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American Turncoat

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American Turncoat

The meaning of Tom Hayden’s life November 4, 2016
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

When I learned that Tom Hayden had passed away last week, I found myself thinking about the first time I met him. The occasion was a conference Hayden organized in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in September 1967, to “open lines of communication” between the U.S. antiwar movement and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Hayden was regarded as the leading light of the New Left at the time. He had served as first president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and was the principal author of the radical campus group’s 25,000-word founding document, the Port Huron Statement.

Hayden’s political manifesto, written when he was 22, made a powerful, eloquent case for a new form of “participatory democracy.” Though SDS’s theory of democracy was never adequately spelled out, participatory democracy soon became a catch phrase among student activists. The SDS document also criticized America’s Cold War policies, while explicitly rejecting the Old Left’s illusions about Communism.

Hayden’s views on these issues were influenced by his intellectual hero, the radical Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills’s big idea—elaborated in his 1956 book The Power Elite—was that bourgeois democracy was a façade and elections merely served to cover up the process through which corporations, the military, and the permanent political class exercised power. To put this in terms that will be familiar to anyone following this year’s presidential election, Mills and his epigones believed that the “system was rigged.” It was this quasi-Marxist revelation that made Hayden and his fellow student radicals believe that they had the license to take democracy into the streets—and even to engage in violent, destructive acts.

A few weeks before Hayden convened the Bratislava meeting, The New York Review of Books created a literary sensation by publishing his Franz Fanon-like account of the racial riots in Newark, New Jersey, that left 24 people dead and large parts of the city in flames. The title of Hayden’s opus: “The Occupation of Newark.” The author analogized the violence in that urban ghetto to the Communist-led uprising against the U.S. military’s “colonial occupation” of Vietnam. The highbrow magazine’s cover featured Hayden’s accurate diagram for making a Molotov cocktail. Such were the bizarre intellectual alliances created in those tumultuous days.

The North Vietnamese government designated Hayden as its principal conduit for making contact with the American “peace camp.” The Communist regime’s strategy was to conduct the war simultaneously on two fronts: first to stand firm against the American military in its homeland; then to win over public opinion in the United States. Hayden had already visited Hanoi in 1965, and he came back singing the praises of this nation of brave peasants resisting the American war machine. He now had the imprimatur from the Vietnamese to select the American representatives for the four-day confab in the beautiful Slovakian city on the banks of the Danube. I was one of the chosen few by virtue of being an editor of Ramparts, the radical magazine with the largest circulation in the country.  

The two-dozen American radicals and the 30 or so Vietnamese delegates, equally divided between cadres of the North Vietnamese government and the National Liberation Front, stayed in a college dormitory graciously provided by the Czechoslovak government. We took our meals together in a communal dining hall and conducted seminars on a variety of subjects ranging from conditions on the battlefield in Vietnam to the prospects for success of the antiwar movement.

Most of the Americans were in their twenties. Our Vietnamese counterparts were older, hardened revolutionaries. They dressed in almost-identical black pants and jackets, and were under strict party discipline. The leader of the Vietnamese delegation was the commanding, austere Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the NLF’s titular foreign minister (and soon to be a principal negotiator at the real peace conference in Paris). We were told that several of Madame Binh’s travelling companions were Viet Cong guerrillas who had come to Bratislava after a long, dangerous journey from the “liberated zones” of South Vietnam.

When I received the invitation to Bratislava, Hayden assured me that the American group would issue no joint political statement, other than affirming the need for bringing the war to an end. But it soon became clear that he and some of his younger acolytes were trying to move us toward a more “advanced” position. Hayden wasn’t interested in peace as much as making an alliance with the other side.

At the final plenary session, Hayden gave a long speech summarizing the conference’s accomplishments and emphasizing the need to continue working together for a Vietnam liberated and unified by the Communists. In a final peroration, he recounted the climactic episode from the 1960 Hollywood blockbuster Spartacus, in which the victorious Roman centurions, having finally defeated the rebel slave army, are searching for the revolt’s leader among a crowd of prisoners. The Roman commander warns that unless “the slave named Spartacus” steps forward, every one of the captives would be executed. At that point, each of the slaves takes two steps forward and announces, “I am Spartacus.” The Romans then crucify all the slaves. In our time, Hayden announced, the U.S. military was trying to annihilate our Vietnamese brothers and sisters in an unjust colonial war. Thus, each of us in the antiwar movement must step forward and proclaim: “Take us, too. We are all Viet Cong now.”

I didn’t think at the time that the Vietnamese delegates, despite the services of an excellent translator, grasped the full meaning of Hayden’s historical metaphor. But for the Americans it was an electrifying moment. Years later, I came to see this episode as a turning point in the very short history of the American New Left.

It was a mere five years between the publication of the pro-democracy Port Huron Statement and Hayden’s decision at Bratislava to attempt to tether the new American radicalism to a foreign totalitarian regime. The tragedy is that he largely succeeded. And within a couple of years, the idealistic SDS had blown apart into warring sects.

After Bratislava, Hayden took five of the American delegates on yet another pilgrimage to Hanoi. I certainly wanted to be included in the travelling group in order to do some reporting, but was by then considered too unreliable. Once again, the Vietnamese used Hayden as a go-between, this time to bring home three American prisoners as part of a propagandist “peace gesture” to Washington. In fact, Hayden was now frequently consulting with Johnson administration officials eager to learn about Vietnamese intentions regarding a possible settlement of the conflict. In his comprehensive history of SDS, Democracy Is in the Streets, James Miller accurately described Hayden during this period as part New Left guerrilla warrior and part “shadow diplomat.”

Yet, Hayden was always ready to discard his faux diplomatic credentials whenever he saw an opportunity to take the struggle to the streets. In April 1968, he was preparing to move to Chicago to start planning the forthcoming demonstrations at the Democratic Party’s national convention when he heard the news that a student rebellion had broken out at Columbia University. Hayden dropped everything and dashed over to Columbia to get in on the revolutionary action. With the help of Columbia’s SDS chapter president Mark Rudd, Hayden was smuggled into one of the occupied buildings, now a “revolutionary commune.” The outside agitator was soon leading the radical students’ resistance to the university authorities.

Eventually, the police evacuated all of the “liberated” buildings with excessive and unnecessary violence. Hayden walked away unscathed, never to return to Columbia, but with another notch on his belt in fulfillment of his promises to the Vietnamese comrades. He wrote about the uprising for Ramparts, commenting that “the students at Columbia discovered that the barricades are only the beginning of what they call ‘bringing the war home.’”

Columbia was a dress rehearsal for the mother of all street battles: the showdown at the 1968 Democratic convention. Hayden never hid the fact that the “antiwar” demonstrations were meant to provoke a violent confrontation with the Chicago police and the National Guard. In a statement that could have been written by C. Wright Mills, Hayden said that the street demonstrations would “demystify a false democracy, showing the organized violence underneath reformism and manipulation.”

At Ramparts headquarters in San Francisco, we knew exactly what Hayden and a wide coalition of antiwar activists—including the Weatherman faction and the Yippie contingent led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman—were planning. Our editor Warren Hinckle (who passed away two months ago) led a large contingent of reporters and editors to the Windy City to record the action for a special issue of the magazine. We also created a Ramparts wall poster to provide a running account on the daily battles in the streets and made it available for Hayden’s occasional bulletins from the frontlines. “We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the ‘politics of joy,’” he wrote in one dispatch, “to expose the secret decisions, upset the night club orgies, and face the Democratic Party with its illegitimacy and criminality.”

Hayden certainly fulfilled his promise to his Vietnamese comrades to “bring the war home.” When the week of mayhem was over, though, and after the thousands of arrests and serious injuries and extensive property damage, the militants managed merely to help elect Richard Nixon and extend the war for another few years.

After Chicago, Hayden seemed to need some rest and relaxation, and a different kind of political and cultural experience. He moved to bucolic Berkeley, California, the epicenter of the sixties student revolution, and joined a radical commune pompously called the Red Family. I was then living in a nearby house with some fellow leftists and journalists. We would have been embarrassed to call ourselves a commune, and we made fun of the Red Family, which seemed to be consumed by sexual politics and interminable arguments about feminism.

Yet Hayden continued his search for the right agents for radical change. He now decided that the Black Panthers, headquartered in neighboring Oakland, would be the vanguard of the next revolt. In Ramparts, Hayden spun out a somewhat insane theory of revolution in which the radical students would create sanctuaries for the armed Black Panthers until they set off a guerrilla war against the American imperium. To prepare for the coming conflagration, he took the Red Family communards to a shooting range for target practice. In a secret meeting with Berkeley radicals during the People’s Park riots in 1969, he mused about the possibility, perhaps with the help of the Black Panthers, of shooting down a police helicopter.

Apparently Hayden had watched too many reruns of Spartacus. It was all too fantastic, a form of playacting to make up for the undeniable fact that there would be no revolution. I soon broke with the Left and began a decade-long drift toward conservatism. After those zany Berkeley days, I never saw Hayden again. Yet I continued to read about the next and most extraordinary phase in his life. At a peace rally he met Jane Fonda, just returned from France and looking to get involved in the antiwar movement. As in an unlikely movie script, Hayden married the princess. The radical couple moved to Santa Monica, not far from Hollywood.

With a boost from Fonda’s movie earnings, Hayden entered electoral politics as a member of the Democratic Party, the same party he had denounced a few years earlier as a “criminal” enterprise. He was elected to the California state assembly and served continuously in the legislature for 18 years. He also attended ten Democratic Party conventions, six times as a delegate from California.

Hayden’s life in politics after the 1960s proved that he and his intellectual hero Mills were wrong when they claimed that the democratic system was rigged. Hayden collaborated with America’s enemy during wartime and was never punished. He conspired to start a riot in Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Party, yet he beat the federal rap. He entered electoral politics and helped push the Democratic Party so far to the left that it would be unrecognizable to the 1968 Chicago protesters. When Hayden died, the mainstream media’s obituaries celebrated his achievements in human rights but erased from history his advocacy for violent revolution.

Only in America—where nothing is written in stone, where anything is possible as long as we have elections and free speech—is a life like Tom Hayden’s possible.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

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