“Democracy is in the Streets”

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James Miller. Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1987. 5th printing 2004. 377p. $18.95

Summary

Most histories of the New Left Movement focus on the end of the decade of the 1960s. This was when the most public events associated with the movement occurred. Miller looks at the other end of the decade when the movement was forming in his attempt to demonstrate that what the movement was at the beginning was something better than what it became after Chicago. He approaches the subject as a former member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the organization at the center of the New Left Movement, a delegate to the final SDS convention in 1969, and someone trying to redeem his past.

Miller uses a biographical approach to history. He concentrates on four founding members of the SDS Dick Flack, Sharon Jefferies, Paul Booth, and most importantly Ton Hayden. In separate chapters Miller traces the few years in the life of each of these individuals in the 1960s when they were most active with the New Left. What Miller is attempting to do is show that these founders were the inheritors of older American political traditions linking back to John Dewey and Eugene Debs. They were not Marxists or Maoist but progressives who supported a more inclusive democracy than they found in the country.

Miller presents as the center piece of his argument the Port Huron Statement. This document was the product of the first convention of the SDS in 1962. A good quarter of the book is about this meeting and the production of the statement. This is where Miller has performed his best service as an historian. He has used interviews he conducted himself with several participants significantly Tom Hayden and oral histories collected by the University of Michigan. This use of primary sources to reconstruct events for which no official records exist is well done. It also explains the biographical form since that best accommodates a narrative from the specific points of view of a particular individual.

Where the book fails is when Miller does not attempt a detailed analysis of why the vision of the founders failed. The author claims that contrary to the claims of critics like Matusow in The unraveling of America the New Left did have an ideology. Yet he does not explain how if this was so the ideology could have been overcome so easily by a Marxist influenced faction nor why within a decade a of drafting the Port Huron Statement its principal author was disillusioned with the movement.

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