We Unhappy Few: Alexander Cockburn Reflects on SDS 50 Years After the Port Huron Statement

800px-Alexander_cockburn_2Alexander Cockburn in Le Monde Diplomatique (image from Wikipedia Commons):

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held their first convention in the summer of 1962, in Port Huron in the American mid-West, an hour’s drive north of Detroit. They were the cutting edge of radical organising — in the battles against racial discrimination, particularly in the South, in the protests against the Vietnam war, and more generally in the aim of the young then to break the shackles of the cold war consensus that had paralysed independent thought and spread fear of McCarthyite purges through what remained of the organised left in America, in the labour movement, the churches and the universities.

SDS had been founded by Tom Hayden two years earlier. His initial manifesto was presented to the 1962 gathering, revised by committee and delivered as the Port Huron statement (1).

“We are people of this generation,” it began, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world … As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimising fact of human degradation, symbolised by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the cold war, symbolised by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.

“While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America … we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts.”

Reading these apocalyptic lines today, a reader is surely struck by the thought that 1962 was somewhat late in the evolution of the cold war to make these discomfited observations.