Abbie Hoffman (Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture (1980), For The Hell Of It: The Life And Times of Abbie Hoffman (Jonah Raskin, 1998), said that every generation needed to adapt its politics to the realities of the era in which it finds itself. He believed that old sectarian doctrines had little to say to contemporary situations. I never completely agreed with him. The New Left, founded by Students for a Democratic Society and its founding document, The Port Huron Statement, are perhaps the best examples of a new doctrine, a liberal view of US society, its political, economic, and social systems, and the US role in the larger world. The Old Left was founded on principles of socialism and social democracy and the New Left rejected much of the Old Left’s dedication to many of the premises of communism.
Much of the New Left moved beyond tired liberalism, and a tiny minority acted as if it was the reincarnation of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. The larger O.K. Corral, however, were and are violent military and economic interventions across the world as the late William Blum documents in Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (2004).
But just as the Old Left was decimated by the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s, so was the New Left destroyed by its faith in liberalism that crumbled faster than the walls of Jericho once the Vietnam War and larger war in Southeast Asia was over and the alliance of major powers solidified their social, economic, and political power across the globe. Globalization and a predatory system of capitalism left millions of people without the means to support themselves and their families, and there were no effective mass organizations that could offer more than a band-aid approach to human suffering and the destruction of the environment. If a radical group did surface that sought to improve serious societal problems, it would either self-destruct or face draconian government sanctions and harassment.
Back to Abbie Hoffman who said that the left had the uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but he was only partly right because movements on the left have been weak since the historical epoch in which he lived and wrote and protested, the 1950s through the 1980s, with a diminished cohort of idealists and protesters to occupy the barricades and organizations of change.
An owner of a radical bookstore in Harlem observed, and I paraphrase, that the right had the winds of the times in its sails and the left was in retreat. The left has been in retreat for decades as inequality and environmental degradation worsens.
The reality has been that no movement for change of the contemporary global debacle has matched or even approached the appeal of the New Left. Who could have expected the effects of globalization and the neoliberal putsch to make the world safe for global capital and wars? While important movements have surfaced around the globe and in the major centers of power, those movements have all been rearguard efforts with little accomplished to change the nature of the systems of power that are despoiling the planet’s environment with frightening speed and viciousness.
Joe Biden bumps fists with Mohammad bin Salman and the Earth’s environment heats with predictable consequences. The centers of power have given this vicious and lethal character a pass for both the war in Yemen and his involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Power has given a hall pass to the fossil fuel industry. As a former member of the New Left, this ongoing disaster is sickening to watch. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and Islamophobia surge here. The political and economic left is also a target of the forces of ignorance and hate.