Jim Hawley, What's Left?: Port Huron at 50
What’s Left?: Port Huron at 50*
Professor and Director, The Elfenworks Center for the Study of Fiduciary Capitalism, Saint Mary’s College of California
Among other non-SDS groups represented at Port Huron in 1962 were SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the Young Democratic, Campus ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) and YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League, a youth affiliate of the Socialist Party). Among non-voting groups were Young Christian Students, the National Student Christian Federation and the Progressive Youth Organizing Committee (PYOC). PYOC (pronounced either ‘pie-oc’ or ‘puke’ depending on one’s political orientation) was the latest short-lived iteration of Communist Party ‘youth organizing’ organizations. Little more than an office in New York City with loose contacts around the country, PYOC’s observer status at the Port Huron conference (ultimately with speaking rights) became the litmus test of ‘non-exclusion.’ That is, the willingness to engage in debate and organize with any group (including small or large ‘C’ communist) for specific political actions, such as SDS’ sponsorship of the first national anti-Vietnam war march in Washington DC some three years later.
PYOC’s participation as an observer with speaking rights became a major reason that SDS’ then parent organization (the League for Industrial Democracy-LID) disowned SDS and attempted to disband it (unsuccessfully). PYOC’s seating, over the heated objections of Michael Harrington (LID senior representative) and Tom Kahn (YPSL leader), became as much a declaration of what the then emerging ‘new left’ was to become as the substance of the Port Huron statement itself. It symbolized the rejection of the old-left Socialist Party’s absolute refusal to knowingly appear with, debate, recognize or demonstrate with what it considered communist groups. This included Maoist, Trotskyist, ‘Trotskyite’, Stalinist, ‘Stalinoid’ and an assortment of other categories.
I was the representative of PYOC, having just graduate from high school the prior week and on my way to college that fall. Having been active in the civil rights and peace (ban the bomb) movements in New York City I arrived one day late at Port Huron, having not the foggiest notion of what I was walking into. A not quite 18 year old naïve kid who grew up in a red diaper family, this seemed like the big time. Influenced like many of my generation by C. Wright Mills and other democratic, radicals, I had not yet managed to reconcile their thought with my red diaper instincts. I remember liking the draft of the Port Huron Statement, critical as it was of the USSR, but to me not all that different from the then ‘thaw’ of Khruschev’s initial anti-Stalinism, of Solzhenitsyn’s publication in the USSR and the ‘official’ translation of Marx’s early writings (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
instincts. I remember liking the draft of the Port Huron Statement, critical as it was of the USSR, but to me not all that different from the then ‘thaw’ of Khruschev’s initial anti-Stalinism, of Solzhenitsyn’s publication in the USSR and the ‘official’ translation of Marx’s early writings (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
* based on ‘What’s Left: The Port Huron Statement’, Socialist Review about 25 years ago
Yet my PYOC credentials came to serve as an important impetus to the birth of the
‘new left’, and in fact that my recognition contributed to the severing of SDS’ relation with the LID and the Socialist party. These divisions were reflected in the contents of the Port Huron Statement itself. SDS’ independence from the old, tired debates within and between the various segments of the ‘old left’ (Communist, communist and socialist) came to be an important defining quality of the early new left.
For many of us (certainly myself) who were in or near the Community Party, a constant and often nasty debate with the older (and some younger) CP leaders ensued. Many of us were, like other contemporaries not from a red diaper background, drawn to reopen the long-suppressed views of Soviet-style ‘Marxism’: democracy (e.g. as discussed by Gramsci), the importance of anti-bureaucratic impulses from below, colonial and ‘third world’ revolutions, and the conservatism, conformity and domestic repression in the USSR (and later as many of us realized China and all other ‘communist’ countries). I was drawn to the neo-Marxism then emerging in France and Italy in particular. Some of these themes resonated with the sentiments of the Port Huron Statement.
Among the most important of those sentiments, for me, was local community organizing, distrust of traditional Democratic party politics, notions of the ‘new working class’ (knowledge based), alienation, one-dimensional social relations and the desire the democratization of social life. In short, while a new left emerged with the Port Huron Statement, a new left also emerged from within and near to the Communist Party, among other places.
The Statement was also a captive of its times. It entirely ignored (as did the civil rights and peace movements of this era) women’s oppression and discrimination along with a host of gender issues (e.g. homosexuality) and environmental issues. But as times changed, new and long buried issues emerged. I did not join SDS until 1968, its membership between 80,000 to 100,000, then well on its way to a vicious factionalism and ideological self-destruction that culminated in 1970. Indeed, SDS recapitulated key elements of the ‘old left’s’ simplistic forms of Marxism and communism. While SDS moved in the direction from which I had come, I was moving in the directions from which SDS had come, convinced that many of the new left impulses of the Port Huron Statement represented a powerful basis for political analysis and action.
The Port Huron meeting played an important role in my own personal political development, an importance, however, that was primarily after the fact. The new left was a left to which I arrived substantially after its self announced birth in 1962, although ironically my silent presence at its nativity played an important role in shaping SDS policy, and those of many other organizations and movements that followed.
Since the new left of the 1960’s and early 1970’s is long gone, some of its elements (most importantly community involvement, and a variety of democratic impulses, which obviously long predated the new left and indeed transcends the ‘left’) remained important in my academic work and research. I have been for most of my professional life a professor. During the last twenty years I have written about corporate governance and the importance of retirement funds managed by various types of large institutional investors such as pension and mutual funds of various types as a means of pressuring corporations to better their behavior focusing on environmental and social issues. Participatory democracy it is very far from the reality of public and private retirement fund reality. Yet a significant role of ordinary people in their own retirement funds’ behavior remains a necessary goal.
Studying corporate governance and large institutional investors around the world may seem far removed from Port Huron, yet to some extent what attracted me to the Statement's sentiments still motivates my thinking and action.