Saturday, March 12, 2011

Isserman - If I Had a Hammer

Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer--: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Isserman connects the popular front of the 1930s with the New Left of the 1960s, finding a small group of radicals still operating through McCarthyism, and thus rejecting the claim that McCarthyism killed the Left off.

The short book works through 5 chapters. The first looks at the decline of the Old Left, with the last tying the middle chapters to the rise of the New Left, mainly SDS. In between, Isserman traces three lasting strains of radicalism from the Old Left through the 40s and 50s:
  1. The continued tradition of political party, represented by Max Schactman, the head of the Independent Socialist League who swung first to the left, then back towards the center in an attempt to find a broader appeal.
  2. The continued tradition of political journal, represented by Irving Howe's Dissent. Howe was a generation younger than Schactman. He looked up to the older socialist, but pursued the spread of radical ideas through the journal, rather than through group organization.
  3. The much older American tradition of anarcho-pacifism (Thoreau to Gandhi, pre-existing but rejuvenated and inspired by MLK), represented by a variety of activists, notably the Golden Rule expedition - the attempt to sail a small boat into the range of a Pacific Ocean nuclear test.
Isserman conducted numerous interviews, and thus his book is heavy on the stories of individuals involved in the movement. Eventually, this leads to his main critique of SDS's failures. It's young leadership, though inspired and influenced by the descendants of the Old Left, failed to learn from their mistakes. Overall, neither the young students nor the relatively older left who came of age in the interim between the Old Left and the New Left were able to form a mass movement that could both appeal to a mass audience and actually have a coherent purpose behind it.

Yet, despite this focus on individual roles in the movement, it is striking how the historical turns of the Left in the 40s and 50s (and, as briefly noted, in the 60s) were affected by broader historic events. It seems the left never could quite get its legs to stand against various waves of history...
  • The Nazi-Soviet pact devastated American communists.
  • The WWII alliance with the Soviet Union, conversely, helped communists.
  • On the other hand, WWII devastated American pacifists
  • The Cold War and the quick rise of McCarthyism devastated everyone on the Left.
  • The Feb 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow devastated the remnant of communism in the United States for Khrushchev's attack on the "cult of personality," a veiled admission of Stalin's abuses. Stalin and the Soviet Union had been, to that point, unassailable examples to US communists.
  • The Nov 1956 Hungarian revolution further eroded US communist faith in the Soviet Union. From there, American socialists took on an anti-communist tack, seeing both the Soviet Union and the United States as culpable Imperial powers.
  • The pacifist movement struggled after WWII, but began to take energy and motivation from the Civil Right's movement. By the 1960s, the pacifists managed to gain some sympathy with the general public for their anti-Nuclear weapons efforts, though bolder critiques of American military were not acceptable to most Americans.
The 1960s, on the other hand, provided fertile events for the Left to attract members...perhaps TOO fertile:
"Whenever SDS's growth slowed, another massive new stimulus came along, leading to still another exponential increase in SDS membership. The Cuban missile crisis, Birmingham, Neshoba County, Berkeley, Selma, Watts, the bombing of North Vietnam, Detroit, Newark, the Tet offensive, the May 1968 uprising in Paris, King's assassination - all fed a sense of outrage, a sense of moving with the tide of history... but gave no occasion for introspection..." (218)

As the JAH review by Michael Wreszin points out (, the main flaw of Isserman's attempted connection is the rejection of orthodoxies and political party lines by the Port Huron statement and the accompanying celebration of individual autonomy and demand for explicit moral values.

See also, a broader historiographic review "Whose New Left" by Winifried Breines, which considers Isserman along with Gitlin's The Sixties and 3 other books:

Place among other Books
Isserman connects the history of America's left from Denning's The Cultural Front, describing cultural evidence for who the left was in the 1930s, to Gitlin's The Whole World is Watching, which explains the demise of the New Left through an analysis of how the movement was portrayed to Americans by mass media. Isserman, a half-generation younger than Gitlin, was a member of the SDS as a freshman in 1968. Isserman, likes Gitlin, faults the amorphous leadership of SDS for the movement's inability to sustain itself beyond the late 1960s.

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