Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thoughts on the New Left

You'll kindly remember my post from a few weeks ago about the "conservative canon." In it I said, "The 'canon' of conservatism has always interested me. It seems so much more neat, nice, and carefully delineated than the sprawling mass of countercultural pamphlets, vague manifestoes, and pop culture oddities that constitute the 'mission statement,' if there is one, of the 60s New Left."

Well, I just so happened to find a helpful start to answering the question of the New Left's "mission statement" at a used bookstore. I have been reading this little book, The New Radicals: A Report with Documents by Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (Vintage: 1966), and it's really quite fascinating. From what little info they provide, I gather that the authors are themselves young, contemporary members of the New Left, which they call "the Movement." In addition to providing "documents" of the Movement from SDS, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and various radical subset groups, they provide about 80 pages of their own commentary about the origins of the Movement and where it's going (I think in hindsight we all know the answer to that). I would only like to point out a few interesting observations:

First, easily the most frequently used word in this book is "ideology." These people were obsessed with the notion of an ideology--do you have one, do you need one, are they "over", are they too confining? The students and activists interviewed in the book generally steer clear of identifying themselves with one certain ideology. To do so would be too "old hat," too similar to the tired old radicals from the '30s and '40s who are all insider squabbling and not enough action. At the same time, the members of the Movement disagree with Daniel Bell's pronouncement of the "end of ideology." Most see it as a complacent liberal way of dismissing tough questions about society and relying upon the welfare state, a sort of ideology in itself.

That's the other big point of interest: The use of the word "liberal." In a word, the Movement hates liberals. "Conservatives" are barely dealt with, as they were admittedly not much of a driving force in those days. The racist white powerholders of the South are certainly "conservatives." Barry Goldwater, Andrew Sullivan's hero, is mentioned, but his positions are considered so plainfacedly barbarous and reactionary that no one gives them a second thought. "Conservatism," then, is not an idea to be challenged. It is simply an evil in society that must be conquered, but this is thought so obvious as to be boring.

The more interesting question is what to do about "liberalism." These students were reared on their parents' liberalism, which when it was not openly radical (as in the case of many of the Jewish students from the Northeast) was at least an "enlightened" sort of non-racist, welfare-promoting, progressive-taxation liberalism.

...Which, according to the Movement, is apparently the source of all that is Wrong about American society. In particular, the welfare state is viewed as the ultimate faceless, bureaucratic horror, totalitarianism with a house in the suburbs and a college degree. The welfare state works with the "Multiversity" system to churn out cogs for its bureaucratic offices, corporate positions, or just to reinsert back into the educational "apparatus." Particularly sinister is the University's willingness to work as part of the military-industrial complex, teaching the government and the army better ways to suppress national movements in foreign countries. Basically, the members of the "Movement" are fueled by a sense of betrayed principles and disgust with hypocrisy which seems distinctly American.

That has been probably the most interesting thing about reading this book. I had long assumed that besides the early 1900s, at the height of Eugene V. Debs' popularity, the '60s were the closest America ever got to having a strong, prominent "Leftist" current, i.e. one informed by socialistic and Communistic ideas. According to this book, at least, that was absolutely not the case for the New Left. Certainly, there were radical ideas floating around, and the Movement was never going to be the sort of thing that attracted College Republicans, but these kids were absolutely not Reds. If anything, they were on a moral crusade, the kind that seems impossible these days with so many debates about relativism and identitarian in-fighting. Almost all of them describe themselves as "existential humanists," with all the Sartre and Camus that goes along with it. They had deeply ingrained values which they wanted to express in society by taking active part, by following through with their convictions about citizens making participatory decisions concerning their everyday lives. (The only real hardliners discussed in the book are the Progressive Labor Party, which is almost comically militant and Maoist, and the DuBois Club, an avowedly Communist organization that tries to get "hip" by opening their pamphlets with inane phrases such as "It's, like, their system, baby...and it's a bitch." Please.)

I've drawn a sort of idealistic portrait here, but the documents and assessments by Landau and Jacobs seem to back up my assertion that the New Left was primarily a moralistic movement. Perhaps this is why it didn't last very long. It had almost no policy prescriptions. (Recall again, as Robot has for us in the past, the vague half-assertions of the Port Huron Statement.) However, it is very interesting to compare this fairly large, forceful movement with the political scene today. Now conservatism's star is on the rise, or at least has been, for the last twenty-five years. The Democratic challenge to the Republicans is to promise either to do less of what Republicans do (making Reaganism more "palatable" to centrists) or to reintroduce the government into daily affairs in order to "level" the playing field (with public programs, tax redistribution, artificial wage adjustments, et al). Now, when the Bush Administration seems unbearably bad to me, which is basically every day, I practically salivate at the idea of high corporate taxation, the EITC, a living wage, and affirmative action. Although I don't want to admit it, "the welfare state" is my quick and dirty answer to the challenge of Republicanism, and I think it is for most people our age. We might hide behind a thick wall of hip philosophy and postmodernism, but when it comes time to pull the lever at the ballot box, we're voting for the welfarist party. But there is almost no conception of there being a "third way," except in a few scattered libertarians and socialists (who, I continue to think, have more in common than they suspect). Big Daddy Government is going to be intruding into our lives one way or the other, either socially or economically. It was a virtue of the New Left to conceive of a third way as being possible, even imminently so.


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I can't help but think it is a virtue of the current left that it does not come up with silly arguments for nothing. We're all enduring our, like, existential angst here, man, but there's no need to project that into the policy sphere. At the end of the day, all the talk of a "new politics" or whatever has nothing to do with the political sphere as it is conventionally conceived. Yay for pragmatic politics!

4:19 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Look, I realize that I can't complain if I've become the "new politics" whipping boy around here, but I just ask that you think about what I'm saying before jumping to "Well, Matt's being impractical again, better put him in his place!" Yes, I drop a few positive endorsements of "new politics" at the end there, but the main point of the post was an intellectual snapshot of an interesting time in American history. Personally, I think it's quite interesting to compare political assumptions then with now, no matter what your thinking about "practical politics." Is it not at all intriguing that 40 years ago students rebelled against a dominant status quo (liberal welfarism) which today is struggling to survive in America? That conservatism has basically revolutionized itself since then and become a powerhouse?

I admit in the post that many facets of the New Left were ultimately futile and empty verbiage. BUT, it's unfair to say that the students of the NL movement just bummed around in their angst, "coming up with silly arguments for nothing." These were some of the most active members of the civil rights movement. They demanded (and won) equality for African Americans which probably would have come much more slowly, and they often went to jail for it. Also, we might learn from some of their positions, such as opposition to urban housing, which they saw as basically herding all the black poor together, out of sight, out of mind.

Any history of America must at some point acknowledge that many of the benefits we take for granted were introduced by elements outside of the mainstream. Thus, if we believe Richard Hofstadter, much of the progressive legislation of the early 20th century was spurred on by the Socialist Party: it was a reaction to it, to temper some of the more radical socialist aims. Without a Socialist influence, we may not have gotten an income tax, better working hours, anti-trust legislation, etc. when we did, or in the form we received it. (Whether you think this is good or bad is irrelevant; the point is the influence of third parties.) Also, to touch upon the New Deal, which Robot has talked about recently, both Hofstadter and Irving Howe make a strong case that the New Deal was so progressive that it killed the momentum of Communists and Socialists in America because it effectively stole their thunder. So, instead of just ossifying the current political conditions as the only "practical" ones, I think it's interesting to consider how they have been historically different and how they could potentially be different now. Yay for unconventionality!

8:58 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Some thoughts:
1) First, Scantron, no matter what austin 5-000 is going to "jump to," he's only going to do it using your blogging (ie. revolutionary) name.

2) I think this is a terrific post, which may not being a surprise considering my clear bias for anything on this blog that mentions Daniel Bell and ideology. That said, I'm extremely ambivalent about the New Left's "third way" you speak of. On the one hand, I'm willing to accept that the Vietnam war and an unjust draft were reasons alone for massive unrest and new ways of thinking.

On the other (and much stronger) hand, I share the frustration (albeit in retrospect) of the liberals opposed to the New Left. The War on Poverty was the last great progressive thing our government has ever done, and it's a shame -- again, I understand Vietnam was happening at the same time -- that while incredible progress was being made, welfare-state liberals had to hear ridiculous manifestos about "sexual liberation," "un-meaningful work," and all the rest. Now, there might be documents in your book that reflect a truly thoughtful, more pragmatic New Left. But there's no denying the face that the country saw -- a country that by and large knew real hardship from the depression, the real enemies of civilization from the War -- was one of a spoiled bunch of kids, with various rather inconsequential gripes that were somehow being expressed as revolutionary demands.
There's no question in my mind that conservatism's rise (and progressivism's fall) is closely related to the excesses of the New Left.

Nonetheless, this is a complex topic, and I think it (and what the New Left represented) demands serious thought, not smug dismissal.
I think society is always benefited by dissenting groups. In the case of the New Left, I just wish it had been less idiotically self-conscious, romantic (and Romantic), and vague.

Which does bring me to the question of what you think this "third way" of theirs was, and why you yourself think their particular brand was worth emulating in some sense -- a "virtue" as you put it. Do you think a "moral crusade" it was those on the left need today? Or is it just the general concept of a "third way" regardless of the content: that the Popular Front, the Non-Alignment countries, the Anti-Stalinist Lefters, the Partisan Reviewers, the Clintons, the Blairs, all share this "virtue" in their synthesizing, triangalizing, whateverizing nature?

3:49 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Scantron 4999-
I'm not sure what you're saying here, but I'll offer several possibilities and please tell me if any of them fit. If you're saying that we should always look for more fitting policies than the ones we believe are directly available and imminently deployable, then I agree. If you're saying that we sometimes have to put on our thinking caps in order to get to new policies, I also agree, but must state that periods of creativity are only as worthwhile as the concrete results that they yield.
But if you're saying we should commend those who were obviously wrong because those who were right look more reasonable, I disagree strongly. We should, as honest intellectuals speaking in a forum safely shrouded by its lack of fame, always tell each other exactly what we think. There's no reason to farther to the left to encourage more moderate views. I don't really think that's what you're saying, so unless it is, please ignore my argument against it.
In addition to any number of the above, if you are saying that the above opinions of 1960s radicals are interesting and informative, I have to agree. But that doesn't mean that their path should guide our own. We should look towards the results that we really believe in and find the policies that will take us to those results, as I believe that they did.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I hope you catch these comments as their coming a bit late (this blogosphere, it's so ADD).

Austin, I do think you've got my drift. I'm not sure what you mean by encouraging unconventionality just because the right position looks more reasonable--I'm not talking about rebellion for the sake of rebellion. (Obviously, many people involved in the 60s movement were, but anyway...)

As for the New Left's detrimental effects upon the progressive movement, Robot hits up some of the main culprits. The interesting thing about this book I'm reading, though, is that it was written in 1966, and most of the documents come from 64/65. That's 2/3 years before the "summer of love" and 4/5 before Woodstock. With that in mind, the people interviewed in the book seem pretty level-headed, even socially "conservative." Most people deny drug use (maybe experimentation) and flat-out deny a sexual revolution, outside of the usually relationships that develop among young people in any circumstance. The main players seem not so much Frank Zappa-esque freaks but actually more like debate team captains. In fact, the movement as portrayed in the book could use substantially *more* sexual revolution, as the language is heavily male-dominated and women play lesser roles.

The "unmeaningful work" trope is one of the most unfortunate carry-overs from the philosophy of Marcuse. Reading Frankfurt School material now, especially e.g. One Dimensional Man and Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, the "unmeaningful work" idea seems the most dated. They were very interested in Freudian psychology tied in with traditional Marxist notions of false consciousness, so they ended up with some extremely weak ideas about how "everyday life" was oppressed, unfree, false, "one dimensional."
(Coincidentally, there's a long review of some recently published Marcuse material here:

It seems the reviewer is rather uncritical, but I haven't read it all yet.) Whereas the idea of "alienation" makes a certain amount of sense when applied to a real proletarian worker on an assembly line, when applied to, say, a corporate middle manager it loses all force. Irving Howe, in an essay I will say much more about, puts it thus: "This idea of 'alienation' explains everything, thereby explaining nothing at all." I think many members of the New Left realized that the poor and minorities in America were still very much "unfree," and that the American government was making many questionable even aggressive foreign policy decisions (often in the name of business), but putting these two together does not mean that middle America was "enslaved" to the corporate and government elite. As a matter of fact, it was the relative freedom of middle class students that allowed them to campaign for less fortunate people. Some did this vigorously; others, as Robot says succumbed to a sort of self-obsessed romanticism. In one article the editors of "Studies on the Left" assert that America is an example of "liberal totalitarianism." This is a ridiculous and self-defeating statement, as ridiculous as Diane McWhorter's article today in Slate:

This probably struck Howe much the same way German Communist opposition to the Social Democratic party struck Trotsky. (They called Social Democracy "social fascism"--see the resemblance?) Much has been made about what could have been done to stop real fascism had those two groups worked better together. In less pressing times, you'd think progressives and the more radical left could work together even more easily.

I keep mentioning Howe because his essay in the book, "New styles in leftism," is just great reading and really prescient. My admiration for this thoroughly pragmatic and humanistic democratic socialist continues to grow, and this letter helped. I really recommend reading the essay if you can find it. It's also funny to read Howe's assessment of the feisty youngsters of the 60s. He may have been a socialist, but he was an oldschool literary critic at the end of the day--Lenny Bruce and rock music was quite anomalous to him. He also gets a great swipe in at the hardline radical newspaper "Monthly Review," who say in an editorial describing the Soviet Union, "forty years is too long for a dictatorship to remain temporary." "Surely the understatement of the Christian era!" Howe quips. Howe's number one complaint about the New Left is their "extreme, sometimes unwarranted, hostility toward liberalism."

[Here ends pt 1 of this post, as I must turn to prior engagements. I will continue shortly.]

10:55 PM  

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