The New Left was a term used mainly in the United Kingdom and United States in reference to activists, educators, agitators and others in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to implement a broad range of reforms, in contrast to earlier leftist or Marxist movements that had taken a more vanguardist approach to social justice and focused mostly on labor unionization and questions of social class.
In the U.S., the "New Left" was associated with the Hippie movement and college campus protest movements. The British "New Left" sought to correct the perceived errors of "Old Left" parties in the post-World War II period.
The confused response of the Communist Party of the USA and the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 led some Marxist intellectuals to develop a more democratic approach to politics, opposed to what they saw as the centralised and authoritarian politics of the pre-war leftist parties. Those Communists who became disillusioned with Communism due to its authoritarian character eventually formed the "new left", first among dissenting Communist Party intellectuals and campus groups in the United Kingdom, and later alongside campus radicalism in the US and elsewhere.
As a result of Khrushchev's Secret Speech denouncing Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, many abandoned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and began to rethink its orthodox Marxism. Some joined various Trotskyist groupings or the Labour Party.
The Marxist historian E. P. Thompson established a dissenting journal within the CPGB called Reasoner. Once expelled from the party, he began publishing the New Reasoner from 1957. In 1960, this journal merged with the Universities and Left Review to form the New Left Review. These journals attempted to synthesise a theoretical position of a revisionist, humanist, socialist Marxism, departing from orthodox Marxist theory. This publishing effort made the ideas of culturally oriented theorists available to an undergraduate reading audience. In this early period, many on the New Left were involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, formed in 1957. According to Robin Blackburn, "The decline of CND by late 1961, however, deprived the New Left of much of its momentum as a movement, and uncertainties and divisions within the Board of the journal led to the transfer of the Review to a younger and less experienced group in 1962."
Under the long-standing editorial leadership of Perry Anderson, the New Left Review popularised the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and other forms of Marxism. Other periodicals like Socialist Register, started in 1964, and Radical Philosophy, started in 1972, have also been associated with the New Left, and published a range of important writings in this field.
As the campus orientation of the American New Left became clear in the mid to late 1960s, the student sections of the British New Left began taking action. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militancy. The influence of protests against the Vietnam War and of the May 1968 events in France were also felt strongly throughout the British New Left. Some within the British New Left joined the International Socialists, which later became Socialist Workers Party while others became involved with groups such as the International Marxist Group. Trotskyist Tariq Ali, who played a role in some of the New Left protests of this era, documents his involvement in his book Street Fighting Years. The politics of the British New Left can be contrasted with Solidarity, UK, which continued to focus primarily on industrial issues.
In the United States, the "New Left" was the name loosely associated with liberal, sometimes radical, political movements that took place during the 1960s, primarily among college students. At the core of this was the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. The New Left can be defined as 'a loosely organized, mostly white student movement that promoted participatory democracy, crusaded for civil rights and various types of university reforms and protested against the Vietnam war.'
The term "New Left" was popularised in the US in an open letter written in 1960 by sociologist C. Wright Mills entitled Letter to the New Left. Mills argued for a new leftist ideology, moving away from the traditional ("Old Left") focus on labor issues, towards issues such as opposing alienation, anomie, and authoritarianism. Mills argued for a shift from traditional leftism, toward the values of the counter-culture. According to David Burner, C Wright Mills claimed that the proletariat were no longer the revolutionary force; the new agent of revolutionary change were young intellectuals around the world.
The New Left opposed what it saw as the prevailing authority structures in society, which it termed "The Establishment", and those who rejected this authority became known as "anti-Establishment". The New Left did not seek to recruit industrial workers, but rather concentrated on a social activist approach to organization, convinced that they could be the source for a better kind of social revolution.
Most New Left thinkers in the U.S. were influenced by the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Like the British New Left, they also believed that the Secret Speech drew attention to problems with the Soviet Union, but unlike the British New Left, they did not turn to Trotskyism or social democracy. Some in the U.S. New Left argued that since the Soviet Union could no longer be considered the world center for proletarian revolution, new revolutionary Communist thinkers had to be substituted in its place, such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro.
Other elements of the U.S. New Left were anarchist and looked to libertarian socialist traditions of American radicalism, the Industrial Workers of the World and union militancy. This group coalesced around the historical journal Radical America. American Autonomist Marxism was also a child of this stream, for instance in the thought of Harry Cleaver. Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky were also part of the anarchist stream of the New Left, as were the Yippies.
The U.S. New Left drew inspiration from black radicalism, particularly the Black Power movement and the more explicitly left-wing Black Panther Party. The Panthers in turn influenced other similar militant groups, like the Young Lords, the Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement. The New Left was also inspired by SNCC, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Students immersed themselves into poor communities building up support with the locals. The New Left sought to be a broad based, grass roots movement.
It could be argued that the New Left's most successful legacy was the rebirth of feminism. As the leaders of the New Left were largely white men, women reacted to the lack of progressive gender politics with their own social intellectual movement.
The New Left was also marked by the invention of the modern environmentalist movement, which clashed with the Old Left's disregard for the environment in favor of preserving the jobs of union workers. Environmentalism also gave rise to various other social justice movements such as the environmental justice movement, which aims to prevent the toxification of the environment of minority and disadvantaged communities.
The organization that really came to symbolize the core of the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). By 1962, the SDS had emerged as the most important of the new campus radical groups; soon it would be regarded as virtually synonymous with the –New Left–. In 1962, Tom Hayden wrote its founding document, the Port Huron Statement, which issued a call for "participatory democracy" based on non-violent civil disobedience. This was the idea that individual citizens could help make –those social decisions determining the quality and direction– of their lives. The SDS marshalled anti-war, pro-civil rights and free speech concerns on campuses, and brought together liberals and more revolutionary leftists.
The SDS became the leading organization of the anti-war movement on college campuses during the Vietnam War. As the war escalated the membership of the SDS also increased greatly as more people were willing to scrutinise political decisions in moral terms. During the course of the war, the people became increasingly militant. As opposition to the war grew stronger, the SDS became a nationally prominent political organization, with opposing the war an overriding concern that overshadowed many of the original issues that had inspired SDS. In 1967 the old statement in Port Huron was abandoned for a new call for action, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of the SDS.
In 1968 and 1969, as its radicalism reached a fever pitch, the SDS began to split under the strain of internal dissension and increasing turn towards Maoism. Along with adherents known as the New Communist Movement, some extremist illegal factions also emerged, such as the Weather Underground Organization.
The SDS suffered the difficulty of wanting to change the world while 'freeing life in the here and now.' This caused confusion between short term and long term goals. The sudden growth due to the successful rallies against the Vietnam War meant there were more people wanting action to end the Vietnam war, whereas the original New Left had wanted to focus on critical reflection. In the end it was the anti-war sentiment that dominated the SDS.
The Prague Spring was legitimised by the Czech government as a socialist reform movement. The 1968 events in the Czech Republic were driven forward by industrial workers, and were explicitly theorized by active Czech unionists as a revolution for workers' control.
The driving force of near-revolution in France in May 1968 were students inspired by the ideas of the Situationist International, which in turn had been inspired by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Both of these groups emphasised culture as a form of production.
While the Autonomia in Italy have been called New Left, it is more appropriate to see them as the result of traditional, industrially oriented, communism re-theorising its ideas and methods. Unlike most of the New Left, Autonomia had a strong blue-collar arm, active in regularly occupying factories.
As many of those who supported the New Left in the 1960s are now in charge of the kinds of institutions they once opposed, conservative opponents argue that their assumptions - sometimes described as politically correct multiculturalism– are now the establishment orthodoxy.
In what has been described as the culture wars, conservative critics of this orthodoxy such as Allan Bloom and Roger Scruton claim that New Left radical egalitarianism is motivated by anti-Western nihilism.
For a discussion on the rise and fall of the 60s movement in Canada, USA and Germany see: Levitt, C. (1984). Children of Privilege. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario.
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