Are We Still Fighting the Battles of the New Left?

Are We Still Fighting the Battles of the New Left?

Are We Still Fighting the Battles of the New Left?

Terence Renaud’s new book compels us to revisit post-war activist movements around the world to understand generational conflicts in the left.


The New Left of the 1960s is often seen as a transatlantic, if not global, rebellion of the young against the cultural and political values of their parents’ generation as well as the Vietnam War. Part of what made this New Left “new” was its adherents’ disillusionment with existing political organizations and parties: Social democratic reformism, traditional labor parties, and the Soviet bloc were seen as either too bureaucratic or not sufficiently democratic. In general, the New Left, which championed numerous causes (the anti-war movement, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, environmentalism, etc.) pursed nonhierarchical associations based on direct democracy. Given its anti-authoritarianism and desire to resist hierarchies, the New Left sought a politics of permanent democratic renewal. A key challenge facing it, then, involved the risk of succumbing to the very institutional formalization that it sought to resist. Indeed, it’s typical to ascribe the New Left’s undoing by the 1970s to its inability, if not refusal, to wield institutional political power.

This tension between the New Left, driven by a desire for perpetual renewal, versus an old left, marked by the institutionalization of power, lies at the heart of Terence Renaud’s New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition. A historian and lecturer in the Humanities Program and Department of History at Yale University, Renaud argues that there have been many new lefts in rebellion against various incarnations of an older left. His history offers a different story of new-leftism, from its antifascist roots in the first half of the 20th century to its postwar reconstruction in the 1950s, to its explosive reinvention by the 1960s counterculture. In doing so, he aims to highlight each generation’s internal revolts against the organizational forms of established parties and unions and their desire to create non-party forms of organization. Part of Renaud’s argument is that old lefts spurred the formation of new lefts, which made their peace in turn with institutionalized politics and thus, over time, came to resemble their forebears.

Can we simply see these movements as a recurring generational story that plays itself out on the left? Can such a cycle be resisted? And what is the legacy of the 1960s New Left and its precursors today, especially given the Occupy Wall Street movement and beyond? The Nation spoke with Renaud about these and other questions raised by his vital new book.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: What do you see as the essential features of the New Left in thought and action? Said differently, what is it about the old left that gave rise to New Left reactions?

Terence Renaud: I define the New Left as an experiment in democratic organization that occurred on the margins of mass workers’ parties in the middle of Europe’s 20th century. Small groups of militants within the social democratic left and the communist left rebelled against what they considered authoritarian leadership or obsolete structures within their own parties and unions. They tended to dislike bureaucracy, hierarchical discipline, and institutional politics of any sort. Existing organizations of the left, they believed, had assimilated to the capitalist and imperialist system. In Germany, France, Spain, and elsewhere, these so-called neoleftists sought instead to create non-party forms of organization, such as councils, assemblies, and action committees. These new forms might achieve a radical break from the old forms of parliamentary socialism or vanguardism that had yielded defeat, fatal compromise, or, in the case of Stalinism, a revolution betrayed.

This organizational revolt repeated itself over several decades, so I prefer to speak of plural “new lefts” rather than the singular New Left that we typically associate with the 1960s. New lefts were ideologically diverse, but they shared a strategic commitment to opposing reactionary tendencies within the old left, while at the same time opposing capitalism and the reactionary politics of the right. New lefts were born out of crises of the old left, such as when the Nazis destroyed the German workers’ parties or when the Cold War ossified the politics of social democracy and communism. The distinctive markers of various new lefts were their preoccupation with radically democratic forms of organization, their struggle to sustain such forms over time, and their prefiguration of life in an emancipated society. Appearing as radical anti-fascism in the interwar years, left socialism after World War II, and anti-authoritarianism in the 1960s, each successive new left was a creative eruption that revived a moribund old left.

DSJ: Isn’t this just a recurring generational story that plays itself out on the left? Or is there something more to it?

TR: It is true that neoleftists were, for the most part, young militants who rebelled against older comrades in positions of leadership within social democratic or communist party organizations. But this conflict within the party reflected young leftists’ broader sense of resentment against the family, the school, the state, and any other institution that placed them in a subordinate position due to their age. Social structures exuded oldness as much as individual people.

So there was an important sociological side to how generational conflict played out on the left. Neoleftists did not want merely to replace their elders in positions of authority; they wanted to abolish authoritarian institutions. And it was their criticism of institutional ossification as a social problem, rather than an age problem, that made new lefts attractive to some older militants as well. Neoleftism confronted the paradox of how to organize an internally democratic vanguard that could perpetually renew its own forms and not just reshuffle personnel in a generational succession.

DSJ: It is commonplace to point to the 1960s as giving rise to New Left movements around the globe, and specifically as a reaction to the conservatism of the modern university system, as well as the Vietnam War. You begin your story, however, in the 1920s and particularly with an analysis of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács. How does the old left versus the new left play itself out in Lukács’s thought?

TR: The book begins 50 years earlier than the global New Left in the 1960s, because I think that the form of neoleftist theory and practice originated in the revolutionary crisis of World War I and its aftermath. I chose to focus on the theorist Georg Lukács for two reasons. First, his early writings, plus the 1923 book History and Class Consciousness, are widely considered the foundation of Western Marxism, which was an intellectual current that examined the dialectical relationship between social reproduction and cultural or aesthetic forms, as opposed to the economic determinism of Soviet Marxism. Lukács’s concepts of reification, alienation, and totality served as reference points especially for the German Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School. Neoleftists of later decades would be inspired by their ideas, along with those of other Western Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Even before he became a Marxist, Lukács was concerned with the social limits of art forms such as the essay and the novel. I interpret his early works as a quest for revolutionary newness in culture, which over the course of World War I led him into the domains of ethics and politics. By the time he joined the Communist Party, Lukács had transposed his aesthetic theory into a political key. Now he examined the social limits of the party form, both in its electoral and its vanguardist varieties. He placed great hope in an emerging non-party form, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils or soviets, which cropped up everywhere during the revolutionary crisis of 1918-19.

The second reason I chose Lukács is that he put his theory of new forms into practice while serving as deputy commissar of education and culture under the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. Occasionally dodging bullets as he delivered speeches at the front line in the Hungarian Red Army’s doomed fight for survival in the summer of 1919, he embodied the type of engaged intellectual that would catalyze Europe’s new lefts over the coming half-century.

DSJ: How does the revolt of new against old play itself out in the anti-fascist movements in the 1930s?

TR: The main current of anti-fascism in the 1930s was the Popular Front, or the alliance of convenience between social democrats, communists, and bourgeois democrats against their common fascist foes. Popular Front governments formed in France and Spain, and the appeal of this big-tent coalition extended well beyond electoral politics: Workers and middle-class professionals built cross-class solidarity, and artists produced classic works of proletarian culture. But to neoleftists, the Popular Front seemed to reduce anti-fascism to an ideological minimum: Safeguarding democracy often meant postponing the task of social revolution indefinitely.

Underground in Germany and in exile, the group New Beginning, for example, developed a theory of fascism that stressed both its capitalist character and its mass psychological appeal. Drawing on the work of left-wing psychoanalysts such as Wilhelm Reich, New Beginning thought that the anti-fascist struggle could only succeed as a revolution of everyday life. Reactionary attitudes were rooted in sexual repression, the patriarchal family, and the conservative churches, so the anti-fascist new left needed an emancipatory cultural politics as much as it needed a revolutionary class politics.

DSJ: The New Left movements that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s proved incendiary to the notion of the end of ideology. Can you explain this notion and the role it played in galvanizing new lefts?

TR: The fantasy of an end of ideology was tied to a fleeting historical moment, namely Western Europe’s and North America’s golden age of democratic capitalism after World War II. Sociologists like Daniel Bell and Raymond Aron argued that factors such as material prosperity, historically low rates of wealth inequality, and an array of social services administered by the welfare state combined to render ideological conflicts obsolete. A basic consensus on democracy and regulated capitalism had been reached, which meant that political disputes could be resolved by pragmatic compromise or technocratic administration.

I examine how this idea played out in European center-left parties starting in the late 1950s. In a process that I call “social democratic modernization,” center-left parties such as the West German SPD shifted away from working-class politics, abandoned Marxism as a guiding theory, adopted an American-style campaign model, and generally assimilated to the conditions of democratic capitalism.

Left socialist critics like Wolfgang Abendroth and Ossip K. Flechtheim pointed out that this end of ideology reflected the momentary boom of postwar capitalism and assumed the permanence of the welfare state. Just like Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism at the turn of the century, social democratic modernization was predicated on a partial phase of historical development. The end of ideology actually represented the triumph of another kind of ideology: rigid adherence to liberal democratic norms, denial of class conflict, fixation on totalitarian dictatorship as the greatest evil, and praise for free enterprise. A line from the SPD’s 1959 party program sums up this post-ideological pragmatism: “Competition as much as possible—planning as much as necessary!”

Ultimately, the ’60s New Left would reject the end of ideology for its disavowal of social antagonisms and its stifling of anti-systemic opposition. As the US sociologist C. Wright Mills put it in his “Letter to the New Left,” which he addressed to a British group in 1960: “Let the old men ask sourly, ‘Out of Apathy—into what?’ The Age of Complacency is ending. Let the old women complain wisely about ‘the end of ideology.’ We are beginning to move again.”

DSJ: I was surprised to read that the Frankfurt School, with the notable exception of Herbert Marcuse, proved lukewarm in its reception of the New Left. Given its famous critique of technological rationality, one would think the opposite. You state, for example, that Max Horkheimer tried to keep hidden some of his subversive ideas from the 1930s lest the young German New Left take inspiration from them. Furthermore, Jürgen Habermas accused radical students of flirting with “left fascism.” Can you explain their reasoning? Would you say that the Frankfurt School was of the old left?

TR: It is true that Adorno and Horkheimer generally opposed the student movement. They worried about neo-Nazi reaction and thought that the New Left critique of the welfare state might undermine the chances of the Social Democratic Party.

Moreover, the confrontational tactics of the extra-parliamentary opposition, which sometimes involved destroying property and provoking the police, plus the theory of direct action that justified those tactics, led Habermas to accuse the New Left of “left fascism.” He used that term only once, in a heated exchange at a public meeting in 1967, and soon he yielded to criticism and recanted. It should be noted that Habermas was more sympathetic to the New Left than his older colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer.

The contradiction between the radicalism of Frankfurt School theory and the relative moderation of its politics may be explained in part by its members’ bourgeois class position as university professors and by their generational affinity for the old left. The example of Marcuse does reveal the limits of that explanation, since he famously declared solidarity with the New Left, championed the cause of marginalized groups everywhere, and mentored Angela Davis. He showed that it was possible to unite radical theory and practice.

I do not, however, define the New Left as an intellectual current or set of radical ideas that may or may not have been realized in practice. Instead, I examine a historical succession of new lefts that shared an obsession with organizational form and broke with the existing social democratic and communist lefts. The Frankfurt School was not a new left in this definition, because it neither engaged in political struggle nor emphasized internal democracy within its own organization. Because of this lack of direct political engagement, I do not consider the Frankfurt School an old left either: In the Weimar Republic, in exile during the Nazi regime, and again in West Germany, it was always a privately endowed Marxist institute affiliated with a university. Its research agenda aligned with the left, but otherwise it led a bourgeois existence.

In my opinion, the history of new lefts cannot be understood purely as an intellectual history. Apart from Lukács, the workers, intellectuals, and worker-intellectuals that I profile in the book were not very famous. Neoleftists tried to realize their theories of new forms in social activism and political work. I interpret their various sorts of Marxism and anarchism as low theory: that is, critiques of existing society that were developed for the strategic purpose of political mobilization, as distinct from the more sophisticated high theory of the Frankfurt School. Neoleftist theory was always embedded in radical organizations.

DSJ: Some critics suggest that the New Left shares some kind of affinity with neoliberalism. For instance, the neoliberal notion of the entrepreneurial self—the idea that the market gives us the ultimate freedom to constantly re-create ourselves—seems to share something in common with the New Left rejection of external control, hierarchy, and bureaucracy. Indeed, both neoliberalism and the New Left embrace the positive role of spontaneous forces. What do you make of this connection, if anything?

TR: I agree that a strange symmetry exists between neoleftism and neoliberal capitalism. Both involve processes of creative destruction; both value spontaneity; both historically have been hostile to bureaucracy and the state. The historical disunity of the left, which new lefts seemed to exacerbate, looks suspiciously like the atomization of society brought on by neoliberal privatization, union busting, and austerity since the 1970s.

I disagree with critics who claim that the anti-authoritarianism of the New Left somehow caused neoliberalism or was itself already neoliberalism in sheep’s clothing. Such criticism stems from nostalgia for the welfare state and the social democratic and communist old left, which is understandable today when those things have mostly vanished. But nostalgia makes for bad history: The anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist orientation of the ’60s New Left is undeniable. Actual neoliberals, meanwhile, worked to encase capitalist markets against democratic control and to prevent any global redistribution of wealth after the formal end of empire, as the historian Quinn Slobodian has shown. Aside from these stark ideological differences between neoleftism and neoliberalism, historical new lefts tried to practice internal democracy within their own organizations and prefigure a future life based on collective freedom.

I also disagree with the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, among others, who claim that the New Left articulated an aesthetic or cultural critique of capitalism without challenging its socioeconomic foundations. This claim stems from a conflation of the New Left and the ’60s counterculture in general. On the one hand, the highly political New Left should be distinguished from what the historian Fred Turner has referred to in the US context as the New Communalists, or the hippies and other utopians who sought to escape politics altogether by cultivating emancipated lifestyles and separatist communes. On the other hand, neoleftists who cared about the counterculture did so because they recognized the connection between cultural forms, political forms, and economic forms. Going back to Lukács, this recognition derived from a Marxist concept of totality that viewed all social forms as dialectically related. If “culture” or “politics” or “economics” appeared as separate domains, that was only due to their reification and fetishization under capitalism.

From Reich to Marcuse, the influence of psychoanalysis on neoleftist theory and practice also drove home the point that class politics needs sexual politics. In other words, when integrated into a revolutionary project, the countercultural is the political. The history of every modern revolution has included a cultural revolution of one sort or another. Although operating on a smaller scale and with less success, the New Left was no exception.

In contrast to the industrial working-class base of the old left, the ’60s New Left was largely an affair of the educated middle-class youth. This is the main reason why it has become a target of criticism by some leftists today. But it should come as no surprise that neoleftist demographics would track material developments in advanced capitalism.

The shape of the ’60s New Left reflected the conditions of an emerging postindustrial society in which universities, perhaps for the first time, became major sites of production and not merely centers for the transmission of cultural heritage. As advanced economies shifted toward highly skilled technical and professional work, a university education became more socially necessary. Thus the sociologist Alain Touraine could interpret the French student revolt of 1968 as the symptom of a broader crisis, which pitted future professionals and postindustrial technicians against what appeared to them as an obsolete structure of industrial relations. State-funded research into military technology and area studies, which was most prevalent in the United States, also made the Cold War university into a site of broader social contestation. These factors combined with the increasing pace of decolonization on Europe’s colonial periphery, including Vietnam, to give the New Left its anti-imperialist and student-led character.

DSJ: In the epilogue of your book, you talk fondly of Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly for its collective decision-making. In what sense do you see this as a legacy of the New Left movements of the 1960s?

TR: Occupy Wall Street and the global uprisings of 2011 marked a resurgence of anti-capitalist energy and popular mobilization outside any existing party structures. Taking the form of democratic assemblies, these movements of the squares shared an emphasis on horizontal or nonhierarchical organization. The dilemmas that Occupy and related movements faced as they tried to sustain their new forms against the forces of entropy, institutional co-optation, and police repression repeated many of the dilemmas faced by the ’60s New Left.

But a great chasm separates us from the historical new lefts of the early to mid-20th century. Gone are the mass workers’ parties that once underpinned the social democratic and communist lefts, insofar as those ever existed in the US. In fact, as the political scientist Peter Mair argued, political parties in general no longer involve substantial participation by a membership base and instead serve as vehicles for the circulation of political elites. Also gone is anything like the high labor union density that characterized earlier periods of capitalist development.

Despite “Striketober” and renewed labor militancy in the US and elsewhere, we have lost that all-encompassing world of labor that once defined the habitus of the left. In short, the old left ceased to exist in the last quarter of the 20th century, and nothing like it has been rebuilt since. New lefts need the fertile soil of mass parties and unions in which to germinate and grow. Without that behemoth of an old left, new lefts cannot exist as I have defined them.

DSJ: In your studies of the New Left, what is the one feature of it that you find most relevant for today? And what is the one feature that you find most problematic?

TR: The most problematic feature of historical new lefts was their focus on sustaining internal democracy at the expense of seizing power or instituting lasting changes to the social order. Small groups at the margins of mass parties and unions were able to recognize authoritarian tendencies within those old lefts and sometimes initiate a beneficial process of self-criticism and reform. But on their own, neoleftist small groups often succumbed to political isolation.

Most relevant for us today was the way that historical new lefts nourished the ecosystem of anti-systemic opposition. New lefts always existed in productive tension with the social democratic and communist old left, introducing new forms of organization besides the party or the union. Neoleftists often passed through radical phases in their youth before settling into more moderate politics later in life, so the dialectic of new lefts and old lefts also helped build intergenerational continuity.

Solidarity between generations and diversity of organizational forms are crucial components for the climate movement especially. Young radicals often get maligned as naive idealists and even as dangerous spoilers of institutional reform. But the time for gradual reform has passed: The climate emergency requires radical action now, and by any means necessary. Too often older people in positions of authority within the progressive movement or the responsible parties of reform fail to yield power when the situation demands it. Now is the time to yield to future generations. Our capacity to begin anew, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, is what saves human affairs from natural ruin.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy