Tom Hayden

Navigating Towards Unity

Recorded: December 19, 2012

Radicalism and participatory democracy intersect at Tom Hayden. Tom became an activist in the early 1960s when he was a "freedom rider" in the south and president of the Students for a Democratic Society. Tom shares his thoughts about his 50 years of activity in civil disobedience, marches, direct action, and ultimately how and why he came to represent the people in California state office.

Tom Hayden is renowned – and to some – notorious for his activism, political stands, and revolutionary writing.  A member of the “Chicago 8”, he continues to be a leading voice for ending war, saving the environment, and reforming single issue policies.  Hayden served 18 years as a California state assemblyman and senator. During his tenure, he was described as “the conscience of the Senate” by the Sacramento Bee, and named one of the 50 greatest progressives of the 20th century by The Nation magazine, for which he still writes.

Tom Hayden organized the grass-roots Campaign for Economic Democracy, which shut down a nuclear power plant using a state referendum for the first time; he led the campaign for Proposition 65 in 1986, a labeling requirement for suspected cancer-causing products, which set off a right-to-know revolution.  He was often the gatekeeper during years of environmental opposition and passed over one hundred measures related to environment, including animal welfare, health, and social justice.  He is among those we thank for restoring Santa Monica Bay and strengthening California’s Endangered Species Act. He also authored the largest state park and environmental restoration bond in our nation’s history.

Hayden is a prolific book and magazine writer citing various angles and the importance of participatory democracy.  This has been his focus since he co-authored the Port Huron Statement, establishing Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, and is also the subject of his latest book.  Included in his bibliography is the highly praised The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit and Politics. 

Huey Johnson:    Probably your best known effort was the Chicago Demonstration, as far as fame in history.

Tom Hayden:    I don’t think much of fame. I think accomplishments are often achieved outside of the mainstream media’s gaze.  I have been in social movements, direct action movements, marches, civil disobedience for at least 50 years.  And half that time, I’ve also been in office or running for office, so I see the outside and the inside.  Between these two worlds is the world that I’ve inhabited for a very long time.

I didn’t come from a professional background where I was prepared to run for office, I ran for office because I wanted the 60’s to be represented and I knew that only with the vote of the people, some kind of referendum, would my ideas be empowered in office. And I also wanted to run in order to build a movement that would lead other people to run.

I was lucky to become the chair of the Natural Resources Committee where – I think my proudest moment and the one that probably was the most stressful was the yearly ritual in which legislators would come forth with a amendments to the Endangered Species Act, that we have to cut down these trees, or we have to dam up this river.  And I felt like an executioner.  If I let this bill out of my committee, I’m executing a run of salmon and there are only so many left.  Or I’m terminating an old grove of redwoods and there are only so many left.  And it was hard on the heart because they’ll keep you up, they’ll keep you up all night hammering and pushing and cajoling and tempting to get one more vote out of your committee.  And the legislature knows, well, if it got out of Hayden’s committee, it can’t be that bad because he wouldn’t permit it, you know, a complete destruction of the environment.  And so it’s compromised legislature and I’m the gatekeeper and it never would end until dawn when finally the gavel would come down and it would be terminated only to start again the next year.  And I think preventing those compromises and protecting the Endangered Species, what remains of them, was probably, you know overall, the thing that I’m proudest of because it was the hardest.

Here we are today with the issue I never understood 40 years ago, which is the end of the world is actually coming through extreme weather events and global warming, and my view is that if the organizations are up to the challenge, they will grow and there’s much to be done, and if they’re not, new movements are replacing them.  So just as the world cracks up, new spirits arise.

Take an old growth forest and it grows in darkness for centuries, thousands of years and it harbors life and it’s threatened by dangerous forces, lightning, logging but it grows.  And it gets to a particular moment which the ecologists call the canopy stage and there’s this exuberant rising of the foliage and the breakthrough to the sunlight, it happens very rapidly.  And I think that’s what happened in the 60’s, and in the early stages of the environmental movement.  We thought we were so new and fancy and had all the answers, but we were really the exuberant phase of an old growth forest that had preceded us painfully and inexorably struggling towards the light and we were just the beneficiaries, and the leaders are nothing more nor less than the new branches that sprout up when you least imagine it.

But it should make us confident that it will always happen, and humble that it takes a long time.  And often we think, you know, we are the agency, we’re the – yeah, but we’re just blessed to have lived through such a moment of growth.  And I think with the climate, climate issue, the same thing is happening and will happen.

I would like to put more attention into the linkages between the environment and climate change, the wars and labor.  I’m not proposing one homogenized movement or structure, but I do think movements are propelled by people who come to realize that there’s links between issues, and therefore, links have to be made where feasible between leaders, organizers and organizations.

All of these movements need greater space for democratic rights to flourish.  All these movements need to push back on every intrusion against voter registration.  All of these movements need to push back the role of money and secrecy in politics. And they may disagree on what campaign they want to run, but they have in common a need to stand for participatory democracy at the deepest and widest level against the kind of incipient oligarchy.  We just need thousands of people who are trained by experience to see the antagonisms that go along, the storms, the internal storms that prevent unity and keep looking for ways to navigate towards unity and unity and more unity.