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.