A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


  By the the early 1960’s, a “New Left” was forming in this country. It was “new” in two respects.

            On the one hand, it was new in the sense that it was replacing the preceding communist and socialist movements in the United States. The old socialist and communist parties had been reduced to shadows of their former selves by sustained prosperity in the U.S., by Cold War laws like the Smith and McCarren Acts, and by the crusades (legal and political) led by people such as Senator Joseph McCarthy and a young representative from California, Richard M. Nixon. The Fifties were a dangerous time to be a leftist in the United States. Being a member of the the Communist Party could lose you your job, your home, your reputation, and even your life (if critics of the Rosenberg Case are to be believed).

            The young students in the New Left were “new” in another sense. They rejected many of the ideas & internal practices of the Old Left (mainly those of the Communist Party). To appreciate the New Left criticisms, you have to understand something about Marxist theory. Sooooo......

            Marx first laid out his theory of history and revolution in the Communist Manifesto (1848). Here he described what he understood as certain historical laws that governed social evolution as surely as “natural selection” determined animal evolution. He believed that human societies would inevitably move from more primitive forms to more advanced ones, from slavery to feudalism to capitalism to socialism , and on to communism. Each one of these stages represented an improvement over the one before, but they also carried within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. For example, under capitalism, the productive capacity of countries would vastly increase as industrialization transformed human society. However, capitalism would also see an increasing number of people become part of an impoverished and degraded factory workforce; this was the so called “proletariat”. Marx believed that the inevitable shift to socialism would occur when workers--the majority of the population--were moved spontaneously to revolt by the poverty and oppression that was also part of the legacy of capitalism.

            The only problem is, history didn’t quite proceed according to this script. European workers were not, by and large, revolting. In fact, the first “proletarian revolution” occurred in Russia, in 1905 (and again in 1917), a country which was largely agricultural and pre-capitalist. The Russian leader, V.I. Lenin sought to revise Marxist theory in his pamphlet “The State and Revolution.” Lenin agreed with Marx’s analysis of history and its respective stages, but he believed Marx erred in one respect. According to Lenin, workers, acting on their own, could achieve only a “trade union consciousness,” not a “revolutionary consciousness.” That is, they could spontaneously decide to form unions to protect their interests, but locked as they were into narrow jobs, they could not spontaneously revolt on behalf of a society they were ill-prepared to imagine.

            In order to attain a revolutionary consciousness, workers need help. That help would come in the form of the leadership of the Communist Party. This hierarchical, “vanguard party” would be made up of selected members of the “revolutionary intelligentsia,” people who had had the opportunity to study the sweep of history and understand its potential, and who had a grasp of the political skills necessary to bring about fundamental change. The vanguard party would lead the masses of workers to a brighter future.

            From the moment that Lenin propounded his new theory, there were socialists--even communists--who noted its potential for abuse. “What,” they asked, “would stop the party of the proletariat from becoming the party over the proletariat?” “Would the dictatorship of the proletariat become the dictatorship over the proletariat?” “And what would prevent the party’s own ruling Central Committee and Politburo from becoming a dictatorship over the rest of the party?”
History would give its own unhappy answers to these questions.

            Now back to U.S.A.

            The American Communist Party saw itself as a Leninist Party. Much as the centralized society they hoped to created, they organized themselves in a very centralized fashion, according to the Soviet model known as “Democratic Centralism.” It worked like this: Party members were free to debate issues, but once the ruling Central Committee members (the possessors of the highest consciousness of all!) had reached a decision, all party members had to accept it and cease discussion. The party was almost military in its structure and manner of operation.

            The students of the New Left --which found an organizational home in the “Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)--rejected Leninism and Leninist parties as anti-democratic. Thus, the New Left was also “new” in that it rejected the authoritarianism of the Old Left. There were other practices/ policies of the American Communist Party which they rejected as unacceptable:

1. Dogmatism

            The Old Left/ Communist Party was dogmatic. That is, its members believed they possessed the absolute the truth about political affairs. If you disagreed--even if you were a leftist of a different persuasion--then you were an “enemy of the people.” The Party knew best.

2. Sectarianism

            The Communists were also very sectarian. As befitting people who believed that they “possessed the truth,” they didn’t cooperate with other political groups near to them on the political spectrum. Rather they tried to disrupt these groups, because, after all, they were just trying to “confuse the working class.” During the 1930’s it was not unusual for Communist Party members to physically disrupt meetings of the more democratically-oriented Socialist Party.

3. Pro-Russian Orientation

            Whether particular American communists acted as spies for Russia is still debated, but there is no doubt that the American Communist Party was very pro-Soviet. Russian policies--domestic & foreign--were always supported and never criticized. Members of the American CP consistently turned a blind eye to the police-state tactics and expansionism of the Russian government.

There were many members of the American Communist Party who were highly idealistic and selfless individuals. In fact, when Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union gave a surprise speech in 1956 detailing and condemning the crimes of Stalin (then, safely dead), many American party members left the party, their illusions destroyed and their hearts broken.

            The young New Leftists saw the Communists Party as being as much victimized by its own policies and style, as by the persecutions of the McCarthy Era. They rejected dogmatism, sectarianism, and the kind of repressive socialism being created in the Soviet Union.They were determined to build a new Left, based squarely on democracy and a tolerance for different opinions. They sought to realize their vision through SDS, organized in 1960. Ironically, under the pressure of the mounting intensity of the “60’s,” some student radicals actually returned to Old Left-type organizations, policies, and intolerance. Others sought to remain true to their New Left roots and vision.

            This piece has described mainly what New leftists rejected. As for their values, ideals, and beliefs, we must turn to their manifesto called the “Port Huron Statement,” written during an SDS conference in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1962.


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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