Tom Hayden (1939-2016) was an activist and intellectual who, with others, inspired a generation of young people to oppose racism and war. He drafted a visionary statement that is still relevant today. He launched a youth movement in the late 1950s when the larger society was still crippled by virulent anti-communism and a sanctimonious view that the United States was the leader of the “free world.” He remained an anti-war and human rights activist throughout his life.
The ideas of community, empowerment, and social justice were articulated for the Sixties in the Port Huron Statement, written by founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, particularly Tom Hayden. While written by and for a relatively privileged sector of disenchanted youth in a period of booming economic growth and military expansion, the document spoke to the passion for justice, participation, and community, and an “…unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.”
It called for the creation of “human interdependence,” replacing “…power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance…” by “power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity.”
By the late Sixties many were identifying a new society based on the Port Huron vision built on core principles. These included:
- local control and participatory democracy;
- racial justice;
- gender equality;
- equitable distribution of resources and the collective product of human labor;
- commitments to the satisfaction of minimal basic needs for all of humankind;
- the development of an ethic that connects survival to human existence, not to specific jobs;
- human control over technology; and
- a new “land ethic” that conceives of humankind as part of nature, not in conflict with it.
The vision led to the exploration of the impediments to the construction of a society based on human scale that would celebrate both individual creativity and community. Growing familiarization with the critique of capitalism suggested that the capitalist mode of production, dominant over two-thirds of the world, was based upon the exploitation, oppression, dehumanization, and repression of the vast majority of humankind.
Incorporating an understanding of the workings of capitalism reinforced the vision that philosopher Martin Buber called the decentralized social principle embedded in Port Huron’s eloquent call for “community.” Building a new society entailed class struggle which would manifest itself in factories and fields, in rich and poor countries, and in political venues from the ballot box to the streets.
Bringing about positive change was a much more complicated affair than activists originally thought, but the sustained and sometimes brutal opposition to visions, like that reflected in The Port Huron Statement, validated the general correctness of them.
Today, new generations of activists, along with older ones, are reflecting and participating in diverse social movements in our cities and towns. They observe with enthusiasm the mobilizations, the militancy, and the passion for justice still unfolding in the Middle East.
The efforts of Venezuelans, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, and the Cubans who inspired us so much over the years are applauded. Important debates about social market economies, workers’ management of large enterprises, this or that candidate or political party, are occurring on the Internet and in the streets.
Although the times are so different from the 1960s, perhaps the vision of community that animated thinking then (which we in turn learned from those who preceded us) may still be relevant for today.
Tom Hayden and his comrades proclaimed that we must remain committed to the sanctity of human life, to equality, to popular control of all our institutions, to a reverence for the environment, and to the idea that the best of society comes from communal efforts to make living better for all. Hayden’s vision survives.