Z-Net Interview with Tom Hayden on the publication of Writings for Democratic Society
May 2008 | 592 pages | City Lights Books | www.citylights.com
May 2008 | 592 pages | City Lights Books | www.citylights.com
The Beats continued to influence me, through dialogues with Allen Ginsberg in the late 1960s, to friendship with Gary Snyder through the 1990s. It seems to me that the civil rights stirrings of the 1950s, black writers like James Baldwin, and the San Francisco Beat generation were the cradles of the 1960s.
On the edge of the
My roommate, whose brother later became governor of
2. Was it as a student at
I started writing for reasons I don’t really understand, but it was before I began studying at the university. I was the sports editor of the Royal Oak Acorn in tenth or eleventh grade. Then with my closest friends, feeling the sense of things to come, we formed an “underground newspaper” called The Daily Smirker, which made cynical fun of everything at school. As soon as I got to
3. How was it that Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged you as a young writer to cross the line from detached journalistic observation to engaged political direct action?
That’s not quite what happened. I hitchhiked out to the Bay Area in the summer of 1960, and traveled to
4. How did you get involved with the Freedom Riders? When you were beaten in streets by white supremacists, was it as an engaged journalist or were you in the South more as a movement organizer, to carry a picket sign?
I was in
5. How did your contact with the civil rights movement impact your politics and thinking?
I was affected permanently, and it’s why I so strongly support the movement for Barack Obama today, because it is premised on the unity of African Americans combined with the idealism of a new generation of millions of young people. That was the chemistry of the early 1960s, and it was only the assassinations that prevented my generation from electing a president with a progressive governing coalition. Like Barack, I also had my eyes opened by the intelligence and creating of all the people I encountered knocking on doors in
6. Your lifework has been shaped by working both within radical social movements that placed pressure on the electoral politics as a means of winning change, and within electoral politics itself. After the
There is no end of confusion on these questions within the American Left, if there is a Left in comparison with other countries. My life makes sense to me but I realize that it is completely blurred by the categories people bring to these subjects. My friend Carl Davidson, a leader with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and a Marxist theorist of the new working class, and presently at work for Obama, clarified it best for me when he recently said that I always have been “a radical reformer in the American populist tradition,” nothing more, nothing less.
My priorities are:
 sorting out my own beliefs independent of any gurus or ideologies,
 participating in the building of social movements not only as pressure groups but for their own sake which is the value and dignity they bring to our lives, and
 competing for the democratic mandate of voters where possible in the electoral process.
I am an outsider who seeks the democratic affirmation of the voters in order to create a role on the inside. I have survived as an insider only because of the voters in my district. You could say I have been an outsider on the inside, or in
Every other country on earth seems to have both radical social movements and radical or reformist political parties, with millions of people floating in between the categories. All the recent political triumphs in
What reforms have been achieved in our country are due primarily to social movements often led by radicals, but also because of the acceptance of those reforms by politicians and courts which could have turned to repression instead. The power of the people led to both the reforms and helped prevent the backlash of repression or dictatorship.
In the new history being written in our lives, we need to embrace the reforms achieved by past social movements as the dreams of our ancestors, dreams that can propel our children.
That we have not achieved a revolution does not mean that revolutionaries should give up their aspirations, but study the contours of history and not let reforms be claimed by those who were on the sidelines until the late and convenient hour.
7. What issues do you feel are being under-discussed, ignored, or just off point in the speeches and debates between Obama and Clinton?
a. What “ending the war” in
b. the mass incarceration strategy toward inner-city youth, masked as the war on gangs and war on drugs, with the
d. the economic crisis causes a lot of chatter and a few important issues to surface, like reversing the Bush tax cuts. But the terrible effects of the privatization and deregulation policies are not much discussed, mainly because both candidates favored or flirted with those very policies in recent years.
It is a progressive populist moment in terms of a frustrated public opinion. The voters are to the left of the Democrats.
8. What strategies do you think are most effective in getting these and other peace and social justice issues on the presidential radar during the elections?
It is a bottom up process that has to begin with a handful of committed people. We need community organizing skills, media/internet skills, and electoral skills, and need to locate ourselves in the numerous progressive pockets within electoral districts. We become a “factor” in an elected official’s mind, especially when we meet with the staff and compile a huge sophisticated email list of endorsers and supporters. It helps to have a concrete legislative or regulatory proposal. And of course it is crucial to be integrated into national peace and justice networks. From there it’s a matter of pushing the issue upward over time. There really are no shortcuts unless the presidential candidate, for example, is totally out of line with public opinion, in which case visible demonstrations can create a media effect harmful to that candidate’s image and reputation. At the end of the day, a presidential candidate will only take up an issue where [a] the climate has been prepared, [b] a majority is apparent, [c] it gives an advantage against a rival, [d] it is understandable to the media, and [e] it lends itself to legislative action.
More generally, most progressives operate in the realm of civic society where public opinion is formed and protests arise, not so much within institutions like government. Civic society is a network of associations that rests “below” the institutions, so to speak. Its function, first of all, is to make life as enjoyable and sustainable as possible, and to create multiplying forces to be reckoned with by politicians (who need votes) and businesses (who need labor and consumers).
Here are some examples:
 anti-war opinion is pushing the Democrats towards a more anti-war stance, and forcing the Pentagon into relentless efforts to manage public perceptions, often illegally;
 the anti-corporate globalization movement has contributed to making NAFTA, the WTO and corporate trade increasingly unpopular, causing a fierce struggle to unfold without resolution in sight; and
 the environmental movement has created a movement against global warming that commands attention.
There are limits to what can be done within civil society, however. In my lifetime, the potential breakouts to greater power have been thwarted, for example, by the killings of the Kennedys and King, and by the stolen 2000 election which could have created an environmental presidency. As a result of murders and theft, my generation will never know whether a progressive majority can succeed in winning political power, and what the consequences of that victory might be.
In our current political moment, a military escalation against
Assuming Barack is the nominee, we will have to work flexibly on the inside and outside to push for rapid troop withdrawals from
The same pressure will be needed to steer him away from pro-corporate trade mechanisms like NAFTA and the WTO. And to move toward economic recovery from the bottom up, by re-regulating Wall Street, canceling the Bush tax breaks, launching an immediate public works initiative and setting bold goals for energy efficiency and renewables.
If Barack wins, in a way we will be restarting where we were in 1968 …. Fortunately there is a new generation of young activists who don’t carry the scars and burdens that weigh upon the 60s generation.
I am suggesting the most hopeful scenario, not necessarily the most likely one. But opportunities like this are very rare.
9. The idea of participatory democracy threads throughout Writings for Democratic Society. Can you talk about the concept of “participatory democracy” that was advanced in the Port Huron Statement and that became such an important organizing principle of SDS? Where did it come from? Why do you think it made such a strong impression on young people in the 1960s? How do you see its use and its potential among social movements today?
Participatory democracy is a concept from John Dewey that was transmitted to us by Arnold Kaufman, a philosophy professor at
10. References to Albert Camus also come up in your writing. What has his influence been on your work?
As I look back, there were two Camus’, the second becoming a shadow on the first. The early Camus writings from the French underground, and The Rebel (1956), were extremely inspirational to many in the New Left, because they were written from a stance of existential, all-or-nothing, resistance, similar to working in rural
In addition to the existentialist Camus, there was a second Camus, the Camus born in colonial
My copy of The Rebel circled and underlined this passage, which remains unforgettable today, for myself and I am certain many others: “In absurdist experience, suffering is individual. But from the moment when a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience. Therefore the first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared, and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single [person] becomes a mass plague. In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the “cogito” in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the whole human race. I rebel—therefore we exist.”
11. You mention Camus’ writings from the French underground being influential. The idea and reality of an underground—politically and culturally—was very much a part of the 1960s and early 1970s and continues to impact American politics today, as in George Stephanopolous bringing up the Weather Underground during a recent debate between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. The idea and reality of a rebel underground surfaces in your work in Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader. What did the idea of an underground mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
There always is a cultural underground, of course, and an outlaw culture wherever moral injuries are inflicted on the artists. And there undergrounds of another nature, like the early catacombs, that are created by people who have decided that they must resist the state by methods defined as illegal. The Underground Railroad during slavery times would be an example. During the Sixties, all these various undergrounds existed at different times. The beat cultural underground was first. The thousands who defied the passport laws to visit
That Barack Obama is charged with knowing and associating with former members of the Weather Underground, the history will be served up with the inquisitorial tone of McCarthy era anti-communist witchhunts, purging of screenwriters and teachers, etc. Barack Obama is correct to point out that he was only five years old when Bill Ayers was carrying out actions that Barack never would have supported. But the smears will not go away.
The Sixties are on trial in this national election. Because of the broad brush of the Republicans and media, all of us who went through that time will be defendants this time. We must stop guilt-by-association techniques. We can denounce or oppose certain methods as we are inclined, but we must defend the idea of the Sixties overall, especially the idea that people should not be persecuted for what they may have thought or done forty years ago.
When I met Bill Ayers, incidentally, it was almost fifty years ago. He was operating a small school center in
By comparison, during my decades in politics I met many Republicans who conspired to illegally raise funds for the Nicaraguan contras who blew up bombs in
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“Is the only value in rebellion itself, in the countless momentary times when people transcend their pettiness to commit themselves to great purposes? If so, then radicalism is doomed to be extraordinary, erupting only during those rare times of crisis and upsurge which American elites seem able to ride. The alternative, if there is one, might be for radicalism to make itself ordinary, patiently taking up work that has only the virtue of facing and becoming part of the realities which are society’s secrets and its disgrace. . . . Radicalism would then give itself to, and become part of, the energy that is kept restless and active under the clamps of a paralyzed imperial society. Radicalism then would go beyond the concepts of optimism and pessimism as guides to work, finding itself in working despite the odds. Its realism and sanity would be grounded in nothing more than the ability to face whatever comes.”