Todd Gitlin and the Demise of the New Left

It wasn’t strange that Todd Gitlin lived (“Todd Gitlin, a Voice and Critic of the New Left, Dies at 79,” New York Times, February 5, 2022) only a few miles from my home in the Berkshires just across the border in Hillsdale, New York. There are many, many well-known people who come to these hills, the Taconics, that form the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Hillsdale was Anna Roosevelt’s home near the end of her life. Anna and her husband lived there. Anna had immense power during Franklin Roosevelt’s last year of life and served as his de facto chief of staff. To get to Franklin at the Yalta Conference near the end of World War II and elsewhere in the last year of his presidency in 1944-45, a person generally had to go through Anna. She was also a journalist. Anna was the oldest of the Roosevelt children and could be described as an early feminist.

Todd Gitlin, an early president of the New Left’s Students for a Democratic Society and later writer, professor of sociology and communications, and a critic of the US left, eschewed identity politics, which would have included feminism, gender identity, race, and political philosophy “Todd Gitlin/A Question of Identity,” SFGate, May 12, 1966), (“The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, undated). His book The Sixties: Days of Hope, Days of Rage(1993) is one of my favorites.

There is a bookstore in Hillsdale that has so much allure that a reader might forget his or her intention of going there during the ascent through the beautiful bucolic surroundings of the place. There are thousands of titles on its shelves, a rarity in the well-established days of the Internet. Its owner seems like a 60s’ or early 70s’ person, and she came to these hills just around that time when the whole world was watching our generation, a concept that Gitlin explores in The Whole World Is Watching (1980) about the protest movement and mass media during the Vietnam War.

Many of the cohort that remains from the baby boomers of the 60s’ generation recoiled at some positions that Todd Gitlin took later in life, as he defined himself as a professor and writer. “Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls” (John Donne, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) becomes a more sensible idea the older a person is and those of us who remain political and active in protest know that a person cannot live without the metaphorical warts that life inevitably gives all of us.

But Todd Gitlin went beyond some of the wearing away that life causes. He often sounded more like members of the right than the left in his criticisms of identity politics and political correctness. Many feminists felt that his portrayal of the US left in its heady days as a men’s movement was well over the top. Gitlin was supremely right in focusing on economic issues in his writings and rightly observed that it were those issues, the bread and butter ones, that lost so many in the US heartland and beyond with whom the left were natural allies. Reality tells a more nuanced story, however, since it was the neoliberals like Clinton, Obama, Schumer, Pelosi and others who gave away the farm to the economic and military elites. We, as leftists, were light years distant from the Trumps and McConnells of this world! They also gave away the environment to those same interests, a fact that is obvious in these hills by the relatively small presence of both wind and solar power, and the uncanny fluctuations of extreme climatic conditions.

If the left is and was so bad, then a detached observer might ask, how is it that the right and neoliberals have brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe? It was the New Left that inspired the first Earth Day in 1970!

Todd Gitlin, a fine intellect, stood on a continuum of those who seemed like they could not criticize the left enough. There was something about the political, social, and economic systems in the US and its symbols that moved many on the New Left to condemn either what we stood and stand for as critics and protesters of the world and this nation. It seems as if many had to redefine their ideals to fit into the narrow mold that has brought us to the brink of disaster with existential threats to our species all around, and none of those threats have to do with contemporary left politics or left economics.

When I think of the blemishes that life has given us following the heady days of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, I think of a morning in Washington, DC, as we, members of a student group of protesters from New York University, emerged from our sleeping bags on the hard ground of early May 1971 in West Potomac Park, a few hundred yards from the Lincoln Memorial. We were there to stop the insanity of the mass murder in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The police had already formed a line at the border of the park and they soon attempted to disburse us, as our actions in the streets attempted to disrupt the system of war-making based in DC and the nefarious Nixon administration, an administration that hated the left but loved war. We were young and had such high ideals on that spring morning and set out to stop the mass murder, while the police began making arrests and chased those who attempted to live to fight that day. My best friend and I ended up in the Lincoln Memorial where the police would not dare to chase us, or fire tear gas at the tourists who began to arrive. Those are values and actions to hold on to, not dismiss or make little of. We did not have guns or rifles or bombs or pepper spray or baseball bats. We had our high ideals and our willingness to take action and chances to right the many wrongs we saw all around us.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).