Reading: 9 Years That Nudged the World | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: 9 Years That Nudged the World 

James Miller has written a sympathetic but critical account of the SDS--a useful chronology of "the Movement" and a generally rigorous judgement of its intentions and means.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

On February 1, 1960, four black college students entered the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at a lunch counter reserved for whites, and with the modest step of ordering coffee and doughnuts launched the civil rights movement. The act was repeated the next day, caught the interest of the press, and within the week similar manifestations had spread throughout the south, with black elbows resting on white Formica counters. By the middle of April, 50,000 students across the country participated in a new project called the "sit-in," to interpret and promote civil rights for all.

Let's fast-forward ten years to 1970, the middle of Nixon's first term. Spiro Agnew and the president devoted much of their time that year to whipping up antistudent fever in the country, to blunt public hostility to the war and promote a Republican vote in the off-year elections in November. In spring, four students were shot to death at Kent State in Ohio, and American troops invaded Cambodia, provoking the last and largest outcry of those years from the universities. At a campaign rally at the end of October in San Jose, Nixon provoked a famous rock-throwing incident, allegedly proving the danger and malignancy of the Left and the need for a hard domestic line. The Republicans gained a few seats in the Senate, lost more in the House--and the decade of chaos, war, and assassination abruptly ended, like a clock stroke at midnight.

Great things happened between the elections and the president's resignation four years later, including the Hanoi Christmas bombings of 1972, and the assorted felonies for which a House committee recommended his impeachment. But an epoch of dissent and experimentation had already come to an end, giving way to the tides of fear and demoralization we have known ever since.

The question now is how to interpret it all, that interval between coffee and doughnuts in North Carolina and the autumn campaign of 1970. Was it the third and perhaps final drive for serious reform in American politics in this century? Was it evidence, as Irving Howe has suggested, of a besetting flaw in American politics checking reform as it nears the threshold of socialism? Did any constructive change derive from the years that William Leuchtenburg has called "the travail of liberalism"?

"Democracy is in the streets" was the battle cry sounded by protesters in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968, and it is also the title of James Miller's recent book, a partial history of the Students for a Democratic Society, from its creation in 1960 to its fragmentation nine years later. Miller was a member of SDS and has produced a sympathetic but critical account, an absorbing volume with a useful chronology of "the Movement," as it became known, and a generally rigorous judgment of its intentions and means. He strives for detached historical interpretation, and though the author neglects some critical questions, he seems to have undertaken valuable original research. Those whose understanding of the decade is an indistinct jumble of "student revolt," drugs, the sexual revolution, and guerrilla warfare will find this a highly readable clarification.

Until early 1960, SDS was the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the campus counterpart of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy. SLID's antecedents stretched back to its founding in 1905 by the novelist Upton Sinclair, and both the campus group and the parent league had survived numerous waves of anticommunist hysteria, extending a sufficiently leftist program to outdistance liberals, while resisting government provocation. By the end of the 50s committed radicals found it a tame but not altogether useless forum, and an alternative to a fossilized Marxism.

The most active chapter of the group, and certainly the principal source of inspiration at the beginning of the 60s, was the one at Ann Arbor, seat of the University of Michigan. Under the influence of Tom Hayden, Alan Haber, Sharon Jeffrey, and Bob Ross, the Ann Arbor SDS became the center of the movement and hosted the convention at Port Huron, Michigan, in June 1962. Fairly remote business 25 summers ago, the gathering of 59 young people has acquired a retrospective fame as the source of one of the principal political documents of post-World War II American history. Argument and debate went deep into the night and resulted in the Port Huron Statement--drafted by Hayden--the founding manifesto of SDS.

It is still a powerful document. The ideas put forth are even truer now than they were back then, and a central tenet of the statement had a decisive effect on the amorphous "Movement" that burst into flame later on and so abruptly flickered out in the middle of the first Nixon term.

"Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life," the statement begins, "people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos from them now." And: "All around us there is astute grasp of method, technique--the committee, the ad hoc group, the lobbyist, the hard and soft sell, the make, the projected image--but, if pressed critically, such expertise is incompetent to explain its implicit ideals. . . . Doubt has replaced hopefulness--and men act out of a defeatism that is labeled realistic."

The Port Huron Statement is a comprehensive program addressing what the students considered the principal questions confronting their generation--the cold war and the expansion of democracy in America. Their proposal for Soviet-American relations was disarmament (though not unilateral), and a program that seven years later would be termed detente. Spending and planning and more civil rights were the remedies for the laboring class and the poor and the "Negroes." It is a lengthy composition, 45 pages of reduced print in the appendix to the Miller volume, and testifies to genuine thought and feeling. As the reign of Nixonism drew near the SDS acquired the image of fire-breathing rabble-rousers, but that was not the way they started out.

The broad issue facing those young people was to overturn the vacancy, drift, and nihilism of American life. The SDS sought to address what Richard Hofstadter identified in 1948 as "the passive and spectatorial" character of the public, to give the citizen a sense of individual participation in public affairs, and above all to challenge what for at least 100 years has been the central failure of bourgeois civilization--all means and no ends.

To attack these questions Hayden imported into the statement the notorious and ambiguous expression "participatory democracy," which was meant to convey a general idea of how democratic politics should be conducted. Theorists of representative democracy concentrate on institutional safeguards required to preserve and extend the forms of democracy, but the proponents of participatory democracy are concerned with what Miller calls "human development."

The matter is worth considering. In the fall of 1961 SDS had a mere 20 chapters nationwide with a membership close to 500. A rough but common understanding, and perhaps the terms for a coherent debate, was still available within that kind of framework. But by the end of 1965 its ranks had grown to 10,000, and by '68 it was up to 100,000. At the outset participatory democracy was intended to "complement" the representative form in a vague way that was never fully delineated. But by the middle of the decade, with the Movement undergoing an unforeseeable expansion and radicalization, participatory democracy was seen as a replacement for the representative type, and it became the central buzzword by means of which the membership sought to convey, in their inarticulate way, just what it was they stood for.

The failure to extend a coherent understanding on first principles "prompted the brightest young thinkers on the left in the years that followed to concentrate on strategy and economics and social issues, while the broader political vision of participatory democracy went largely unexamined," Miller writes. "Because the vision was never codified and clarified and passed on as a formal doctrine of democracy, no shared approach to grappling with objectives and difficulties was handed down." Miller says dependence on the generality was "intellectually disastrous" since it deprived future participants in SDS of any means of steady theoretical orientation.

Damaging as this may have been, it didn't inhibit the vitality and aggressiveness of the early SDS. By September 1963, the group mounted the Economic Research and Action Project, which sent groups of the young into impoverished neighborhoods of our great manufacturing villages--Newark, for example, and Cleveland--to organize the poor and unemployed along interracial lines. The Old Left, i.e., the socialists, sought to organize classes, while the New tried to press social movements. ERAP, as it was known, lasted just two years, and the results were broadly disappointing; but the project attracted favorable attention, offering newspaper readers an unwarranted confirmation of what participatory democracy might yield. In September 1965, SDS organized the first major demonstration against the war, acquiring status as the undisputed leader of the antiwar movement. Its ranks swelled enormously, but the Movement turned extremely amorphous, a result of deliberate intellectual and structural looseness. The national office in Chicago barely functioned, and the group's efforts remained fragmented along the innumerable lines of action suggested by the Port Huron Statement. Years later early members would engage in bitter self-reproach for failing to make SDS the central instrument generating resistance to the war. And that draws us to the four critical subjects a book like this needs to address; Miller handles only the first.

(1) Relations between the New and Old Left. Throughout the decade, and especially in the second half, liberal instructors from the humanities, and especially the more consciously political writers at, for example, the socialist Dissent, were upset and perplexed over the antagonism of the young. At Columbia University's commencement ceremony in 1968, the middle-aged historian Richard Hofstadter told his young audience that "some of us, even us, used to be radical as well. Had we changed so much? Cannot you recognize that the America we suffered for in the 30s is yours?"

But the students were elsewhere. Part of the divide was purely generational. The Port Huron Statement frequently employs the expression "our generation," as the first to experience lifelong exposure to the bomb and the burden of unremitting tensions with the Soviet Union. The Old Left consisted mainly of aging socialists abiding by the ideals of any number of writers, including Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and others. They could point to socialist parties and programs intermittently flourishing in Europe, but not to a successful socialist revolution as such. The Old Left bore the stigma of historical failure, and the young were resolutely antisectarian, antiorganization, anti anything that brought the restraints of system. That of course was their major limitation.

Although the far Right, especially in the southeast, was gaining ground in the early 60s, and found a representing voice in Barry Goldwater, the New Left began to identify "corporate liberalism" as the principal enemy of reform. Liberals sought to pacify social discontent with the welfare system and were sure to resist a program challenging the great collectivities--corporations, the military--malignantly spreading in state and society. Liberals could not, would not, go far enough, and the Kennedy experiences in Cuba--the Bay of Pigs in '61 and the missile crisis one year later--drove a major wedge between the early leaders of SDS and the agents of American liberalism.

On this Miller is effective. Here is what he neglects:

(2) The gap between the ideals of the Port Huron Statement and the means chosen for attaining them. The manifesto calls for the reorganization of life and the restructuring of society "as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances." It offers a very telling and entirely justified claim that "not even the liberal and socialist preachments of the past seem adequate" for the hope of a regenerated democracy. But the proposals then suggested amount to the same administrative tinkering with which liberals and socialists have been identified since at least the Depression.

What is SDS asking for? A reorganized party system, pitting a real left against the right, although I think the Port Huron group has a defective understanding of what that should be. And then? Public spending for education, housing, and medicine; higher worker participation in management, more extensive regulation of industry, partial or full nationalization of industry, sweeping welfare programs, the "humanization of work," public development authorities . . .

On one hand, a severe interpretation of the danger besetting American life, and on the other, conventional left-wing nostrums. It is as though Hayden and his colleagues had assorted dissatisfactions with American life they were unable to take anywhere or do anything with. Decency and humanity are admirable qualities, and it would take a good deal of callousness and indifference to deny the value of the standard liberal program--poverty spending, civil rights--to remedy the painful insufficiencies of American life. But even if these adjustments were successfully executed they would probably have little effect on cultural deterioration or the form of human life at the end of the 20th century.

(3) What accounts for the degradation of the Left through the 60s? The Movement began as a determined effort at broad-gauge reform, but by means of an enfeebling transmutation the new politics became the counterculture. What started out as Bob Dylan and beer became as the decade aged the Stones, the Beatles, drugs, and wanton sex. By the fall of 1969 Hayden moved to a commune in Berkeley and sententiously offered that "drugs would commonly be used as a means of deepening self-awareness." Miller himself writes of a "mystical reverence of raw experience" welling up among the students.

Perhaps the broader a movement grows the harder it is to sustain nuances of argument and attack. In The Idiot Dostoyevski has some relevant things to say, and though they may be harsh, I think we need to consider them. "Nothing," he writes, "is easier for 'ordinary' people of limited intelligence than to imagine themselves exceptional and original and to revel in that delusion without the slightest misgiving. Some of our young ladies have only to crop their hair, put on blue spectacles and dub themselves Nihilists to persuade themselves at once that they have immediately gained 'convictions' of their own." A century after the composition of The Idiot, students sounded off over democracy, imperialism, and capitalism, and these resonant words engendered the confidence that real ideas had been conceived and conveyed.

(4) Were the students covert fascists? This is the charge recently mounted by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom likens the students he found at Cornell during the 60s to the Nazified youth movement in Germany during the early 30s. The claim may sound extreme, but it has been heard before. A characteristic linking the two is their harsh intolerance and addiction to violence, another trend testifying to the deterioration of the New Left. Bloom claims that "the unthinking hatred of 'bourgeois society' was the same" in both the rightist attack on the independent German university during the 30s and the leftist one three decades later in the U.S. In her essay "On Violence" Hannah Arendt, who saw a good deal more to admire in the New Left than Professor Bloom, nevertheless described "the undeniable glorification of violence by the student movement," and in an interview granted over the same period laments the "conviction that everything deserves to be destroyed, that everybody deserves to go to hell." In his 1970 novel Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow appears to identify the young of New York tormenting the elderly Polish refugee at the center of the novel with the German invaders he had survived during the war. Miller points out Hayden's dangerous drift toward the rhetoric of destruction. After Newark's ghetto erupted during July 1967, Hayden, thinking of black power but also of the North Vietnamese, considered the revolutionary potential of urban guerrillas.

Miller has trouble bridging the gap between the Movement on one hand and its leaders on the other. The two are inseparable, and locating the proper line of demarcation is very hard. But the flaw can be accepted, because the book's virtues--partial analysis and edification--easily justify its publication and a broad, attentive readership.

"Democracy Is in the Streets" by James Miller, Simon and Schuster, 1987, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by David Cohen

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories