Thursday, December 20, 2007

Book Review: Van Gosse, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History

What was the New Left? This is the question Van Gosse tries to answer is his 2005 book, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History. Gosse opposes the traditional definition of the New Left as a bunch of college kids. He expands that definition to include movements of color, feminism, and the gay rights movement. He also spends a good deal of time exploring the roots of New Left movements, providing a continuum from the Old Left of the early 20th century to the present. While I disagree with some aspects of this definition, Gosse has provided a short, readable overview of the New Left that I recommend to anyone interested in the history of American radicalism and progressive politics.

First, allow me to get my quibble with Gosse out of the way. For me, a core feature of the New Left was a belief in some sort of international revolutionary movement. These movements didn't always start that way of course--the Civil Rights movement or the Free Speech student movement are examples. But I would argue that those earlier movements are precursors to the actual New Left. Civil Rights became Black Power. Members of SDS became Weatherman and a hundred other groups with revolutionary agendas. Many of these movements fractured over the commitment to international revolution. Feminism had its radical and less radical sides, for instance, but ideas of revolution had to be taken seriously by all involved, even their opponents because they were so powerful.

It is in the gay rights movement that the problem lies. Gay rights had very little of that international revolutionary fervor according to Gosse's account. Certainly the gay movement was revolutionary in its own way; its success has transformed the lives of GLBT people around the nation. It is vastly important for understanding U.S. history. But is it rightfully part of the New Left? I am unclear what Gosse's criteria is. In particular, why gay rights and not environmentalism? Both revolutionized America at the same time. Yet environmentalism gets one paragraph in the book. Environmentalism had a more international focus than gay rights, though like gay rights, most early environmentalists did not look to Third World movements as a major inspiration. If you are going to include gay rights, I think environmentalism must be in there as well. However, I would include neither because of their lack of a capital "R" revolutionary agenda.

That out of the way, Rethinking the New Left is a pretty interesting book. Gosse does two things very well. He centers the experiences of people of color, including the Puerto Rican and Asian-American movements at the core of his narrative. He also accurately shows the vast positive effects the New Left had on American society, even as the movement seemed completely defeated by the end of the 1970s.

Traditional narratives of the New Left have focused on the universities, SDS, and the antiwar movement. There is good reason for this, and in fact, Gosse gives those movements short shrift in a slight overcorrection. But those narratives have severely underplayed the importance of minority nationalist movements, particularly non-black minorities. In an excellent chapter on the Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements, Gosse presents the great difficulties these people had in mid-20th century America and how even many white liberals basically did not take their concerns seriously, even as they supported the African-American civil rights movement. I came away from this chapter wanting much more. At times, Gosse could have provided it. Certainly something on the ways Native Americans used sympathy from the white New Left to their benefit would be valuable. But most of these movements are still understudied and in fact, I knew relatively little about some of them.

Gosse's focus on the success of the New Left is really valuable. While all of the international revolutionary aspirations failed, the New Left still transformed American life. African-Americans went from having no outlet for political power to having Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, and dozens of members in Congress. Women underwent the same transition. Casual sexism and racism are still problems, but they are far less acceptable than they once were. Homosexuals went from outright persecution to increasing acceptance within American society. Even many young conservatives are fairly progressive on gay issues.

Perhaps the most remarkable success has occurred for Native Americans. In the 1950s, Native Americans were fighting against official termination of their tribal status. Today, they have reached unprecedented levels of political and economic power in the United States. How did this happen? Between Indian nationalism expressed through the American Indian Movement and other organizations, the fight for tribal sovereignty, liberal white sympathy for Native Americans, and gaming, many, though by no means all, tribal peoples have experienced significant gains in recent decades.

The Native American experience is also a useful mirror for understanding the limitations of the New Left as well. AIM and other nationalist movements made a lot of connections with the revolutionary nationalism of the developing world. In the U.S., this nationalism was violently suppressed by the U.S. government. Indians never could gain complete tribal sovereignty, the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or white exploitation of their land and people. Thus, on one level they failed. But, as Gosse points out so well, let us not mistake the inability to achieve ultimate goals with complete failure. Rather, both culturally and politically, for men and women, whites and people of color, gay and straight, the New Left radically transformed the United States, shaping the struggles we are still fighting today.