Three Monkeys Online

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The Port Huron Statement – Fifty Years On

As we wait for the definitive manifesto of Occupy Movement to be written – if that is possible given the diverse range of opinions and voices that are associated with it – this is arguably an opportune moment to look back 50 years at another radical grouping , which did succeed in putting together and consolidating its ideas in published form.

June 11th. 1962 may not be recorded in many history books or memories as a particularly important date. Yet, the sixty or so people who gathered in a nondescript union training centre in the rural outskirts of a small lake-side Michigan town were about to make a major impact on the US political landscape.

Five days later, the meeting had ended and the Port Huron Statement, named after the town, had been written. The 24,000 word document did not have a huge circulation but it did express a set of influential ideas for a whole range of 1960s’  groups struggling for change. Anti-Vietnam war protestors, Civil Rights’ activists and students dissatisfied with the materialist and conformist values of their institutions, all looked to Port Huron for a set of ideas and a language with which to express their hostility to the society that surrounded them and for a programme with which to create a better one.

Even at the time, the Port Huron Conference participants – members of the Student Democratic Society (SDS) and other progressive organisations, plus a small number of older leftists – sensed the significance of what they were doing. Starting with a first-draft written by Tom Hayden, imprisoned Freedom Rider, SDS leader and editor of the University of Michigan campus newspaper, the assembled activists put their democratic beliefs into action. Spread around the United Autoworkers’ site, with its central hall and cluster of cabins, small groups worked tirelessly on developing the arguments of what would become the final version of the Port Huron Statement – demonstrating, in the process, that participatory democracy, one of its central tenets – wasn’t just an inspiring abstract concept but an achievable reality. As views were exchanged over coffee and meals, in a process that sometimes led to fierce debate and disagreement, the sixty activists began to put together a progressive agenda that would shape the new left politics of the coming decade. “We all thought we were making history”, says Paul Booth, one of the participants. Here then, in a very real sense, the Sixties – or at least one crucial aspect of it – were born.

Yet, in spite of its failures, Port Huron did produce something of long-lasting value. What is striking fifty years on, is that despite occasional lapses into the trite and the mystical and despite an almost total blindness to the situation of women, the Statement’s analysis of American society, together with its programme for action, still has relevance.


The Port Huron Conference participants were not influenced by any one single person or text. True, Tom Hayden was an enthusiastic disciple of the radical sociologist, C. Wright Mills, the news of whose early death on the very day on which he completed the first-draft of the Statement, was devastating. Mills had recognised that a new mass society meant that traditional class-based loyalties and forms of action were increasingly outmoded and that new types of protest, including those of American students, were increasingly relevant. However, other figures’ contributions are also important – figures such as academic, Arnold Kaufman, who had first stated the idea of participatory democracy, French writer, Albert Camus, whose La Peste , focused on the necessity to resist evil and Fifties’ intellectual, Paul Goodman, who judged American institutions as incapable of providing meaning for ordinary citizens. The influence of the Beats and early Dylan also influenced the activists, suggesting interesting links between an embryonic counter-culture and the more politicized student movement.

A number of strands then – some academic, some more broadly cultural and artistic – are woven into the final Statement, and, as such, it might be better to read it less as a straight-forward political manifesto and more as a creative attempt to make sense of the state of the nation at a particular historical moment – to identify its deep divisions and failings and to find ways forward that would improve the lives of the majority. Not only does the document address basic issues of poverty and national security but also more intangible matters ,related to what it means to live a fulfilled life in a rapidly changing world. Thus, whilst the intellectual analysis is generally sharp and penetrating and the proposed policy responses grounded in reality, what really makes this polemical pamphlet special and accounts for its after-life, is its imaginative power to affectively engage readers with its ideas.

The document’s consideration of what is wrong with America is certainly inclusive. Big inequalities between rich and poor, serious problems with party political arrangements, a misguided approach to foreign relations are all key strands of the diagnosis, which has, at its heart, the recognition that living a meaningful life in the world’s most advanced country is out of reach for most Americans – out of reach because of the processes of de-personalization and commodification, to which they are subject. With unfulfilling jobs and ‘bombarded’ by ‘hard-sell, soft-sell lies’ from a manipulative advertising industry, individuals, it is argued, are treated more as economic units – as ‘things’ – rather than as human beings possessing ‘unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.’  This is less the language of political scientists and conventional economists and more the language of political philosophers influenced by Freud and early Marx; Marcuse is about to publish One Dimensional Man

And the impoverishment to be found in mainstream American life is reflected within the university campus. Made passive by ‘inner emigration’, students concentrate on ‘playing it cool’, abiding by the rules and obtaining the conventional markers of academic and social status. In words that echo those of David Riesman’s influential, The Lonely Crowd (1950) – there is ‘no real conception of personal identity except one manufactured in the image of others’.

Yet, the Port Huron activists are concerned with more than matters of Philosophy and social psychology – important as these are. Connected to them and connected to each other, are the topical political issues of the day – racial discrimination, the cold-war, Vietnam, poverty. Living in an economy dominated by the ‘military-industrial complex’ – a phrase borrowed from Eisenhower – one of their major themes is the psychological impact of the nuclear bomb on American life. Instead of an open society, in which people face up to the issues of the day, citizens hide behind a ‘shell of moral callous’, confusing dissent with disloyalty. The arguments of the supporters of deterrence – arguments still heard today – are certainly acknowledged in the Statement but also rationally exposed as inadequate. In words that are both vivid and concise, the key point is powerfully made: ‘The symmetry of threat and counter threat leads not to stability but to the edge of hell.’

If nuclear conflict is one shaping force within American culture, race is certainly another. Refusing the easy liberal approach that things are improving, albeit slowly, the Port Huron participants recognise the role of the wider colonial struggle in stirring the anger and aspirations of Southern blacks against oppression – an oppression that also means that the white man and woman, fearful of moving outside their ‘immediate close-up world… loses his personal subjective freedom’. The latter insight reveals how the writers, in a manner similar to such novelists as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, repeatedly makes telling links between the political and the psychological.

As the close of the Statement approaches, the fundamental question of whether it is possible to change things for the better is raised. The broken political system, with its internal party splits, its localized organisation, its disenfranchised groups and unrepresentative lobby interests, seems to pose too much of an obstacle to progress. What increasingly counts is the ‘politics of personality and image’ rather than the politics of practical policy-driven reform. Yet, as well as acknowledging the difficulties, the Port Huron activists offer hope, setting out in two final chapters what the ‘major goals of a domestic effort would be’ and ‘an alternative to helplessness’. In proposals that still resonate today, the authors argue for the following: the creation of democratic institutions to campaign on key issues and the elimination of those that promote ‘fear and apathy’, for limitations on the irresponsible power of corporations, for regulations on the market to meet people’s needs and for an educational system that faces outwards to the world.

Admitting that the goals are long-term, the Port Huron sixty look around them to find new directions for the radical groups in society seeking change. The recent switch of attention of the Southern civil-rights movement to voter registration and legal remedies, are, it is argued, two potentially effective responses to the evil of institutionalized racial discrimination. Similarly, they call for the peace movement to take on a more mainstream role in American life – ‘an opposition viewpoint within the centers of serious decision-making’ – forging relationships with local communities. Furthermore, a re-vitalized labor movement has to ‘constitute itself as a mass political force’, speaking to the nation as a whole rather than to narrow interest-groups. And lastly, the Democratic Party, compromised by its ‘tolerance of the perverse unity of northern liberalism and southern racism’ requires a ‘new spirit’, the flickering glimmers of which were to enthuse the supporters of Robert Kennedy in subsequent years.

One final and most important source and resource for reform is the university – an institution that can serve as a ‘potential base and agency’ for social change. Co-operating with other liberal forces in society, a ‘new left’ of students and faculty must ‘wrest control of the educational process’ and help people ‘see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society.’

Certainly, the Port Huron Statement is broad-ranging and ambitious. Yet this didn`t prevent the Conference participants from believing that their ideas could be translated into political action; hence the White House meeting between influential historian, Arthur Schlesenger and activists, Tom Hayden and Robert Haber, who spend an hour talking about their project and leave with the promise that JFK would be informed.

The President would soon be assassinated and looking back to 1962, there is, of course, a sense now of all that wasn’t achieved. It took a Republican president to end the Vietnam War, the collapse of Communism to end the Cold-War and the election of Barack Obama to …  Yet, in spite of its failures, Port Huron did produce something of long-lasting value. What is striking fifty years on, is that despite occasional lapses into the trite and the mystical and despite an almost total blindness to the situation of women, the Statement’s analysis of American society, together with its programme for action, still has relevance.

Writing in 2002, two key Port Huron figures – Tom Hayden and Dick Flacks – are right to remind us that the 1962 document was regarded at its conception as ‘living … open to change with our times and experiences’ and to claim that it still spoke ‘to all those trying to create a world where each person has a voice in the decisions affecting his or her life’. Times have certainly changed and radical groups working outside the political system, such as the Occupy movement , can continue to look to the Statement for ideas and inspiration.


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