Miller’s book describes how the SDS initially sought a radical renewal of American democracy. The group was sidetracked from this objective by the ever-expanding and ever more controversial war in Vietnam. By June1969, the SDS had fallen into the hands of Maoists in the Progressive Labor Party and soon afterwards the group fell apart.
Democracy is in the Streets had been a Bible for me when it first came out. I felt that it made sense of the political perturbations I saw on the UC Berkeley campus, even though the 1960s already gone. The book also opened my eyes that democracy could be more than a form of government; that it could also be form of life and a way of thinking. I am still drawn to the idea of “participatory democracy” that the SDS laid out in the programmatic statement composed at Port Huron in Michigan in June 1962 and helpfully reproduced in James Miller’s book. I am also still attracted to the idea of a “consensus politics” as the SDS pursued it.
But Miller’s book makes clear how underdeveloped the notion of participatory democracy remained and how difficult it proved for the members of the SDS to practice the promised consensus politics. Miller himself joined the group in the late sixties. “I was, of course, opposed to the war in Vietnam,” he writes. “But I was also attracted by the vision of participatory democracy, although at the time I scarcely understood its intellectual provenance.” (p. 17) In re-reading the book now, I am struck by Miller’s sense of alienation from this early political enthusiasm – a feature that I had hardly taken in at my first reading many years ago. Miller writes in retrospect that his experience since the 1960s have left him “skeptical of the assumptions about human nature and the good society held by many radicals; … cynical about the ‘revolutionary’ potential of youth.” For many years he did not even want to think about the Sixties at all, “since I had grown ashamed of my youthful naiveté.” (Ibid.)
Miller wrote his book during the Reagan years. He was thus keenly aware of the limits of what the radical students of the 1960’s had achieved. “In city streets and on college campuses, in thousands of small experiments in participatory democracy, mys generation tested for itself the limits of political freedom. Those limits proved sobering,” he writes at the end of his book. But he adds: “Yet the spirit of Port Huron was real. A mass Movement to change America briefly flourished, touching countless lives and institutions.” (pp. 327-328) And there were important changes in American life that occurred as a result of the political agitation of the 1960’s – changes that have proved permanent. For one thing, he quotes Tom Hayden, “the system of segregation, which until 1960 was considered impregnable, collapsed. Students, who had never been considered a social force, became a political factor. The Vietnam War was brought to an end, partly because of the role of students. More than one President was thrown into crisis or out of office. And the Movement created an agenda. At the time it was seen as anathema, as terrible – very unruly. But people have absorbed more of the agenda than they realize.” (p. 325)
Compared to the activism of the 1960’s the political engagement of American students today appears listless and tame.