Herein an odd recap of the New Left (circa 1968-72). The differences suggested between Lefts, ‘New’ and Newest are more superficial than real. Most of it has to do with the novel terminology one finds today, which I assume stems from arcane post-modernist academic discourse.
As in the olden days, characteristics of a tiny minority of the already tiny left tend to be attributed more widely than is justified. When you say New Left, a frequent association is to bombings by the Weatherpeople. This was a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that became even smaller when they started running amuck in 1969. SDS actually had an extended sequence of different vintages of Left, starting in the early 1960s, ranging from old-fashioned democratic socialists inside the Democratic Party to a smorgasbord of assorted Marxist and anarchist factions. One such faction, the widely reviled Weatherpeople (a minority, in numbers), were responsible for some tragic deaths, including a few of their own people, though compared to the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Japanese Red Army (sic), Weather was a bunch of bratty teenagers.
Today you can find talk of “intersectionality,” “positionality” and privilege checking, but this too is a feature of a minority of a minority. Typically the setting for this discourse is not activism. It is the pastime of people who tweet. I’d be amazed to hear there were challenges of privilege checking at gatherings of Moral Monday in North Carolina. Or the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building. Or the sit-ins of the Dream Defenders in Florida. To quote an old old lefty, it’s a “hurricane in a drop of water.”
Much that is old has become new again. Intra-left racial exchanges today echo the split in the civil rights movement that launched Stokely Charmichael’s “black power” message and black nationalism more broadly. The original Black Panthers, with their interest in cross-racial coalition, actually did a lot to offset that divisiveness, until the cops shot them up.
Gender conflicts originally broke out as women’s groups started forming around 1969, if memory serves, in reaction to cloddish behavior and deficient analysis by radical men. (Men’s groups formed quickly after, but as a much less common activity. You couldn’t have dragged me to one at gunpoint.) Since then gender identification has gotten much more complex. So that’s one genuinely new thing that would have mystified a time-traveler from 1968.
Finally, class. The New Left was substantially middle-class or greater, though this tends to be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that there was parallel, connected agitation in the labor movement and among veterans. No less than today, the class issue provoked endless navel gazing, since the objects of New Left students’ organizing were racial minorities and/or the working class. Historically, the leaders of insurgencies often come from privileged backgrounds. How much time is it worth dwelling on this? I’d say not much. It’s old news. A fair amount of the self-examination focused on racial bias. I wouldn’t say that none of it was productive. It’s certainly not new.
How much of the problems with the left today are due to bias stemming from the racial, gender, or ethnic identities of its members? I would suggest for all practical purposes none, zero, nada, zilch. The left’s problem is that it is small. You might quickly note the left is also fragmented, not least by identity-connected concerns. I suggest that if the left was larger — if it had larger, all-inclusive organizations — the fragments would come together to advance their concerns, and legitimate concerns would be well-served. How to grow the Left? Damned if I know.
The masses are not abstaining from left politics because of identity bias within the left. Rather, a certain notion of identity in the white middle class or working class, particularly in the South, has become a pole of attraction that animates the GOP and a nasty assortment of neo-fascist groups that blow up buildings, shoot doctors, and assault people with dark skin. That is the principal identity problem in the U.S.
The recent Stephen Colbert brouhaha is instructive. What began as Colbert’s sortie against racism out in the world, through SC’s defense of native Americans against racist epithets, was preempted and transformed into a complaint about Colbert. That sort of intervention does not contribute to any plausible concept of progressive activism. It is at best a distraction, at worst a modern echo of COINTELPRO.