For many of us, the 1960s never ended. Tom Hayden takes that belief a step further. The ’60s continue…for everyone.
Hayden’s book, The Long Sixties, takes the political history of the ’60s and finds its legacy alive today in the social movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency. He sees Obama as a reflection of the movement politics of that decade. Movement politics –the actions of groups sharing similar visions or issue positions– can be found in the emerging progressive- populist, anti-finance and anti-corporate movements and in the ignored but tangible anti-war movement. These movements, anchored in their correctness, grow in reaction to the resistance they meet. Without the ’60s, Hayden suggests, hope would go missing from our politics.
Despite the tired joke that memory of that special decade implies absence, Hayden was there. He was a founding member of the Students For a Democratic Society and led the drafting of the student manifesto The Port Huron Statement. He was indicted as a co-conspirator of the Chicago 8, charged with inciting riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (his conviction was overturned in 1972). He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with Jane Fonda (in 1973), an act that still inspires outrage from his adversaries, before going on to spend time in California politics in the 1980s and ’90s. He has not only been controversial among his enemies on the right, but with radical progressives who, at times, saw him compromising to join the political system.
Hayden describes his political and social beliefs with “the M/M model,” progressive movements in opposition to the Machiavellians “power technicians” who represent the various power institutions of government, business and the military. He places the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the anti-corporate movements of the ’60s in this model. The movements grow, as he says, “when sufficient rage and frustration lead to a perception that all peaceful, legal means have been exhausted.”
The majority of the book frames many of the seminal radical events of the decade inside the model. In the process, Hayden paints a history of the times that counters attempts at whitewash and demonization. His “Promoting Amnesia” section warns, “The general approach is to reduce the whole sixties to a blurred story of violence, sex drugs, and rock-and-roll signifying nothing. This requires a difficult removal of civil rights, feminist and farmworker movements…” The most visible example of rewriting history from the era, he says, is the effort to “wrap Vietnam in triumphalism…”
Hayden declares that while the political successes of the era were compromised in the following decades, the ’60s counterculture revolution succeeded in taking over the culture at large. “Sixties music and artists still retain a dominant influence. The general public is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana and a treatment-centered approach to drugs. Things organic, foods and medicines, hold vast sway. Above all, environmental programs such as renewable energy and conservation derive from approaches that were considered part of the extreme fringe thirty years ago.”
Hayden is quick to point out that the sixties did not hold onto its political victories. War, repression, racisim and exploitation of workers continues and, indeed expands. The movement was absorbed and co-opted, he states, and parts of it were separated from the whole. “Green politics still remain white politics,” he says, echoing Van Jones. The Machiavellians, ascendant during the first several years of the new century firmly control the agenda.
It’s when Hayden ties the movement lessons of the ’60s to more recent events that his book speaks the loudest. And nowhere is this most apparent than on sections devoted to Obama. Hayden, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and others, famously endorsed Obama in a March, 2007 piece for The Huffington Post (published in the book). Yet Hayden has not relented any of his positions to support the president, taking him to task for his extension of the war in Afghanistan and calling out the media as well as the White House for ignoring its casualties. “…one hard lesson has become clear to me from experience:” he writes with added emphasis, Domestic progress has been continually derailed by dubious wars.” Though he has not addressed class struggle and the financial crisis as thoroughly, he has, in true Hayden style, linked the two to the actions and philosophies of the Obama administration.
“Obama is trying to navigate between Machivavellians he has either inherited or appointed–the generals, military contractors, national security elites, Wall Street bankers, and hedge fund speculators–and a public opinion of high hopes and growing anger…” he writes in the book, which was published in 2009. “To permanently shift the American balance of power in a progressive direction, the Obama administration needs to encourage both structural shifts and cultural ones, not policy change alone…” But even some of Obama’s recent policy, despite its achievements, must unsettle Hayden.
The book’s last sentence addresses both the president and ourselves. “What he needs, then, and what we need is a New Left.” In other words, what’s needed is a return to the movement politics of the sixties, founded on unclouded understanding of the issues, cast in current terms and propelled by contemporary technology. We’ll be looking to see if Hayden’s take on Obama and the current state of America has changed in the last two years when the paperback edition of The Long Sixties, hopefully updated, is published in April.–Cabbage Rabbit