Descended from the Maoist branch of the New Left, the New American Movement (NAM) was established in 1971 by New Left veterans fleeing the excesses of the late Students for a Democratic Society. Seeking to wed the Old Left with the New, NAM saw itself not as a political party per se, but rather as an “interim institution” that aimed to “unify working people” and “catalyze a large mass movement” devoted to “revolutionary democratic socialist-feminist” ideals. The organization’s leadership believed that capitalism was teetering on the brink of collapse, and that America was thus ripe for a socialist revolution. Consequently, NAM’s founders felt that “the time was right … for a [socialist-feminist] mass membership organization … that would reach out to new sectors of the population untouched by the Sixties Left.”
NAM generally sought to pursue its activism outside the realm of American electoral politics, for fear that immersion in that system would dampen the revolutionary imperative its members felt to radically transform society. The group’s approach was to strive initially to define its own politics with maximum clarity, and then to engage with existing political institutions at some later date.
The original concept of NAM germinated soon after the disintegration of SDS in 1969, when John Rossen — a former Communist Party USA district organizer and SDS office landlord — distributed pamphlets advocating the creation of a new revolutionary force rooted in Marxism and American nationalism. In January 1971, three former SDS members based in Seattle — Theirrie Evelyn Cook, Charles “Chip” Marshall, and Michael Lerner — took up Rossen’s theme and circulated papers announcing the birth of the New American Community Party. By the spring of 1971, this name had evolved into the “New American Movement.”
NAM’s first national meeting was held in Chicago in October 1971. Attended by some 75 delegates and observers, the event yielded a resolution affirming NAM’s “commit[ment] to democratic socialism,” whose hallmarks included not only “collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production,” but also “the liberation of women and non-white groups” from “the … ruling class which runs America for its own benefit.” Noteworthy leaders of the nascent NAM included Jeremy Rifkin, Marilyn Katz, Harry Boyte, and the aforementioned Michael Lerner.
From its inception, NAM sought to “overcome the errors of the New Left,” which it identified as an anti-leadership orientation, the unwarranted glorification of the Third World, and an insufficient sensitivity to the needs of American workers. In its early years, the organization’s energies were devoted chiefly to opposing the Vietnam War, nuclear power plants, nuclear armaments, and rate hikes for local utilities. It also called for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.
NAM understood the importance of articulating its message in a manner that — contrary to the loud and confrontational style of the New Left during the Sixties — would not frighten or alienate the average citizen. Indeed, the November/December issue of NAM’s underground newsletter reported that one of the nascent organization’s leaders, Jeremy Rifkin, had been tasked with sanitizing its literature and toning down its socialist rhetoric.
By 1972, NAM consisted of approximately 1,000 members. That April, NAM sponsored an organizer-training workshop which was taught by Heather Booth and Paul Booth along with Robert Creamer and his wife, Day.
NAM’s primary political text, entitled Basic Marxism: What It Is & How to Use It, revealed the group’s devotion to the teachings of the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who had proposed that communists could gain power in a given society by infiltrating and transforming various institutions that were central to shaping public opinion — e.g., schools, churches, and media outlets. The book also included works from such writers as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, Sheila Rowbotham, Harry Braverman, John Ehrenreich, and Barbara Ehrenreich.
To promote Gramsci’s approach, several NAM chapters — beginning with those in Chicago and Oakland — established socialist “schools” that were open to the public. In the fall of 1975, NAM’s Los Angeles chapter opened its Socialist Community School, which proved to be the Movement’s most successful school in terms of attracting students and sustaining itself. Supported largely by donated labor, the school charged meager tuition rates — $5 to $10 for a ten-week course, and $3 for every additional course per session. On the premise that “a socialist revolution will be necessary to solve the problems of the U.S.,” the “core” classes at the L.A. school focused on Marxism, Socialist-Feminism, Third World peoples and movements, and local conditions and power structure. One of the instructors at this school was the prominent Marxist professor from UC Irvine, Stanley Aronowitz.
NAM proudly declared its “solidarity with the Third World,” a solidarity that “grew out of a correct reaction to United States chauvinism.” A 1973 NAM manifesto stated: “We admire, and draw inspiration from, many accomplishments from the Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions…as representing, on balance, very positive steps forward in human history … We deeply value Lenin’s contributions to revolutionary theory and practice … We identify with Lenin’s revolutionary spirit and determination; we agree with his critique of mechanistic determinism and economism, his writings on the nature of the state, his approach to creating a ‘revolutionary alliance of the oppressed,’ and his treatment of nationalism and imperialism.”
Throughout its history, NAM’s membership remained relatively small — never exceeding 1,500 people. Nevertheless, the Congressional Record in 1975 described the organization as “an appropriate group for law-enforcement monitoring to determine the extent of its threat to internal security.”
In the late 1970s, a small but highly influential group of ex-communists — most notably Dorothy Healy and Max Gordon — joined NAM and pushed the organization to become engaged in conventional American politics. These newcomers had been shaped by the “Popular Front” of the 1930s, a period when America’s communists dropped their openly revolutionary language and presented themselves instead as ordinary Americans; that tactic ultimately resulted in the greatest expansion which the Communist Party USA had ever experienced.
Deriding NAM’s longstanding practice of eschewing involvement in electoral politics, Gordon noted that Engels and Lenin had explicitly called for party operatives to participate in American political life. Insisting that genuine Marxists needed to be flexible in their approach to gaining power, Gordon advised NAM to ally itself with the Democratic Party, whose politics were already relatively compatible with NAM’s; through such an alliance, he reasoned, NAM could help move the party still further to the left.
When Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President in 1980, a number of NAM leaders became reconciled to the reality that America was not poised to undergo a socialist revolution anytime soon, and that socialists would need to adopt an incremental, stealth approach if they were to have any hope of advancing their agendas in the United States. After a great deal of heated, internal debate, NAM in 1982 decided to merge with Michael Harrington‘s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the most well-known socialist party of its time in the U.S. The product of this merger was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which was devoted to promoting leftist agendas by working with the Democratic Party.