My latest book took some time, particularly given a hectic May, but it was a fascinating journey into the leftist movements of the 1960s. Writing from the perspective of a first-hand observer, Todd Gitlin (former president of Students for a Democratic Society) processes through the rise and ultimate fracturing of the New Left from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. He paints an intriguing picture of a movement of young, post-scarcity, college students that could not articulate what they wanted, but wanted change. From the initial fissures between the New and Old Left through the final fracturing of the movement into disaffected and violent components, the book reads one part history and one part reflective essay. It does not evolve linearly, making it somewhat challenging to piece together specific historical details, but the thematic chapters are useful for establishing larger narratives. One particular aspect that I enjoyed was how Gitlin wove in popular culture, from movie plots to music lyrics, in order to help the reader understand the evolving zeitgeist.
I will spare a detailed summary and instead offer some thoughts. The book challenged some of my pre-conceived notions regarding the New Left, but the most important lesson I drew was the movement’s lack of focus. Throughout the book, it was clear that the movement could not articulate exactly what it stood for, or was demanding, beyond its particularistic components (Vietnam and Civil Rights being two of the most important). New Leftists aligned themselves with a global “revolution,” but it was unclear as to what the revolution meant practically. Much effort went towards organizing and growing the movement, without a clear path forward once organized. Gitlin talks personally about not being able to answer the question of what the movement sought. This lack of focus resulted in disappointment at the end when the movement fractured.
The story of the New Left reminded me of John Adam’s criticisms of the French Revolution. Adams expressed concern that the French revolutionaries were tearing down the institutions of society (i.e., the crown, the church, among others) without a guiding theory of how to replace them. Meaning, there was a plan for tearing down, but not for building up. Ultimately, this led to dictatorship instead of democracy. The New Left’s “revolution” had this same feel. It was able to grow quickly by remaining agnostic to its ultimate purpose – creating a big tent, if you will – but the lack of direction resulted in disappointment among the movement’s original leaders (including Gitlin). It also prevented the movement from tempering violent elements that arose to replace earlier non-violent tactics. This book, and its personal lessons, should be interesting to social movement scholars and anyone interested in the history of the 1960s.