New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (paper)
In a late 1968 essay on the general strike in Paris that spring, the editors of the New Left Review declared a revolution. “How do we explain this sudden switch of consciousness,” they asked, “this abrupt reversal from acceptance to rebellion, from obedience to mutiny?” May 1968, as has been commemorated many times over, was both a culmination and a rupture extending far beyond Paris. It crystallized a global New Left comprised of various, radical youth-led organizations while marking a generational break from an “old left” sullied, as its critics saw it, by accommodation to welfare capitalism, cultural conformity, law and order politics, and imperialism.
Yet exactly what May 1968 amounted to—and the legacy of the sixties New Left more broadly—is a source of continuous debate. In an exchange of letters published in the New York Review of Books in 2010, during the depths of the Great Recession and with Occupy Wall Street yet to come, historian Tony Judt insisted, “a general strike is not axiomatically ‘revolutionary’ . . . it needs leadership.” He emphasized further that the “strikes and sit-ins of 1968 were remarkable for their spontaneity—but for just this reason they lacked any coherent strategy or goals.” In important respects, Judt’s assessment was rooted in a sober understanding of the major political developments and backlashes that followed the social movements and rebellions of the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Europe and the United States had witnessed the breakdown of a largely social democratic order. Increasing fractiousness on the left and the steady dealignment of workers from center-left and leftwing parties only underscored that neoliberal policies had dramatically altered political discourse and made yet more remote the horizon of radical possibilities. Concrete policy agendas may be prosaic, Judt seemed to imply, but they articulate a path that society can take.
At the same time, Judt’s more caustic reflections on “68ers” marginalized their connection to a pattern of periodic leftwing revitalization, one that has waxed again in recent years. Over the last decade there has been an explosion of mostly nonhierarchical social movements rivaling the energy of 1960s radicals and protesters. Their targets are formidable and interconnected: unprecedented economic inequality and politically shielded concentrations of wealth, fascistic militarized policing, persistent forms of racial injustice, and the ever more urgent climate crisis. Though these movements have so far proved fragmentary and may lack the kind of euphoric optimism that helped galvanize their antecedents, neither are they afflicted by the fatalism that came to mark Western lefts at the height of globalization, when internationalist class politics had largely faded from view, center-left parties embraced markets, and debates about the “end of history” abounded in intellectual circles. Wary as these new movements are of formal political power, they are nonetheless determined to influence it and change the way society perceives injustice.
Today’s movements are therefore consistent, in historian Terence Renaud’s estimation, with a long leftwing tradition of interrogating the methods and forms that can ultimately build a post-capitalist world. In his compelling new book New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition, Renaud illuminates the origins of a distinctive sociopolitical formation he calls “neoleftism,” defining it as an attempt within leftwing groups to “prefigure . . . the kind of participatory democracy and popular control that they expected from a future, postcapitalist society” in order to preempt a turn toward oligarchy within their own movements. Renaud’s unique framework provides an extended chronology and account of the transnational dialectic between different leftwing groups that will be especially elucidating for readers in the United States. Familiar American New Left references—such as sociologist C. Wright Mills, the anti-war and civil rights activism of Students for a Democratic Society, and the emergence of “new social movements” that eventually eclipsed older modes of class politics and radicalism—are placed, alongside their more militant European contemporaries, in a much larger context. This innovative history reveals the broader geographic and temporal contours of neoleftism, tracing its origins back to the small intellectual circles and clandestine political groups of late Weimar and early Nazi Germany, exploring their links to the Spanish Civil War, Germany after the Nazis’ defeat, and finally France during the general strike of May 1968.
The key dilemma for each successive wave of neoleftism, Renaud argues, was how to “sustain the dynamism of a grassroots social movement without succumbing to hierarchy, centralized leadership, and banal political routine.” Today, Black Lives Matter, climate activists, and other progressive groups have similarly grappled with how to successfully challenge injustice while maintaining vitality and independence from the existing political system.