The New Left’s Coming of Age

It’s hard from this distance to remember that the Port Huron Statement, which effectively launched the Students for a Democratic Society and, in a sense, the whole New Left in America, was politically a very modest document.

It was unabashedly middle-class, concerned with poverty of vision rather than poverty of life, with apathy rather than equality, with the world of the white student rather than the world of blacks, poor people, or workers. It was set firmly in mainstream politics, seeking to reform wayward institutions rather than eliminate them, and it did not concern itself with capitalism, imperialism, or even socialism. Nowhere was there mention of revolution.

But none of that mattered—indeed none of that would have spoken as the document did to the college generation of the time. The Statement thoroughly plumbed and analyzed a stagnant mid-century American society and successfully captured the spirit of the new student mood. It declared the principles not only of the few hundred students then around SDS but also of students nationwide for several years to come.

Why? Because it answered the unspoken need of that politically aware and active part of the college generation, both undergraduate and graduate, to have a comprehensive analysis of the failing system, an inspiring vision for reform, and a coherent strategy for using universities as “the potential base and agency in a movement of social change.”

Let’s take a look.

The Statement was nothing less than a proto-ideology for a New Left, aimed at an educated university audience.

Analysis. The Port Huron Statement is forthright in its understanding of an America gone wrong, not just in the glaring forms of militarism and racism then becoming so apparent, but in its fundamental paralysis: “America rests in national stalemate . . . its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than ’of, by, and for the people.’” Apathy was a common-enough object of blame in those days of post-’50s conformity, but the Statement argued that “America is without community, impulse, without the inner momentum necessary for an age when . . . democracy must be viable because of the quality of life, not its quantity of rockets.” More: “Americans are in withdrawal from public life, from any collective effort at directing their own affairs.” What followed from that analysis actually made up four-fifths of the final document, but it was basically a critique for political science majors and, as we would say today, “policy wonks.”

Vision. The Statement combined humanism (“We regard men [women’s movement correctives would come a few years later] as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love”), individualism (“The goal of men and society should be human independence”), and community (“Human brotherhood must be willed, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations”). But what the medium for that would be is still more telling: “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 life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation”—what would come to be called “participatory democracy.”

These ideas seem pretty tame today, and they reflect a lot of the C. Wright Mills–style criticism that Tom Hayden, the principle author of this section, had been absorbing. But the sunny vision was grounded by a strategic platform.

Strategy. The authors laid out an action plan for a “new left,” which must have “real intellectual skills,” “consist of younger people,” “include liberals and socialists,” “start controversy . . . if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed,” “give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people organize to change society,” and argue “the case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts . . . as never before.” And what is the site for all of this? The university, which “permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.”

It was nothing less than a proto-ideology for a New Left, aimed at an educated university audience. And it hit home because the strategy called for action and agitation right on campus. There was nothing like it around, and wherever the Statement was read it won converts.

That summer some SDS members handed it out at the National Student Association convention. One NSA delegate, Vivian Franklin from the University of Texas, wrote what was apparently a pretty typical response: “Upon arriving here, I went over The Port Huron Statement in detail and now find myself enthusiastic over the vision put forward therein to the point of effervescing these ideas to anyone even faintly inclined to have a comprehending ear.” A month later she was an SDS member, two months later she was asking for more copies of the Statement to give her friends, and three months later she was the organizer of a successful SDS civil rights conference in Dallas.

When school opened in the fall, SDS members began papering their campuses with the document. In the next two years, 20,000 mimeographed copies (in 66 single-spaced pages) were sent out from the National Office, and who knows how many were copied on individual campuses. In late 1964 another 20,000 copies were printed as a 64-page booklet, and in the fall of 1966 yet another 20,000. Even as the student population shifted, the Statement had staying power. It was undoubtedly the most widely distributed document of the American left in the 1960s.

Harold Taylor, who had been president of Sarah Lawrence College from 1945 to 1959 and had been at the Port Huron SDS meeting as an observer, said some years later that it marked “a turning point in American political history, the point at which a coalition of student movements had become possible and a radical student movement had been formed. It also marked the coming of age of the new generation.” I don’t think that, from a current vantage point, the movement in 1962 was particularly radical, though over time the Statement certainly attracted radicals, some of whom became associated with the New Left. As to the coming of age of a new generation, there’s no doubt about that.