Forty years after Port Huron

Tom Hayden and Dick Flacks are still sugarcoating the totalitarian ideas that made the New Left just like the Old Left -- a dreary political dead end.


David Horowitz
July 29, 2002 10:50PM (UTC)

Forty years ago, I wrote "Student," which was the first book about the New Left. It was a kind of manifesto of what we publicly proposed -- a more democratic and racially equal America. I say "publicly proposed" because as leftists we knew we could not propose what we really intended -- which was a socialist and democratic America (we retained the illusion that this was possible). Our intention (and this was what made us a "new" left) was to avoid the "mistakes" of the Soviet Union, which had tarnished and compromised the leftist agenda at that point in time. We told ourselves that we could not be candid about this agenda because of "McCarthyism." But in fact, McCarthyism was already dead. The real reason it was so difficult for us to articulate our intentions was that what we intended had already been thoroughly discredited.

In the same year, a much more famous (and much more disingenuous) New Left document appeared, called "The Port Huron Statement." This document, which did not 'fess up to its socialist agenda at all, was the founding manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Instead of calling for a socialist revolution, it agitated for "participatory democracy," a form of democracy which was direct instead of representative and which would embrace the economy as well as the polity. This was exactly how Marx had described the socialist agenda, although the Port Huron statement refrained from mentioning that fact.

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SDS quickly became the largest organization of the New Left, with 100,000 or so members at its peak, but ended up, a bare seven years later, embracing totalitarian states like Cuba and North Vietnam and movements like the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. In its final spasms of left-wing lunacy, SDS leaders like Tom Hayden and Bernadine Dohrn called for actual war against "Amerikkka" and created the first political terrorist cult, with SDS president Bernadine Dohrn and SDS vice president Bill Ayers as its leaders. As it happens, Tom Hayden, who was the most famous of the principal authors of the Port Huron Statement, was one of the loudest voices calling for a "war of liberation" in Amerikkka and the creation of "armed" "zones of liberation" in American college towns. He even formed his own little guerrilla foco (a term lifted from Che Guevara's strategist, Regis Debray), called the "Red Family," whose members trained at local firing ranges for the battles to come.

Not surprisingly, Hayden doesn't care to remember or explain this decay of a movement that started out so "idealistically," even though its sad outcome was actually predicted at the time by dissenters from the Port Huron consensus, notably the late Irving Howe and his disciple, Michael Harrington. Even in 1962, Howe understood that Hayden and his comrades were totalitarians in the making. They did so for reasons I will return to in a moment.

On the occasion of the current anniversary, Hayden and Dick Flacks -- the man with whom he coauthored the Port Huron statement -- have written a feature story for the Aug. 5 issue of the Nation, appropriately called "The Port Huron Statement at 40." In their article, they celebrate the longevity and influence of their manifesto and its central organizing concept -- as though the seeds of malevolence they sowed at the time (and which 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 only by a selective forgetting of the kind Milan Kundera has explored in his writings on the totalitarian delusion. In fact it is their romance with totalitarianism that they have forgotten.

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 he found himself in the leadership of a socialist organization (SDS was a offshoot of the League for Industrial Democracy), surrounded by Marxists, one of whom was his coauthor, Dick Flacks. All of them were self-consciously working out the problems they had inherited, as socialists and revolutionaries, from the calamities and crimes of Stalinism. The key battle at Port Huron (revealingly not addressed in the Hayden-Flacks article) was whether to include actual members of the Communist Party in the coalition that would be SDS.

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This was in fact the key to everything that transpired afterwards. Harrington (who was present) and Howe (who was not) wanted the new organization to make a clear and principled break with the Communist past of many if not most of the SDS founders, and with communism itself. Hayden and Flacks (who was a "red diaper" baby himself) did not. They were "anti-anti Communists." They wanted a revolution in America and -- despite their criticism of what Stalinism had done -- they did not want to support America's Cold War against the Soviet bloc.

Hayden and Flacks' account of this dispute is far from candid. "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 ..."

But denouncing abuses of power in the Soviet Union in 1962 was easy for leftists and absolutely necessary. It was easy because the head of the Soviet Communist Party himself, Nikita Khrushchev, had already denounced Stalin's absolute rule -- along with many of the crimes and mass murders he had committed. No leftist movement would have any credibility with Americans if it did not denounce Stalinism or the abuses of power that persisted in the Soviet Union. Denouncing Stalin was as courageous back then as denouncing Osama bin Laden today. Yet many leftists blamed America for Soviet abuses, because of America's Cold War against communism (just as many on the left blame America for al-Qaida and Islamic violence.)

Howe and Harrington were smarter than that. They felt threatened by the Hayden-Flacks faction's lack of clarity on the issue of Communist totalitarianism. They saw the failure of the Hayden faction to exclude Communists from their ranks as a fatal step, reflecting their unwillingness to make a principled break with communist ideas, Communist states and Communist causes. And of course, Harrington and Howe turned out to be right. It was one step to include Communists in the new organization. It was a logical next step to support the Communist gulag in Cuba and the Communist war in Vietnam. It was another logical step then to embrace communist ideas and to emulate Communist practices, which is what eventually led to the SDS election of 1968 in which two factions of Maoists vied with the self-proclaimed "communist revolutionaries" of Weathermen for the leadership of the largest organization of the New Left. None of this shameful history is mentioned or addressed in the Hayden-Flacks article.

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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," where I recall how those of us who created the New Left were trying to throw out the Stalinist bath water but not the socialist baby itself. This was in my view our fatal mistake. "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 have given even a moment's thought in print to the millions of peasants in Southeast Asia we helped to slaughter by backing the Communists and their wars. Unfortunately, Hayden's moment of clarity -- which he recorded in his own memoir, "Reunion" -- was halfhearted and brief, and he seems to have forgotten it altogether at this point in his life (Lately, he seems fond of the IRA).

Reading Hayden and Flacks' Nation article, one would never know that these issues -- momentous as they are -- even exist. In their account, the New Left was born of a generalized apathy of the 1950s generation and its obliviousness to the possibility that any problems might exist in society at large. 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 listening to Bob Dylan and rock and roll. SDS represented the first defections from the mainstream."

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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 bunch of red-diaper babies and political fellow travelers trying jump-start 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" (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? 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 equality of condition, the destruction of due process and all hierarchies -- professional, scientific, meritocratic -- 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 acts as God and arranges a perfectly ordered world, or at least ordered according to the prejudices of the left.)

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"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.

So it is no accident, as we used to say, that this old pair of unreconstructed "socialists" and "revolutionaries" should have no sounder view of the challenges we face as a nation 40 years later, and that they should take pleasure in their influence in encouraging the most destructive elements in our culture -- the hate-America, corporation-phobic activists of the left.

"There is a new movement astir in the world," they write, "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."

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 Soviet imperialism testify to that. What is difficult for Hayden, Flacks and the new New Left about challenging the war on terror is really no different. 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 to accomplish it. Let's hope the American people are taking note, and will adopt an appropriate response.

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David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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