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Ron Radosh

Tom Hayden: A Man Who Gives ‘Opportunism’ a Bad Name

April 12th, 2012 - 10:03 am

That quip about Hayden’s opportunism was made decades ago by the late social-democrat intellectual Irving Howe, who believed that Hayden was campaigning in the 1960s to be “the New Left’s next Lenin.” It was a barbed, accurate, and insightful comment into what made the principal writer of the Students for a Democratic Society  (SDS) “Port Huron Statement” tick.

Now, writing recently in the cover story of The Nation, Hayden sketches out what he means by the early concept “participatory democracy,” which became the guideline of the early SDS and which he tries to explain has now morphed into the present Occupy Wall Street. He explains his concept in this video:

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There is no way to comb through all of the distortions, innuendos, and exaggerations in this long article, reworked from an introduction to a new book of twelve essays on the meaning of the now half-century old statement of SDS’s intent, which for some reason is not to be found at any online bookstore as yet. (You can read the original “Port Huron Statement” that was first published in 1962 for yourself.)

What is consistent with all of Hayden’s past years of activism (which you can read about here) is his desire to be on the cutting edge of whatever left-wing movement is current and which he still seeks to lead. Tying his old, early ’60s stance with his arguments today is the juvenile, mindless anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism of his youth, and an inability to comprehend how the mindset he held in 1962 led to SDS’s later embrace of totalitarianism and its descent into thuggish extremism.

What is most interesting about his new article, however, is his excitement about the president’s forthcoming election campaign and his obvious belief that it is the vehicle for fulfillment of the vision first announced in the Port Huron Statement (hereafter called PHS). That should not be surprising. Having left SDS soon after its birth, Hayden went on to move from organization to organization. First he favored community organizing in Newark, New Jersey, where he sought to organize an “interracial movement of the poor,” as he called it then, that would organize around demands for things like traffic lights in areas where they were needed. He believed that would develop into demands by a new movement to force city and state and then federal government to act upon their power.

From community organizing — which Hayden dropped as quickly as he began it — he moved to create his own group, “The Indo-China Peace Campaign,” which fought nationally for an end to the war in Vietnam, a cut-off of congressional funding to South Vietnam and Cambodia, and which favored a Communist victory in Southeast Asia. Hayden was able to do this because he had married the film star Jane Fonda, which not only allowed him to use her celebrity to his own advantage, but which gave him access to the money Fonda was making from her exercise videotapes, which were nationwide bestsellers. The profits from those tapes, I recall, were given directly to the organization’s funding.  Together, he and Fonda traveled to North Vietnam, where he took a camera crew and came back with a propaganda film: Introduction to the Enemy. Hayden would write after his first trip to Vietnam that the Vietnamese Communists had created a “rice-roots democracy.” After the war’s end, when Joan Baez passed around a petition protesting the human-rights violations of the winning Communist side in Vietnam, Hayden denounced those who signed it as tools of the CIA.

Later, Hayden started a political career: he served in the California State Assembly and then the California State Senate. He ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1997, and after being defeated, he ran four years later for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

In his new article, it is what Hayden leaves out that is particularly galling. He wants to posit a straight line from the early SDS idealists to Occupy Wall Street today, and to downplay or make it appear that the much discussed extremism of the Weather Underground and its many imitators was a development that had nothing to do with the SDS mainstream — and in fact was something he vigorously opposed. Thus he writes the following about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group which he says “played a direct role in shaping my values”:

Though they were not at Port Huron, there were other philosophical searchers at the time who practiced participatory democracy. Bob Moses, perhaps the single greatest influence on the early SDS and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), could be described as a Socratic existentialist. The Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio described himself as a non-Marxist radical shaped by secular liberation theology who was “an avid supporter of participatory democracy.” We were all influenced by Ella Baker, an elder adviser to SNCC with a long experience of NAACP organizing in the South. Ms. Baker, as everyone referred to her, was critical of the top-down methods of black preachers and organizations, including her friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She argued that SNCC should remain autonomous and not become a youth branch of the older organizations. She spoke of and personified participatory democracy.

What Hayden writes about the late Ella Baker is completely misleading. Baker worked hard to oppose “her friend … King,” and she regularly attacked the architect of King’s turn to Gandhi, the anti-Communist social-democratic civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Baker was courageous and committed to civil rights, but she was close to The American Communist Party and was a staff member of the Southern Conference Education Fund, a well-known Communist front. It was her suggestion and guidance that led SNCC to turn for legal help not to the well-known channels of moderate groups like the NAACP, but to the Communist-created National Lawyers Guild. Joe Rauh, the group’s first counsel, was fired from his post.

When she spoke and gave the keynote address to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party convention before the 1964 Democratic Party convention at Atlantic City, she attacked any opposed to Communists as “Red-baiters”, and insisted that the civil rights movement had to be anti anti-Communist. Rauh, the famous civil liberties lawyer, commented that her speech was so stridently “red” that it could have been lifted from an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker. As Rauh wrote to Hubert Humphrey: “the domestic Communists have made a real attempt to infiltrate the Mississippi civil rights movement. … Communist influence was, of course, evident at the convention in Atlantic City.”

When Hayden turns his attention to SDS, he tries to present its original program as a vague call for economic democracy, far removed from the irrelevant bureaucratic forms of Marxism that plagued the Old Left. He acknowledges that many of the early SDS members “were shaped and informed in part by Marxist traditions,” but argues that they did not favor any “revival ceremony for Marxism.” Those who came from the Old Left and were children of Communists, he argues, “had concluded that moral values and democracy were more important than any ideological renovation of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, or anarchism.”

If this was true, how does Hayden explain the sudden adoption of just these old sectarian paths by so many in SDS? He accomplishes the neat trick by leaving out of his account the well-known fight at the Port Huron meeting in 1962 between his side and the labor movement backers, including the Reuther brothers, who gave both money and the site of the meeting to SDS, and the leaders of The Young People’s Socialist League, including Don Slaiman, Michael Harrington, and their supporters. The issue dividing the group was the demand of young CPUSA members to be admitted to SDS. The YPSL contingent, whose titular head was the vociferous anti-Communist Max Schachtman, then close to AFL-CIO chief George Meany, argued that Communists were opposed to democracy in principle, and should be excluded from membership in or participation with SDS. Hayden and his supporters — many of them children of  Communists — voted to accept Communists into SDS. Before long, the followers of Harrington pulled out and openly criticized SDS for its blindness.

Next, Hayden brings up a strategy called “political realignment,” which he describes as ending the “organized stalemate” in Washington and that would “open the possibility of a more progressive party.” He accurately writes that the strategy was “embraced by King, Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington,” but does not let his readers know that he and SDS had broken with Rustin and Harrington, and in essence, were not supporting their tactical efforts. The strategy was in fact the one proposed by Shachtman and the YPSL group, and was meant to force the white Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party,so that it would be a reform group that would commit itself to end segregation in the South and develop an alliance with mainstream conservative organized labor, led by George Meany and his associates.

It was definitely not meant by these people to be what Hayden actually favored: the ousting of the Meany labor group from the Democratic Party and the subsequent conquest by the left-wing forces, including radical feminists, the new young radicals, and elite intellectual groups in the universities. This group ardently supported the new McGovern rules which handed over power to these new elements and led to the McGovernization of the Democratic Party in 1972, a development heralded by Hayden and opposed by all those who had created the original realignment strategy.

What Hayden favored was attacking what he calls a “cold war mentality,” by which he means opposition to the bipartisan policy of opposing Soviet expansionism, and which most mainstream political leaders realized was a necessary fight against the Eastern totalitarian bloc. Again, he reveals his true feelings by noting his firm opposition to the social-democrats who wisely carried out a campaign against Soviet-style communism, which they recognized was the enemy not only of the United States but of a free labor movement. In a remarkable passage, he just about accuses the late Tom Kahn of being a CIA agent. Kahn was, in fact, a social-democrat who developed a program to fund labor unions in authoritarian states like South Vietnam, all of which Hayden disparages as part of CIA “covert operations”  which he falsely asserts were run “through the AFL-CIO’s international affairs department.” In essence, even today, Hayden repeats the Soviet disinformation about Meany’s work used by the Communists at the time to fight anti-Communist labor unions.
Hayden charges that King and the others were “unaware of the company we were keeping.” But since King’s closest associate was Bayard Rustin, who himself was involved with just these anti-Communist efforts, one would think King had to be blind not to understand that his associate was involved in justly creating independent bodies not controlled in places like Vietnam by Soviet-infiltrated groups, and that they would provide political space for a democratic opposition to develop and thrive in a free, Western-oriented social order. Hayden writes he opposed “the secret pro-cold war element within liberalism, directly and indirectly tied to the CIA.” That sentence in itself shows that Hayden was engaging in what most people would call a McCarthyite smear. Their aims and programs were anything but secret, and Hayden of course has not one iota of proof that the CIA was behind them. In making these charges, Hayden sounds much like the labor columnists for The Daily Worker, who made these charges in that period on a regular basis.

Finally, let us turn to the transformation of his beloved SDS into the Weather Underground, and its drift to Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, and Maoism. Hayden writes as if he opposed all of this, calling it a “stunning turn for a ‘new’ left, because it implied a broad rejection of many of the new social movement as basically ‘reformist’ too, since none of them were led by Marxists and none (except the Black Panthers) favored vanguard parties.”

He argues he and his cohorts were inspired by C. Wright Mills, John Dewey, Albert Camus, Doris Lessing, and James Baldwin, not by Stalin and Mao. He chastises the Weather Underground who he says had as heroes Mao’s colleague Lin Piao, Che Guevara, and Regis Debray, the French Castro-ite who argued for guerrilla warfare as the path to socialism. He does not tell readers — as anyone can easily find out for themselves — that Hayden was a strong supporter of the Black Panther Party, that he himself led a Berkeley commune called “the Red Family” whose Minister of Defense trained members at firing ranges in preparation for the revolution. Nor does he acknowledge his own paeans to the Weather group for setting the standard for all radicals, his praise of the “liberated zones” like Berkeley, California, Madison, Wisconsin, and the Upper West Side in New York City that they supposedly had built as precursors of the socialist future. Nor does he say anything about his role in the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where he and others led the call for violence that would disrupt and destroy the convention’s business.

Only by cleaning up his own image can Hayden appear as he wants to be known: a mild reformer who was urging “participatory democracy” as the way to carry on the legacy of democratic reforms won in the 60s by SDS. He even has the chutzpah to include in his list of major reforms they won “Nixon’s environmental laws,” while Nixon, as anyone with a bit of knowledge knows, was Hayden’s archenemy.

So Hayden ends with praise galore for Occupy Wall Street, noting that even anarchism was one of SDS’s earliest influences. Just as “the people”–  that amorphous meaningless phrase — demanded reforms in the ’30s that led to the New Deal, “pushed from below by insurrectionary strikes … factory occupations … and writing and art from government-subsidized poets and intellectuals,” Hayden ends with calling for a new “splendid bedlam of participatory democracy” that will lead to a “vision of the state as an instrument that can sometimes be bent to the popular will.”

Of course, we have an instrument by which the people can get government to respond to their wishes: it is called political democracy, and it is based on electing leaders in a state and national level by the vote. It is not one based on mass action of the kind demanded by Hayden, who insists on attacking the “unfettered appetites of capitalism” which he says have “created an intolerable human condition.” Having said he is not a socialist or a revolutionary, he ends up endorsing a movement whose leaders and activists want above all to end the very system that has made America prosperous.

And how to gain that end? The answer is that which I addressed the other day. Elect Barack Obama for a second term and push for “fundamental reform.” His goal is a “progressive majority.” What happens if, in fact, there is no such majority and it does not materialize? What will Hayden recommend next? I don’t think he will retreat to the woodwork. We all know that he will support a further taking to the streets to demand the ends he believes are what “the people” want.

When it comes down to it, Tom Hayden is still campaigning to be America’s Lenin. Now in his golden years, somehow I don’t think he’ll make it.

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