Starting at the end of the 1950s, the New Left can be seen as a collection of heterogeneous groups, movements and small parties which attempted renew left-wing politics and to get away from the existing pro-Moscow Communist, Stalinist, Trotskyist and Social-Democratic parties which concentrated on traditional parliamentary politics and trade union activity. It had some of its roots in the disillusionment of many orthodox Marxists following the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, but it also drew on other existing radical movements such as Council-Communism, Anarchism, Situationists and the French “Socialisme ou Barbarie” (Socialism or Barbarism) group.

The Emphasis of the New Left[]

The New Left placed its emphasis on social activism and grass roots activity rather than on traditional political activity. It was anti-establishment and parts of it were often anti-authoritarian. Its activists were involved in the nuclear disarmament-, civil-rights-, student-, and Anti-Vietnam War movements.


In Britain, the New Left was mostly made up of small Marxist groups critical of Moscow led Communism. Some were influenced by the “New Left Review”, started in 1960. Others tried to get back to “original” Marxism-Leninism. A further influence was the Frankfurt School whose major theorists included: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowental, Friedrich Pollock, and Erich Fromm. Many members of the Britsih New Left were involved in the the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the more militant Committee of 100. Later, influenced by American and French students, the British students also began to protest.


In the USA, the New Left was, at the start, more influenced by the non-marxist “Progressive” movement. It had a more radical/liberal character than the British New Left. Later, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, it took on a more anti-imperialist character, seeing the Chinese Cultural Revolution positivly and finding its heros in Che Guevara and Ho Chi Mihn. It was especially strong on the campuses of the US universities. US New Left groups included the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Yippies, the Black Panther Party and the White Panthers. A later, militant expression of the SDS movement was the Weather Underground.


In France, the influential New Left groups were “Socialisme ou Barbarie” and the Situationist International (SI). In particular, the SI played an important part in the events of May 1968, and Guy Debord, one of its theorists, wrote one of the most important (and most badly translated) books of the period, “The Society of the Spectacle”, published in 1967. Especially during 1968, the French New Left was clearly opposed by the Communist Party (PCF) which first supported the stiking workers but opposed the students, and then sided with De Gaulle in ending the general strike.


In Germany, the Frankfurt School influenced a part of the existing left, but the New Left really came into existence in 1966 with the formation of the Extraparliamentary Opposition, (Außerparlamentarische Opposition - APO). Its membership consisted mostly of young people disillusioned with the Grand Coalition government of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Since the Coalition controlled 95% of the german parliament, the APO provided a more effective outlet for dissent than existing parties. The APO later broke up into a number of competing K (communist) groups. Some members of the New Left were involved in the german commune movement of the sixties and seventies. Others became urban guerrillas in the 2nd of July Movement and the Red Army Fraction.

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