The New Left and the City

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Analysis I May 28th, 2015

The political and cultural trauma of the 1950s brought about the beginnings of a monumental evolution of the American Left. A decade after the end of the war, the long-feuding AFL and CIO merged. A subsequent purge of leftists from the old CIO ensued as entrenched labor bosses sought to eliminate dissidents, ingratiate themselves to the political elite, and gain cover against charges of communist collusion. In 1956, the Red Army roared into Hungary to eliminate a grassroots revolution against the Stalinist government in power. Marxists in the West began to have their eyes opened to the reality of Soviet Communism, while the purges of American McCarthyism eliminated real and imagined radicals in nearly every institution of American life. The old "Labor Left," having achieved many of its bread and butter issues, appeared to be incapable of dealing with an insurgent Right. In 1960, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote an open letter to a new generation of radicals. Entitled "Letter to the New Left," Mills' manifesto called for a rethinking and reorganizing of the America Left.

A new generation soon answered Mills. Originally known as the Student League for Industry, the Students for a Democratic Society emerged in 1962. That same year they authored an organizational manifesto known as the "Port Huron Statement," which greatly influenced much of the Left throughout the remainder of the decade. A remarkably far-sighted document, it accurately diagnosed many of the systemic issues facing the country at the dawn of the sixties. The list of deep-rooted problems addressed by SDS ran the gamut from the environment, sustainability, income inequality, and very presciently, the multiplying issues then manifesting themselves in urban areas.[1]

The drama of the sixties left American cities on the brink of ruin, and the New Left movement of the era responded to the conundrum of the city in variety of ways. When the New Left splintered in the 1970s, most major urban centers began to enter the worst phases of what became known as the "Urban Crisis." Today, as more cities begin to grow and redefine themselves in a new era of urbanism, the next generation of leftists must come to grips with the fact that cities will be the key arena for organizing movements for socioeconomic change in this century. In order to understand where that might take the Left today, it's important to grasp the history and inheritance of the New Left and the city.

(I restrict my field of study here to America, although the New Left was indeed a global phenomenon. I also use an admittedly expansive definition of the New Left-one that encompasses more traditional groups like SDS and the so-called "counterculture" movement, broadly speaking.)

As the decade of the sixties dawned, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, born in the Jim Crow South, became one of the most important early groups in the New Left. SNCC took an active role in the various campaigns designed to break segregation-including the Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. SNCC's influence spread far and wide among student groups. After Stokely Carmichael assumed leadership of the organization in 1966, SNCC moved in the direction of Black Nationalism, yet despite this change in philosophy (SNCC expelled white members of the organization in 1966.) the group foundered when it attempted to address issues in the broiling cities of the North; instead, much of SNCC's membership jumped ship to join groups like the Black Panther Party. While SNCC concerned itself mostly with small towns throughout the rural South, it also directly influenced the urban organizing campaigns of SDS.

In the early years of the group, SDS quickly expanded its presence on university campuses; however, in a move designed to organize around access and economic opportunity in the inner city, SDS soon established the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). The ERAP was promoted as an effort to build an "interracial movement of the poor."[2] SDS hoped the ERAP would help build movements to consolidate community control in northern cities and then link-up with the civil rights movement in the South. By 1964, students were moving into ERAP offices in Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Boston, and Cleveland.

Different ERAP chapters took on different roles and even had different on-the-ground approaches. But a key strategy, often used in community organizing, involved tackling local quality of life issues and then positioning them within greater economic and political contexts. Yet contradictions soon arose. Students wanted to simultaneously allow community residents to organize around their own ideas and issues-with little input from the organizers-but they also wanted them to coalesce into larger radical movements.[3] In other words, ERAP members, many of who were plagued by guilt over their comparatively privileged class status, relinquished control over organizing while also continuing to hold very fixed notions about where such organizing should lead.

Disputes over the direction of SDS eventually broke out within the organization itself, especially between Tom Hayden-who spoke in favor of the direction taken by the ERAP-and Robert Alan Haber, the first president of SDS-who favored a return to campus organizing and activism. While the rift between ERAP and campus activists continued, ERAP's Newark Community Union Project, centered in Newark, New Jersey, grew to become the most successful venture proffered by the organization.

The NCUP primarily worked on housing issues, including rent strikes and campaigns against slumlords. The group even managed to take control of the local "War on Poverty" community board. Much of the organization's work centered on building a loosely recruited chain of contacts and resident supporters, as opposed to the more traditional membership approach.[4] They also recruited heavily from the working class, especially among black women, many of who became dedicated organizers in their own right. But the NCUP, despite making some real gains, was only marginally successful when it came to addressing or understanding issues of paramount concern to the community-like police brutality. Also, as Kevin Mumford points out, the NCUP and the SDS "did not see poverty as a cultural problem or a matter of behavior, but neither did they show appreciation for the intersection of race and class, of how deindustrialization and the rise of the suburbs had come to marginalize black urbanites." [5] But events soon ended any potential learning opportunities for activists on the ground in Newark and elsewhere.

The Free Speech Movement and the escalating war in Vietnam, along with the deteriorating circumstances facing many cities where SDS operated, ultimately sapped much of the energy behind the ERAP. The Cleveland, Chicago, and Newark groups survived until 1967. The Newark Riot and the growing Black Power movement made further interracial organizing difficult. Instead, SDS moved deeper into the world of campus radicalism, and Black Power came to the fore of New Left activity in American cities.

Much of the vanguard of SNCC, along with scores of the unaffiliated, moved toward the burgeoning Black Power movement as the era of the 'long, hot summer' descended on cities from coast to coast. In particular, California's Black Panther Party for Self-Defense defined the new movement. Born in the segregated neighborhoods of Oakland, the Panthers set the stage for the confrontation between black radicals in cities across the country and local and national law enforcement officials, especially the FBI, who vowed to destroy the organization and those like it.[6] While much attention has been paid to the Panther's clashes with police and their insistence on armed self-defense, their urban community programs have received far less notice.

The Black Panther Party of the early 1970s is often portrayed as a spent force, riven by internal disputes and external attacks by the government. Yet the Panthers continued to pioneer important health programs in Oakland. Offering food and clothing assistance to urban neighborhoods was an early part of the Party's community platform, as was the Free Breakfast Program for Children. Additionally, as new Panther chapters opened across the country, each was ordered to open a community based medical clinic or PFMC. According to Alondra Nelson's research, these sites offered a multitude of services:

"At the PFMCs, Panther cadre worked with both lay and trusted-expert volunteers-including nurses, doctors, and students in the health professions-to administer basic preventive care, diagnostic testing for lead poisoning and hypertension and other conditions, and in some instances, ambulance services, dentistry, and referrals to other facilities for more extensive treatment. At the free clinics, the Party also administered patient advocacy; Black Panthers and volunteers helped clinic clients to navigate housing, employment, social welfare programs, and similar matters." [7]

In contrast to the War on Poverty or Model City programs, The Party's initiatives were purely local and more focused on the direct needs of black urban dwellers. The Party's much heralded sickle cell anemia initiative was a prime example.[8] The government and non-profit health groups eventually sought to co-opt the Panther's programs, especially the breakfast program and the sickle cell program, even as they sought to demonize the Party itself. As pressure on the group mounted, chapters around the country folded-leaving only the original Oakland chapter, which survived until 1982.

While Black Power spread throughout cities in the North, the movement against the Vietnam War, the hippie culture, and the broader youth movement spurred what became widely known as the "counterculture." Much of the counterculture consisted of semi-serious or outright frivolous elements; still, it did play a key role in several cities. The Los Angeles New Left, which proved particularly active, attempted to build bridges between the overtly political groups, the hippies and counterculture crowd, and the black and Latino communities of the city. While the New Left evolved a very internationalist outlook over time, the Left In Los Angeles adopted a rather local and regional outlook.[9] The Sunset Strip became one of the initial gathering points for the counterculture; the radical newspapers The Open City and the famed Los Angeles Free Press both began in the area. A strange amalgamation of dissidents merged in Hollywood and Venice to form a movement that "was an essentially New Leftist one-participating in social and racial egalitarianism, authenticity, and cultural experimentalism."[10]

During the Summer of Love, the city's New Left organized a series of interracial solidarity gatherings, though largely cultural in nature; they were also fairly unprecedented for the era. Other less successful events were held in East L.A. and Watts, which revealed the continued gap between the white counterculture and communities of color. But as Venice and Hollywood became more radical, the LAPD launched a brutal crackdown in 1968, targeting white radicals, the black community, and hippies alike. All three groups had been extremely active in fighting against a proposed freeway that would have isolated the Venice "ghetto" from the tourist areas. This "freeway revolt" would be repeated in other cities where various New Left and radical groups came together to try and defeat highway programs scheduled to bisect inner cities and to destroy neighborhoods.

The counterculture, however, proved to have deeply ambivalent feelings about cities. As historian Steven Conn points out, "Causally or coincidentally, hippies left the city at exactly the moment when civil rights and urban issues became virtually synonymous." [11] That's overstating the argument, as the aforementioned example of Los Angeles reveals, but Conn's point is not without merit. The majority of communes were actually in urban areas, though they spanned a variety of types from the strictly middle class to the radically political.[12] Many from the counterculture did end up in rural communes as the plight of cities worsened and the "back to the land" movement spread. The counterculture's touchstone film, Easy Rider, perfectly captures the urban anomie and the rural communes that increasingly pervaded the era as the sixties progressed.

The story of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hoppper's fictional counterculture biker duo, in many ways, pays homage to the back to the land ethos of the late sixties. The film itself plays like a vision quest, moving in a dream-like state through the largely rural areas of America. When the duo visits a commune in the Southwest, Fonda asks one of the members what city he is from. "The city? Doesn't make any difference what city," he replies. "All cities are alike. That's why I'm out here." When Hopper questions the future of the desert commune, Fonda immediately counters him: "This is nothing but sand, man. They ain't gonna make it, man. They ain't gonna grow anything here." "They're gonna make it," Fonda replies. "Dig, man. They're gonna make it." [13] The film's portrayal of the open road and dropout culture ends tragically, and it is far from clear that it glamorizes anti-urbanism, but Easy Rider accurately described much of the politically ambivalent Left during the Age of Aquarius.

By the beginning of the 1970s, the New Left was splintering, and America's deeply troubled cities began to enter their nadir. SDS dissolved and the Weatherman organization emerged from the pieces. Yet the Weatherman soon went underground to embark on a campaign of targeted bombing, and although they moved from city to city, they remained a hidden entity. The break-up of the Black Panthers in New York City birthed the Black Liberation Army, which launched Eldridge Cleaver's promised urban war against police before being dismantled. While these organizations went their separate ways underground, the fading counterculture, for the most part, joined their parents in suburbia. The rural communes, while surely never more than a small grouping, did influence the environmental movement and even the feminist movement, both of which grew as the New Left and the counterculture faded away.

The New Left could never quite overcome internal difficulties, external attacks, or the enormous structural problems tearing away at urban areas in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the most ardent leftists of the era eventually moved to suburbs, and some even became Republicans or Reagan Democrats-aligning themselves with an administration that completely turned its back on American cities. The radical Left, once so numerous in urban centers across the country, shrank to almost nothing.

Over the past decade, a kind of urban renaissance has swept cities from Los Angeles to Washington DC. But this "renaissance" mirrors the highly unequal macro-economic changes that have beset American society in general. Service sector workers and the lower class in revitalizing cities are struggling markedly with gentrification, a lack of public housing, and the privatization of public space. In 2011, The Occupy Wall Street movement bravely retook public spaces to begin voicing the demands of a generation besieged by inequity. It is fitting that Occupy began in New York, a city that has become the province of not only Wall Street financiers and the ultra-wealthy of every stripe, but also a depository for foreign capital. Evermore skyscrapers condos are going up in the Big Apple (usually investment properties for the global elite) while public housing and affordable housing for the middle class goes wanting. And while Occupy ultimately faltered, offshoot groups like Occupy Sandy and Occu-Evolve continued to do important work in New York.

Over fifty years after the Port Huron Statement accurately predicted that urban centers would form the locus of future leftist organizing, the bare beginnings of new organizing are emerging. According to David Harvey, "The current wave of youth-led movements, throughout the world, from Cairo to Madrid to Santiago-to say nothing of a street revolt in London, followed by an 'Occupy Wall Street' that began in New York city before spreading to innumerable cities in the US and now around the world-suggests there is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed." [14]As new movements form, the "New, New Left," will have to struggle with the legacy their forbearers, for both good and ill, have left them. And they will have to confront the growing citadels of inequality that are American cities today.


[1] See "The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society," University of Michigan, (Accessed May 18, 2015).

[2] Jennifer Frost, An Interracial Movement of the Poor: Community Organizing and the New Left, (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 1.

[3] Wini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968. (Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishing), 126.

[4] Kevin Mumford, Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 91.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 6.

[7] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 6.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] David McBride, "Death City Radicals: The Counterculture in Los Angeles," in The New Left Revisited, ed. Paul Buhle and John Campbell McMilllian (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 114.

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Steven Conn, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 269.

[12] Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 144.

[13] Easy Rider, Directed by Dennis Hopper, Columbia Pictures, 1969.

[14] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), 116-117.