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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Historical roots of the sixties New Left: A review of Terence Renaud’s New Lefts

Historical roots of the sixties New Left: A review of Terence Renaud’s New Lefts

George Fish

Platypus Review 158 | July-August 2023

Terence Renaud, New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

TERENCE RENAUD IS A LECTURER in Humanities and History at Yale, and his book New Lefts is an excellent intellectual and political history that is both universalistic yet grounded in its universalism in a deep and careful study of a particular political milieu, that of the New Beginnings socialist group in Germany from the 1920s to the emergence of the European New Left that culminated in the French student uprising of 1968. It is universalistic in that the lessons to be learned from the New Beginnings group have important applicability across both time and space, that are relevant to Left groupings and new generations of Leftists elsewhere. Yet, Renaud’s meticulous study of the New Beginnings group is carefully and extensively detailed; he captures precisely what New Beginnings and the various activists who comprised it did, in Weimar Germany, in exile forced upon the group and its members by the Nazis coming to power, in the Soviet occupation of East Germany after World War II, right up through the developments and transformations within social democracy in West Germany in the late 1940s, the 1950s, and into the 1960s, ending with an account of the rise of a successor New Left in Germany and France, the student movements of the late 1960s around German SDS[1] and the French events of 1968. Renaud’s New Lefts is a rich and detailed tapestry that is also majestically panoramic in its overall grasp. It shows well the universal within the particular, and how this particular also informed the universal, in the development of independent socialist alternatives to both social democratic and communist orthodoxy.

But New Lefts is also more than just a close study of one particular German socialist group. Renaud begins his exploration of New Left origins in the young Georg Lukács, from his conversion to Marxism during World War I through his authorship of History and Class Consciousness (1923), which drew the ire of Communist orthodoxy upon its publication, and forced Lukács to recant it and its views in order to remain in the good graces of the Comintern and Leninist / Stalinist orthodoxy. New Lefts also examines in detail independent Marxist formations during the Spanish Civil War, and along the way throughout the book provides compelling thumbnail sketches of the leading thinkers of the Frankfurt School as well as Wilhelm Reich and his politics of sexuality. Renaud further gives us a detailed picture of the persona and milieu of Rudi Dutschke, student leader of German SDS, and how SDS broke from its parent organization, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD),[2] taking an independent socialist course much further to the Left. He does the same thing for the young anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and his role in the Paris student uprisings of 1968 that nearly toppled the official French government.

New Beginnings began in the 1920s as a grouping of workers, worker-intellectuals, students, and intellectuals who wanted to build working-class unity in Weimar Germany against the polarization then extant between the social-democratic workers of the SPD, and the communist workers of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD),[3] both mass socialist working-class organizations that were at loggerheads with each other. It started out as the Org, a democratic-centralist organization, but became progressively more democratic and looser in organizational structure. With many of its members forced into exile with the coming of the Nazis to power, New Beginnings hoped that the anti-Nazi Resistance would force social-democratic and communist partisans to unite in action and work together against the common foe. New Beginnings took its name from the publication of its manifesto in the 1930s, the title of which was translated as “New Beginnings” when it was published in English. In exile, New Beginnings members played active roles in Left movements in Spain, in Britain, and in the United States, with many of its members returning to the Soviet-occupied part of Germany following World War II. There, New Beginnings tried to carry on both its independent socialist work, and to oppose the shotgun marriage being foisted by the Communists to “unite” the SPD and the KPD in East Germany into the Communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party (SED).[4] When this failed, New Beginnings members played prominent roles in the SPD in West Germany. Here throughout, Renaud’s history is deep and learned, “naming names” of prominent players, most of whom will be unknown to those not deeply conversant in German socialist intellectual and political history, though there is one exception — the more prominent Richard Lowenthal, who moved from socialist Left to socialist Right and played a leading role in the SPD’s abandoning of Marxism in favor of a reformism more appealing to middle-class sensibilities following the Bad Godesberg SPD Conference of 1959. Lowenthal was also a major critic of the emerging New Left of the 1960s. Thus does Renaud trace masterfully the historical origins of important currents of socialist thought that informed the New Left that was to explode onto the political scene in the late 1960s. All this makes New Lefts a vital and seminal read.

But, unbeknownst to the participants of the 1960s New Left at the time, the New Left peaked in 1968, the year also of its most prominent (or so it seemed) victories — the emergence of German SDS, the events of France, the occupation of Columbia University in the U.S., the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the mass anti-Vietnam War demonstrations worldwide. From then on, it was all downhill for the New Left, as its activists newly “discovered” Leninist organization, much “orthodox” Stalinist / Maoist ideology, and from 1969 on, neoanarchist terrorism, as evinced by the Weatherman in the U.S.,[5] the Tupamaros in Latin America,[6] the Red Army in Japan, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany. In the U.S., both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan came to power from the Right by running against the New Left, or what people imagined it was, disturbance, sexual promiscuity, illegal drug use, and terrorism. Leftism went into sharp decline, remaining largely silent and invisible through much of the 1970s and 1980s, only re-emerging as another New New Left with the anti-globalization protests in Seattle of 1999; and a later New New New Left coalescing around Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020, with many young Sanderistas joining the established yet rather moribund Democratic Socialists of America, giving it both a new organizational life and a new, far more Leftist, political orientation. (Even if, in the opinion of this reviewer, a frequently confused, ultra-Left, and even neo-Stalinist orientation.) Yet, across all these permutations and orientations, not to mention, also across generations, the same impetus that drove New Beginnings remained at play — the hope for effective socialist unity of action across organizational and even certain ideological boundaries. What moved New Beginnings to seek an effective working-class socialist unity of action across the sectarian divisions of that same socialist working class into SPD and KPD still remains in play today, if in different forms due to differing circumstances — building an effective grassroots unity of Left action now against Trumpism and vacillating Democratic Party centrism, to advance progressive political agendas that have broad popular support, and to carry out the promises of liberation that have always informed the best of socialist ideals and traditions. After all, as the Communist Manifesto (1848) so properly says, we do “have a world to win.” |P

[1] Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (Socialist German Students’ Union).

[2] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands.

[3] Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

[4] Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands.

[5] Weather Underground Organization.

[6] In Uruguay, Movimiento de Liberación Nacional – Tupamaros (Tupamaros – National Liberation Movement); in Peru, Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement); in Venezuela, Movimiento Revolucionario Tupamaro (Revolutionary Movement Tupamaro).