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Tom Hayden, Radical Liberal

New Left leader Tom Hayden died on October 23 at age 76. Activist and politician, journalist and intellectual, Hayden had a long and varied career that spanned well beyond the 1960s, the era with which he is most associated. Historians sometimes conceive of the New Left narrowly as the white campus-based student movement that Hayden best represented. But it is better thought of as a broader movement of movements that included (among others) the Black Freedom Struggle, protest against U.S. Cold War imperialism, and second-wave feminism. Hayden should be remembered as a central figure in this movement of movements and as the New Leftist who best illustrates the dialectic between radicalism and liberalism since the 1960s.

Born on December 11, 1939, Hayden grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. He was raised Catholic in the parish of the notorious right-wing radio priest Father Coughlin. Unlike “red diaper” babies—New Leftists who inherited their politics from their parents—Hayden discovered left-wing politics as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where he edited the student newspaper, the Daily Michigan. Ann Arbor was a hotbed of student activism. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main organization of the white campus left, was founded there in 1960.

The civil rights struggle especially inspired SDS members. Hayden discovered an existential need to commit himself to social justice through his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He wanted to “put his body on the line,” as activists said. Indeed, while participating in a 1961 SNCC campaign in McComb, Mississippi, Hayden and fellow SDS member Paul Potter were dragged from their car and brutally beaten.

This civil rights activism inspired Hayden’s draft of the 1962 SDS manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. Hayden was also influenced by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who called for reinvigorating democratic action against the “power elite” and who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while Hayden composed his first draft of the statement. A 1962 SDS convention collectively edited and approved the manifesto at a United Automobile Workers facility in Port Huron, Michigan.

The Port Huron Statement is a classic articulation of political idealism and continues to inspire leftists today. It publicized SDS and helped it spread to college campuses across the nation. It called for a “participatory democracy” in which all citizens would deliberate on the decisions that affected their lives. No ordinary political document, it opened with a section on “Values” that declared humans “infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.” Hoping to transcend sectarian divisions over Communism that had paralyzed the post–World War II Left, the document called for the revival of a broad front of liberals and radicals. It advocated for a realignment of the Democratic Party to become a fully liberal force, for militant activism, for racial equality, and  against the military-industrial complex.

Hayden left Ann Arbor in 1964 after completing a master’s thesis on C. Wright Mills. From 1964 to 1968, he lived in Newark as a community activist in an African American neighborhood. There he witnessed the 1967 uprising that police forces violently and vengefully suppressed. Hayden reported on the events in a remarkable essay in the New York Review of Books in which he hailed the rebellion as “people making history.” Illustrated with a drawing of how to make a Molotov cocktail, the article suggested that Hayden had become wholly radical. In fact, during the uprising he had met privately with the liberal governor of New Jersey and advised him that the only way to settle the riots was to withdraw the troops (which the governor did the following day).

In addition to his involvement with civil rights activism, Hayden was a major figure in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1965, he travelled to Hanoi at the invitation of the North Vietnamese government. He and his companion Staughton Lynd wrote about the experience in the book The Other Side. Although naïve about the extent to which North Vietnamese Communists practiced participatory democracy, they wrote movingly about the devastating consequences of the U.S. bombing campaign and what it felt like to “realize your country is bombing the city you are in.” Hayden returned to Hanoi in 1967 where he helped broker the first release of American prisoners of war, three of whom flew back with him to the U.S. Hayden maintained links to mainstream critics of the war, advising Senator Robert Kennedy, who was impressed with The Other Side.

Hayden was at his most radical in 1968. In April, he joined the SDS takeover of administrative buildings at Columbia University. He helped organize anti-war protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August. When police rioted against  demonstrators, it exacerbated divisions in the Democratic Party. Hayden was later prosecuted for conspiracy for his role in the events along with other members of the “Chicago Eight.” Hayden’s commitment to participatory democracy remained too strong for him to fully indulge in the revolutionary fantasies of the Weather Underground, an SDS faction that engaged in terrorism. His continued admiration for Kennedy showed that he never abandoned hope for meaningful change within the system; Hayden was invited to join Kennedy’s funeral train after his assassination.

In 1973, Hayden married Jane Fonda and moved to Los Angeles, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he worked within the Democratic Party, mounting a primary bid for U.S. Senate in 1976. Though unsuccessful, it led to the formation of the Campaign for Economic Democracy (later Campaign California), which sought to push the Democratic Party to the left. Hayden served in the California State Assembly from 1982 to 1992 and in the State Senate from 1992 to 2000. But he never lost his radical instincts, frequently criticizing those fellow Democrats whom he thought better represented their wealthy donors than their constituents. He remained an unwavering supporter of militant activism, especially by the young. A radical liberal to the day he died, Hayden embodied the spirit of the New Left.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Associate Professor of U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin.  He is the author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy and contributed to The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto edited by Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein.