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Dreams of the Sixties

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. 1 James Miller has a Ph.D. in political theory and has published studies of Rousseau, Marx, and the French existentialists2 ; 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 skills. In 1958, after a two-year effort, he succeeded in merging his Independent Socialist League with the struggling Socialist party. Quickly thereafter, he seized control of the party’s machinery. He had promoted the merger as a way to bring all American socialists (including ex-Communists) under one roof, a way to recreate Eugene Debs’s “all-inclusive” socialist movement. Indeed, some of the more conservative members of the SP had feared Schactman’s triumph as the prelude to a takeover of the Party by former Communists. But once safely lodged in the SP, Schachtman showed little inclination to do much beyond preserving his own hard-won primacy. Being the dominant force on the socialist left may have been a modest distinction in 1958, but it was one of enormous importance to Schachtman—so much so that he now steadfastly resisted what he had previously claimed was the main purpose of the merger, recruiting new members to the SP from among the noworphaned Communists. “The habits of a lifelong sectarianism reasserted themselves,” Isserman notes, “as Shachtman decided it was better to control a narrow group than to risk losing control of a broader movement.”

Shachtman came to despair of finding an adequate revolutionary constituency from within the American working class, and by the 1950s he was looking (prophetically) to youth as a potential radical vanguard. But the same preoccupation with Stalinism that eventually pushed him so far to the right that he supported the war in Vietnam and proclaimed George Meany the principal hope for progressive change also affected the various student organizations he helped create. The Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL)—which, after a series of arcane organizational maneuverings, emerged at the end of the 1950s as the principal Shachtmanite youth group—was more successful than the Socialist party itself in expanding its membership. By 1962, it had over eight hundred members, far more than any other student organization; among its early leaders was Michael Harrington.

But YPSL never managed to free itself from the old obsessions with Stalinism. Its members believed fervently in the Bolshevik tradition as interpreted by Trotsky; they scrutinized potential allies and recruits for signs of insufficient ardor in the campaign against the Stalinist betrayers of that tradition. The strong internal cohesion and the remarkable organizing skills the YPSL had derived from Shachtman made it a prime candidate to lead a revived left. But its “inward-looking self-preoccupation,” its “inflated sense of self-importance,” its conviction that “‘History’ could be relied upon to deliver its ‘opportunities”’ and that the “real question was the subjective preparation of the revolutionary elite”: all these tendencies conspired, Isserman claims, to isolate the organization from the rising tides of student protest in the early 1960s and to consign it, ultimately, to oblivion.

To the radical intellectuals who spent much of the 1950s writing for Irving Howe’s Dissent and other “little magazines” of the left, the suffocating sectarianism of the Shachtmanites became a model of how not to advance socialism. Howe had grown up politically as a friend and ally of Shachtman; but by the mid-1950s he was following his own course. Partly, as his own memoir makes clear, this was a matter of personal inclination. Howe was more at home in the literary and academic world than in the intense, hermetic life of the sect.3 But it was also, Isserman claims, a political decision: Socialist organizations, Howe came to believe, “did nothing but sit around and talk,” mulling over stale phrases and ancient disputes. Were radicalism to revive, it “would need to be equipped with something more than the ‘correct line.”’

Howe and the “Dissent crowd” were important through the 1950s in keeping alive radical criticism of American politics, culture, and foreign policy and opening up discussion of socialist ideas to a larger audience than a disciplined party organization could hope to reach. But if the intellectuals managed to free themselves from the sect, they did not entirely free themselves from sectarianism. They watched aghast in the early 1960s as a new generation of radicals emerged, largely uninterested in the battles their elders had spent so much of their lives fighting; and by attempting to impose their own doctrinal purity on the new movement, they caused a breach that was never to be repaired.

Howe, Lewis Coser, Michael Walzer, and other socialist intellectuals associated with Dissent greeted the New Left at first with modest enthusiasm. But while a few (notably Walzer) remained friendly toward the movement as late as 1968, most did not. It was partly a personal aversion. They were put off by the style of the New Left: by what they considered its self-righteousness, its arrogance, its anarchic behavior. But it was ideology, not personality, that irrevocably destroyed the relationship. Howe complained as early as 1961 of the “fellow traveling” tendencies of the new student radicals, whom he described as “singularly, even willfully uninterested in what happened before the Second World War.” Such concerns grew rapidly in the years that followed.

On many issues they were willing to let the New Left find its own way,” Isserman writes,

But there was one issue on which they would not bend: their attitude toward communism…. And in a mostly mistaken reading of the temper of the New Left—which was less infatuated with communism than bored by anticommunism—they lost the political opportunity for which they had been waiting a lifetime.

In fact a quite different political movement, radical pacifism, seemed in the strongest ideological position in the early 1960s to lead a revived left. American pacifists drew on their own, mostly indigenous traditions—on Quakerism, New England Protestantism and transcendentalism, the memory of the abolitionists, and more recently the example of Gandhi. Unburdened by the baggage of the socialists—free of both the taint of Stalinism and the preoccupations of the anti-Stalinists—their emphasis on morality and “values” seemed, Isserman writes, “fresh, individualistic, and in tune with both popular cultural assumptions and the anti-ideological predilections of American intellectuals since World War II.”

The 1950s were in many ways as lean for the pacifists as they were for the socialists. But in organizing nonviolent demonstrations to “bear witness” against nuclear weapons and racism, they managed nevertheless to keep their tradition alive. They did so in large part through the efforts of such talented leaders as the Reverend A.J. Muste (veteran of many earlier radical battles), David Dellinger, Paul Goodman, and Bayard Rustin, and through such small but vigorous organizations as SANE, CORE, and the Committee for Non-Violent Action. As the civil rights movement and (later) the protest against the Vietnam War attracted a new generation of student activists in the 1960s, the pacifists were often more influential and more popular among them than other older radicals. Muste, in particular, enjoyed substantial popularity within the new student left; and Dellinger became a leader of the 1968 Chicago demonstrations (and one of the seven radicals whose trial did so much to publicize the New Left in its waning years). The pacifists became particularly appealing to young radicals in the late 1960s by supporting their efforts to resist the draft (an activity Isserman, curiously, ignores). Muste, Dellinger, Goodman, and other pacifist leaders encouraged those disaffected students who filed as conscientious objectors or refused induction. They joined in demonstrations, vigils, and draft-card burnings, giving a moral and intellectual respectability to a position that a few years earlier had virtually no legitimacy.

But pacifism in the end had only marginally greater influence on the New Left than orthodox socialism. Draft resistance was the one activity of the antiwar movement in which the pacifists had exercised substantial influence. After 1970, when the draft largely ceased to be an issue, the appeal of pacifism quickly faded (and in fact the antiwar movement generally became weaker when the threat of conscription ended). Few of the younger opponents of the Vietnam War had ever been true pacifists; they opposed a particular war, not all wars. Few white student radical leaders had ever developed a deep commitment to the principles of nonviolent resistance; to most it was simply a tactic, to be abandoned when it ceased to be useful. Many members of SDS, after their organization emerged as the principal voice of the New Left, began to see pacifism as an admirable but increasingly irrelevant position. Toward the end, some came to consider it an impediment to progress. In 1969 one of the SDS Weathermen, denouncing those who were trying to moderate the movement’s increasingly violent course, complained bitterly of “all these old people who came into the Movement at a time when pacifism was important, at a time when there was a total consciousness of defeat, when the only reasons that we were in it were moral reasons, when there was no strategy for victory.”

  1. 1

    Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Wesleyan University Press, 1982).

  2. 2

    Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy (Yale University Press, 1986); and History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty (University of California Press, 1979).

  3. 3

    Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), pp. 122–127.

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