Reflections on Tom Hayden

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

Howard Brick

I’VE GONE BACK and forth on the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 foundational document of Students for a Democratic Society. Decades ago, I took the opening lines of the Statement literally (and pejoratively): “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities.”

Clearly, I thought, this was a “middle class” (petit-bourgeois) movement of intellectuals whose reformist imagination couldn’t go beyond the “realignment” of the Democratic party that Max Shachtman’s right-wing social democrats advocated at the time.

Later, I was surprised to learn that James P. Cannon, no friend of “realignment,” had enthusiastically embraced the Statement when it first appeared as the sign of a new radical youth movement.

The idea the Statement presented of “participatory democracy,” after all, was not really the sole property of the New Left but rather an admirable restatement of the radically democratic spirit of revolutionary councils that represented the best of the proletarian, socialist heritage — a vision of bottom-up struggle for a liberated, egalitarian society.

And yet, when I started to organize a monster gathering in Ann Arbor in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of Port Huron, many of the early SDS veterans who gathered there seemed to tone down that radical history. Their movement, they said, had always really been reformist, not revolutionary — a moderate left flank of the liberals if you will, a view hopeful that change might be made by electoral means, with a little help from street protests.(1)

Which was the “real” Port Huron Statement? I began to discern an answer only when I got to know Tom Hayden a little. As the prime drafter of the Statement, he really did mean both: a left-wing declaration of struggle resting on deep conviction — along with a bent toward “working within the system” when possible. I might not share that last — but for Tom, somehow, it really didn’t diminish his lifelong radicalism in pursuit of emancipation, justice and peace.

He came to Ann Arbor for the 2012 Port Huron-at-50 conference and soon afterward decided to deposit his personal papers in U-M’s famed Labadie Collection of radical literature — some 80 archival boxes of material including a copy of the FBI’s file on him, his notebooks of trips to Hanoi in 1965 and to Cuba in 1968 (when he met with Fidel Castro in the middle of the night), records of the Indochina Peace Campaign as well as documents of his 20-year career in the California state legislature.

Returning in fall 2014, wishing to encourage students to use the collection, he spoke at a showing of the dazzling, never-distributed film Introduction to the Enemy, which he and Jane Fonda made with cinematographer Haskell Wexler of their trip to Hanoi and the DMZ in 1974. His Ann Arbor visit ended as he rushed off to join the massive People’s Climate March in New York City.

We hoped he would visit again in fall 2016, perhaps to join a forum on the “anxious politics” of the 2016 election. He was hospitalized then, but his wife Barbara Williams emailed, “Tom thanks you and says if it’s possible he will Skype.”

Ten days later, on October 23, he died, reprieved from having to confront Trump’s America. But having endured a beating by Mississippi segregationists at the beginning of his radical career in 1961, he knew something about American white nationalism. Indeed, the peculiar balance of political and moral dispositions he maintained from that time forward may tell us something worth hearing now, even if we don’t entirely agree.

A New Left Radical

To be sure, Tom Hayden was never a Marxist and didn’t vest too much confidence in class struggle, but he radicalized early in the 1960s with closer links to socialist ideas than we might think.

The “new left” was a term first bandied about in France in the early 1950s, signifying a “third force” of independent socialists neither Communist nor social-democratic. It gained traction in England after 1956 when the combined Suez crisis and Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt catapulted dissidents like E. P. Thompson out of the Communist Party and into alliance with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The phrase hooked up also with the emerging idea of the “third world,” which led left-wing CND backers to embrace the third-force slogan, “Neither Moscow nor Washington!” The American sociologist C. Wright Mills — Tom Hayden’s real intellectual hero — fit this milieu perfectly as he both embraced the Cuban Revolution and associated with the Thompsonites and others who established the journal New Left Review (NLR) in 1960.(2)

Mills’ NLR essay “Letter to the New Left,” soon reprinted in the Madison, Wisconsin journal Studies on the Left, introduced the term to this country.

By the time Tom Hayden was steeping himself in the new radicalism — from the summer of 1960 when he hitch-hiked across the country, met with student organizers in Berkeley and interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr., in Los Angeles, through his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in summer 1961 to the winter months of 1962, when he started drafting a “Manifesto” for SDS — he paid close attention to the New Left scene in Britain.

He read the book series that charted the rise of the new radical intellectuals there — Declaration (1957), Conviction (1958), and (with the inauguration of New Left Review) Out of Apathy (1960) — and freely quoted that “group of British socialists” in his early “Manifesto” drafts.(3)

The mood of the time built on the “socialist humanism” voiced by dissident Marxists in Eastern Europe, by Iris Murdoch in Conviction, and by Erich Fromm in the United States, who published in 1961 the first U.S. edition of Marx’s complete “1844 manuscripts” in English.

Hayden followed the whole course. Although he later gained a reputation on the left as an “anti-intellectual” activist, his “Manifesto” actually championed Iris Murdoch’s call to build a “house of theory” that would elucidate “the moral centre and moral direction of socialism” for contemporary movements.(4)

Years later he blurbed the first English translation of Leszek Kolakowski’s Toward a Marxist Humanism. But back in 1962, these notions of putting a moral vision of human liberation, freedom and community at the head of socialist programs meshed with the two other key dimensions of Hayden’s formation: Martin Luther King’s call to an American moral awakening and the disarmament movement’s call for peace. (Throughout his life, Tom regarded himself determinedly as a peace activist.)

The explicit allusions to Britain’s New Left socialists dropped out of the Port Huron Statement, but as Hayden walked out of the cabins at Port Huron, Michigan, where the SDS conventioneers had hammered out the basic contours of the Statement, he told his friend Dick Flacks, “The British guys [though he must have meant Murdoch as well] are going to like what we did.”(5)

Civil Rights from Below

The place and time where this vision came into practical focus was Hayden’s engagement with SNCC (as it was for any number of other white students who drew close to SDS due to Al Haber’s recruitment efforts) — particularly his work in the McComb, Mississippi, voter registration drive spearheaded by Bob Moses in summer 1961, the experimental forerunner of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.(6)

Voter registration, of course, implied “working within the system,” which initially turned off more militant SNCC members at least until it became evident what a radicalizing experience that fight could be. Tom worked up the issue of Black voting rights into a wider scenario that sat at the heart of SDS’s early political program, where indeed he embraced the right-Shachtmanite “realignment” doctrine — but with a crucial difference.

Here’s the idea: the achievement of voting rights for African Americans in the South through their own efforts — which was for him the prime model of “participatory democracy” itself — set the stage for dethroning the segregationist Democrats from power (exercised most notably through their Congressional seniority) and thereby opening the way for more far-reaching social reform on a nationwide scale, to be driven by a Democratic party linked to labor and other popular movements.

In writing just a few years ago about the genesis of the Statement, Tom gave center stage to a meeting of SDS and SNCC organizers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a month before the Port Huron convention. There, he wrote, the organizers agreed on the “wider political goal” of “overthrowing” the “racist Dixiecrat order” by Black enfranchisement. He continued:

“But a frontline struggle wasn’t enough. A mobilization of political conscience was needed among constituencies across the country, especially among northern Democrats and labor who would gain from expelling the Dixiecrats. Students would be the catalysts, but the effort required a coalition of labor, clergy, and rank-and-file Democrats. . . . The strategy, however, contained an underlying tension with SDS . . . Beyond a more representative democracy, for example, lay the quest for a participatory democracy sought in the workplace and family life. Realignment alone could not express the emerging culture revolution among young poets, musicians, and Beats. These differences foreshadowed, in a way, the division several years later between the more ideological New Left, on the one hand, and a “movement politics” based on changing morality, culture and spirituality, on the other. Both would be needed for a time. The Statement would have to blend the differences.”(7)

Built into that narrative are all sorts of views that most readers of this journal would not accept; but we should pause a bit to catch the underlying flavor of the argument and the ambiguity built into it. The idea of “changing morality, culture and spirituality” could be an opening to “new age” ideas that drove some SDSers a decade later toward a counterculture deemed “counter” not only to the mainstream Establishment but also to the more explicitly Marxist politics of the late 1960s.(8)

I think, however, that Hayden meant something else. His notion of “movement politics”  actually challenged Shachtman’s realignment strategy from the left, by combining the socialist-humanist priority of moral vision with an anticipation of multiplying militant movements for change.

In his last installment of notes prior to the Port Huron convention, Hayden urged SDSers to recall SNCC’s “courage” to be “creators instead of simply creatures” — a “spirit,” he warned SDSers not to “kill . . . by immediately imposing formulas for ‘realignment.’ We have to grow and expand, and let moral values get a bit realigned.”(9)

Port Huron and Beyond

We know that Hayden during and after Port Huron championed the left wing of SDS. He did this first by affirming “anti-anticommunism” against the right-Shachtmanities and next promoting a campaign drawing SDS off the campuses into a SNCC-inspired effort to build “an interracial movement of the poor” in northern cities, the renowned Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) — thus proposing a clearly non-electoral, extraparliamentary center for SDS action.

Even before the ERAP projects wound down — without building a mass movement or winning very many concrete reforms, but also providing yet another ground of radicalization for its organizers — Hayden engaged strongly with the anti-Vietnam War movement.

He stayed with his Newark community-organizing effort until the 1967 uprising there, writing one of the best contemporary accounts of that scene. His book Rebellion in Newark, like his 1961 report on McComb “Revolution in Mississippi,” showed him to be a top-notch journalist who could have gone into the mainstream media but nurtured his talents in the movement and for the movement.(10)

The original ambiguity in the Port Huron Statement may have lent to Hayden’s politics that characteristic oscillation between liberalism and the ultraleft which Marxists often criticize in radicalisms lying outside working-class commitments. The remarkable insight shown in Rebellion in Newark, due to his radical solidarity with that city’s African American neighborhoods, was marred by a concluding flourish that welcomed an emerging “guerrilla warfare based in the slums. . . . [to] create possibilities of meaningful change.”(11)

His outrage-verging-on-despair at the continued U.S. assault on Vietnam led him by 1968 to conclusions that implied a street-fighting logic:

“Since the country, provably, has no soul that is in operation, no conscience that works, only a kind of tattered remnant of a democratic tradition that doesn’t prevail when the chips are down — given that, then you have to make a cold calculation . . . to raise the material cost to such a high level that those decision-makers who only deal in cost-effectiveness terms will have to get out of Vietnam . . . the cost in terms of internal disruption, generational conflict, choking off the number of reliable soldiers, the number of willing taxpayers — just make a list of everything they need to fight the war, and calculate what you can take away from them.”(12)

Indeed, by 1970, he spent some time in a Berkeley collective that took up target practice in the event of armed struggle to come.(13)

Before very long, however, Hayden returned to a commitment like that of his early notes on Iris Murdoch. He wrote about “building a house of theory . . . or at least its foundation, right out in public, in the middle of the neighborhood.”(14) By this he meant not in the political “middle” but in his aspiration to build a movement to make radical change, first by keeping the antiwar movement alive (the Indochina Peace Campaign) and then by his Campaign for Economic Democracy, which captured the idea of the 1970s left that it was once again possible to reach a broad public with a critique of capitalism.

To be sure, he had no sympathy for the industrializing strategies of Marxist currents at that time, and his desire to fashion a politics of radical reform within a “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party led him to make any number of compromises, some of which, later, he frankly regretted.(15)

His basic commitments nonetheless survived. He kept writing powerfully about community struggle, jumping into the campaign against mass incarceration at a fairly early point with his book Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence (2004). He insistently strove to keep the memory of the 1960s movements alive by publishing retrospectives on the Cuban Revolution and (posthumously) the antiwar movement, in Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement.(16)

In Trump’s America, moreover, there is something worth recalling in his early view that a “movement politics” entailed “changing morality, culture and spirituality.” This disposition meant not a retreat from militancy but rather Tom’s deep internalization of Martin Luther King’s view that a desirable future (which King always imagined in genuine social-democratic terms) depended on a deep moral renovation of American life — something again quite crucial as the 2016 election showed how much white supremacy remains the drag anchor, the default position of much (white) American consciousness.

Confronting that, changing it — and that includes discovering the means of rebutting whatever emotional resentment motivates some portion of white working-class voters to return to that default position — is an essential part of radicalism, nothing less than what Antonio Gramsci meant by a struggle for hegemony.

Indeed, the English-language rediscovery of Gramsci was a project, first in Britain and then in the United States, beginning right in the midst of the socialist humanism embraced by the early New Left. Tom’s 1962 allusion to Iris Murdoch’s view — that elaborating “the moral centre and moral direction of socialism” lay at the heart of a rejuvenated left — meant precisely the same Gramscian thing.

For Tom Hayden, that “centre and moral direction” rested clearly in SNCC, as today it might be seen in Black Lives Matter. In that challenge which Tom took up in 1960-62 —to which he did a creditable job of staying true — we might also glimpse how our work is cut out for us.


  1. Howard Brick and Gregory L. Parker, and University of Michigan, A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement and Its Times, xii, 559 pages (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Maize Books, 2015),
    back to text
  2. C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review, I, no. 5 (1960): 18-23. Hayden published a revised version of his 1962 master’s thesis on Mills as Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006).
    back to text
  3. Tom Maschler, ed., Declaration (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957); Norman MacKenzie et al, Conviction, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959); E. P. Thompson, ed., Out of Apathy (London: Stevens, 1960); see Tom Hayden, “Before Port Huron,” “Convention Document #1,” “Convention Document #2,” and “RE: Manifesto,” in Brick and Parker, eds., A New Insurgency, 15-45.
    back to text
  4. Murdoch, “A House of Theory,” in MacKenzie, et al., Conviction, 228.
    back to text
  5. Erich Fromm and Karl Marx, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: F. Ungar, 1961); Leszek. Ko?akowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism; Essays on the Left Today (New York: Grove Press, 1968); Murdoch, in MacKenzie and Shore, Conviction, 218-33; Hayden in Brick and Parker, eds., A New Insurgency, 26-27; Dick Flacks, personal communication to the author, March 7, 2014.
    back to text
  6. Alec Ramsay-Smith, “‘A Tremor in the Middle of the Iceberg: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Local Voting Rights Activism in Southwestern Mississippi, 1928-1964,’” Senior Thesis, University of Michigan, 2016.
    back to text
  7. Hayden, “Before Port Huron,” Brick and Parker, A New Insurgency, 19.
    back to text
  8. See especially Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer, “The Evolution of a Radical’s Consciousness: Living an Authentic Life,” in Brick and Parker, eds., A New Insurgency, 101-7.
    back to text
  9. Hayden, “RE: Manifesto,” in Brick and Parker, eds., A New Insurgency, 45.
    back to text
  10. Tom Hayden, Revolution in Mississippi: Special Report (New York: Students for a Democratic Society, 1961); Tom Hayden, Rebellion in Newark; Official Violence and Ghetto Response (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).
    back to text
  11. Hayden, Rebellion in Newark; Official Violence and Ghetto Response, 69-71.
    back to text
  12. Hayden, quoted in Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 289.
    back to text
  13. James Miller, “Democracy Is in the Streets”:  From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 307.
    back to text
  14. Hayden, “Convention Document #1,” in Brick and Parker, A New Insurgency, 27.
    back to text
  15. Jim Kavanaugh, “Tom Hayden’s Haunting,” Counterpunch, October 27, 2016,
    back to text
  16. Tom Hayden, Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence; Tom Hayden, Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters (NY: Seven Stories Press, 2015); Tom Hayden, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
    back to text

May-June 2017, ATC 188