The New Left Revisited

The New Left Revisited. Edited by John McMillian and Paul Buhle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003).

The New Left Revisited went to press shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center. It is interesting to read this collection of essays knowing that they were written before September 11. In the introduction John McMillian notes that the political and cultural battles of the ’60s are still being fought. Since then the War on Terrorism, the Patriot Act and the Office of Homeland Security have come into being, giving the “culture wars” a new and more ominous dimension. Doug Rossinow’s article, “Letting Go: Revisiting the New Left’s Demise,” concluded that the New Left as a movement died sometime in the 1970s but that the New Left as a political outlook lives on. I would hesitate to call the current movement against the Iraq war a reincarnation of the New Left, but the presence of that political outlook is apparent.

Until recently much of the history of the ’60s has been written by movement activists. These histories, many of which are personal memoirs, usually do a good job of setting the context and explaining the social reality of the times. But memoirs reflect the particular experiences of the author and are necessarily subjective. In the past few years a new generation of historians, too young to be ’60s activists, have been going through the records and interviewing the activists. The two kinds of history complement each other and taken together give a more complete picture of the personal and the political than either could do alone. The New Left Revisited is a collection of essays by those young historians.

As a strong advocate of local organizing during the ’60s, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first six essays in The New Left Revisited, gathered under the title, “Local Studies, Local Stories,” are snapshots of different parts of the ’60s movement. These range from a history of the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), an organization fraternal to SDS that had chapters across the South between 1964 and 1969, to one on the counterculture in Los Angeles. Another is a study of the civil rights movement in Cambridge, Maryland, that shows the complexity of the racial and economic issues involved. There is a study of two of SDS’s community organizing projects from the point of view of local people, who are often overlooked. Taken together these create an image of the movement as a dynamic balance of many different local movements.

The essay by Robbie Lieberman and David Cochran is a study of the student movement at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. So little has been written about local action and organizing during the ’60s that each new local history is of great value. I compared what happened at Southern Illinois with the movement in Austin, Texas, where I was active. Of course no two campuses were the same, but the issues and strategies are remarkably similar. These include the importance of the civil rights action during the early ’60s and then the struggle against racism and the war in Vietnam. In both Austin and Carbondale the boundary between the political movement and the counterculture was hard to define. Underground newspapers on both campuses let us tell the public what we believed without the distortion of the established press. Lieberman and Cochran quote a member of SDS as saying that the local SDS chapter was totally autonomous and separate from the national office-“We tried to have contact, but nobody ever wrote back.” A word of caution to historians and readers: don’t over-generalize from a limited number of informants. By 1968 someone must have made contact with the SDS national office because the entire front page of New Left Notes (the national SDS newspaper) for May 20, 1968, is devoted to a confrontation in Carbondale with the administration over in loco parentis that turned into a confrontation over racism, weapons research and military recruiters on campus.

Although I worked with SSOC people in the White Folks Project during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 and attended several of its formative meetings, I found the article on SSOC interesting and informative because it filled in parts of SSOC’s history that I missed. I would like to add a little information to the discussion of SSOC’s demise. The author writes that a faction within SDS first tried to take over SSOC and then worked to destroy it. That “faction” was the Progressive Labor Party, an independent organization that moved into both SDS and SSOC at about the same time in order to influence the politics of those organizations. PL’s methods were equally destructive in both SDS and SSOC.

The second section, “Reconsiderations,” contains essays of a more theoretical nature. These attempt to answer various questions about how the New Left functioned. What were the influences of the “old left” on the “New Left”? How did the concept of participatory democracy work in the New Left and how did it differ between SDS and SNCC? Was the treatment of women so bad in the Draft Resistance Movement in Boston that it really was the “point of ultimate indignity”? In the trial of the Chicago Seven, what was the effect of the prosecution’s open gay-baiting of the defendants, their lawyers and their witnesses? When revolution became the watchword of the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what did this concept mean to its advocates? Did the New Left end and, if so, when?

Although these essays are specific in their focus, they point to more general truths and give depth and subtlety to our understanding of the movement as a whole. Taken together they create a picture of the New Left as a complex dynamic movement where the socialization of the existing society was challenged by new ideas of what was possible. For example, the common wisdom is that women in the New Left were dominated by men and relegated to menial positions. Since the draft applied only to men, that movement was thought to have been especially male-dominated. The essay on the Draft Resistance Movement in Boston shows that it wasn’t that simple. While most women participants encountered sexism in this movement, many also acknowledge that their ideas were taken seriously, that men responded positively when they were challenged, and that many women learned leadership skills within the movement that they could never have learned outside. My experience is that this challenging of gender roles was happening throughout the movement.

Paul Buhle, the only historian in this collection who was part of the movements of the ’60s, takes on the question of why the New Left rejected working with liberals when to do so could have helped implement the “Liberal Agenda.” He documents the sexism, homophobia, anti-Communism, and the CIA money that influenced that agenda. For me two events in August, 1964, showed a side of liberalism that I couldn’t support. First was the liberals’ role in keeping the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party from being seated in place of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Then came the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, overwhelmingly supported by Congressional liberals and conservatives alike. I rejected working with liberals because they couldn’t be trusted with the basic issues of race and war. Once my eyes were open I saw all the other issues documented by Buhle.

The New Left Revisited isn’t really a history of the New Left so much as it is a series of questions and attempted answers. As a veteran of the ’60s who has read many of the books written on that period and interviewed many SDS activists, I found The New Left Revisited to be an enjoyable, thought-provoking read. If this is your first book on the subject I would recommend that you use it as a companion to a history of the period, such as, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam by Tom Wells, The Movement and the Sixties by Terry Anderson, or The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin.* If you already know the history, The New Left Revisited will fill in details of the big picture. In the challenging times that lie ahead, it will be important to have these young historians probing and asking good questions.

Reviewed by Robert Pardun
Santa Cruz, California
*Former National Officer of SDS

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