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Democracy is in the streets: from Port Huron to the siege of Chicago.

Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.

James Miller. Simon & Schuster, $19.95. Students for a Democratic Society, whose name is curiously absent from the title of this history of its founding, today stimulates the urge to debunk. It's hard to see why it deserves the immense respect it's accorded from both left and right as a potent political force. What did SDS do, exactly? It was only a minor participant in the civil rights movement, which stands as the great example in modern American history of the power of nonviolent direct action. Its main activity (aside from a lot of theorizing) was a series of community organizing efforts in ghettos that had no lasting effect. It is most famous for its role in the antiwar movement, but, as James Miller demonstrates here, the war swelled SDS's membership rolls just at the moment when it was falling apart as a real organization; anyway, the war that SDS supposedly helped end went on long after SDS had become defunct. SDS wanted to establish a lasting student movement in this country, but today places ranging from West Germany to Korea to Mexico have vastly more active left-wing student movements left over from the sixties than the United States does. To the extent that SDS helped to polarize the country in general and the Democratic Party in particular in the late sixties, it may have held back the achievement of its policy goals.

This book is written from the assumption that SDS was a major political movement--is there any other left-wing group whose meetings, manifestos, and internecene squabbles would attract the attention of a big commercial publisher like Simon & Schuster? There's a sense among people between, say, 35 and 45 that the importance of SDS is so obvious that it doesn't really need to be established. But Miller is so thorough and so intellectually honest that he does also shed considerable light on what SDS really amounted to. In conception, SDS was most noteworthy for being an organization of the left that simply didn't care about socialism. This was due mostly to the influence of Tom Hayden, who is the hero of this book. Coming out of a non-political midwestern background, Hayden was motivated by moral idealism, not by hatred of capitalism; in an early draft of the Port Huron Statement, he had a line praising small business for being anti-elitist. On the other hand he infuriated SDS's original parent organization, a rabidly anti-Stalinist branch of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, for consistently refusing to issue blanket condemnations of the Soviet Union. Michael Harrington, a fascinating secondary character here, was furious at Hayden for allowing a young American communist to attend the Port Huron conference as an observer.

Not surprisingly, given that they were adolescents, all the early SDSers saw radical politics as, perhaps primarily, a means of self-discovery and self-expression. Port Huron took place very much in the long shadow of the fifties, and the participants were convinced they were being groomed for the kind of conformist society that one sees described in the work of C. Wright Mills and David Riesman. Getting thrown in jail in the South was a way not only of helping people but also of taking the personally liberating step of burning one's bridges to the organization-man life. In a way, the road from Port Huron to the human-potential movement--a road that several of the SDS founders traveled--was a perfectly straight one.

The great theoretical banner under which SDS marched, "participatory democracy,' was, as Miller shows, not very well defined. SDS never knew exactly what kind of society it was trying to create; Hayden could go from meeting with Averell Harriman or Robert Kennedy in Washington to delivering a pep talk to the Weathermen in Chicago before they embarked on the pointlessly destructive Days of Rage. The part of the participatory democracy ethos that has lasted is the notion that the famous consensus politics of the fifties was excluding too many people; the crucial flaw was the conclusion that therefore mainstream American politics was never to be trusted. SDS was fatally drawn to the establishment of political entities with no connection to elective politics, and these were terribly prone to sectarianism and had little chance of surviving when the radical mood of the sixties faded. Oddly, SDS's greatest legacy today is probably the vague but pronounced influence its ethos had on baby-boom politicians like Gary Hart, Albert Gore, Jr., and Joseph Biden (the opening line of the Port Huron statement is, "We are people of this generation')--not the strength of the alternative political structures it spawned. Standing apart from politics was SDS's great mistake.

So SDS's real contribution was a style, not an organization or a program. That's nothing to be dismissed out of hand. The best parts of the style--the feeling that some things are simply wrong and should be opposed for that reason, and a deep respect for individual rights--inevitably led SDS to early positions on the right side of such major issues as civil rights and Vietnam. SDS proved, too, that American radicalism need not be tied to European socialism or Soviet communism. Youthful idealism unfettered by ideology can be a powerful force for good, and we ought not let SDS's inglorious end in factionalism and violence lead us to lose sight of that today.
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1987
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