The news this morning of the passing of the radical activist Tom Hayden, at age 76, summons to mind something I’ve been wanting to go over for a while now: that the “New Left” of the 1960s almost makes sense compared to the advance edge of the left today. And that’s a scary thought, given that the New Left of the 1960s was born out of a rejection of the liberal establishment of the time. As either Hayden or one of his close SDS collaborators once put it, the agenda of the New Left was “to murder liberalism in its official robes.”
Hayden was the principal author of the founding document of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement. It is quite long, often repetitive and always overwritten like much of leftist thought. I don’t recommend trying to read it through. It really could have used a good editor. Just compare it to the Sharon Statement, the founding document of the Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, which fits on a single page. (My old mentor M. Stanton Evans was the principal author of the Sharon Statement.)
Sure enough, the “Old Left,” so to speak, was not impressed with young Hayden’s handiwork. Irving Howe was not alone in thinking that the energy of the New Left was mostly “a gesture of moral rectitude.” The legendary socialist Norman Thomas was similarly unimpressed, remarking that “I’ve seen a lot of manifestoes in my day, and this one’s no worse, nor no better.” The New Left’s sentimental slogans, noted Tom Kahn of the League for Industrial Democracy (an Old Left organization), appealed perfectly to the “romantic defeatism” of the free floating anxiety that is typical among disaffected youth—how can we hope to prevail against a Leviathan-like “System”? And Norman Podhoretz, then still on the left, decided against publishing a condensed version of the Port Huron Statement in Commentary because he was troubled by a premonition of “dogmatic authoritarianism” implied in the New Left’s rhetoric.
Still, there are parts of the Port Huron Statement that make for ironic reading today, and it’s worth a look at a few almost serviceable parts. Contrary to today’s campus left, there were no demands for “safe spaces.” (And they also didn’t demand, as Charles Kesler has joked, that sex on campus could only take place with lawyers present.) To the contrary, Hayden in Port Huron was demanding an end to coddling by college administrators. They wanted to grow up faster, and take on more responsibility. Port Huron criticizes both value-free social science and excessive theorizing in favor of idealism, which is notably absent from the campus left today: “Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old — and, unable to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself.” Remember, Hayden was writing before the arrival of Foucault.
Then there’s this passage, some of which could be written by a conservative today:
Academia includes a radical separation of student from the material of study. That which is studied, the social reality, is “objectified” to sterility, dividing the student from life — just as he is restrained in active involvement by the deans controlling student government. The specialization of function and knowledge, admittedly necessary to our complex technological and social structure, has produced and exaggerated compartmentalization of study and understanding. This has contributed to: an overly parochial view, by faculty, of the role of its research and scholarship; a discontinuous and truncated understanding, by students, of the surrounding social order; a loss of personal attachment, by nearly all, to the worth of study as a humanistic enterprise.
There is, finally, the cumbersome academic bureaucracy extending throughout the academic as well as extracurricular structures, contributing to the sense of outer complexity and inner powerlessness that transforms so many students from honest searching to ratification of convention and, worse, to a numbness of present and future catastrophes. The size and financing systems of the university enhance the permanent trusteeship of the administrative bureaucracy, their power leading to a shift to the value standards of business and administrative mentality within the university.
Today, the campus crybullies demand as a remedy still more administrative offices (deans of diversity, etc.) and special programs to mollify their butthurt.
And of course one of my favorite lines is this: “With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered. . .” This was at a time when the Sierra Club still supported nuclear power, but then Hayden went on to marry Jane Fonda and become an anti-nuclear power activist.
Finally, one of the complaints of the Port Huron statement was the ideologically confused character of the two parties at the time:
A crucial feature of the political apparatus in America is that greater differences are harbored within each major party than the differences existing between them. Instead of two parties presenting distinctive and significant differences of approach, what dominates the system if a natural interlocking of Democrats from Southern states with the more conservative elements of the Republican party. . . It is somewhat to the interests of the United States that such a movement should be a public constituency pointed toward realignment of the political parties, demanding a conservative Republican Party in the South and an exclusion of the “leftist” elements of the national GOP. . . [and] the shuttling of Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party. . .
Mission accomplished! Except that now the establishment media is aghast at the polarization that has arisen precisely from the fact that the two parties are now more ideologically coherent than they’ve ever been. Be careful what you wish for, leftists.
Meanwhile, this old short SCTV sketch of Hayden and Fonda on “Firing Line” is good for a grin: