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Will the Left Ever Learn to Communicate Across Generations

Page history last edited by Kelly Behrend 12 years, 7 months ago


Will the Left Ever Learn to Communicate Across Generations?



When 32-year-old Michael Harrington, a veteran socialist activist, first met 20-year-old Tom Hayden at a student conference on civil rights in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the spring of 1960, he found him "unprepossessing, a nondescript youth of no great presence," yet burning with "an intense leftist commitment." Harrington tried without success to recruit Hayden, a University of Michigan undergraduate, into the Young People's Socialist League, the youth affiliate of the Socialist Party that was Harrington's political home at the time. Hayden declined. "Socialism" seemed a needlessly esoteric word to the younger man, Harrington recalled: "He wanted to speak American."


Hayden would go on two years later to do just that by writing the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society. Harrington had mixed feelings about that document, approving of its moral passion for change, its support of civil rights, and its call for the creation of a "participatory democracy" in the United States, but disapproving of Hayden's apparent lack of anti-Soviet zeal. At the conference that adopted the manifesto, Harrington wound up alienating SDS leaders by attacking them in a famously intemperate political diatribe.


When 28-year-old Tom Hayden, by then a veteran New Left activist, first met 20-year-old Mark Rudd in the midst of the Columbia University student strike in the spring of 1968, he found him "a new type of campus leader," who could be "disarmingly personal, a young boy," but at the same time possessed by "an embryo of fanaticism." Rudd, leader of the so-called "action faction" of Columbia's SDS chapter, "considered SDS intellectuals impediments to action," according to Hayden. Hayden felt "slightly irrelevant in his presence."


I wish Harrington and Hayden had found a better way to sort out their differences at Port Huron in 1962. I also wish Rudd had been less impatient with his SDS elders in 1968. When Rudd first arrived at Columbia three years earlier, he had read the Port Huron Statement admiringly, but at the time of the Columbia strike he had abandoned the belief expressed in the statement, and central to the early SDS's political vision, that the American New Left "must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools."


Some of the history of the 1960s might have worked out differently, and for the better, if the politics of the American left had been less marked by such striking generational discontinuities. As another SDS leader, Todd Gitlin, would write in his look back at the decade, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), in the early years of the decade Harrington was key to the future of the New Left "because he was the one person who might have mediated across the generational divide." At a moment when a new generation of young radicals is gathering strength on some college campuses — sometimes grouped under the banner of a revived SDS — there may be value in reviewing this cautionary tale of miscommunication.


Harrington, who died in 1989 at the age of 61, is best remembered as author of The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), the book credited with sparking Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. But he also left another important legacy: the scores of disciples he inspired to take on the steady work of democratic radicalism. Harrington thought a great deal about the challenges of passing on his political insight and experience to younger generations. He had a real gift as a political talent spotter, and numerous "Harringtonites" (a term never used in his lifetime, but descriptive nonetheless) can be spotted in the labor movement, in elected office, and in progressive organizations and publications, as well as among the ranks of what critics have called "tenured radicals."


A number of the latter, myself included, gathered at a symposium late last year at New York University's Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives to mark the opening of Harrington's papers, the latest addition to its collection on radical history. In my comments on Harrington's political career and legacy, I focused on his arrival in New York in 1949, at 21, and the steps that led him steadily leftward over the next several years. Harrington's letters from that period, part of the Tamiment holdings, offer a case study in youthful enthusiasm, indecision, identity crisis, and the beginnings of a lifelong commitment to the cause of social justice.


In those early letters, the young author reveals himself as very much a work in progress, still signing off with his childhood nickname "Ned." Shortly after Christmas 1949, he wrote his conservative Roman Catholic parents back home in St. Louis from his apartment in Greenwich Village. Edward and Catherine Harrington disapproved of their son's New York venture, as they had when he had, in rapid succession, dropped out of Yale Law School and the graduate program in English at the University of Chicago. Harrington's reason for moving to New York — in the great tradition of young men and women of literary inclination and Midwest origins — was to become a writer. But in his letter, he confessed to having made a terrible mistake. The only thing Greenwich Village offered, he now understood, was a setting designed to ruin artists. "It no longer means artistic freedom, it now means sexual freedom," he said. "In this short time, I have grown afraid of these people who sit around in bars and talk literature all the time, talk of creating all the time, and never get to anything more than sitting around in bars."


Contrite, Harrington promised to re-enroll in the English department at Chicago for the spring semester. But in the weeks that followed, he would change his mind yet again; he was to remain a New Yorker and a Villager (the latter at least in spirit) for the rest of his life.


Before another year had passed, Harrington had acquired his first girlfriend in New York (there would be quite a few successors) — a young woman who fortunately held on to many of his love letters, which finally made their way to the Tamiment. He had been on a "Dostoevsky kick," he wrote her in 1950. In another letter to her that year, he revealed that he was considering leaving the Catholic Church: "I need God as I need food and sleep, but tracing his face with my fingers seems a long way off — a terribly long way."


There's no reason to doubt Harrington's spiritual anguish, for after years of Jesuit education, in high school and at Holy Cross University, he took such concerns seriously. But God and Dostoevsky were not the only things on his mind; his friends from the era remember a bright, funny, irrepressible young man, obviously intended to accomplish great things when he finally found himself.


Consider, finally, this letter in the Tamiment archives, written in January 1952 to a former classmate from the University of Chicago. A year earlier, Harrington had decided to return to the church, and what's more, to join the Catholic Worker movement, a spiritual and political group led by the redoubtably saintlike Dorothy Day. In March 1951, he moved to St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, the Catholic Worker headquarters, soup kitchen, and residence on the Lower East Side. Catholic Workers were committed to a life of rigorous religious devotion and voluntary poverty. Harrington embraced the ascetic ideals and lifestyle with the zeal of a new convert and quickly became a favorite of Day's: Within weeks of arriving at St. Joseph's, he became one of the editors of the monthly Catholic Worker newspaper. But as he approached the first anniversary of his arrival, he was drawn to explore some heretical notions.


At "the heart of Christianity," Harrington wrote his friend, "is an uncomfortable, radical proposition — do good and avoid evil. This proposition does not make any reference to pragmatism." That was the standard and, indeed, essential Catholic Worker viewpoint. To compromise the movement's commitment to its deeply spiritual, anarchist, and pacifist principles in a bid for political gain, allies, or respectability was seen as the first step down the slippery slope to a worldly and morally dubious opportunism. "However, in general, morality is usually pragmatic," Harrington wrote. "Therefore, a social phenomenon is evil, i.e., should be absolutely shunned, when the means are such that they clearly and inevitably lead to an evil end. Thus war. However, the state, the union, etc., though containing evil elements, are not inevitably tending toward evil." He added, "In this situation it is possible to cooperate with the means in the hope of forming them toward the good."


Though Harrington's point was a little obscure, he was "howevering" himself right out of the Catholic Workers, coming to the conclusion that the quest for individual spiritual perfection had cut the group off from the possibility of influencing the institutional mechanisms by means of which social justice on a mass scale had been achieved historically.


Later that spring, Harrington signed on to the Young People's Socialist League. And before the year was over, without many qualms and with little of the drama of his earlier decisions, he left St. Joseph's, the Catholic Worker movement, and the church. Democratic socialism became the defining allegiance of the remainder of his life.


Skipping ahead 10 years to 1962, Harrington's hopes for the emergence of a New Left in America (a term he had been using since 1958) were being realized. SDS had taken form in the past two years as a vital new campus organization, largely inspired by the rise of the Southern civil-rights movement. Hayden, the SDS president, had described Harrington in a 1961 article for Mademoiselle as one of three radicals over the age of 30 who had "won [the] respect" of New Leftists (the other two were Norman Thomas and C. Wright Mills). And when Hayden sat down in the spring of 1962 with an early draft of what would become the Port Huron Statement, he had Harrington's example much in mind, writing to fellow SDSers: "A moral aspiration for social equality, unaccompanied by a political and economic view of society, is at best wistful (I think I mimic Harrington) and, at worst, politically irresponsible. But an economic and political analysis, without an active, open moral pulse, dwindles to uninspired and uninspiring myopia."


The dilemma that Hayden wrestled with in 1962 — striking the proper balance between principle and expedience, vision and pragmatism — was basically the same Harrington had confronted in 1952. Harrington, leaning toward the pragmatic, had concluded that it was "possible to cooperate with the means" of established institutions like the unions and the federal government, "in the hope of forming them toward the good." Hayden, leaning toward the visionary, wanted to wed "economic and political analysis" with "an active, open moral pulse." Their emphases may have differed, but the two were clearly in dialogue.

That is, until they met at Port Huron later that spring, and Harrington blew up. The details have been chronicled many times since, perhaps most definitively in James Mil-ler's Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987). Basically, Harrington misread Hayden's attempt to offer an evenhanded analysis of cold-war tensions as a neo-Stalinist apology for the Soviet Union. In doing so, he violated his own rules for effective cross-generational communication. Writing in the democratic-socialist journal Dissent a few months before, Harrington had cautioned "veterans of the radical movement" not to overreact when young radicals displayed naïve attitudes on topics like Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba. Although mistaken attitudes had to be confronted by democratic leftists, he argued, that "cannot be done from a lecture platform, from a distance. Rather the persuasion must come from someone who is actually involved in changing the status quo." At Port Huron, as Harrington later wrote, he "treated fledgling radicals trying out their own ideas for the first time as if they were hardened faction fighters."


Hayden, in his Reunion: A Memoir (1988), accurately described Harrington's Port Huron outburst as a disaster for all concerned. SDS members "learned a distrust and hostility to the very people we were closest to historically, the representatives of the liberal and labor organizations who had once been young radicals themselves," he said. "In retrospect, I regret that the extreme overreaction to SDS by its elders left me numb to potentially valuable lessons of their experience."

Skip ahead another half-dozen years to 1968 and the Columbia strike. Thanks to the Vietnam War, SDS was a much larger and angrier group than it had been in 1962; the few hundred members of the Port Huron era had grown to tens of thousands. At the chapter level in 1968, rank-and-file members represented a remarkable diversity of radical viewpoints, including a left-leaning liberalism, a counterculturally flavored anarchism, and 57 varieties of Marxism. But at the national level, SDS leaders showed an increasing preference for commanding small vanguard parties of revolutionaries rather than presiding over a large, ideologically sloppy, ill-disciplined, and multi-tendency student movement. That was the very outcome that Harrington had feared at Port Huron.


Hayden was in New York when Columbia students took over a number of buildings on the campus to protest the university's plans to build a gym in a Harlem park, and to demand an end to war-related research on the campus. He rode the subway up to Columbia to see what was going on and wound up leading one of the building occupations for the next five days. Although "leading" is perhaps not the right term. "After all," he would write in Reunion, "the slogan I believed in was 'Let the people decide.' I was not [at Columbia] to lecture anyone on the Port Huron Statement." On April 23, 1968, he was arrested along with more than 700 other strikers.


Afterward, Hayden wrote an article titled "Two, Three, Many Columbias" forRamparts, the title echoing the call by the recently martyred Che Guevara for the world's revolutionary left to create "Two, Three, Many Vietnams" to defeat U.S. imperialism. If Hayden had any residual concerns about the "embryo of fanaticism" he would later claim to have detected in the student leader Rudd, they did not appear in the article. In fact, Hayden had no criticisms at all of what happened at Columbia. The stance he adopted, at least rhetorically, was that of a loyal and deferential supporter of whatever young people on campuses decided they needed to do to challenge war and racism. It seemed to him, he wrote self-deprecatingly, that "issues being considered by 17-year-old freshmen at Columbia University would not have been within the imagination of most 'veteran' student activists five years ago."


I remember that article well. I read it during the summer of 1968, as I prepared to go off to Reed College in the fall to become one of those 17-year-old freshmen whose political acuity Hayden flattered. I signed up for SDS as soon as I got to the campus, prepared to re-enact the Columbia strike as soon as the proper issue presented itself (to my disappointment, it never quite did, although it was a stormy year at Reed). I also read the Port Huron Statement that year, mostly because I was interested in the early history of the New Left. It didn't seem nearly as relevant or enthralling as "Two, Three, Many Columbias." It was only in later years that I came to appreciate the earlier document's virtues, particularly its vision of the university as a "potential base and agency in a movement of social change," a movement in which "action" would "be informed by reason." By 1968, in contrast, student radicals at Columbia and elsewhere tended to dismiss the university as simply part of the war machine. And, as Hayden said at the conclusion of his Ramparts article, it was time to "bring the war home," a rhetoric and strategy that placed disruption and confrontation over appeals to reason.


"Two, Three, Many Columbias" was a primer for a politics that valued the gut instinct of young radicals over experience, continuity, and historical perspective and, sadly, proved to be one of the most influential pieces Hayden would write in the 1960s. He may have intended to "bring the war home" in a purely symbolic fashion, but the phrase took on a darker meaning: In March 1970, Ted Gold, a veteran of the Columbia strike, would be among a small group of the Weathermen of SDS building a nail-studded dynamite bomb in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse when it inadvertently went off, killing him and two others. In his 1988 memoir, Hayden sought to own up to a measure of responsibility for encouraging the turn toward fanaticism in SDS that he later deplored. It is interesting in that regard that he did not include "Two, Three, Many Columbias" in a recently released anthology, Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (City Lights, 2008).


When young people turn to radical doctrines and movements, whether in 1952, 1962, 1968, or 2008, they are apt to bring with them a mixed collection of motives and impulses: simultaneously craving autonomy and validation, guidance and self-definition. For their radicalism to be anything more than a youthful fling, they need to find within it both a meaningful sense of personal identity and a sustainable vision of how to bring about social change. They can learn from their elders, but they also need to bring a critical scrutiny to bear on received wisdom.


The 1960s offer mostly cautionary examples of what to avoid when one generation on the left tries to influence the next. In the early 1960s, Michael Harrington, violating his own precepts on listening for the good emotions behind bad theories, squandered his opportunity to contribute to the future development of SDS and instead indulged in a blustering, condescending, and all-out political assault on the young radicals gathered at Port Huron. In the late 1960s, Tom Hayden offered young campus revolutionaries flattery and deference, refrained from saying anything that would sound like a lecture, and wound up at best "irrelevant," and at worst contributing to the emergence of the Weathermen.


Is there a happy middle ground for radical elders to take with their juniors, located somewhere between unproductive confrontation and unprincipled capitulation? As a guiding principle, one could do worse than bear in mind the young Harrington's "uncomfortable radical proposition" of 1952: "Do good and avoid evil."


Maurice Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College. Among his books are The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (PublicAffairs, 2000), and America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (3rd, rev. ed., Oxford University Press, 2007), with Michael Kazin.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 41, Page B6  

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