If I had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left
by Maurice Isserman
Basic Books, 259 pp., $18.95
‘Democracy is in the Streets’: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago
by James Miller
Simon and Schuster, 431 pp., $19.95
For a brief moment in the 1960s, a small group of student radicals managed to do what the American left had largely failed to achieve in almost a century of trying: create a genuine mass movement. It was short-lived, to be sure, and soon collapsed on itself in a paroxysm of frustration, nihilism, and violence. But for a while before the end, it penetrated deeply into the heart of American culture, with lasting effects, and profoundly shook (although it failed to transform) the American political system.
The New Left is remembered today, almost twenty years later, largely for its failures and excesses. But the nearly simultaneous publication of two excellent books should help to direct attention to other, equally important, questions about this important moment in the history of American radicalism. Both volumes are the work of scholars who were themselves members of SDS in the 1960s and who, like many other veterans of the New Left, turned later to scholarship. Maurice Isserman is now a historian at Smith College and the author of an important book on the American Communist movement during World War II. ; he also writes about rock music for Newsweek. Both remain sympathetic to some of the goals and values of the New Left, but they are also astute critics of its many shortcomings. Together, they help to explain not only why student radicalism ultimately went wrong, but also how it emerged and why, for a time, it flourished.
The successes of the New Left in the 1960s were particularly striking because they came just after a particularly discouraging time for American radicalism. Indeed, in the course of the 1950s the Old Left (as the Communist party and its various socialist allies and opponents are now known) had come closer to extinction than at any other time in this century. The Party was harried and intimi-dated by official and popular anticommunist crusades. It was deeply shaken by the 1956 de-Stalinization crisis in the Soviet Union. It grew isolated from its traditional constituency—the working class—by the prosperity of the postwar years. As the decade ended, the Party was all but dead; and the independent socialists survived as small, isolated sects waiting for a shift in the climate that might allow their movement to be reborn. Isserman gives a sensitive and perceptive account of these years in the wilderness; and he explains why, when the moment of rebirth finally came in the early 1960s, the Old Left was unable to exploit it.
The most promising group within the Old Left in the lean years after 1956, Isserman argues, were the Shachtmanites, a small band of Trotskyist socialists led since the 1930s by the talented activist Max Shachtman (once a friend and disciple of Trotsky himself). In his opposition to the Communist party and to every vestige of Stalinism, Shachtman showed exceptional political and organizational …