Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2016

Tom Hayden (1939-2016): a political assessment

Filed under: obituary,parliamentary cretinism,student revolt,two-party system — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

Tom Hayden

I knew nothing about Tom Hayden in 1967 except that he was an SDS leader. I developed a better understanding after reading an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books on August 24, 1967 titled “A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark” that reflected the editorial position of the journal at the time, one much further to the left than it is today although not nearly as radical as me back then or now for that matter.

That very week I had decided to join the SWP because the war in Vietnam and the racial oppression in Harlem I had seen working for the Department of Welfare pushed me over the edge. Hayden’s article is worth reading both for its reporting on the realities of Newark, a city that he and other SDS’ers had “colonized” in a kind of neo-Narodnik fashion, and as a gauge of this SDS elder’s thinking at the time:

This is not a time for radical illusions about “revolution.” Stagnancy and conservatism are essential facts of ghetto life. It is undoubtedly true that most Negroes desire the comforts and security that white people possess. There is little revolutionary consciousness or commitment to violence per se in the ghetto. Most of the people in the Newark ghetto were afraid, disorganized, and helpless when directly facing automatic weapons. But the actions of white America toward the ghetto are showing black people that they must prepare to fight back. The conditions are slowly being created for an American form of guerrilla warfare based in the slums. The riot represents a signal of this fundamental change.

In 1965 I had only the foggiest notion of what SDS stood for. I went directly from early 60s existential liberalism a la Camus directly to Trotskyism without passing go. There were SDS’ers at the New School where I was avoiding the draft by studying philosophy at the time but I had zero interest in joining the chapter there. It was only through contact with an SWP member over a two-year period that led me to break radically with my past.

Hayden eventually outgrew SDS and became a celebrity leftist like Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, Benjamin Spock, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis et al. He, Herbert Aptheker and Staughton Lynd had traveled to North Vietnam in 1965 as guests of the government. From that point on he became identified with a wing of the antiwar movement that tended to waffle on the question of immediate withdrawal. Although the notion of traveling to Vietnam seemed quite radical at the time, the primary emphasis of Tom Hayden and his allies was to push for “peace” in Vietnam.

Divisions in the Democratic Party in 1968 were very much like those this year with Hubert Humphrey roughly equivalent to Hillary Clinton and Eugene McCarthy to Bernie Sanders. In the summer of 1968 Tom Hayden called upon young people to come to Chicago to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam and for Black liberation but the obvious subtext to the protests was to pressure the Democrats into nominating McCarthy.

When the cops attacked the protests, the press widely described the violence as a “riot” but in reality it was a police riot just like we see today in many of the Black Lives Matter protests. In the aftermath, Hayden, Bobby Seale, and six other leftists were arrested for conspiracy and incitement to riot. All the charges were eventually dropped.

After Nixon was elected, Hayden continued to press for a negotiated settlement even though his rhetoric made it sound like such a demand was in and of itself anti-imperialist. With Nixon all too willing to sit down with the Vietnamese while continuing to bomb all of Indochina, the call for Out Now seemed more urgent than ever.

In 1971 Hayden launched the Indochina Peace Campaign, a group that adopted lobbying rather than mass protests to end the war in Vietnam. In a Huffington Post article written on March 20th, 2007, Hayden described the period as one in which people like him were “recovering from the intense radicalism, sectarianism, militancy, and resistance to repression that occurred throughout the late 1960s.” A new approach was needed, one that foreshadowed Moveon.org and other pressure groups in and around the Democratic Party. Hayden wanted to turn the page on the 60s radical movement, even if there were some diehards that “opposed lobbying Congress and electoral politics for ideological reasons”. He added, “They believed in an escalation of radical tactics.”

You can get an idea of how Hayden thought about politics through his reference to “radical tactics”. Was he talking about the Weathermen? Was bombing a federal building “radical”? One suspects that the radicalism he was trying to put behind him was mass action independent of the Democratic Party, the sort of thing that would interfere with a budding career as a bourgeois politician.

While nobody would gainsay the right of the Vietnamese to use negotiations in pursuit of their ultimate goal of independence and national unification, Hayden’s tendency was to downplay the slogan of Out Now that the SWP advanced in the antiwar movement and to promote Negotiations Now, which dovetailed with the CPUSA’s orientation. Since the CP was deeply embedded in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that had begun work by 1967 to Dump LBJ, Hayden and his allies did much to weaken the movement.

It wasn’t only the Trotskyists who got on Hayden’s case. I.F. Stone wrote an article for the NY Review on November 30, 1972 questioning the efficacy of the peace negotiations that were hailed by Hayden:

If such are the terms, why does Thieu balk at them and the other side insist that we sign? The answer I believe is that the Vietnam war has been bypassed by the detente among Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Peking has been promised US troop withdrawal from Taiwan once Southeast Asia is “stabilized.” Moscow is being bailed out of the worst food crisis in years by Nixon. Hanoi’s patrons are tired of the war, and each seems somewhat miffed by the much too independent Vietnamese. In short, Nixon can pretty much write his own terms and has. Mme Binh told a visitor during the period when these latest terms were being negotiated, “Every time we take a step forward, the United States takes a step backward and the same gap remains between us.” The terms disclosed on October 26 were the outcome of a tight squeeze on Hanoi.

I think Stone got this right basically.

On January 25th, 1973 Hayden answered Stone in a letter to the NY Review that opened by describing himself as “puzzled to find so many antiwar activists, especially intellectuals, expressing the cynicism summarized by I. F. Stone in your November 30 issue.”

In a way, Hayden was correct in saying that the Vietnamese were using the negotiations to their own end. By wresting concessions from the Nixon administration that allowed “Vietnamization” to unfold, the North Vietnamese were finally in a position to roll into the South and achieve what negotiations could never achieve: final victory.

However, in the long run the USA was victorious. By drawing China into the peace process, Nixon was able to lay the foundations for the dismantlement of the Maoist economy, which despite its bureaucratic distortions did exclude the kind of rapacious capitalism that the nation eventually succumbed to. It also achieved a partial victory in Vietnam as Chomsky pointed out:

Indochina at least survives; the US did not resort to nuclear weapons as it might well have done had the population remained docile and quiescent, as it was during the terror of the US-imposed regime in the South, or when Kennedy launched the direct US attack against the South in 1962. But the “lesson of Vietnam,” which was taught with extreme brutality and sadism, is that those who try to defend their independence from the Global Enforcer may pay a fearful cost. Many others have been subjected to similar lessons, in Central America as well.

In his trips to Indochina, Hayden got introduced to and eventually married Jane Fonda, a Hollywood superstar and leftist. Her deep pockets allowed him to launch a career as a Democratic politician. He was in the State Assembly and State Senate from 1982 to 1992 and helped to convince many people that social change could be achieved through electoral means.

From that point on, he became a conventional liberal that nobody could possibly mistake for a fiery radical. His most memorable performance in that capacity was initiating Progressives for Obama in 2008 alongside Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover. Appearing as an open letter in The Nation, it

We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama’s unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.

This is pretty much the same kind of rhetoric that accompanied the Sanders campaign and about as believable.

But even the Sanders campaign was too far to the left for Hayden. In April 2016, he wrote an article in The Nation explaining why he called for a vote for Clinton rather than Sanders in the Democratic primary in California. Already stricken from the after effects of a stroke that would end his life yesterday at the age of 75, he sounds like a casualty of the reformist swamp. Although I will never would have achieved his fame and fortune or marry someone like Jane Fonda (I much prefer my feisty wife from Istanbul), I am glad to have never made my peace with bourgeois society.


  1. A pretty fair assessment on your part, although having leapfrogged from Camus to Trotsky, you perhaps do not fully appreciate the transitional figure that Hayden was for so many who were also radicalized in that period. You do not mention Port Huron, SNCC, and you allude to the limits of ERAP’s Newark project rather than what to meant to many of the participants in the long run. You citation of Stone’s critique reminded me of a similar piece published in Ramparts at the time by its then resident Deustcherist David Horowitz, which was titled something like “How the U.S, the Chinese and the Soviets Have United To Arrest The Vietnamese Revolution and How The Vietnamese Plan To Defeat Them.” He’s fallen an ever longer way off than Tom did.

    Comment by burghardt — October 25, 2016 @ 12:39 am

  2. Well, you may be politically purer than Hayden, but surely you are not succumbing to some grandiose delusion that you are a more significant historical figure than he was, like the classic case of the guy in the lunatic asylum with Bonapartist pretentions.

    Hayden wasn’t perfect, but his political courage first in building the civil rights movement in the South in the early 60s and then in pioneering the anti-war movement, most particularly in 68 at the Democratic Convention, something the ruling class put him on trial for as part of the Chicago 8, is something that no one can take from him.

    Tom Hayden, presente!

    Comment by Joe Hansem — October 25, 2016 @ 2:24 am

  3. A correction: Hayden served in the CA State Assembly from 1982 to 1992, and the State Senate from 1992 to 2000.

    Other subjects of interest related to Hayden are his 1970s Campaign for Economic Democracy, a platform by which Hayden and Fonda, through Jerry Brown, sought to create a progressive movement within the Democratic Party. It prefigures the Rainbow Coalition and Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Of course, it faded away when Reagan became President.

    Another one is Hayden’s Zionism, which he and Fonda displayed to disturbing effect when he traveled to Israel in 1982 to support the invasion of Lebanon. Upon his return to the US, he defended the invasion, downplaying Lebanese and Palestinian casualties. It was the price of his admission to elected office in California.


    Comment by Richard Estes — October 25, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

  4. Hayden’s trajectory illustrates the futility of believing there can be radicalism with no grounding in socialist class analysis. This was an important legacy of the antiwar movement of the sixties and is an important source for the weird Manichean self-righteousness of the Putin- and Assad-loving “anti-imperialists” who are lurking behind every bush not thoroughly peed upon by the Democratic Party.

    We should not forget that the Emerson-and-Thoreau blind individualism and moralism rampant in the antiwar movement in which Hayden figured so prominently, was the key to popularizing a highly moralistic (and self-serving) anti-imperialism, even though it made use of themes offered by Stalinist left-wing formations; e.g., the so-called Maoists.

    One of the obscene consequences of this fusion has been the awarding of a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, whose major achievement was to appropriate the great socialist legacy of the folk music movement–e.g. Woody Guthrie–and to substitute for it a sort of Gaussian blur whereby the listener was invited to project his own image against a bokeh of unfocused word salad with radical and mystical connotations and no real substance. This theft made BD an immensely wealthy man (which seems to be all he every really cared about).

    The resulting mix had great appeal to young male college students who wanted encouragement to use drugs and get laid. Being in demonstrations was a useful path to achieving both goals.

    Most of these dabblers were both harmless and useful, and many took courageous action. But to call their favorite song lyrics great literature is to glorify the midddle-class adolescent white male narcissism and selfishness which ultimately is the main theme of Bob Dylan’s alleged art.

    Bob Dylan, cynical prick that he is, has written a lot of catchy (if meaningless) songs, and Tom Hayden, who worked tirelessly all his live for what he thought was right, did a lot of great organizing before he repented and joined the neoliberal throng.

    In any case, it’s important to debunk any tendency toward idolizing these useful opportunists. Both figures, in different ways, illustrate how shallow and fragmentary the radical synthesis of the Sixties really was, and how important it is to reach beyond the Eurocentricty of American radical culture, with its obsessive nostalgia for the recent past, to achieve a truly world-historical perspective on the changes that must come if we are to avoid the rapidly closing jaws of barbarism in the Nobel-wielding “advanced” countries of the West and in the world at large.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 25, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

  5. Correction: “all his live” = “all his life.”

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 25, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

  6. saw haden and fonda in the 80’s, probably early, when they were on tour -still- for the CED so it survived in some form after reagan. this in the days before i shook the dust out of my head.
    he was not just ‘not pure’, he never examined or learned from his life’s trajectory . finally, signified nothing

    Comment by jp — October 25, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

  7. @Pete Glosser: There are probably examples of male radicals both wanting to get laid and having decent and thoughtful radical politics. But of course we have heard similarly non sequiterian assertions regarding the “Berniebros.” Accusing young men of wanting sex isn’t much of a basis to evaluate them, unless of course they use drugs or alcohol to have it without consent. But perhaps, to the contrary you assume that such radicals were unsuccessful in fulfilling their coital ambitions, and therefore their radicalism should be dismissed on this basis. There are losers and then there are losers.

    Comment by David Green — October 27, 2016 @ 4:11 am

  8. REMINDER: Somebody attempted to post a comment on this article using a proxy server in Thailand. Do not waste your time or mine. Posting from proxy addresses is strictly prohibited here.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 27, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

  9. @ David Green.

    I spoke of “young male college students who wanted encouragement to use drugs and get laid.” That is hardly an attack on “decent and thoughful young radicals wanting to get laid.” What rancid paranoia on your part. I take it you have not been such a young radical for a very long time.

    “Bob Dylan” is and always has been a self-centered mysogynist and reactionary. His unfocused musings were a gateway through which generations of petty-bourgeois narcissists passed on their way to lucrative careers as attorneys and the like.

    No doubt there was some distribution of authentic “decent young radicals” amid that crowd of burgeoning Volvo drivers–over and above the much larger group of temporarily useful opportunists–but they were decidedly in the minority, and Robert Zimmerman deserves none of the credit for their decency or their radicalism.

    The main point of my post, which seems to have escaped you, is the parallel between Zimmerman’s career and Tom Hayden’s. Their fundamental flaws and deeply bourgeois character are bookends for the weakness of ‘Sixties radicalism, a weakness that permeated the antiwar movement of the Sixties and expressed itself in too many ways to be catalogued here (take the case of the irrepressible Jerry Rubin for example).

    This is relevant now, because the bourgeois individualism that corrupts the legacies of Zimmerman and Hayden also contributes to the shallow moralism of the currently raging Manichean “anti-imperialism” now rampant in Counterpunch and the other public lavatories of the faux left, as subsidized by Vladimir Putin and Russia Today (John Wight and Mike Whitney, are you listening?)

    Louis has pointed to the Stalinist character of much of this movement, but the self-dramatizing ethics of individual pose, gesture, and oracular pronouncement are 100% American-individualist, and no two figures sum up this corrupted tendency better, in their different ways, than Hayden and Zimmerman.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 28, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

  10. @Peter Glosser: yes, I’m sure that a more principled Dylan and Hayden would have stopped neoliberalism and neoconservativism in their tracks. And no, I don’t belong in any of the sacks that you use to organize your post-60s universe. Nor does it make any sense to understand 40 years of history in terms of any individual either getting laid then or driving a Volvo now.

    Comment by David Green — November 2, 2016 @ 5:27 am

  11. @David Green. The “sacks” you use to organize your subcritical mass of a mind are of no interest to me or anyone else. I never said any of the things you falsely impute to me. You are an imbecile who can only repeat the same feeble lies over and over again.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — November 2, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: