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Writings for a Democratic Society The Tom Hayden Reader Tom Hayden City Lights: 592 pp, $21.95 paper

April 27, 2008|Abe Peck | Abe Peck is chair of journalism and cross-media storytelling at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He is the author of "Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press."

RECENTLY, Tom Hayden was animated. Excited, yes, but literally animated -- a computer-generated representation in the 2007 film "Chicago 10."

That figurative portrayal of the 1960s' most explosive trial depicted the through-the-looking-glass realities of a time when America's basic assumptions were up for grabs. Who was more moral: a bomb-dropping president or an indicted demonstrator? What should be illegal: racism or pot smoking? Families -- including Hayden's -- broke apart over politics and lifestyle. So did the Democratic Party and, for a while, the country as a whole.

"Writings for a Democratic Society" gathers almost 50 years of Hayden's work, as a prelude to a forthcoming "big book" that will posit social movements as a linchpin of American history. Some earlier views are reconsidered, but there's no apostasy concerning causes espoused and led, which assuredly will lead to Hayden being denounced as ossified or worse by one-time comrades who have vaulted to the right. Yet "Writings" offers a considerable counter-record to official misrepresentations such as Tonkin Gulf and "Mission Accomplished" -- as well as a surprisingly personal account of how one activist has tried to remain consistent, relevant and truthful across his own long, strange trip.

What Hayden calls the "arc" of the anthology runs from a "Letter" encouraging students to join a fledgling Students for a Democratic Society to a web piece postulating that torture is embedded in the U.S. campaign in Iraq. Early pieces, including an excerpt from SDS' founding document, the Port Huron Statement -- which Hayden began while jailed in Albany, Ga. -- attempt to define an antiauthoritarian "New Left" grounded in participatory democracy. They rub up against segregation, the Cold War, colonialism and cultural conformity.

Hayden had worked on the Michigan Daily and could analyze, write well and voice constructive criticism of budding movements. But he soon found that as a journalist, "I could not remain neutral." This would prove both a strength and a tension. The Port Huron Statement declared violence to be "abhorrent," but by 1967, Hayden was writing book-length material about the "Newark rebellion." He chronicled a passage from servitude to black power. But in the end, that same black power trumped interracial organizing. It was on to Chicago.

The political side of "Chicago" took place in the shadow of Vietnam. For Hayden, that war still exemplifies the futility of trying to defeat a popular nationalist movement by military means. After visiting Hanoi in 1965, he acknowledged that he was skeptical about some statements made by his hosts. But amid the bombing, he chose to identify with the revolutionary process and "within one's limits to make it as humane as possible."

1968 was the crucible. President Johnson decided not to run for reelection. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered. Hippie enclaves formed in every city and college town. There was much to commit to, much to be angry about.

The pieces in "Writings" that run up to the Democratic Convention go light on the yo-yoing strategies and indecision that grew as the authorities crushed peaceful demonstrations and stalled permits. Hayden felt it was worth fighting for the right to be in Chicago and that repression would backfire as the whole world watched. But a majority supported the police, the war went on, and Movement attitudes hardened too. The government manufactured the Chicago Eight conspiracy, even though Abbie Hoffman once joked that the defendants couldn't agree on lunch. Every charge and citation was ultimately overturned or dropped, but leaders and resources were tied up.

Still, the defendants proclaimed a surging Movement -- and something more. In the wake of Chicago, "[o]ur crime was that we were beginning to live a new and contagious lifestyle without official authorization. We were tried for being out of control."

And yet, the revolutionary post-Chicago years are largely glossed over here. Aside from Hayden's relationship with Jane Fonda and their work with the Indochina Peace Campaign, there are just hints of what might be called "the bad time" -- when many radicals burned out or blew up from hewing correct lines within besieged movements that brooked no dissent while allies were fighting and dying. Some retreated or settled in to organize over the long haul. Others groped their way back into the larger society, even as challengers.

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