BY HANK REICHMAN
I first met Tom Hayden, who died eight days ago at age 76, when we both participated in the occupation of Mathematics Hall during the Columbia University student rebellion of 1968. Tom was, of course, no longer a student and had no institutional affiliation with Columbia, but he joined the protesters both in solidarity and to provide much-needed leadership. He ended up as the chief facilitator (I’m reluctant to write “chair” or “leader”) of the many seemingly interminable discussions we had in the occupied building on strategy, tactics, and politics more generally. He was masterful at the task. Indeed, I often think that I learned how to run a meeting, indeed, how to teach a seminar, from Tom’s example during those heady days. As Steve Wasserman writes, Tom “had the knack of being able to tease out of apparently contending and contradictory positions a path forward that might braid together the salient aspects of different ideas while enrolling them in a more coherent and plausible synthesis.”
I begin with this because in the several often moving tributes to Tom’s life as activist and politician that have appeared (see, for examples, those by Harold Meyerson and Wasserman as well as several brief accolades published in The Nation), Tom’s impact on and contributions to education may be inadequately recognized. Tom began as a student organizer and for the rest of his life he never strayed too far from that role. For if Tom is remembered for anything years from now it will likely be his role in founding Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and his authorship of that organization’s manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, still eerily or perhaps depressingly as relevant today as it was in 1962. But as his old friend from early SDS, Dick Flacks, emphasizes, “Hayden was as much, or even more, a teacher than a leader.” Mark Rudd, my college classmate and leader of the 1968 Columbia occupations, adds, “I never stopped learning from Tom. I’m sure that all of us can say that.”
I next knew Tom in Berkeley in the early ’70s, a time when the tensions within his politics were stretched to the breaking point by the galloping militancy of the late anti-war Left and the challenges of the new feminist wave. I can’t say, to my relief, that I was among those who almost literally drove Tom out of Berkeley, but I can’t say I opposed them either. In any event, Tom ended up in southern California where he reinvented himself as a more pragmatic political figure, dedicated to moving the Democratic Party to the left without any fundamental abandonment of his principles.
During those years, as Tom served in the California Legislature and wrote a series of insightful and indispensable books, I would by some strange chance occasionally run into him at the Los Angeles airport, where on at least three different occasions we ended up on the same flight to Oakland, sitting together, catching up, and discussing politics. I last saw Tom at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Columbia rebellion in New York in 2008. That day another classmate, the writer Paul Auster, had written an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the rebellion and its legacy in which he argued that the Vietnam War had driven us, the protesting students, “crazy,” which, he argued, was “a perfectly sane response.” At an opening night panel, Tom took sharp issue with that argument, disparaging Paul’s piece and declaring that not only were we far from “crazy;” we knew quite well what we were doing and what we were doing was rational, necessary, and moral. In a sense, both had a point, I thought. It was, indeed, a “crazy” time and I well understood Auster’s feelings about it, but while many of us would later have second thoughts about our tactics, Tom was absolutely right that our politics were and in key respects remain entirely sensible in the most profound meaning of that word.
Flacks describes those politics, as elaborated by Hayden, as “a fairly coherent philosophical pragmatism.” Among its tenets:
- Take institutional claims seriously and see if they are practiced by those in power. Challenge elites to live up to their claims, to justify their actions, rather than simply dismiss their claims as phony.
- Oppose structures of authority that block ordinary people from, in the language of Port Huron, “participating in the decisions that affect their lives.”
- Try to figure out, by observation of relevant cases, by experimentation, by dialogue, how social empowerment and participatory democracy can be made real.
- The most practical strategies by which ordinary people can make life better are those that empower people and expand their voices.
These remain useful principles today, both for contemporary student radicals, many of whom no doubt have not even heard the name Tom Hayden, and for those among their teachers, in the AAUP and elsewhere, who seek to change both academia and the world for the better. Like all of us Tom made his share of mistakes, but he never lost his faith in the future. He was, in a nutshell, both a pragmatist and a dreamer, an organizer and above all a teacher. I was fortunate to have been among his many students. As Rudd put it, “We’ll be learning from Tom for years to come.”