The Old New Left and the New New Left

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The “Summer of Love” turns 50 this year. The hippies who flocked to San Francisco with flowers in their hair are now aging boomers who have long given up LSD for blood pressure pills. Today’s youth couldn’t tell a hippie from a Yippie, and today’s campus protesters bear little resemblance to the idealistic radicals of the early 1960s.

Although the hippies played an important part in the ’60s Kulturkampf, promoting free sex, drugs, and other groovy alternatives to virtue, they did not lead the way politically. In the political vanguard marched the self-described New Left, and at its head stood not flower-children but the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a group of radical student activists.

As the name suggested, the New Left defined itself against the old left, meaning both dogmatic Marxists and mainstream American liberals. The movement landed on the map with its 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, which caught on immediately as the best account of student grievances in its time.

There was something ingenuous and almost admirable about the SDS’s early manifesto that is lacking in today’s post-Obama radicalism. The early SDS wanted to overcome “the decline of utopia and hope” by showing that young people could make history rather than wait patiently for progress to find them, or for the millennium to arrive in God’s good time. Authored by a 21-year old Tom Hayden, the Statement quoted the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln, accusing the country of not living up to its own principles. It assailed American hypocrisy, and the apathy and alienation that went with it.

No such Americanism, however vestigial, remains in today’s campus protestors, who celebrate only victims, not martyrs, and who have been taught to believe that America, and the West as a whole, are oppressors and nothing but oppressors, six ways from Sunday—racists, sexists, imperialists, homophobes, xenophobes, transphobes, etc.

The crucible of the old new left was the universities. It was from there that the SDS vowed to “reinsert theory and idealism” in politics. Indeed, the early SDS regarded the university as the essential locus of the new politics, because despite its faults it stood as the “only mainstream institution…open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.” The radicals honored the university as “a community of controversy”—no safe spaces or trigger warnings for them—and championed “the personal cultivation of the mind” as over against the rampant, value-free specialization of the bureaucratized academy.

The old new left hated being treated as children by professors and deans who claimed to stand in loco parentis. Nothing offended Hayden more than American universities’ “endless repressions of free speech and thought, the stifling paternalism that infects the student’s whole perception of what is real and possible and enforces a parent-child relationship until the youth is suddenly transplanted into ‘the world.’” 

Nowadays, student protestors demand that colleges protect them from adulthood, from humanistic debates and political disagreements. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” a Yale student shouted in 2015 at Professor Nicholas Christakis, then master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. “It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!” She added, not exactly maturely, “You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting!” At home, apparently, she is always a child.

The original new left drew its critiques from Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills and indirectly from Marx, Freud, Thoreau, and others. The new new left has no comparable philosophical grounding or intellectual foundation, and authentic or strong individualism seems far from what it is seeking. Today’s radicals nod to postmodernism but draw most of their polemics from the shallow wells of radical feminism and the 1970s’ critical legal studies movement. They raise their voices almost always as members of groups, whose relevant identity is more collective than personal: students of color, the marginalized, victims of microaggressions, who seek protection by and from the white power structure­–and compensation to boot. Group-think and group-guilt are their daily bread. Far from being idealists, they are deeply cynical about America and higher education.

On their own, apart from the group, today’s protestors often seem emotionally fragile. No one would have called Hayden and his peers “snowflakes.”

SDS collapsed in 1969, paralyzed by schism and by its own descent into violent extremism. But its spirit and many of its leaders moved into the academy. Though in some ways out of sympathy with today’s P.C. radicals, the old new left and its successors on and off campus find it difficult to oppose them. It was always their fatal weakness that they could imagine no enemies to their left.

A longer version of this essay appears in the summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Charles R. Kesler is editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

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