Tom Hayden, 1939-2016: A Life of Words and Action

Hayden understood the tidal forces of generational shift and the interplay between our political and private lives.

Tom Hayden speaks to reporters at Al Jazeera in 2013 (YouTube)

“Join us, join us,” a police-battered Tom Hayden shouted to passing delegates from the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Hayden’s life was a test of character. He saw his colleagues and heroes gunned down, assassinated, or shunned. He endured the privations of jail and the boredom of political life with something that seemed like equanimity. He weathered storms of vitriol and public condemnation that make today’s Twitter wars look like child’s play.

I only met Tom a couple of times, but on both occasions, he displayed an openness and curiosity about a stranger’s thoughts – or at least the appearance of it – characteristic of a writer, an organizer, or a politician. That makes sense, because he was all of those things.

Tom Hayden was a personal hero of mine. When I was very young he showed me that thought and action were not incompatible – that the marriage of the two was essential, in fact, to a certain way of life. He showed me that an awareness of the past could deepen our engagement with the present and enrich our dreams for the future.

Hayden’s career began with words. More than half a century ago, at the age of 22, he wrote the first draft of what eventually became the Port Huron Statement. That document galvanized the activism of a generation, and it bears rereading today. Its famous opening words were:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

In one sense those words are an artifact of a different America, born of a time when white, middle-class young people felt a sense of financial security. Confidence in their financial future triggered in many of them a yearning for deeper meaning and purpose. Tom Hayden gave a voice to that yearning.

Today’s students are burdened with crushing student debt and face an uncertain job future. But young Americans of all races, classes and genders still yearn for meaning and purpose. “Participatory democracy,” the Port Huron Statement’s core principle, drove millions of young people to support Bernie Sanders’ candidacy in this year’s election.

Hayden once described the turmoil of the 1960s as a “crisis of the elders,” adding: “The lesson is to try not to repeat that. I can’t be young again, but the responsibility of the elders is to listen to and empathize with what is going on with young people.”

He succeeded, by and large (although he arguably miscalculated a time or two). Hayden never lost the inspiration that drove him, together with his collaborators, to write some of the Port Huron Statement’s most passionate words, including its assertion that human beings are “infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.”

These are the idealistic words of the young. But the idealism of youth is still one of our country’s most potent forces for change. “I recognize the primacy of that revolutionary yearning in young people,” Hayden said on the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement. “I think it’s the most important thing in the world at this time.”

While portions of the Port Huron Statement are inseparable from its time, others remain startlingly relevant. “The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak,” it says. “In actuality, it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.”

The Statement offered the hope “that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations,” and that it serve to bring “people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life.”

Regarding what it called the “economic sphere,” the Statement declared “that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival,” that “the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination,” and “that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.”

These are ambitious goals, but many of us still believe they are achievable.

That brings up another point. Older radicals must navigate a difficult course between real-world effectiveness and the desire to stay true to their youthful ideals. Most of us fail, at least a time or two. Hayden was no different. The conflict between idealism and realism was heightened as he moved between the realms of action – on the global stage, in the ghettoes and among street gangs, and eventually in the corridors of California political power – and the realms of word and thought.

Hayden understood the tidal forces of generational shift and the interplay between our political and private lives. In a political drama that was played out in many families of his generation, he was estranged from his Republican father for 13 years before they finally reconciled.

In 1982 Hayden returned from his father’s funeral to claim victory in his primary race for the California Assembly. The speech he gave that day stands today as a coda for his life. He said:

“Tonight marks the passing of generations in my family. I grew up in my father’s image but in a new and very different America from the thirties …

“There was little authority to respect. The few who could inspire us were assassinated, and with their deaths came the death of hope itself. Millions of families were divided across a generation gap of non-communicating …

“Then came a thaw in the political ice age, a democratic spring-time in America. The Vietnam War ended … The rebels and radicals of the sixties were vindicated on most counts. But years of confrontation had taken a toll on us, creating negativity, burnout, the excesses of self-destructive extremism.

“I survived. In time, I won the inner peace that comes from realizing that patience and commitment, love and struggle are not opposites but are the foundation of balance. I learned to be a better human being through love, marriage, fatherhood.

“So I come here tonight from my father’s funeral with a heavy heart, but a full one, with a greater sense of family responsibility than before, humbly mindful that there are more important things in life than political power, and knowing that this victory will only be meaningful if it helps improve the quality of existence of human beings as they pass through the briefness of their lives …”

Tom Hayden died at the age of 76, just as his father did. His passing reminds us that generations change, but emotional truths remain. People are temporal, but ideals are eternal. We come, we go. We are remembered in the victories of those who come after us, victories we will not live to see.

Join us, join us, Tom Hayden called to passersby. Millions of us did. More will, in the months and years to come.


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