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January 20, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 14
Tom Hayden: Prophet Comes to Sodom
By Jack Newfield
For the last year-and-a-half Tom Hayden, 26, has been invisible to the mass media as he worked to build a community union in Newark’s Negro ghetto. He led an exhausting, spartan life there. He ate and slept irregularly, worked hard, lived with frustration and failure.
But NCUP (Newark Community Union Project) persevered, and slowly laid down roots in the squalid slum called the South Ward. Eventually, there were small triumphs: better garbage collection, repairs of rundown tenements, the de-activation of the city’s urban renewal scheme that would have uprooted thousands of low-income families.
Hayden, a former graduate student at the University of Michigan, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, a writer published in most of the magazines of the left, was there — in Newark — because he chose to live his theory that social change comes from the disinherited of society. He disagreed with the wisest — and often the best — of the older radicals, arguing that the liberal and labor bureaucracies were “hollow shells without constituencies.” Hayden could have had his choice of juicy jobs, from journalism to playing the role of adviser in the Peace Corps. Instead, he chose to live on $10 a week and remain invisible in Newark where he sometimes seemed a religious prophet fasting outside the gates of Sodom.
More recently, the Newark project has been looked upon by older dissidents and professional poverty warriors as the laboratory where many of the root ideas of the New Left were being tested and recast. Could the poor lead themselves? Could students create full-time occupations around the project? Was participatory democracy more than just a visionary’s dream? Could a lasting alliance be forged between university intellectuals bred on Mills and Camus and the excluded of the ghetto with their lack of education and enormous despair?
The questions are still unanswered, the answers are yet to come.
A month ago, Hayden was invited to join Yale history professor Staughton Lynd and Communist Party theoretician Herbert Aptheker to go on a “factfinding mission” to forbidden North Vietnam. The national leaders of SNCC and Students for a Democratic Society had turned down the offer. The journey, suggested by the National Liberation Front, was in violation of the State Department’s travel ban, and possibly the Logan Act.
The leaders of SDS and Hayden’s friends were divided about his going. Some feared that the illegal trip, made with a well-known Communist, might be used by the government as the crowbar to crush the nascent student movement against the war in Vietnam. Others feared Hayden would be jailed, the Newark project would collapse, the SDS’s limited energy diverted from organizing and demonstrating to costly legal defense. Hayden went anyway, but hoping he could return quickly to Newark and resume his almost anonymous role as an organizer.
When Hayden returned on January 9, he was not greeted with handcuffs and subpoenas. His passport was not even confiscated, as had happened to other pilgrims to Hanoi. Instead, he was greeted by Sodom’s emissaries, who had come to make the prophet visible. They came to offer him an hour on Canadian network television, an article in the New York Times Magazine, an article in Life, appearances on the Barry Gray radio show, and on Channel 13. A publisher offered him not only a contract for a book on Vietnam, but also one for a book on the invisible Newark project.
“At least there’ll be money to keep NCUP going,” Hayden mused.
Last Sunday, along with Aptheker and Lynd, Hayden addressed an emotional, overflow crowd at a rally at Manhattan Center.
Hayden spoke after Aptheker, and the contrast was jolting. Aptheker, actually more conservative than Hayden on many issues, spoke in a polemical, rhetorical style, attacking the United States at every opportunity. The audience, largely populated with the hard, lined faces of the 1930s leftists, applauded Aptheker’s thrusts with a remembered passion.
But Hayden had come to deliver a dispassionate report on his trip. He talked calmly, refusing even to pause for applause, making his points with the disinteredness of a Walter Lippmann.
He talked first about his stop-over in Prague and Peking, painting the differences between the East European Communists who want stability and the Chinese who want revolution. And then he spoke of the DVR — the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam — and its “desire for reunification after 25 years of struggle against the French, and now the Americans.”
He explained how the National Liberation Front program, as he saw it, would be neutralist in foreign affairs, of its position that the “withdrawal of American troops was not a pre-condition for negotiations…but that the NFL could not tolerate an American base or colony in South Vietnam.”
The last part of his talk was about the people he had interviewed. He spoke about a Viet Cong guerrila whose mother was tortured to death by the French, whose father was killed by the Diem government, and who then went into the hills “to fight with stones and bamboo for freedom.”
“Those who rise up with bamboo sticks,” he concluded, “know much more about independence and how to maintain it than we do at this point.”
As I watched Hayden shamble back to his seat, I had an intuition of how the New Left would end.
Its visionary radical goals — participatory democracy, an end to war, an end to dehumanizing bureaucracies — seem unattainable, yet these struggles have magnetized the best of a generation. Prophets like Mayden will not make Newark into a New Jerusalem. But because America is a better country than they think it is, they will be made visible, and will write the books, teach the courses, and edit the magazines that will give their generation its identity, just as small bands of prophets gave the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation their historical definition.
And such an unintentional end may be the ultimate irony of the New Left.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]