The Participatory Years

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Howard Brick

“Democracy Is in the Streets”
From Fort Huron lo the Siege of Chicago
James Miller
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. 431 pages, $9.95.

THE REALLY “NEW” feature of the “New Left” was its advocacy of “participatory democracy,” says James Miller. In his new book, Miller aims to recover the history of that idea by telling the stories of a few dynamic individuals who built the organization most closely associated with it, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and wrote the document that defined it, “The Port Huron Statement.”

In so doing, Miller vividly evokes a moment of moral fervor in the early1960s when young people were convinced of their capacity to change the world and devoted to making radicalism a fully workable American political rhetoric; he captures also the violent repression, personal disorientation and desperate acts 1hat marked the decline of SDS in 1968 and 1699.

Still, it is the intellectual history of “participatory democracy” that underpins Miller’s two principal claims: that the New Left neither lacked an ideology, as earlier commentators have claimed, nor grew mainly from inspiration given by the Southern civil rights movement.

SDS developed an ideology of radical democracy from “native” traditions of engaged republican citizenship running through the works of John Dewey and C. Wright Mills, he claims, and it nursed the subversive implications of this ideology before encountering the direct-action organizing tactics of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), usually considered a formative influence on the white New Left.

Miller deftly adds colorful details to the familiar story of SDS’s origin at the University of Michigan. The earliest shoots of SDS grew from a combination of Old Left remnants, the radical bohemian fringe culture of Ann Arbor’s coffee houses and bookstores, and the tense circumstances of a university unaccustomed to the masses of new students jamming its residence halls.

Al Haber, a bearded young man who lingered at the university beyond the customary four years, joined the lame student affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a sixty-year-old social-democratic educational association, in hopes of sparking a revival of radical thinking. He spoke to everyone he could about the meaning of “democracy” and the need to ground radical politics in “values” rather than economic interests, and while these terms had been common coin on the social-democratic left since the late 1930s, Haber added a new twist In his usage, the rhetoric of “democracy” was not intended to pull socialists rightward toward accommodation with American institutions; rather, he insisted democracy itself was a radical idea challenging those institutions.

Over the next few years, a handful of others with family backgrounds of liberal, labor or socialist activism–Sharon Jeffrey, Bob Ross, Richard and Mickey Flacks–drew round Haber, but his real recruiting catch was Tom Hayden, who had no apparent left-wing pedigree.

In Hayden’s case, adolescent hostility to established proprieties nurtured resentment against rules the university imposed in loco parentis. The rebellion he witnessed against a dining-hall dress code appears trivial in retrospect; but when Hayden, editor of the respected student paper, The Michigan Daily, decided to expose the university’s hidden practice of harassing students for interracial dating, he was becoming political.

With a growing reputation as a promising young radical intellectual, Hayden was asked by Michael Harrington lo join the Young Peoples Socialist League, by then the home of Max Shachtman’s latter-day followers. No thanks, Hayden responded, he preferred to “speak American.”

From LID lo Port Huron

By the time Haber’s Student LID was renamed SDS, its fortunes were closely tied to the burgeoning civil rights movement, notwithstanding Miller’s attempt to sever that link. ln the fall of 1959, Haber proposed to organize an antidiscrimination conference called “Human Rights in the North.” The idea gained ground later in the school year after the Southern lunch-counter sit-ins spurred sympathy pickets at Northern outlets of national chain stores.

Hayden had endorsed the sympathy pickets, but he became much more deeply engaged when he traveled West to cover the 1960 Democratic Party Convention, where he interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he wrote the first drafts of the “Port Huron Statement” in early 1962, Hayden had traveled South, suffering a mob beating along the way, first to report on Black voter registration, later to stay for a few months as official SDS liaison with SNCC. Other early SDS activists like Paul Potter and Rennie Davis were also motivated by the Southern sit-ins.

To be sure, when Hayden sat down at his typewriter in New York, he was influenced by a current of social criticism voiced by white intellectuals. From their texts he drew the notion of “participatory democracy,” which called for construction of a vital national political community. As Miller shows, however, the phrase embodied multiple, often inconsistent meanings, and it played a prominent part in “The Port Huron Statement” more as evocative rhetoric than as a refined concept of political theory.

“Participatory democracy” was weak in intellectual content but strong in moral force. Its call for political community, one suspects, evoked not the abstract wish for belongingness that American social critics have long expressed, but the much more concrete experience of camaraderie and commitment young white radicals enjoyed in their transformative encounters with the grassroots struggles in the South.

“The Port Huron Statement” was forged during a week of discussions in June 1962 among some fifty young radicals gathered at a United Auto Workers’ retreat in Port Huron, Michigan. In effect, the document rejuvenated an American tradition of social reform dormant since World War ll. It expressed a desire for radical change that awkwardly combined liberal and social-democratic ideas similar to those motivating early twentieth-century activists like Jane Addams and later champions of social planning on the New Deal’s furthest-left fringe.

Straddling Liberalism and Radicalism

The key innovation SDS introduced was linking that reform tradition with a vigorous criticism of a U.S. foreign policy based on military power, for SDS asserted that furthering democracy at home depended on ending the Cold War. When it pointed out systematic links between oppressive U.S. domestic and foreign policies, the Statement came surprisingly close to a radical critique of American imperialism; when it suggested merely that world peace was prerequisite to advancing domestic reform, it evoked only conventional liberalism.

The entire document had this mixed character. The introductory sections of the manifesto, its most stirring pages, decried the betrayal of American democratic ideals of peace, freedom and equality; described the general apathy that prevailed on and off the campus as a consequence of central bureaucratic decision-making; and called for a social transformation that would address collective problems while salving personal discontent:

“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.”

But whenever the document addressed practical political plans, this radical vision dropped away. The Statement’s politics, as such, were dominated by the “realignment” strategy, brought to SDS primarily by right-wing social democrats in the Harrington/Shachtman camp, which aimed at driving Southern racists from the Democratic Party and rebuilding the party as a purer exponent of liberal reform. Radical democratic notions of mass action or grass-roots organizing had no prominent place in this overarching electoral strategy.

Nonetheless, “participatory democracy” became the hallmark of New Left rhetoric, and Miller does a superb job of elucidating the specific roots and ambiguities of the SDS idea. In the history of revolutionary socialism, workers’ power had always implied widespread democratic participation and self-government, but this was not the tradition from which early SDSers spoke. As he drafted the SDS manifesto, Tom Hayden was influenced largely by the writings of C. Wright Mills in the 1950s, particularly The Power Elite, which challenged the complacent “pluralist” view of widely dispersed political power in the United States.

For Mills, power was concentrated in the hands of small groups of businessmen, military commanders and government officials, while the broad mass of the population was deprived of all meaningful access to decision-making. Against this order of narrow elites and atomized masses, Mills called for the resurrection of “publics,” a term he used to denote social bodies of citizens engaged by reason and passion in the debate of all issues touching their common lives.

Behind Mills stood two strands of thought: John Dewey’s pragmatism, which sought a society reshaped as an all-inclusive community of inquiry resolving social and political problems in the experimental manner of co-equal scientists, and Max Weber’s sharply critical view of modern bureaucracy, which Mills took as the antipode of democracy.

Despite this significant admixture of European sociological theory, Miller ties the Millsian critique to an old American tradition of “civil republicanism,” founded in ideals of town democracy.

To this tradition, however, was added another major influence: existentialist notions of self-expression and daring experiments in authenticity that flowed from Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to the American motifs of beat estrangement and youth rebellion in the 1950s.

Consequently, deep strains lay buried in the Port Huron call for a “democracy of individual participation”: did emphasis lie on the collective connotations of “participation” or on the self-expressive implications of “individual”? Would a community of free individuals rest on reasoned discussion or on the emotive pursuit of vital experiences? Did such a democracy depend on centralized organs of government or decentralized centers of community, and if both, in what balance?

Extreme Decentralism

Since SDS was ill-prepared to carry out a thorough theoretical inquiry into such problems, all kinds of fuzzy thinking and political indecision were implied in its central doctrine. Ultimately, emphasis on authentically lived experience, anti-bureaucratism, and experimental procedures of decision-making so favored decentralization that SDS lost the capacity to reach clarity in a political program, establish effective leadership in strategic actions, or accumulate knowledge from comparison of local activist experience.

The last time an SDS convention agreed on a common document was 1963, when the organization ratified the only strategic social analysis it ever prepared, the report “America and the New Era.”

The 1964 convention debated the virtues of building a student base or organizing the dispossessed, but failed to reach a consensus. SDS decided not even to try at its 1965 convention; there disputes focused on problems of internal organization, with one faction wanting to abolish the national office m order to resist the rise of oligarchic authority.

The process of disintegration gathered momentum. One of SDS’s most daring programs, the community-organizing effort to build an “interracial movement of the poor” (known as ERAP or Economic Research and Action Program), eliminated its national coordinator only a year after it was started; the program dissolve into a chaos of local initiatives and ultimately a terrible feeling of futility.

Then in the fall of 1965 a storm arose over the prerogatives of the SDS national secretary, after Paul Booth unilaterally answered a hostile press campaign with a public statement on SDS anti-war policy. A conference was called for the end of December to find a way out of the organization’s growing disarray, but it proved fruitless and marked, as far as Miller is concerned, the effective end of SDS.

At this point, Miller leaves SDS itself and devotes his last fifty-page chapter to the later career of Tom Hayden. After witnessing the explosion of Newark’s Black neighborhoods and traveling several times to North Vietnam, Hayden affected a new rhetoric of guerrilla warfare, of risking blood and building “liberated zones” in the United States, even while he had a second, hidden career as a consultant to U.S. Ambassador Averill Harriman and a sympathizer of Robert Kennedy.

In the Chicago demonstrations and police riots of 1968 and the Weatherman “Days of Rage” in 1699, Miller sees the crackup of the movement He ends his story picturing Hayden speaking to Weatherman ranks just before their rampage through Chicago streets: having extended the rhetoric of participatory democracy first to community organizing and then to metaphors of guerrilla struggle, Hayden felt a vague uncomfortable solidarity with these zealots, while he also recognized that they could not appreciate the ethical goals he and his early SDS comrades had formulated.

A Misplaced Focus

It is disappointing that Miller ends his story as early as he does-in 1965—with only a glance forward to 1968 and 1969. He caricatures the newer forces in SDS at mid-decade: those who worked the anti-organizational themes of participatory democracy appear only as anti-intellectual buffoons, and those who embraced Marxism appear nowhere except in clichéd references to the insidious “hardened cadre” of the Progressive Labor Party.

But since his interest, as an intellectual historian, lies with the notion of “‘participatory democracy,” he seems to consider any more detailed discussion of practical activity or even other currents of thought beside the point. For Miller, the breakup of SDS in particular and the movement in general can all be traced to the unresolved ambiguities of this one idea. It refreshed American political discourse, he says, but proved too naive about complex organization.

SDS’s democratic imagination, Miller concludes, was ultimately atavistic, a longing for small-scale conditions of social interaction no longer available in a mass society, where representative democracy is the only means of coping with the inevitable “centralization of power and the growth of hierarchical bureaucracies.”

Perhaps the focus on SDS as the center of the ’60s radicalization, and on “participatory democracy” as the doctrinal core of SDS, is misplaced. SDS, or even the New Left as a whole, was only part of a general radicalization in American society in which the strongest roles were played by the epochal uprising of Afro-Americans and the racial dynamics of American culture.

In this period there were instances of radical democratic practices more profound than the “participatory democracy” of SDS, which never went far beyond a notion of free-wheeling, almost endless, discussion.

The Mass Movement and Democracy

The mass movements challenging Jim Crow in the South were remarkable examples of practical democracy. The mobilized Black community of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and 1956, for instance, managed complex organizational tasks–like running a substitute urban transit system–by tapping the expertise hidden in the ordinary work experience of the community’s members.

The pedagogy of outreach houses like the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and the literacy campaign the school organized in the late 1950s along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were profoundly democratic. They were based on the principles that poor and oppressed people could find the answers to their own problems if only they were given the opportunity to freely discuss and explore their circumstances and their aspirations, and that teaching basic skills worked best when left to the ingenuity of educated community members who were not credentialed teachers.

These stirring examples of radical democratic practice, described in Aldon Morris’ excellent book, The Origin of the Civil Rights Movement, have diverse social, cultural, and intellectual roots—but none of them relies on C. Wright Mills’s notion of “publics.”

The Black community was not the only source of resistance to established authority in this early period of the new radicalization. A new social criticism of urban policy, for instance, arose in part from the “grassroots” resistance ethnic communities offered to the destructive practices of elite city planners.

Indeed, the real history of the renewed radicalization in the United States will show that C. Wright Mills’ criticism of American mass society–the idea that the rise of bureaucracy in modem times was accompanied by the wholesale decimation of community and public life–never accurately grasped social reality.

As examples of the Southern civil rights movement and urban resistance show, people acted in a variety of oppositional ways based in more or less vital cultures and meaningful neighborhoods.

In contrast, the deracinated style of the early New Left, which presumed that moral commitment was an ungrounded, desperate grab for meaning in life–the kind of “reckless existentialism” that assumed everyone was a cipher among atomized masses until one had the “guts” to lunge into political action-was either an affectation or an experience based in a specifically middle-class individualistic culture.

What was most valuable about the New Left was not its critique of apathy, drawn from conventional mass-culture critics of the 1950s, or its call for a renewal of “publics,” but its more inchoate sense of attachment to the live struggles arising at various locations throughout the society.

What made the “New Left” really “new “ was its existence as an independent youth movement rather than a subordinate adjunct of an adult movement Its independence stemmed in tum from the ability its members had–most older, tried and tired leftists did not–to throw themselves into active solidarity with the ongoing movement of Black liberation.

Thus the white left had a unique experiential base. Its access to grassroots protest and resistance was both the defining virtue of the New Left and the source of sentiments that gave the rhetoric of “participatory democracy” its resonance.

From this experience flowed the greatest legacy of the New Left, an insight into popular struggles that, in time, revived historical memory and reclaimed a radical past, no matter how checkered, that was rooted in the variegated community lives of Americans. This legacy negates the initial flaw of the New Left–its conscious belief that it was forced to start from nothing, to construct a radicalism that had to be entirely new.

Thanks to the New Left and its experience of struggles for emancipation that begin with the oppressed themselves, leftists will not have to feel, the next time popular resistance arises, that we must make a movement totally from scratch.

September-October 1988, ATC 16

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