In February 1956, nearly three years after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, his successor Nikita Khrushchev delivered his historic “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In that address, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for the cult of personality he had cultivated, and condemned Stalin’s regime for its gross “violation of Leninist norms of legality.” In the aftermath of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s abuses, most of the world’s Communist parties abandoned Stalinism and, to varying degrees, adopted the moderately reformist positions of the new Soviet First Secretary. The American far left likewise sought to distance itself from Stalin, rebranding itself as the so-called “New Left,” a counter-cultural movement that would hold fast to the overriding ideals of Marxism-Leninsim while formally abjuring the horrific crimes of Stalinism. But before long, this New Left would romanticize the neo-Stalinists of the Third World, embracing a whole new set of totalitarian heroes such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, and Daniel Ortega.
The core of the early New Left was formed by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a radical organization that aspired to overthrow America’s democratic institutions, remake its government in a Marxist image, and help America’s enemies emerge victorious on the battlefield in Vietnam. Many key SDS members were “red-diaper babies,” children of parents who had been Communist Party members or Communist activists in the 1930s.
Established in late 1959, SDS held its first meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1960. Its first President was Alan Haber, and its first impress on the political landscape was the Port Huron Statement of 1962, drafted principally by Tom Hayden, a former editor of the University of Michigan’s student newspaper. The Port Huron Statement adopted the position of “anti-anti-Communism,” refusing to support the West in the Cold War. The statement identified and denounced America’s many sins: racism, abundance, materialism, industrialization, and militarism. Its prescribed solution to Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was to entirely dismantle America’s “permanent war economy”: “Universal controlled disarmament must replace deterrence and arms control as the [American] national defense goal.”
The early New Left generally viewed radicals and liberals as allies who differed from one another in terms of tactics but not in terms of ultimate objectives, and who could therefore work together. Thus in December 1961, Alan Haber wrote of “the liberal, left, activist community” as a network of ideological comrades. A few months later, SDS similarly defined itself as “an association of young people on the left … bringing together liberals and radicals.” The organization also established a “liberal study group” to discuss issues “of particular importance to liberals and radicals of the university community.” Tom Hayden characterized SDS, along with the sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, as complementary parts of “the liberal student movement.” In late 1961 Hayden published a book of essays aimed at “regenerating liberal-radical political discussion.” Soon thereafter, he called for SDS to direct its message to “the adult liberal-socialist community.” In his “Letter to the New (Young) Left,” published in late 1961 in the New Left journal Activist, Hayden identified a series of items that troubled both radicals and liberals:
In that same “Letter,” Hayden differentiated between radicals and liberals by explaining that the former, unlike the latter, advocated “the decision to disengage oneself entirely from the system being confronted (segregation for example) so that the structure sustained by our former attitudes can no longer endure.” By Hayden’s reckoning, such disengagement could serve as an effective tactic by which to undermine and then transform the system – but by no means did he wish to cast liberals (who preferred less drastic measures) out of the movement.
By the time he had penned his draft notes for the Port Huron Statement, however, Hayden was framing the “decision to disengage” not primarily as a way to force social change, but rather as a means of making a moral statement against, and definitively separating oneself from, the corrupting influences of an irredeemably evil society. With this new perspective, Hayden and the New Left began to openly reject liberalism’s “inhibiting, dangerous conservative temperament” and its willingness to work within the existing political system.
In late 1964 Hayden concluded that all American institutions were by definition “tainted,” and that “one [could] not use these products without the taint coming off on one’s hands.” Increasingly, SDS and the New Left branded those who favored engagement with societal institutions as sellouts and as apologists for corporate liberalism. Hayden derided liberalism as “sophisticated conservatism” that threatened to dilute the movement’s ideological purity and revolutionary momentum. One notable New Left radical, Paul Booth, recalls that he and his fellow radicals subsequently “destroyed” the liberals and took control of the left.
As the Sixties progressed, the New Left departed from classical Marxism’s identification of the proletariat, or working class, as the revolutionary vanguard. Instead, as Tom Hayden put it, “changing society meant committing to the laborious, democratic process of organizing diverse social groups.” Chief among these groups were poor people, rural blacks, the homeless, the mentally ill and dysfunctional, and the chronically unemployed.
Viewing these groups as “victims of the system” who would help the New Left create a “new insurgency” to undermine the “establishment” axis of competitive individualism and hierarchy, the radicals believed that such lowly segments of society embodied an authentic “humanism” derived from their “historical suffering” and thus were “immune to the ravages of competitive society.” In Jack Newfield’s 1966 book, A Prophetic Minority, the author portrayed rural blacks as people endowed with a “human generosity and vitality” rarely seen amid the “urban impersonalization and the alienation of mass society.” Tom Hayden’s wife, Casey, stated that because blacks and the poor had been “purified by their suffering,” they “could therefore take the lead in the redemption of us all.” The “radical potential of the poor,” said SDS president Todd Gitlin, was rooted in the fact that they were “less tied to the dominant values” of a sick society.
In 1964 Gitlin issued an SDS working paper titled “The Battlefields and the War,” where he wrote that New Left radicals had “chosen” to organize the inhabitants of “communities of the under-America” where “people live materially deprived, politically alienated and used, and victimized by social and economic institutions beyond their comprehension and reach.” These, said Gitlin, were the people most “strongly afflicted with the rottenness of our society,” and, as such, were “best capable of exorcising that rot.”
In August 1964, a year prior to the infamous Watts riots of Los Angeles, SDS saw “the possibility of a riot as a good opportunity for confrontation over some basic issues.” Many SDS members looked with hope to “the explosion of mass demonstrations in northern cities” as a way of opening up “the possibilities of a political transformation.”
By the end of 1964, SDS and the New Left were unambiguously opposed to any sort of accommodation to America’s “structural mainstream,” calling instead for the creation of “counter institutions,” “parallel structures,” even a “counter society” to transcend “the stalemate of liberalism in America in general.” The Swarthmore College chapter of SDS spoke of creating “moral communities within an amoral society.” Antiwar and civil-rights activist Staughton Lynd put it more dramatically, exhorting his fellow leftists to lead “a brotherly way of life even in the jaws of Leviathan.”
As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated in 1965, SDS membership grew exponentially and the New Left became increasingly radicalized with anti-American hatred and a growing tendency to pose conflicts in terms of “us” and “them” – “the movement” on one side, and “the system” or “the establishment” on the other. Liberals were reviled as part of the latter faction, and deviation from the radical agenda was viewed as political treason. For example, New Leftists excoriated the black pacifist Bayard Rustin for advocating coalition politics and opposing “one-sided anti-American” rhetoric; Staughton Lynd accused Rustin of “apostasy.”
By the middle of 1965, New Leftists no longer referred to themselves as part of American society, rarely if ever using the pronouns “us” or “our” when referring to American people or ideals. As Todd Gitlin recalls, “Whenever I spoke of my country and its government, the pronoun [‘we’] stuck in my throat.” For the New Left, America had become “them.” Talk of “correcting” America’s problems was replaced by calls for the destruction of “a profoundly inegalitarian, diseased society” and “a fundamentally rotten system.” For a growing number, nothing less than revolutionary transformation, by way of violence in the streets, would suffice.
By the mid-Sixties, it had become apparent that the American poor would not be able to fulfill the New Left’s wish that they lead a radical revolution against the inequalities of capitalism and the values of middle-class consumerism. To the leftists’ dismay, the poor were not interested in “social change” as much as they wished to join the middle class and pursue the American dream. Moreover, they tended to be distrustful of the type of collective action which the New Left was advocating. Frustrated, the New Left turned its attention away from “people with developed middle-class aspirations,” and looked instead toward the “genuine poor” who were mired in the deepest poverty. Moreover, the New Left drew inspiration from the people of the Third World, particularly in Communist Vietnam and Cuba.
In late 1965, Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd together traveled to Vietnam, hoping, as Hayden put it, to “bring back an image of the Vietnamese as human beings” that would counteract stereotypes of the “faceless Vietcong” presented by the American media. When the pair returned from their trip, they described the North Vietnamese Communists as “the gentlest people we had ever known.” In Hayden’s estimation, they were “the most extraordinary people now living in the world, setting a standard of morality and sacrifice for the whole world.” “The 20th century guerrilla,” added Hayden, was endowed with a “human socialism” that nobly embraced the Marxist ideal of “equality of income.”
The New Left was likewise inspired by Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba, which gave evidence that a band of committed egalitarian radicals could establish a Communist utopia even in the shadow of the evil United States. Leaders of the New Left boasted that “we and the Cuban revolutionaries were somehow fighting the same battle,” and that there were “remarkable … ideological similarities between the Cuban and campus revolutions.” According to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the Cuban revolution showed that “guerrilla bands, led by determined men, with peasants alongside them … can defeat organized battalions of … tyrants equipped with everything up to the atom bomb.”
In a similar spirit, the radical pacifist David Dillinger wrote that in revolutionary Cuba he had “seen man’s cynical and self-destructive inhumanity to man being replaced by the spirit and practice of the kind of brotherhood that is unknown to those of us who live in a country … where the ‘rights’ of property override the rights of human beings.” The Castro revolution, said Dillinger, had seemingly erased “the artificial distinctions of class and status” that had previously plagued Cuba. Hierarchy had been dissipated in an “exhilarating atmosphere of freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative.”
Todd Gitlin viewed Cuba as “a refuge from [the] nationalist smugness” and racism that afflicted America. “When I tried to explore the history of racism in Cuba,” he said, “I had the feeling I was asking Martians to comment on an earthly sin.” There was nothing Castro or the Cubans could do or say that would draw Gitlin’s disapproval. In 1967, for example, Gitlin effusively praised a speech wherein Castro had said: “There could be nothing more honorable for this country than for its sons to know how to fight to death, spilling even the last drops of their blood for the liberation of the peoples, which is the liberation of humanity.”
Inspired by what he had witnessed in Vietnam and Cuba, Tom Hayden dreamed of “an American form of guerrilla warfare based in the slums” which could trigger “a crisis point” in the ghettos and “create possibilities of meaningful change.” Riots, he said, were the very essence of “people making history.” Hayden characterized the bloody Newark, New Jersey riots of July 1967 as a “celebration of a new beginning [in which] people felt as though for a moment they were creating a community of their own.”
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, SDS protestors, organized by Hayden, created a riot in order to destroy the electoral chances of the pro-war liberal Hubert Humphrey, and thereby set the stage for a confrontation with the Nixon Administration over the Vietnam War. Amid the mayhem, Hayden recited the Maoist slogan “Dare to struggle, dare to win”; he fulminated about “the new Nazis” who had risen to power in America; he orchestrated a confrontation between “a police state and a people’s movement”; and he promised to “make sure that if blood flows, it flows all over the city.” Hayden and his six cohorts — among whom were Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman and Black Panther member Bobby Seale — were later arrested and indicted for crossing state lines to incite a riot. The defendants became known as The Chicago Seven. In a celebrated trial (whose guilty verdicts were subsequently overturned on a technicality), they were given token sentences.
In 1969, SDS began splintering into factions, one of which, calling itself Weatherman, was elected to SDS leadership and proclaimed that the time had come to launch a race war on behalf of the Third World and against the United States. This new entity dissolved SDS and formed a terrorist cult in its place, which took the name Weather Underground Organization.
By the early 1970s, the openly defiant and revolutionary New Left had spent its political capital and was a dying movement. But its adherents remained committed to the cause, altering their tactics so as to work within the system in a manner the New Left had previously chosen not to do. These latter-day leftists incorporated the tactics of the infamous Saul Alinsky, seeking to change society by first infiltrating its major institutions – the schools, the media, the churches, the entertainment industry, the labor unions, and the three branches of government – and then implementing policies from those positions of power.
Most notably, the ex-New Leftists found a home in the Democratic Party. By 1972, they had seized control of the party, as evidenced by the nomination of George McGovern as the Democratic presidential candidate on an antiwar platform that cast America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia as an immoral, imperialistic venture. By way of its political ascendancy within the Democratic Party, the New Left, in a political sense, effectively killed off the classical centrist liberals who had vigorously opposed Communist totalitarianism. After accomplishing this parricide, the New Left occupied the corpse of authentic liberalism (i.e., the Democratic Party) and appropriated the name, “liberalism.”
Though the New Left officially burned out decades ago, its radical legacy lives to this day in the Democratic Party.
* Major Resource: The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America, by Richard J. Ellis (University Press of Kansas, 1998).
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NEW LEFT DOCUMENT:
Port Huron Statement
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Vietnam and the Rise of the New Left
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PROFILES OF NEW LEFT ORGANIZATIONS:
PROFILES OF NEW LEFTISTS: