Robert J. S. Ross

Port Huron and Democracy

Chapter 10 in A New Insurgency, edited by Howard Brick, University of Michigan Press
Democracy, Labor, and Globalization:
Reflections on Port Huron

by Robert J. S. Ross

Participatory democracy, the central idea of the Port Huron Statement, is
today more relevant than ever before. The assault on labor rights launched
in Wisconsin and other Midwest states during 2011, the rise and fall of Occupy
Wall Street as a movement against inequality, and the continuing
institutionalization of global capitalism and financial capital’s power
within it all raise the question “What does the concept of participatory
democracy mean in our era of crisis and hardship?” Indeed, questions of
organization and decision making are relevant at all times when ordinary
people seek to organize themselves for political and social action. So here
I shall focus on the meaning of participatory democracy as we founding
members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) understood it and
practiced it, when we first sought to build a movement that could change
the world at home and abroad. In the process I want to correct some propositions
about that decision- making process that have, in my view, more
currency than accuracy.

Some Background

In spring 1960 I joined picketers in Ann Arbor who were supporting the
national call for a boycott of Woolworth and Kresge stores. Sit- ins pressing
for the desegregation of lunch counters had swept the South after students
at the North Carolina Agriculture and Technology College got
things started in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1. Our picketing
showed our solidarity with their cause. After the local picketing had
begun, a Conference on Human Rights in the North was convened in Ann
Arbor in April 1960. Robert Alan “Al” Haber had planned this conference
before the southern sit- ins changed the landscape of social action. This
was but one of Haber’s farsighted plans that earned him the adjective “prophetic.”
Al had understood that the “human rights” of Black people— then
referred to as Negroes— were a national not just a regional issue.
Haber was a long- term Ann Arborite. His father, Professor William
Haber, had been a prominent New Deal economist and would become
dean of the University of Michigan College of Literature, Sciences, and the
Arts (1963– 68). Al had become involved in SDS’s predecessor, the Student
League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), through its Michigan chapter,
the Political Issues Club, and he had risen to some responsibility in SLID’s
small national membership.1
Having been introduced to activism by the spring picketing, I attended the April conference— though only after contacting Haber and asking him to suspend the registration fee, which I
could not afford. He did. Afterwards, Haber asked a number of the picketers
and those who had been active at the conference to join him in the new
incarnation of SLID, which he proposed to rename SDS. Those of us
whom Haber recruited were each very young. I was finishing my first year
in college and so too was my future roommate and successor as Ann Arbor
SDS chapter leader, Dickie Magidoff. Sharon Jeffrey, who would soon
be my cochair, was a second- year student. She was the daughter of ex-
socialist Mildred Jeffrey, one of the United Auto Workers’ key political
strategists. Haber had succeeded through long, patient one- on- one conversations
in convincing us that democracy itself was a radical idea— the
ultimate radical idea— and that on this basis, the schisms and sectarianisms
of the past could be laid aside for a new vision.

At the June 1960 convention of the newly named SDS, I became— at
the tender age of seventeen— a member of the reconstituted National Executive
Committee. Soon thereafter, that body named me vice president,
in strict accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. I was nominated and
voted in to fill a vice presidential vacancy created by the resignation of a
member of the Yale chapter who distrusted the new activist turn of SDS.
The total number of voters in this election was three.

Back in New York during summer 1960, I was an after- hours volunteer
at the national SDS office on Nineteenth Street in Manhattan while holding
down a seven- day- a- week job as a lifeguard and tennis court attendant
near my home in the South Bronx. I stuffed envelopes and helped with
production of newsletters. It was a bit like a summer course in political
theory and praxis with Chairman Al, the Socratic seminar leader.
Over the next two years, we organized several chapters, the most vigor-
ous and successful of which was at Michigan, where VOICE, a mass political
party campaigned and won leadership with the student government. Tom
Hayden and his associates Ken McEldowney and Andy Hawley, all senior
editors at the Michigan Daily, had been the instigators and first organizers of
VOICE, but Sharon Jeffrey and I made it a winner of elections and campaigns.

As leaders of the SDS chapter, Sharon and I brought the local group
into VOICE and then led VOICE to affiliate nationally with SDS.
Hayden had returned from a summer at the University of California,
Berkeley, impressed by the pioneer New Left student organization SLATE,
which had done the counterintuitive thing for student radicals and taken
student government seriously. Largely the province of the Greek letter organizations,
student governments were somewhere between the sandboxes
for political toddlers and training grounds for future Young Democrats
and Republicans. Hayden saw the possibility of making the student
government a representative voice for students in real governance— and
Sharon and I thought this was just the right thing to do, if democracy was
the centerpiece of your thinking.

Even before Port Huron, then, a local practice was emerging in Ann Arbor
and other soon- to- be affiliated SDS chapters, which saw democratic
practice as relevant to university governance and educational issues. We
butted heads with student government conservatives and centrists, who opposed
our desire to have the council make pronouncements on political issues
of national and international consequence (e.g., passing a resolution
against the Bay of Pigs Invasion). But we were also vitally concerned with
campus issues. Thus we campaigned to prohibit racial discrimination in the
Greek letter societies that wished to use university facilities (which was all of
them). Another issue was our campaign against the principle and practices
of in loco parentis, whereby universities acted in place of parents and thus
enforced curfews that applied to women and constrained our lives with
other regulations we considered far too intrusive. Eventually we won this
fight and the dorms were “liberated”: dorm hours were eventually abolished,
and men and women could entertain visitors of the opposite sex. And, of
course, after a while, co- ed dorms emerged.

The experience Sharon and I had as VOICE representatives on the student
government council shaped my views on “process,” a contentious issue
later in the 1960s and beyond. Since the council was a formal body,
with a constituency of twenty- five thousand student voters, its proceedings
followed strict rules— and thus Sharon and I endured a crash course
in parliamentary procedure. From that time on, I became, willy-nilly, one
of the Movement’s experts on how to run large meetings. Our SDS/VOICE
chapter settled decisions— when there was division— by a formal vote at a
membership meeting. Mostly we made decisions in small groupings and
votes were not required; but when the meetings were large and the decisions
weighty, we voted, counted hands, and declared a winner.

I do have one vivid memory of such an occasion. During the Cuban Missile
Crisis of October 1962, our leftist community in Ann Arbor was, to say
the least, tense. Tom Hayden, Dick and Mickey Flacks, and others were
huddled around the shortwave radio of a friend of ours, the social psychologist
Bill Livant, listening to an English- language broadcast of Radio Moscow,
which they somehow thought would give them new or different information
than that which came from US media sources. Mickey headed for
Washington, DC, to demonstrate with Women Strike for Peace, which
wanted a United Nations– mediated solution. Meanwhile, fully resigned to
being momentarily powerless, I drafted the VOICE political party platform
for the upcoming elections to student government. My draft of the platform
condemned the Kennedy administration threat to start a nuclear war over
the Cuban missiles. When the VOICE membership later met to consider the
draft, we took formal majority votes on each part.

Our practice as campaigners running for student government office in
no way channeled or restricted our practice as social movement activists.
Our local organizing in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) and our demonstrations against the arms race continued
apace. One virtue of the student government campaigns: they
caused us to bring our ideas about democracy in the university and democratic
participation in the society and economy face to face to thousands
of folks who otherwise would never have come to a leftist rally or encountered
our ideas.

In the course of reorganizing the old SLID, Haber, Hayden, and the rest
of us were making what had been a fairly inert “discussion club” formation
into a more activist organization. We also had to deal with SLID/SDS’s heritage
as an extension of the social- democratic movement, which had staked
out an anticommunist and, for better or worse, nonrevolutionary position.

In December 1961 at a National Council meeting in Ann Arbor, members
aligned with the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL, often pronounced
“Yipsel”), the youth group of the Socialist Party, vigorously challenged the
“anti- anticommunist” positions the new leadership had taken: rather than
prohibiting any collaboration with Communist Party members, we took an
“inclusionary” attitude, and we developed a critique of those liberals and
laborites who acquiesced in the arms race and the Cold War.

For Tom, Al, and Sharon, each of different heritages but none of Communist
parentage, the social- democratic fixation on anticommunist purity
on the left was an overly sectarian and narrow view of the need for social
reform here in the United States: this old antagonism, which dominated
SLID’s parent, the New York– headquartered League for Industrial Democracy,
was a sea anchor that kept us from moving with the winds of change.

For those of us whose parents had been influenced by the Communist
movement (and thus were sometimes called “red diaper babies”), this
social- democratic heritage was an insulting and threatening slur and a
scary attack on our parents and their friends. We considered our elders—
largely rank and filers— to be ultimately democratic; we gave little credence
to the Cold War anticommunist charge that they were the carriers
of totalitarianism. In fact, the culture that surrounded the young people
in, around, and formerly of the Communist movement seemed so committed
to democracy that when Haber preached democracy as the bedrock
idea for radicalism, we felt comfortable, despite SDS’s anticommunist
social- democratic parentage.

Port Huron and Participatory Democracy

The YPSL challenge to these emerging SDS attitudes made it apparent that
some sort of defining statement, a manifesto, was needed to articulate a
vision for a New Left. Tom Hayden, Al Haber, and I were named to a drafting
committee, but immediately it became clear that Tom was the writer,
and (while I cannot speak for Al) my job was encouragement.
If democracy was the radical umbrella, though, what was wrong with
what we— the United States— had then and have now? Our critique of contemporary
democratic practice leading up to Port Huron can be summarized
briefly: citizenship as broadly understood was part- time and passive.
You listened, you voted, and you were done. Democratic rights did not extend
to the economy, so power over everyday life was exercised by corporate
bureaucracies beyond the reach of workers and community members.
Democratic rights were routinely denied to Black people by law and practice,
while economic inequality excluded the poor from the community of
citizens. And finally, the political parties were morally compromised and
politically inert; potential opposition was entombed in Cold War orthodoxy
and unable to challenge it— unable, that is, to speak truth to power.

Participatory Democracy

Tom read numerous statements from independent left thinkers. We were
all influenced by C. Wright Mills, but Hayden was an omnivorous reader,
and among those who particularly influenced him was one of our professors
at the University of Michigan, Arnold Kaufman, a social philosopher.2
At the core of Kaufman’s thought was the proposition that we can be more
than isolated, self- absorbed, and narrow beings and that democratic participation
can expand human capacities. Democratic activism, thought
Kaufman, is a kind of redemption. These reflections on democracy and
human capacity, which found their way into the very first paragraphs of
the Port Huron Statement draft, were followed by critique of the economy,
of poverty, of segregation, of the danger of nuclear war, and of the stifling
of the developing world. A section focused on the segregationist Dixiecrat
influence in the Democratic Party and called for the ouster of racist tribunes
from that party. This was in fact a part of the social- democratic
strategy favored by the Socialist Party activist Michael Harrington: an effort
to “realign” the Democrats as a more consistently liberal- left party.3
Ironically, the Voting Rights Act of 1965— and the Republican Party’s strategic
choice to become the party of southern white people— did largely
accomplish this. It had a historic downside too: persistent Republican majorities
in the states of the former Confederacy.

When we assembled at Port Huron, attendees were confronted with
the task of absorbing and amending Tom Hayden’s forty- nine- page draft—
and making it their own. There and at virtually every SDS convention that
was to follow, adherence to parliamentary procedure and forms of representation
were normal.4

Early on, the participants decided on a “bones
and flesh” strategy of amendment and discussion. The document was broken
down to sections, and these were assigned to small committees of
three to five members. I participated in the group working on the labor
movement and its relations to the student movement. Each group was to
break down its section into “bones” (i.e., essential political or strategic
points). These were matters to be debated and possibly revised. The bones,
and any proposed changes in them, would be brought before a final plenary
meeting, which would send instructions to a subsequent (postconvention)
drafting committee. (There the “flesh”— or prose needed to elucidate
the positions adopted by the plenary— would be added.) The small
groups worked more or less informally, but the Port Huron final plenary
was composed of thirty or forty people, who voted in a highly formal
manner to pass, reject, or amend these bones. It took all night.
One of the moments I found most memorable occurred during the
discussion of the section on the arms race and the Cold War. A YPSL
member assailed the section and called many of the participants (pointedly
myself) “paranoiac anti- anticommunists.” A majority vote defeated
his attempt to change that “bone.”

The idea of participatory democracy was not originally or essentially
about how to conduct meetings; it was about how to organize society and
to conceive of citizenship. The Port Huron Statement contrasted “domination
of politics and the economy by fantastically rich elites” with the alternative
of “shared abundance.” We acknowledged the labor movement,
which played a central role in improving workers’ lives, as the most democratic
institution of the mainstream, but noted too that “‘union democracy’
is not simply inhibited by labor leader elitism, but by the unrelated
problem of rank- and- file apathy to the tradition of unionism.”5

Way ahead
of its time, the Statement also remarked, “The contemporary social assault
on the labor movement is of crisis proportions.”6
In my view at the time,
participatory democracy was an American phrase to encompass socialist
democracy (and I still hold to that). In early SDS, many of us had a strong
interest in worker- oriented democratic innovations abroad, ranging from
the German codetermination law (putting union representatives on corporate
boards) to Yugoslavian workers councils.7

In the period between Port Huron, in June 1962, and the March on
Washington to End the War in Vietnam, in April 1965, SDS became
steadily more well known through the work of its campus chapters and the
writing and speaking of its talented national leaders, including Hayden,
Haber, Todd Gitlin, and Paul Potter. Throughout this period— and
beyond— internal decisions were made by more or less standard parliamentary
procedures and representative democracy. In these few years,
SDS grew slowly but steadily. The Port Huron Statement was widely circulated
through the traditional mimeograph duplication process and also by
the photocopying of the first typeset publication of the Statement in the
Methodist collegiate magazine Motive.

The 1963 SDS National Convention considered and adopted (by formal
majority votes) a successor to the Port Huron manifesto titled “America
and the New Era.”8
Unfortunately neglected by scholars, “America and the
New Era” is a better guide to subsequent SDS views and behavior than any
other document, including the Port Huron Statement. “America and the
New Era” identifies the character of the Kennedy administration as “corporate
liberalism”— note the parallel to the later usage “corporate
globalization”— and calls for a politics of “local insurgency.”9
Beginning in 1964, most intensely with the Swarthmore College chapter,
SDS began to think about community organizing as a radical practice.
The Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) was launched in
summer 1964 with groups working in ten cities. About six of these projects
survived as multiyear organizations, and two or three were to have long-
range impact on their cities and on the left: Newark, Cleveland, and Chi-
cago. The ERAP initiative meant there were ex- student SDSers consisting
of a large fraction of the de facto if not de jure leaders of the organization,
who were now off campus in non-chapter groupings.

This transition was the setting for a dramatic and critical incident in
which the future of SDS and the antiwar movement hinged upon an obscure
parliamentary maneuver. I tell this tale both because it is fun to remember
it and also because it so thoroughly refutes the idea that SDS advocated
a democratic process without strong procedures or majority votes.

Robert’s Rules Save the Day

On December 31, 1964, the SDS National Council convened at a union
meeting hall in lower Manhattan. Late in the evening, a member from
New York, Jim Brook, then working as a letter carrier, made an impassioned
call for SDS to initiate a demonstration against the impending escalation
of the war in Vietnam. One will recall that in August 1964, the
notorious incident in the Gulf of Tonkin had given Johnson and McNamara
the excuse they apparently wanted to escalate US intervention. After
alleged, and highly contested, attacks upon the destroyers Turner and
Maddox Joy, the United States, for the first time, undertook a massive and
openly acknowledged bombing of North Vietnamese targets. Plans for a
major escalation in the use of US ground forces were in the works.
Brook came before the council at roughly eleven o’clock at night. Already,
some of the women had begun setting up food and drink for a New
Year’s party at the back of the room. (Yes, that is the way it was then.) In
opposition to Brook’s anti- imperialist plea for action, a number of the
more senior and well- respected leaders of SDS, who were now situated in
ERAP community organizing projects, rose to express doubt about the
proposal. They argued that antiwar work would make SDS too single-
issue, not the comprehensively radical organization it had always aspired
to be, and they also thought that the effort to organize antiwar work would
not connect to the poor white and black constituents of the ERAP projects
and thus would detract from the work of the community organizers.
Among other highly influential people expressing these doubts, Tom
Hayden figured prominently. It’s more than a bit ironic given his future
role as a major leader of antiwar action during the Vietnam conflict and
after, but Brother Tom made a Buddha- like intervention, wondering what
would happen if we called a demo and nobody came. I note openly that
Tom has a different memory of this moment than I do. The motion to
sponsor the march failed, with people like me— with one foot in commu-
nity organizing and another on campus as a graduate student— torn. I
voted against.

The meeting recessed for party preparation, and in the interim my former
roommate, Dickie Magidoff, then working in the Cleveland ERAP
project, urgently brought me to a side conversation. “This is a big deal”
was the burden of his whispered plea. We can’t let this pass by. We have got
to change it. And I was the man to do it, because, as you will recall, I had
learned the technics of parliamentary procedure cold when I had been a
University of Michigan student government leader. One of Robert’s Rules
of Order’s little miracle escape hatches is this: an individual may move to
reconsider a question if and only if he or she has voted on the prevailing
side. Dickie knew this, as did I.

As the clock approached midnight and we prepared for partying, the
meeting reconvened to finish things off. I moved to reconsider. I cannot
claim to have made any important intervention in the debate. SDS national
secretary Clark Kissinger, a University of Wisconsin radical who
had attended Port Huron, made the last and most persuasive plea about
the moral responsibility to oppose an outright imperialist war. On a reconsideration
vote, the motion passed and history was thus bent through
the use of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So, on April 17, 1965, SDS led the first big Washington demonstration
against the war in Vietnam, the March on Washington to End the War in
Vietnam. At that time it was the largest demonstration against an American
war policy since the Spanish- American War. The old guard of anticommunist
social democrats was scandalized by our non-exclusionary
policy: Y’all come, we said, if you agree with the main slogan: “End the
War in Vietnam.” They were more concerned that Communists would
join the March than they were that the March would succeed. That the
March did galvanize public opinion and mobilize a new wave of public
opposition to the war was perhaps the definitive sign that the Cold War on
the left was over— or irrelevant— and that the New Left was now the culturally
and politically hegemonic left.

For SDS the march— the very act of calling for the march— was transformative.
At the University of Chicago, where I was forming a new chapter
in my first year of graduate school, our meetings of fifteen to twenty-
five became meetings of one hundred. We sent five buses to Washington
from Chicago. We had one chapter in Chicago before the March; by the
time the buses returned, we had at least three, including those at Roosevelt
University and Northwestern. SDS had become, overnight, a mass organization.

Reflecting on Participatory Democracy

These reflections on how individual SDS chapters governed themselves,
and on how the national body came to call for the March on Washington
to End the War in Vietnam, set in motion an alternative understanding of
what has all too often become a canonical interpretation of what we at
Port Huron meant by participatory democracy. In subsequent years many
commentators have trivialized the idea of participatory democracy or defined
it as impractical and utopian in the worst sense.
While rigorous participation and direct involvement in decisions was
the ideal, the notion that no one could or should be represented— that voting
for a representative was inherently undemocratic— would have been viewed
as silly by Port Huron participants. We voted for our national officers; we
voted for chapter leaders; we voted for resolutions and for constitutional
alterations. Whatever I may say later about the problems of democracy in a
global setting, Port Huron veterans and those who joined SDS in later years
were not silly. We thought of ourselves as vigorously participating citizens—
and some, at times, would have said revolutionaries.

How did participatory democracy come to be trivialized as a meeting
rule for small groups? One guess is mistakes by journalists and misinterpretations
by new recruits. If a journalist came to a small local chapter
meeting, he or she might observe a kind of consensus- seeking process
taking place. Given the prominence of the rhetoric about participatory
democracy, this might then become what the journalist thought it was all
about. By thus reporting it, the idea became a self- fulfilling prophecy. In
addition, SDS grew so rapidly that there was little “socialization” of newer
members by older members.10

A kind of naïve literalism was fueled, perhaps,
by a romantic cultural memory of America’s own anarcho-syndicalist
past. New Leftists venerated the memory of the Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW): many agreed with the famous IWW motto “We are all
leaders.” There was also a sort of cultural affinity between a rejection of
representation and the hyper-individualism of parts of American culture at
that time: “I am unique; no one can represent me.”

By the second decade of the twenty- first century, the notion of participatory
democracy as a philosophy of group process had enough currency
to be adopted uncritically by the Occupy Wall Street anarchist tendency.
They too found an American phrase for a European- origin ideology, but
this time it was not socialism but rather a variant of anarchism. This was
sustained by a certain cultural ambience that has been a factor of continuity
between SDS and successor organizations like Occupy Wall Street that
identify with its heritage. Former SDS vice president and quipster Paul
Booth once made the semi-facetious remark that SDSers think “freedom is
a constant meeting.” Another time he said we might be “students for a
small society.” It is assumed that the element of continuity lies in an emphasis
on process, community, and participation rather than formal majoritarian
rules of debate and decision.

The most trivial interpretation of participatory democracy understands
it as a way to conduct face- to- face meetings. Usually this interpretation
conjures up consensus seeking as the fundamental goal and invents
a variety of procedures for reaching it. What formal standards like venerable
Robert’s Rules of Order do— however dense and forbidding they
seem— is to offer procedural safeguards assuring majority rule while also
preserving minority rights. In contrast, a doctrine of consensus allows obstinate
minorities to obstruct the will of the majority. Cases in point
abound, including the highly consequential use of a sixty- vote requirement
for cloture in the US Senate. A more absurdist example came during
an Occupy Wall Street meeting in Atlanta one morning in October 2011
when an eccentric individual blocked Congressman John Lewis from
speaking, an obstruction at variance from what appeared to be the will of
an overwhelming majority of those present.

Of course, meeting facilitators and prudent activists will seek consensus
under many circumstances. These include situations when there are
very small groups of decision makers or when the stakes are extremely
high and members of the group risk legal or physical jeopardy. Nonetheless,
the national SDS still worked by majority vote when it took up matters
that carried legal jeopardy in opposing the Vietnam War draft.

What did participatory democracy evoke as a phrase for the Port Huron
cohort that, following Tom Hayden’s writing, made it their own? Broadly
speaking, my claim— as I mentioned previously— is that it was an American
language for socialism and in particular for, of all things, industrial democracy.
I can testify directly to the many conversations I had with comrades
about worker control, German codetermination laws, the Yugoslav industrial
example, and Wobbly syndicalist ideas. If bureaucratic power (in C.
Wright Mills’ dim view of it) was Satan, and Paul Goodman’s simple anarchism
was Eden, we were the democratic Adam as yet innocent.

Labor and Participatory Democracy

The Port Huron Statement was notable for addressing universities and students
as potential agents of democratic change. Yet the document was con-
scious of the organization’s historical ties to labor and the working- class
movement. Contrary to the subsequent stereotype of SDS as “antilabor,”
Port Huron attendees included many with family and other connections to
unionism. Some, like myself, came from working- class trade union families
or families with trade union officials (such as VOICE cochair Sharon Jeffrey);
others came from families of New Dealers with commitments to labor
rights (such as Paul Booth). We should remember that SDS evolved from
SLID. That the parent League for Industrial Democracy had become ossified
in the course of the Cold War did not negate the proposition that workers’
enfranchisement at work and in the broader economy was central to any
vision of democracy. It remained central in ours.

While the inclusion of the working class and the labor movement in a
vision of participatory democracy was near universal among the early
founders of SDS, criticism of the labor movement from the standpoint of
democracy was also widespread. In some ways the early SDS perception of
threats to the labor moment was way ahead of its time. The document
anticipates the attack on and decline of the labor movement, even while
the social science and big picture political observers of the day were still
talking about “big labor.” Like AFL- CIO president George Meany, we
thought of labor as “big,” but in the Port Huron Statement we did accurately
foresee its incremental defeat as a movement and institution. The
initial formation of our consciousness about such matters came from, on
the one hand, the liberal- labor coalition itself, embodied, for example, in
John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing powers, which saw big
labor, big government, and big corporations as in some sense balancing
each other.11

On the other hand, although we were not fully in contact
with the rumblings in the labor movement itself, there were in fact members
and places that were— for example, Kim Moody in Baltimore. So the
section on the labor movement written and revised in 1962 is strikingly up
to date: it bemoans bureaucratic lethargy, notes grassroots democratic discontent,
and recognizes movements arising within unions to address these
matters. Further, the Port Huron Statement notes threats to the existing
labor movement from the shift away from manufacturing and toward
service- producing industries. Reading it now affirms Haber and Hayden’s
prophetic insight: if one subjects every institution to scrutiny from the
point of view of democracy and participation, much of what is wrong will
be clear and much of its development can be predicted.

Substantial fractions of our critique of the labor movement were based
on its own understanding of itself as strong, included in power, but— in
our view— too conservative. We saw the cliff upon which union influence
was so precariously perched, but because most of its official leadership did
not, SDS was sometimes characterized as hostile to the labor movement.
The discussion was not extended. The urgency of war and then the apocalypse
of racial conflict— the urban “civil disturbances” of 1964 to
1968— distracted our attention from so many other avenues of reflection.
In any case the final draft of the Port Huron Statement has an amended
reference to labor and students at the end. It is terribly written (solely because
I wrote the revision), but it actually states a neglected proposition:
To turn these possibilities into realities will involve national efforts
at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty. They
must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative
bureaucracy. They must make fraternal and functional contact
with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the
campus. They must import major public issues into the curriculum—
research and teaching on problems of war and peace is an outstanding
example. They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic
cant, the common style for educational life. They must
consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of powe
However clumsily stated, it seems to me ultimately appropriate to focus
on the cooperation of young intellectuals, students and faculty alike,
with labor, immigrant, and minority interests to remake more nearly
democratic institutions and culture. The struggles of the last decade have
in fact seen the burgeoning of just such coalitions.
The distance between SDS and the labor movement has usually been
exaggerated. SDS had links to and strong sympathy with what would now
be understood as “the labor left.” That so many SDS veterans gravitated
toward all parts of the labor movement is testimony to the central importance
it played then and still does in viable visions of a democratic commonwealth.

If one takes democratic participation as a keystone value,
then where else in American society, outside of the labor movement, do
ordinary people have a say in conditions under which they work?

Democracy at Scale

If participatory democracy and the Port Huron Statement envisioned both
social and economic democracy and envisioned empowered working
people in alliance with educated youth, they nevertheless did not have,
and the American left still does not have, an adequate response to the
problem of scale. It is all very well to say that one wants to have a say in the
decisions that affect one’s life. Does that mean a group of upper- class
property owners on Nantucket Sound should be able to frustrate a state or
nation’s desire for wind- powered energy? Does democracy mean that a
board of selectmen or town meeting in a small village should be able to
deny a building or zoning permit to a halfway house for emotionally disturbed
juveniles or a Planned Parenthood facility? Leftists hearken when
working- class neighborhoods resist toxic waste sites, but we don’t have a
consistent decision rule for when a small group of the people should decide
or when larger aggregations of the people should decide. The Statement
is not a guide to the problem of scale, and none of us— so far as my
own small brain knows— have thought this through to a conclusion. The
future of democratic movements and theory is open in other and even
more dramatic ways than this.

For all its vision, the Port Huron Statement— as did every other mid-sixties
understanding of global affairs— missed the impending change in the
structure of global capital. The Statement is fairly naïve about industrialization
and its potential growth in those new nations that were once European
or American colonies. It does not contemplate the use of low- income
countries to pound down standards of living of workers in those nations
bordering the North Atlantic.

So the problem of the race to the bottom is a whole new frontier for
today’s democratic movements— the reconciliation of workers’ needs on a
global basis. The matter has become increasingly painful. Oligarchical
power elites steer key decision- making institutions: the central banks, the
international financial institutions, the financial conglomerates, the regulatory
agencies captured by the interests they are supposed to regulate,
and transnational political institutions like the European Union or the
World Trade Organization. The distance between those rulers and ordinary
citizens is truly titanic. Accountability, no less participation, seems
more exotic a hope each week. It is clear that democrats everywhere
await— or should work to hasten— the day that workers of the world understand
and find ways to cooperate so they all lose their chains.


Chapter 10
1. SLID was the distant offspring of a 1905 organization— the Intercollegiate Socialist
Society— started by prominent intellectuals including the novelists Upton Sinclair
and Jack London and the great lawyer Clarence Darrow. In the course of its historical
evolution it had become the student group of the social- democratic League for Industrial
Democracy (LID).
2. A. Javier Trevino, “Influence of C. Wright Mills on Students for a Democratic
Society: An Interview with Bob Ross,” Humanity & Society 22, no. 3 (1998): 260– 77;
Robert J. S. Ross, “At the Center and Edge: Notes on a Life In and Out of Sociology and
the New Left,” Critical Sociology 15, no. 2 (1988): 79– 93.
3. Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (New
York: Public Affairs, 2000), 105– 74.
4. Richard Rothstein, “Representative Democracy and SDS,” in Toward a History of
the New Left: Essays from within the Movement, ed. R. David Myers (New York: Carlson,
1989), 49– 62.
5. Port Huron Statement, reprinted in Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The
Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 85.
6. Ibid., 82.
7. Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’
Control from the Commune to the Present (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011).
8. “America and the New Era,” Students for a Democratic Society, 1963, http://archive.
9. Dick Flacks was the lead drafter of “America and the New Era” with, according to
Kirkpatrick Sale, “considerable help from the theoretical apparatchik: Booth, Haber,
Hayden, Ross,” SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society
(New York: Vintage, 1973), 48,
10. Robert J. Ross, “Primary Groups in Social Movements: A Memoir and Interpretation,”
Journal of Voluntary Action Research 6, nos. 3– 4 (1977): 139– 52.
11. John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing
Power (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books, 1993).
12. Port Huron Statement, 168.
13. Peter B. Levy, The New Left and Labor in The 1960s (Champaign: University of Illinois
Press, 1994).