Commentary Magazine

The Problem of the New Left

What more is there to say, at this date, about the New Left?1 It has already received extensive coverage in the mass media; it has emerged as an identifiable entity in the mind of Washington; before the year is out, at least half-a-dozen books will have appeared on, or even by, the subject;2 and it has even been recognized as a proper object of formal study—there is a course on it at the New School.

Yet most liberals come away from encounters with the New Left, whether direct or literary, feeling profoundly ambivalent: the problem is not in determining how much weight to assign the good as against the bad elements embraced by this movement, but in deciding whether to take it seriously at all. To take it seriously requires political measurements of the kind few liberals have had to employ in more than a decade; for it has been at least that long since large numbers of people sought consciously to build a mass political movement for social change. How is such a movement to be constructed? From the rich history of failure of similar efforts in the United States, what lessons can be learned?

One can avoid dealing with this question, and win favor on the New Left, by retreating into sociological formulae which “explain” the motives of the students, the social origins of their rhetoric, the institutional context of their revolt—in short, their emergence as a new social type. (One is apt to forget that technology is creating other revolutionary social types—the modern housewife, for example.) As an avowedly political movement, however, the New Left presumably intends not to be studied as sociology but to transform society—in other words, to make history. Yet the widespread reluctance—shared by members and adult partisans of the movement alike—to analyze its evolving political philosophy, and the preference for sociological description instead, suggest to me an implicit conviction that the New Left will not in fact make history, but rather that it will turn out to be a symptom of history, a fleeting moment in which radical “energies” were released into the larger society. In most discussions of the movement one finds an exhilarated note of romantic defeatism: how can this effort possibly succeed in the face of the corruption of American society, the power of the state, the brainwashing of the people by the mass media, the machinations of the economy?

Now it makes a considerable difference in sizing up the student movement whether one views its “inevitable” defeat as a disaster or as a vindication. My own experience suggests that those who see it as a disaster, or at least as a disappointing setback, are for that reason the least indulgent of the New Left's errors and conceits. And it is for such people—Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and Irving Howe, for example, all of whom are committed to building a movement for social change and who share a conception of the strategy by which such a movement can be created—that the new radicals have reserved their most vitriolic vocabulary. (Staughton Lynd, an influential New Left spokesman, refers to Rustin, a democratic socialist and pacifist, as a “labor lieutenant of capitalism” who is in “coalition with the marines.” Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS and now head of the Newark Community Union Project, speaks of the League for Industrial Democracy and the liberal-labor-civil rights coalition as playing the same role vis-à-vis the poor in America as the Pope played vis-à-vis the Jews in The Deputy.) No comparable volume of criticism is brought to bear by the New Left on a certain school of generalized radicalism composed largely of journalists, commentators, and stray intellectuals (Nat Hentoff, Howard Zinn, Paul Jacobs, and others) who favorably report from the fringes of activity on the stylistic innovations of the New Left. They are fascinated by the New Left as a milieu, an atmosphere, an élan, a mode of life. They do not clarify strategic problems for the New Left nor participate in the making of political decisions. Although not mentors in the strictest sense, they become champions precisely by virtue of the students' hunger to have their own contours delineated, their unique moods articulated.

All this helps to account for the peculiarly surrealistic quality of the New Left's perceptions of American political life and its own relationship to it. For in the 1960's, in the bastion of world capitalism, where only a beginning has been made toward eradicating racism and toward constructing a welfare state still backward by European standards; wherein the poor remain powerless while General Motors racks up unprecedented profits; wherein the labor movement cannot amass sufficient support to win repeal of 14b; and wherein millions of people are prepared to vote for Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater—in such a society one again hears, this time from the disenchanted scions of the middle class, denunciations of “the social democrats”!



Whatever their differences, every group, without exception, which has called itself Left or radical, has believed that the organized working class, the labor movement, has a unique historical role to play in the creation of the new society. Disagreement as to the precise nature of that role, and as to the political strategy the unions should pursue—such disagreements, however severe, have rested on a common assumption regarding the socially progressive character of the organized working class. The single new ideological feature of the “New Left”—all that seems to me really new about it—is the rejection, implicit or explicit, of this fundamental assumption. The reasoning behind this rejection is not that the labor leadership or bureaucracy represses the workers' instinctive radicalism (the Trotskyist formula) or that the workers have been atomized or culturally degraded by mass society (the ex-radical's formula), but that the organized working class has achieved its goals and has itself consequently become part of the power structure.

If such an attitude is new in the history of radicalism, it is, of course, familiar in the society at large and particularly among ex-radicals. Ironically, it is precisely such ex-radicals who, having bequeathed to the new radicals a legacy of bitterness and cynicism toward the labor movement, and a concomitant intellectual self-centeredness, now wonder why ultra-radicalism pervades the New Left, failing to understand how ultra-radicalism grows out of a sense of alienation from all major institutions.3 A classic example is John Fischer's “Letter to a New Leftist from a Tired Liberal,” in the March 1966 issue of Harper's. Criticizing the New Left for its naivete, incoherence, and anarchism, he explains how he himself was brought to political maturity:

Consider the labor unions, for instance. To us it seemed self-evident that the quickest route to universal reform was to muster all the unorganized workers into strong unions. They would then form the backbone of a liberal political movement, something like the Labor party in England. . . . Under the leadership of the intellectuals, organized labor—with its newfound freedom, leisure and money—would rejuvenate the arts and theater, toning up the soul and muscle of the whole American society. . . . [But] Instead of becoming the stoic troops of liberation, the unions (with a very few exceptions) quickly petrified into lumps of reaction and special privilege. I don't need to tell you that some of them—notably the construction trades—are the stubbornest opponents of integration; how they have no use for intellectuals, no interest in the arts, no cultural aspirations higher than the bowling alley; that none of their aged leaders, except Walter Reuther, has entertained a fresh political idea in twenty years. At their worst, as in the case of the Transport Workers Union in New York, they have turned pirate, using their monopoly power to torture millions of people (most of them workers) into paying ransom.

Fischer, of course, is wasting his breath, because the New Left already shares his disillusionment with labor. What they have not yet acquired, as a protection against ultra-radical alienation, however, is his comfortable position in the intellectual firmament—or his post-idealistic snobbery. But if we substitute “Negroes” or “poor people” for “the unions,” we can foresee a time about twenty years hence when an ex-New Leftist, musing on his past, may write a piece similar to Fischer's-that is, if the New Left fails to understand the needs and aims of Negroes and poor people as Fischer patently failed to understand the purpose of unions. None of these groups exists to rejuvenate the arts or to provide salvation for intellectuals. (Given Fischer's notions of a union, no wonder he denounces the TWU without mentioning that prior to the strike, transport workers earned considerably less than the “modest but adequate” budget specified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.)

In any case, the disaffection of intellectuals from the labor movement reached a peak in the 50's, and few students of a liberal or radical persuasion during that time held the labor movement in esteem. It was therefore predictable that when the next wave of radicalism emerged, it would view labor as simply another big institution—and the New Left is very much a revolt against bigness. But it is important to remember that the indifference or hostility to labor grew out of a conservative period, when middle-class prosperity was reshaping the ethos of the university, and the McClelland hearings were convincing millions of Americans that Dave Beck of the Teamsters was the prototype of the labor leader. Thus, while much student criticism of labor comes from the Left, it also contains strands of middle-class prejudice—a lack of appreciation for, or identification with, the historic and continuing role of the unions in the day-to-day lives of literally millions of working people. Little interest will be found among most New Leftists, for example, in the campaign for a $2.00 minimum wage, or for extension of the Fair Labor Standards Act, although such measures would result in a dramatic upgrading in living standards for masses of Negroes and poor whites who are not likely to be reached by white students working in the ghettos.


The abandonment of the traditional pro-labor perspective confronts a radical movement with a major problem. If not the labor movement, then what social force can be expected to lead the way in transforming society, and how are the students to relate to that force? The Marxian tradition, after all, had not only nominated the working class for this historic role, but also had an analysis of the middle classes which, at least by implication, outlined the relationship of breakaway radical intellectuals to the working class. That role was the ideological education of the workers, by which the latter, in the words of Lenin—himself a middle-class intellectual—could achieve a socialist consciousness.


SDS answered the question in the first draft of the Port Huron Statement (June 1962), a kind of manifesto for the new generation of radicals: “. . . the civil rights, peace, and student movements are too poor and socially slighted, and the labor movement too aquiescent, to be counted with enthusiasm. From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.” Thus, the new radicals, first coming to consciousness of themselves as a force, saw in their own institutional base the main hope for change. And the statistics lent weight to their argument. The mushrooming of higher education had boosted the university population to four-and-a-half million. Many of these, moreover, were highly concentrated, like factory workers in basic industry, in mammoth institutions—among them the University of Michigan (spawning ground for the early leadership of SDS), the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin, each of which had close to thirty-thousand students. In any one of these institutions, a demonstration by only one per cent of the student body would be impressive.

The strategic importance assigned to the university continues as a strain in radical student thinking, but the emphasis has by now shifted considerably. In part, the intellectual realization grew that students alone, even at maximum strength, had neither sufficient numbers nor enough political power to change American society: the absence of strong institutions and social classes which made student politics a decisive factor in the underdeveloped countries was not characteristic of the United States. (It must also be said that the quest for allies outside the university intensified as the intellectual leadership of SDS was graduated.)

The allies chosen, of course, were the poor. It is interesting to review how this choice was made, since it preceeded the elaborate ideological justification for it. For one thing, many white students had already participated in SNCC projects in the rural South, where they had their first taste of real poverty. Beyond this, it is ironic to note that the two individuals who are perhaps most responsible for the shift in strategy are now frequent targets of attack by the New Left, Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin. Harrington's The Other America came out in 1962 and succeeded during the following year or two in putting poverty on the political map. Then, on Thanksgiving weekend of 1963, at a SNCC Conference at Howard University, Rustin received a standing ovation when he urged that white students who had donned dungarees and gone off to Mississippi should consider taking their dungarees into the poor white communities of the nation. The enthusiastic response was probably due in part to the fact that many of the white students present had returned from the 1963 Mississippi Summer Project with the feeling that for racial reasons their effectiveness had been limited. Within the civil-rights movement generally, the traditional notions of protest were being challenged by advocates of a grass roots community organizing approach. The East River Chapter of CORE had been formed out of a split with the New York Chapter on this issue, and the entire national organization was plunged into a debate on related strategic questions.

The idea that poor people must be organized is one thing; what they should be organized for, and by whom, are other matters. In Rustin's view, the poor should be organized into the coalition that mobilized the 1963 March on Washington, won the civil-rights legislation, and helped to turn back the Goldwater threat.4 Just as the organized participation of the poor in the coalition would help to strengthen and radicalize the latter, so would the strength of the coalition be required to back the poor in winning immediate gains, without which apathy and demoralization would prevail.

As against this perspective, another was developed within SDS—namely, that to bring the poor into the coalition would mean their absorption into the Establishment. The poor, because they have been outcasts, are perhaps the only group in the society not to have been corrupted. Tom Hayden became the leading spokesman for this viewpoint within SDS, contending that American society is quasi-fascist, that the ideology of the coalition is “corporate liberalism,” and that the effect of the social legislation of the New Deal and the Great Society is to enslave the poor to a bureaucratic welfarism that leaves them worse off than they were to start with. In an essay in The Radical Papers, Hayden writes that “. . . there is much evidence which suggests that the reforms gained [in the past thirty years] were illusory or token, serving chiefly to sharpen the capacity of the system for manipulation and oppression. . . . Except for temporarily boosting income for a few people, this entire reformist trend has weakened the poor under the pretense of helping them and strengthened elite rule under the slogan of curbing private enterprise. . . . A way has been found to contain and paralyze the disadvantaged and voiceless people.”

Thus the poor and their New Left catalysts, instead of entering into coalition with the liberals, the unions, and the established civil-rights groups, should build counter-institutions, revolutionary enclaves in the garrison state.

It would be unfair to attribute this perspective to the majority of SDS or the New Left generally. In recent months the Hayden-Lynd influence in SDS has waned (no one at the national conference of SDS last December even referred to their trip to Hanoi with Herbert Aptheker). Still, the prolongation of the Vietnam war may win many of them to the Hayden-Lynd description of American society, if not to their strategy for changing it. Hayden and Lynd can thus continue to enjoy high reputations among the students for their rhetoric, even while relatively few are following their advice. The SDS December National Council, for example, voted down a series of civil-disobedience proposals advanced by Lynd and the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam; yet Lynd continues to be billed as the “leading intellectual spokesman for the New Left” (by, among others, pacifist A. J. Muste's Liberation magazine).

Among the majority of the SDSers, as represented by President Carl Oglesby and the National Secretary Paul Booth, there is a greater open-mindedness. The slogans “No Coalitions” and “No Compromises,” which filled the air during and immediately following the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, have given way to questions: “Coalitions with whom and under what circumstances?” and “Compromise what in return for what?”

These practical questions impose themselves even on the most alienated and romantic elements who are serious about community organizing. Thus, the Newark Community Union Project—probably the most successful of the SDS ghetto projects—has found it advantageous to work within the Democratic party. In no area, it must be said, have SDS organizers recruited more than a hundred or so poor people into ongoing organizational structures. Inasmuch as most of their projects are barely two years old, final judgments are premature; but thus far, the major contribution of the New Left has been to counterpose to the paternalistic social-worker approach to the poor a rugged willingness to live and work among them. In the process they have helped make the poor more visible, if not significantly more powerful.

The same judgment would apply to other New-Left activities: largely through use of direct-action techniques borrowed from the civil-rights movement, the students have focused attention on problems and contradictions in American society but lack the political power to resolve them. One exception would be SNCC, which has clearly brought changes to the Deep South; another might be the demonstrations at Berkeley, which have reverberated among policy-makers at other large universities. (In Berkeley, incidentally, the local SDS people played a relatively minor role, though the national organization did seek to articulate the students' revolt around the country.) Again, with regard to the Vietnam protests, the New Left seems to have been most effective when, as in the teach-ins, it helped mobilize debate among non-New Left students and faculty. While such expressions of dissatisfaction in the academic world would have surely impressed, if not stung, the administration, demonstrations dominated by the style of the New Left—a style which includes an amenability to cooperation with pro-Vietcong elements—have quite possibly hardened public opinion on the side of the administration.



Activists of the New Left most frequently describe themselves as a-Communist, or as anti-anti-Communist. Their writings speak indiscriminately of “the ideology of anti-Communism,” as if the anti-Communism of socialists, trade unionists, liberals, McCarthyites, Birchers, and Klansmen were cut from the same cloth. What actually operates here is a kind of reverse McCarthyism which refuses to differentiate between libertarian and rightist opposition to Communism. The New Left, precisely by adopting as a cardinal tenet the thesis that the “Communist question” is irrelevant, raises the Communist question to a standard by which it will judge others. In actual practice, the standard works to the advantage of the pro-Communist and the indifferentist, neither of whom has reason to raise the question.


The result is that an atmosphere strongly reminiscent of the old Popular Front often pervades the New Left. At a recent SNCC teach-in at NYU, for example, a speaker on “red-baiting” warned an audience of eight-hundred that “anti-Communism” was “anti-The Movement.” Anne Braden of the Southern Conference Educational Fund argued in a recent pamphlet that anti-Communism, as the weapon that reactionaries have always used to destroy all “progressive” movements in the South, must be resolutely combatted by civil-rights activists.

This atmosphere makes it all too easy to suppose, as some liberals have, that we are witnessing a resurgence of the Popular-Front politics of the 30's and 40's. The crucial difference is that today there is no significant organized Communist movement to which dupes, fellow travelers, or innocents can be attached, or through which large organizations can be manipulated. Popular-front politics in the earlier decades was not, after all, simply a matter of atmosphere or milieu; the Communist party, which recruited from this milieu, exercised very real influence and power over intellectuals and activists. The absence of a comparable threat today—the virtual invisibility of the Communist party in this country—means that the New Left can be persuaded of the totalitarian nature of Communism only through ideological education. And this they resist—often with a hostile arrogance that reflects a nervous awareness of their illogical position. The more sophisticated SDS leaders will acknowledge that there is an anti-Communism of the Left and that it is a different phenomenon from anti-Communism of the Right. But, they say, the latter is overwhelmingly dominant and is merely fed by the former. Left anti-Communism should therefore be muted (and anyone gauche enough to violate this implicit understanding can be made to feel quite uncomfortable).

The irrelevance of the “Communist question” was at least a discussable proposition so long as “the movement” confined itself to domestic questions. Anti-Communism, after all, is a position deriving in the first place from an analysis of the social system established and ruled by Communist parties, and in the second place from an evaluation of the role of apologists of this system in countries throughout the world. Thus, the New Left could argue the irrelevance of anti-Communism on the ground that there are no significant numbers of Communist apologists in this country; as for other social systems, “We live here, not in Russia.” Once the movement turned toward the war in Vietnam, however, what began as an admissible (if morally and politically dubious) disinclination to develop an attitude toward Communism, became an indefensible double standard. One need not support administration policies in Vietnam to recognize that the United States may not be playing the only reactionary or oppressive role in that tragic land. Yet this is the assumption underlying the SNCC statement on the war of last January 6:

We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and in the United States itself. . . . Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens, and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders. . . . We ourselves have often been victims of violence and confinement executed by United States government officials. . . . Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. . . . We know that for the most part, elections in this country in the North as well as the South, are not free. . . . We maintain that our country's cry of “Preserve freedom in the world” is a hypocritical mask behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United State Cold War policies. . . . [Italics mine.]

These lines are not distorted for having been taken out of context; the ellipses do not conceal qualifying statements. The war in Vietnam is viewed solely as an extension of the American system, as defined and understood by SNCC, and there is nowhere to be found an evaluation of “the other side” except as a force for “liberation.” One need not look for Communist infiltrators in SNCC to explain its position; the answer lies in the conditions under which SNCC workers must operate in the Deep South. But to acknowledge those conditions should not entail acceptance of the skewed perspective they foster The U.S. government is not the State of Mississippi, and the Vietcong are not the equivalent of SNCC. “We have seen that the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act have not yet been implemented with full federal power and sincerity,” the statement says. That is true, but how can it be used in apparent support of forces which do not rule by free elections? Hanoi has demanded that the NLF be designated (not elected) the sole representative of the South Vietnamese. And when is the last time an election was held in North Vietnam, even a Mississippi-style election?

The SNCC statement is the most extreme example of a fairly pervasive mode of thought on the New Left. The danger is not that it paves the way for a resurgence of the Communist movement; it is rather that it encourages a stance and a species of reasoning that muddies the democratic vision of the Left. People who would fight for the right to vote in Mississippi, and yet support forces which rationalize the denial of that right, sow great confusion as to the depth of the American Left's commitment to democracy. It is the resurgence of that confusion, which once before took an enormous toll of radicalism, that we have to fear.



It is at this point that the sociology of the New Left becomes important. For the New Left is not merely middle-class; it springs largely from the affluent, professional, liberal middle class. Here I am talking about the composition of predominantly white organizations like SDS. The young Negro militants in SNCC, CORE, and other civil-rights groups come mainly from a lower-middle-class stratum which, since the early 40's, has experienced many dislocations and a high degree of mobility. The young Negroes in the movement who have gone through college are the first in their families to have done so. This is not the case with the white radical students, whose parents, by and large, are well-educated.

The class origins of the New Left lie at the root of two characteristics of the movement: its anti-materialism and its anti-intellectualism. As to the first, only a childhood of relative economic security could account for the student radicals' insouciance with regard to material circumstances, especially in their ghetto work (which involves living in poverty with the poor). People whose early lives were disrupted or menaced by material deprivation are likely to feel some anxiety at the prospect of living in poverty, even if only as a temporary project. Voluntary poverty, precisely because it is voluntary, is never real poverty. Moreover, because these student organizers of the poor are well-educated, the choice of escaping poverty is open to them, which is not the case with the poor themselves. It may well be that the anti-materialism of the New Left is a strength, a protection against the fatalistic despair that victimizes the poor. But it can also distort the students' relations with the poor. The students are in rebellion against middle-class values and ways of living. The poor, on the other hand, want nothing so much as to get into the middle class, and they are interested in tangible activities toward that end. To be sure, to the extent that poor people struggling for material improvement become politically active and conscious, their values are affected; and as the students work with the poor, they may come to appreciate more fully the urgency of immediate, concrete economic reform. But the point is that between the students and the poor there is no essential identity of interest such as can be assumed to exist between the union organizer and the factory worker.

The anti-intellectualism of the New Left may, in the eyes of the general public, be obscured by the skillful articulateness of the leadership. Still, it is self-admitted:

The December Conference will . . . be the beginning of an analysis and self-criticism which has been lacking in SDS for the last year: . . . We have slogans which take the place of thought: “There's a change gonna come” is our substitute for social theory, “Let the people decide” has been an escape from our own indecision; we scream “no leaders,” “no structures” and seem to come up with implicit structures which are far less democratic than the most explicit elitism. . . . What sociology, what psychology, what history do we need to know the answers? How seriously have we treated those not from the “New Left”? [From the call to the SDS December Conference, 1965].

What has been articulated is moral indignation, personal alienation, and populist sentiment. Although the new student movement is better educated in a formal sense than its counterpart of the 30's, it has been less competent—and willfully so—in making political and intellectual distinctions. This attribute is rooted in a revolt against the liberal rhetoric of their class, against the apparent fecklessness and hypocrisy of modernistic parents who always stood for progressive ideas but never seemed to act or sacrifice for them. No one knows for certain how many of the New Leftists are the children of the hundreds of thousands who at one time or another passed through the Communist party, but everyone recognizes as a type the ex-party member who, while remaining abstractly committed to certain “liberal” ideas, cautiously withdrew from political activity during the McCarthy era, perhaps to save a job or “spare the children.” The children, some of whom have grown up to confront terror in Mississippi, now make a judgment, not only on the fuzzy ex-Communist milieu, but on liberals generally, for what was clearly not their finest hour. The judgment is manifest in a weariness with talk; an almost mystical devotion to activism; and, in place of the older generation's apparent failure of nerve, an “existentialism” whose central value is the permanent protest, the continuous personal confrontation with power.



All this has been said before, but it does not by itself constitute a sufficient explanation of the political orientation of the New Left. It does not follow that a new student generation, with a given socio-economic back-ground and style, must inevitably wind up with a given politics. Many of the student leaders of the socialist movement of the 1930's, for example, also came from the higher socio-economic brackets, yet had vastly different attitudes toward methods and possibilities of radical social change. The difference, fundamentally, lies in the political context of the 60's, which is sharply dissimilar from that of the 30's and 40's.

Much of what the New Left says and does is inexplicable except in terms of the shifting fortunes of the American radical movement. Seymour Martin Lipset has elsewhere sketched out the historical background of student protest since the days of the pre-World War I Intercollegiate Socialist Society (predecessor of the present League for Industrial Democracy).5 Some details of more recent history are directly relevant.

The notion of “generational gap” has often been used to cover up or write off very real ideological disagreements between the younger and older radicals. But there is a sense in which the term has a significant application. When Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, uttered his now famous warning that the movement should not trust anyone over thirty, he was in effect placing beyond the pale all those who were in college during the years darkened by McCarthyism. The point is, in other words, that there is a missing “generation” in the recent history of the American Left—a generation of 30- to 35-year-old radicals who should have served as a link between the New Left and the Old (speaking purely chronologically) but who, because of what campus life was like in the days of McCarthy and Eisenhower, never appeared. (It has been estimated that there were fewer than five-hundred members in any socialist youth group during the late 40's and 50's.)

Having begun my own undergraduate career in 1955 (it continued intermittently until 1963), I recall that one of the few exceptions to the non-appearing generation was Michael Harrington, who regularly toured the campuses, a youthful evangelist for socialism. But his labors were Sisyphean, and perhaps no more than two-hundred students were recruited to the democratic socialist movement in those days. Those who were recruited, however, received an intensive political education; and when the possibilities for radical politics opened up again in the late 50's, the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL, the youth section of the Socialist party) was the first of the radical youth groups to expand. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Southern school-integration struggle stimulated the 1958 and 1959 youth marches on Washington, in which YPSL's played an outstanding role. By the summer of 1962, a year-and-a-half after the Greensboro sitins, YPSL membership had reached eight-hundred, not a large figure to be sure, but the largest since the 40's and, more important, the largest of any radical student group at the time. YPSL had perhaps twice the membership of Students for a Democratic Society, then still known as the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID).

Within two years, however, the situation had changed drastically. The “left wing” of the YPSL captured control of the organization and promptly subdivided into four factions; the result was to cut YPSL membership in half and finally to destroy the organization altogether. SLID, meanwhile, had changed its name to SDS and had succeeded in racking up a membership of a thousand; thereafter, it grew almost geometrically.

This is not the place to analyze all the factors which led to the decline of YPSL. The reader may feel that too much space has already been devoted to what was, after all, a tiny organization. But all the radical student groups were then tiny and even today are small. A different evolution of YPSL, in that context, might have altered the present configuration of forces in the radical student movement. Furthermore, the then leadership of SDS was in its domestic political views closer to the position of the YPSL “right wing” (which favored working within the Democratic party with the aim of realigning the major parties) than to the “independent labor party” line of the “left wing”; it was also more sympathetic to the former group's emphasis on civil-rights work than to the latter's emphasis on peace activity. But the SDS leaders tended to find both YPSL factions too theoretical, insufficiently pragmatic. Above all, SDS was out of tune with the explicit anti-Communism that characterized all YPSL factions. Most of SDS's present membership of five thousand probably is not aware of this history, but the older leadership is. A former national secretary of SDS recently proclaimed at a Turn Toward Peace debate: “You social democrats who keep raising the Communist question are just a bunch of chiefs with no Indians.”



If anti-Communism and the Marxian faith in the working class rendered YPSL obsolete in the eyes of the new student radicals, factionalism was seen as its most deadly characteristic. Not only was rampant factionalism the apparent cause of YPSL's decline; it was the underlying reason for the fragmentation of the entire American Left. If the warfare among Communists, Socialists, and liberals could somehow have been avoided, the radical movement of the last generation would not have gone under. Some of the New Leftists will dig deeper and assign specific responsibility, or guilt, in the ideological disputes of the 30's, but in such a way that the errors of the respective political tendencies cancel each other out. Thus, the Communists were wrong for taking their line from Moscow and especially for behaving like New Deal liberals; the Socialists were wrong for being so virulently anti-Communist. (Liberals, of course, were wrong because they were liberals.)

The techniques used by the New Left to fend off factionalism, however, create as many problems as they resolve. Decision by consensus, borrowed from the Quakers, helps to prevent the expert abuse of parliamentary procedure, but it also discourages the crystallization of opposing viewpoints, seeking the gentle obliteration of differences. A possibly creative by-product of factionalism—ideological education—goes unrealized. Meanwhile, if a minority is unsatisfied with the common denominator, it is permitted to carry out its own program by itself (the inadmissible alternative being to vote it down)—a procedure which discriminates a priori against people who believe that an organization ought to pursue an integrated strategy.

The consensus technique is wed to a particular adaptation of “participatory democracy,” a term never satisfactorily explained by the New Left but apparently signifying that there should be no “leaders”—“Let the people decide!” One must hope that more serious writing will be done on “participatory democracy,” an attractive and important concept, central to radical thought. But is rank-and-file decision-making strengthened by the denigration of leadership per se? People who take the lead in formulating problems and proposing solutions are inevitable. Leadership, if not exercised overtly, if made invisible by a distortion of the concept of “participatory democracy,” becomes dangerously manipulative. Accountability is obscured rather than democratically distributed.

This is no basis for smugness. If the New Left has not successfully answered the problem of factionalism, who has? There is no formula which does not create new problems; the process is ongoing. And one must respect the fact that the student radicals are immersed in it, and that they have brought to it an energetic idealism which this nation had not seen in many years.

The same must be said in connection with the other problems discussed here. The insistence of the New Left that its own experience be the basis of its ideas is very much in the American pragmatic tradition (just as its style has been richly endowed by the history of American radicalism); and while this insistence can lead to an exasperating provincialism, it may promise a more genuine, indigenous confrontation—one less dependent on the European radical heritage—between American radicalism and social reality.

This new generation of radicals will learn its own truths, puncture its own myths. But if the slate is to be wiped, let it be wiped evenly; if the new radical politics is to be constructed with an eye to present realities, let these realities be objectively analyzed. If we are to recognize the decline of the American Communist movement and the breakup of monolithic world Communism, where does that leave us? How are these facts to be interpreted? Do they justify the view that Communism and anti-Communism are irrelevant? What are the standards by which we can judge whether or not a given political trend in the underdeveloped world is democratic and progressive? (After all, one can defend the right of other people to determine their own destinies without forfeiting one's own right to judge their choice.)

Similarly, the labor movement should be judged in its present reality, shorn of the illusions of yesteryear's radicals, today's tired liberals. If labor has lost much of its old élan and yielded to incredible foreign policies, it nonetheless faces monumental challenges today; no one can afford to be indifferent to its responses, because they will largely determine the shape of the coming political order. The difficulties posed by automation and the changing nature of the work force are enormous. The labor movement may be sluggish in coping with these difficulties, but one cannot be blind to the rapid growth of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other white-collar organizing efforts. One-third of the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, whose leadership is aging, was replaced at the last convention. The point is not only that changes are occurring in the labor movement, but that these very changes relate to a continuing revolution in the socio-economic order in which labor is rooted. The conditions which cause labor to reflect the conservatism of the total society thus compel it also to face up to the problems of change at their most basic level.



The SDS conference in December gave signs that the shrill and easy sloganeering of the last couple of years may be losing ground to a more concrete and perceptive politics. For the future, however, almost everything will depend on what happens outside the New Left, around it. The New Left can have little direct impact on the administration's policies in Vietnam; yet prolongation or acceleration of the war will have the twofold effect of heightening the alienation and desperation of the movement and simultaneously encouraging right-wing attacks on it. “On the other hand,” says Professor Lipset, “should the Vietnamese war end, it is highly probable that the revival of the American New Left in the mid-1960s will turn out to be as ephemeral as the well-publicized growth of campus conservatism in 1960-61.” Probably it was awareness of this prospect that caused SDS, at its December conference, to reemphasize grass-roots domestic reform as against pure and simple anti-war activity. Whether the political passions excited by the war can, upon its end, be rechanneled into the daily grind of community organizing, fighting poverty, and making civil-rights victories economically meaningful, is problematic.

Another important factor, aside from the war, is whether students slightly to the “Right” of SDS—moderates, liberals, religious youths—can be politically activated. The extent to which they have already been moved, mainly by the moral dimensions of the Negro struggle, has been obscured by the publicity given the wilder aspects of the New Left. As individuals, many of these students have participated in Southern projects under the aegis of SNCC and Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They have also been troubled by the Vietnam war. But because they have not organized any coherent or distinctive movement of their own, a gigantic vacuum exists—and this explains why the most conspicuously radical elements in the New Left command such disproportionate attention.


The organization of relatively moderate students into their own autonomous movement should be welcomed, indeed encouraged, by the New Left in the same way they encourage such organization among the poor. For it seems clear that if this is not done, the great mass of students will remain apathetic, and the campus radicals will remain isolated, with nothing to fall back on. Efforts in this direction are under way (e.g., the Youth Committee Against Poverty in New York), but not by the leadership of the New Left, which is still suspicious of coalitions with liberals, absorption into the Establishment, loss of style and identity, etc.

The suspicion is far from paranoid; historically, American politics has shown itself uniquely capable of making lapdogs of radicals. But there is little evidence that this danger is ever foreclosed by the strenuous and willful assertion of ultra-radicalism. On the contrary, the latter is the surest path to the isolation and impotence which makes cooptation easy. Accommodationism and ultra-radicalism are only superficially at opposite poles; in reality, they find each other.

To steer clear of both is no simple task, and criticisms of the New Left should be tempered with a humility and a straining toward understanding, recognizing that something valuable and exciting has emerged in American life, and something fragile. But fragility and numerical weakness should not lead to dismissal of its importance. The activists in the New Left do articulate the questioning rebelliousness that pervades, if not a majority, at least a sizable segment of this generation of college youth. This, after all, is the segment from which the adult liberal and radical movements will be recruiting their leadership in the next decade or two. The formative ideological experiences to which that future leadership is now being exposed will clearly affect the political character of American reform in the 70's and 80's. Should today's New Left disintegrate, as a consequence of sectarian or defeatist policies, debris from wrecked hopes would scatter far; and the cynical disillusionment which would follow would darken, not illuminate, the prospects for a Great Society. The importance of the New Left, finally, lies in its relation to these prospects, and no one can deny that the problems it has publicized and grappled with are real—whether in university reform, poverty, civil rights, or foreign policy. A militant and democratic New Left is needed in America.

It will not, however, be strengthened by pampering, but rather by its own experiences and relevant criticism. Among the critics the New Left will encounter several schools, and they need to be distinguished if anyone is to profit from dialogue. There are those who refuse to criticize the New Left because, while they sentimentalize it, they do not take it seriously; they are satisfied that it be alive and youthful. There are those who criticize it because they want to destroy it—some because they are reactionaries, others because they have become excessively comfortable in their liberalism. But there are also those, among whom I include myself, who criticize out of a hope growing nearly desperate that this outburst of radical discontent will stick, that it will sink deep roots, that it will energize a new political movement, and transform national institutions—in short, that its legacy to the next generation will be a new beginning, not that tiresome mixture of cynicism and nostalgia that grows out of defeat and hangs over us still.


1 The term “New Left” is generally used to cover a wide variety of student organizations and youth groups, with an estimated total membership of about 12,000. The two most important are the largely white Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the largely Negro Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a non-membership organization with a fluctuating staff of between 150 and 250. SDS is best-known for its work in trying to organize the poor in such cities as Newark, Cleveland, and Chicago, and, more recently, for its protests against the Vietnam war. SNCC is best known for its work among rural Negroes in Mississippi and other Southern states.

Often subsumed under “New Left” are groups which Paul Jacobs has more accurately described as “the Ancestral Left,” youth groups identified with “Old Left” views—e.g., the DuBois Clubs (pro-Soviet), the Progressive Labor Movement (pro-Peking), the Young Socialist Alliance (Trotskyist), and the Young People's Socialist League (democratic socialist)—each with fewer than a thousand members. Even these groups are affected by the action-styles of SDS and SNCC. Finally, various ad hoc and local project-centered student organizations are also considered part of the New Left.

2 See Phillip Abbot Luce, The New Left, McKay, 1966; Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, The New Radicals, Random House, 1966.

3 A corollary is (Irving) “Howe's Law”: where there is no genuine radicalism, there will be ultra-radicalism.

4 See his “From Protest to Politics,” COMMENTARY, February 1965.

5 “Student Opposition in the United States,” Government and Opposition, April 1966.

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