The New Left and the radical transformation of America
R. Albert Mohler Jr. | The 60th anniversary of the birth of a political movement that set in motion the world we know today
If you want to understand the ideological controversies behind today’s headlines, you need to look to the past—and to one specific event that took place exactly 60 years ago today. On June 15, 1962, a group of activist college students associated with Students for a Democratic Society released what became known as the Port Huron Statement. In so doing, the students declared the emergence of the New Left and signaled their commitment to a radical transformation of American society. It is now clear that those students and their political allies were not only ambitious—they were successful. America, as we know it today, has been reshaped by the ideas and energies of the New Left—and the revolution continues.
Just consider the sexual revolution, the LGBTQ movement, radical feminism, the leftist takeover of universities, and the transformation of the arts and cultural institutions into a massive force of ideological progressivism. None of those would be what they are today without the rise of the New Left, and all of them can trace their ideological and political power to its emergence. But, if the movement declared 60 years ago came with the identity claims of a newer left, there had to be an older left. What was the difference?
The New Left emerged among radical young college students and centered on their rather privileged university contexts. These young people represented the children of the generation that had won World War II, and they were restless. Influenced by leftist and radical figures such as C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, the SDS students had gathered at a labor union retreat in Port Huron, Mich., and they were determined not to leave without a plan. And the Port Huron Statement was that plan. The students self-consciously saw themselves as a new left because they had assumed a radical view that was ready to declare the old left an utter failure.
The 1960s would be marked by the spirit of this rebellion against the older liberalism of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, labor unions, the welfare state, and the New Deal. But the fact that the Port Huron Statement emerged in 1962 underlines that the New Left was a repudiation of President John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier, as well. As the students saw the world, the older left had simply collapsed into an America of big business, repression, cultural sterility, and a military state. They would indict the United States for achieving nothing more than a vast military complex, repressive politics, and oppression. At an even deeper level, the students accused the United States in the 1960s of robbing human individuals of their authenticity.
They called for “participatory democracy,” which, as one observer noted, was “a profoundly ambiguous idea that did not grow any more coherent over time.” Led by student radicals like Tom Hayden (later married for a time to activist and actress Jane Fonda), the SDS activists wanted what amounts to a Marxist revolution that would transform American society from top to bottom. Karl Marx had indicted capitalism for “alienating” the worker from his work. The Port Huron Statement would accuse the entire national culture of robbing individuals of their inner authenticity. The young radicals at Port Huron dismissed Marx for his determinism, but they supercharged Marxism with an even more utopian vision.
By now you should hear the leftist refrains that have resounded through the last six decades. The Port Huron Statement did not openly call for LGBTQ liberation nor did the students employ the language of identity politics. Those movements were not yet imaginable. Even the most radical students of 1962 would surely have responded to terms like “transgender” and “nonbinary” with utter incomprehension. As history would reveal, the mostly white male college students were more intent on getting their girlfriends into bed. But their manifesto blew wide open the doors of revolution, and their mandate for personal “authenticity” would eventually birth later revolutions that would encourage, among other things, biological males to declare their authentic selves to be women and to demand to swim on women’s swim teams.
There are a few individuals whose life spans include both the old and new lefts. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is one of them, but so is President Joe Biden. Biden served for decades in the Senate while styling himself a moderate with ties to the old FDR tradition of liberalism. But Biden won the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 by surrendering to the New Left and its aims. Look at U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her generation and you see the revenge of the New Left in full force. The New Left now owns the universities and the engines of cultural production.
The hinges of history rarely turn on a single event, but one event can put things in motion. One of those events took place 60 years ago today. Those college students are now mostly in their 80s, but we are all now living in the world they set loose. That seems like something we ought to think about.
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