Tom Hayden, Giant of the New Left Remembered



Activist and author Tom Hayden liked to say, at any convenient moment, that the New Left had one great problem: It never thought about winning.

This observation, made in the 1970s and depressingly prescient today, was the seed of a larger idea. Winning is about tactics, not a moral position. For a left repeatedly crushed by repression but also fractured through disagreements, and overwhelmed by a hostile media and facing up to the most powerful capitalism in the world, winning is no easy matter.

Hayden—prominent in anti-war, civil rights, and radical intellectual activism in the 1960s, author of the Port Huron Statement and participant in the Chicago Seven case, and a member of the California legislature for twenty years—was keenly aware of the contradictions and the complications of winning.

His ideas about strategies and tactics for the left are explored in the new book, Tom Hayden on Social Movements: Four Unpublished talks and the Rolling Stone Interview, edited by Paul Ryder and Susan Wind Early. The new anthology captures a sense of both his wit and his valuable perceptions.

Hayden changed his views tactically, sometimes strategically, on what was possible in terms of a win. Tom Hayden on Social Movements, which includes pieces written before 1977 as well as the interview, is the Tom who had not yet become the prominent California Democrat. The last piece is from him actually running for the U.S. Senate.

In the Rolling Stone interview from 1972, Hayden reveals furious efforts at grasping means and ends in a drastically changing American society. He was widely accused in those days of being a disloyal Democrat (by the centrists, also Dixiecrats and others) and of being a disloyal radical (by denizens of the New Left).

He speaks frankly to the interviewer about his young self that “one part of me was an insane beatnik”; another part was “this rising, ambitious member of the establishment, or at that time the establishment of college newspapers and so on.” Experience was his teacher. The limited success of the civil rights movement in the South, and the horrific U.S. assault upon Vietnam, radicalized him.

The social programs that seemed to serve the poor looked, up close, more like tracking systems of perpetual servitude.

Hayden’s early work of leading SDSers to leave the campus and plunge into community organizing was unsuccessful; the impulse to come back to the campus and carry on antiwar work was fabulously successful, at least for a while.

Speaking of an attempted project in Newark, New Jersey, Hayden reflects, “We became branded as radicals because we did not accept the concept that a progressive extension of the welfare state was good.” The social programs that seemed to serve the poor looked, up close, more like tracking systems of perpetual servitude, he says.

The Vietnam War and the police crackdown in the ghettos made “Corporate Liberalism” seem unworkable, but it also seemed to work perfectly well for Democratic Party machine politics in the cities. Negotiating with them in moments of social crisis, he found the leaders personally affable, and totally unmoved.

But advances were made. The generational struggles reflected in the police riot of 1968 at the Chicago Democratic National Convention actually brought about significant changes within the party, making possible the nomination of George McGovern in 1972.

The Rolling Stone interview was given before the election, and no one would guess at how effectively the Nixon campaign, joined by such anti-McGovern Democrats as George Meany and the building trades unions, would overwhelm the anti-war McGovern and then, over the course of the decade, turn back the democratization of the party.

Another piece in the book is a talk given by Hayden to the Indochina Peace Campaign Organizers School in the San Bernardino Mountains in August, 1974. Here he attempts to reinterpret the history of the peace movement, making it clear that the New Left was mistaken, by the 1970s, in writing it off.

The antiwar movement had come out of the contradictions within the Democratic Party, as well as impulses further to the left. Hayden insisted that it connected with an “honest liberalism,” distinct from what came to be called “corporate liberalism” in the crisis of the election of 1968. Had Hubert Humphrey come out honestly and completely against the U.S. presence in Vietnam, Hayden insisted, the election would have been won. This is a view entirely contrary to that of some other SDS veterans (Todd Gitlin in particular) who viewed the New Left of 1968 as the ones to blame for Nixon’s victory. Was Hayden right? We cannot know.

Hayden says in the final essay that work within, rather than outside, the Democratic Party is inevitable. “We have not had a good history of permanent movements or third parties.” The answer cannot be found in “correct lines.” Neither the aging New Deal platform of the Democrats nor some openly socialist program would substitute for what Hayden called “economic democracy.” Alternative institutions, a great vision of the 1960s and 1970s, could not find solid footing because “there is only one system, not a system and its alternatives.”

The book closes on a deeply personal note; Hayden working on “connecting self-interest to the liberation of spirit,” finding the desire to win political battles rather than “existentially enjoy and suffer through spirit.” These were, obviously, his life lessons.



USA News


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