New Left

The New Left is a term used in political discourse to refer to radical movements from the 1960s onwards. They differed from earlier leftist movements that had been more oriented towards labor activism and the Soviet Union, and instead adopted a broader definition of political activism commonly called social activism. The "New Left" was an intellectually driven movement which attempted to correct the perceived failures of "Old Left" parties in the post-WWII period. The movement began to wind down in the 1970s, when activists either committed themselves to party projects, developed social justice organizations, or became inactive in the movement.



World War II severely disrupted operations of established communist parties in the United States and Western Europe. Political repression such as the Red Scare restricted organizing and limited communist recruitment in the immediate post-war period, particularly in the U.S. In Western Europe, social-democratic parties nationalized health care and transporation services, co-opting key planks of pre-war communist party platforms.

The confused response of the CPUSA and the CPGB to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 created a crisis of confidence in party decision making. Independent Marxist intellectuals began to develop a more individualistic approach to leftist politics, which was opposed to the perceived bureaucratic and inflexible politics of the pre-war leftist parties. In Western Europe, these new developments occurred both inside and outside social democratic and communist parties, contributing toward the development of eurocommunism. The New Left in the U.S. was primarily based on college campuses. The New Left in the United Kingdom emerged through the links between dissenting Communist Party intellectuals and campus groups.

The British New Left (or "Old New Left")

As a result of Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) ruptured. Many left the party for Trotskyist groupings or for the Independent Labour Party. Others formed a larval grouping dedicated to revisionist communism.

The historian E. P. Thompson was one of the chief ex-communists accused of revisionism by the CPGB. In early 1956 Thompson established a dissenting journal within the CPGB called Reasoner. Once expelled from the party he began publishing the New Reasoner from 1957. In 1960, this journal merged with the Universities and Left Review to form the New Left Review. These journals attempted to synthesise a theoretical position of a revisionist, humanist, socialist marxism. In this attempt they published material from the Western bloc Trotskyist traditions and from the Eastern bloc dissenting marxists. This publishing effort made the ideas of minor marxist theorists, particularly culturally oriented theorists, available to an undergraduate reading audience. The New Left Review in many ways popularised the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and other culturally oriented forms of marxism.

In terms of their actions, the British New Left concentrated on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union and its allied countries. It often worked in existing popular front organizations to campaign for peace, disarmament, global justice or other issues important to communists. Some students within the British New Left joined the International Socialists, which later became Socialist Workers Party (UK) while others became involved with groups such as the International Marxist Group. Tariq Ali played a role in some of the New Left protests of this era, and documents his involvement in his book Street Fighting Years.

As the campus orientation of the American New Left became clear in the mid to late 1960s, the student sections of the British New Left began taking activity in these areas. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militance (Hoch and Schoenbach, 1969). Additionally, the influence of the May 1968 events in France were felt strongly throughout the British New Left.

The politics of the British New Left can be compared with the simultaneously active, but not revisionist, syndicalist organisation Solidarity, UK, which continued to focus primarily on industrial issues.

The American New Left

In the United States, the "New Left" was the name loosely associated with a radical political movement that took place in the during the 1960s, primarily among college students. The origin of the name can be traced to an open letter written in 1960 by sociologist C. Wright Mills entitled Letter to the New Left. Mills argued for a new leftist ideology, moving away from the traditional ("Old Left") focus on labor issues, towards more personalized issues such as opposing alienation, anomie, authoritarianism, and other ills of the modern affluent society. Put differently, Mills argued for a shift from traditional leftism, toward the values of the Counterculture.

The New Left opposed the prevailing authority structures in society, which it termed "The Establishment," and those who rejected this authority became known as "anti-Establishment." The New Left avoided recruiting industrial workers, and concentrated on a social activist approach to organizing. Many in the New Left were convinced that they could be the source for a newer, better kind of social revolution. Loosely associated with the New Left was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement which began in 1964 as a coalition of student groups opposing restrictions to leftist political activity on campus.

The organization that really came to symbolize the core of the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1962 Tom Hayden wrote its founding document, the Port Huron Statement, which issued a call for "participatory democracy" based on nonviolent civil disobedience. The SDS marshalled anti-war, pro-civil rights and free speech concerns on campuses, and managed to bring together liberals and more revolutionary leftists. The SDS became the leading organization of the antiwar movement on college campuses during the Vietnam War, and during the course of the war became increasingly militant. As opposition to the war grew stronger, the SDS became a nationally prominent political organization. At the same time however, opposing the war became an overriding concern that overshadowed many of the original issues that inspired the New Left. In 1968 and 1969, as its radicalism reached a fever pitch, the SDS began to split under the strain of internal dissension and increasing penetration by Maoist ideologues, and along with adherents known as the New Communist Movement, some extremist terrorist splinter factions also emerged, such as the Weather Underground Organization.

Many in the US New Left were heavily influenced by the politics of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These sections also believed that the Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956 indicated that the Soviet Union had become revisionist, but they did not turn to Trotskyism as a result. Since, they argued, the Soviet Union could no longer be considered the world center for proletarian revolution, this section of the New Left substituted Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro as their lead thinkers. They also drew a lot of inspiration from the Black Panther Party.

Other elements of the US New Left, in particular the "anarchos" group, looked to libertarian socialist traditions of American radicalism, and investigated the Industrial Workers of the World and previous union militancy. This group coalesced around the historical journal Radical Amerika. American Autonomist Marxism was also a child of the US New Left, particularly that of Harry Cleaver .

The back of the US New Left was broken by the US withdrawal from Vietnam. More liberal elements of the New Left retreated into professional life. Maoist elements formed minuscule microparties, some of which continue to the present day, but others dissolved in factional infighting. Other New Left revolutionaries continued their political struggles, but often in smaller organisations which were less visible. By the beginning of the 1980s, the US New Left was effectively non-existent. However, many organisational principles, particularly the social activist model, continue to be used by current American left-wing groups.

International Movements of the New Left

A variety of political commentators have attempted to subsume a number of European revolutionary movements under the heading of the New Left, but these subsumptions typically rely on an inaccurate U.S.-centric view.

Briefly, the Czechoslovakian revolution of 1968 was legitimised by the Czech government as a reformist movement to revitalise Czechoslovak socialism. The 1968 events in the Czech republic were driven forward by industrial workers, and were explicitly theorised by active Czech unionists as a revolution for workers control.

The events in France in 1968 were complex. However, the driving force of near-revolution in France were students inspired by the ideas of the Situationalist International, which itself was following a course dictated by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Both of these French groups placed an emphasis on cultural production as a form of production. Unlike the New Left, the sphere of culture was not unrelated to productivity.

While the Autonomia in Italy have been called New Left it is more appropriate to see them as a unique response to the failure of the PCI and PSI to deal with the new Italian industrial working class in the 1950s. The Autonomia was a result of traditional, industrially oriented, communism retheorising its ideology and methods. Unlike the New Lefts, Autonomia had a strong blue collar arm which was active in regularly occupying factories.

See also

New Communist Movement

External links

  • Mills, C. Wright. Letter to the New Left ( New Left Review. London, No. 5, September-October 1960. From Marxist Internet Archive ( Retrieved April 26, 2005.

Further Reading

UK New Left

  • Hock, Paul and Vic Schoenbach. LSE: the natives are restless, a report on student power in action London: Sheed and Ward, 1969. ISBN 722005962
  • Ali, Tariq. Street fighting years: a autobiography of the sixties London: Collins, 1987. ISBN 0-00-217779-X

US New Left


  • New Left Movement: 1964-1973. Archive # 88-020. Title: New Left Movement fonds. -- 1964-1973. -- 51 cm of textual records. Trent University Archives. Peter Borough, Ontario, Canada. Online guide retrived April 12, 2005 (


  • Breines, Wini. Community Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal 216 pp. Rutgers University Press; Reissue edition (March 1, 1989). ISBN 0813514037.
  • Evans, Sara. Personal Politics : The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left 288 pages. Vintage (January 12, 1980). ISBN 0394742281.
  • Frost, Jennifer. "An Interracial Movement of the Poor": Community Organizing & the New Left in the 1960s 266 pp. New York University Press (September, 2001). ISBN 0814726976.
  • Gosse, Van. The Movements of the New Left, 1950-1975: A Brief History with Documents Bedford St. Martin's, 2004). 224 pp. Bedford/St. Martin's (October 29, 2004). ISBN 0312133979.
  • Isserman, Maurice. If I had a Hammer : the Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left 259 pp. University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition (June 1, 1993). ISBN 0252063384.
  • McMillian, John and Buhle, Paul (eds.). The New Left Revisited 280 pp. Temple University Press. (Jan 2003). ISBN 1566399769.
  • Oglesby, Carl (ed.) The New Left Reader Grove Press(1969). ISBN 0887690700. Influential collection of texts by Mills, Marcuse, Fanon, Cohn-Bendit, Castro, Hall, Althusser, Kolakowski, Malcolm X, Gorz & others.
  • Rubenstein, Richard E. Left Turn: Origins of the Next American Revolution. 286p. Boston: Little Brown, (1973). 286p. 1st edition.


  • Munk, Michael. The New Left: What It Is ... Where It's Going ... What Makes it Move. 22pp. A National Guardian Pamphlet. New York. n.d. [1965]. Stapled softcover. Photos.
  • Massimo, Teodri, ed., The New Left: A documentary History. London: Jonathan Cape (1970).

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