around this time, Hayden refused to sit on stage and debate in front of an audience, instead taking a seat among the rank and file. ‘You’re such a grass root,’ Tom snapped his opponent, ‘that I don’t know whether to debate you or water you.’”) A few, like national secretary Paul Booth, saw a chance at leadership of the antiwar movement slipping away from SDS; but when Booth tried to introduce some structure into the national office, he drew heavy fire and soon resigned in frustration.
In effect, leadership came via the mass media, which selected the most articulate and photogenic radicals and turned them into celebrities. This was above all the fate of Tom Hayden. Miller’s portrait of Hayden is full and nuanced; it may be the best thing about “Democracy Is in the Streets.” Hayden was everywhere in the ‘60s: the popular, influential editor of the University of Michigan student newspaper, author of “The Port Huron Statement” in the South, helping register black voters; in Newark, with the ERAP project in North Vietnam, discovering a “socialism of the heart”; in the pages of “The New Republic” and “The New York Review”, on campuses; in churches; on television; and finally, tragicomically, disguised to evade Mayor Daley’s police in the streets of Chicago. It is impossible not to admire Hayden’s eloquence and passion during the early years; impossible, too, not to recoil from his growing rhetorical extremism in the second half of the decade. Cameras and microphones turned the brilliant, conscientious young disciple of Mills, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. into a demagogue.
Shrewdly, Miller locates the fault line. He sees in Hayden’s writing “a constant tension between civic republicanism on the one hand and existentialism on the other when he follows Mills. . .he depicts a world of orderly face-to-face discussion among responsible citizens; when he follows Camus and his own enthusiasm for the daring politics of direct action, he depicts a world of clashing wills and romantic heroes, mastering fate through the hard assertion of personality. It is by no means evident that these images can be reconciled.” For all Hayden’s ardent determination to “speak American,” it seems he was one more casualty of that lethal tradition of French rhetorical radicalism extending from Rousseau to Sartre and Foucault. (No doubt a histrionic Irish temperament contributed, too.)
The transformation of Hayden and others into celebrities may have given the antiwar movement some extra visibility, but it did not, in the long run, help SDS. Neither did making a fetish of “direct democracy.” For lack of active, accountable leaders, SDS’s national office fell prey to two pseudo vanguards: the enrage Weathermen and the disciplined, single-minded Progressive Labor Party. Faced with a choice of Leninist lunacies, the membership melted away. By the end of 1969, SDS had ceased to exist.
Did it have to end this way? Did the failure of SDS reveal something fundamental about the limitations of its participatory-democratic ideal? Miller thinks so. He’s aware, of course, of the subtle ways in which the media corrupted the movement, impelling its rhetoric and actions into an ever-higher key, and also of the not-so-subtle ways in which the national political police assaulted the movement with surveillance and sabotage. But, he believes, deeper forces were operating as well:
“To search for a “democracy of individual participation,” particularly if the goal is to restore the give-and-take of face-to-face relations in the “neighborly community,” is to swim against the tide of history. The main drift in modern industrial life has been to ward expanding scale and complexity, the centralization of power and the growth of hierarchical bureaucracies. Popular revolts against these overwhelming realities have been only sporadically successful, in part be cause the demand for individual autonomy and active participation in public life must sooner or later run up against the desire for stability, privacy, and the material comforts promised by the modern industrial nation- state. Like virtually every other American mass movement for democratic renewal since the Civil War—socialist or populist, progressive or right-wing, plebeian or middle-class—the New Left flourished in situations of relative moral simplicity and floundered when faced with the almost hopeless difficulties and immense strategic quandaries posed by the economic, social, and political forces it wished to counteract.”
It was this inescapable historical bind, even more than media seduction or FBI subversion, that gave rise to the New Left’s “most glaring vices: intransigence, impatience, an irrational and ultimately self-destructive sense of self-righteousness.”
This is a plausible argument. But what does it prove, exactly? I don’t doubt that face-to-face relations and rule by consensus are by themselves inadequate to run a large organization, much less a large society. Even callow 19-year-olds could be expected to learn as much, in time. But that’s the point: SDS had no time. Its learning environment was an impossible one. It was over whelmed by the spectacle of continual atrocities and unending deceit, and by its own furious, helpless revulsion. The best minds and hearts of a generation were destroyed by a mad war; its promising early experiments were aborted; the slow accumulation of experience and reflection that might have given substance to the “collective dream” (C. Wright Mills) of participatory democracy was foreclosed.
Miller professes continuing allegiance to this dream, in spite of all. Still, he’s too ambivalent even for me. Why does he counterpose “individual autonomy and active participation in public life” to “stability, privacy, and material comforts”? Now, I deplore “endless meetings” as much as anybody. But surely the chief contemporary agents of instability, coercion, and deprivation are the global economy, which wrought fantastic dislocations throughout the Third World in the ‘60a and ‘70s and is now beginning to ravage workers and communities in the First World as well; the state, which has just effected an enormous regressive redistribution of wealth; the national security bureaucracies, with their computerized political (and soon medical/sexual?) data banks; employers who, in the absence of a healthy labor movement, exercise arbitrary authority over workers; the real estate industry, which has razed or gentrified innumerable neighborhoods; the advertising industry, which has debased popular culture and the electoral process; the chemical industry, which, if unchecked for a few more years, will irreversibly undermine the ecosphere; and the ideology of the Cold War, which, as American hegemony declines, takes on ever more frenzied and dangerous forms. I don’t mean to belabor the obvious, but without the “active participation in public life” of all those threatened by these developments, there won’t in the long run be much “stability, privacy, and material comfort” to go around. The “modern industrial nation-state” will not deliver on its promises unless it’s made to. This was the gist of “The Port Huron Statement.” Notwithstanding the disappointments and defeats of the ‘60s, the statement’s vision and critique seem to me valid today, in essentially the terms in which they were framed.
“Happiness is a new idea in Europe,” pro claimed Saint-Just, the Tom Hayden of the French Revolution. He meant that all the nameless, voiceless, invisible people were at last, in principle, historical subjects. In approximately the same sense, participatory democracy was a new idea in America in the 1960s. True, there had been the town meeting and the Quaker meeting; but the first of these, when it exercised significant social power, was a community of householders, and the latter was a community of believers. A society-wide democracy of individual participation is something else—something as yet indeterminate, Miller correctly points out; wherein, I would reply, lies the perennial work of political imagination on the left.
The French Revolution, you’ll remember, was also taken over by radical orators and vanguardists, whose “intransigence, impatience, irrational and ultimately self-destructive sense of self-righteousness” (with, again, a little help from the forces of reaction) did it in. But its “new idea” survived, and has lived on through many descendants, “participatory democracy” among them. Since the ‘60s, we’ve suffered the accession of our own Metternich and are now enduring the reign of our genial, dimwitted Franz Josef. But the Cold War can’t last forever, any more than the Holy Alliance did. I’ve run out of historical parallels, so I hope my point is clear. It’s just this: you can’t keep a good new idea down.