The New Left, the Old Left, and the Peace Movement

Published October 1, 1987

The American Peace Movement-it should go without saying-was profoundly shaped by the Vietnam-era New Left. That the New Left was, in turn, shaped by the bewilderingly rapid ideological shifts within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is equally true. Understanding what happened to SDS is therefore crucial for understanding what has happened to the peace movement. Thus the importance for the purposes of AMERICAN PURPOSE of a new history of SDS, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Simon and Schuster, 1987), by former SDSer James Miller.

Mr. Miller’s detailed chronology is worth reading but can’t detain us here. Yet if readers will suffer a brief excursus into the tangled history of the sectarian left in the United States, there are large lessons to be learned therefrom. One crucial sequence of events narrated by Miller was the break between SDS leaders like Tom Hayden and SDS’s original sponsors in the social democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID). SDS wanted a middle-class student rebellion; LID’S roots were in the trade union movement. Moreover, League leaders had either been embroiled in, or had learned from, the battles in the 1930s over communist control of major unions. The elders thought the youngsters could learn a thing or two, especially about “united front” efforts with communist groups. The youngsters didn’t take the advice kindly. Thus the break. Miller lays primary blame for the split on the LID elders.

And now to the point. Or, rather, points. In a lengthy review of Miller’s book in The New Republic Paul Berman (another ex-SDSer) agrees with Miller’s assignment of blame, but also writes as follows:

“Still, I can see rather more clearly than Miller does why the elders might have reacted so sharply. For the elders knew something . . . about the character of the American left. They knew that social democracy is the stablest current on the left, but they also knew that social democracy has a fatal weakness. Social democrats, with their alliance of intellectuals and labor, and with their scholarly heritage, can make persuasive social criticisms and propose reforms and move liberals to the left; but in times of social crisis the social democrats are peculiarly hampered. They can raise their voices, but only so far. . . .

“Communists have a different problem (I use ‘communist’ loosely, to denote leftists who regard dictatorship as a suitable expression of socialist ideals.) In times of political calm, when rationality prevails, communists can’t get anywhere at all. In times of crisis and anger, they discover an advantage. Communists can speak the language of the social democrats, but louder. They can thunder. They can say the wildest things. And if the naïve liberals who have been converted to socialism don’t already have a keen understanding of the differences between social democracy and communism; if the liberals don’t comprehend that democratic socialism and communism are opposites, not twins; if they don’t see that social democratic words take on completely different meanings in the mouth of a communist; if, in short, the naïve liberals haven’t learned to tell a democrat from a dictator, which is something many Americans on the right and the left cannot do, then the poor stupid liberals will think that communists are merely social democrats with courage, and all will be lost.

“In a sharp enough social crisis, with a sufficient degree of anger, the naïve liberals will make the leap. They will become cartoon communists. They will out-Stalin the Stalinists. They will go on a binge until everything the social democrats have built up over the years lies in shambles and the American left has to start over from scratch. ”

That, in three admittedly sharp-edged paragraphs, is as succinct a portrait as can be imagined of what has happened to much of the American peace movement since Vietnam.

If there is a genuine policy crisis (Vietnam, Central America); and if that crisis generates enough anger and passion (what is the United States doing in this mess?); and if that passion turns inward (it must be our fault; there must be something wrong with our society); and if the liberal community moves steadily to the left (half measures won’t do); and if one has no lived or learned experience of the worlds of difference between a social democrat and a communist; and if, to boot, the spectre of Joe McCarthy is hanging over every syllable of the public discourse, then-well, then you get priests, ministers, nuns, mothers, physicians, students, congressional staffers (and members of Congress, for that matter), and activists for every imaginable social cause suddenly aligned with communist agencies “in solidarity with the people of (fill in the blank).”

There are at least two large lessons here. The first is that ideological politics is hardball. People who want to effect world politics for good ends (peace, freedom, justice) have a moral responsibility to understand and then accept or reject the politics of those with whom they are asked to associate in a voluntary effort. It is simply not true that what the Soviet-front U.S. Peace Council and the highly questionable Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador want for Central America and what the average demonstrator wants for Central America are the same thing. That must be recognized, and the kinds of alliances that were represented in this past spring’s “National Mobilization for Justice and Peace in Central America and South Africa” have got to be rejected. If, that is, one truly wants to advance peace, justice, and human freedom.

The second lesson is that the reform of the American peace movement, if it ever happens, will be a responsibility of the left as well as the right. Social democrats, who have a keen sense of the potholes, dead-ends, and blind alleys in the ideological terrain, are just as invaluable allies in reconstructing an American peace effort worthy of the name as are those neo-conservatives and conservatives who know that the national interest and the national purpose are inextricably entwined. Irving Kristol is surely right in arguing that one shouldn’t count out the conservatives in the post-Reagan realignment of American politics. But neither should one count out those gathered in, for example, Social Democrats-USA. Especially if one is a liberal. There is room enough, and work enough, for all hands in building a strategy of peace, security, and freedom in the American third century. An argument transcending the barricades of our politics would be a refreshing

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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