Dick Howard: An International New Left? 1968 in retrospect.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dick Howard is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His many books include Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (1971) From Marx to Kant (l985), The Birth of American Political Thought (1989), and The Specter of Democracy (2002).]

I left the University of Texas to study in Paris during the summer of 1966 because I wanted to learn how to make a revolution—or at least to understand the Marxist theory that had been identified with this skill. This decision is not so strange if one recalls the kind of political education and culture of a young American, like myself, who had participated in the civil rights movement and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Our protests against segregation had some successes, but our criticism of the Vietnam adventure seemed to fall on deaf ears. It seemed that we were caught in a trap by trying to use the language of liberalism against the liberal system and its anti-communist rhetoric—a practice that only seemed to reinforce the problems we were trying to solve. We had wanted to win 'bourgeois rights' when it now seemed that it was the socio-economic reality of capitalist-imperial America that was truly evil. What we needed instead was, it seemed, a vocabulary that would permit a radical transformation of the liberal system; not just racial integration but a new and superior form of equality that did not stop at the border.

Why France? France, in the shared imagination of critical Americans, incarnated the true revolution. It was the place where 1789 had become 1793, when a 'bourgeois' demand for political rights became a radical demand for economic equality that was finally consecrated in the first step toward a global revolution in 1917. The French revolutionary tradition was the more striking when contrasted to the liberal one that had given birth to the United States. In spite of its grand rhetoric, the latter had not even put an end to slavery in 1776 and was only now recognizing the injustice and social divisions that had condemned a part of the population to a segregated existence that was separate and unequal. For us, the myth of revolutionary France was further reinforced by the support found there for 20th century anti-colonial movements, including that of Vietnam, where the U.S. had stupidly picked up a lost cause because of its reflexive anti-communist foreign policy. A reflection of the power of this symbolic myth that linked France and revolution: one of my first 'touristic' visits in Paris brought me to the Stalingrad metro station! Why? Because one of our basic criticisms of American liberalism was that it minimized the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazism. That a Parisian metro station would be so-named signified that political culture in France was not blindly enrolled in an anti-communist crusade.

France also represented for us the land of critical philosophy, principally that of Sartre (Althusser had only recently published For Marx and Reading Capital, and structuralism had not yet crossed the Atlantic [3]). Sartre was the anti-bourgeois par excellence. Although he was not really a political philosopher (despite his grand existential-Hegelian-Marxist Critique of Dialectical Reason [4]), his was a moral stance built on the denunciation of what he called 'les salauds,' who manipulated the freedom that is essential to the humanity of the individual (including their own). Sartre was the Voltaire of his time; and we young intellectuals in the U.S. demanded nothing better than, with Voltaire, to 'écrasez l'infâme' (although we wanted to find the material means to realize the task). In stark contrast, Anglo-American analytic philosophy, which confined itself to analyzing ordinary language and abstract logic, led only to the confirmation of existing social relations. [5]

Finally, Marx's work was available and hotly discussed in the French language, while it was scarcely translated in the U.S. (where, for example, I had no choice but to buy my three volumes of Capital in the English edition published in Moscow, as only volume 1 was easily available in U.S. bookstores). Indeed, this was the time (after de-Stalinization) when 'revisionists' in Eastern Europe were discovering the writings of young Marx, and Western critics were using them as weapons against the dominant ideology of the communist parties. [6]...


In the years that followed, one could have the impression that revolutionary enthusiasm had itself thrown the revolutionary spirit of May into the famous dustbin of history. It seemed to many to be what Lenin had denounced in 1920: 'an infantile disorder.' [19] But as Marx liked to say, the old mole just keeps digging. Maybe I remain too much of an optimist, but I can't help but think that the candidacy of Barack Obama signifies the return of another Left, different from our own, and different also from the social-democratic dream represented by the New Deal. [20] This new Left (if that's what it becomes) intends to be a post-racial movement that refuses orthodox identity politics. It is awakening in young people (and others) a taste for the political, and it is reviving the demands for real democracy that animated the integrationist civil rights movement and the old American SDS. Would I have recognized this if I had not gone to study in France?—before events and experiences showed me that the revolutionary spirit I looked for in France can appear anywhere—and disappear so quickly that it does not even have time to recognize itself for what it truly is: the spirit of democracy.

comments powered by Disqus