Radical Left

Recent Books on the New Left


SDS, by Kirkpatrick Sale, New York: Random House, 1973, 752 pp., $15.00 (hardback), $3.45 (paper).

The Radical Probe: The Logic of Student Rebellion, by Michael W. Miles, New York: Atheneum, 1971, 311 pp., $7.95 (hardback), $3.25 (paper).

The New Left in America: Reform to Revolution, 1956–1970, by Edward J. Bacciocco Jr., Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1974, 300 pp., $8.95.

In the introduction to his 1969 documentary history of the New Left, Massimo Teodori wrote: "If we can, in a single phrase, define the New Left, [it is] the continuing struggle for freedom, which concentrates on those crucial points where antifreedom is most clearly visible in America today." Teodori saw that what was new and distinctive about the New Left was "the strong anti-authoritarian and libertarian tendency" in its practical work.

If we examine the vast amount of information about the New Left that is gathered in the three books reviewed here, we can see that while the New Left of the 1960s had a mixed and evolving nature, still Teodori was right in pointing to its pervasively libertarian character.

The New Left began with a rejection of the Old Left's democratic socialism and of America's Cold War foreign policy by intellectually brilliant student leaders like Tom Hayden, Al Haber, and Paul Potter.

The New Leftists generally agreed (until the ideological changeover of the late 1960s) with their intellectual mentor C. Wright Mills that "Marx was basically wrong…It is obvious that the proletariat doesn't make history, no matter how much you want to stretch the historical facts."

So the New Left did not adopt the working class fetish of most radical movements since Marx. Instead, the New Left in America was critically open-minded and experimental (in its early years) in its search for groups in society that might be constituencies for a movement for revolutionary social change.

It is true that the developing New Left did not have a systematic ideology or a coherent vision of a desirable future society. But the New Left did know what it was against in the present society: the draft, imperialist wars, the centralized corporate state, organization men ensconced in bureaucracies, tough-minded technocrats like Robert McNamara, Hubert Humphrey-style social-democrats. This was the enemy, and the New Left called the enemy "corporate liberalism."

What the early New Leftists did have were shared values. Tom Hayden articulated those values in the 1962 SDS manifesto called the Port Huron Statement:

"We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles, we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs…

"Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human independence."

Yet the earliest leaders of SDS, like Hayden, Haber, and Potter, did not break entirely with the social-democratic views of SDS's parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy. The main organizational thrust of their era of SDS leadership was community-organizing in urban black neighborhoods with the intention of pressuring the War on Poverty bureaucracy and the labor-liberal coalition in the Democratic party. (It is this still essentially Old Left political style that Bacciocco argues the SDS ought to have stuck to.)

But a new trend arose in SDS, sparked by opposition to conscription and to the Vietnam war. It came to the fore in 1965 under the leadership of the "prairie power" group from the Midwest. These leaders (including Carl Oglesby, Greg Calvert, Carl Davidson, and Jeff Shero) were not particularly attuned to the dialectical polemics of Old Left theory.

The spirit of the new breed was activist, and their views were reminiscent of the anti-slavery abolitionists and the turn-of-the-century Anti-Imperialist League that opposed U.S. seizure of the Philippines.

The style and attitudes of the "prairie power" group shaped SDS's two most libertarian years of national leadership; their approach was probably more attractive than Stalinism to the bulk of the rank and file of SDS right until the dissolution of SDS in 1969.

It was Calvert of the "prairie power" group who made the distinction so characteristic of this period in SDS history between a liberal reformist and a radical. A liberal, according to Calvert, is always engaged in fighting someone else's battles, and speaks of social amelioration. But a radical perceives himself as unfree and seeks to unite with others to throw off the burden of oppression.

It was during this period that SDS produced a button reading, "Not With My Life You Don't." Originally, the slogan was meant to refer specifically to the draft, but it was considered by SDS members to reflect their attitude toward the whole American system.

On conscription itself, the SDS of this period took a radically libertarian stance. It adopted a policy stating that "all conscription is coercive and anti-democratic, and that it is used by the United States government to oppress people in the United States and around the world." SDS opposed such draft reforms as a lottery or universal national service.

In 1967, at the close of the "prairie power" period, the national leadership of SDS developed a theory of who was oppressed and exploited in America. This theory, instead of restricting itself in Marxian fashion to blue-collar factory workers, embraced the white-collar middle class as well (people in "technical, clerical, and professional jobs that require educational backgrounds.")

Of this theory, Sale writes: "Here, in theoretical form, with the fillip of a class analysis, was an ideological formulation of considerable power. It explained why the Selective Service was forcing students into nonmilitary jobs valuable for 'the national interest,' it supported Davidson's idea of student power being used to transform the society by transforming the university, and it justified Calvert's instinct that students were right in operating out of the desire for their own freedom." It came to be called the theory of the "new working class."

But this period in SDS was coming to an end. Davidson described the make-up of SDS in February 1967: "We have within our ranks Communists of both varieties, socialists of all sorts, three or four different kinds of anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, syndicalists, social democrats, humanist liberals, a growing number of ex-YAF libertarian laissez-faire capitalists, and, of course, the articulate vanguard of the psychedelic liberation front."

The ideological changeover in the national leadership came in the fall of 1967. (Sale sees it as an evolution; I see it as a radical break. Bacciocco places the switch to Marxism-Leninism too early, in 1965.) The new strategy was to build a revolutionary alliance of youth, poor, and racial minorities.

Davidson junked the new working class theory and student power. The National Office staff turned toward Marxism which was attractive as a full-blown, coherent, integrative option, as Oglesby noted. At the same time, the national leadership turned to Marxism-Leninism partly to better meet the vocal criticism it was receiving in SDS from members of the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist group of growing strength.

By the fall of 1968, Greg Calvert and Carol Neiman were describing the changeover in bitter terms:

"Sitting in an SDS gathering which had once been a cross between an encounter group and a Quaker meeting, became a hellish agony when intellectualization and parliamentary manipulation had replaced a sharing of experiences and consensus decision-making. The anarchist style of earlier days had, by 1968, been replaced by rigid debates of organized factions who no longer talked about people's feelings and experiences but spoke in the pseudoscientific language of Marxism-Leninism. It should have been clear to anyone in possession of their instinctual sanity that these Talmudic exchanges, ideological debates, and resolution-passing indicated symptoms of a deep malaise in the body politic of the New Left and were not part of an arena of meaningful confrontation."

It was out of this atmosphere that the present-day splinters of SDS came: the Weather Underground, the Revolutionary Union, the October League, the Progressive Labor Party, the National Caucus of Labor Committees, and the Party for Workers' Power.

Sale gives an indication of the ideological condition of SDS at the time of its break-up, discussing the manifesto of the Weatherman faction: "[The Weatherman statement] really represents the culmination of the separation of the SDS leadership from the broad SDS membership, from the student constituency in general, and from most of the American left…It reduces the role of white American revolutionaries to fighting other people's battles, finding their own liberation only by tagging along after blacks and Third World guerrillas, being observers of an American revolution which comes about not through general social transformation by the bulk of its own people but through military defeat at the hands of the colonized people of color, aided perhaps by a few working-class youth in the wings. Not only are students no longer an agency of change, they are not even an object of change; not only do white middle-class college-educated people have no battles of their own to fight, they have no legitimacy as a stratum or validity as a force."

The three books under review have different focuses. Sale's book is mostly a sympathetic, though critical history of the activities and ideological changes of the national leadership of the SDS organization, drawing on the papers of the national office. It accomplishes its task brilliantly. My major complaint is that it has no analysis of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction's stance at the time of the dissolution of SDS. (For such a critique, see James Weinstein's article in the May-June 1970 issue of Socialist Revolution.)

Bacciocco's book is a straightforward narrative history of the entire New Left. The bulk of the book is a non-evaluative account that is especially valuable for its information on the earliest days of the movement. The author supports at least some aspects of American Cold War foreign policy that the New Left opposed, as is apparent in his discussion of the Cuban missile crisis and later of nuclear deterrence in general. He is also sympathetic to the social-democratic Old Left.

Miles' book is an analysis of the politics of the entire New Left from the perspective of a new working class theory. He does a better job than Greg Calvert and Carol Neiman, who had a similar goal in their Disrupted History (New York: Random House, 1971). In the process, Miles provides a fascinating study of the impact of the American national government upon higher education.

Whatever the weaknesses of Miles' own position, his book contains important criticism of the social-democratic analysis of the student rebellion of the 1960s.

Bill Evers is editor-in-chief of the Libertarian Party News and is a graduate student in political science at Stanford University. An earlier version of these reviews appeared in The Stanford Daily.