A. Preface: A Renaissance in the 1950s?
1. There was a split between the Old Left and the New Left in the 1950s. But, the New Left emerged in ways that do not show clear boundaries. This book seeks to understand the roots of radicalism in the 1960s by looking at the historical roots of that movement (the Old Left). He argues that the New Left did not inherently consist of violence, irrationalism, or sympathy with totalitarianism (although all 3 became far too prevalent in the New Left by the end of the 1960s). Instead, he argues that the New Left emerged in the 1960s naturally due to Vietnam, threat of nuclear war, and the persistence of racism.
2. Chapters 1-4 examine the American Communist Party, the groups led by Max Shactman, the journal Dissent, and the Committee for Non-Violent Action. The emphasis on each is how these groups influenced and failed to influence the New Left that emerged in the late 1950s. These groups were chosen because they underwent a shift in perspective in the 1950s. Also, these groups significantly influenced the New Left. The underlying theme can be summed up in two words: politics matters. The radical movements did not emerge out of thin air. The emerged for these reasons: the baby boom and expansion of higher education, redistribution of black population to urban South and North and the resulting gains in voting power, the general prosperity that occurred in the early 1960s allowing politicians to look at the other America, finally a lessening of the prospects for nuclear confrontation.
B. The Collapse of the Communist Party
1. Between 1956 and 1958 the CP collapsed. The “deStalinization crisis” was a critical development in the death of the Old Left and the birth of the New Left. For the first time the US was left without a significant national party espousing socialism.
2. Background to the crisis: The previous decade had not been a good one for the CP. The deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union, Smith Act convicted 100s of Communist leaders. The CP’s biggest threat was the legal attack mounted by the federal government.
3. Impact of the 20th congress: When the Soviet CP met in Moscow in 1956 for its 20th congress the American Communists paid close attention to its proceedings. Khrushchev (the leader) claimed that they would attempt more peaceful relations with the West. But he also criticized Stalin. For the first time there was dissent in the American ranks over the Soviet Communism policies.
4. Browder and the Popular Front: He was the CP leader in America in the 20s and 30s and held the strongest dissenting view in the 1950s.
5. The crisis goes public: The internal factions of reform and orthodoxy was kept hidden from the rank and file until the 20th congress. The crisis was the Khrushev criticized another Communist leader. The American Daily Worker then opened the floodgates to Communist criticism.
6. Reevaluation of the past: This was much like a religious crisis. The American CP looked back to Leninism as the primary cause for their problems. The problem was that the leaders themselves had no real ties with the people. The totals that they gave themselves like “leaders of the American working class” were illusory. Other reevaluations of the past included criticizing the Nazi-Soviet pact. Some of the CP leaders believed that the crisis after the 20th congress would usher in a new period of freedom in which to perceive the world
7. Struggle for control: The Orthodox position was shaky as the Reformers struggled to gain CP control. When Khrushev’s secret speech about Stalin was made public the Orthodox position lost all control.
8. The dissidents in retreat: The CP lost 3/4’s of its membership. American revisionist were attacked in the USSR. AS the CP lost members it left the door open for another group to gain control of the New Left.
C. Max Shactman, A Sectarian’s Progress
1. No one in the 1950s attempted with such fervor to act as the midwife at the birth of the New Left. He was a sectarian leading small groups in the Communist party in America. Yet, the main quality of his groups was the right of internal dissent. But at the moment of his apparent triumph his sectarian habits reasserted themselves and he squandered he opportunity to re-make the American left.
2. Max and the Trotskyist Movement:
D. Dissent, Journal of Tired Heroism
1. Irving Howe followed Schactman’s footsteps from 1920-50. He followed him from the Young People’s Socialist League, into the Trotskyist movement, and from the Workers Party and the Independent Socialist League. When it came time to choose a new goal for the American Left, the 2 parted company in the 1950s. Schactman tried to use the sect to create a new role for himself and his party. Howe was firmly committed to nonsectarian politics and wanted to bind the political community together. The vehicle he chose for this was the journal Dissent. Howe’s “heroism of tiredness” differed from blind devotion to old dogma. The new radicals should have the ability to temper commitment with humility, enthusiasm with self-inquiry.
2. Dissent’s existence was based on the awareness that there was no Socialist movement in America and that there probably would not be for some time. They were not interested in grand theory. They wanted to understand the dynamics of political movements and to understand the causes of the Left’s self-deception. IT challenged McCarthyism. Mass culture they believed (organization man) manipulated Americans in ways they could not understand.
3. Dissent collided with the New Left in 1960. Dissent wanted to bridge the gap between the Old Left and the New but they could not.
E. Radical pacifism: The Americanization of Gandhi
1. Albert Bigelow sailed the Golden Rule with his small pacifist group to a Hawaiian island where the H-bomb would be tested. He appealed to the good nature in men’s hearts. Life magazine dismissed this a “misguided yacht.” He did not consider himself a radical, yet his actions held implications for the future of the American Left. Martin Oppenheimer understood the implications of the voyage and why they sailed—conventional politics had failed, the hour was late, and one was left with no other choice than to throw their body into their belief. In the late 1950s these would all become familiar themes of the New Left. Pacifism enjoyed distinct advantages over Socialism (no checkered past with names like Stalin, the pacifists drew their inspiration from Gandhi rather than Marx and Gandhi seemed much more American.
F. Toward a New Left
1. Before there was a New Left in the US, radicals began speculating about the character and prospects of a “new left.” This was to take the place of the collapse of the American Communist Party. The new left was new because of the organizations and ideas it would develop, not the people involved. These organizations included on campus student clubs, the organization of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, the continued growth of the civil rights movement, and sentiment among the rank and file unionists for an independent labor party. The failure of the older generation to guide the new left control to the younger generation who defined the New Left. The main factor that shaped the New Left was the failure of the “new Left” in the late 1950s.
2. One attempt at regrouping was the American Forum for Socialist Education.
3. The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy served as a kind of surrogate party of the New Left in the late 50s.
4. Young Peoples Socialist League. This was the one other attempt at regrouping. Schactman led this. This group proved to be the vanguard of the new radicalism in one respect only—a new portion of the campus radicals made their first acquaintance with the intensely preoccupying inner life of sectarianism.
5. Student Peace Union. JFK’s administration lent respectability to its organization, but it went into decline at the moment when foreign policy issues began to seem most relevant to college students. The groups leaders were slow to concern themselves with the protests with the VN war.
6. Students for a Democratic Society. By 1962 this emerged as the most important campus radical group. Soon it would be synonymous with the New Left. The younger generation was rejecting the dogmas of the earlier generation. The SDS was propelled through the events of the 60s, Cuban missile crisis, Watts, bombing of NVN, Tet Offensive, MLK’s assignation. These all “fed a sense of outrage, a sense of moving with the tide of history, armed with the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom. (218)”
7. The New Left learned valuable lessons from the Old Left: a distaste for ideological hairsplitting and rigidly centralizing organizations gave SDS a flexible and open style that made it well suited to take advantage of the idealism offered by the Civil Rights movement and the disenchantment with VN.
8. What the New Left failed to learn was how to take a patient, long-term approach to building movements; an emphasis on the importance of winning small victories; a willingness to work with others who held different views; a commitment to internal political education; an understanding of the need for a representative organizational structure that made the leaders responsible to their constituents rather than the priorities of the media. The inheritance from the Old Left to the New Left was one that “took to heart 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. (219)”
II. Notes—Isserman, If I Had a Hammer...The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (1987)
A. The New Left is discontinuous from the Old Left
1. The New Left did not inherently consist of violence, irrationalism, or sympathy with totalitarianism (although all 3 were far too prevalent by the late 1960s.
2. The New Left emerged naturally due to VN, the threat of nuclear war, and the persistence of racism.
3. Other discontinuous factors: Baby Boom, redistribution of blacks and new voting power, general prosperity in America which allowed politicians to look at the other America, a lessening of prospects for nuclear confrontation which allowed people to rethink where America was heading. POLITICS MATTERS.
4. Main tenets of New Left: From Albert Bigelow and his anti-nuclear voyage. Conventional politics had failed, the hour was late, something needed to be done, one must put their bodies behind their beliefs in non-violent protest.
B. The New Left is continuous with the Old Left
1. The American Communist Party collapsed in 1956-58. It collapsed because of the deStalinization crisis, dissent within the ranks of the Soviet Union.
2. The Old Left leaders tried to shape a New Left.
3. Max Schactman was a sectarian (led small groups within the CP) who tried to be the midwife at the birth of the New Left. He was a strong advocate of internal dissent. He was too sectarian to succeed
4. The journal Dissent. Irving Howe was committed to nonsectarian politics and wanted to bind the political community together. His journal was his vehicle to do this. Fought against mass culture and organization man. This attempt also failed to bridge the gap between Old and New Left.
5. The Americanization of Ghandi. Bigelow and radical pacifism. This was the strongest tie with the New Left. Pacifism was adopted because it was associated with Ghandi and did not have the association with a Marx or a Stalin.
C. Towards a New Left
1. Why was it new? Because of the politics that influenced it in the 1960s. It was also new for the organizations it would develop, not the people involved. Campus student clubs (Students for a Democratic Society), Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, and the civil right movement.
2. The above case studies were the “new Left.” But, they failed and control was taken over by the younger generation.
3. The New Left did learn from the Old Left: distaste for ideological hairsplitting, distaste for rigidly centralizing organization. Thus, SDS was flexible and open to take advantage of the idealism offered by the civil rights movement and VN disenchantment.
4. The New Left failed to learn from the Old Left: They failed to take a patient long term approach; did not place an emphasis on small victories; did not have a commitment to internal political education. Thus, they were successful in the short run and not the long run.

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