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Dreams of the Sixties

The New Left did not, of course, emerge entirely independently of the Old; and Isserman dutifully notes the many points of connection. Children of radicals and labor organizers formed much of the early leadership of the movement, and there were innumerable ideological borrowings in the writings and slogans of movement leaders. For all that, however, the New Left was in the end something genuinely new; and that newness brought both strengths and weaknesses. It brought freedom from the sectarian shibboleths of the Old Left—a healthy thing, Isserman insists. But he also believes that student activists needed the organizational talents, the ideological coherence, and the “patient, long-term approach to building movements” that the older radicals might have offered. The New Left learned from the Old, he claims, “those lessons that in the short run allowed it to grow spectacularly, but not the lessons that in the long run might have allowed it to survive fruitfully.”

Isserman’s conclusion may be correct, but it also seems incomplete. By largely rejecting anticommunism, student radicals freed themselves from what had become a self-defeating preoccupation within the Old Left. But that freedom carried its own price. It may have contributed, as some have charged, to an inattentiveness to “communists” (i.e., authoritarian or dictatorial socialists) within the New Left’s own ranks.4 It clearly did contribute to the antiwar movement’s frequent romanticizing of Communists in Indochina and elsewhere who were undeserving of such admiration. Whatever contributions the antiwar movement might have made to a reassessment of American foreign policy were considerably weakened by the identification of the New Left’s critical analysis with leaders who made friendly visits to Hanoi and demonstrators who chanted “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh” and waved NLF flags at rallies.

Had the New Left absorbed at least something of the hard-earned skepticism toward communism that they so scorned in their elders, they might have been less inclined to celebrate the Indochinese Communists as champions of democracy and more inclined to notice such harbingers of tragedies to come as the disastrous North Vietnamese land reforms of the 1950s, the massacres at Hue in 1968, and the early signs of fanatical brutality on the part of the Khmer Rouge. They might, in other words, have rested their opposition to the war on firmer ground than the supposed virtues of their country’s adversaries. By so decisively rejecting the exaggerated anticommunism of their elders, the New Left fell into another, similarly disheartening trap: an exaggerated anti-anticommunism, with important moral and political consequences of its own.

2.

Miller’s book begins where Isserman’s ends: with the fitful emergence of SDS as a major force in creating the new radicalism. But Miller’s careful, perceptive, and elegant account of the birth of SDS confirms much of Isserman’s story of the death of the Old Left.

SDS did, it was true, have close institutional connections to the socialist left. It emerged out of the rubble of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the obscure student wing of the equally obscure League for Industrial Democracy, an old socialist labor organization that had opposed Communist influence in the unions. In 1960, SLID renamed itself Students for a Democratic Society (perhaps to eliminate its unfortunate acronym). It retained its organizational and financial ties to the LID, but the relationship soon developed serious strains.

That was largely because SDS quickly and self-consciously declared its ideological independence both from its parent organization and from the Old Left in general. The independence was clearly visible, among other places, in the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 SDS manifesto that Miller describes (perhaps somewhat overstating the case) as “one of the pivotal documents in post-war American history.” Patched together during a marathon three-day conference at a UAW conference center in northern Michigan, the Port Huron Statement conspicuously ignored issues of central concern to the older socialists. It included no ringing endorsement of the labor movement. (Indeed, early drafts contained statements that LID leaders considered critical of the working class.)

More significant, it contained no strong denunciation of communism. Some of the younger radicals simply did not comprehend the importance of this issue to the older anti-Stalinist socialists. When one young delegate heard that a Communist observer had left Port Huron early, he said, disappointed, “Do you mean to say there was a Communist here?…I’ve never seen one.” But even SDS leaders who had considerable awareness of Communists—for example, Al Haber, the son of the son of a labor arbitrator associated with the LID, or Steve Max, whose father had been managing editor of The Daily Worker—shared something of this almost willful naiveté. “A disregard of the past—a calculated innocence—became a perverse badge of their own political independence,” Miller observes.

Michael Harrington, who briefly attended the conference on behalf of the LID, became (unwittingly, at age thirty-two) a symbol of the response of the old anticommunist left to the new generation. Harrington angrily demanded revisions in the Port Huron Statement’s discussion of labor and communism; and when informed serveral days later, falsely, that his suggestions had been ignored, he persuaded the LID to fire the SDS leaders, change the locks on their offices in New York, and repudiate the manifesto altogether. Later, when he saw the document and realized it was less offensive than he had feared, he relented. But hard feelings remained on both sides. The rift never fully healed, and SDS finally severed its ties to the LID in 1965.

Miller’s most significant accomplishment is his perceptive account of the intense intellectual debates within SDS in these formative years as its founders attempted to build a “house of theory” in which they could live. The movement began, he suggests, as “a kind of freewheeling seminar for young intellectuals,” meeting in Ann Arbor coffee houses, basement “offices,” and shabby living rooms in graduate student apartments. Members spent more time reading, writing, and talking than they did organizing. Chief among the early leaders were Al Haber, a University of Michigan graduate student and SDS’s first president; and Tom Hayden, a talented Michigan undergraduate, recruited by Haber, who became the organization’s leading theorist and the principal author of the Port Huron Statement.

Hayden, Haber, and others were responding to many influences. The impersonality of the modern university, the fear of nuclear war, and the memory of McCarthyism were all sources of discontent. The emerging civil rights movement had a deep effect. (Hayden spent much of 1961 in the South, worked with SNCC, and was once badly beaten by local whites in McComb, Mississippi.) But most of all, it seems, SDS drew inspiration from the literature of “alienation” that had emerged with special force in the 1950s among sociologists, psychologists, novelists, filmmakers, Beat poets, and others. Particularly influential was C. Wright Mills—a maverick radical sociologist who largely ignored traditional Marxist theory and took a stubborn pride in his isolation from the doctrinal controversies of the Socialist Left. In White Collar and other works, he wrote passionately about the estranged condition of the middle class in an increasingly bureaucratic, undemocratic world. SDS theorists were struck in particular by his skeptical view of American politics. “By virtue of their increased and centralized powers,” Mills once wrote,

political institutions become more objectively important to the course of American history, but because of mass alienation, less and less of subjective interest to the population at large. On the one hand, politics is bureaucratized, and on the other, there is mass indifference.5

The goal of radicals, the SDS theorists concluded, should be to challenge such indifference and destroy that alienation. It should be to create (in a phrase borrowed from Michigan professor Arnold Kaufman) a “participatory democracy.” The key to the future was getting individuals directly involved in the decisions that affected their lives. “The goal of man and society,” the Port Huron Statement proclaimed, “should be human independence: a concern…with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.” The new generation should seek a democracy “governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and directon of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.”6 In retrospect, the concept of participatory democracy seems to have been a frail and even self-defeating basis for radical politics. At the time, it had a remarkably powerful allure. It gave the new generation of student radicals an idea they could consider truly their own, an idea that linked political commitment with their search for political fulfillment. It was, Miller argues, what allowed SDS to flourish.

When compared to most of the Old Left and even when compared to its own later self, SDS in its early years was not a particularly radical organization. It did not formally repudiate capitalism. It seemed at times to rest its hopes on the Democratic party, believing (as Miller puts it) “that established liberals could be cajoled into changing their errant ways, rather as a tolerant, thoughtful father might be moved to respond to the urgent entreaties of a well-meaning son.” The first major SDS political campaign—the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), founded in 1963—was in many ways a liberal effort. SDS volunteers moved into inner-city ghettos and tried to organize the poor to demand increased attention from established centers of power. When Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964, some ERAP members were briefly ecstatic—convinced that the establishment had embraced their goals.

Even in its later years, when the anti-war movement had driven some SDS members much further to the left, others continued to hope for a reconciliation with the political system. Tom Hayden, Miller notes, “still had dreams of sparking the liberal imagination” as late as 1968, at the same time that he was participating in the insurrection at Columbia and helping to plan the disruption at the Chicago convention. Hayden developed a modest personal relationship with Robert Kennedy, whom he came to admire. On the eve of Kennedy’s funeral, he wept in a pew in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then stood in the “honor guard” of friends and family who kept vigil around the coffin through the night.

By 1968, SDS was no longer a small debating society centered in Ann Arbor, no longer a network of modest outposts in inner-city neighborhoods. It was a mass movement, with branches on almost every major campus in America, with perhaps 100,000 members, and with influence far beyond its own ranks.

It is ironic that the Vietnam War should have become the agency for this transformation, since many SDS leaders at first took relatively little interest in the war. Plans for the first SDS antiwar march in 1965 sparked bitter internal opposition from Hayden and others, who considered Vietnam a distraction from other, more important undertakings (most notably ERAP); the organization’s national leadership only barely passed a resolution to proceed with the demonstration. But when the march succeeded beyond the planners’ wildest expectations, attracting at least 15,000 protestors to Washington and wide press attention, the future course of SDS was to some degree set. Over the next three years, opposition to the war gradually became the organization’s principal concern and its most effective recruiting device.

Miller is less interested in explaining the later stages of SDS’s brief life than he is in describing its beginnings. Indeed, his own concerns seem to grow narrower as the organization’s grew wider. The last chapters of his book largely concentrate on the careers of Tom Hayden and one or two other early SDS leaders, leaving the great mass of new recruits and the increasing spontaneity and decentralization of the movement in shadows.7 Miller does, however, draw attention to a series of glaring weaknesses that helped to ensure that SDS’s explosive growth would lead not to triumph, but collapse.

To a large degree, his analysis of the movement’s demise mirrors Isserman’s: the New Left, unlike the old, never developed the organizational or institutional skills necessary to build an enduring movement. Nor did SDS create an ideology sufficiently coherent to sustain the loyalties of its members in the face of the enormous political frustrations they encountered in the late 1960s. Because the movement had no internal discipline, it proved incapable of controlling the new forces it attracted and the passions it gradually unleashed.

In SDS’s last stages, some members gave up on the ideals that had once entranced them—participatory democracy and individual regeneration—and seemed driven almost purely by cynicism, hatred, and rage. “I’m a nihilist! I’m proud of it, proud of it!” shouted a delegate at a 1967 SDS meeting in Princeton. “Tactics? It’s too late…. Let’s break what we can. Make as many answer as we can. Tear them apart.” 8 This kind of mindless anger produced the final, terrifying remnant of SDS—the Weathermen, who believed in guerrilla warfare and staged the vicious “Days of Rage” in Chicago in 1969 (to “tear pig city apart”), and who lost several of their leaders in the 1970 explosion of their bomb factory in Greenwich Village.

At the same time, SDS was attracting the attention of more disciplined radical groups, who recognized the organization’s internal weaknesses and saw it as a ripe target for a takeover. In June 1969, members of the Progressive Labor Party—a harsh, paramilitary, Marxist-Leninist organization with its own version of Maoism—formally seized control; but they had been infiltrating and (in Miller’s view) poisoning the movement for at least two years before that. Partly because of their influence, the movement began to display a new and troubling characteristic: harsh, dogmatic intolerance. It is unsurprising that at this point the important influence of Herbert Marcuse, with his critique of liberal tolerance as “serving the cause of oppression” and his belief that society owed no tolerance to ideas that were “radically evil,”9 began to grow among student radicals. Among many on the left, definitions of what was “radically evil” quickly became exceptionally broad.

3.

Miller is undoubtedly correct that SDS departed in many ways from its original path and that this departure greatly damaged the movement. But his account suggests as well that there was a serious, perhaps fatal weakness at the heart of the New Left from the very beginning. Radical movements, if they are to succeed, usually must depend on a capacity for self-denial, on the willingness of their members to subordinate personal goals to the larger cause. But from the start the self-denying impulses within SDS were competing with (and as often as not losing to) another impulse, a yearning for personal fulfillment.

The dream of changing oneself by changing the world is a common characteristic of radical commitment. But members of the New Left made personal self-transformation central to their political lives—as the Port Huron Statement suggested in its description of man’s “unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding” and its call for “a quality of mind…which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history.” Indeed, the question of self-fulfillment was at the core of the New Left’s most original and appealing commitment: “participatory democracy” itself. To the Stalinists, democracy had been a word without any content in practice; to the independent socialists, it was an essential means to greater ends. To the early New Left, democracy was an end in itself, a vehicle through which individuals could feel empowered and enrich their lives. SDS’s efforts in universities and urban ghettoes may have concentrated on fighting social injustice and challenging the centers of wealth and power. Internally, however, the organization was an almost entirely shapeless experiment in democratic self-fulfillment. Members fervently resisted anything resembling internal leadership. “Leaders mean organization, organization means hierarchy, and hierarchy is undemocratic,” said a speaker at the 1965 annual convention. “It connotes bureaucracy and impersonality.” (One result, predictably, was administrative chaos: No one wanted to do mundane office chores, so the chores remained undone. Meetings dragged on interminably and inconclusively in search of an elusive consensus on even the most trivial decisions.)

ERAP volunteers were undeterred by the unresponsiveness of urban communities to their organizing efforts; the inner life of the ERAP “communes,” the “vitality and intensity of their own group process,” were at least equally important. “Discovering authenticity was essential,” said Sharon Jeffrey, one of the founders of SDS and an ERAP worker in Cleveland. “This was where my passion was.” An SDS member described his work in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a “non-project,” without any formal organization, because any “transformation in values…had to come through personal relationships.”

Contemporary observers remarked frequently on this central (and, some believed, crippling) characteristic of the movement. Kenneth Keniston wrote in 1968 of “the personal origins of political beliefs,” the desire “to start ‘to move personally.”’10 Christopher Lasch noted at about the same time the degree to which “the New Left defined political issues as personal issues.”11 That was, he claimed, both its strength and its weakness. Similar concerns emerged within SDS itself. Richard Flacks, one of the organization’s most influential early theorists, warned in 1965 (to largely deaf ears) of the movement’s excessive emphasis on “personal salvation and gratification,” the effort to “reach levels of intimacy and directness with others…to be self-expressive, to be free.” The result, he feared, would be a breakdown of the radical community.

The subsequent collapse of the New Left appears to justify the fears of Lasch, Flacks, and others. The movement was not without achievement. Tom Hayden exaggerated wildly in 1977 when he said, “We ended a war, toppled two presidents, desegregated the South, broke other barriers of discrimination.” But there is at least a grain of truth in those claims. Nor did the movement entirely disappear, as the political landscape of the 1980s suggests. A network of grass-roots citizens’ movements has emerged, directly and indirectly, out of the continuing political struggles of SDS veterans; Tom Hayden and Al Haber are both involved in such efforts in California today.12 The women’s liberation movement came in large part out of the New Left. 13 But while particular movements have survived, the larger “Movement” has not. And that is in part because, by the late 1960s, student radicalism had become almost hopelessly confused with narcissistic cultural impulses that were essentially apolitical.

Disaffection and rebellion that had once led to political commitment were leading instead to the drug culture, the sexual revolution, the cult of Eastern religions, rock music, and the world of “hippies” and “dropouts.” Woodstock and Altamont were replacing Port Huron and the Siege of Chicago as the generation’s defining moments. Theodore Roszak might talk exuberantly of a “counterculture” with a potential for creating social justice and political regeneration.14 But the new culture and the new politics did not reinforce each other; they clashed. The heart of the counter-culture was not commitment but withdrawal; it was the search for what Norman O. Brown called the “Dionysian ego,” personal fulfillment through “narcissism and erotic exuberance.”15

The seductive appeal of the counter-culture undermined the New Left far more effectively than its own political blunders. Even some of SDS’s most committed early leaders eventually drifted away from politics in their search for “self-actualization.” Sharon Jeffrey, for example, wandered out of the movement in 1967 and in 1973 spent three months at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur—an experience that confirmed her belief that, as Miller puts it, “authenticity was not simply a matter of creating the right kind of social structure.” Tom Hayden, after the fiascoes of 1968, moved to Berkeley and settled (briefly) among the counter-culture. Taking drugs, he said, was “a means of deepening self-awareness.”

The real story of the New Left’s demise, then, is not primarily the mad excesses of the Weathermen or the harsh authoritarianism of the Progressive Labor party or the other final, pathetic organizational remnants of the once expansive movement. It is, rather, the story of the gradually fading political commitment of thousands of young radicals who, having embraced the left as a vehicle for self-fulfillment, abandoned it for other, more immediately gratifying means to the same end. The New Left ultimately did not so much betray its commitments to “participatory democracy” and “personal authenticity” as succumb to them.

  1. 4

    Paul Berman, “Don’t Follow Leaders,” The New Republic (August 10 and 17, 1987), pp. 32–35.

  2. 5

    White Collar (Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 350.

  3. 6

    The Port Huron Statement is reproduced in its entirety—in forty-five closely printed pages—as an appendix to Miller’s book.

  4. 7

    A somewhat broader, although less satisfactory, picture of the movement at high tide is Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (Random House, 1973).

  5. 8

    Dotson Rader, “Princeton Weekend With the SDS,” The New Republic (December 9, 1967), p. 15.

  6. 9

    Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in Robert Paul Wolff et al., A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Beacon Press, 1965), pp. 81–84. In a recent interview, Miller says of his rereading of radical works of the 1960s: “Herbert Marcuse, I thought, was pompous and pretentious and unconvincing and just wrong about so many things that it was hard to imagine why I had taken it seriously” (The Boston Globe Magazine, August 16, 1987, p. 2).

  7. 10

    Young Radicals (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), pp. 26–27.

  8. 11

    The Agony of the American Left (Knopf, 1968), p. 180.

  9. 12

    See Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (Harper and Row, 1986).

  10. 13

    See Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (Knopf, 1979).

  11. 14

    Roszak wrote admiringly of SDS and other New Left groups. His admiration rested, however, less on their political or economic agenda, than on their “extraordinary personalism,” the “irreducible element of human tenderness in their politicking” (The Making of a Counter Culture, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 56–57).

  12. 15

    Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Wesleyan University Press, 1959), pp. 175, 307. See also Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America (Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 277–280.

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