[This article appeared in the Summer 1970 issue of The Business Journal, published by the College of Business Administration at Wichita State University, pp. 5-10.] 


What the Businessman Should Know About the “New Left” 

Dwight D. Murphey  

            At least a partial apology would seem to be in order for the title of this essay.  We cannot hope, certainly, to cover in a few pages all that a businessman—or anyone else, for that matter—should know about the New Left.  The title reminds me slightly of the audacious subtitle to H. G. Wells’ two volume Outline of History, by which we are advised that the work sets forth “The Whole Story of Man.”

            And yet I am persuaded that it is well to attract the attention of businessmen to an article about the New Left.  Not only men of business, but Americans generally, ought to know far more than they do about it, its origins and significance.

            The entire subject may be approached through a single question: What is the New Left?

            The answer must be made on at least two levels.  First, we will need to become aware of what the major “new leftists” have been doing and saying.  And then we will want to seek a deeper explanation rooted in philosophy, sociology and history.

            1.  If we look at its leading proponents, we see that the New Left is not monolithic; it has not yet arrived at a single viewpoint.  Rather, it represents an agonized reappraisal of American liberalism by men who seek to take that liberalism further to the left.  These men seek to assert far more overtly than in the past—and with an intensified impatience—the socialist and anarchist traditions that have always been an important, albeit more or less covert, part of American liberalism.  Thus, the New Left represents liberalism at the crossroads.  Liberalism is called upon to decide which of its many components are to predominate in the future.

            Probably the best known of the New Left philosophers is Herbert Marcuse, professor at the University of California at San Diego.[1]  He advocates a modified Marxism that would recognize that the proletariat[2] has been lulled to sleep by the affluence of American society.  Since, he says, the workers can no longer be counted upon to revolt in the classic Marxian sense, the revolution leading to the ultimate anarchic “classless society” (updated by Marcuse to envision a computerized utopia) must come from the “social outcasts”: disillusioned intellectuals, minority races and hippie types.  He favors what he calls a “liberating tolerance,” by which he means tolerance for all views seeking change, repression for all views seeking to preserve the present society.

            Another prominent author is Noam Chomsky, a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, who welcomes the “revival of anarchist[3] thinking in the New Left.”[4]  He attacks the liberals who have worked within established American processes, criticizing them as being too cerebral and saying that it is rather a powerful emotional response that is needed to the issues of the day.

            It is Saul Alinsky who best illustrates the degree to which “old socialists” are gaining an increasing voice today.[5]  He has had substantial influence; his tactical plan and theories are picked up at least in part by such disparate personalities as Noam Chomsky, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the late Robert Kennedy.[6]  Alinsky is an advocate of the communal ownership of property within an anarcho-syndicalist[7] social organization.  With this as his theoretical foundation, he has devoted his life to forming “organizations of the people.”  His hope is that such “People’s Organizations” can (1) give a voice, through agitational and coercive techniques, to those whom he considers the dispossessed in American life, and (2) serve as the possible basis for a future organization of society.

            Michael Harrington and Christopher Lasch disavow revolutionary violence and call for the formation of a broad socialist party based on a thoughtful formulation of socialist theory.[8]   Lasch is critical of those in the New Left who argue that socialist theory can arise only out of revolutionary action.

            Theodore Lowi writes of the “end of liberalism.”[9]  He says that what America has had has been “interest group liberalism.”  As a substitute, he offers “juridical democracy,” which would involve more explicit social planning, more conscious direction.  Seeking to streamline liberalism from a planner’s perspective, he says that the time for pragmatism, for the pulling and shoving of interest groups, should be over.  His philosophy, too, is an attempt to take liberalism farther to the left.

            Although these authors constitute only a small part of the many who comprise the New Left, our brief review of their positions has been sufficient to illustrate some of the alternative approaches they are urging liberalism to adopt.  We see that each urges a bolder radicalism.  At the same time, there is no consensus among them as to theory or method.  They share the basic values of the Left, but are still carrying on the internal disputes that a hundred years ago separated Marx from Lassalle, Fourier from Owen.

            If we may judge from the American experience of the 1930s, we may anticipate that at some future date there will be a tendency to form a “Popular Front,” a coalition on the left.  Or nineteenth century Russian history may serve as a guide: one of the formulations may gain sufficient momentum as to absorb or exclude the others, just as Plekhavov’s Marxism won out over the competing socialist views among the Russian intelligentsia.  I think it is doubtful that the New Left will long remain in its present fragmented form.

            2.  It is not enough, however, for us to become familiar with the variety of New Left ideologies.  We must come to understand it in the deeper sense—philosophical, historical, sociological—to which we have already referred.

            Liberals themselves most often explain the New Left—as, say, the student radicals—as being idealistic young people who are essentially sound, but who unfortunately are going too far in their tactics.  In this explanation, radicalism in the universities (and elsewhere) is a healthy phenomenon, albeit sometimes distasteful or even brutish.

            All I can say in the remainder of this essay will serve as a refutation of that explanation, which I consider shallow and indulgent.  The New Left is not a healthy phenomenon; it is, rather, an ugly manifestation of the division and failure of consensus that has plagued western civilization for the past three hundred years.  The New Left, or something like it (and the German youth movement prior to World War I and the Russian nihilist movement were surprisingly like it), may someday effect the destruction of our civilization unless constructive forces can successfully overcome such movements, provide answers to the recurrent problems that have plagued modern society, and create a sound consensus.

            (a)  In everyday life, it appears that the world exists on a settled foundation, that the civilization in which we live rests on a solid base.  But this perspective, as natural as it may be for the acting man, has never been fully justified historically.

            Thus far, every civilization has suffered certain fatal weaknesses that have led to its demise.  Rome, for example, existed for a thousand years.  And yet, at no time did it have a foundation that could serve to perpetuate it for all time as a satisfactory basis for human life.  The Republic during the wars with Carthage[10] was looked upon by later Romans as the ideal time, but it was based on unique circumstances which were bound to and did change.  For six centuries thereafter, Rome was based on civil war and military dictatorship.

            Can anyone say that the Middle Ages were firmly settled on a satisfactory foundation?  (There are those who say so, but most of us find it difficult to share their judgment.)

            For its part, modern European civilization, including America, has never settled upon a permanently workable foundation.  As to its ultimate values and institutions, a continuing debate has raged for hundreds of years.  What, for example, do we mean by “freedom” or “equality”?  The anarchist gives one answer, the classical liberal another, the Burkean conservative still another, and a socialist yet another.  What is the proper role of industrialism, of technology?  Again, the socialist and the Burkean, for different reasons, disagree with the major developments of the Industrial Revolution.  What about the bourgeoisie (the middle class) and its values and life-style?  Still no agreement.  What shall be the place of the intellectual?  And what shall be the proper role of the state?  Instead of a consensus on any of these vitally important subjects, we have had, since long before the French Revolution, only dissension.

            (b)  A philosopher who saw a great deal of this was Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spaniard.  Writing in the early twentieth century, he directly related the rise of syndicalism, Marxism and fascism to a society that does not understand its own foundations.[11]  Indeed, the type of man that has resulted from the Industrial Revolution—the “common man”—shows little concern for the necessary prerequisites of civilized order.  Spoiled and shallow, exhibiting the psychological qualities of impatience and ingratitude so characteristic of a spoiled child, such a man almost inevitably adheres to “direct action” movements in politics.  Such movements, whether they be Sorel’s syndicalism, Hitler’s Nazism, Lenin’s bolshevism, Marcuse’s revolutionary socialism, or the Black Panther’s assertion of black superiority, offer a quick, ready-made solution to people who are spiritually capable of nothing better.  The consequence is that European, including American, civilization has been in constant crisis.  The New Left is simply another manifestation of that crisis.

            (c) To understand why the New Left arose at this time in its present form, one must first understand how the dissension we have just mentioned has worked itself out in American history. 

            It is a mistake to consider that the Left simply proposes alternative economic systems to capitalism.  As capitalism arose during and after the renaissance, it already was developing a strong enemy: the landed aristocracy.  As time passed, it gained new enemies.  The intellectual had been on top of society during the Middle Ages, Eric Hoffer tells us;[12]  now capitalism had displace him, forcing him to take a secondary position.  The intellectual became intensely alienated from the bourgeoisie: first, because the bourgeois was his natural rival for prestige and power; second, because the acting man—the practical man, as opposed to the intellectual—didn’t basically care about the same things the intellectual has cared about—music, art and the simple life of contemplation.

            But the intellectual could hardly fight the acting man by himself.  He needed allies.  And he discovered his primary ally in the “proletariat,” the workers.  Today, he seeks allies from the minority races and those who, for one reason or another, wish to discard the life-style of the middle class.

            All of this has been apparent in American history.  The intellectual has been nurturing his alienation since the generation of Emerson and Thoreau in the early nineteenth century.  His alienation led, by the beginning of the twentieth century, to a complete change in predominant philosophy among our writers, poets and artists.  They had moved from a pro-capitalist philosophy to one that abhorred capitalism.

            The acting man, for his part, has continued to go his own way.  Under his impetus, America has made substantial advances.  It has also retained most of the values that the intellectual dislikes so much.  The American middle class, having its own vitality, has responded only slowly to the intellectual’s criticisms.  For a number of years, the intellectual has, by virtue of the “Roosevelt coalition” consisting of the intellectual, labor, minority groups and the Solid South, held a position of political leadership.  But still he has not been able to make the fundamental changes he has desired to make.

            Indeed, the Left has now realized what inevitably it must have come to realize: that a “welfare state” simply makes more people bourgeois (although not really in a way that is consistent with bourgeois values, either) and does not constitute a deep revision of society.  The society is still no more fashioned after the intellectual’s image than it was before. 

            Thus, liberalism reaches the crossroads.  The “welfare state” has been a political instrument designed to do certain things, but the welfare state’s goals have been limited.  The liberal is at one and the same time (1) emboldened by his successes, (2) frustrated by the inertia the society exerts against further changes the liberal advocates, and (3) aware than only through a much more radical or revolutionary program can be hope to realize his ultimate objectives, which are utopian and anti-bourgeois.

            The result is that socialists and anarchists of various kinds have begun to fight over the remains of liberalism.  All of them express a profound impatience, a very real contempt for America and its technology.  And for the most part, they do not really care how destructive the radicalism is, unless in any given case the author’s analysis convinces him that revolution is a poor methodology for producing the desired result.

            But what of the future?  At least one thing is clear: the agitation of the Left against our institutions and values will certainly persist.  There is no reason to think that it will abate, since the Left’s ideas have already existed for two or three centuries and have shown a very real capacity for spurring men on, both in this country and elsewhere.  [Note in 2006: A remarkable thing was that the New Left’s militancy went into sharp decline just as this article was published, and so the prediction that it would not abate was contradicted at least in outward appearance.  What happened, however, was that the alienation assumed different forms.  The “culture war” has continued over all these years, very successfully undermining all of the old values; and the alliance with “ethnic minorities” has produced an immigration invasion that threatens the existence of the United States (and of Europe) as we have known it.]

            The bourgeoisie, now denominated “the silent majority” in the United States, has never formulated a philosophical, moral rationale that would provide it a defense against the alienated intellectual.  It has, instead, just gone on without much of an articulated ideological base.  Such a condition may be able to persist for quite a long while, as it already has.  We might, however, expect that ultimately it will spell the demise of  American civilization as we have known it.  [Note in 2006: The philosophy of “individualism” is what I grew up thinking was the basis for mainstream American values.  One aspect of that philosophy has been a commitment to a market economy.  Since this article was written, the ideology of a market system has been preempted by a globalist outlook centered on the multinational corporation.  This sees great value in seeking the cheapest possible sources of labor, both by exporting business and jobs to lesser developed parts of the world and by encouraging many millions of people from those places to immigrate into the United States, providing inexpensive labor here.  This is displacing Americans from employment and is hollowing out the American industrial base.  Thus, far from finding a philosophical position appropriate to its own needs, the American middle class has seen its own erstwhile ideology coopted for purposes inimical to its interests.]

            Despite all that I have said with regard to the forces leading to instability in our civilization, I am not without some optimism.  It would be unpardonable for us to overlook the fact that we are living at the advent of a new age: the space age.  We can have no conception of the changes that age will produce, although it appears safe to say that those changes will be vast.  A century from now, the problems of civilization may be very much different from our present problems, just as we ourselves are no longer concerned with the issues that existed under feudalism.  Perhaps the alignment of forces will be totally different and the spiritual-intellectual tone of man substantially altered.

            The New Left is a manifestation of the continuing difficulties in our own civilization, but we may not be trapped permanently with those difficulties. 


[Note for further reading: Several years after this article was published, I included three chapters about the New Left in my book Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1987, 1992).  See chapters 12, 13 and 14 of that book. The book appears on this collected writings Web site as B6; i.e., Book 6.]



[1]  See particularly Professor Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation and Critique of Pure Tolerance, although his major work, One-Dimensional Man, Beacon Press, 1964, is, despite its abstruseness, an important source.

[2] Throughout this essay I will footnote unfamiliar items on the assumption that my readers are not necessarily acquainted with them.  “Proletariat” refers, in Marx’s language, to the working masses who do not own the means of production.

[3]  An “anarchist” is one who favors the abolition of all government, although most anarchists favor the existence of voluntary groups that will hold property in common.  Historically, many anarchists have favored violence as the means of attaining the destruction of the state.

[4]  Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, Pantheon Books, New York, 1967.

[5]  Saul D. Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1946.

[6]  For the attitude of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,  and his expression of the position of Robert Kennedy, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of Confidence, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1969.

[7]  A “syndicalist” is one who favors the organization of society on the basis of trade unions, which will run industry and fulfill whatever functions the state may otherwise have legitimately performed.  Syndicalism was primarily a French movement, headed by Georges Sorel.  It advocated the “general strike” and “direct action” as the means of attaining such an organization of society.  From this, we see that anarchism and syndicalism are similar, with syndicalism placing more emphasis on unionism while anarchism speaks more generally about “people’s organizations.”

[8]  Michael Harrington, Toward a Democratic Left, Macmillan, New York, 1968; Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left, Vintage Books, New York, 1969.

[9]  Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1969.

[10]  The wars with Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, occupied much of the third century before Christ and half of the second century B.C., although they were not continuous during that period.

[11]  Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1967.

[12]  Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, Harper and Row, New York, 1963.