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The New Left Movement

In: Social Issues

Submitted By mpthomas
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The New Left and Students for Democratic Society emerged in 1960. They were a group of young, highly educated and highly motivated students. The SDSers came from very privileged and political backgrounds. They were definitely not your average teenagers. The members of SDS were very concerned with the state of the country and government. They wanted to end poverty, eradicate racial injustice and make the world a better place for everyone. When they first started out, the party was very efficient and organized. As the decade moved on, however, the party’s ideologies and political stance changed. They began to split over political beliefs, drug use and tactics. I intend to map out Doug McAdam’s political process model to determine where they went wrong and ultimately failed with their anti-Vietnam movement. The political process model states that in order to start a social movement, three things must occur. They are; structure of political opportunities, use of indigenous organizational strength and realizing cognitive liberation. The SDS started out on the same page, working to support the Civil Rights movement in the early 60’s. They published the Port Huron Statement in 1962. “They wanted a society based on participatory democracy governed by two aims; first, that individuals participate in decisions determining the quality and direction of their lives, and second, that the society be organized to encourage independence and to provide for such common participation” (Klatch 26). After they had published their statement and had an actual list of goals and they knew exactly what they stood for, or so they thought. Step one in the political process model is to take advantage of political opportunities. In the 60’s there were many opportunities because the times were so chaotic and unstable. The Civil Rights movement identified weaknesses in the government, as did the Vietnam War. The country was at a cross roads and the New Left entered the political scene, offering the younger generation hope and new vision. The youth no longer agreed with the Old Left and many people were unhappy with the Republican Party’s views on anti-communism. The New Left offered a new outlook and provided young voters and activists a more appealing option. “The appeal of SDS for many youth was the organization’s embrace of more than one issue. SDS filled ‘the need for something broader’” (Klatch 90). As they began to take political opportunities, they also started to build up their indigenous organizational strengths. They first needed to build up membership. Most SDS members were recruited “through civil rights groups or peace and anti-war groups” (Klatch 90), while others joined through personal relationships. Membership skyrocketed, in 1964 there were 2500 members in 41 chapters but by 1965 there were more than 10,000 members in 89 chapters (Klatch 138). However, it is key for a movement to have existing organizations that they can gain support from. The SDS was born from the Democratic Party yet the SDS immediately turned their backs on the Old Left because they supported Stalinism, organized labor and were anti anti-Communist. This caused an immediate split between the old and the new, leaving the New Left to pave its’ own way. As membership escalated, SDS’s communication network improved greatly. They were now being broadcast nationally as they marched through the streets, organized sit-ins and teach-ins and took over college campuses. They were all over the news and the subject of many magazine and newspaper articles. As young people saw the lives the New Left members were living, they too wanted to join. Who wouldn’t want sex, drugs and rock and roll? It was an appealing lifestyle to many and the images provided by the media helped to spread their message and gain supporters. SDS also provided many solidary incentives to their members. Joining the SDS and the New Left gave people a feeling of purpose; it gave them a sense of self-fulfillment. Not only that, but it gave them the satisfaction of working for a greater cause. They were working for change for all people who were excluded by the mainstream. The final step in strengthening organizational indigenous resources is to identify or elect leaders. This was an issue for the New Left and the SDS because from the start, there was tension and disagreement between members of the party. McAdam states, “For in the context of political opportunity and widespread discontent there still remains a need for the centralized direction and coordination of a recognized leadership” (McAdam 47). Because there were so many disagreements between the leaders among the SDS, the organization lacked the centralized direction that is necessary to maintain a successful movement. The final spark needed to light the fire of a social movement is the recognition of cognitive liberation. For many SDSers, the civil rights movement provided the encouragement and confidence allowed them to move into the anti-war movement. The civil rights movement showed that the change was possible and that there was opportunity to make a real difference in America. As the anti-war movement raged, they gained confidence with all the attention they were getting from the media and the federal government. They realized that they were creating real problems that needed to be dealt with. Although the New Left did follow most of the political process model, their lack of direction and overall goals ended up getting them nowhere. McAdam says that in order for a social movement to survive, “the insurgents must be able to maintain and successfully utilize their newly acquired political leverage” (McAdam 52). The New Left was not able to maintain political leverage, especially as their protests turned into riots and violence became a common theme. They were no longer viewed as a political party, but as a nuisance that had to be dealt with, one way or another. They could not maintain organizational strength because the New Left had way to many members. People joined for their own reasons, creating different groups with different beliefs and goals. The dissolution of indigenous support killed the party, as the New Left took on far too many issues and too many people, they lost sight of their original objectives. Oligarchization also became an issue as many leaders became obsessed with creating turbulence and riots; they had essentially lost sight of the big picture. Finally, the social response to insurgency eventually had an impact on the war. When Johnson was going to send a million more troops to Vietnam, he was told that if that happened, they would not be able to control the country. So, in the end the New Left’s actions did carry out one of their original goals of eliminating the draft. However, in the end the government was just too strong an opposition for the New Left to handle. Overall, the New Left took on too many issues with too many political opinions. The party was divided from the offset and it continued to split as the decade moved on. By the end, the party had to split to focus on different goals like feminism, the Labor Party and the counter culture. They started strong and ended up failing in the end because they lost control and left politics as they moved into radical behaviors and began incorporating violence.…...

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