New Left

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The New Left refers to radical, often Communist or anarchist, political parties and movements which emerged in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Mexico and elsewhere during the 1960s. It operated in opposition to established liberal and Socialist parties, opposed the Cold War, denounced capitalism, and was a cultural rebellion that involved uses of drugs, music and sex that stunned the older generation.


The movement flourished into the 1970s and faded in importance after 1980. The New Left was a political reaction against the acceptance of capitalism by the major established parties. It was a generational revolt, dominated by "red diaper babies" (whose parents had been active in the Old Left), and was strongest on university campuses. The old bastions of left-wing strength, especially the labor unions, generally rejected the New Left. In the 21st century the remnants of the New Left dominate the Green Parties in many countries.

The New Left is distinguished from the "Old Left" of such groups that originated from the 1890s-1930s, such as the Soviet-line Communist Party USA which carried an apologetic line in support of Stalinism. The New Left repudiated the Soviet Union and favored Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam. They strongly opposed the Vietnam War and organized many demonstrations, some of which turned violent. In an effort to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in 1968 thousands poured into Chicago, where they were stopped by the police and Mayor Richard M. Daley. The confrontations highlighted the deepening split in the Democratic party that destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and ruined the Democratic coalition.

Ideology and Influence

The New Left rejected capitalism, technology, bureaucracy and modernity generally. They took the fight to the universities they attended, sometimes seizing offices and denouncing the administration. According to former New Left radical Ronald Radosh, the object was to politicize the university curriculum. Many senior professors of the era were liberals who rejected the aims of the New Left, and generally favored keeping the universities as an apolitical place of learning and debate. Eventually, the phenomenon of "tenured radicals" emerged—that is, New Left graduate students who themselves obtained PhDs.

The New Left encouraged free use of drugs and free sexuality—and (much to the dismay of their elders), long hair styles for men. They found their uniforms in working class clothes such as T-shirts and jeans. Some joined hippie communes where everything was shared in common; most folded after a few months.


A German-born marxist by the name of Herbert Marcuse is generally regarded as the Father of the New Left.[1] The term "New Left" was coined by C. Wright Mills.[2] Other important influential thinkers leading to the beginning of the New Left include Paul Goodman, William Appleman Williams, and Arnold Kaufman.[3]


Harold Wilson, on becoming prime minister in 1964, tried to bypass old doctrinal arguments by harnessing nationalized industry to ideas of scientific modernization. But his government was a great failure, not least in its relations with the trade unions, the linchpin of the party since its founding. Wilson represented the older traditions of the Labour Party and never understood the emerging "New Left" with new social roots, new ideas and new styles of political behaviour in the late 1970s. Following the disillusion and demoralization of traditional Labour Party activists with Wilson's government, a more radical and well-educated local Labour leadership appeared at the local level. This bred much disillusionment and launched a new left-wing socialism in the 1970s. The Labour government of 1974-79 added to this division. The left-wing pressure reached its climax in the early 1980s when Conservative Margaret Thatcher was in power but resulted only in heavy defeats for Labour in 1983 and 1987. The general impression in 1989 is of a loss of political and intellectual confidence, with British socialism trapped between a cherished past and an uncertain future.[4]

The Labour Party became a strong proponent of New Left ideas of social reform. Under Wilson in the late 1960s, abortion and homosexuality were decriminalizes, the death penalty abolished and divorce was made easier. Unease from a perceived large number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries also led to four Race Relations Acts, all of which were passed under Labour governments.


New Left groups were even more violent in Italy and West Germany, where they were personified by terrorist organizations such as the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades. The kidnapping, torture and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 remains one of the most notorious terrorist actions of this era.


Parties and movements which emerged from the New Left in the U.S. include the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Progressive Labor Party, the political movement of Lyndon LaRouche, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weather Underground, the Youth International Party, and several others. Judge Robert Bork observed, "The New Left is important because it is still with us in the guise of modern liberalism. What was contained in the [SDS's] Port Huron statement, therefore, is a guide to today's cultural and political debacles." [5]

A distinguishing feature of the New Left was a tendency to view the Third World as the "vanguard of the revolution", rather than the industrial working class of Europe and North America as the Old Left did. Thus, the imagery and ideology of such Third World revolutionaries as Mao Zedong and Che Guevara were favored. Another distinguishing feature of the New Left was a much greater emphasis on manifestations of cultural rebellion against mainstream society, particularly borrowing from the hippie movement, radical feminism, and black nationalism. Again, was a sharp reaction against the Old Left which was culturally very staid and which saw counter-cultural movements as decadent and capitalistic.

See also


  • Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left (1992), includes old and new left; by a leading conservative historian
  • Ellis, Richard J. The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America (2000) major study by leading historian.
  • Gosse, Van. The Movements of the New Left, 1950-1975: A Brief History with Documents (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Koelble, Thomas A. The Left Unraveled: Social Democracy and the New Left Challenge in Britain and West Germany (1991) online edition
  • O'Neill, William L. The New Left: A History (2001) short survey by leading scholar online edition
  • Ronald Radosh, "Commies; A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left," 2001.
  • Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity (1998), on U.S. movement; based on extensive archival research excerpt and text search
  • Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (2005) relates student activism worldwide to foreign policy excerpt and text search