First Published: Guardian, January 17, 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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If any further evidence were needed to document the decline of the new left, the Weatherman and Worker-Student Alliance national meetings reported in the Guardian last week should suffice.
Both groups refer to themselves as the “real” Students for a Democratic Society, but the question is no longer relevant. SDS, symbol and substance of what had been known during the past decade as the new left, has ceased to exist.
There is no reason to mourn. Nor is there any particular reason to suspect that the tens of hundreds of thousands of young men and women who developed their politics during the relatively short-lived existence of the new left shall not continue to play a vital role in the emerging American revolution.
Symbols and the institutions which express them reach a stage where they outlive their creative usefulness. The worst thing that could have happened would have been for young radicals to fail to recognize that the politics which gave rise to the new left have been transformed through the interaction of practical experience, deeper theoretical understanding and changing objective circumstances and that the organizational vehicle of SDS was no longer adequate to express these changes.
The factionalism and at times ridiculous practice which came to characterize SDS during the last year was a result of these changes and the organizational splits in mid-year were logical and–in perspective–necessary consequences. The organization found a method of destroying itself, even though the process may have been unconscious at the time. History will probably record the demise of SDS as a positive step, as positive as its conversion from a tiny left-liberal student association to the symbol of the developing revolutionary politics of the new left and a means of projecting a direct assault on American imperialism.
The political collapse of the organized new left has been in process for some time, although its full political implications are not well understood by most people on the left. Among a variety of political factors, however, several stand out quite clearly:
–First, SDS was never able to relate in a consistent way to the struggle against white supremacy led by black students. On campus after campus, SDS chapters split on young women left–or never joined–SDS chapters because of male supremacy in SDS men and their failure to deal with the vital issues of women’s liberation.
–And third, after its initial antiwar action in 1965, SDS never again mastered the importance of the united front tactic in opposing the Vietnam war.
Each of these factors still characterize the two remaining “SDS” groups and will lead to their sectarian demise.
All of these conflicts and the rampant opportunism and adventurism which attended them represented the formal burial of SDS, the passing of the new left and its transformation into what has the potential of becoming a higher stage of political consciousness and organizational form. This potentially higher stage is not clearly apparent today because of the trauma and chaos of organizational collapse and the vacuum produced by the absence of an immediate alternative.
It is true, of course, that such chaos has produced its casualties. Important actions which should have taken place did not–either because political directions became confused or because resolving the factional contradictions within the outmoded organization assumed primary significance.
Also–and we venture very temporarily–the weirdest political manifestations appear to be in command. The Weatherman group in particular enjoys a fame incredibly out of proportion to its relevance. Given a healthier political climate, the left adventurist Weatherman faction and its rather overage enfant terribles (at least among its gurus) would certainly engender less comment. The other SDS, WSA, cannot in any sense of course be compared with Weatherman in its effect on the left. Whereas Weatherman could only assume the spotlight when the larger organization was in collapse, WSA’s relevance was dependent on being a faction within a viable SDS. On its own, WSA has been reduced to its proper sectarian dimensions. It is ironic that the only two organizations in the U.S. which define themselves as SDS are perhaps the last two to deserve the title.
Among the other casualties of the breakup of the new left are probably a small number of activists who, unable to cope with the factionalism and bad practice of the last year, have dropped out of radical politics altogether and those who may have opted for more subjective allures of the “cultural revolution.”
In sum, however, the same forces and many more which began the assault against American capitalism in the 1960s under the banner of the new left are very much in existence, though there is no national organization to represent them in most cases. And they are, in general, at a qualitatively higher stage of political consciousness than ever before.
The new left produced a new kind of political animal in the U.S. with its vitality, style, audacity, openness, militancy and rebellion. As the liberal political overlay was gradually dropped over the years, replaced first by anti-imperialist consciousness, then by a variety of ideologies claiming the title of Marxism-Leninism, the combination of what was new in the new left and much that was of lasting value in the old has created many, many thousands of young revolutionaries in the United States.
Recognizing that elements of political chaos still abound, there exists today an experienced, though disorganized, radical cadre in virtually every city and every large campus in America, ready to take action in a multitude of ways to fight the capitalist system. In addition, the black movement, despite external repression and some internal contradictions, has sunk roots in the oppressed black communities. A brown movement of Latinos is building fast in dozens of cities and communities. The independent movement for women’s liberation has assumed enormous importance. The inchoate movement against environmental pollution is potentially a major factor in this decade’s radical politics, if it does not lapse into a liberal direction. The antiwar GI movement is more vital today than ever before and will probably continue to increase in impact. And then, of course, there is the antiwar movement.
There is no reason to doubt these forces will continue to grow and struggle on a higher plane than ever before. Radicals are beginning to fight, as socialists, in a number of local battles around issues of immediate concern to working people, positing radical alternatives to ruling class and liberal solutions to the decay of American society. As these struggles progress and as radicals begin to deal seriously with the issues which split and destroyed the new left, it is inevitable that forms of coordination and organization will evolve to bring a sense of unity to the fractured left.
The new left served its purpose. It started from scratch because the traditional Marxist parties were paralyzed (a circumstance which was certainly not entirely their own doing) and within 10 years helped build the energetic movement which exists today, a movement which began with a virtual anti-working class bias but which has come nearly full circle to socialist consciousness and understanding of the key significance of the working class for any revolutionary movement. Now–and there can be no misunderstanding of the tremendous problems involved and of the enormous work to be done–we must build a new left.