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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
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The Port Huron Statement -- 50 Years on


Fifty years ago, a group of students in the American Midwest issued a document rather portentously titled "The Port Huron Statement." It was the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and became one of the most famous documents of that momentous and creative decade.

Read any history of the upsurges in the United States in the 1960s written over the past three decades and you'll at once encounter tributes to SDS as on the cutting edge of radical organizing — in the battles against racial discrimination, particularly in the South; in the protests against the Vietnam War; and more largely in the aim of young people in the 1960s to break the shackles of the Cold-War consensus that had paralyzed independent thought and spread fear of McCarthyite purges through the whole of what remained of the organized left in America, in the labor movement, the churches and in the universities.

SDS was founded in 1960, and in the summer of 1962, it held its first convention just outside the Michigan town of Port Huron, on the U.S.-Canadian border, an hour's drive north of Detroit. Presented to this gathering was a manifesto initially drafted by a former student at the University of Michigan — Tom Hayden — and revised by committee and finally delivered to the world as the Port Huron statement.

"We are people of this generation," it began, "bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. ... As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract 'others' we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time."

Reading these apocalyptic lines today, a reader is surely struck by the thought that 1962 was somewhat late in the evolution of the Cold War to make these discomfited observations. It was 14 years since President Truman had launched the postwar militarization of the U.S. economy. By 1950, U.S. military advisors were in Indochina; by the mid-1950s, America's imperial jackboot had crushed reform in Guatemala and Iran. In 1961, President Eisenhower, a year before the Port Huron statement, bid farewell to his presidency with his famous warning that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must ... be alert to the ... danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite."

Ironically, Ralph Williams, a Texan who drafted the speech under Eisenhower's close supervision, included a warning against "the tendency for orderly societies to break down into mob-ridden anarchies, e.g., student riots, " but this was cut, leaving as Eisenhower's main rhetorical bequest to John Kennedy, inaugurated three days later, the warning against "the military-industrial complex." Originally, the speech referred to "the military-industrial-congressional complex," but eventually, it was decided not to give Congress so stiff a finger.

The 1960s rolled into motion.

Students began to head south to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960. So the Port Huron Statement was not generated in a vacuum, nor were all its propositions entirely novel. But no single radical document from that era captures so vividly the angst so many young people felt as they sought to struggle free from the deadly conformism of the 1950s. Professors were terrorized by the fear of being fingered as pinkoes. In political science departments, original works by challenging thinkers were sterilized in carefully edited anthologies.

The Port Huron statement reverberates with an underlying anxiety of loneliness and alienation. Beyond liberalism and socialism there was a fundamental issue of self-realization, of fulfilling one's potentiality — a theme that came from Paul Goodman, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy and anarchist author of "Growing Up Absurd," a hugely popular text among the radical young on both sides of the Atlantic. The section of the Statement titled "The Society Beyond" depicts the newly aware students surrounded by a vast doldrum of "apathy" with the entire society depicted as an alienated realm of false consciousness.

The cultural task of students was to depict the real despair that lay beneath the high paying, working class jobs and the emptiness of tail fins on big cars and fishing boats out front of the holiday tract homes beside the lake. Organized labor is submerged in the vast apathy of the "Society Beyond" and the union leadership hasn't read Marx's "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts" to articulate the varieties of alienation. (A job the SDS offers to perform.)

A very short chapter of a couple of paragraphs on "the economy" begins "Many of us comfortably expect pensions..." and depicts an America of wealthy citizens who are discomfited by the existence of poor people in their midst. These days it sounds like Utopia, and the essential optimism underlines an important point, that the authors of the Statement, despite the initial remarks about the end of the Golden Age of Affluence, actually had little sense of the volatility of capitalism — a flaw in foresight that extended to almost all the major economists of the time.

It was only seven years till, in 1969, the American working class — in its upper, mostly white tiers — reached the apex of capitalism's rewards in terms of wages and appurtenances, such as large, comfortable cars with baroque adornments, a second car for the wife who did not have as yet to go out to work, labor saving devices in the home, pensions, health benefits and after 1965, Medicare — socialized health insurance for those over 65. From the start of the 1970s onward, it was downhill all the way.

To its advantage, SDS across the past decades, largely captured the strategic high ground in terms of historiography, somewhat exaggerating its actual achievements as against the histories of SNCC or the Black Panthers, many of whose leaders were unable to write histories from the vantage point of tenured academia, since they had been murdered by the police.

Across the past four months, we have witnessed the Occupy Wall Street movement with its encampments — at least for now dispersed by the police — in cities across country, from New York to Oakland. One is struck by the lack of intellectual and organizational continuity. SDS could trace a lineage of ideas back to the early Marx and as the '60s progressed, to Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Gunnar Myrdal. But it is hard to descry much continuity between SDS and OWS — perhaps because of the evolution of American capitalism and the decline of the old organized left. The authors of the Port Huron Statement saw themselves as sparks of lonely resistance in the vast dark night of American complacency. The OWSers see themselves as representatives of the 99 percent against the 1 percent!

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
-----This piece s pure '90's Show' delusion.

WE NOW KNOW the entire 60's was dreamed up by the
Tavistock Institute and Stanford Research ----funded by
the capstone creeps ---and even implemeneted by the CIA.

AS we stand in the very 11th hour of the 4 decades on
---Cockburn should really buy a clue.
Comment: #1
Posted by: pow wow
Fri Feb 3, 2012 6:45 PM
Should we survive, that is should America survive [with the coming of indefinite detention and multiple spying on American citizens and other oppressions], and we are able to prevent the bomb, there will be stories to tell of the Occupy movement by the Occupiers. Many of the young Occupiers are college graduates, some of whom will find jobs in academia and write endlessly about their youth. You can be sure.
The spark? SDS may have started as a spark, but the youth were joined, as in Occupy, by people of all classes and ages.
The SDS was influenced by Marx and the others mentioned, and you are saying no philosophical giants stand out as an influence on the Occupy movement. Yet the organizing structure is anarchy. That is not a contradiction in terms, anarchy as an organizing structure.
Wikipedia: "Outside of the US, and by most individuals that self-identify as anarchists, it implies a system of governance, mostly theoretical at a nation state level although there are a few successful historical examples,[5] that goes to lengths to avoid the use of coercion, violence, force and authority, while still producing a productive and desirable society.[6]"
The young occupiers I have met IN the U.S. fit the above description. The Occupy movement is international, and to make distinctions between the U.S. and outside the U.S. is a false dichotomy. In this age of communication with all the young protesters who are tech savy, the ideas are easily spread around the world. They grew up with computer and phone techology, and they know how to use it.
Occupy, like any movement, is not always perfect in achieving its ideals. Yet the young people I have met in Occupy embody the idea of producing a better society organized around different ideas, goals, and principles, without coersion, violence, force and authority. Obviously not corporate greed.
They have brought together all the issues: education, health care, war, madness and war spending, a corrupt Congress, the environment, freedom of speech (the media), under one umbrella, and correctly so. And like Michael Moore says, anyone can be an Occupier and organize around the issues important to them in their neighborhood, town, city, state, in the nation.
It strikes me that Move to Amend is stronger because of Occupy. So is the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and @Amend 2012, and so on.
As I look at history, I am sure that somehow the powers that be decided that never again would they have the uprisings and protest of the 60s on college campuses. Well, they won that one. But they forgot how history does not exactly repeat itself and uprisings and protest, like other movements, evolve and take on new form. They forgot that they can't stop the people.
And they forgot that the monster they have created, the corportocracy, would naturally spark a response, an uprising, protests, resistance. Because they are really the ones who have not studied history. Or they would have known. They forgot about (or ignored) people like Howard Zinn and his "People's History of the United States," a book read both in and out of structured education by many.
They forgot Walt Whitman, who said, "the people, yes."
Occupy is alive and well where I live, just not sleeping/camping in a physical space, but still gathering, organizing, having events, protests, and programs.
The old organized left is gone, it is true, and in its place is an anarchtic model that allows for great freedom for people to act if they wish to take the freedom and use it.
Perfect? No, they have internal arguments just like the left in the 60s did. But what others see as chaos, as you say, "One is struck by the lack of intellectual and organizational continuity," I see as an anarchtic form that is not hierarchical. And that is basically nonviolent in its thrust.
I see Rose Aguilar is making statements on Truthout about what needs to be done. And maybe it will be left to all of us older folks to start doing these things, now that Occupy has shed much needed light on Wall Street and the evil shenanigans of so many of its inhabitants, or more precisely, of the 1% and the havoc they have wreaked in our nation. It is best is to do whatever you plan with the young people. I find a generational gap, but it can be overcome. Do not expect them to come to you. You must go to them.
But don't expect organized politics overall. Occupy is above all a protest movement. There seems to be a huge will for it to morph into something else, something more organized, more united, under one rubric. Not going to happen. It's the energy, the impetus, the well, we've go to DO something, that counts. And under that huge Occupy umbrella are all those issues I mentioned earlier (and probably more). No one can do it all. So pick one, work on it however is best, through protest or with the system, but always with your colleagues and friends and like-minded people, and support and help with the other issues as you can.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Sue Ann Martinson
Mon Feb 13, 2012 3:00 PM
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