"DEMOCRACY IS IN THE STREETS" From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago By James Miller Simon and Schuster. 431 pp. $19.95
ON JUNE 12, 1962, 59 members of a tiny organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) met in Port Huron, Mich., to draft a founding statement for a new American left. During the previous two years scattered groups of students on a variety of campuses had been demonstrating against the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee, ROTC and racial segregation. Delegates at Port Huron grasped that in these isolated protests lay the possibility of a mass movement for reconstructing a flawed America. Their goal was a document that would forge links among the discontented and invest their acts of witness with a larger meaning -- to provide the New Left aborning with a provisional ideology.
The result was the Port Huron Statement, a prolix and not always consistent document that somehow managed to overcome its limitations and fire the imaginations of the visionary young. "We are people of this generation," the statement began, "bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit." It was a world of violated ideals, apathetic publics, inauthentic personal relationships and individuals rendered powerless by vast, impersonal and complex institutions. The Port Huron Statement offered an apparently simple cure for these American evils. It was "participatory democracy," the myth that would galvanize the New Left by promising to restore to ordinary citizens power over their own lives.
Part history, part biography, part political meditation, James Miller's excellent new book "Democracy Is in the Streets" examines the half-dozen SDS pioneers who did most to shape the Port Huron Statement and then spent the rest of the decade trying to define in action the elusive meaning of its most famous phrase. Miller belonged to SDS during the late 1960s, edited a wonderful book in 1976 called The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and currently writes criticism for Newsweek. Though he admires the Port Huron Statement and respects its authors, Miller manages to maintain a saving critical distance. Indeed, his implicit thesis is that the failure of SDS seriously to confront the riddles of participatory democracy contributed in no small way to the New Left's eventual destruction.
The central character in Miller's story is Tom Hayden, whose personal history during the '60s so closely recapitulated the history of the New Left. Recruited into SDS while a student at the University of Michigan in 1960, Hayden became the organization's liaison to the civil rights movement in 1961, attaining celebrity in the student movement by getting beat up in Mississippi and jailed in Georgia. In 1962 Hayden accepted an assignment to write a draft manifesto for the Port Huron convention. As his notes at the time make clear, Hayden's confident assertion of the democratic idea in his paper masked serious private doubt. What would be the fate of bold leaders and creative minorities in a society of democratic participation?, he wondered. Might the democratic ideal rest "on a false estimate of human nature"? Why did totalitarian regimes so often rule with genuine popular support?
The toughest questions emerged from SDS' actual efforts to put participatory democracy into practice. In 1964, for example, Hayden temporarily persuaded SDS to forge an interracial movement of the poor by moving beyond campus into nine big city neighborhoods. Hayden himself took up residence in a Newark slum and worked as an organizer for three years. The object was not only to foster participatory democracy in the communities but within the SDS projects as well. SDS organizers typically lived in communes, made all decisions by consensus and sought authentic personal relationships. Though the communes bred trust and love among the members, new recruits felt excluded, endless hours were wasted discussing trivial issues of housekeeping and the tension between organizing poor people and creating a perfect community of organizers went unresolved. Eventually even the most devoted organizers drifted away and the hardiest projects broke up.
SDS became famous in April 1965, two months after Lyndon Johnson began the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, when it mobilized 25,000 people in Washington to protest the war. Once a close-knit community of some 500 friends, SDS became, almost overnight, a mass membership organization. By the end of 1965, thanks mainly to campus rage against the war, membership reached 10,000. By 1968 it was 100,000. How could an organization of this size practice participatory democracy? When SDS held referenda among the membership on crucial issues, hardly anyone bothered to vote. When the organization's national secretary issued statements in the name of the membership and tried to impose a measure of administrative order, he lost his job. When the national office in Chicago rejected hierarchy, structure and bureaucracy by forming a collective, nobody answered the mail, and factionalism killed decision-by-consensus. SDS had had a chance to lead the antiwar movement but become paralyzed by the confusions of participatory democracy.
TOM HAYDEN, meanwhile, thought he found a society where the participatory ideal described reality. It was North Vietnam. Returning from a visit in December 1965, Hayden praised Vietnam for its "socialism of the heart" and its guerrilla cadres for encouraging "rice-roots democracy." In 1967, still organizing in Newark, Hayden watched ghetto-dwellers take to the streets and try to burn down the city. Hayden saw in the ghetto riots of that year the beginning of guerrilla war in America and in the rioters themselves an image of powerless people practicing their own brand of participatory democracy. The New Left, succumbing to the guerrilla fantasy, began now to view both Viet Cong and black rioters as part of a world-wide peoples' war against American imperialism. Opening an office in Chicago in 1968, Hayden and Rennie Davis laid plans for a demonstration during the Democratic National Convention that would bring the war home. Though the demonstration was supposed to unite liberals and radicals in a peaceful antiwar protest, Hayden and Davis clearly would not be disappointed if violence erupted and plunged the convention into chaos. As the convention approached and Mayor Daley turned Chicago into a police state, Hayden predicted that the unrepresented people in Chicago would launch "small guerrilla surprise acts" and reassert their sovereignty. "Democracy is in the streets," the author of the Port Huron Statement declared. When, on the convention's third day, police and demonstrators met for their climactic showdown on the streets in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, Hayden was exultant. "When they injure us, we will be warriors," he told the demonstrators the next day. "When they smash blood from our heads there will be blood from a lot of other heads." Hayden had delivered the epitaph of the New Left and did not know it.
Though its critique of participatory democracy is neither systematic nor sustained, Miller's well-written book makes a substantial contribution to the literature on the New Left. No doubt Miller lays too much blame for the movement's decline on the failure to clarify participatory democracy, which, as concept, appealed precisely because it could accommodate so many different definitions and which, as slogan, suited a generation more concerned with action than ideas. But Miller's main point is surely correct. Because the New Left never did devise an ideology to account for existing evils, locate the agency of change and point the way to a better future, its failure was foretold in the remarkable document that had attended its birth. :: Allen J. Matusow, dean of humanities at Rice University, is the author of "The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s."