When a small group of socially conscious students looked toward their future in the early 1960s they came face to face with a great paradox of American history. There were monumental issues of war and race and poverty, but the political culture was self-satisfied and conservative and there was no organized critical Left. There were no socialist organizations or radical leaders to turn to for inspiration. The revelations of Stalinist atrocities and the McCarthy blacklists had created a wasteland. The building of a new American Left was in the hands of 20-year-olds.
This is the starting point for James Miller's intellectual history of the New Left. It is the story of a young, precocious intellectual named Tom Hayden and a handful of idealists who gathered at Port Huron, Mich., in the summer of 1962 to create a remarkable manifesto that came to be known as the Port Huron Statement. It is the story of their decade-long effort to breathe life into the myth of American democracy, to create a "participatory democracy," and make it the cornerstone of a new organization, the Students for a Democratic Society. Miller has written other books on political philosophy, but this one is special; a way to reflect on his own youthful radicalism. No dispassionate scholar here. He admires the students, wants them to succeed and you get the feeling he wishes the story had a different ending.