Richard Flacks, Nelson Lichtenstein, eds. The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left's Founding Manifesto. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 344 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4692-6.
Reviewed by Martin Comack (Massachusetts Bay Community College)
Published on H-Socialisms (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
The New Left's Platform
The Port Huron Statement, whatever else it may be, stands to this day as one the most eloquent and transparent presentations of social democratic ideals and values of the last century. Written by Tom Hayden with some subsequent revision, it is a model of clarity and inclusiveness--the very standard of the polemic essay at its most expressive and persuasive.
As the first manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Port Huron Statement was initially vehemently opposed by its putative sponsor, the League for Industrial Democracy, for what was considered a casual attitude toward communism--at least the miniscule domestic variety. But opposition by the liberal-labor old guard was motivated by far more than that. The Statement did not hesitate to question and indict the existing corporate order in Cold War America. This was a system in which the satraps of the AFL-CIO formed an integral part and from which they drew great advantage, deeply enmeshed as they were in the coils of the right wing of the Democratic Party, the US State Department, and, not least, the Central Intelligence Agency. According to Hayden, this arrangement was not immediately obvious to the student intellectuals gathered at Port Huron. In only a few years, though, the contradictions of Cold War liberalism would become obvious in its uneasy relationship to the growing civil rights movement and finally by its early support for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program in Southeast Asia.
Regarding the Statement: in current hindsight, the reader is struck by the great emphasis, to the point of naiveté, that the author(s) placed upon the institution of the university as the avatar of social transformation, the engine that would drive radical social and political reform in America. Of course the academic establishment could only fail to meet these great expectations to which many in its ranks were hostile when not indifferent. And SDS itself would very rapidly, in the space of a few short but exciting years, evolve and devolve into something quite different than that envisioned by the Port Huron conferees. The national office of SDS, increasingly disconnected from its campus base, became a prize to be fought over between a cabal of Bolshevik clerks and small groups of self-styled “revolutionary communists” who claimed the vanguard role in the coming revolution and declared the excommunication of anyone who did not support the Stalinist statelet of Albania. The earlier SDS slogans of “Participatory Democracy” and “Let the People Decide” were replaced by exhortations to “Fight the People” and “Kill Pigs.” Among the loudest advocates of murder and mayhem were the affluent progeny of what is now termed the “One Percent.” It is yet to be revealed to what extent the FBI’s COINTELPRO program may have played in these developments.
Secondly, the Statement places great emphasis upon the realignment of the major political parties and the subsequent clarification of policy differences and political choices between a liberal Democratic party and its Republican opposite. This was to be achieved by the exclusion of Dixiecrats from the Democratic ranks. And we have had this reshuffling of the political deck. It is exactly what occurred by the mid-sixties with the defection of the racist “solid” South into the GOP. And now instead of a centrist Democratic Party and a conservative Republican Party, we have a centrist Democratic Party and a more conservative Republican Party. The Democratic Party was, and remains in the political center, representing as it does the somewhat less rapacious wing of corporate America.
Considering all this, it is difficult to determine what exactly are the legacies of the Port Huron Statement. The various contributors well describe the origins of the New Left and the sources that inspired those gathered at Port Huron--the Progressive tradition, the American socialist movement, and the New Deal. And probably it was read in the early days of SDS by coteries of graduate students. But could it ever be considered a direct and major influence upon the radicals of the sixties? The radicalization of American youth in those days, such as it was, was the direct result of the Vietnam War and the attendant military draft.
In his contribution to this volume, Tom Hayden enumerates the significant civic reforms and advances in individual rights made possible by the struggles of the sixties. And yet … and yet. With all due respect to those who have come before, international corporate rule now appears more dominant and ubiquitous than ever. The income gap between the few and the many has reached astronomical lengths. The politics of empire, the policies of armed imperialism, did not end with the war in Vietnam.
At the same time, the impulse toward social and political change, what the Port Huron Statement called participatory democracy, seems at least as great now as it was more than half a century ago. The Port Huron Statement provides a clear vision of what a civilized society might look like. Still it must be asked: Can capitalism, now in its global neoliberal phase, ever really be reformed, as the Statement argues? Just what does democracy look like?
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Martin Comack. Review of Flacks, Richard; Lichtenstein, Nelson, eds., The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left's Founding Manifesto.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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