The sixties were a revolutionary decade dominated by many significant events. Civil Rights Protests, the Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy – all of these happenings had a dramatic impact on the people. No wonder that many social and political movements began in that period, inspiring the spirit of rebellion and freedom. However, the sixties did not only mean social and political difficulties: those were the years of mood and style, youth idealism and exciting ventures.
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What the Story Is About
The book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” by Todd Gitlin is one of the brightest first-hand descriptions of that time. Gitlin’s political views were closely connected with his personal life issues. As he puts it, he has “worked at the edge of history and autobiography” (Gitlin 4). Thus, in his book he contemplates on the impressions of the decade which had a powerful impact on him and his friends. Gitlin admits that there is a place for all sorts of feelings in his autobiography: “pride, chagrin, and embarrassment” (Gitlin 4). He shares his experience of belonging to the New Left movement: “the dynamic center of the decade” which pushed the youth forward by proclaiming the arrival of the change and “forming the template for the revolts of hippies, women, and gays” (Gitlin 4).
Harvard: Formation of Gitlin’s Position
Born in 1943 and growing up in the Bronx, the author was “a liberal youth” raised by “liberal parents (Gitlin 66). However, his Jewish heritage made him feel confused about his political “quietism” (Gitlin 51). One of the crucial moments in Gitlin’s life was his studying at Harvard. There he discovered many rebellious authors and started learning about the left-wing politics. In his sophomore year, he joined a peace group called Tocsin which did not “take positions” but only expedited “whatever projects its members wanted to undertake” (Gitlin 88). Gitlin remarks that while the group did not have a position on the “rights and wrongs” of military issues and Cold War, he considered its “agnosticism strangely appealing” (Gitlin 88). He found it “an ingenious way of catering to the prevailing style of tough-minded Harvard individualism” (Gitlin 88).
Meeting the Red-Diaper Baby: Getting Acquainted with the New Lefts
Another important even influencing both private and political life of the author was meeting his girlfriend, Madeleine, who was “a red-diaper baby” – the daughter of former Communists (Gitlin 67). By that time, Gitlin was disappointed in the political situation and was “ready to listen to lefter voices” (Gitlin 67). To the “more or less liberal” adolescent like Gitlin, the red-diaper babies often became the “first contacts with the forbidden world of wholesale political criticism” (Gitlin 67). Gitlin later realized that his experience of changing the views after communicating with a red-diaper baby was not unique. The majority of New Left activists were not the children from socialist or Communist families but those who were “touched, influenced, and fascinated” by these children (Gitlin 67). In this way, the author explains, the rest of the young people “absorbed, by osmosis” the ideas of the Left (Gitlin 67).
Becoming a Radical: Activity of the Students for a Democratic Society
As a result of communication with Madeleine and her family, Gitlin’s appeal towards pacifism did not last long. Further, impressed by the speech given by the Harvard professor Barrignton Moore Jr., Gitlin turned into a radical. He remembers how the professor “dismantled” his politics “in plain sentences” (Gitlin 99). Gitlin heard that “critical exposure” was the only “sensible protest” (Gitlin 99). He realized that pacifistic actions could not change anything and was “utterly inadequate” (Gitlin 99). After meeting Al Haber and Tom Hayden, Gitlin joined their organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The young people strived to create a novice, more democratic society form by holding out the promise of a constructive social alternative. Gitlin was thrilled by his hew friends. He said that he wanted to be like them because their “exalted, clear, somehow devout souls so loved the world” (Gitlin 101). Almost a year after that, he became the President of SDS.
From that moment, Gitlin participated in many historical events: the ratification of “Port Huron Statement” in 1962 with its idea of “participatory democracy” (Gitlin 102-111), the confrontation between the black militants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964 (Gitlin 82), the SDS, delegation to Cuba in 1967 (Gitlin 274), the killings at Kent State in 1970 (Gitlin 410) and others.
Gradually, Gitlin’s political views changed. The first powerful event that made the author reconsider his position was when during their “Drawing Boards” meeting, they were attacked by a few people from the Diggers (Gitlin 229-230). Then he realized that their organization “possessed no clear authority principle to mobilize against the Diggers’ takeover style” (Gitlin 230). After several more events, including the death of several Weathermen, Gitlin took to the human potential movement. He wrote to his friend, “the Left is its own worst enemy” and says he is happy that they are “in no position to take power” as it would not lead to anything good (Gitlin 388).
Gitlin’s book is more than just an autobiography. It is a confession about one’s political mistakes through the prism of his life. By admitting that he was wrong, Gitlin gives a great example to those who are not willing to accept their failures.
Can the Political Movement of New Left Be Regarded as a Social Movement?
Political and social movements often have similar aims. In the case of New Left movement, the main goal was the implementation of several reforms on the issues of gay rights, abortions, civil rights, and gender roles (Flacks n. p.). As the policy of the New Left presupposed the changes in the social structure, I believe that it can be considered a social movement.
Another reason for supporting the New Left as a social movement is that it involved the participation of students. During the New Left period, an influential student organization was founded: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (Flacks n. p.). As it had its roots in the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the SDS’s aims bore social character.
The Port Huron Statement (PHS), the fundamental document of the American New Left, included the critique of the ongoing social standards: “the family, the school, the church, the prison, the workplace” (Flacks n. p.). The activists of the New Left were trying to coin new forms of “internal organization” (Flacks n. p.).
In my opinion, the character of the New Left movement and its major purposes make it possible to regard it as a social movement.
Flacks, Richard. “New Left and Social Movements.” The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam, 2013, n. p.
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Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Bantam Books, 1993.