Home thoughts on the rise and fall of the North American ‘New Left’ by Stuart Christie

The Port Huron Statement: the 1962 manifesto that launched the activist movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The American New Left was a protest-oriented movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In its early, developmental stage New Left theories evolved primarily from the trial-and-error experiences of its most dynamic constituent groups and individuals. It was, essentially, a response by liberal activists and dissident leftists to the cataclysmic widening of the gulf between the theory and practice of traditional Marxism in the mid-1950s.

The New Left began life in the mid 1950s as a reformist movement fertilised by an increased consciousness of racism, the threat of nuclear war and, later, America’s aggressive role in the Vietnam War. By the early 1960s the most dynamic elements in the movement had become disillusioned by the inability or unwillingness of the liberal democratic state to acknowledge let alone resolve the pressing moral issues of the day, particularly that of racism in the South. It quickly developed a much more revolutionary critique of the totality of ways in which consumer capitalism and the bureaucratic states of both East and West frustrated human needs and capacities. From a reformist opposition to racism in the South and war in Southeast Asia a revolutionary stance emerged of opposition to racism in general, to imperialism in all its forms and to sexism both in society at large and within the movement itself. Those who adopted this position viewed the whole mass of problems bred by an industrial society — alienation, ecological threats to the environment, poverty, hierarchy, competition, etc. — as being impossible to solve within either capitalism or bureaucratic communism.

SDSFrom 1968 onwards however the cohesion of the New Left began to weaken as the movements that formed it lost their sense of purpose. As the New Left had grown, so too had many of its leaders acquired an institutional identity, at the expense of all that was new, dynamic and radical in the movement. Many of the leaders who revealed a less than complete determination in their opposition to the existing order were in effect co-opted into it. Divisions were further aggravated by the fragmentation of the movement into exclusive black power and feminist movements. The state adapted its strategy to meet the growing threat to its authority. By using half-truths, lies, distortions and outright black propaganda it began to criminalise New Left direct-action tactics as terrorist. For the first time it had also shown itself prepared openly to kill unarmed white student demonstrators and ‘uncontrollable’ black dissidents if that was what was necessary in order to recover its authority and thus halt the drift to ungovernability. This, in turn, precipitated the shift from symbolic, mass-based non-violent direct action to elitist, cell-oriented terrorism and urban guerrilla warfare. The result of this polarisation was the atomisation of what remained of the New Left.

The New Left grew out of the global tensions of the Cold War. To a large extent Western liberal democracies sought to legitimise the increasingly interventionist state which emerged out of WW2 and the nuclear arms race by highlighting the ideological contrast between Western concern for individual liberty and Soviet collectivism. McCarthyite anti-communism and the sustained cold war propaganda campaign of the 1940s and 1950s had, however, the opposite effect to that desired. Constant reference to the immorality and inhumanity of Stalinism certainly raised public awareness of the excesses of Soviet state communism, but it also had the unintended consequence of raising public consciousness as to the shortcomings and contradiction of the domestic political setup.

As awareness grew of the diminishing differences between the two superpowers (because of a growing convergence of geopolitical and economic interests, less exaggerated forms of conflict, etc., i.e. less than total warfare with the threat of escalation to nuclear exchange), domestic cohesion declined — along with support for the traditional party system. The New Left developed ideologically with a rejection of both capitalism and bureaucratic communism. As Barrington Moore pointed out, the young had become aware that Marxism and liberalism had ceased to provide explanations of the world:

‘Neither one can any longer provide a convincing explanation of the causes of human misery in the twentieth century. The justifications for horrifying forms of cruelty and oppression that both liberalism and Marxism have put forward, in the service of great powers, have more and more discredited both ideologies.’ (‘Revolution in America,’ New York Review of Books, 30 January 1969)

The New Left (NL) was never a cohesive organisation or movement with a clear message or agreed objectives. In its instrumental period disparate NL leaders and theories emerged spontaneously on an ad hoc basis as and when the need arose. There was no structure of ‘national centre’ and ‘periphery’; as far as a centre existed it was primarily to co-ordinate national actions and facilitate the exchange of ideas.

The NL consisted of at least five major autonomous but overlapping movements and ideas: the grassroots black civil rights movement, developing into black power; the student movement for university change; community action projects; the anti-war movement; the alternative culture of the ‘underground’.

In the beginning, the NL derived its leadership primarily from universities and its support predominantly from students. In order to understand the nature of the new bureaucratic state and achieve the desired social ends, the emergent politicised student movement sought a new radical social analysis and critique of power.

boycottThe mid-1950s black civil rights campaign with its dramatic and symbolic direct action tactics was a major inspiration for the emergent NL. The Montgomery bus boycott by black people and sympathetic non-blacks against segregated seating begun in 1955 that elevated Martin Luther King to prominence also brought the race issue in America to worldwide attention. Coming as it did hard on the heels of the McCarthyite era with its alleged concern for individual freedom and justice, the hypocritical dual moral standards of the American ruling elite stood exposed to the world thus heightening the shaming effect of Southern racism on the conscience of American youth.

The failure of the liberal establishment to enforce civil rights coupled with the white backlash provoked by fear of black mobilisation following the Greensboro sit in, with an ultra-rightist presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, church burnings, and riots in Harlem, contributed to the polarisation. The widening gap between the reformist leadership and the increasingly radical base finally broke the liberal consensus.

The next stage in the movement’s radicalisation came with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM). This was the first time young middle-class American students had come into confrontation with a substantial corporate institution.

Berkeley had been one of the main recruiting grounds for the civil rights activists. During the summer of 1964, immediately preceding the Free Speech Movement, a number of Berkeley students had gone down to Mississippi for the 1964 ‘Freedom Summer‘ organised by the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). The murder of three civil rights workers, one young black and two whites, during that summer by a local sheriff and deputy sheriff — after the refusal by the federal government to defend blacks against violence — contributed much to their politicisation.

The students returned north that autumn, highly radicalised, bringing with them their anger at the blatant injustices they had seen and had experienced at first hand. They also brought with them the sense of community, militant idealism and the tactics of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. It had not taken long for the students to look at the universities critically as socialising agents and realise the interrelated nature of the struggle against racism in the south, free speech in the north, and the war in Southeast Asia. The paternalistic and hierarchical structure of university life was seen as a microcosm of power in the outside society. The critique of university life soon extended to the wider sphere of traditional political parties, liberal organisations and ideologies, all of which were seen to be complicit in the war, racism, and the numerous other forms of oppression that permeated everyday life.

The widening peace movement and radical pacifism was another source of nourishment for the early New Left. The American anti-war movement developed in parallel with the student movement. Fred Moore’s individual protest in 1959 against compulsory military training burgeoned into a mass movement that soon challenged the right of the state to conscript men for its armed services, thereby dramatising popular opposition to the war in Vietnam.

The shift from reformism to revolutionary militancy gathered momentum in the period between the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in November 1962. By September 1962 blacks were beginning to consider arming themselves for self-defence*, the Federal Government having proved itself unwilling or unable to defend black dissident. (* In fact, according to British anarcho-syndicalist Tom Brown who lived in the US at the time, Blacks had done this regularly in the South after 1945 — though not in conjunction with any civil rights struggle, just pure self-preservation on a local basis. Snipers stationed in houses were used to dispel the gathering of lynch mobs). By 1963 SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had moved from reformist protest demonstrations and sit-ins aimed at shaming the system into action to community resistance, the organising basis of opposition — the creation of dual power structures which would make central authority superfluous.

Vietnam_war_protests_1970It was, perhaps, the theory derived from the practice of self-help and the community-based organisation that made the New Left unique. Its central component was that the alternative society had to be built here and now; it would not be an apocalyptic creation that would arise upon the ruins of authoritarian society. Although vague on its attitude to property and how it proposed to overcome the resistance of vested interests, it stressed the importance of community, decentralisation, the concept of participatory democracy and direct control of the decision-making process, and emphasised direct do-it-yourself action, anti-paternalism and the concept of building counter-institutions.

With the passage of time and the growing pressures of repression, co-option, competition and oligarchisation or institutionalisation, the process became more complex. Instead of continuing to develop its own libertarian ideas the movement steadily came to be increasingly influenced by the competitive and authoritarian attitudes and strategies of the old left. Under the guise of providing ‘leadership’ oligarchies were fostered and, as individual initiative deteriorated, the negative dynamic worsened.

davis_tin1The movement appears to have gone into crisis after late 1968, and particularly after four students died and nine more were wounded at Kent State University, Ohio, in May 1970, when the state National Guard opened fire on unarmed protesters during a demonstration against the US invasion of Cambodia. Large numbers of activists felt they had given everything they had and there was nothing further they could offer without endangering their freedom and their lives. Euphoria, the predominant mood of the movement throughout the 1960s, changed to fear. Confronted by an all-powerful, hard-pressed, state with its back to the wall and prepared to kill, if necessary, the movement began to turn in on itself and accelerated the process of disintegration. This process is exemplified by the June 1969 split of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) into three major factions — Marxist-Leninists, the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYMII) and the Weather Underground.

Hard-line groups such as Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers and the Weather Underground followed through the logic of their commitment by abandoning the propagandist fight against injustice, going underground and embarking on armed struggle — ‘taking it to the heart of the monster’. But the negative dynamics (the isolation and alienation from everyday life and their natural constituents) of the clandestine armed struggle served only to separate them still further from the movement they claimed to represent and provided the government with the opportunity it sought to intimidate the less committed majority of the movement.

The Yippies were another offshoot of the movement polarisation that occurred from 1969 onwards. In its initial stages the Yippies understood the American psyche and by the imaginative use of humour and the careful staging of events they contributed much to raising national consciousness of alienation, consumer capitalism, authoritarianism and competition. The Yippies too, however, were subject to the same dynamics of oligarchisation and developed authoritarian and aggressive traits.

The black movement, too, had deteriorated from being an instrument of black radical activism through groups such as CORE and SNCC into institutionalised power elites such as the Black Panthers.

The second-wave of the Women’s movement, which —like Athena from the cracked skull of Zeus — had sprung full-grown and fully armoured out of the constituent groups of the NL, also went down the same road as the male-dominated organisations. From developing important theories about the nature of the power relationships between males and females, and developing a participatory, non-competitive and anti-authoritarian practice, the women’s movement underwent a hierarchical transformation. Dominant women inside the movement began to develop oppressor roles while more reticent women gravitated towards deferential roles. The dynamic of the movement shifted from an emphasis on educatory consciousness-raising to a more competitive agitprop function. The women’s movement had a tremendous effect in the ideas it launched in relation to understanding sexism and authority, but organisationally it too degenerated into the frustrated world of competitive power politics.

The New Left (NL) collapsed because the hopeful social, political and economic environment that had nourished ‘the movement’ throughout the 1960s became hostile, at the end of the decade, to what was effectively, a disparate movement with widely varying objectives. It has been said that the NL lacked a strategy, but no strategy could possibly have contained the objectives of such a diffuse movement in the face of such an all-powerful state threatened with ungovernability. The NL was a movement that had developed originally in response to the widening gulf between the morality and practice of liberal democracy. It responded with a harmonious morality and practice of its own. As the organisational dynamic and competitive hierarchical attitudes of the old left reasserted their influence over the movement, horizons narrowed dramatically and options came to be judged on grounds of expediency rather than fundamental principles.

Collapse was inevitable. As morale and effectiveness declined, many activists became depressed or cynical about the possibilities for change within the system. Others accepted the system for what it was and chose to work within it, some for piecemeal reform others for self-advancement. A minority opted for the institutionalised violence of the urban guerrilla struggle in the belief or hope their exemplary actions would trigger rebellion or at least keep alive the possibilities of resistance. All this achieved was to split the movement still further.

In spite of this ultimately degenerative, cyclic, process, the New Left, during its instrumental phase, like all popular social movements throughout history, advanced humanity in terms of experience and awareness: it created an effective counter-force to the Vietnam War, eventually bringing the war to a close; it highlighted the weaknesses and emphasised the dual standards of American liberal democracy and the effective limits of protest. It subjected authoritarianism in all its forms — including sexism and racism — to strong scrutiny. But perhaps the most important lesson of all to be drawn from the New Left is that its rise and fall exemplifies the problem of ‘leaderisation by middle-class people operating in organisations, the consciousness of whose members were largely conditioned from childhood to the individualistic backbiting arrogance and hierarchical morality of the professions. Power itself wasn’t the only stimulus to corruption — corruption flowered when those already corrupt gained the power they had been conditioned from childhood to seek.

Despite the words of the Internationale, there is no final battle, the struggle against institutionalised authority — be it liberal, communist or even New Leftist — is forever; fortunately, however, there are countless examples of groups of people where differences are resolved without division or conflict. This is because the members share a cohesive collective spirit of devotion and respect towards each other, to their common cause — and to humanity at large.

Stuart Christie