May 22, 2008
By Tom Hayden
1. Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader presents
more than forty years of your writing, thinking, movement work and
personal reflections. Along the way you've gone from young student
journalist, to radical organizer, state representative and back to
movement workwith lots of exploring along the way. In Writings you
say that you came to age as part of the Beat Generation. How did the
Beats influence you, your perspective, your writing, and your
identity as a young person in the 1950s?
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 Ann Arbor campus where I studied were clubs where
you could hear Mississippi Delta blues and black poets. Students and
young people were attracted there. Downstairs in the Michigan Daily
was a literary magazine edited, as I recall, by Al Younglater poet
laureate of California.
My roommate, whose brother later became governor of Colorado, walked
around campus in a red jacket, white t-shirt and Levis, like James
Dean. These were early signs, precursors, of the alternative visions
and emerging counterculture just ahead.
2. Was it as a student at Ann Arbor that you first started writing?
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 Ann Arbor, I signed
up at the Michigan Daily as a freshman reporter. It was September 1957.
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 Los Angeles for the first time to
cover the Democratic convention for the Michigan Daily. It was there
I met and interviewed Dr. King on a picket line for a civil rights
plank in the party platform. I walked beside him with my reporter's
notebook in hand. While I don't remember concretely what he said, the
effect was profound and surprising. I began to realize that I was
just seeking a byline, while he was risking his neck for freedom. The
gentle encouragement was only implied, that I should rethink my life,
put down the notebook and pick up a picket sign. I also began to
realize that beyond objective detachment and engaged political direct
action there was another realm open to me, that of engaged witness
writing subjectively about the rise of a new social movement. This
was a radical notion, for at the time there was no such thing as
investigative journalism or the underground press, not yet.
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 McComb, Mississippi, in a blend of roles. First, I was there
to write a story for the Progressive magazine and a pamphlet for the
early SDS. This was fall 1961 before SDS held its Port Huron
Convention. Second, I was there as a field organizer for SDS whose
assignment was to write and speak in the north about what students
were doing in the South. I was with the late Paul Potter, and both of
us were interviewing and observing a high school student march.
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
Newark's ghetto from 1964 until 1968.
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 Chicago Conspiracy Trial your writing was very much part of the
anti-Establishment revolutionary consciousness of the time. Later you
made your way into electoral politics as a California state senator.
At this point, where do you place emphasis for advancing progressive
issues like the abolition of structural racism, the advance of
environmental justice, and ending the war?
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 Havel's formulation, an
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 Latin America have been by political parties
loosely rooted in social movements. True, there are those who propose
a complete abstention from political action, and their critique of
political parties must be taken seriously. My experience has been
that the voters I most care aboutworking class, black, latino,
environmentalist, women, gay/lesbian and so ontend to gravitate
around both independent organizations and Democratic primaries. Where
it's possible to compete without bringing about the election of worse
candidates, theyand Iwill be supportive of Green candidates too.
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
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 Iraq actually means has been ignored,
primarily by the media. Obama at least has a timetable for
withdrawing combat troops, but seems to want to leave a
counter-insurgency force of tens of thousands. Clinton only says she
wants to "begin" withdrawals, and seems to propose an even larger
"counter-terrorism" force behind. This will turn Iraq into something
like Central America in the Seventies. It's never talked about.
b. the mass incarceration strategy toward inner-city youth, masked as
the war on gangs and war on drugs, with the U.S. now holding 20
percent of the world's inmates.
c. Latin America. Not a word.
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 Iran
or a stolen Democratic nomination are potential triggers that would
set off a fury in the streets this year.
Assuming Barack is the nominee, we will have to work flexibly on the
inside and outside to push for rapid troop withdrawals from Iraq,
prevent him from sending more combat troops to the Afghan quagmire,
and have enough protective public support to initiate the talks with
Iran recommended in the Baker-Hamilton Report.
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 Ann
Arbor. It spoke to means and ends. Only through direct action and
community organizing could people become participatory agents of
social change and begin breaking down the elite walls of experts and
remote representatives. The concept included psychological
empowerment on a personal level. Also it could be applied as a
bottom-up approach to community development, economics and foreign
policy. It was provisional and non-dogmatic, like jazz perhaps. No
blueprint, not ideological.
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 Mississippi
or Georgia. Also he struggled with morality in the midst of doubt and
nihilism, with reassuring ideology, which was important to many of
us. I still have my 1960 heavily-underlined edition of Resistance,
Rebellion and Death that inspired me with passages like this, in the
essay "The Artist and His Time," "the period of the revered master,
of the artist with a camellia in his buttonhole, of the armchair
genius is over. To create today is to create dangerously." And this
warning, which I quoted in my 1988 memoir: "Seeing beloved friends
and relatives killed is not a schooling in generosity. The temptation
of hatred had to be overcome."
In addition to the existentialist Camus, there was a second Camus,
the Camus born in colonial Algeria who struggled with his own
colonialist self when the Algerian Revolution broke out. He refused
to support the Algerian FLN, holding out a tormented hope for a new
Algeria that included those of French descent alongside the
indigenous Algerians. This Camus, who some simplified into the
equivalent of a white Southern liberal, was denounced by many
political and academic radicals, causing his earlier writings to fall
into obscurity for later generations.
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 rebeltherefore we exist."
11. You mention Camus' writings from the French underground being
influential. The idea and reality of an undergroundpolitically and
culturallywas 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 Cuba. Certain Chicano nationalists of the southwestern United
States. Many Black Panthers. The Catholic draft and war resisters.
Vietnam veterans. The Weather Underground was formed in the late
Sixties when some young radicals perceived that a police state was
unfolding, that electoral politics was hopeless, that community
organizing lacked urgency, and that too many people were enjoyed
their racial privileges while villages and ghettos burned. As one can
see, this was a spectrum of disobedience, much of it nonviolent or
limited to property damage. Most of it is ignored in memory,
especially institutional memory, because the underground represents a
profound threat to the democratic image on which American power
rests. There is little way to evaluate what was effective and what
was counter-productive. What seems clear in retrospect is that when
the Vietnam War ended and the post-LBJ Democrats came to power, the
basis for an underground was undermined and the various undergrounds
surfaced back into the mainstream, with a small number arbitrarily
caught in the incarceration system for life. Since a first principle
of undergrounds is silence, there will be few to tell the stories.
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 Ann Arbor. The winds of
war, I think, blew him into his late-Sixties militancy. By the time
Barack Obama ever met him, Bill was back at creating small schools,
counseling in and writing about juvenile halls, focused on inner city
youth, publishing books as a children's advocate. He was right back
where he was meant to be, and that's all there is to that.
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 Managua. I had many Republican colleagues who
couldn't speak out against the bombers of abortion clinics and
killers of abortion doctors who were elements of their district
constituencies. There were Republicans who ran illegal undergrounds
of their own, from secret police units to torture chambers, tiger
cages and future Abu Ghraibs. I'm not waiting to hear them exposed on
FOX News or any time soon.
Writings for Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader
City Lights Books | www.citylights.com
592 pages | $21.95
"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." Tom Hayden