Category Archives: New Left

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.


93: Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a conscious attempt to excavate and describe the legacy of the women’s movement – primarily second wave feminism – for generations of women (and men) who didn’t live through it, so that a kind of living, breathing social history can keep the struggle for gender equality alive.  In particular, Rosen charts the change in women’s consciousness from the 1950s to the 1990s through a vast compendium of the many issues, events, people, ideas, books, successes, and failures of the women’s movement in the United States, with some connections to women’s movements outside the US.

This book is written for a popular audience in response to her discovery that her undergraduate students in the 1980s had no idea what the women’s movement had redefined.  Accordingly, it hits all the highlights: Betty Freidan, SNCC and other civil rights groups, the coming together of the Old and New Left in what she calls the “female generation gap,” Kennedy’s commission on women and the tension between liberal and radical feminism, NOW, Gloria Steinem, the Vietnam War, abortion, the naming of hidden injuries, sexuality, the body, intersections between feminism and race and class, protests and happenings, consciousness-raising groups, sex, pornography,  ideological factionalism, trashing, paranoia, the FBI, commodification, the superwoman, and Ronald Reagan and the spread of global feminism.  Throughout, she attempts to characterize the depth and breadth of the women’s movement as much as she can while also showing just how interconnected this historical period was.  She also tries to account for the successes and failures of the women’s movement and the legacy of the movement as a whole.

Rosen’s faith in the power of narrative to continue the perpetual gender revolution is clear, and I think her point that we will lose the gains we have made if we are not vigilant is a good one – just look at the attacks on affirmative action.  However, I would very much like to read a history of this iteration of the women’s movement written by someone who was not there, to get a sense of the larger social and political context and a more thoroughgoing critique (instead of a celebration) of the movement itself.

92: Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left

In Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg argues that “by maintaining the democratic spirit of the 1930s through the Cold War, children’s literature became a kind of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left generations” and contributed to the youth rebellions of the 1960s.  Working from a vast array of primary sources, including 33 author interviews, several hundred fiction and non-fiction books for children, and other archival materials, Mickenberg builds her argument by contextualizing close readings of children’s books in their historical time and place.  While she is not the first to discuss dissent in a Cold War context, Mickenberg shows that this dissent was right out in the open in children’s books; its very accessibility points to pervasive “counterhegemonic impulses” and the survival of the Popular Front in the midst of McCarthyism.

According to Mickenberg, it was possible for children’s literature to become the medium of transmission for 1930s radicalism partly because it was a largely feminine domain of the book world.  Publications rarely bothered to review children’s books, and the entire writing, production, distribution, and institutional dissemination system  for children’s books was inhabited almost entirely by women (most kids’ books were and still are bought by school libraries; also, children’s books were more expensive during the Cold War.)  Cleverly, many of these women were interested in introducing students to a “progressive” worldview and helping them be antifascist, antiracist, and more than a little idealist.  This interest was partly a legacy of Old Left parents and partly a reaction to 1950s repression, and these women hoped their kids would be able to change that.

Children’s literature was also largely ignored because its target audience was children, who presumably wouldn’t understand any particular ideological slant.  Thus children’s book authors foregrounded the contributions of African Americans, the working class, and other minorities in a critique of the whitewashed “American Way;” invented progressive dialogue for historical figures so that even Davey Crockett could be “an anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist friend of the Indians,” and emphasized the importance of sharing scientific discoveries for the benefit of all people.  Conveniently, many of these messages also served Cold War needs, particularly where they intersected with federal policies on racial equality and scientific progress, while also delivering subversive, Old Left messages.

While some of Mickenberg’s close readings seem a bit too intent on locating radicalism in texts where politics are a bit of a stretch, her interdisciplinary methodology shows clear links between Old Left and New Left radicalism in and around Cold War children’s literature.