Review Symposium: The Port Huron Statement and Political Science

perspectives_on-politicsThe Port Huron Statement and Political Science

A Discussion of Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein’s The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto

by Mark Blitz, William E. Connolly, Peter Gourevitch, Philip Green, Frances Fox Piven, Wilbur C. Rich, Sidney Tarrow, Nicholas Xenos

The Port Huron Statement was one of the most important manifestos of the New Left in the United States. A foundational statement of the theme of “participatory democracy,” the text had an important influence on post-1960s politics and, arguably, on post-1960s political science. The recent publication of a new edition of the Statement is an occasion for reflection on its importance. And so we have invited a distinguished cast of political scientists shaped by the events of the sixties to comment on the impact of the Statement on their own way of envisioning and practicing political science. Read all articles.

Martha Ackelsberg, Smith College and Mary L. Shanley, Vassar College
As political scientists whose work has centered on feminist and democratic theory and practice, we have long seen ourselves as having been formed, profoundly, by the social movements of the 1960s. Now, in rereading and reflecting on the Port Huron Statement (PHS) and the chapters in this edited volume, we are struck, on the one hand, by how much our lives and careers were influenced by the political moment (and movements) to which it gave rise and, on the other, by the ways in which our work within political science took off from one of its most profound omissions: its almost total inattention to gender.

Mark Blitz, Claremont McKenna College
This volume is a series of reflections on the Port Huron Statement by participants and sympathetic academics. I have been asked to “assess . . . the contribution of [this volume] to political science.” Here, I would say that it has little to offer political science directly (unless one means it as Aristotle might), nor is this its intention. Rather, it offers material for reflection on politics: Several of its historical discussions are illuminating, and some of its assessments of where participatory democracy rests today are interesting. Fundamentally, The Port Huron Statement enables us to learn more about, or confirm what we already knew or suspected about, the American Left. Everyone who knows what Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Port Huron Statement are also knows that they were meant to drive us portside. Port Huron’s close ties with Walther Reuther’s United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the involvement of several red diaper babies is unsurprising. The essays, even the ones by younger academics, range from left to more left.

William E. Connolly, Johns Hopkins University 
In 1961, as a beginning graduate student in political theory at the University of Michigan, I enrolled in a philosophy seminar taught by Arnold Kaufman entitled (I think) “Democracy and Participation.” Tom Hayden was also in that seminar. He was already a major figure in student politics at the university. What a class it was, and it played a major role in the Port Huron Statement published a year later. The older political science grad students in the class resisted Kaufman’s theme about the positive role of participation, wedded as they were to realism, the iron law of oligarchy, and Madisonianism. But I bought it hook, line, and sinker, trying to forge a broad image of the idea to encompass worker participation, demonstrations to support Civil Rights, and, soon, participation in a nationwide antiwar movement.

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Peter Gourevitch, University of California, San Diego
In reading this book and re-reading the Port Huron Statement, I am struck by the continuation of a tension between the “micro” of participatory democracy and the “macro” of the big policy battles of then and today. It is a tension that has long divided the left and, indeed, it is a tension that has long been within each of us.  The micro concerns for democratic life at all levels, from the workplace and community life to the national and even international level, expressed in The Port Huron Statement and SDS were important influences in political life of the 1960s and remain so today. They articulated criticism of “bosses,” be they of the party, the union, the workplace, or the state. This “bottom up” perspective can be found in discussion of workers control, union rights, safety conditions in the workplace, decentralization of government, and citizen activism in civil society. The macro context had to do with the un-finished New Deal, fulfilling the dreams of a fully developed welfare state: health care, full employment, educational opportunity, and ending apartheid. The concern with macro issues raised questions in the United States about the weakness of the progressive movement at the national level to achieve the goals its European counterparts had achieved by the 1950s.

Philip Green, Smith College
For political theorists, what came out of the Statement was a version of democratic theory that had hardly existed previously, “participatory democracy.” To be sure, under an earlier rubric, “Direct Action,” it had a long history in theory and practice: especially in Britain, and in the United States through the sit-ins of the 1930s. In fact, as is emphasized in this collection, in the United States the Statement was the way station in a radicalizing process that began in the 1930s, was revived in the late 1950s, and was represented primarily by the Civil Rights movement but also the antinuke peace movement—shortly to be transmogrified into the more widespread antiwar movement, for which, fittingly, the first manifestation was a teach-in at the University of Michigan.

Frances Fox Piven, City University of New York
When I happily agreed to contribute to this symposium, I expected it all to be very familiar. After all, everyone seemed to agree that the Port Huron manifesto was the work of callow young people who, as young people are prone to do, placed their faith in a not very sophisticated call for participatory democracy. That at least was what I remembered. So I am glad that Jeff Isaac provoked me to reread this remarkable document, and I am chastened too because my memory was so flawed. These young people might have been inexperienced, but they were also nothing short of brilliant, astonishingly level-headed and well informed. This was, to be sure, a call for the eventual transformation of the American political economy, but the process of change they envisioned was incremental and reformist and certainly not revolutionary. Moreover, they saw the path to reform as strewn with huge obstacles; there were not going to be easy or quick victories. Rather, they were urging young people to set off on a path that at best would be marked by partial successes. Port Huron announces a direction rather than a set of solutions. It is not callow at all. It is wise.

Wilbur C. Rich, Wellesley College
In the Port Huron Statement, the New Left offered its strong support of the black Civil Rights movement. However, when the Statement is reread, one is struck by its attempt to frame a developing grassroots struggle in which New Left activists were mostly observers rather than participants. Again rereading the Statement, one can easily find obvious conceptual holes, some paternalism, understandable shortsightedness, and forgivable naïveté. Much has happened since 1962. President Lyndon Johnson proved to be a welcomed surprise partner for Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. After passing two major Civil Rights bills and after a progression of court decisions, America abandoned its race-based society and initiated a race-equalizing policy (Rich 2013). More important for southern blacks was the decision by their states to prosecute white participants in antiblack vigilante violence. The 1963 Mississippi reception of Bryon De La Beckwith is quite different from South Carolina’s reaction to Dylan Roof in 2015. White people who commit such crimes are no longer heroes.

Sidney Tarrow, Cornell University
When, in June 1962, a group of progressive students met in Michigan to draft what became “The Port Huron Statement,” graduate students at Berkeley, where I was studying political science at the time, were only dimly aware of what was happening in the Middle West. Berkeley in the 1960s was more attuned to the Cold War, to the militarization of the American state, and to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee across the Bay. Berkeley students’ protests against HUAC, which had been met by fire hoses in San Francisco, would lead to the free speech movement (FSM) that exploded two years later. It was HUAC and the FSM that radicalized many of us when the Port Huron Statement was drafted—and not Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Nicholas Xenos, University of Massachusetts Amherst
By the time I found myself in the middle of the political upheavals and doctrinal arguments associated with the New Left, the Port Huron Statement was less a tangible presence than the ghost of a recently departed relative. This was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and much had changed since the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) met on the shore of Lake Huron in 1962 and issued their manifesto. In his contribution to the essays in this edited collection that accompany the Statement, which he drafted, Tom Hayden points to the assassinations of Medgar Evers and President John Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy in 1968 as factors that changed the political landscape envisioned in it, along with escalation of the war in Vietnam and its consequences for the funding of programs associated with the War on Poverty. He is right to do so, but the list alone cannot convey the texture of the times and why, by 1970, the Statement had become a specter. This can be seen by noting the changing context over the decade of the 1960s with respect to the impact of black Civil Rights activism on white radicals, the politics of the university, and the relationship between liberals and radical democrats.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016