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NONFICTION : IF I HAD A HAMMER: THE DEATH OF THE OLD LEFT AND THE BIRTH OF THE NEW LEFT by Maurice Isserman (Basic Books: $18.95; 320 pp.).

September 20, 1987|Sam Hurst

Most historians who write about social and political movements concentrate on their rise to power. Maurice Isserman does just the opposite in his analysis of the collapse of the Old Left in the 1950s. By focusing on the death of the Communist Party, and the failure of various socialist sects to take root in the American working class, Isserman paints a series of portraits of aging radicals like Norman Thomas, Irving Howe and Max Shachtman, preoccupied with their past and unable to offer leadership or guidance to the New (student) Left even as they watch it bloom around them.

It has been traditional to blame the death of the Old Left on the fury of the Cold War, the persecution of the McCarthy Era, and the apparent miracle of postwar economic growth that seemed to make a call to revolution irrelevant. But Isserman adds to the caldron an unflattering but important contribution; a glimpse inside the small, inbred, subculture of New York intellectuals trapped in hair-splitting debates over obscure issues of socialist theory and Stalinist deviations.

These were battles lost on the American people, and off-point for the young peace and civil rights activists beginning to assert themselves on college campuses, but they were matters of heart and soul to the men of the '30s, raised in the narrow sectarianism of Old Left parties.

Perhaps the biggest losers were the young people of the New Left who created such fiery heat in the 1960s, but who, having lost continuity with a socialist vision from the past, were never able to rebuild a left that could seriously contest for power in the United States.

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