Last year’s anniversary of 1968, the high-water mark of the 1960s student radicalization, can only partly explain the outpouring of books by participants in the events.footnote＊ I suspect that most of these had been thinking about writing a book on the 1960s for some time, and that the anniversary simply provided the assurance of some media attention. But it is also true that it has taken the sixties generation twenty years to evaluate the experience with a degree of historical perspective. The authors under review have been prompted by the political conservatism of the Reagan era, against which the remembered mood of the 1960s stands out in contrast. This is what gives all these books their wistful quality. Each writer, in his or her own way, tells us that the 1960s was the period when life was really lived intensely, when the politics, the thinking and the morality of a generation were shaped. Of course, it is possible that the conservative cycle has gone its full swing and we are at the beginning of at least a mildly leftward correction. Jessie Jackson’s strength in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race is suggestive of such a change. This could produce a young audience for these books and, in time, new writings on the 1960s which would view this period in an entirely different light. Taken together, these books are a very good starting point for the post-sixties generation to assess the experience of their forebears as well as a way for the sixties generation to come to terms with its own political heritage. The reward could be a somewhat more informed and rational left.
Maurice Isserman’s book is unique in that it is not strictly a book about the 1960s, but rather an account of the decade and generation which preceded it. Isserman is thus a sixties leftist looking back at an earlier generation with which he had very little contact. But as someone who was very active on the left in both periods, I can testify that Isserman does an excellent job of recreating the 1950s and finding in those difficult times some very interesting people and ideas. It is certainly not hard to show the discontinuities between the two periods. It was the collapse of the Communist Party, dominant on the left since the 1920s, which created the conditions for the emergence of a New Left student movement in the 1960s. But although Isserman’s account of the crisis of the cpusa, provoked by the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, is adequate, it is by no means the strongest
It is necessary to place the crisis of Communism within its international framework, as this helps to clarify what is unique as well as what the American New Left shares with similar formations elsewhere. All these books, with the notable exceptions of Katsiaficas and Caute, suffer from parochialism. Communist Parties in all countries were thrown into crisis in 1956. This produced in each country dissident radical currents, with former Communists seeking to create a New Left. What made this process distinctive in the United States was the isolation of the Communists, who had been largely purged from mainstream life by a combination of witch-hunt and prosperity. As a result, a dissident Communist New Left was quite weak—the journal Studies on the Left, published in Madison, Wisconsin, was the best example of this trend—and only a trickle of former Communists joined the ranks of the dissident Old Left, made up primarily of Trotskyists. By way of contrast, the crisis of the British Communists produced a more intellectually vital New Left—the best examples were E.P. Thompson’s The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review, and Perry Anderson’s New Left Review’and more former Communists strengthened the small Trotskyist groups. At the same time the British Labour Party remained the dominant force on the left. During the 1960s student radicalism surged largely outside of it, yet the party was there to reabsorb the tired youth as this radicalization faded. As a result of both processes there was greater continuity between Old and New Left.
What is fascinating, however, yet barely explored in the Gitlin, Miller and Isserman books, is the continuity which did exist between Old and New Lefts through the children of Communists and Progressives. All evidence indicates that red and pink diaper babies played important roles at all levels of sds, influenced by the thinking in their homes at the time they had become conscious beings. In most cases this coincided with the 1950s, when the Communist parents had either left the party or, in order to protect their children from what they faced as part of a hounded movement, brought them up as socially conscious liberals, rather than as educated Marxists or party people. These children shared a common mood, an ethos, rather than a specific party line or theoretical heritage.
The red diaper babies brought to sds a strong sense of commitment
The bulk of Isserman’s book is devoted to dissident left circles influenced directly and indirectly by Max Shachtman. Shachtman was a follower of Leon Trotsky who broke away from mainstream Trotskyism in 1940 and argued that the ussr represented a new form of class rule, while Trotsky continued to maintain that it was a ‘workers’ state’ though ‘degenerated’.footnote2 Shachtman took most of the intellectuals with him when he split from the orthodox Socialist Workers Party. In the 1950s he maintained a minute sect, the Independent Socialist League (isl), which had a somewhat more energetic youth affiliate, the Young Socialist League (ysl), headed by Mike Harrington.
The ideas of this group had influence considerably beyond its small membership. It had links, though largely historical, with the New York intellectuals (James T. Farrell, the Partisan Review crowd, Harvey Swados, Dwight McDonald).footnote3 Former member Irving Howe was publishing Dissent, which shared a common theory of Soviet society but positioned itself at the time to the right of the Shachtman group. The radical pacifists, such as A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin and Dave Dellinger, were also influenced by the Shachtmanite world outlook. The Shachtmanites produced a lively newspaper, Labor Action, and maintained about as open and democratic an internal life as could be found in groups that adhered to a Leninist tradition. Its youth organization, particularly after the disintegration of the Communist Party’s Labor Youth League (lyl), had little opportunity but almost no competition in the student field. Above all, the Shachtmanites had championed the notion that socialism and democracy were indissolubly linked. This gave them important moral as well as political capital.