New Left

views updated May 14 2018


NEW LEFT , the wave of left-wing radicalism, which attracted many students and other young people in the U.S. and in Western Europe especially in the late 1960s. It had no consistent doctrine and embraced various ideologies, from the Maoist interpretation of Marxism to outright anarchism. The Jewish aspect of the movement was twofold: a disproportionate participation of Jews in the leadership and sometimes also in the ranks, and the issue of Israel and Arab anti-Israel terrorism after the Six-Day War.

In the United States

As mentioned, the New Left counted a disproportionate number of Jews among its leaders and rank-and-file activists. In organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (sds), the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, as well as in the Free Speech and anti-Vietnam war movements, American Jews pressed for a social reform agenda that valued "participatory democracy" and rejected institutionalized power.

By the late 1960s, Jewish New Leftists clashed with their non-Jewish counterparts. The rise of the Black Power movement alienated Jewish civil rights workers while the anti-Cold War ethos of the New Left turned against the Jewish State, deemed an "imperialist aggressor" after its decisive 1967 victory in the Six-Day War. While some Jewish New Leftists remained active in secular political causes, others translated the tactics and strategies of direct-action protests to particularist Jewish causes.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills first coined the phrase in his 1960 "Letter to the New Left." Mills sought to distance himself from the labor-centered leftist political ideologies of the 1930s, which were subsequently labeled the "Old Left." During the era of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, most progressive political activism centered on unionization issues and the rights of workers. Members of the Old Left embraced strategies that sought to realign the United States government's relationship to labor.

At the 1962 sds conference, Tom Hayden issued the founding document and constitution of the New Left movement, the Port Huron Statement. Named for the town that hosted the sds meeting, the Port Huron Statement joined Old Left Marxism with contemporary liberal beliefs and the hopeful optimism of a post-war American middle class. It called for "participatory democracy" and pressed for direct action protests against injustices. "We are a people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities," Hayden and his sds colleagues lamented, "looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."

New Leftists opened a broad-ranged movement intended to challenge organizational authority and effect new systems of power and governance. They joined the emerging civil rights movement, engaging in direct-action protests they hoped would focus the world's attention on the injustices of southern racism.

In 1964, New Leftists claimed victory at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement galvanized students, mobilized faculty support, and helped launch a national student-centered political movement. With Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, New Leftists turned their attention away from domestic issues and focused on United States foreign policy in Southeast Asia. They spearheaded the anti-Vietnam war protest movement, rejecting the Cold War assumptions of mainstream liberal America in favor of an anti-imperialist critique that blamed the United States for much of the world's economic inequality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the New Left fractured beyond repair. Those on the liberal-leaning side of the movement celebrated the successful conclusion of the civil rights movement and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam by stepping away from political activism. From the other extreme, New Left radical groups such as the Weather Underground Organization pressed for more confrontational strategies that included violent resistance, alienating their one-time political allies.

Though neither Tom Hayden nor most of the earliest New Left founders claimed Jewish ancestry, the movement grew to include a disproportionate number of Jews, including Mark Rudd, Jerry Rubin, and Abby Hoffman. Scholars estimate that Jews constituted between one-third and one-half of the New Left activists on college campuses across the country.

At a time when Jews represented just three percent of the American population and ten percent of those attending college, they constituted a majority of the New Left's most active members. Numerous social scientific studies pointed to strong Jewish influences in the nation's leading New Left groups. At the University of California, Berkeley, Jewish students lit candles during a sit-in protest that coincided with the holiday of Hanukkah. The Oscar-nominated documentary film Berkeley In The '60s features Jewish student protesters leading Israeli folk dancing during a demonstration inside Sproul Hall, the university's main administration building.

During the civil rights movement, American Jews joined a number of local and national organizations including sncc and core. When northern college students ventured south during the 1964 Mississippi summer, between one-third and one-half were Jewish. Jews remained throughout this period the most liberal white ethnic group in the United States, lending their time, money, and political influence to combating Jim Crow.

With Israel's dramatic victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish progressives faced their greatest challenge. The New Left, splintering along racial and ideological lines, grew critical of the Jewish State, equating its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the evil imperialist impulses of the United States in the Cold War. Many in the New Left rejected Zionism, labeling it a chauvinistic, even racist, manifestation of nationalism.

At the 1967 Conference for a New Politics held in Chicago, for example, African American delegates pressed for passage of a resolution that characterized the June 1967 conflict as an "imperialist Zionist war." As Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael said at a 1968 convention of the Organization of American Students, "We have begun to see the evil of Zionism and we will fight to wipe it out wherever it exists, be it in the Ghetto of the United States or in the Middle East."

Jewish New Leftists in Berkeley responded by creating the Committee for a Progressive Middle East in March, 1969. The Committee intended to strike a balance between the strident anti-Zionist influences growing with the New Left and the much less critical Zionist voices of Hillel and other Jewish groups. Radical Jewish Zionists, despite their attempts to locate progressive Zionism within the boundaries of the New Left, failed to re-unite Jewish leftists with an ever more radical, and anti-Zionist, movement.

The rise of Black Power also alienated Jews from the New Left, which had, by the mid-1960s, come to locate black militancy in its movement's vanguard. The rise of ethnic nationalism ended the inter-racial civil rights movement of the Martin Luther King, Jr., years. Jews, once valued as liberal America's most committed social reform advocates, faced a Black Power-inspired critique that labeled them white oppressors.

When Jewish New Leftists sought a strategic alliance with Oakland's Black Panther Party, for example, they were rebuffed. As one Jewish New Leftist explained, "Even if I were a superaltruistic liberal and campaigned among the Jews to support the Panthers' program, I would justifiably be tarred and feathered for giving aid and comfort to enemies of the Jews. I would rather it were not this way, but it was you who disowned us, not we who betrayed you." The end of the civil rights movement at home combined with Jewish concerns over the New Left's critique of Israel when, in 1969, Eldridge Cleaver told a New York Times reporter that "the Black Panther Party in the United States fully supports Arab Guerillas in the Middle East."

By the early 1970s, the New Left lost most of its earlier Jewish influence. Jews, weary of anti-Zionism, occasional antisemitism, and the rise of ethnic and racial consciousness, turned inward, applying many of the New Left's political strategies to Jewish communal concerns.

The Soviet Jewry movement, nascent since its founding in the 1950s, enjoyed rapid growth in the years after 1964 when Jewish civil rights workers turned their attention to the plight of their co-religionists in the Eastern Bloc. In San Francisco, Jewish radicals staged a "pray in," emulating the Free Speech Movement's "sit in," to force that city's Jewish Federation Council to increase its support of Jewish education. Other groups such as Jews for Urban Justice and Breira – which counteracted the slogan in Israeli politics ein breira [there is no choice] emerged as well, focusing attention on progressive political issues within the Jewish community.

In the final analysis, the New Left offered Jewish radicals a powerful legacy of both ethnic and religious identity. What began as a univeralist movement for participatory democracy and inter-racial cooperation ended with an impressive campaign for progressive Zionism, stronger Jewish education, and greater focus on Jewish ethnic and religious continuity.

[Marc Dollinger (2nd ed.)]

In Western Europe

The West European New Left of the late 1960s differed in two respects from its U.S. counterpart. It lacked the reservoir of supporters among both the black masses and sections of the white population opposed to the war in Vietnam and it was opposed by the entrenched Socialist and Communist parties. The appeal of the European New Left thus tended to be restricted to amorphous groups on the periphery of society. However, the French students' revolt of May 1968 and similar, though less violent, demonstrations in Germany and throughout Europe, proved that under favorable conditions the New Left could act as an ideological catalyst and set into motion events of considerable consequence. Its total rejection of prevailing standards and social structures was echoed in the inarticulate, though widespread, misgivings about the values and workings of the "affluent society" and the "deadness of its culture." This applies to the well-publicized and opinion-forming sector of the New Left. There were, however, particularly in Great Britain, other, near-clandestine groupings that concentrated on disruptive industrial action, as, for example, Tariq Ali's Trotskyist International Marxist Group or the Socialist Labor League, which aimed at the subversion of the trade union and have been more disruptive than the 1968 student demonstrations at the London School of Economics and other British universities.

Whereas the protagonists of the European New Left were young, its ideologues were elderly scholars, such as the French writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert *Marcuse, a German-Jewish émigré and a cofounder of the Frankfurt Institute of Sociology. In his attempt to harmonize the teachings of Freud with those of Marx, Marcuse totally rejected the basic assumptions and ultimate objectives of the prevailing industrial society. Alienation in work and the repression of basic human drives could be overcome, Marcuse maintained, in a truly democratic and participatory society so organized as to serve essential human needs rather than the requirements of the socio-industrial complex. Since the service of the latter has corrupted mankind, the only hope for its future lies in the classes still untouched by the exigencies of the productive processes, which have become an obsession both under capitalism and Communism. These classes are the students of the industrialized nations and the masses of the developing Third World. From these assumptions it follows that New Left thinking on the Arab-Israel confrontation tends to sympathize with the Arabs as representatives of the oppressed Third World, while regarding the Westernized, technology-oriented Israelis with instinctive hostility. The Marxist rationalization of these feelings runs along arguments well known to Old Left Communists, that Israel and Zionism in general are only the "lackey of American imperialism," etc. Marcuse, however, disassociated himself from this attitude while on a visit to West Berlin shortly after the Six-Day War (1967).

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the New Left's most important protagonist, the sds (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) in 1969 repeatedly disrupted public meetings at which the Israel ambassador was to appear. Later that year New Left terrorists tried to blow up West Berlin's Jewish community hall during a service commemorating the 1938 Nazi pogroms. The revulsion aroused by these activities was criticized by their perpetrators, who, in leaflets, under the headline "Shalom and Napalm," deplored the guilt feelings of the German Left toward the Jews as "neurotic, backward-looking anti-Fascism" disregarding the "non-justifiability of the state of Israel." German New Left leaders, such as Ulrike Meinhof of the left-wing weekly Konkret and Dieter Kunzelmann of West Berlin's Kommune I, joined the Palestinian fedayeen in Amman and inveighed against "bourgeois Germany's Judenkomplex." Except in the universities, the German New Left remained a negligible factor and failed to gain working-class support. Similar tendencies were at work in Italy, where such New Left organizations as Lotta Continua were militantly "anti-Zionist."

In France, in May 1968, the New Left students' revolt led to nationwide strikes, a grave government crisis, and contributed to the eventual resignation of President de Gaulle (June 1969). Among the student leaders were many Jews, such as Alain Krivine, Marc Kravetz, Alain Geismar, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who, as "Red Danny," became the figurehead of the uprising. Although their Jewishness did not induce them to follow an independent line on the Arab-Israel conflict, it sufficed to revive antisemitic resentments on either side of the political spectrum. Attacks against the German-Jew Cohn-Bendit and slogans like "France for the French" were once countered by students chanting "We are all German Jews." The French New Left succeeded temporarily in involving the workers in its struggle, but the subsequent leftist (old and new) defeat at the polls ended its role as a significant political factor. Characteristically it was the non-Jew Sartre who opposed the New Left anti-Israel slogans. It is absurd to pretend, he maintained, that "Israel is an imperialist state and that the Arabs are socialists, including their feudal states."

[Ernest Hearst]

In Israel

In Israel, the New Left remained a fringe phenomenon and those groups which actively identified with the New Left received little support, even in student circles. Maẓpen ("Compass"), which broke away from the Ha-Olam ha-Zeh group in the early 1960s, was especially vocal after the Six-Day War in calling for withdrawal from territories occupied in the war. It never had more than a handful of members and in 1970 these split into three groups.

The Semol Yisra'eli Ḥadash ("Israel New Left," known as Si'aḥ) was founded in 1969. Consisting mainly of students and members of Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir kibbutzim, it called for a more resolute peace policy on the part of the Israeli government. Si'aḥ was not crystallized as a political party but stressed its nonidentification with the policies of the Rakaḥ Communist Party (see *Communism: Israel).


M.S. Chertoff (ed.), The New Left and the Jews (1971); N. Glazer, in: jjso, 11 (1969), 121–32; N. Glazer and L. Fein, in: Midstream, 17:1 (1971), 32–46; Lipset, in: Encounter, 33 (1969), 24–35; P. Seale and M. Mc-Conville, French Revolution 1968 (1968); W. Laqueur, in: Commentary, 47:6 (1969), 33–41; H. Marcuse, Protest, Demonstration, Revolt (1968; translation of his: Das Ende der Utopie). add. bibliography: V. Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, 19501975: A Brief History with Documents (2004); M. Isserman, If IHad A Hammer… The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (1987); S. Rothman and S.R. Lichter, Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the Left (1996); M. Staub, The Jewish 1960s: An American Source Book (2004); idem, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (2002); J. McMillian and P. Buhle (eds.), The New Left Revisited (2003).

New Left

views updated Jun 08 2018



The New Left is a term that describes a varied set of social movements in Europe from the 1950s to the 1980s. What they had in common was a rejection of the capitalist system, the Cold War, and Soviet Marxism. Their politics were confrontational, and entailed a public and theatrical element in which they performed their rejection of the generation in power from 1940 to 1960. Youth politics and student politics emerged as forces in their own right, at times hostile to and at other times braided together with working-class militancy. The New Left emerged as a threat to the forces of order in Germany, France, and Italy in the spring of 1968. Thereafter, radical groups continued to oppose Western imperialism and to press for changes in the educational system and in factory work and discipline. Their aim was a kind of self-management or workers' control that would decentralize power and give ordinary people a greater say in determining the conditions of their daily lives.

By the early 1970s, the force of these social movements was largely spent. Some groups spun off into terrorism. Factions emerged to carry on the armed struggle through kidnappings, robberies, and assassinations, in particular in Germany and Italy. They were ruthlessly suppressed. Other groups took the vision of 1968 and reoriented it toward the struggle for human rights and civil rights. Radical dissent continued in the Soviet bloc until the collapse of communism in 1989. In Western Europe, it contributed to the broad movements supporting a new human rights regime and European integration.

The New Left began as a dissident Marxist faction in the 1950s. Starting in 1953, when dissenters were crushed in East Berlin, and reaching a peak in the period after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, groups of Marxists either left the Communist Party or worked for its reform from within. The moribund nature of European communism was exposed fully in the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. From then on, the "old left" meant, first and foremost, Communist parties still tied to the Soviet Union.

There was another sense in which the old left was rejected in this period. It was a term meant to convey the consensus politics of social democratic parties. In Britain, the Labour Party had lost its direction after the years of reconstruction between 1945 and 1950. To radicals, it was a trade union party dedicated to making the capitalist system work more efficiently. In Germany, the Social Democrats were partners in the economic miracle, which seemed to be the limit of their expectations. French and Italian socialists were similarly imbricated in the post-1945 order. The New Left, in contrast, wanted to depart from the field of political horse trading and forge bridges with workers equally dissatisfied with their conservative trade union leadership.

The New Left was also categorically opposed to the foreign policy of European governments that either supported or acquiesced to American objectives. This opposition took two primary forms. The first was the rejection of the nuclear stalemate and its underlying theory of mutually assured destruction. The second was the championing of anti-American forces from Cuba to Vietnam.

In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament drew together many ex-communists and liberals in a loose alliance opposing the nuclear politics of Britain and the United States. Ending the deployment of nuclear weapons in Britain was one of their aims, which would lead, they hoped, to step-by-step nuclear disarmament. Similar demonstrations were held in Germany, bringing together clergymen, trade unionists, and students.

A second dimension to the anti-American character of the European New Left was its championing of radical causes challenging the United States as the free world's hegemonic power. The first of these struggles was the war for national liberation in Vietnam. Once the French had given up the fight in 1954, the Americans took over the defense of its client state, South Vietnam. As the war intensified in the mid- to late 1960s, the New Left coalesced around opposition to the war and support for Ho Chi Minh and the communist cause. On 17 March 1968, a major demonstration took place in front of the American Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square. There was a violent confrontation with police of a kind that occurred in many European cities. The politics of the streets over Vietnam took up where similar demonstrations against the French war in Algeria had left off earlier in the 1960s. Young radicals who joined the New Left offered vocal and visible solidarity with the cause of the Cuban revolution and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation after 1967. The death of Che Guevara in Bolivia was viewed as a heroic death in the ongoing war against American capitalism. Che's profile became an icon of the New Left.

Most of these currents flowed into a set of conflicts that reached a boiling point in May through August 1968. Rudi Dutschke, leader of the New Left organization SDS, was shot three times in April 1968 by a right-wing fanatic, leading to violent confrontations in Berlin between students and police. On 2 June 1967, a student was shot to death in Berlin by an undercover agent at a demonstration against the Shah of Iran's visit to the United States. In Paris, the flashpoint was again an anti-American demonstration over Vietnam at the University of Paris campus at Nanterre. The arrest of demonstrators there led to much wider demonstrations in the center of Paris, during which university buildings were occupied. The rector then shut the university down. Student revolt mixed with industrial militancy in May 1968, and factory occupations paralleled university sit-ins. This indeed suggested a very different kind of left politics from that of the staid Communist or Socialist Parties.

The events of 1968 produced one of the core experiments of the New Left. In France it was termed autogestion, or self-management. The set of ideas was not restricted to France. In Belgium, liberation theologians and priests were actively drawn to the idea and contributed to its elaboration. So were trade unionists in Tito's Yugoslavia well before the events of 1968. The leaders of the military coup that seized power in Peru in 1968 also declared their commitment to installing forms of self-government of a similar kind. And in its first few years, the leadership of free Algeria proclaimed their support for decentralized institutional life; that brief period of freedom came to an abrupt end by the late 1960s.

There were, therefore, many variants to and sources of this set of ideas. Within this multinational array, three constituent elements stand out. The first is a commitment to the decentralization of political and social life, so that the search for a new order takes place in civil society and not in parliament or in the factory. The second is a demand for local autonomy in all places of work and public service, and the third is a vision of the replacement of the capitalist organization of consumption by cooperative institutions.

At the core of this program is the belief in the need to escape from the central state as the arbiter of the public good, and to substitute for its dirigisme more pluralistic modes of organizing the productive and creative forces of society. In this context, dirigisme meant the mindlessness of Communist lock-step thinking or the conformism of Western capitalism, which offered meaningless choices to the public every few years. Thus, national elections were a sideshow to these militants, and so were the intricacies of trade union politics. Instead of acting primarily to win pay raises, workers of all kinds were urged—in the words of one poster—to "demonstrate that workers' management of the firm is the power to do better for everyone what the capitalists did scandalously for a few."

One key element in this movement was its dynamic quality. It worked to produce an environment in which men and women could perpetually renew their commitment to those with whom they lived. It represented therefore a new social contract, based on a moral vision incompatible with the capitalist order. Echoes of anarchist thinking may be found here, though there are traces of an escape from alienation, as outlined in Karl Marx's early philosophical writings.

The dynamic element in this movement also included aspects of personal and sexual freedom that appealed to many recruits to the New Left. Springing from the Nanterre disturbances in May 1968 were many grievances, among them the limitation on the right of students to have guests of the opposite sex visit their dormitories. During the time when effective contraception became readily available, young people were not prepared to accept their professors' or their parents' rules about personal or sexual comportment. Thus, hair styles, jeans, and music symbolized this generational revolt.

What became of it? The massive hopes and exuberance of the New Left in 1968 faded rapidly in the following decade. Some of its adherents retreated into underground warfare, particularly the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy. Others, especially in Eastern Europe, weathered the harsh repression of the early 1970s and emerged to lead dissident groups that ultimately came to power. Finally, men such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the New Left in Paris in May 1968, turned toward European unification and human rights as the embodiment of their beliefs. In this form, the New Left survived until the end of the century.

See alsoMay 1968; Student Movements.


Anderson, Perry, and Robin Blackburn, eds. Towards Socialism. Ithaca, N.Y.,1966.

Bahro, Rudolf. From Red to Green: Interviews with New Left Review. London, 1984.

Berman, Paul. A Tale of Two Utopias. The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968. New York, 1996.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. Long March, Short Spring. The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad. London, 1969.

Fraser, Ronald, et al. 1968. A Student Generation in Revolt. London, 1988.

Teodori, Massimo, ed. The New Left: A Documentary History. Indianapolis, Ind., 1969.

Jay Winter

New Left

views updated May 14 2018

New Left

A diverse international movement which sought to reformulate traditional left-wing politics in the 1960s, New Left activism culminated in the widespread upheavals of 1968, "the year of the barricades," when political dissent erupted around the developed world against the backdrop of a major escalation of American activity in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The May 1968 demonstrations in France, which briefly united students and workers in a series of direct confrontations with French government authority, have acquired a near legendary status in popular historical assessments of the New Left. But it was the United States, largely because of the War in Vietnam and the struggle for black civil rights, which formed the epicenter of New Left politics throughout the decade.

Never a cohesive movement as such, the American New Left was a loose coalition of dissenting activist groups which was largely student-based, and was born out of the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s which had been led by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). The need for a new left-leaning politics seemed particularly acute in the United States, where a combination of the postwar economic boom, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and Stalin's appropriation of Soviet politics, had convinced many that older models of Marxist class struggle were anachronistic. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 it had also become clear that moves to reform the Democratic Party into a mass left-liberal alliance had collapsed into wranglings over internal party procedures. The year 1962 marked the emergence of a recognizably new left-wing agenda as a small cadre of student activists, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), convened at Port Huron, Michigan. If SNCC and southern civil rights provided the major catalyst for the 1960s movement, it was SDS and its initially northern, white middle-class student constituency which became the driving force behind the first generation of the New Left.

Directly influenced by the writings of 1950s intellectuals such as Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills, SDS announced itself in the formative "Port Huron Statement" of 1962, a document which developed the political and intellectual precepts of Mills' "Letter to the New Left" (1960) into a broad and influential statement about the "values" and "goals" which would come to shape the early years of the movement. The statement's author, Tom Hayden, may have preserved some of the language of radical Marxism (not least in his emphasis upon the "alienation" of life lived in the advanced capitalist West), but the document as a whole distanced itself decisively from any analysis grounded exclusively in economics or the politics of class, a kind of analysis which Mills had denounced as "the labor metaphysic." Announcing proudly that SDS would have "no sure formulas, no closed theories," the "Port Huron Statement" stressed what would become a characteristic openness of the New Left to a diverse platform of oppositional politics extending well beyond class struggle.

Hayden's thinking about alienation, and New Left thinking in general, owed more to the influence of Sartre and Camus than it did to orthodox Marxism. The antidote offered was a politics based on "participatory democracy," an activism which sought personal ful-fillment through civic participation. As an activist strategy, "participatory democracy" was most notably espoused in the ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project) of 1963-65, which sent students into the black ghettos and working class neighborhoods of nine northern cities, including Chicago, Newark, and Cleveland, and in the Northern Student Movement, which conducted literacy programs and assisted in the Harlem rent strikes of 1964-65. SDS was also instrumental in organizing a number of mass demonstrations, notably the first major protest against the Vietnam War, the April 1965 March on Washington, an event which in certain respects was to prove a watershed for New Left politics. American intervention in Vietnam had escalated dramatically in 1964, and when the United States introduced ground troops in late 1965 the ranks of SDS swelled with new members. SDS membership rose from around 1,000 in 1964 to around 4,300 in 1965, and to around 100,000 by 1969. There were also the countless thousands of non-members who participated in direct action and demonstrations across the country. In the days immediately following President Nixon's announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, more than 400 campuses were disrupted, most notoriously at Kent State University, where the National Guard killed four students, and at Jackson State in Mississippi, where two more students died.

As the stakes rose the climate became more militant, and the recruitment of so many to the campaign against the war increased the variety of dissenting positions accommodated within the New Left. Sooner or later it was inevitable that political discord would erupt within the ranks of SDS itself. When the organization was infiltrated by the Maoist PL (Progressive Labor party) in 1967, SDS was forced into a sharper definition of its own political agenda than the "Port Huron Statement" had ever intended should be the case—SDS had always been strong on what the statement called "values," but relatively short on what it termed "goals," or on practical steps which might be taken to realize those goals. Holding together so diverse a movement with so unsystematic a political program proved impossible. By the end of the decade, with a Republican once more in the White House and the War still on, SDS had split into a number of competing factions, each with a different agenda, whilst others had drifted back toward the Democratic Party. New Left activism played an important part in bringing the conflict in Vietnam to a halt. But when the war ended in 1973, the one common cause which had bound so pluralist a "movement" together had vanished. Having drifted so far from Marxist orthodoxy, most of the movement lacked the economic analysis which might have turned the Oil Crisis of 1973 to its advantage, and the New Left soon subsided with the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

The existential flavor of early New Left thinking lent the movement a commitment to individual liberation which calls into question its "newness" as such. The specific relation between individual and society stressed in "participatory democracy" can be traced in a number of American political and intellectual traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and as 1960s activist Stanley Aronowitz has put it, the "Port Huron Statement" was "remarkable for its continuity with traditional American ideas of popular self-government, egalitarian ethics, and social justice." Traditional or not, a further consequence of these commitments was the rise of a countercultural wing of the "movement" (including the hippies, and from 1967/1968 the Yippies), which would increasingly represent the face of the New Left in the second half of the decade.

—David Holloway

Further Reading:

Albert, Judith Clavir, and Stewart Edward. The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade. New York, Praeger, 1984.

Ali, Tariq, and Susan Watkins. 1968: Marching in the Streets. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

Caute, David. Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades. London, Paladin, 1988.

Cohn-Bendit, Gabriel and Daniel. Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative. London, Penguin, 1969.

DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. New York, Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Sayres, Sohnya, et al. The 60s without Apology. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Steigerwald, David. The Sixties and the End of Modern America. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

New Left

views updated May 14 2018

New Left

In the 1930s and through the 1950s, a political movement known later as the "Old Left" emerged in American politics. A liberal group of predominantly northern intellectuals, the Old Left shared a fascination with labor problems and frequently maintained an interest in communism as a solution to America's economic troubles. The New Left, the successor to the Old Left, emerged in the 1960s and was heavily influenced by the early accomplishments of the civil rights movement. The New Left included many different groups, and was often dominated by middle-class college students disillusioned with life in America. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged as the best known of these groups, and pressed for a more democratic government, nuclear arms reduction, an end to the war in Vietnam, and better living conditions for the urban poor.

The New Left, in its widespread critique of American society, also included environmental and pollution reform in its agenda. Many New Left activists focused on the dangers of increased industrial production and increased consumption, leading to waste and pollution. One influence of the New Left was the development of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day was originally planned by New Left activists as a teach-in and sitin at university campuses, similar to earlier civil rights and antiwar activities to protest environmental degradation. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson developed and changed the idea for the event, hoping to organize a peaceful mass demonstration without the negative lawless image that public protest had acquired over the course of the turbulent 1960s. Approximately ten million people across the country participated in the original Earth Day, with even local and national polluters professing their support. Overall, though, the concept of Earth Day initiated by the New Left as a protest to industrial production bore little resemblance to the actual event, which was supported by the very polluters the New Left stood against.

New Left protest influenced the overall awareness of environmental issues, and helped lead to legislation, including the Clean Air Act in 1970. By the early 1970s, however, the New Left counterculture had become increasingly interested in the use of violence and associated with drug use and "free sex." This use of violence appeared in a small group of New Lefters called the Weathermen, or the Weather Underground, who advocated armed revolution against "American Imperialism," usually in the form of random bomb explosions. Other acts of New Left violence included the "liberation" of areas for public park space.

By the late 1970s, New Right conservatism had catapulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and before long a powerful backlash against many of the accomplishments of the New Left, the civil rights movement, and the 1960s in general took hold throughout the United States.

see also Activism; Earth Day; Environmental Movement; Politics; Public Participation; Public Policy Decision Making.


gottlieb, robert. (1993). forcing the spring: the transformation of the american environmental movement. washington, d.c.: island press.

o'neill, william l. (2001). the new left: a history. the american history series. wheeling, il: harlan davidson.

Elizabeth D. Blum

New Left

views updated May 17 2018

New Left The label commonly applied to humanist dissidents from communist parties and to followers of Western Marxism during the period of the Cold War. The contrast is with the Old Left; that is, pro-Soviet and other traditional communist currents, such as for example Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarchists. The New Left developed in the late 1950s as a self-conscious Marxist and radical intelligentsia, particularly in the United States and Britain, which was critical of capitalism and state socialism of the Soviet model in equal measure. It sponsored a number of journals of which New Left Review was the most prominent. The movement was given additional impetus by the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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New Left

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Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic


New Left