Tom Hayden (1939-2016)

Tom Hayden (1939-2016)

A leader in a movement that was already ambivalent about leadership, Tom Hayden was incandescent—all intensity, all intelligence, full of a righteous indignation that I shared.

Tom Hayden, 2009 (KCET Departures / Flickr)

My favorite clip from the many obituaries of Tom Hayden in circulation is this, from Michael Finnegan in the Los Angeles Times:

After the deadly 1967 riots in Newark, N.J., where Hayden had spent several years organizing poor black residents to take on slumlords, city inspectors and others, local FBI agents urged supervisors in Washington to intensify monitoring of Hayden.

“In view of the fact that Hayden is an effective speaker who appeals to intellectual groups and has also worked with and supported the Negro people in their program in Newark, it is recommended that he be placed on the Rabble Rouser Index,” they wrote.

One of the more perceptive of FBI observations, though the G-men neglected his wit. Tom was gifted with the power to inspire and at the same time to ironize—an unusual combination. He was surely devoted to “working with.” I met him at Harvard in the spring of 1962. I was nineteen and had helped organized a march on Washington against nuclear weapons (grand crowd total, some 8,000) and Tom was scouting me, as he was scouting for colleagues, comrades, throughout the incipient student movement, or “The Student Boat-Rockers,” as he put it in an article in (yes) Mademoiselle. Al Haber, the founder and first president of tiny SDS, based in Ann Arbor, had endorsed our march; SDS was an unknown but I liked the sound of “a democratic society” and also the suggestion that, as students, we had a special mission, though the handful of us involved in these endeavors were freaks, a paltry minority, and we knew it.

Tom almost always spoke with strong rhythms, and in whole sentences. He was incandescent—all intensity, all intelligence; full of self-assurance and a righteous indignation that I shared; rabbinical, or ministerial, even, but not pompous; glowing but also twinkling, as if to say, “We’re going to do great things. Let this sound crazy. Look at what we’re up against; look at our ambition; there’s a way forward.” Tom spoke American and he charged up the atmosphere.

I liked his slogan “the issues are interrelated,” a watchword of the moment, since it had become clear that the forces that undergirded the mad arms race were malevolent across the board, that the country was poisoned in some way that I did not understand, and that the civil rights movement was golden and pointed toward a possible larger transformation. I liked the idea of participatory democracy though I half-understood it had holes. Never mind; politics afforded no blueprints. I was already some kind of socialist, but I didn’t think class was the be-all and end-all, and I wanted a politics that didn’t sound like an exhumation of moldy slogans and wasn’t afraid to be at least a bit pragmatic. Tom was ahead of me.

He gave or sent me, I forget which, his draft of the Port Huron Statement, which wasn’t yet called that—it was “the manifesto.” It was radiant. It, too, spoke American. It was muscular but showed an emotional side—it talked about values and it was OK with language like “power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.” I was transfixed. The specific analyses and policy proposals were fine, as far as they went (sensibly left-liberal), and the very thought that there might be a practical path toward a decent society was cheering. My interest in the proposals trailed off, but I went for the scope, the tone, the music, and the ambition to speak to everything that ailed us, not only as a polity but as a society, a culture, even a civilization. Its spirit—Tom’s spirit—spoke to my romantic soul but wasn’t pie-in-the-sky. There was enough darkness in it to satisfy my own, enough light to ignite me. Talk about wavelengths. I was ripe for a national thing and Tom was already my leader.

I didn’t attend SDS’s Port Huron convention, where the document was revised—the part about “values” rightfully elevated to the top—but afterward I avidly followed the contretemps between SDS and its “parent organization,” a decrepit Old Socialist Left remnant called the League for Industrial Democracy. Tom and Al Haber came down to Washington, where I was working, told the story about the LID’s attack on SDS for being insufficiently anticommunist, and we schemed together. In the fall, Robb Burlage, a Harvard graduate student from Texas, funny and brilliant in equal measure, put together a regular study group that met monthly, I think, at Cronin’s Bar. I gobbled up SDS’s mimeographed “working papers.” During the Cuban missile crisis, Tom found the right metaphor:  Kennedy and Khrushchev were playing a global game of chicken, and mankind was riding the bumpers—awkward but with the right urgency and off-kilter intelligence.

So when Tom and Al Haber and Robb Burlage and the others spoke of SDS as an “intellectual home” for activists in all the movements of the left, roughly speaking, that was good enough for me. I decided to go to Ann Arbor, ostensibly for graduate school, but actually to join this circle of spirit, thoughtfulness, and (to use one of his favorite words) urgency. Right after graduation, I became Tom’s successor as president of the organization, but that’s another story. Big shoes, and I was acutely aware I wasn’t up to filling them.

In the summer of 1963, Stokely Carmichael convinced Tom that now that the civil rights movement was on its way to defeating racial segregation in the South, the time was ripe for an interracial movement of the poor. This was where the civil rights movement needed to gravitate, and an added benefit was that there would be a place for white people in it. Tom’s manifesto for that project, co-authored with Carl Wittman, delicately included a question mark in its title:  “An Interracial Movement of the Poor?” I loved his negative capability, his ability to acknowledge the intrinsic uncertainty of human affairs. In the end, as so often, his zeal and assurance carried the day. I remember a picture of him in, I think, Life magazine, not long afterward—Tom reverent, with light in his eyes. He was not religious, not in any conventional sense, but he heard the higher spirit whether or not there was one. We were used to ministerial language from black leaders—Martin Luther King, Jr. above all—but not from white folks. We students were hard rationalists, but Tom had something besides reason in his eyes. He was so obviously charismatic, meaning graced. He could talk political strategy as if a choir of angels was singing behind him.

He was a leader in a movement that was already ambivalent about leadership, on its way to slogans like “Let the people decide.” To be so boldly a leader, athwart a movement that was already turning against the very institution of leadership—especially SNCC, which was always the flame we followed—was not easy. It was, I’m sure, a burden to him, though it had its manifold pleasures. He inspired devotion and he was disappointed when recruits failed to rise to his standards. He expected the utmost. It was a pattern. I say this without blame. He thought that movements needed all sorts of people and that among them, centrally, were fanatics.

From the hypermilitancy, revolutionary fantasies, and accelerated manias of 1968–71, he found his way to a fairly soft landing on the other side. He organized the Indochina Peace Campaign, which over time scored a brilliant success lobbying to cut off funds the monstrous war. (The best source on this is Bill Zimmerman’s book, Troublemaker.) Tom came back to earth. Soon he and Jane Fonda were founding California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, and he was on his way to a legislative career that lasted as long as term limits would permit (ten years in the State Assembly, eight in the State Senate), promoting bills that improved people’s lives even as the national initiative had passed to the Reagan Right. The hard left went after him for joining the Democrats, and for disdaining socialism (in which he was never terribly interested); old-line Democrats thought him a traitor for having visited Hanoi. His late-sixties excesses no doubt put a tight cap over what was otherwise a successful political career.

We worked together, we went on sharing a spirit, we disagreed about important things, and too often, to my regret, I deferred to him. He sympathized with the Black Panthers. He fantasized about revolution. Berkeley was friendly to such fantasies. It was the war and the decapitation of the leaders in 1968, he told me later, that had driven him to extremities he regretted. We quarreled, sometimes publicly. He was not easy. He could be brusque.

He thought himself over. Sagely, he realized, probably not for the first time, that his profession was: politician. The career he made in post-New Left politics was uniquely valuable. There were, besides him, all too few in the New Left who had the stamina, the rigor, the discipline, the sustained intelligence and the deal-making capacity to sustain a life of history-making. He got laws passed. He lived what the Buddhists called a life of right action—not without errors, but errors are what a life so fervent entails.

When we met in the eighties and nineties, we sometimes talked about yearnings for transcendence. His eyes were still laughing. As anyone would have to after the convulsions of the sixties, he was committed to learning patience, and got good at it.

Early in 1966, when he was still engaged in community organizing in Newark, I was moved by the darkness and the invocation to courage he put on display in an essay (in the New Republic, then fitfully opening to the left), wondering whether rebellion was itself a sufficient value, whether it would be reserved for

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 secret and its disgrace. Radicals then would identify with all the scorned, the illegitimate and the hurt, organizing people whose visible protest creates basic issues: who is criminal? who is representative? who is delinquent? Radicals then would ask of the conventional majority: at what cost have we laid down these lines and rules? Who is victimized, enslaved, freed? . . . Radicalism then would 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 odds. Its realism and sanity would be grounded in nothing more than the ability to face whatever comes.

The Vietnam war burned away his patience. Later, he would say that history moved slowly, except when it moves fast. As a certain Nobel Prizewinner might have put it, he learned not to go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.

He was one of the great ones of whom Stephen Spender wrote:

those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.


Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University. He has been active in the divestment movements at Columbia and among Harvard alumni. He is the author of sixteen books. His next is a novel, The Opposition.

Read Tom Hayden’s two articles for  
Dissent, from 1964 and 1966, here.


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