The New Left refers normally to the left-wing or Cultural Marxist movements in different countries in the 1960s and 1970s that, unlike the earlier leftist focus on union activism, instead adopted a broader definition of political activism commonly called social activism. The U.S. "New Left" is associated with the Hippie movement, college campus mass protest movements and a broadening of focus from protesting class-based topics to include issues such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. The British "New Left" was an intellectually driven movement which attempted to correct the perceived errors of "Old Left" parties in the post-World War II period. The movements began to wind down in the 1970s, when activists either committed themselves to party projects (→ left-wing politics), developed social justice organizations, moved into identity politics or alternative lifestyles or became politically inactive.
The confused response of the Communist Party of the USA and the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 created a crisis of confidence in party decision making. Independent Marxist intellectuals began to develop a more individualistic approach to leftist politics, which was opposed to the perceived bureaucratic and inflexible politics of the pre-war leftist parties. In Western Europe, these new developments occurred both inside and outside social democratic and Communist parties, contributing toward the development of eurocommunism. The New Left in the U.S. was primarily a continuation of the progressive movement and fueled by grass roots movements on college campuses. The New Left in the United Kingdom emerged through the links between dissenting Communist Party intellectuals and campus groups.
As a result of Khrushchev's Secret Speech denouncing Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, many left the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) for various Trotskyist groupings or the Labour Party.
The British New Left concentrated on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and internationalism. 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 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. 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 New Left theory 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 in these areas. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militancy (Hoch and Schoenbach, 1969). The influence of the May 1968 events in France were also felt strongly throughout the British New Left.
1960s in the United States
In the United States, the "New Left" was the name loosely associated with liberal, often radical, and sometimes violent political movements that took place during the 1960s, primarily among college students. The term "New Left" can be traced to 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 more personalized issues such as opposing alienation, anomie, and authoritarianism. Put differently, Mills argued for a shift from traditional leftism, toward the values of the Counterculture.
The New Left opposed 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. Many in the New Left were convinced that they could be the source for a better kind of social revolution.
Most New Left thinkers in the U.S., to varying degrees, 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 as a result. 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 — Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro were identified as key contributors to this new framework.
Other elements of the U.S. New Left were anarchist and looked to libertarian socialist traditions of American radicalism, and investigated the Industrial Workers of the World and previous union militancy. This group coalesced around the historical journal Radical America and in grouplets. American Autonomist Marxism was also a child of this stream the U.S. New Left, for instance in the thought of Harry Cleaver.
The U.S. New Left both influenced and 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.
Students for a Democratic Society
The organization that really came to symbolize the core of the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1962, Tom Hayden wrote its founding document, the Port Huron Statement, which issued a call for "participatory democracy" based on nonviolent civil disobedience. The SDS marshalled anti-war, pro-civil rights and free speech concerns on campuses, and managed to bring together liberals and more revolutionary leftists. The SDS became the leading organization of the antiwar movement on college campuses during the Vietnam War, and during the course of the war became increasingly militant. As opposition to the war grew stronger, the SDS became a nationally prominent political organization, but opposing the war became an overriding concern that overshadowed many of the original issues that had inspired 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 turns toward Maoism. Along with adherents known as the New Communist Movement, some extremist illegal factions also emerged, such as the Weather Underground Organization.
The Prague Spring was legitimised by the Czech government as a reformist movement to revitalise Czechoslovak socialism. 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 French groups placed an emphasis on cultural production as a form of production. Unlike the New Left, the sphere of culture was not unrelated to productivity.
While the Autonomia in Italy have been called New Left, it is more appropriate to see them as a unique response to the failure of the Italian PCI and PSI to deal with the new Italian industrial working class in the 1950s. The Autonomia was a result of traditional, industrially oriented, communism retheorising its ideology and methods. Unlike most of the New Left, Autonomia had a strong blue-collar arm, active in regularly occupying factories.
Criticism of the legacy
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 - which are 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 assert that New Left radical egalitarianism is motivated by anti-Western nihilism.
Inspirations and influences
- Leon Trotsky
- Allen Ginsberg
- Antonio Gramsci
- Mao Zedong
- Che Guevara
- Ho Chi Minh
- Rosa Luxemburg
- Herbert Marcuse in particular and the Frankfurt School in general
- George Orwell
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Malcolm X
- Students for a Democratic Society
- Black Panther Party
- Patriot Party (American New Left)
- Cultural Marxism
- 1960s counterculture
- Civil Rights Movement
- European New Right
- Charles R. Kesler: The Old New Left and the New New Left, 2017