At the Claremont Review of Books Charles Kesler contrasts the New Left of the 1960s of Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and SDS with today’s New Left of antifa and BLM. Here’s a snippet of the article and, I think, its kernel:
The old New Left hated being treated as children by professors and deans who claimed to stand in loco parentis. Nothing offended Tom Hayden more, as he remarked in his 1961 Letter, than American universities’ “endless repressions of free speech and thought, the stifling paternalism that infects the student’s whole perception of what is real and possible and enforces a parent-child relationship until the youth is suddenly transplanted into ‘the world.’” When the Free Speech Movement (FSM) formed at Berkeley in 1964, its analysis of frustrated, alienated students, as Allen J. Matusow writes in his very fine The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (1984), “came straight out of the Port Huron Statement.” “In our free-speech fight,” said one of FSM’s leaders, Mario Savio, “we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation—depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy.”
Nowadays, student protestors demand in effect, and sometimes literally, that colleges protect them from adulthood, from humanistic debates and political disagreements. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” a Yale student shouted in 2015 at Professor Nicholas Christakis, then master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. “It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!” She added, not exactly maturely, “You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting!” At home, apparently, she is always a child.
Authentic or strong individualism seems far from what today’s protestors are seeking. They raise their voices almost always as members of groups, whose relevant identity is more collective than personal: students of color, the marginalized, victims of microaggressions, who seek protection by and from the white power structure, and compensation to boot.
On their own, apart from the group, they often seem emotionally fragile. As another Silliman resident, Jencey Paz, wrote in her Yale Herald article “Hurt at Home,” “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” The journal removed her article from its website after it attracted a lot of unflattering attention—thus confirming Paz’s preferences.
No one would have called Hayden or Jerry Rubin or the other leaders of the old radicals “snowflakes.” They wanted to oppose the macroagressions of a society that, in their view, had lost its way amid racism and the existential threats of the Bomb and the Cold War. They wanted to change society, not retreat from it. What happened to the New Left’s passionate idealism?
It hasn’t disappeared entirely, but the theory embraced by today’s campus Left is far different from that of the ’60s New Left. The Port Huron Statement reflected deep intellectual engagement, if not exactly seriousness. Its contemporary influences included Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956). Marcuse, a student of Martin Heidegger’s, had perhaps the primary philosophical influence on the movement, and along with other writers helped to connect it, however tendentiously, to Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Hegel, and Rousseau.
The new New Left has no comparable philosophical grounding or intellectual foundation. A widely adopted primer of its thought (used in the Claremont Colleges, for instance), Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, now in its third edition, nods in the direction of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, but these are dusty portraits on the wall rather than active intellectual interests. The book presumes the truth of an easy-going and politically convenient postmodernism without ever establishing it, or reflecting on the alternative. But that’s what’s so handy about postmodernism, isn’t it? It lets you get on with it—skip past the questions of truth and justice, and get right to the delicious matter of power.
I don’t see the real dichotomy as between the Left and the New Left, the Old New Left and the New New Left, or even the Left and the Right so much as between the self-described “creative class” and LBJ. The “creative class” have at least some claim to elite status; LBJ had none other than that of Napoleon—he had brought himself to power. Fifty years ago as now the LBJs had the power. Their “creative class” myrmidons are mere appendages. The LBJs have created little and will create little other than their own influence, power, and wealth.
Who are they? Household names: Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Rick Scott, the list goes on.