94: Doug Rossinow’s Politics of Authenticity

With The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America, Doug Rossinow writes a history of the New Left that emphasizes continuity across both time and the broader political field of the 1960s.  Unlike many scholars of the 1960s, Rossinow was not there; this is a much-needed history of the left from the outside.  Instead of drawing on personal connections and personal experience, Rossinow relies on newspapers, TV, radio, and other media sources, as well as interviews, to understand the Left and place it in context.  He argues that the New Left operated by applying an existentialist activism to the left; from this perspective, the New Left developed in response to the Cold War of the 1950s, and it ended partly because the seeds of identity politics within existentialism fragmented the Left after 1968.

Existentialism in Rossinow’s formulation directly linked to the demographics of the New Left.  Unlike the Old Left, which had been composed of working class activists in pursuit of a working class-based social democracy, the New Left began with the white, college-educated members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who directed their social criticisms not at economic exploitation but at the “alienation” and “anxiety” created by the “post-scarcity” society.  While these young folks initially thought that the poor or African Americans (not the working class) were the agents of social change due to their marginalization and consequent alienation from mainstream society, they soon adopted a theoretically-informed existentialist argument that “social and political arrangements caused inner alienation and that only radical social change would open the path to authenticity.”  Thus, affluent youth began to see themselves as the victims of postscarcity society, and they began to seek both authenticity and democratization.

Also unlike other scholars of the Left, Rossinow sees substantial connections between the student Christian movements of the 1950s and 1960s and the New Left.  The Student YMCA-YWCA used existentialism as a way of helping members connect individual alienation with larger social concerns, thereby overcoming the therapeutic culture of the 1950s.  Existentialist activists saw the individual as broken and alienated, and thus they sought solidarity and community.  Further, 1950s Christian liberalism was big into racial egalitarianism, and former Student Christians brought their views with them into the social movements of the 1960s.  This social existentialism stretched further back into the past as well, to Old Left emphases on a “humanist” Marxism based on the 1844 manuscripts, where the way to overcome alienation is to pursue wholeness and humanity in collectivism.

To examine existentialism and the New Left in detail, Rossinow operates at two different levels: at the national level, to see how the left functioned as a whole, and at the local level, with Austin, TX serving as a case study for the formation of the New Left and the explosion of SDS into prairie power.  While he finds that existentialism and the pursuit of authenticity operated at both scales, it was much more successful at “untying the knot of inner alienation and democracy than in pursuing large-scale social change.”  It was thus also much more successful in small, localized communes than in the large, national arena.  Further, the pursuit of authenticity as a means of overcoming individual alienation became detached from the larger collective enterprise, with the New Left fracturing into smaller culture-based groups: Black Power, Feminism, and so on.  The New Left thus headed into cultural liberalism, while the true radicals enmeshed themselves in small communities and passed from authenticity into marginality.

Rossinow emphasizes throughout that this is a story of a dialectical process between politics and culture, structure and dissent, and that political movements might rebel against structures of power, but their rebellions are always pre-conditioned by those same structures.  Hence the shift from radical politics to cultural liberalism and identity politics was prefigured by the capitalist system.

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