Confronting Empire from Port Huron to Occupy

This article is part of The Port Huron Statement at 50, a forum on the document that sparked a generation of activism.

Written in 1962 by Tom Hayden, the Port Huron Statement represented the voice of white radical students at elite universities. It was truly revolutionary for the privileged social stratum it represented. It broke with anti-communist social democracy, which led to a split with its “parent” organization, the League for Industrial Democracy, and its rabid Cold War politics. It was militantly anti-colonial. It chastised Democratic liberals for their conciliation with Dixiecrats and clearly sided with “the dark peoples of the world.” In its alliance with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the growing black upsurge, its support for Third World movements for national liberation, and its nascent consciousness of the United States as an evil empire, it had the right answer to the question, “Which side are you on?”

With historical perspective, however, one can’t help notice the narrowly white and middle-class worldview that permeates the document. In its discussion of discrimination, it begins, “Our America is still white” and consistently refers to people of color as “non-white,” perpetuating the white-centered worldview of white students. In its repeated critiques of the “student” ideology of apathy, privilege, and alienation the document ignores the experience of black and working class students at community and junior colleges. While it was deeply committed to the civil rights movement, the Statement failed to grasp the movement’s strategic centrality to building a new left and did not grasp the revolutionary nature of black people’s struggle for democratic rights in a nation built on conquest and slavery. The Statement explicitly rejected the leadership of black sharecroppers and urban workers who were “too poor and slighted to be counted with enthusiasm.” Answering its own question—“From where else can power and vision be summoned?”—it argued, “We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.”

Like the signatories of the Port Huron Statement, the Occupiers need to expand beyond the narrower interests of their original members.

This chauvinism could have been fatal, but the Statement was fortunately far more prescient than parochial. By focusing its demands on civil rights, an end to anti-communist public policy, and sovereignty and self-determination for the nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it was drawn into the whirlwind of revolutionary change. By 1964, the Statement was already outdated because of the epochal revolutionary transformations of the times, which raised the consciousnesses of many of its initiators, including its primary author. A new generation of white radical students came to reject the dream of an alliance between their grassroots movement and the Democratic Party. They felt betrayed by the liberal Democrats’ suppression of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the liberal Democrats’ calling off their short-lived and half-hearted war on poverty, and the liberal Democrats’ genocidal war in Vietnam. For white students, the center of intellectual gravity shifted to black and Third World revolutionaries—Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Kwame Nkrumah. They were influenced by Malcolm X, who targeted the institutions and ideology of white racism as the primary enemy. They were moved by Martin Luther King, who himself shifted from the hope of an inclusive American Dream to a pro-socialist anti-imperialist vision. After 1965 King proposed a movement that would fight “racism, poverty, and militarism” and condemned his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” The New Left, including Students for a Democratic Society, contributed to the great victories of the 1960s and 1970s—the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the end of legal segregation, and the victory of Vietnam’s national liberation movement in 1975.

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Fifty years after Port Huron, the Occupy movement has brilliantly shaped the terms of public debate about class and, uniquely, class struggle. But like the signatories of the Statement, the Occupiers need to expand beyond the narrower interests of their original members. When Occupy began, its social composition was primarily white and middle class, and it targeted the corporate criminals and the capitalist elite, a.k.a. Wall Street. Occupy, however, has struggled to extend its reach to strategically essential low-income communities of color. Besides the critical component of the movement’s social composition, there is also the challenge of fleshing out the content of its political program. The question is whether Occupy can truly give voice to all of the “99 percent” that it wants to represent.

Occupy faces many challenges. Many supporters worry that the movement, with its mantra of “no demands,” risks being co-opted by moderate Democrats who make muted noises about “economic inequality” but feel no pressure to come up with specific, let lone radical, remedies. There are those within the movement who argue that the greatest “class question” inside the United States is the oppression of black, Latino, indigenous, and other peoples of color. These members want Occupy to expand its focus on class exploitation to address the grotesque economic inequality produced internationally by the U.S. imperial state. They call on Occupy to demand the United States free the vast majority of the 2.4 million people in its prisons—1 million of whom are Black and 500,000 of whom are Latino. They demand an end to “the New Jim Crow” in which, as Michele Alexander explains in her book of that title, the government carries out the mass incarceration of Black and Latino communities by circumventing the 13th amendment’s prohibitions against “slavery [and] involuntary servitude” through the amendment’s lethal loophole, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” They also support amnesty for 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who are suffering arrests and deportations at the rate of 400,000 a year. They further argue that Occupy should insist on an immediate end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a ban on drones, and a cessation of U.S. military threats against Syria and Iran.

The Occupy movement has the historic opportunity to expand its struggle from Wall Street to all the arenas in which ruling classes try to exercise hegemony, at home and abroad. That will involve a challenge to the police state, the warfare state, and the empire itself. For Occupy, these changes can dramatically expand its influence and place it squarely on the side of the most oppressed and exploited members of the 99 percent throughout the world.

Originally published in The Boston Review on April, 12 2012. Photo credit Collin David Anderson.



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