Rethinking the New Left
A panel discussion held on November 9th, 2010, at the University of Chicago.
The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a “new New Deal” to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form. “In the United States today there is no Left,” C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, âpolitical activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities — though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial — or merely private. If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.
This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Left’s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?
Spencer A. Leonard