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Ideology of the New Left

by Roland Marchand, adapted by Sherrill Futrell
Topic(s): Civil Rights, Sixties

Table of Contents


The early 1960s saw a rising tide of criticism of American society, mainly by college students. They criticized repression, corruption and racism as basic flaws in the entire structure of American government and society.

These protestors and demonstrators were called the "new left", to show both the similarities and differences of their ideas with older socialist and communist ones. Most "new left" groups were committed to living a counter-cultural life as well as changing society. One of the most visible was SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), a civil rights activist group that had emerged from the black student sit-ins in North Carolina in 1960. Another group was SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), mostly white college students. SDS began in 1962.

Suppose that you are writing a history of the U.S. in the 1960s, and want to explain the ideology (set of ideas and beliefs about society and politics) that lay behind the huge protests and demonstrations of that time. You want to explain both the "new left's" complaints about American society AND their tactics of protest designed to transform the U.S. into what they viewed as a good and just society. Also, what fundamental beliefs remained the same in "new left" thinking throughout the 1960s, and which ones changed?


I. The Formative Years of the "New Left": 1960-65. (Documents 1-10) 

During the late 1940s and 1950s, U.S. fear of the Soviet Union combined with anti-communist feelings and laws to weaken the "old left" in the United States. The government harassed and jailed thousands of American socialists and communists, who often also lost their jobs and property. Little visible protest disrupted American political and social life.

In February 1960, however, black students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat-in at a lunch counter which refused to serve blacks. Their non-violent demonstration was successful in desegregating the lunch counters, and it became a model for sit-ins and picketing all over the South. It also spurred the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and inspired protests against segregation in the North. The next three years brought increasing student involvement in the civil rights movement, culminating in "Freedom Summer" of 1964; about 500 students traveled to Mississippi, despite violence against them, to register black voters and establish "freedom schools".

Meanwhile, the Students for a Democratic Society had been sending small groups of students into Northern slums to organize the poor to find solutions to their economic and social needs. In addition, by 1964 the worsening Vietnam War became a focus for SDS and similar groups.

The early phase of student radicalism culminated in the Berkeley Free Speech movement of 1964, when students challenged the administration's limits on their political activities.

II. The Years of Vietnam War Escalation and "Black Power": 1965-68 (Documents 11-16)

By 1965 the escalation of America’s military role in South Vietnam had become one of the New Left’s primary concerns. An SDS-sponsored march on Washington, D.C. in April 1965 drew over 20,000 demonstrators.

Also in 1965, major ghetto riots broke out across the country. The Civil Rights bills of 1964 and 1965 had already been passed, but many black leaders concluded that only the development of "Black Power" could cure the ills of society.

III. The New Left in Crisis — 1968-71 (Documents 17-22) 

 The election of 1968 began a new phase in the radicalism of the 1960s. Outside the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, police fought demonstrators in a bloody confrontation. Despite media coverage which sympathized with the demonstrators, most Americans applauded the actions of Mayor Daley’s police force.

The election of 1968 also brought Richard Nixon to the presidency. His bombing escalations in Vietnam and his invasion of Cambodia caused new outpourings of anti-war protest. But the Vietnamization policy, Nixon’s withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, and his proposal to end the draft began slowly to remove the war as a focus of protests. Nixon also, through his use of the FBI and CIA, dealt a severe blow to radical organizations through both legal and illegal methods designed to repress the new left.

By 1969 the SDS had splintered into a variety of factions. Members disagreed over the use of violence and the role of students in creating social change.



In a well-constructed essay of 2-3 pages, describe clearly the ideology of the "new left" during the 1960s. Consider the following issues:

1. What specific criticisms did the new left make of American society?

2. Were there any "unifying threads" in most of their specific criticisms? In other words, how were their criticisms similar to one another?

3. What visions did the new left present of an ideal society? In what ways do you agree with them? Disagree?

4. How did the new left explain the apparent apathy (indifference) of most of their fellow Americans toward the problems of the society?

5. What groups did the new left believe could become the agents of needed social change?

6. Who in the society probably felt most threatened by the ideology of the new left? Why?



Document #1: Al Haber (SDS President 1960-62), "Agenda for a Generation," Venture, an SDS publication, Fall 1960 

"In its early stages, student radicalism is neither very radical nor a very profound social protest. It generally does not go beyond a single issue....It does not seek root causes...

"The [SDS] participants would almost all fall to the left of the Republican Party and most to the left of the Democratic Party. [Early student radicalism] lacks...faith in the political process...but it offers no alternative beyond direct action....It does, however, have the appeal, publicity value, manpower, and organizational resources to serve as a foundation for a movement of more fundamental protest and more positive radical direction."


Document #2: Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind," 1962

"How many years can a mountain exist

before it is washed to the sea

And how many years can some people exist

before they're allowed to be free

And how many times can a man turn his head

and pretend that he just doesn't see

The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind..."

Document #3: Tom Hayden (SDS President 1962-63), "The Port Huron Statement", 1962

This SDS pamphlet helped shape the thought of the New Left for the next several years.

"We regard men [people] as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles we are aware of countering the dominant conceptions of man in the 20th century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things….Society [should be] organized…for majority participation in decision-making….The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image or popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.

"Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man."

Document #4: Carl Oglesby, (SDS President 1965-66), speech, Nov. 1965

"We work to remove from society what threatens and prevents [love] — the inequity that coordinates with injustice to create plain suffering and to make custom of distrust. Poverty. Racism. The assembly line universities of this Pepsi generation. The ulcerating drive for affluence…"

Document #5: Todd Gitlin (SDS President 1963-4), The Battlefields of War, April 1964

"One of the diabolical successes of this organized society is that it perverts people’s notions about themselves into fantasies that perpetuate an unjust system. This is…particularly true about the poor, the unemployed, the Negroes."

Document #6: Tom Hayden, "Port Huron Statement", 1962

"The decline of utopia and hope is one of the defining features of social life today….the horrors of the 20th century, symbolized in the gas ovens and concentration camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness.…To be idealistic is to be considered deluded…

"Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity — but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply-felt anxieties about their role in the new world?

"…We seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation,…a participatory democracy….The political order should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration…

"To turn these possibilities into realities will involve national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty. They must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy. They must make…contact with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus. They must import major public issues into the curriculum….They must make debate and controversy…the common style for educational life."

Document #7: Tom Hayden, Spring 1964, quoted in Jack Newfield, A Prophetic Minority, 1966

"We are saying ordinary, common people should make decisions about urban renewal and the war on poverty….By insisting the poor can make decisions, we are striking at all of the society’s pretenses, respectability and hierarchy….We are trying to organize, first, around the feeling of being poor and powerless, rather than being black. We are also trying to organize so that poor people develop a consciousness of themselves as worthwhile human beings."

Document #8: SNCC, "Statement of Purpose", Oct. 1960

"We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of non-violence as the foundation of our purpose…and the manner of our action….Through non-violence, courage displaces fear. Love transcends hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Faith reconciles doubt. Peace dominates war. ….Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes immoral social systems."

Document #9: Mario Savio, (Berkeley Free Speech Activist), "An End to History," Humanity, Dec. 1964

"Many students here…have come to the University to learn to question, to grow, to learn….And they find that to become part of society, to become lawyers, ministers, business men, or people in government, very often they must compromise those principles which were most dear to them….The university is well structured, well tooled, to turn out people with all the sharp edges worn off — the well-rounded person….

"The ‘futures’ and ‘careers’ for which American students now prepare are for the most part intellectual and moral wastelands. This chrome-plated consumers’ paradise would have us grow up to be well-behaved children. But an important minority of men and women coming to the front today have shown that they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant."

Document #10: Paul Cowan (a member of the Harvard SDS), The Making of an Un-American, 1967.

"We call ourselves radicals, but the truth was…we were almost the only loyal opposition in the country. We joined a few Senators…in questioning the assumptions behind the United States’ intervention in Vietnam. But our questions, which outraged so many of our elders, usually fell well inside the framework of America’s global interests. Most of us still wanted to help run the country, not to become revolutionaries…

"For each of us, privately, the draft threatened to…put an end to the comfortable life we all enjoyed while we protested a war we agreed was immoral. But even after the first major escalation, in February 1965, it was still a danger that could be outmaneuvered. Marriage meant a deferment; so did graduate school, the Peace Corps, most forms of government work, [and] the slightest physical or psychological defect."

Document #11: Paul Potter (SDS President 1964-65), speech in Washington, D.C., 1965

"What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purposes? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished;…that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies…that consistently put material values before human values — and still persists in calling itself fit to police the world?"

Document #12: Jack Newfield (former member of the SDS), A Prophetic Minority

"Slowly during 1965 and 1966, a new SNCC began to take shape…Now the keynote phrases in SNCC are INDEPENDENT BLACK POWER, RACE PRIDE, BLACK DIGNITY, AND THE THIRD WORLD.

"The 25 whites on the SNCC staff will now organize only poor whites. They will be kept out of the black community. Countywide, independent all-black political parties will be organized, patterned after the Black Panther party…"

Document #13: Stokely Carmichael (leader of SNCC 1966-69), Power and Racism, 1966

"The economic foundations of this country must be shaken if black people are to control their lives. The colonies of the United States — and this includes the black ghettoes within its borders, north and south — must be liberated…

"A powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses. This pattern must be broken…For racism to die, a totally different America must be born.

"This is what the white society does not wish to face; this is why that society prefers to talk about integration. But integration speaks not at all to the problem of poverty….As a goal it has been based on complete acceptance of the fact that IN ORDER TO HAVE a decent house or education, blacks must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that ‘white’ is automatically better and ‘black’ is by definition inferior. This is why integration is a [scheme] for the maintenance of white supremacy."

Document #14: Carl Davidson (SDS Vice President 1966-67), New Left Notes, Nov. 13, 1967

"No one goes limp anymore, or meekly to jail. Police violence does not go unanswered.…An increasing number of the sit-ins this Fall displayed the quality of Tactical Political Resistance. Their purpose was the disruption and obstruction of certain events and actions BY WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY."

Document #15: Dotson Rader (member of SDS), I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore, 1969

"The meaninglessness of non-violent, ‘democratic’ methods was becoming clear to us in the spring of 1967. The Civil Rights Movement was dead. Pacifism was dead….It took…us awhile to give up the sweet life of the democratic Left for revolt."

Document #16: Tom Hayden, "Two, Three, Many Columbias," Ramparts, June 15, 1968

"[The student strike at Columbia University] opened a new tactical stage in the resistance movement:…from the overnight occupation of buildings to permanent occupation; from mill-ins to the creation of revolutionary committees; from symbolic civil disobedience to barricaded resistance...

"In the future it is conceivable that students will threaten destruction of buildings as a last deterrent to police attacks…Raids on the offices of professors doing weapons research could win substantial support among students…

"The Columbia students…did not even want to be included in the decision-making circles of the military-industrial complex that runs Columbia; they want to be included only if their inclusion is a step toward transforming the university.

"…Support from outside the university communities can be counted on in many large cities. A crisis is foreseeable that would be too massive for police to handle.…We are moving toward power — the power to stop the machine if it cannot be made to serve humane ends."

Document #17: "SDS Message to Fellow Students Working for McCarthy [the Democratic nominee for President]", 1968

"As we witness this Democratic National Convention coming to Chicago, our analysis tells us that the major decisions have already been made….We reject your candidate, not because he’s yours, but precisely because he’s NOT, because all he can do is make statements, a figurehead, a mouthpiece, manipulated, just like the other candidates, by those who really hold power and make the decisions."

Document #18: "The Fire Next Time", New Left Notes, 1970

"In SDS we believe that the only solution to the problems of imperialism is a socialist revolution. Liberal reforms which do not change the basic structure of society will not end the exploitation of working people by the rich….

"By a socialist revolution we mean the complete reorganization of America. Workers will control the goods and wealth they produce. Schools, transportation, housing, and all the other institutions of social welfare will be controlled by the people and not by the few rich men who now run America. Black and brown people will seize control of their communities and take back the culture which centuries of imperialist oppression has robbed from them. Women will break from the secondary roles they fill in capitalist America, and along with men will develop non-exploitative human relationships."

Document #19: "Weathermen Communiqué #1", 1971

The Weathermen were an "underground" offshoot of SDS. Their violent language frightened many Americans, even though their actions fell short of their words.

"All over the world, people fighting Amerikan imperialism look to Amerika’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire.

"Black people have been fighting almost alone for years. We’ve known that our job is to lead white kids to armed revolution….Tens of thousands have learned that protests and marches don’t do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way."

Document #20: From the Weatherman songbook, to the tune of White Christmas:

"I’m dreaming of a white riot
Just like the one October 8,
When the pigs take a beating
And things start leading
To Armed war against the state.

We’re heading now toward armed struggle,
With every cadre line we write.
May you learn to struggle and fight,
Or the world will off you ‘cause you’re white."

Document #21: Carl Oglesby, in Liberation, 1969

"The United States is to experience not a social revolution at the hands of its own people, but a military defeat at the hands of twenty, thirty, many Vietnams — plus a few Detroits.”

Document #22: Two New York Weathermen, 1971

"We won very few people over to our politics. We were not yet capable of leading masses of kids. Our…intolerance [hurt us]….We were lazy….We had succeeded in hardening ourselves — we could be critical of each other, we could fight for our ideas, we could fight pigs. But in all this hardening, we lost some of our humanity….Very often we lost sight of the deep love that had made us revolutionaries in the first place."