Todd Gitlin, On the Port Huron Statement, NYU, April 12, 2012
The Port Huron Statement was the clearest, most vivid and energetic articulation of an awakening: one of those great uprisings that are the crucibles of America struggling (against much violence and cruelty) to become itself—a commonwealth of free association and mutual aid.
The New Left wanted to make, out of the lonely crowd, the beloved community—the kernel of a moral awakening that would put intelligence to work in behalf of transcendent values and overcome as much human ugliness as possible.
This beloved community would be bound together in what Carl Oglesby would later call “brute love”—an association of free and struggling individuals joining together what an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”
Brute love was distilled from a fierce chemical reaction (and I’m not just referring to controlled substances) which began with a revolt against racist evil and stupefaction, and developed into an intoxication with the vivid solidarities that are made possible, though never guaranteed, by democratic life.
The intoxication was stirred by a discovery of the bonds that could be forged from a conviction that big changes were not only necessary but possible.
The sense of necessity was both moral and intellectual. It’s interesting: There are not, in the Port Huron Statement, extraordinary insights into the crimes and failure and inequities of American society at the outset of the 1960s:
• white supremacy;
• the military-industrial contempt for human possibility;
• the grotesque brandishing of thermonuclear weapons in the Cold War;
• the triumph of empty labor; and so on.
The keen insight of the Port Huron Statement was that a life of shared value mattered—and that it could be lived in common—and that citizenship might matter and might, for some body of people, be practical. The name that was affixed to that insight was “participatory democracy.”
It was, I think, intended more as a principle of social life than as a way of holding meetings. It was not understood as an alternative to strategy or to the collective work of intellect, but as their fruition.
The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely. The intimation that the world could be remade—starting right now and right here—this was the movement’s idea—all of the movement, as Linda Gordon points out in her paper, not just the white guys.
The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. For some in the movement those values were spoken in an other-worldly spirit; for some not. It didn’t matter. All the eyes were on the prize.
SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.
There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document. Within the lines, there were a lot of intellectual puzzles that the Port Huron Statement could not solve. No one has since. They may not be capable of solution. For example: What if most people do not want, at least not so much, to make the decisions at affect their lives? Shall we then disband the people and convene another one?
But the Port Huron Statement did not say: Follow us from Point A to Point Z. It said: Here we are, a bunch of people, “raised in at least modest comfort,” who are going to make the effort to live lives we are not ashamed of, in order to live in a country we are not ashamed of. And that was a very great thing.
At the same time, we are all well aware of what we could not accomplish in the movements of that time. And that is why we ought to be refreshing the language of values, and reawakening the awakening, and acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with our better angels.
I mean not just ourselves, the core of a movement and its passions. I mean also the vast outer movement. Just as there was a conspicuous ‘60s, the one recorded in the photogenic confrontations and iconic images of courage and horror, there was also a subterranean ‘60s—less well known but just as important. The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should I do?
That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.
What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.
Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.