Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The sixties: Political perspective of the New Left of the 1960s

Sociologist C. Wright Mills

The New Left was a term that covered a diverse group of organizations and movements. Broadly speaking, the New Left refers to the popular reform movements of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights and antiwar movements. In organizational terms, the New Left would be generally understood to include the Students for Democratic Society (SDS), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Black Panther Party, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later Student National Coordinating Committee), and a variety of smaller groups and grouplets that grew out of the popular movements of those days, from the Freedom Rides to campus occupations like that at Columbia in 1968.

In The Annals (382) March 1969 special issue on Protest in the Sixties, the prominent leftist historian Staughton Lynd contributed an article called "The New Left". His article focuses on the intellectual aspects of New Left in the United States. Which is more than a small paradox, since a distinct characteristic of the American New Left was its eclecticism and orientation toward action, often with an overt scorn of theorizing. The European New Left had a more coherent theoretical framework because European democracies had a strong left tradition in the divergent forms of the Social Democratic and Communist Parties. But part of the reason a general term like New Left became a useful term for these movements is that in the US and elsewhere, there were no distinct parties identified with these activist tendencies established themselves as significant electoral forces, although there were smaller parties and sects like the Weather Underground and the Revolutionary Communist Party that emerged from the movement that was known as the New Left in the US.

Lynd uses a quotation from historian Howard Zinn to illustrate the action-oriented, theory-skeptical sensibility of New Left activists:

There has been much talk about a Christian-Marxist dialogue, but if such a dialogue is to be useful perhaps it should begin with the idea that God is dead and Marx is dead, but Yossarian [a character in Joseph Heller's antiwar novel Catch-22] lives - which is only a way of saying: let's not spend our time arguing whether God exists or what Marx really meant, because while we argue, the world moves, while we publish, others perish, and the best use of our energy is to resist those who would send us - after so many missions of murder - on still one more.
Despite this skepticism, or just general ignorance, of theoretical constructs, the New Left did have plenty of ideas, including Martin Luther King's Christian/Ghandian pacifism and black nationalism. Lynd uses Howard Zinn and radical sociologist C. Wright Mills to illustrate the anti-authoritarian, activist, radical-democratic orientation of the New Left groups. Lynd says, "Mills was the theorist who most influenced early SDS". And, "Zinn was the only white person to be elected an adviser by the early SNCC". Lynd also found an "existential" element in New Left thinking, which he defines as "the knowledge that the consequences of action can never be fully predicted". In fact, he claims that "is the single most characteristic element in the thought-world of the New Left."

He mentions various other thinkers who had influence on or at least strong affinities with the New Left, including historian William Appleman Williams, gay writer Paul Goodman and psychologist Erich Fromm. He also mentions the Freudian-Marxist Herbert Marcuse as being particularly representative of New Left thinking, at least to the extent that such an eclectic movement can be represented by a particular body of theory or a single book:

The single, most comprehensive, scholarly statement supporting the New Left analysis of corporate liberalism is undoubtedly Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse's pessimistic thesis in this influential work is that contemporary industrial society "seems to be capable of containing social change," indeed, that traditional forms of protest are "perhaps even dangerous because they preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty."
That concept of "corporate liberalism" is an important one. As Lynd describes it with particular reference to SDS, the New Left saw their main opponent as corporate liberalism, which at the time was perceived to be the dominant Establishment thinking in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. That wasn't as unrealistic as it may seem today, after 40 years of the Age of Cheney. In 1964, Barry Goldwater's brand of militant conservatism was bitterly contested within the Republican Party, and lost in the general election by a landslide to a liberal Democratic candidate, Lyndon Johnson. Lynd's terms of analysis are different from those used by the talking heads on Meet the Press, but he makes a valuable observation about the New Left perspective on the power of corporate liberalism:

The [New Left] theorists of corporate liberalism believed their main enemy to be, not the reactionary Right, but the liberal Center. Their attitude may be compared to that of the German Communist party in the early 1930's, which directed more hostility toward its Social Democratic competitor than toward the Nazis. American New Left theory made the implicit assumption that capitalism in the United States would not turn to overt authoritarianism. It overlooked the possibility that the very success of the New Left in unmasking corporate liberalism, the very growth of a serious internal opposition, would change the character of the situation and force upon the governing class a felt need for more rigorous controls. The young radicals' assessment of the American reality has been, in this sense, not too negative but too hopeful. (my emphasis)
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"It is the logic of our times
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