7: James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets

What with the dance lessons on Saturdays and working on Sundays, it’s kinda hard to get a lot of reading done on the weekends.  I did manage to get through a book on Saturday and another today, though!

I had high hopes for Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, and thankfully it didn’t disappoint, but it was not at all what I expected.  Most of the stuff I’ve read about social movements so far has been heavy on the Marxism, or staunchly materialist, or at least incredibly modest about the roles individual people play in creating social change.  Clay Carson’s In Struggle, for instance, is a critical history of SNCC that slowly and carefully maps out every person, event, and location Carson could get his hands on.  Reading through Carson’s slow accumulation of thousands of tiny pieces of evidence, you get a sense of both the magnitude of the Civil Rights movement and the incredible ordinariness of the people who were coordinating it through SNCC.  And really, that’s what I want in a history of a social movement: the creation of a big picture through close attention to details, so that I can see exactly how social change happened and how, precisely, the movement grew, acted, and fell apart.

James Miller is not Clay Carson.  And this book is definitely not that book.

Like In Struggle, Democracy is in the Streets is a history of “the Movement” from the perspective of a single organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Also like In Struggle, it stretches the political and cultural ferment of the 1960s back to the late 1950s and forward to the early 1970s, so that we can see the truly original origins on one end and make sure it’s really dead on the other.  But where Carson is carefully constructing a large body of evidence to support his critical interpretation of SNCC, Miller is telling a story, capturing a moment, making the Sixties come alive.  His history thus reads like a novel, with main characters – Tom Hayden, Sharon Jeffrey, Dick Flacks, Al Haber, and the rest of the early members of SDS – psychological analysis, anecdotes, and plenty of drama and foreshadowing throughout.  Seriously: he spends the first 20 pages or so talking about how Tom Hayden was destined for greatness even as a freshman newspaper editor at the University of Michigan.  And the book follows a classic narrative arc, from the first time Al Haber laid eyes on Tom Hayden, to the Port Huron summit where the Port Huron Statement was drafted, to SDS’ rise to power, and finally to the (anti)climactic Chicago 1968 riots, when Hayden, shouting into the megaphone in front of thousands of people in Grant Park, suddenly realized that the Movement’s philosophical underpinnings had been lost, and this mass protest could never become the “participatory democracy” SDS had envisioned at Port Huron.  And he disappeared, silenced.

Miller is writing as someone who was there – he was a member of SDS in the late 1960s, and he was at Chicago in 1968 and at the last SDS meeting in 1969 – and he is writing for a reader who was there, too.  But even though I obviously wasn’t there (my parents hadn’t even met yet), Miller’s excitement is infectious, and while his novelistic strategy may not lead to the most factual telling of events, his characters do come alive, as do the issues that animate them.

In particular, one of Miller’s central questions concerns the legacy of the Sixties.  As Tom Hayden put it in 1977, “We ended a war, toppled two Presidents, desegregated the South, broke other barriers of discrimination.  How could we accomplish so much and have so little in the end?”  In other words, for all the short-term success of the Movement, why are we not living out long-term social change?  

Miller’s answer to this question is complex, so I’m probably missing a few pieces, but it goes something like this.  In 1961, the SDS students gathered in Port Huron and drafted the Port Huron Statement, a theoretically-informed document that itself informed the Movement, at least before 1965, with its universal respect for human freedom and its call for “participatory democracy” (rather than the closed institutional system we call democracy in the United States.)  But after 1965, the escalation in Vietnam swelled protest participation and turned the earlier theoretically-informed movement into a mass movement.  This could have been awesome, but while all of these people were united in their protest of the war and in their critique of the American political system, they were not necessarily united on what true democracy might look like.  And frankly, SDS had no idea either.  And so the movement (was) fragmented, and the 70s became the decade of increasingly individualized pursuits of pleasurable consumption.

The analysis applied to the Movement in this book feels very similar to the analysis applied to more recent movements, like Occupy: having a complaint is great,  but you need to have a plan for change if you want the change to actually happen; and furthermore, refusing or being unable to unite behind a single program makes it easy for powerful opposing forces to divide and conquer the individual people in the protest.

Really, though, is there only one effective way to protest power, even still – by putting an ideologically unified mass of bodies in the streets?

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