by Dick Flacks
Democratic Left - Summer 2012
In 1962, politically engaged young people who identified with the Left were looking for new directions. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) conference at Port Huron, Michigan. happened because we were sure that the world we inhabited could no longer be changed by relying on the categories, methods and understandings of a Left still rooted in the 19th century. That Left, constituted by a host of warring ideological tribes, was exhausted. On the other hand, we were also intent on challenging the conventional wisdom of the 1950s, which declared that the entire tradition of the Left had come to an end.
By “tradition of the Left ” I mean the streams of action and thought that, over generations, had struggled for a society free from the domination of the many by the few, that envisioned and fought for the rights and dignity of the subordinated, the propertyless, the voiceless and powerless. We identified ourselves with that tradition, even if we strongly doubted the value of particular ideological formulations like socialism, or Marxism, in their many varieties.
The potential for a new politics was inspired by the dramatic movement of students in the South, using their bodies to destroy the system of segregation, dedicating themselves to organizing the Southern Black community for political voice, determined to force the federal government to enforce the Constitution in the Southern states. And, as well it was inspired by the rising protest in Europe and the U.S. against the bomb and the nuclear arms race.
We were attracted to Port Huron by the notion, expressed forcefully by pioneer SDS organizers like Al Haber, that these particular risings were revealing a deep social crisis. The top leaders of the society as a whole were unable, even unwilling, to enforce the rights supposedly guaranteed in the Constitution, and certainly unwilling to end the Cold War and the ever-looming threat of a hot one.
There were less than 60 of us there at that time, but we believed (and we were right about this) that a lot of our peers shared the mood we were in. It was time for a new politics – for new ideas and new coalitions and new modes of action. It was time for a new university – one that treated its students as adults, and that was a place where new ideas could be articulated and debated and acted on and whose student bodies would reflect the population of the country as a whole, rather than a thin, privileged stratum.
Al Haber, Tom Hayden, and a few others sensed the new mood and had the insight that the new student activists needed a national organization that would create a shared meeting ground. And, equally, the rising activism might benefit from an effort to articulate a common vision and to debate potential strategies for political and social action. And so they made the daring decision to structure the conference around the creation of a manifesto for a new political generation.
The Port Huronites were widely varied in their personal connection to the Old Left. Some, like my wife Mickey and I, were “red diaper babies.” We were raised by parents who had been involved in political, labor and community organizing initiated by the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, or at least were sympathetic to the Communist Left. Some others’ families identified with other brands of socialism or liberalism. Probably the majority of those in attendance did not have such Leftist connections. They were instead people who had come to anger and distress when they experienced the collision between the values (religious or secular) they’d been raised to cherish and the harsh realities of race and poverty which the civil rights movement was dramatizing. We all seemed to share a calling to find political roles that could make a significant difference. And we understood that none of the established parties and political identities were at all adequate to that purpose.
The Port Huron Statement provided a foundation for finding that purpose. That foundation can be found in the phrase “participatory democracy.” It’s an unwieldy phrase, but it points toward both a utopian aspiration for a new mode of living and a practical political orientation. Participatory democracy leads us to ask what needs to happen so that all who are affected can have some voice in deciding the rules, allocating the resources, defining the roles in each institutional setting. We’re encouraged to ask such questions not just in the political sphere proper, but in society as a whole – the workplace, the household, the community, the school, and even the prison. The effort to find answers to such questions helps us envision possible alternatives and to investigate why more democratic arrangements are thwarted. And, as we undertake action to promote democracy, we are compelled to figure out how that action itself can be democratically organized.
Participatory democracy at Port Huron suggested a way to recreate the Left by culling from the Left tradition the kernels of democratic imagination that the old warring ideologies shared even as they fought. It fostered a new vocabulary for defining the Left, which would be more resonant with American culture than the terms imported from earlier centuries and other political cultures. And it pushed us to struggle for a way to set up the new organization as a democracy that could make use of members’ initiatives and experience rather than perpetuating conventional modes of hierarchical leadership.
Fifty years later, participatory democracy (whether the term itself is used or not) is defining the programs and practices of social movements everywhere. It’s there in the general assemblies of the Occupy movement, and in the very idea of an economy that serves the interests of the 99%. It’s integral to the worldwide struggle by communities to defend land, culture, identity, resources and health in the face of corporate globalization. It’s embodied in the global movement for workers’ rights, for women’s equality and autonomy, for student power. When people mobilize to stop war policies, they are demanding a voice in foreign policy decisions hitherto made by politicomilitary elites. It’s there in the Internet, which has created a technological infrastructure for participatory democracy that those gathered at Port Huron never could have dreamed of.
But what has been missing, for the last 30 years, has been coherent articulation of these impulses and practices as ingredients for an alternative social vision. The Left in these years has mainly expressed itself as a force defending government policies designed to offset the ravages of corporate dominance and market dynamics. We try to protect the remnants of the New Deal social compact, to defend and promote government programs in terms of compassion, fairness, and justice because of the enormous assault on all of these by the Right. In the Sixties, we thought that the New Deal was little more than a technocratic framework for ensuring a smoothly functioning capitalist society. Participatory democracy defines a regulative ideal for rewriting that compact so that elite domination would be replaced by collective deliberation. The New Left aimed to imagine and struggle for alternatives to established policies and arrangements.
The Occupy movement opens up once again the chance to imagine, investigate, and experiment with alternatives. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Port Huron may, I hope, provide some of the social and intellectual means to engage in that process.
Dick Flacks was a founding member of SDS and active in its leadership for several years. His most recent book (with Rob Rosenthal) Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements, is now in paperback. He’s co-editing with Nelson Lichtenstein a compilation of recent reflections on the Port Huron Statement and the fate of the New Left.