The New Left’s Origins in the Old Left

  • Van Gosse


Few social movements emerge spontaneously, though it often appears that way to outside observers and even participants; the New Left was no exception. In the 1950s, when African Americans in both North and South reignited the black protest tradition, there were three other existing political currents from America’s radical past that would also prove crucial to the new radicalism. This chapter focuses on these four points of origin for the New Left: the varieties of black politics that converged in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s; the Communist Party and the remnants of its “progressive” periphery; the older Socialist Party and the rest of the “anti-Stalinist” left; finally, the church-based pacifist movement, America’s oldest radical strain. This is hardly a complete rendering of the Old Left or of broader reform currents in the first half of the twentieth century, including the union movement, postsuffrage feminism, and the liberal wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Such a history is outside the scope of any single book, but it is worth noting that all of these relate to the development of a new radicalism during the Cold War years.


Communist Party Black People Civil Disobedience Socialist Party White Supremacy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

A Selected Bibliography

  1. Anyone trying to excavate the myriad strands of what we lump together as the Old Left is well-advised to consultGoogle Scholar
  2. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds., The Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), an extraordinary resource on the immi-grant anarchists, Socialists and Communists who filled up America’s cities from the late nineteenth century on.Google Scholar
  3. Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left (London: Verso, 1991) is an important intellectual history. For a broad narrative centered on the American radical tradition from the Revolution on by the historian who has done the most to define it, seeGoogle Scholar
  4. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. I would argue that the “black protest tradition,” as Manning Marable dubbed it, is the cen-tral current in American politics, even before the Civil War, so this essay can only point at some of the monuments of an extraordinary edifice of scholarship developed largely since the 1960s, one result of the liberatory movements of that time.Google Scholar
  6. Louis Harlan, Booker T Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) and Booker T Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) andGoogle Scholar
  7. David Levering Lewis, W E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993) and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight For Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000) frame two of the three major strategies developed after Reconstruction. It is difficult to name a single book that adequately captures the distinctiveness of Garveyism, but the reader should consultGoogle Scholar
  8. Edmund David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)Google Scholar
  9. Theodore Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement (Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1971)Google Scholar
  10. Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986)Google Scholar
  11. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey (New York: New York University Press, 1996) andGoogle Scholar
  12. Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in America, 1900–1932 (London: Verso, 1997). To understand how black politics moved forward within the larger context of the New DealGoogle Scholar
  13. Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) is foundational.Google Scholar
  14. American Communism cannot be understood without the exceptional if deeply anti-communist scholarship of Theodore Draper in The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (New York: Viking Press, 1960). Draper’s neoconservative epigones like John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have merely added to his argument with their work in the American Party archives discovered in the former Soviet Union. Two books stand out as offering a different view, concerned not with the Party’s relation-ship with the Soviet Union but with its role in American lifeGoogle Scholar
  15. Mark Naison, The Communist Party in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1983), andGoogle Scholar
  16. Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North California Press, 1990). It is not incidental that both of these books, as well as more recent books like Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-Colonialism, 1937–1957 (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1997), andGoogle Scholar
  17. Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), focus on the base that the CPUSA established in Black America. To these should be added the pro-lific scholarship of Gerald Home—too many books to list here, but also vital for understanding the Black Left and the Communist Party from the 1930s to the 1950s.Google Scholar
  18. There is a voluminous literature tracing the rise and fall of the left-led unions. In particular, one should examineGoogle Scholar
  19. Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980)Google Scholar
  20. Ronald Filippelli, Cold War in the Working Class: The Rise and Decline of the United Electrical Workers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995)Google Scholar
  21. Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  22. Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–90 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1997). Very useful for tying up this history isGoogle Scholar
  23. Steven Rosswurm, ed., The CIO’s Left-Led Unions (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992). An especially notable recent work, however, is one that connects the left, labor, and the struggle against Jim Crow in a quintessential New South cityGoogle Scholar
  24. Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Very little has been written about the gender politics of the Communist Left, but the interested reader should consult Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communists and the Making of Women’s Liberation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)Google Scholar
  25. Rosalyn Baxandall, ed., Words On Fire: The Life and Writings of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), and Dorothy Healey withGoogle Scholar
  26. Maurice Isserman, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Finally, a unique vantage point on the Communist Party is afforded by two biographies of its single most important leaderGoogle Scholar
  27. Edward Johanningsmeier, Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) andGoogle Scholar
  28. James R. Barrett, William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1999).Google Scholar
  29. Regarding the Socialist, Trotskyist (in particular, Shachtmanite) and, to a lesser extent, paci-fist constituencies in the 1940s and 1950s, Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer is quite useful. Amid the vast literature on the older socialist movementGoogle Scholar
  30. Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1982) stands out, as doesGoogle Scholar
  31. James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  32. Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), examines the wartime strikes led by Trotskyists during World War II, among other developments. For reasons that remain unclear, most of the historiography of American Trotskyism focuses on intellectuals.Google Scholar
  33. Christopher Phelps, Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) andGoogle Scholar
  34. Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1987) are central to this historiography. An important overview isGoogle Scholar
  35. George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald, Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996). To understand the larger ethos of the anti-communist left, and its most impressive leader, seeGoogle Scholar
  36. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: Basic Books, 1995).Google Scholar
  37. On the pacifist traditionGoogle Scholar
  38. Lawrence Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933–1983 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), is a good one-volume history. For greater depth, one should consult the scholarship of Charles Chatfield, beginning with For Peace and Justice: Pacifism in America, 1914–1941 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1971). To understand the connections between peace activism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it is crucial to readGoogle Scholar
  39. Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A. J. Muste (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), since Muste was the great bridging figure. Otherwise, the various writings by and biographies of Bayard Rustin are helpful, in particularGoogle Scholar
  40. John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York: Free Press, 2003). Another key individual who awaits a major biography is Dave Dellinger; see his own From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Van Gosse 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Van Gosse

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations