The New Left Revisited

The New Left Revisited

The New Left Revisited

The New Left Revisited

Synopsis

Starting with the premise that it is possible to say something significantly new about the 1960s and the New Left, the contributors to this volume trace the social roots, the various paths, and the legacies of the movement that set out to change America. As members of a younger generation of scholars, none of them (apart from Paul Buhle) has first-hand knowledge of the era. Their perspective as non-participants enables them to offer fresh interpretations of the regional and ideological differences that have been obscured in the standard histories and memoirs of the period. Reflecting the diversity of goals, the clashes of opinions, and the tumult of the time, these essays will engage seasoned scholars as well as students of the '60s. Author note: John McMillian teaches History and Literature at Harvard University and is co-editor with Timothy Patrick McCarthy, of The Radical Reader: A Documentary Anthology of American Radical History (forthcoming). Paul Buhle is Lecturer in the American civilization department at Brown University. His most recent book (co-authored with Dave Wagner) is Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies. He writes for The Nation, The Guardian, and The Times Higher Education Supplement, among other publications.

Excerpt

John McMillian

Look carefully enough, and you'll find that nearly each day's newspaper bears some further testimony to the enduring power of the Culture War. It's happening everywhere, and the debates on abortion, homosexuality, multiculturalism, public schools, and gun control are only the most obvious fronts. Moreover, it is commonly accepted that behind the conservative position on all of these issues is a deeply rooted animus against the 1960s. Indeed, the majority of today's social conservatives hold as a central article of their faith that most of our pressing problems have their origins in the Great Society, the New Left, and the hippie counterculture—all of which are conflated in their understanding of “the sixties.”

Conservatives are surely correct to argue that something momentous happened during the 1960s. But at the same time, we can scarcely afford to rely on pundits or politicians for judicious historical perspective. Years from now, when social historians begin to examine the Kulturkampf of the 1990s, they may well conclude that the ruthless right-wing parody of the 1960s was largely shaped by their anxiety over a changing social order. Increased religious tolerance and secular humanism, the changing roles of women, the rising social status of homosexuals, the institutionalization of multicultural ideals, and the exploration of cultural taboos in the arts and media are all (in their own fashion) promoting new systems of moral understanding.

Perhaps this helps explain why the “sixties-as-catastrophe” critique is almost always sloppily argued. As Thomas Frank has noted, the conservatives' historical vision “is undermined by their insistence on understanding 'the sixties' as a causal force in and of itself and their curious blurring of the lines between various historical actors: counterculture equals Great Society equals new left equals 'the sixties generation,' all of them driven by some mysterious impulse to tear down Western Civilization.” Put another . . .

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