Bronze-level articleNew Left

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The New Left not only have no blueprint, they don’t want a blueprint. Let’s just see what happens, they say. Well, I can tell them what will happen: first anarchy, then dictatorship. They are rich in Tom Paines, but they have no Thomas Jefferson.
Gore Vidal[1]

The New Left[2] was a collection of leftist groups in the US and UK that sprang up in the early 1960s as a reaction to the timidity of liberalism on racial equality, the Vietnam War, and the thoroughly discredited and powerless "Old Left" of the Communist Party USA and its various Trotskyist enemies.

While the Old Left adhered to a thoroughly materialistic philosophy and aimed toward political revolutions along broadly communist lines, particularly by infiltrating labor unions and otherwise drumming up blue-collar workers, the "New Left" focused on young people of all classes (particularly college students) and brought in various religious and spiritual perspectives, as well as a variety of dope-fueled wackiness, in an effort to bring a revolution not only to the political and social systems, but also to age-old Western modes of thinking.

The New Left also focused more heavily on the problems of imperialism than did the Old Left.


[edit] Influences

Generational change marked by the predisposition of youth to challenge authority on moral terms was exacerbated by the large numbers of youth at the time (due to the 1950s baby boom) and the large proportion of these youths entering institutions of higher education.[3] (The rebellion even began to spread to high schools.[4]) There they encountered both older conservative and more recent liberal accounts of history and social science that, in their assessment, did not adequately explain national and world events. The plodding nature of the liberal response to racial oppression and imperialist violence motivated a search for explanation in the heady post-war fusion of Marxism and Freudianism favored by leftist intellectuals in the West. It also led to a preference for action over reflection. Consider the following rant by Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman:

Once one has experienced LSD, existential revolution, fought the intellectual game-playing of the individual in society, of one's identity, one realizes that action is the only reality; not only reality but morality as well. It exists in the head. I am the Revolution.[5]

Orthodox Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism held no attraction for most Western radicals. The Soviet Union had lost its moral legitimacy in the advanced industrial countries, even among lefties, after the crimes of Stalin had been published and denounced by the new regime of Nikita Khrushchev, so some in the New Left were looking for a more "pure" form of Communism. The Soviets' repression of Hungary in 1956 to crush an anti-Soviet uprising, and their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that put an end to the "Prague Spring", reinforced the alienation from Moscow.

Inspiration, or at least the imagery of mass rebellion, was found in the work of the new, non-Western Marxists whose crimes had not yet been made public, such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh.[6] As leaders who had thrown off the shackles of Western colonialism, their images would become icons for those who opposed capitalism and imperialism in general.[7]

On a more philosophical level, the works of Herbert Marcuse, especially One Dimensional Man, were particularly important. Marcuse criticized the socially alienating effects of modern capitalism, incorporating Marxism with Freud and critical theory in a way which the Old Left had not done. He extended this critique also to identifying the same social alienation under Soviet communism, and in the place of the stodgy "industrial proletariat" he championed an oppositional culture led by youth, minorities and the intelligentsia. Another important influence was Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman, a 1960 book about the alienation of growing up in a society geared mainly toward consumerism and preparing people for a life of meaningless and unfulfilling jobs. Goodman attributed the rise of both juvenile delinquency and the Beat Generation to a youthful rebellion against this. Also influential were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus; both had been part of the Nazi resistance in France, Camus as an anarchist, while Sartre was considered a "fellow traveler" with the French Communist Party but did not join. Both continued to support left-wing causes but turned toward developing the philosophy which would come to be labeled existentialism (although Camus rejected the label in favor of calling himself an absurdist).

While the New Left amalgamated political philosophies ranging from left-liberal to socialist to anarchist, for a brief period it formed a a cultural identity as well. A semi-personal, semi-political embrace of non-mainstream cultural identities and a socially libertarian questioning of institutions, restrictions, and traditional roles were hallmarks of the 1960s youth counterculture that intersected with the milieu of the New Left. Those tendencies fertilized the fields that the early gay rights movement grew in. Rock & roll had morphed from a youth subculture to a core expression of a full-blown social movement. That confluence of political and cultural identity turned out to be short-lived, as more revanchist and authoritarian tendencies gained ascendancy in the New Left as the decade drew towards its close. The increasingly rigid ideas on what was required to be a good leftist, culminating in the imperatives of "politically correct" cultural conformity, conflicted with socially libertarian ideals. By the mid-1970s, social libertarianism itself was seen as oppressive by advocates of the identity politics that arose from the New Left.

[edit] Major groups

The most salient American groups in this time period were the Yippies, the "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Black Panther Party. Their British counterparts coalesced around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or CND, which is still in business,[8] but could also be recognized in everything from Trotskyist organizers of militant tendency to the urban guerrillas of the Angry Brigade.[9]

The Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, blended New Left and anarchist rhetoric with entertaining '60s counterculture performance. The more sober SDS sprang more clearly from, and in partial opposition to, the "Old Left." The SDS emerged as a college group affiliated with the "League for Industrial Democracy," which was associated with organized labor and had existed in one form or other since 1905. Some SDS leaders were so-called 'red diaper' babies, or children of radicals from the Old Left. Others were children of privilege with roots in Christian pacifism. In 1962, SDS put out the first real statement of "New Left" Principles, the "Port Huron Statement."[10] It put forward a "new" vision of what socialism and politics could be about, focused on "relationships" and calling for an end to racial inequality and imperialism.[11]

SDS went through successive stages of radicalization. At the time of the Port Huron Statement SDS was liberal-reformist and put forth a program for civil rights, against poverty, and removing Dixiecrat influence from the Democratic Party. Then, inspired by the Black Panthers and the Berkeley free speech movement, as well as protest against the Vietnam War, SDS then became militant and switched its focus from reform to resistance and direct action. Finally, by 1969 the SDS leadership was in the hands of competing Maoist factions and infighting split the organization between factions aligned with the Progressive Labor Party (PL, a remnant of the Old Left), and anti-PL Maoists who went on to form the Weather Underground, Revolutionary Youth Movement, Revolutionary Union and other groups.[12] SDS largely ceased to be influential after their fractious 1969 convention.

At the same time, many civil rights groups came to align themselves with the New Left as well. The most obvious was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. SNCC began in 1960 to coordinate civil rights marches in the South, and radicalized in the middle of the decade under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael; in a famous speech Carmichael renounced non-violence and popularized the slogan of "black power."[13] Reflecting its change of direction, SNCC changed its name in 1969 to the Student National Coordinating Committee.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and engaged in militant protest against police brutality in black communities, often carrying firearms.[14] The Black Panthers made it their mission to mobilize the lumpenproletariat of the ghettos and evoked a sentimental socialism contrary to the Marxist tradition.[15]

The militancy of the Black Panthers in Oakland further radicalized the white student left at nearby Berkeley, who came to see the Panthers as something of a vanguard they wanted to imitate. Many members of SDS went into "the ghetto" to try to help with organizing the poor, particularly the white poor,[16] to help push for greater social justice and racial integration. Although it received little attention in the press, perhaps because it failed to offer the kind of threatening images beloved by journalists, poor whites also began to organize using the Black Panthers as a model and their revolutionary lumpenproletariat conception as a theory. Radical anti-racist poor white groups included the "Young Patriots Organization" and "Rising Up Angry" in Chicago, "White Lightning in the Bronx," and the "October 4th Organization" in Philadelphia.[17]

In its rejection of conventional Soviet-style Marxism, the New Left had engagement with a wider variety of ideologies, some of which were completely non-socialist or at best vaguely utopian. As already noted, then-trendy philosophers ranging from Marcuse to the existentialists had a broad effect influencing both the New Left and the forms it took (counterculture, student-led protest, Black Power). There has long been debate as to whether Yippies and hippies can be considered part of the New Left. Many outsiders consider them both part of the general anarchism that the New Left fostered, but most of the members of SDS and other groups denounced both the Yippies and Hippies as unserious jokers.[18] For another example, the early libertarians grouped around Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess initially conceived of libertarianism as an alliance between the New Left and paleoconservatism. Hess soon went full-on New Left, dropping out of society, joining the Black Panthers, SDS, and IWW, leading anti-war direct actions, starting an ambitious community self-sufficiency project in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and eventually embracing a "back to the land" philosophy and moving to West Virginia. Rothbard for his part soon swung hard to the right into tough-on-crime cop fetishism.

Some other groups within the New Left proved to be a breeding ground for political cultism. The best known of these was the National Caucus of Labor Committees, led by Lyn Marcus. The brand of radical feminism espoused by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon also has cult-like features and, unlike the Lyn Marcus cult, has gained influence in academia and policy.

[edit] Vietnam War

SDS and other groups had long opposed the war, and so used it as the foundation of their critique of "establishment" politics. Most of the members of the New Left struggled to find any traction with the larger American and British publics until public opinion as a whole turned against the Vietnam War following the Tet offensive. SDS led a march on Washington to try to show the government how serious the American people were about it. Presumably some found some of the tactics of SDS unsettling, particularly waving placards extolling the virtues of Ho Chi Minh, the face of the enemy during the war. Many times during protests, members of SDS would be attacked by counterprotesters, often construction workers.

This led many members of the group to "clean up" in 1968 in order to campaign for Eugene McCarthy as the anti-war candidate in the Democratic primary (whence the slogan, "Clean for Gene"). When back-door deals and the repression of the Chicago Daly machine kept student activists from actually participating in the convention, many members of SDS and other groups camped out in the nearby parks. When it was announced that Hubert Humphrey was the nominee, many in the parks were infamously beaten by police trying to break up protest rallies.[19] Eight (later seven) prominent radicals were then tried on charges of conspiring to incite riot. All were convicted, but their convictions were reversed on appeal. The investigating commission later ruled it was the police who had rioted, by attacking protesters, bystanders and journalists indiscriminately.

[edit] Weathermen

See main article: Weather Underground

The failure of the "Get Clean for Gene" campaign led some (including Bill Ayers) to believe that nothing short of revolutionary violence would change the US system. This group of SDS members went full-Maoist, and adopted three propositions:

  1. The primacy of confronting national chauvinism and racism among working class whites.
  2. The urgency of preparing for militant, armed struggle now.
  3. The necessity of building revolutionary collectives that demand total, wholehearted commitment of the individual to struggle against everything that interferes with the revolutionary struggle.[20]

The Weathermen are best known today for several terroristic acts, including bombing government buildings. However, for the Weathermen, the most important action was the "Days of Rage" in Chicago, where the Weathermen hoped to start the revolution through direct action. They expected thousands of newly minted guerrillas to show up, and by destroying the police stations and the symbols of capitalism in the city to inspire leftists across the country to rise up in general rebellion against the system. Instead, roughly 600[3] students showed up, but they gave it a go anyway.

According to Weatherman estimates, over a million dollars in damage was inflicted, and roughly 50 policemen went to the hospital, with far fewer casualties on the Weatherman side. However, the Weathermen were hit with heavy legal penalties, with 250 arrested and 40 or so with heavy felony charges. The Weathermen considered it a victory, and were certain that it was going to lead to the overthrow of The Man shortly.

[edit] Impact of the New Left

The New Left contributed its own imagery of popular revolt. What else did it leave? Rather than bringing the Vietnam War to an end sooner, the reaction mobilized against it by the powerful conservative and liberal enemies it made helped to divert public attention from the tragedy of the war. However, the war dragged on because it never emerged as the primary issue in a U.S. presidential election campaign. Most of the major civil rights victories are attributable to mainstream civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC provides the exception to the rule. Unfortunately thereafter the mainstream civil rights groups stagnated, and the civil rights movement stagnated along with them.

American-styled capitalism itself was never clearly in jeopardy from the critiques of the New Left.

Probably the biggest impact came out of movements that formed due to the mistakes of the New Left. The second wave of feminism, or "Women's Liberation," was spawned in large part because of the sexism within SDS and SNCC.[21] Despite a great deal of rhetoric concerning "equality," women in these groups found themselves repeatedly denigrated and forced into domestic roles. This was especially galling in SDS, because many of the most successful ventures (particularly in the community organizing arms) were led and run by women. As women became fed up with being second class even in the revolution, they left and founded their own far more successful movement, which really helped to change the face of American society.

Likewise, the modern environmental movement emerged partly because the New Left had, for the most part, spurned environmentalism as the concern of elites more worried about animals than people. Thus, ironically, many elements of anti-environmental crankery popular with right-wingers today, in particular the idea of environmental classism, got their start among '60s left-wing radicals, who viewed the first Earth Day in 1970 as "the white liberal's cop out" and believed that concerns about overpopulation were motivated by fears of dark-skinned hordes from the Third World overrunning the "civilized" nations.[22] Themes of this can still be seen in the anti-environmentalism of Lyndon LaRouche, whose politics have been all over the political spectrum but who started out as a Marxist within SDS, and who claims that environmentalism is a ploy by the wealthier nations to keep the developing world in a neo-colonial state by stalling industrialization. In response, the environmental movement changed its message in the '70s and '80s to stress the damage that pollution and environmental degradation does to humans (particularly the poor) in order to win left-wingers to its side.

However, many American conservatives act as if the New Left somehow managed to take control of the whole country.[23] Another example of this is the "documentary" Generation Zero which purports that old members of the "New Left" secretly engineered the 2008 financial crisis to create global socialism. That none of this makes sense doesn't stop people holding the now-barely existent New Left up as current dangers.

[edit] The Tea Party: the right's New Left?

I don't know where we go now as a party. I'm very concerned that we may go all the way to the right.
Peter King (R-NY). Yes, that Peter King.[24]

The plunge of ideological movements into an ever-deeper irrationality at the far end of the horseshoe when they near intellectual exhaustion may be a recurring feature of American political life, more so than any country in the Western world. The New Left emerged at the moment when American liberalism was sputtering to a halt in the face of the contradictions between a domestic policy of social and economic reform and a foreign policy that brought upon instances of costly and bloody protracted warfare. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, the main vehicle of the American left, was tearing itself into two camps — minorities and liberals who supported civil rights, feminism, and other social reform movements, and Southern segregationists (who, until the '70s, viewed the Republicans as the party of the War of Northern Aggression) and working-class Northerners (who were socially conservative, but voted Democratic due to labor issues) who felt that these changes were destroying America's moral foundation.

Today, the same thing is happening in American politics... but on the other side of the aisle. The Tea Party movement has emerged at the moment when growing numbers of Americans realized there was a contradiction between the Christian values espoused by the Republican Party and the actual practice of a militarist foreign policy and a laissez-faire capitalism devoid of concern for human well-being — and indeed, a further contradiction between the hate spewed by the Religious Right towards the LGBT community, Muslims, and other minorities and what was actually preached by Jesus.

Partly for this reason, many have drawn comparisons between the Tea Party movement and the New Left.[25] Dick Armey, one of the main figures behind the Teabaggers, praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left, and Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, the famous guidebook for hard-left activists and organizers, has become a right-wing bestseller (seriously), co-opted by the Tea Party in the form of Rules for Radical Conservatives.[26] The Tea Party, like the New Left, has a penchant for shock value,[27] street theater,[28] marches, and rallies in order to bring attention to the movement. Anti-science denialism infects both movements — the New Left had an irrational fear of nuclear power and industry, while many Tea Party supporters harbor a similar distrust of stem cell research, evolution, and the idea that global warming is man-made. A few especially radical New Leftists talked about going "back to the land" to escape the corruption of modern society; likewise, radical teabaggers talk about "going Galt" or becoming survivalists to escape from big government. Some have even compared Glenn Beck to Abbie Hoffman.[29]

At their core, however, both believe in the fundamental purity and virtue of individual people, and that evil is introduced from above by corrupt authority and elites — Third World-destroying warmongers and thieving capitalists for the New Left, and socialist bureaucrats and Hollywood elitists for the Tea Party. Both groups dismiss the prior 30 years of liberal (then) or conservative (now) government as failing to meet standards of ideological purity. The New Left thought that the Democratic Party under Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson were all corporate sellouts and warmongers who were upholding the decadent capitalist system, while to the Tea Party, the GOP under Bush and Nixon, men they once revered as being conservative icons, were nothing more than deficit-spending socialists.[30] Most importantly, both the New Left and the Tea Party viewed "the establishment" as the enemy, wanted to return power to "the people," and start a revolution.

If the Tea Party is a modern-day New Left, then judging by history, this has foreboding consequences for the right and very welcome consequences for the left. In the late '60s, while the left was spinning into such moonbattery and radicalism as the Weather Underground, the LaRouchies, and various conspiracy nuts, conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk were offering a sensible-sounding alternative to the crumbling New Deal consensus, while simultaneously attempting to purge the right of fringe groups like the John Birch Society as well as hardcore white supremacists and anti-Semites. Cue the triumphant election of Ronald Reagan.

Thanks to Reagan's influence, the conservative movement today has moved far to the right in the name of partisanship. Tax protesters and assorted denialist and conspiracy theories (including birthers and the militia movement) are all gaining sympathy, while Rush Limbaugh and Joseph Farah have become trusted names in news and commentary. Liberals, meanwhile, are growing increasingly weary of the rantings of Al Sharpton, the hard greens (while simultaneously seizing from them the banners of anti-racism and environmentalism), and of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, while more moderate, centrist to center-left leaders are becoming the public face of progressivism. If the Tea Party shoots itself in the foot the way the New Left did (and it's getting very close), then sane political thought in America may prevail in the years to come.

However, one key difference exists between the New Left and Tea Party. The New Left, even at its height, was alienated by most of the Democratic Party; even the liberal faction felt that they were too extreme. When the New Left briefly hijacked the Democratic Presidential campaign in 1972 by getting George McGovern nominated, the result was one of the most famous electoral blowouts in history — the solidification of the Sixth Party SystemWikipedia's W.svg — with large sections of the Democratic voting base (most crucially the unions) either staying home or supporting Tricky Dick as the lesser of two evils. The Tea Party, on the other hand, had been largely embraced by the Republican establishment in 2010 and onwards. While the New Left was a backlash against the Democratic leadership and base (i.e. the Dixiecrats and the "old" labor establishment), the Tea Party pretty much is the Republican base — religiously fundamentalist, ultra-libertarian on economics, xenophobic assholes, and jingoist voters.[31] Because of this, the Tea Party has managed to be far more influential and powerful among GOP policymakers than the New Left ever was with the Democratic Party.

Donald Trump's campaign was something of an "anti-Establishment" performance campaign propped up by oddball old-styled nationalists, Tea-Party leftovers, right-wing populists, and the enthusiastically offensive Alt-Right. The initial consensus was their failure was inevitable but unfortunately they actually managed to take control of the White House, not because they're actually popular per se (they lost the popular vote and only about 25% of Americans actually voted for them) but mainly because their main opposition put forth a stunningly incompetent campaign that was unable to mobilize the base or raise voter turnout despite the election being practically handed to them on a silver platter. Now the world sits in horror to see how radical "outsider" movements built on vague authoritarian populism will actually govern a First-World Nation, if they functionally even can.

[edit] See Also

[edit] References

  2. Although many groups are off limits to hateful stereotyping, Sixties radicals, hippies, environmentalists and Buddhists are still fair game — their punishment for having developed a sense of humor.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kirkpatrick Sale. 1973. SDS. New York: Vintage Books.
  4. John Birmingham, ed., 1970. Our Time Is Now: Notes From the High School Underground. New York: Bantam.
  5. Free (Abbie Hoffman). 1968. Revolution for the Hell of It. New York: Pocket Books. p. 13.
  6. n.a. The Cox Commission Report: Crisis At Columbia'. 1968. New York: Vintage Books. p.9
  7. Two of those four are still somewhat venerated, despite the fact that all four engaged in ruthless suppression of all possible human rights and often even mass murder.
  8. Tariq Ali. 2005. Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. London: Verso. p. 132, ISBN 978-1844670291
  9. Gordon Carr. 2010. The Angry Brigade: A History of Britain's First Urban Guerrilla Group. Oakland, CA: PM Press. ISBN 978-1604860498.
  10. "Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962". Michigan State University.
  11. It should be noted that it explicitly was not holding up the USSR as a model; instead, it denounced the USSR early on as well.
  12. David Gilbert. 2012. Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond. Oakland, CA: PM Press. Pp. 113-118.
  13. Read a transcript here
  14. The Black Panthers' protest style was deliberately militant but not violent, more for shock value; a typical protest had them marching with shotguns dressed in matching leather jackets and berets, chanting "The revolution has come. Off the pig! It's time to pick up the gun. Off the pig!" In a supreme irony, California's strongest gun control law at the time was signed by a noted actor specifically to disarm the Panthers and stop them from carrying firearms in public. The Panthers held a protest while the California legislature was debating this law, in which they held a press conference denouncing the "racist California legislature"'s attempt to violate the Second Amendment rights of blacks, and then marched into the California capitol building carrying shotguns — legal at the time. Bizarre, eh?
  15. Rebecca N. Hill. 2008. Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pp. 268-269.
  16. As most members of SDS were white, they felt they lacked the authenticity and experience to try to organize non-whites.
  17. Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. 2011. Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House. ISBN 978-1-935554-66-0.
  18. It has also been debated whether the liberal "Wisconsin school" of academic historical revisionism (William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko) is properly considered part of the New Left, although they have been labeled as such.
  19. See the Wikipedia article on 1968 Democratic National Convention.
  20. Shin'ya Ono, "You Do Need A Weatherman," an account of how one anti-violent member of SDS became a Weatherman.
  21. Stephanie Abrams (May 1993) "A History of Feminist Activism at Miami, Oxford Campus". Miami University.
  22. "On global warming, conservatives have a blind spot — and liberals have tunnel vision", The Week
  23. For instance, this book tries to make the case that US cities are failing because the New Left took control of public services and unions, leading them to bankruptcy. Never mind that these very cities actually end up paying taxes to support the areas that the writer holds up as the productive parts of the country.
  24. Cantor loses, Boehner dines with friends, McCarthy scrambles, Washington Post
  25. The Right Gets Its '60s, The New York Times
  26. Don't believe us?
  27. The GOP's Grifter Problem, Slate
  28. Compare the people dressed in powdered wigs at Tea Party rallies to the people who nominated a pig for President in 1968 Chicago.
  29. "Glenn Beck is the new Abbie Hoffman", Salon
  30. Oh, you haven't burst out in anger yet?
  31. When Extremism Goes Mainstream, The Atlantic
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