Forty years ago, I wrote a book about the New Left, which was in fact the first book about the New Left and a kind of manifesto of what it intended. In the same year, a much more famous document appeared, called "The Port Huron Statement," which was the founding manifesto of the Students for A Democratic Society. This was an organization that began by agitating for "participatory democracy," became the largest organization of the left and ended up, a bare seven years later, calling for war against "Amerikkka" and creating the Weather Underground — the first terrorist political cult. As it happens, the most famous of the two principal authors of the Port Huron Statement, Tom Hayden, was one of the loudest voices calling for a "war of liberation" in Amerikka and formed his own little guerrilla army to achieve that goal.
Not surprisingly, Hayden does not care to remember or explain this political devolution, even though it was actually predicted at the time by dissenters from Port Huron, notably the late Irving Howe. Even in 1962, Howe understood that Hayden and his comrades were totalitarians in the making. Now, Hayden and his co-author Dick Flacks have written a feature story for the August 5th issue of The Nation, called "The Port Huron Statement at 40," in which they celebrate its longevity and influence as though the seeds of malevolence they sowed (and the rest of the nation reaped) were something to be proud of.
The picture the two activists paint — rosy by even the most generous standards — is made possible by a selective forgetting of the kind Milan Kundera has explored in his writings on the totalitarian delusion. Thus Hayden describes himself in those early days as a "a Midwestern populist by nature, rebelling apolitically against the boring hypocrisy of suburban life — until the Southern black student sit-in movement showed him that a committed life was possible." This is the purest eyewash, which any reasonable reader can detect by asking how this description can explain the fact that Hayden found himself in the leadership of a socialist organization (SDS was an offshoot of the League for Industrial Democracy) surrounded by Marxists like his co-author, Dick Flacks, whose members were self-consciously working out the problems they had inherited -- as socialists -- from Stalinism. The key battle at Port Huron (not even addressed in the Hayden-Flacks nostalgia piece) was whether to include actual members of the Communist Party in the coalition that would become SDS.
At Port Huron, Hayden went head to head with Irving Howe’s ideological soul-mate, Michael Harrington, over this very issue, an episode notably omitted from the Hayden-Flacks’ account. Instead, the debate is presented this way: "While the draft Port Huron Statement included a strong denunciation of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t enough for LID leaders like Michael Harrington. They wanted absolute clarity, for example, that the United States was blameless for the nuclear arms race…In truth, they seemed threatened by the independence of the new wave of student activism…" Denouncing abuses of power in the Soviet Union in 1962 was easy for leftists. The head of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin’s crimes and one-man rule. What Howe and Harrington felt threatened by, in fact, was the lack of absolute clarity on the part of Hayden and his friends in condemning Communist totalitarianism as such, in distancing themselves from supporters of Communism and in making clear what their position was in the Cold War — the great moral struggle of the latter half of the 20th Century. Which side were they were against?
To be fair, Hayden and Flacks do quote a critic or two, one of whom happens to be me. "The former radical David Horowitz reads the [Port Huron] statement as encoding a ‘self-conscious effort to rescue the Communist project from its Soviet fate.’" This is a quote from my autobiography Radical Son, a book in which I recall that those of us who created the New Left were trying to throw out the Stalinist bathwater but not the socialist baby itself. Radical Son is an account of how the continuing commitment to a socialist agenda and the unwillingness to be identified with the anti-Communist cause led to the New Left’s embrace of totalitarian agendas and totalitarian causes, in particular the wars of Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot. Tom Hayden is one of the few New Leftists who ever gave moment’s thought to the millions of peasants in Southeast Asia he helped to slaughter by backing the Communists in their wars. Unfortunately, Hayden’s moment of clarity — which he records in his own memoir Reunion — was half-hearted and brief, and he seems to have forgotten it altogether at this point in his life (lately, he has embraced the IRA).
Reading Hayden and Flacks, one would never know that these issues — momentous as they are –even exist. In their account, the New Left was born not out of the collapse of the Old Left, but out of a generalized apathy of the Fifties generation and its obliviousness to the possibility that any social problems might exist (elitist arrogance and contempt for ideological inferiors is the left's hallmark). Thus, "on some campuses, professors and students were questioning the Cold War arms race" — as though others had failed to notice it or were too stupid to give it any thought. "There were stirrings on the fringe, too, where students were listing to Bob Dylan and rock and roll. SDS represented the first defections from the mainstream."
In fact, SDS didn’t represent defections from anything, nor were its members "mainstream." Defections from the mainstream happened later, as a result of the military draft, when college students reluctant to risk their lives in battle came scurrying into its ranks. In 1962, SDS was pretty much a collection of red diaper babies and political fellow travelers trying to jumpstart a left whose collusion with Communism had brought it into disrepute and decimated its ranks. That’s why the pivotal concept of the manifesto they adopted — and the idea that Hayden and Flacks are most eager to celebrate -- is "participatory democracy" (because it promised freedom from the stigma).
"Participatory democracy sought to expand the sphere of public decisions from the mere election of representatives to the deeper role of ‘bringing people out of isolation and into community’ in decentralized forms of decision-making. The same democratic humanism was applied to the economy in calls for ‘incentives worthier than money,’ and for work to be ‘self-directed, not manipulated.’"
Who do Hayden and Flacks think they’re fooling at this late date? Anyone even faintly familiar with the history of the left will instantly recognize these ideas as quintessential communist doctrines. (Indeed, what economy do the authors have in mind based on "incentives worthier than money" — Cuba?) Workers Councils to the anarchists, "Soviets" to the Russians — these are other names for "participatory democracy." But the idea is the same: the political enforcement of an equality of condition, the destruction of due process and all hierarchies — professional, scientific, meritocratic, traditional -- in the name of "social justice," which is itself another name for totalitarian rule. The never changing leftist idea of social justice is that the state should act as if it were God, arranging a perfectly ordered world, or at least one that conforms to the prejudices of the left.
"It was no wonder, then, that the [Port Huron] statement was inspired by participatory democracy. Participation is what we were denied, and what we hungered for. Without it, there was no dignity. Parents and professors lectured us, administrators ordered us, draft boards conscripted us, the whole system channeled us, all to please authority and take our place in line." What must it be like to have lived as long as Hayden and Flacks and to have learned so little? Still no appreciation of all that parents and professors and authority have brought them. Leftists like Hayden and Flacks remind me of the punch-line to one of those jokes told on the edge of puberty: "I want what I want when I want it!" All the self-absorbed and destructive egotism of a five-year-old embedded in the truly destructive personae of adults.
So it is no accident, as we used to say, that this old pair of unreconstructed communists should have no wiser view of the challenges we face as a nation forty years later. Or that they should take pleasure in their present influence in encouraging the most destructive elements in our culture — the hate-America, corporation-phobic gremlins of the newest left. "There is a new movement astir in the world, against the inherent violence of globalization, corporate rule and fundamentalism, that reminds us strongly of the early 1960s….The war on terrorism has revived the cold war framework. An escalating national security state attempts to rivet our attention and invest our resources on fighting an elusive, undefined enemy for years to come, at the inevitable price of our civil liberties and continued neglect of social justice. To challenge the framework of the war on terrorism, to demand a search for real peace with justice, is as difficult today as challenging the cold war was at Port Huron."
Here is a priceless confession. What was difficult for Hayden, Flacks and the New Left about "challenging the cold war," was that the war they were challenging — America’s war — was a war on behalf of human freedom. One and half billion people liberated from the chains of the Soviet imperialism testify to that. What is difficult for Hayden, Flacks and the new New Left about challenging the war on terror is really the same -- that their country is right and that they hate it nonetheless. What is interesting is that Hayden and Flacks, and the editors of the Nation would be so forthright in declaring their intention to weaken and undermine America’s war against terror, and to use "civil liberties" and "social justice" as the instruments for accomplishing it. Let’s hope the American people are taking note, and will mount an appropriate response.