The New Left's formative years. Perspective on the '60s

If I Had a Hammer ...: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, by Maurice Isserman. New York: Basic Books. 259 pp. $18.95. ``Democracy Is in the Streets'': From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, by James Miller. New York: Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $19.95.

ABOUT the 1960s, Americans still feel intense disagreement. For some, it remains the high point of their lives, one of remarkable excitement as the New Left emerged - apparently overnight - to counterattack the war in Vietnam and transform American culture and politics.

For many others, it symbolizes anarchy and absurdity, a bizarre counterculture of narcotics, sexuality, and rock music. For those now under 30, it stands merely as a distant episode, exciting yet incomprehensible in its passion and violence.

Now the Reagan era, which arose in a backlash against the 1960s and has devoted itself to eliminating radicalism both at home and abroad, is itself ebbing away. Campus leftism shows signs of life. The '60s generation is climbing the actuarial tables toward power, and several recent books have dealt nostalgically with its formative years.

Maurice Isserman and James Miller approach the issue differently. Both stood on the fringes of '60s radicalism, but both are scholars, with earlier books to their account: Their tone is calm, dispassionate. Neither indulges in nostalgia or crowd-pleasing anecdotes or flash. Their research is thorough, their questions pointed: This is serious stuff for thoughtful readers with the long view of American history.

These books really form chapters in that much-debated question: What role can the Left play in the United States? Does it indeed have a role in a country where capitalism and legislative democracy have been remarkably successful, and where the middle-class values of consumerism and upward mobility are almost universally accepted? Isserman takes it for granted that the Left has such a role, if only as a ``conscience group,'' never achieving power, but occasionally mobilizing its sympathizers on issues of repression and social justice; Miller is less sanguine.

Isserman is part of a small revisionist group of historians who have been challenging the orthodox view that developed during the early cold war, of American communism as simply a traitorous puppet manipulated from Moscow. Not so, he contends in this book and its predecessor on American communism during World War II.

American Communists were loyal Americans, he insists, perhaps blind to Stalin's crimes, but certainly not Soviet agents. Their goal for their fellow Americans was social justice, equality, progress; their means in the late 1950s was to form a solid coalition, bringing together various tiny, isolated leftist sects. Their assumption - and Isserman's - was that a substantial reservoir of leftist sentiment existed ``out there.'' Surely it could be given direction and purpose as cold war hysteria abated in the late 1950s, as the civil rights movement created new activists, as the national mood shifted toward the center during the Kennedy presidency?

This would-be coalition failed, as Isserman demonstrates: Doctrinal differences and personal rivalries were too great. So the New Left of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that was born in the early 1960s went its own way, neither assisted nor encumbered by guidance from its predecessors. Isserman argues that, in rejecting its elders, in drawing a line between present and past, the New Left also helped bring on its own downfall in 1968-70.

Isserman writes in sorrow and pessimism. The Left he presents lacks coherent doctrine, united leadership, organizational continuity. What it had instead was a small but highly dedicated core of members and sympathizers; but this was not enough.

James Miller, in ``Democracy Is in the Streets,'' also writes of failure, but only after recounting the remarkable breakthrough by the SDS to the national political scene in 1965. Miller is, however, much more concerned with political ideology than with events per se. The latter are adequately covered in Kirkpatrick Sales's ``SDS'' (1973).

This book carries Miller's earlier, explicitly academic studies of Rousseau, and of French existentialism, into an American setting.

That setting was Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan between 1960 and 1962. Here it was that a dozen or so radical kindred spirits came together, quite by chance, to begin discussing the nature of American politics - and how it should all be changed; there are analogies to Russian student groups in Zurich or Geneva in the late 19th century. The nuances of ``participatory democracy,'' of C. Wright Mills's critique of American society, of the early SDS commitment to face-to-face groups - ``a small circle of friends'' - and to democracy by consensus: All this Miller describes with great skill.

His format is biographical, with accounts of SDS pioneers carefully intertwined with ideological analysis. The key person is, of course, Tom Hayden, a hero and antihero simultaneously, whose gradual shift from student activism to national notoriety and involvement with the world of fame and power parallels that of the SDS as a whole.

Miller demonstrates convincingly that the SDS, which began with purity and idealism, was destroyed by the inherent contradictions of its own doctrine. An organization that harked back to Rousseau, to Jefferson, and the 19th-century Utopians, with their vision of small-is-beautiful and the New England town meeting, was suddenly flooded by new members in violent opposition to the war in Vietnam. The ``small circle of friends'' was swamped overnight by recruits with diverse goals, backgrounds, and levels of consciousness, leaving the way wide open for a takeover by radical, i.e., violent, elements in 1968-70.

As others of the founding group dropped out in disgust, Hayden moved with the tide toward extremism and violence. Though he stopped short of the Molotov cocktail, it was too late: SDS had opened the door to the Weathermen and ``Days of Rage,'' and to the bombings of the early 1970s.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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