U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Thoughts on the Port Huron Statement and U.S. Intellectual History

The Port Huron Statement used us to write itself, not the other way around….There’s no fucking way that I could have written it. It’s not possible if you read it.  And there’s sections of it I don’t remember at all. And I don’t know who wrote them.  So, it was fifty people at the crest of a great movement, having gone through the experience of jail in Mississippi and Georgia…There’s a way in which the words just came gushing forth….Something takes you over; it’s not that you are in charge.

— Tom Hayden, “The Port Huron Statement at 50,” Madison, Wisconsin, May 4, 2012 

MAUDE (Julianne Moore): Tell me a little about yourself, Jeffrey.
DUDE (Jeff Bridges):  Well, uh. . . Not much to tell.  I was, uh, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement.–The original Port Huron Statement.
MAUDE:  Uh-huh.
DUDE: Not the compromised second draft. 

— from The Big Lebowski (1998)

What’s gone on in the last 18 months is, to me, a fulfillment of virtually every dimension of participatory democracy, which was the dream at Port Huron fifty years ago, as outlined in the statement. And I hope to convince you that it’s a perspective and a framework that has a recurring life, independent of its authors, independent of its publication, because it always arises where people suffer too much and the institutions are too slow in making a response. 

— Tom Hayden, “The Port Huron Statement at 50

June 15, 2012, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. This year has already seen a large number of academic events reflecting on the document’s golden anniversary, including a conference at UC Santa Barbara in February, a dialogue on the Port Huron Statement between Noam Chomsky and Tom Hayden at MIT in April, and a short series of lectures at the Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at UW Madison in May.  Many reflections on it have also appeared in print.  One of the constants at these events has been the participation of Tom Hayden, who is usually credited with writing the Statement.

Although any reflection on the Statement is historical, the concerns of the various fora on its fiftieth anniversary have not principally been historical, which is fair enough.  Hayden, and many others, see the Statement as a living text. And much of the discussion of it has involved its relationship to our current political situation.

Nonetheless, the Port Huron Statement is an historical text. Given the interests of this blog, I think it’s worth briefly reflecting on its significance for U.S. intellectual history.


There is no question in my mind that the Port Huron Statement is a significant–and canonical–text in American intellectual history. Indeed, I’d argue that, now that Lester Frank Ward’s “Mind as a Social Factor” has been restored, the single most significant omission from Hollinger and Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition reader is the Statement.

Its historical significance lies in at least three things:  First, it richly reflects a number of important strands in twentieth-century American thought. Deweyite pragmatism, C. Wright Mills’s analysis of the power elite, existentialism, as well as the ideas swirling around the ongoing Black freedom struggle, are perhaps most clearly reflected in the text. But it is also in creative dialog with the mainstream of post-war liberalism and, at least implicitly, the Marxism of the Old Left.

Second, it captures a very particular, important, and brief moment in American history and thought.  The Statement truly could not have been written three years earlier and would not have been written three years later.  It emerged most directly from then very recent experiences of the civil rights movement in the South. Both Tom Hayden and Paul Potter had been beaten while working for civil rights in Mississippi earlier in 1962.  The point of view of Port Huron is very much that of people of relative privilege already bound up in others’ struggles for justice.

Though it emerged from these social struggles and a sense of the failures of the status quo, the Statement also reflects the optimism of the early Sixties. One of the first things that Tom Hayden did when the Port Huron Statement was drafted was to travel to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of presenting it to President Kennedy.  They managed to get a meeting with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who apparently did get a copy of the Statement to the President.

Within three years of the Statement’s writing, however, LBJ had begun to escalate the War in Vietnam and the black freedom struggle had begun to split over questions of goals and tactics. The War would come to dominate the politics of the New Left in the second half of the decade. And the relationship of SDS to both those in power and to the Marxist legacy of the Old Left began to change dramatically and rapidly.  By the end of the decade, a younger generation of SDS leaders had largely repudiated Port Huron as too “reformist.”

The third historical significance of the Port Huron Statement is related to the second: the text became almost instantly canonical.  SDS had come into existence when, two years earlier, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the youth wing of the old, socialist League for Industrial Democracy, had changed its name. But SDS really as an organization in its own right with the framing of the Statement, which, in its movement away from anticommunism, also drove a wedge between SDS and its erstwhile sponsor, the LID.  The Port Huron Statement thus initially defined what SDS stood for.  And as SDS, along with SNCC, defined what the emerging New Left stood for, academics and public intellectuals turned to the Statement to understand what was going on politically on campus.  Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau’s The New Radicals: A Report with Documents (1966) included a long excerpt from the Statement.*

But even as the Statement became an object of journalistic and academic analysis in the mid-to-late 1960s, its significance within the movement began to wane, as noted above.  By the late Sixties, those writing about it frequently noted that it had fallen into disfavor among the current leadership of SDS.  But the declining importance of the Statement for the movement only served to highlight its historical significance…and thus its canonicity.


In a sense the first two quotations with which I started this post reflect the extent to which the Statement is a generational marker, the first in a serious mode, the second in a humorous one.  In Hayden’s account, the statement wrote itself…which is very close to saying that it was written by its historical moment (though not quite…and I’ll get back to how below).  The Coen Brothers’ use of the Statement as an important piece of backstory for Jeff Bridge’s Dude in The Big Lebowski presents it as a different sort of generational marker.  Once, it would appear, the Dude was politically involved; now, we know, he’s the ultimate slacker, more concerned about White Russians and the fate of his erstwhile rug (“it really tied the room together!”) than anything else.  The absurdity of the former political commitments of Baby Boomers like the Dude have been a frequent object of humor in turn-of-the-millenium U.S. culture. And the cult popularity of The Big Lebowski apparently has led some young people today to associate the Port Huron Statement with the Dude.

But although the statement is often (correctly) seen as a product of its particular moment, Hayden and others of his generation frequently treat it as strangely timeless.  Much of Hayden’s talk in Madison in May, from which the above quotations are taken, revolves around his presenting participatory democracy as a truly eternal idea. This is reflected in the last of the three quotes with which I started this blog post.  Participatory democracy, says Hayden, is “a perspective and a framework that has a recurring life, independent of its authors, independent of its publication, because it always arises where people suffer too much and the institutions are too slow in making a response.”

This sense of the timelessness of the ideas of the Statement also appears in the comic entitled “The Port Huron Statement Today” that the historian Paul Buhle and the cartoonist Gary Dumm recently created for New York high school students.  Today’s social struggles, the comic suggests, are exactly the same struggles that SDS addressed in 1962 and they admit of the same solutions.  This view is most immediately captured in this panel from the comic (which, incidentally incorporates an image from the late ’60s rather than the period in which the Statement was actually framed):

I have no problem whatsoever with the desire to treat the Port Huron Statement as a living document. I think, in many ways, it is.  But I also think that, both politically and historically, treating its message as entirely eternal is inadequate.  Most obviously, the Statement is a document that is absolutely of its time, from its highly gendered language to its very existentialist assumptions. Anyone who tries teaching the document today will, for example, immediately recognize that this is a text written by and for people who have read Camus…and young people today by and large have not.  Understand this text entails, among other things, having a rich understanding of its moment.

But the vision of an eternal Port Huron Statement has another, equally important downside.  Put simply, the vision of the Port Huron Statement failed.  It did not even sustain the organization that produced it for half a decade. It did not transform the U.S. as its authors hoped it would. That does not, of course, mean that there is nothing of value in the Statement or that many of its ideas might not succeed in the future. Far from it. But grappling with the historical failures of the Port Huron Statement is a necessary part of understanding it historically…and, I’d argue, renewing a version of its politics (if one wants to do so).

This point is also poignantly illustrated by the third of the quotes with which I began this post.  Writing in the midst of the ongoing battle to recall Gov. Scott Walker, Hayden sounded an optimistic note in early May:  “What’s gone on in the last 18 months is, to me, a fulfillment of virtually every dimension of participatory democracy, which was the dream at Port Huron fifty years ago, as outlined in the statement.”  But of course, that effort ultimately failed on June 5. Ever since, the internet has been overrun with a variety of postmortems trying to figure out what went wrong.  Though the left, like any political tradition, can and should find sustenance in its history, it will be better served if it treats that history in a slightly more hardheaded fashion.  The Port Huron Statement was a watershed of early New Left thought. But it didn’t–and doesn’t–provide all the answers.

* The Port Huron Statement is a very long document and it is frequently reprinted in edited form without that fact being made clear.  Nowhere in Jacobs and Landau’s book do they indicate that they were reprinted merely an excerpt (though the ellipses in the text would have informed the careful reader).  Similarly the link to the “full text of the statement” on the Wikipedia page on the Port Huron Statement currently leads until recently led to a different, long excerpt that appears on the University of Virginia’s Sixties Project site, again without noting that the document has been severely edited (I just changed the link myself so that it now leads to an actual copy of the full text).