I snuck into the revolution with a fake ID. I was 13 when I heard Yippie leader Jerry Rubin speak and I was immediately drawn to the radicalism and romance of revolutionary politics that William L. O’Neill chronicles in his book The New Left: A History. An author and historian, this book, published in 2001, revisits the topic of the New Left that his earlier work Coming Apart (1971), a book about the ’60s, devoted a chapter to. His position as a college professor from 1966 to 1971 brought him into contact with many of the characters and political organizations that were active on college campuses in these, the headiest days of campus unrest. O’Neill bookends this tumultuous period with as conclusive a history of the Movements origins and as detailed an account of its demise as one would expect from an historian.
The author was understandably impressed with the fact that many members of the Movement (New Left) were ”historicists” who believed a correct understanding of the past would enable them to shape the future. The main impact he cites is the revisionist focus on the teaching of history, whose teachers were often accused of peddling propaganda (Preface, p X). He draws parallels between the affluence and disdain of consumer culture of the Movement in the ’60s and that of the Labor Movement of the ’30s (p1), which became disenchanted with the homogenization of the ’20s and engendered the expatriate movement.
O’Neill assigns ironic credit to McCarthyism and its stifling of dissent for causing a backlash in regard to protecting 1st Amendment rights that enabled the growth of the New Left (p3). This new openness in political discourse was compounded by the Baby Boom literally doubling college admissions in the ’60s (p5) and by the increased maturity of the students which forced universities to abandon or rethink their paternalistic/in loco parentis policies (p 5-6). The ’60s also saw a shift in political focus of the left from primarily labor issues to one that entailed racism, nuclear weapons, hunger, poverty and overpopulation.
The main arm of the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led by Al Haber and Tom Hayden and formed in 1960 (p 7). Hayden and SDS, inspired by the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter sit-in of February, 1960, worked with civil rights groups like CORE and SNCC during the voter registration drive of 1964, the ‘Freedom Summer’ which was marked as much by its accomplishments as by its tragedies and dozens of fatalities (p 9). This work, combined with his writing and a well publicized news photo of his beating at the hands of a McComb, Mississippi segregationist, made Hayden a hero (p 9). He was chosen to write the SDS manifesto, ‘The Port Huron Statement in 1962, which the O’Neill describes as “…infused with a kind of wounded patriotism, a sense that American ideals had been lost and Americans needed a new sense of commitment” (p 10). Hayden wrote, with some prescience: ‘Americans were dehumanized by a “remote control economy” run by the wealthy and a handful of corporations for their own benefit’. He went on to decry the “military industrial complex”, a new term coined one year prior by President Eisenhower, that nurtured “the Cold War for its own power and profit” (p 11). O’Neill took Hayden to task for his inexperience with history and utopianism, yet still ceded that the Statement “compels respect even so” (p 11). Hayden’s rise to prominence, and that of the SDS continued, with 200 campus chapters by 1966 (p 21).
1967 saw the ‘March on the Pentagon’, an anti-war protest that drew 100,000 including Norman Mailer and Dr. Benjamin Spock. The protest was organized by the National Mobilization Committee (‘Mobe’) with activist Jerry Rubin and theatrical protester Abbie Hoffman (p 25). The two were best known for a demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange where they threw dollar bills to the floor and watched stockbrokers scuffle and fight to pick up the money (p25). Rubin, Hoffman and others cryptically identified (or not ) as Yippies brought not just street theater and prankster tactics to protests, but employed satire and irony as tools to show the hollowness of their opponents positions. They made activism as entertaining as it was engaging. Their performances at the DNC convention in Chicago in 1968 and at their subsequent trial were incomparable feats of weaponized buffoonery. O’Neill ably chronicles their tragic ends but falls short in capturing their unyielding grip on the zeitgeist of the ’60s.
Forty years ago the whole world was watching, and the Movement was imploding. The fatalities of Freedom Summer in 1964 began the militancy of the Black Power Movement which prompted them to reject all its white members and discard the doctrine of nonviolence (p 15). The SDS found itself distanced from CORE and SNCC and embracing the Black Panthers (p 40), a relationship slightly less successful than that of The Rolling Stones and The Hell’s Angels at Altamont.
In 1968 lawyer Bernadine Dohrn was elected to Interorganizational Secretary of SDS (p 32), followed by an adoption of violent tactics like the ‘4 Days of Rage’ (p 41) that leads to the end of SDS. Dohrn and Mark Rudd would later become part of the ‘Weathermen’ who advocated armed struggle (p 39). The Weathermen lost 3 of their own, and the New Left lost a great deal more, when a ‘bomb factory’ exploded where they had been making ‘nail bombs’, an incomprehensibly brutal weapon designed not just to kill but to mutilate (p 42). O’Neill cites this as a major turning point in the history of the Movement, when people were forced to take a long, uncompromising look at the consequences of this romanticized, revolutionary violence perpetrated by their own (p 42). The Weathermen continued bombing for years afterwards.
1970 brought more violence with the bombing of Cambodia and the murders of four students at Kent State University (p 42). This was also the year I was granted emancipated minorship upon reaching the age of 14 and lived and worked at the Yippie Free Store after living in a commune. Abbie Hoffman managed to combine the two philosophies of political activism and humorous street theater with great success (p 46). Perhaps it was this ‘pick and choose what you like’ approach that drew me to the Yippies, as I had no interest in dour Marxists who told me getting high was counter-revolutionary. My partner and political mentor, when asked about using store donations for beer, (for us) responded, in essence, that a revolution without beer was not a revolution worth having. He sold me. The problems arose when I asked him to expand on the mantra ‘when the revolution comes’. Just what is my job ‘when the revolution comes’? “It’s easy” he said, “Grab a gun and kill a pig!” That wasn’t what I signed up for. Nor were the bombings by the Weather Underground and their ilk that took innocent lives. I will admit to shooting the Attorney General of the State of Arizona in the ass with an arrow (the toy kind with suction cup on the end), but that was the height of my political violence.
O’Neill closes with a look at the surviving members of the New Left who have found homes in Universities: The Academic Left (p 79). He cites their influence on the practice of ”political correctness” (p 80). What a tragic legacy.
I can appreciate this book on both an historical and a personal level because I lived through and participated in many of the eras and events covered but was really, really high and would like to fill in some of the blanks (like the seventies, most of the ’80s….). This book and the events described herein are important and relevant because so many of the issues of that time have either gone unresolved or returned to plague us in new forms. I believe any student of history would profit from reading this book, as it demonstrates with authority that activism and engagement are essential components of citizenship.