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Radicalism in America after 1945

Summary and Keywords

Radicalism in the United States since 1945 has been varied, complex, and often fragmented, making it difficult to analyze as a coherent movement. Communist and pro-Soviet organizations remained active after World War II, but a proliferation of noncommunist groups in the 1940s and 1950s, formed by those disillusioned by Marxist theory or the Soviet Union, began to chart a new course for the American Left. Eschewing much of the previous focus on labor, the proletariat, and Marxist doctrine, American postwar radical organizations realigned around humanist values, moral action, democracy, and even religion, with tenuous connections to Marxism, if any. The parameters of postwar radical moral theory were not always clearly defined, and questions of strategy and vision caused frequent divisions among activists. Nonetheless, claims of individual dignity and freedom continued to frame left radicalism into the late 20th century, emphasizing identity politics, community-building initiatives, and cultural expression in the streets of U.S. cities and the halls of academia. The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016 helped revitalize leftist rhetoric on the national stage with its calls for racial and economic equality on moral terms.

Keywords: American Left, postwar radicalism, socialism, communism, anticommunism, Red Scare, Old Left, New Left, Civil Rights movement, Marxism

The Cold War, which began to intensify between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, altered the American Left considerably. For decades, communists and socialists had faced derision and oppression from the American government and much of the American public, who deemed their ideologies subversive to democracy and religious faith. Since radicals in the United States desire to root out problems in society by making fundamental changes to traditional institutions and ideas, they are challenged by conservatives who want to preserve institutions and by reformers who want to modify them. Nonetheless, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), the Socialist Party of America (SP), and dozens of smaller radical groups gained a sizable following during the early 20th century, fueled by labor unrest, rampant unemployment, and the prospect of capitalism’s imminent collapse. By the end of the 1950s, however, many of those groups had dwindled, censured and vilified amidst the anti-communist climate of the Cold War and the “Second Red Scare.” The Red Scare discredited communism so effectively in the United States that most leftists, whether affiliated with communism or not, found it difficult to organize. Radicals still carried on their struggle for fundamental change during the Cold War, but they did so with new purpose and a new voice by mid-century that emphasized racial equality, democracy, peace, and the morality of social justice.

World War II

The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression bolstered the credence of Marxist anti-capitalist theories and motivated radicals to seize new opportunities for activism. The CPUSA and SP increased their membership rolls, despite continued infighting. However, the Democratic Party and its New Deal liberalism destabilized the Left in the 1930s by co-opting and converting many radical demands into moderate policies of reform. Events in Europe also affected leftist activity in the United States. The Popular Front policy of liberal and leftist collaboration against the rise of fascism helped soften the CPUSA’s unpatriotic image. By 1938, party membership had increased to about 75,000. But the CPUSA’s expressions of American values did not dispel the doubts of many radicals, increasingly troubled by Stalin’s purge trials and dictatorial rule. The Soviet Union’s controversial Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939 also disillusioned many American Communists and decimated party support.

World War II was a watershed for the left in America. During the years of U.S. intervention (1941–1945), industrial production of war material became a national priority, and the government stood ready to crack down on labor action that threatened to disrupt military mobilization. Some radicals, such as A. Philip Randolph, used the crisis to their cause’s advantage. Randolph and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an African American trade union, organized a March on Washington to demand fair treatment of black workers. Alarmed by the prospect of massive strikes and labor protests throughout the nation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industries. The planned march was canceled.

Many African Americans became radicalized by their service and subjugation during the war. Military veterans, such as Medgar Evers, Robert F. Williams (who later argued for black armed self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan), Amzie Moore, and Aaron Henry, joined forces in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped accelerate the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. Though the NAACP was often criticized as too moderate for its judicial and legislative approach to black freedom, the organization included a variety of members with diverse liberal-to-leftist viewpoints. Activists within the NAACP did not always confine their strategies to court-room and congressional battles; they also took to the streets with direct action tactics aimed at achieving more immediate demands for political and social equality. African Americans mobilized during the war wanted “Double V” victories at home as well as abroad, buoyed by the belief that their shared sacrifice in democracy’s defense would lead to democratic changes at home.

Communists also used the war as an opportunity to regain strength and leverage. Encouraged by the alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, they largely supported the war effort and promoted a positive understanding of Soviet Communism. CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder, a strong advocate of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, called for the continuation of a postwar alliance and the acceptance of American capitalism. However, his expulsion from the party in 1946, on grounds that his rhetoric departed too sharply from Marxist doctrine, made the limits of cooperation clear.

Pacifism and Antiwar Activism

Pacifists, many of them outspoken socialists, suffered the consequences of their non-compliance during World War II, which they decried as a tragedy of imperialism and capitalism, a waste of human life, a betrayal of religious values, and a distraction from much-needed reforms at home. Since only members of traditionally anti-war religious sects such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren could receive conscientious objector status, most pacifists risked legal penalties for refusing the draft. Under the Smith Act (the Alien Registration Act of 1940), many pacifists, socialists, and communists were indicted as conspirators against the U.S. government. Other advocates of nonviolence faced public opprobrium. Catholic Worker cofounder Dorothy Day, for example, saw support for her New York City hospitality houses shrink during the war, along with the circulation of her radical publication, the Catholic Worker newspaper, published as a religious-leftist alternative to the communist Daily Worker. Committed to a philosophy of nonviolence, Day withheld federal taxes used for military spending and engaged in civil disobedience against civil defense drills, which, she believed, manipulated public acceptance of the nuclear weapons program.

Day and many pacifists called attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons, including U.S. investment in their proliferation and testing after the war. The Fellowship of Reconciliation and The War Resisters League, actively opposed to violence and war since their founding in 1915 and 1923, respectively, began to denounce the nuclear arms race, along with groups like The Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), newly formed by Quakers in 1957. The following year, CNVA member Albert Bigelow, a former U.S. Navy commander, sailed his boat the Golden Rule into the Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear test site in the Marshall Islands in order to disrupt a detonation. Bigelow and his crew were later arrested and sentenced to jail.

Leftists, whether pacifist or not, promoted visions of a postwar new world order, characterized by social change domestically and an end to imperialism internationally. The communist-affiliated Council on African Affairs, for instance, called for postcolonial solidarity against the reclaiming of African colonies by the Allied powers.

Postwar Problems

After World War II, a growing industrial economy in the United States and a powerful industrial union presence in national politics, headed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), offered American workers an unprecedented opportunity to bargain for higher wages and better benefits. A surge of union membership after the war, especially among men returning from military service, reached a peak density of about 35 percent by 1955, when the two largest federated unions merged to form the AFL-CIO. However, strong and dynamic labor organization did not necessarily translate into a strong and dynamic Left. Many radicals deplored the conservative, trade-union culture of the AFL-CIO, which lobbied for basic wage and benefit issues or labor reforms, but not for fundamental changes in the existing capitalist system.

A conservative backlash against the labor movement gained momentum after 1945. Pro-business representatives took control of Congress in 1946 and passed the Taft-Hartley Bill over President Harry S. Truman’s veto in 1947. Whereas the 1935 Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) expanded the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, the Taft-Hartley Act restricted union activity and prohibited certain strikes, such as wildcat and solidarity strikes. It also gave the president the power to obtain an injunction to end strikes deemed detrimental to the public good, a legal measure that Truman used twelve times during his presidency, despite his reservations about the bill when it was passed.

Foreign affairs also continued to affect domestic activism among leftists in the late 1940s, especially as American distrust of its former ally, the Soviet Union, heightened. As the United States continued to oppose Soviet claims of postwar expansion, tensions between the countries escalated into what became known as the Cold War. Western leaders, including President Truman, took a hard-nosed stance against Joseph Stalin, vowing to contain communism and Soviet power in Europe and throughout the world (the Truman Doctrine).

The Presidential Election of 1948

The anti-communist climate in the United States divided movements on the Left at the local and national levels. Radicals disillusioned by the corruption of Stalin and the Communist Party began to defect from Soviet-oriented organizations to form new groups and political publications that favored democratic socialism and human values. Max Shachtman, a follower of Leon Trotsky, formed the Workers Party (WP) in 1940, along with anti-Stalinists Hal Draper and Irving Howe, who advocated “Third Camp” strategies of “socialism from below.” In 1949, the WP was renamed the Independent Socialist League (ISL), reflecting its commitment to represent the independent left. Radical essayist Dwight Macdonald started politics magazine in 1944, which gave voice to an emerging non-communist Left that included Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, and C. Wright Mills. The 1949 book The God That Failed featured six essays examining the political disillusionment of authors such as Louis Fischer and Richard Wright, who had lost faith in communism and the Soviet Union. Spiritual socialists, or radicals whose religious beliefs motivated their activism, also called for “third way” solutions to social problems, via the practice of moral and religious values in local communities, from the bottom up.

In national politics, Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace, who had served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, publicly challenged Truman on issues of Soviet relations and postwar reconstruction. After a controversial speech at Madison Square Garden in September 1946 and his subsequent dismissal from the president’s Cabinet, Wallace began to position himself as a rival to Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Wallace, running for president as the Progressive Party candidate, promoted a left-liberal agenda that called for U.S.-Soviet cooperation, fair trade, racial equality, wealth redistribution, and a mixed economy of regulated capitalism and national planning. Vowing to carry the New Deal coalition into the postwar era, Wallace and his Progressive platform received support from many liberals, independent leftists, progressives (including the Progressive Citizens of America) [PCA], and some socialists, who favored Wallace over Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas. Highlander Folk School founder and spiritual socialist Myles Horton, for one, referred to Wallace as “the only strong voice speaking out against steps that will lead to war.”1

When the CPUSA endorsed his candidacy, however, Wallace lost much of his momentum, especially among liberals. An anticommunist political group, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and major labor unions threw their support behind Truman’s blend of interventionist foreign policy and liberal reforms. Truman was elected president, while Wallace finished in fourth place, receiving only 2.4 percent of the popular vote. His loss in the election heralded the end of Popular Front coalitions between liberals and leftists and marked a turn toward the hawkish, anticommunist foreign policy that would define the Cold War.

The government’s crackdown during the “Second Red Scare,” including the use of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), blacklisting, as well as loyalty tests, ruined many careers and lives in its attempt to destroy communism in the United States. By the late 1950s, when public enthusiasm for McCarthyism and the HUAC investigations dissipated, the damage to the American Left had been done. The membership of the CPUSA dwindled to less than 15,000, and the Socialist Party could hardly claim a thousand official followers by the end of the decade. The waning of the two largest left organizations in America, however, did not mark the end of U.S. radicalism. Former communists Irving Howe and Lewis A. Coser, who became outspoken critics of Stalin from the independent Left, founded the democratic-socialist magazine Dissent in 1954. The countercultural Village Voice published its first issue in 1955. The anticommunist atmosphere, while problematic for radicals of any stripe, opened opportunities for alternative forms of socialism, unfettered by traditional parties and doctrines, to regroup around a new left sensibility in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Civil Rights Movement

Since A. Philip Randolph’s call to March on Washington during World War II, African Americans had continued to participate in both liberal and radical politics to advance their rights. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC), one of the more extremist groups of the black Left, presented a controversial paper to the United Nations in 1951 entitled “We Charge Genocide,” accusing the U.S. government of intentionally trying to eliminate the black race. Due to its association with the Communist Party, the CRC, as well as the radical National Negro Congress, did not gain much traction in mainstream American politics. However, black activists in gradual-reformist groups such as the NAACP began to use direct-action tactics and civil disobedience to demand fair treatment and social reforms. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a member of the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger as mandated under Jim Crow law. This act of defiance, though not the first of its kind, sparked a mass resistance campaign known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For over a year, blacks in Montgomery walked or carpooled instead of using the bus system, until a federal law in December 1956 declared segregated buses unconstitutional. The success of the boycott, as a nonviolent collective action, inspired African Americans to challenge Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement elsewhere.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who rose to fame during the campaign in Montgomery, promoted peaceful protest through his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), formed in 1957. Unaffiliated with communism, the SCLC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the 1960-founded Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) appealed to American democratic and religious values and exposed domestic race relations as a liability for the moral image of the United States in the Cold War.

By means of sit-ins, marches, voter registration drives, court cases, and purposeful integration efforts, Civil Rights activists put pressure on state and federal governments to dismantle Jim Crow discrimination. The often hostile and violent reaction of southern whites opposing racial reforms made the issue of Civil Rights a national issue with national news coverage. Media attention attracted more supporters to the movement, including left-liberal clergy, spiritual socialists, pacifists, humanitarians, and university students, who traveled from around the country to join protests in the South. For the Freedom Summer in 1964, SNCC and CORE recruited several hundred white students from northern college campuses to participate in voter and citizenship education efforts. Activists also formed an alternative delegation, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), to challenge the all-white representatives of Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The DNC’s refusal to accept the MFDP over the official delegation radicalized participants such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who became more critical and distrustful of mainstream politics.

Although Civil Rights activists achieved the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many blacks moved further to the left, demanding immediate social and economic equality through direct action. Radicals Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and other advocates of “black power” criticized the nonviolent and moderate reformism of the NAACP and the SCLC, though some leaders such as King Jr. became outspoken on issues of democratic socialism in the United States and anti-imperialism abroad. Debates over vision, vanguard, and tactics would divide the movement, but also diversify left activism in the 1960s.

The New Left

The Civil Rights movement and its direct-action strategies sparked a resurgence of leftist activity in the United States in the 1960s, especially among college-age youth. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” highlighted the significance of young radicals in a new movement for fundamental change. Leftists of the younger generation, he observed, were different from the “Old Left” of the 1930s and 1940s in that they generally favored decentralization, democracy, human rights, and peaceful cooperation above party discipline, doctrine, and the “labor metaphysic” of proletarian revolution. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a college-based organization of “New Left” politics that had evolved from the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) in 1960, reflected many of Mills’s points in its 1962 “Port Huron Statement,” which deliberately placed a section on “Values” at the beginning of the document before moving on to address issues of alienation, apathy, authoritarianism, and dehumanization in American society. University of Michigan student Tom Hayden, the principal author of the Port Huron Statement and an admirer of Mills, argued that direct-action campaigns for social and economic democracy in the United States should follow the example of the southern Civil Rights movement, which presented the case for change as a moral imperative for human dignity.

A concern with individual, human dignity, in fact, served as the major point of contention for New Left theory and activism. The horrors of World War II, including military casualties, mass genocide, and nuclear fallout, had exposed the Baby Boom generation to the human costs of modern warfare. In the Port Huron Statement, the SDS lamented that “a shell of moral callus separates the citizen from sensitivity to the common peril: this is the result of a lifetime saturation with horror … A half-century of accelerating destruction has flattened out the individual’s ability to make moral distinctions.” This “moral callus,” according to many New Leftists, was nowhere more apparent than in American racial politics. Recognizing practices of racial bigotry and violence against Jews and especially African Americans in the United States, young radicals demanded a commitment to human rights and human values. In the most well-known passage of the Port Huron Statement, SDS affirmed: “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs.”2

The SDS popularized the term “participatory democracy” in its essays and speeches, reflecting the importance it gave to an individual’s right to participate in the decisions affecting his or her own life. SDS activists called for increased political participation, not just in the voting booth but in town hall meetings and city councils in order to ensure that a variety of voices, regardless of race, age, class, or gender, were heard and respected at the local level. Insisting that “the personal is political,” Hayden and dozens of SDS activists would later form the Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP) in several northern cities, such as Newark and Chicago, to organize poor blacks and whites into local, democratic action groups. This focus on the poor and unemployed in American ghettoes instead of factory rank-and-file workers marked a distinction between New Left and Old Left ideology, though radicals associated with the New Left continued to advocate for labor reforms, union democracy, and worker-student alliances.

While SDS and members of the New Left movement pursued a broad-based agenda for democratic socialism in the United States and throughout the world, they generally did not exclude communists from their organizations and campaigns. Sensitive to civil liberties that had been suppressed during the Red Scare, and promoting the concept of “participatory democracy,” New Leftists gave communists a chance to speak and organize. The large percentage of so-called red diaper babies, the children of communists and fellow-travelers, in the New Left movement contributed to the open-minded nature of groups like SDS. They acknowledged the faults of the Soviet Union, but also understood the diversity among Marxist radicals and the need to practice the democracy they preached against totalitarianism. New Leftists largely supported what they considered national independence movements in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, where communist-led insurgents struggled against imperialism and dictatorship. Unlike liberal “Cold Warriors,” who deemed any communist a threat to democracy, New Leftists demanded Third World self-determination, whether it resulted in communism or not. However, New Leftists, wary of red baiting and accusations painting them as foreign-based agitators, carefully and sincerely claimed to “speak American,” couching their political language in terms of American values such as democracy, freedom, civil liberties, and even religion.

Determined to demonstrate respect for human dignity, groups in the early 1960s, such as SDS, SCLC, and SNCC, initially adhered to philosophies of nonviolence. Civil Rights activists marched and protested peacefully, resisting inducements to react violently to the brutality they received from white supremacists. In its 1960 Founding Statement, SNCC, for example, affirmed that “by appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.” However, SNCC members, realizing that strategies in the struggle for black freedom required flexibility, added a caveat allowing “each local group” in the movement to “work out the clear meaning” of their moral statement.3 As the decade progressed, activists like Stokely Carmichael began to argue against absolute nonviolence, insisting that a respect for human dignity required more militant methods of protecting black individuals from state-sponsored violence at home in U.S. cities and abroad in Vietnam.

A Movement of Movements

The Vietnam War, as it escalated throughout the decade, became the major issue of New Left activism, though it proved both unifying and divisive. Opponents of the war organized and marched together in a network that included absolute pacifists, students concerned about the draft, anti-imperialists, anticapitalists, and progressives who wanted to utilize national resources for domestic reforms, not military engagements. A November 1965 March on Washington for Peace in Vietnam, for example, was cosponsored by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), SDS, and Women Strike for Peace. Pacifists such as Joan Baez, David Dellinger, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, both Catholic priests, helped mobilize action to resist the draft. Nonpacifists also opposed the war, including soldiers and veterans and the Weather Underground. Replicating the state-sponsored violence in the Vietnam War and in minority neighborhoods in the United States, the “Weathermen” vowed to “bring the war home” by engaging in revolutionary activity aimed at seizing control of the state.

The Vietnam War divided activists on debates over nonviolent tactics and alliances with liberals associated with the Democratic Party, whose leader, President Lyndon Johnson, and many of its political representatives perpetuated war-making policies and appropriations. The war to defend democracy abroad, many New Leftists argued, did not reflect democracy at home. Student radicals at the University of California-Berkeley launched the Free Speech Movement in 1964 to challenge the Cold War consensus and the anticommunist atmosphere that placed limits on student organizations allowed to recruit and speak at their school. In 1968, demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago chanted “the whole world is watching” while city police beat and arrested protestors. For some organizations, particularly SDS, inclusiveness opened the door to factions intent on exploiting democratic procedures for their own gain. By the late 1960s, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a Leninist-Maoist offshoot of the CPUSA, had infiltrated SDS as the organization dissolved into various splinter groups.

Black power organizations, including the Nation of Islam and the 1966-founded Black Panther Party (BPP), also resented the U.S. military’s use of black combat soldiers to fight for foreign freedoms they were not granted in their own country. Unwilling to dismiss violence as a valid strategy for self-defense and liberation, black power activists made moral arguments about brotherhood and solidarity within black communities. H. Rap Brown, in his famous statement that “violence is as American as cherry pie,” challenged critics who deemed black power groups as subversive, dangerous, and unwholesome. Though violence and misogyny within organizations such as the BPP did damage the image of the black power movement, activists also initiated community-outreach programs to provide free health clinics and school breakfasts. Targeted by the FBI, black power advocates faced oppressive measures and death threats in the 1960s and 1970s. Chicago-based BPP member Fred Hampton, for one, was shot dead during a police raid in his apartment in 1969.

A variety of minority voices often kept silent also began to protest for their rights in the late 1960s. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement intensified their organizing efforts in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Women New Leftists, in particular, believed that they needed to challenge the sexism of American society, including such male-dominated organizations as SDS, SNCC, and the Black Panthers, which had marginalized their participation, despite professed democratic values. In November 1964, a group of women within SNCC anonymously presented a position paper on “Women in the Movement.” It read, in part, that “the average SNCC worker finds it difficult to discuss the woman problem because of the assumptions of male superiority. Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep rooted and every much as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro.”4 Mary King, Casey Hayden, and Elaine DeLott Baker, three of the authors, called attention to discrimination practices that kept women out of executive decision-making positions and relegated to clerical and administrative duties.

The Cultural Left and Identity Politics

Just as the Left did not disappear after the decline of the CPUSA and SP in the 1950s, the New Left did not become completely defunct when its major national organization, SDS, fragmented in the late 1960s. The conservative turn in national politics, as well as a general mood of malaise and disillusionment, kept leftists from building broad-based coalitions on multiissue platforms. And after 1975, when the United States withdrew the last of its troops from Saigon, the Vietnam War no longer served as a unifying issue for radicals. Consequently, the Left diffused into streams of “identity politics,” a term referring to political interests and positions derived from one’s personal identity in terms of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or culture. For the most part, advocates of black power, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, or those concerned with the welfare of migrant Chicano workers organized separately, making alliances rarely and temporarily. For example, the American Indian Movement (AIM) advocated for Native American rights, sovereignty, and welfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s by marching on Washington and occupying federal lands at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee. AIM leaders joined the “Rainbow Coalition,” which also included Black Panthers and the Young Lords, but the alliance did not last. Single-issue causes, such as environmental awareness or amnesty for international political prisoners, gained traction in the 1970s, and radical activists continued to fight for social justice in local communities throughout the country. But such umbrella organizations as SDS or multiissue coalitions no longer captured national attention.

Marginalized from mainstream politics, the Left made its mark on American culture in the latter half of the 20th century through art and academics. The Black Arts Movement flourished in the early 1970s, featuring poetry, novels, paintings, and theater productions celebrating black history and culture. Black studies programs were also established in colleges and universities, starting with San Francisco State in 1969, after a student-faculty strike pressured the administration into expanding its fields of study. Demands for diversity in the academy, as well as a large percentage of left-liberal intellectuals willing to teach new topics, gave rise to courses and programs on women’s history, gender studies, and, more broadly, cultural studies, which considered the contributions of minorities and the masses more than the achievements of white, male elites.

The “culture wars” between conservatives and left-liberals were fought on issues of homosexuality, education, and abortion in the 1980s. In 1987, the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York launched the political action group ACT UP to raise awareness and demand improvement for AIDS research and treatment. ACT UP members later formed Queer Nation, dedicated to protecting the rights and safety of homosexuals who were targets of violence. Radicals also organized in the 1980s to defend affirmative action and a woman’s right to make personal health and pregnancy choices.

The American Left after the Cold War

When the communist system fell in Russia and Eastern Europe (1989–1991), the Cold War ostensibly ended with the United States claiming victory for its political system and capitalist economy. Conservatives and neoliberals (social reformers favoring economic liberalism) also asserted hegemony at home, where free market ideology held sway. The decline of labor unionism since the 1950s weakened American class consciousness and the leverage needed to fight for fair wages. Without sustained pressure from the left, the Democratic Party, especially during the Bill Clinton administration (1993–2001), moved steadily to the right, courting corporate donations, cutting federal welfare budgets, and expanding free market trade globally.

Despite the achievements of the cultural Left, political leftists decried the lack of attention given to social and economic issues in the 1980s and 1990s. Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson attempted to rebuild a left-liberal political platform reminiscent of the New Deal and Great Society with his Rainbow Coalition and presidential candidacy in 1984 and 1988, but he was ultimately unable to advance toward nomination in the Democratic Party primaries. Nonetheless, his campaign captured the dissatisfaction of many ethnic minorities, farmers, workers, and homosexuals who felt marginalized by mainstream politics. The Green Party also formed as a left-wing alternative to the Democrats in the 1990s.

Left activists did fight back in meaningful ways. In 1999, for example, 40,000–50,000 opponents of capitalist globalization, including labor unions, nongovernmental organizations, human rights activists, students, religious groups, and environmentalists, protested at the Seattle World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference. Generally, the protestors deplored U.S. trade agreements that favored corporate expansion, domestic job loss, and the exploitation of Third World workers in sweatshops. Similar antiglobalization rallies occurred internationally, in the UK, Australia, and Germany, in the late 1990s, an indication that left-of-center radicalism was coalescing around notions of economic justice on a worldwide scale. No longer concerned about the “red-baiting” tactics typical of Cold War anticommunists, younger leftists and liberals began to form alliances against right-wing policies. The War on Terror in Iraq, for example, sparked a wave of antiwar protests across the United States and around the world in 2003. Witness Against Torture and other pacifist groups also opposed the inhumane treatment of enemy combatants. These protestors engaged in direct action to close the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Social and economic issues also mobilized the Left in the early 21st century, so much so that political pundits began referring to an emerging “New” New Left composed of frustrated “millennial generation” radicals from the upper middle class, concerned about high student loans, low-paying jobs, and rising health care costs.5 The Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 highlighted income disparities in the United States and throughout the world. Popularizing the slogan “We Are the 99%,” Occupy activists identified themselves as a numerical majority but with minority rights and opportunities, in an economic system designed to keep the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans in power. These activists, many of them born after the Cold War, were more likely to favor policies deemed “socialist,” including wealth redistribution, higher taxes, and single-payer health care.

In 2015, Bernie Sanders, longtime Senator (I-VT) and self-avowed socialist, championed the cause of Occupy Movement radicals and labor union leftists in his campaign for the presidency. Sanders, who had organized as a New Leftist in the 1960s, ran as a Democrat in the primary elections, despite his record as a progressive independent in the U.S. Congress and as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He called for policies aimed at increasing the minimum wage, dismantling corporate welfare (or government tax breaks to large corporations), and eliminating college debt. Though Sanders lost the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, he and his supporters continued the Our Revolution movement, pressuring the Democratic Party to realign its platform and reflect demands from the Left. The movement for fundamental change in the early 21st century also included religious progressives, such as the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II of the NAACP, who led “Moral Mondays” demonstrations in his home state of North Carolina, raising awareness for social justice issues such as voter disenfranchisement and Black Lives Matter, a protest movement that emerged in 2013 in response to rampant racial violence and the criminal profiling of African Americans. Rather than affirm Marxist philosophy or economic theories, Sanders and Barber presented their case for democratic socialism in moral terms, based upon human dignity, fellowship, and fairness.


Radicalism in the United States since 1945 has been varied, complex, and often fragmented, making it difficult to analyze as a coherent movement. Communist and pro-Soviet organizations remained active after World War II, even in the Progressive Party campaign of New Deal Democrat and 1948 presidential hopeful Henry A. Wallace. Meanwhile, a proliferation of noncommunist groups in the 1940s and 1950s began to chart a new course for the American Left. Eschewing a singular focus on the labor problem, the proletariat, or Marxist doctrine, these organizations realigned their radicalism around human values, moral action, and democracy.

Two reasons account for this shift. First, leftists in the United States and elsewhere around the world had become disillusioned by the Soviet Union’s corruption, violence, and amoral power politics by the 1950s. Second, anticommunist sentiment among many liberals and conservatives in the 1950s created a hostile environment for leftists, who faced harassment, professional debarring, and criminal charges for their activism. Left radicalism became associated with Soviet totalitarianism and was deemed dangerous to American values.

Leftists in the postwar era, however, often attempted to circumvent such criticism and ostracism with a self-conscious effort to “speak American” forms of radicalism in their demands for democracy, dignity, equality, and the spiritual value of participation. In the 1950s and 1960s, Civil Rights activists and many members of the New Left reemphasized spiritual and human values as crucial components of modern life that had gone missing in Marxist theory and practice. Their unorthodox perspective on the cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more amenable to Americans.

Yet the parameters of moral theory, program, and strategy among leftists were not always clearly defined. In the late 1960s and 1970s, questions of morality caused divisions between nonviolent activists and the more radical, militant, and violent manifestations of the Left, including Black Power advocates and Marxist-Maoist revolutionaries. These militant groups, however, could also claim to speak American and reflect American values, especially in terms of violence and power. They cited U.S. imperialism, racism, police brutality, and militarism as the true measures of American values, and they vowed to fight back in kind.

Nonetheless, moral claims of individual dignity, freedom, and personal politics continued to frame left radicalism into the 1970s and 1980s, leading to identity politics, community-building initiatives, and cultural expression in the streets of U.S. cities and the halls of academia. Most recently, the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has revitalized leftist rhetoric on the national stage with its calls for racial and economic equality. Sanders appealed to American voters in moral terms, pitching his argument against corporate wealth and power as a battle of good versus evil and right versus wrong. His campaign, and his history as a New Left activist in the 1960s, demonstrates the staying power of noncommunist threads of radicalism into the 21st century.

Discussion of the Literature

Early scholarship on the American Left established a declension narrative, tracing the rise and fall of radical activism in the 20th century. In 1973, John P. Diggins covered the topic in his standard-bearing The American Left in the Twentieth Century, which in 1992 was retitled, with only slight revisions, as The Rise and Fall of the American Left.6 The dominance of conservative politics and theory in the 1980s and 1990s convinced Diggins and many scholars that leftist movements were part of the past, and no longer part of the present. Diggins, however, did give the history of the Left its due as a home-grown phenomenon, analyzing the American and pragmatist roots of leftist theory and identifying four distinct phases of movement activism: The Lyrical Left of the World War I era, the Old Left of the 1930s–1940s, the New Left of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Academic Left since the 1970s.

Scholars since the 1990s have revised the Diggins interpretation of the American Left with particular emphasis on continuity between decades and movements. Maurice Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (1987) reinforced the rise and fall standard to a certain degree, but also challenged stark divisions by recognizing the connections between movements.7 The New Left, Isserman, argued, did not emerge from nowhere in 1960; instead, it sprang from several Old Left sources. Scholars such as Doug McAdam, in Freedom Summer (1988), and Doug Rossinow, in The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (1998), bolstered the trend of continuity, uncovering complex networks among Civil Rights and New Leftist activists in the 1950s and 1960s.8

By highlighting the influence of black Civil Rights campaigns on subsequent leftist activity in the 1960s, McAdam and Rossinow also challenged the stock definition of the New Left as a white, middle-class student movement, mainly organized around the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). For example, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987) by journalist James Miller and SDS (1973) by Kirkpatrick Sale presented the New Left largely as a rise and fall movement tied to the fate of SDS.9 However, historian Van Gosse, who wrote Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America, and the Making of a New Left (1993), The Movements of the New Left, 1950–1975: A Brief History With Documents (2005), and Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History (2005), set a new interpretative paradigm for understanding the New Left as a varied and diverse “movement of movements.”10 Rather than equate the New Left strictly with SDS, Gosse expanded descriptions of the New Left to include organizations and movements for black Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano Power, women’s rights, gay and lesbian liberation, the environment, peace, and student rights. This big picture perception of the New Left percolated from many sources, notably Sara Evans’s Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (1980), Carlos Munoz Jr.’s Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (1989), and Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior’s Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (1996).11 These studies helped flatten declension narratives and the implicit differentiation between the “good sixties,” in the earliest part of the decade when peaceful strategies were popular, and the “bad sixties,” or the more militant strategic climate by middecade.

A more nuanced understanding of New Left activism opened the scholarship to more nuanced assessments of New Left influence. Jeremi Suri’s Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (2003), Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011), and Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (2015) by Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps argue that the American Left, while less visible as a comprehensive, national movement since the 1960s, made significant contributions to changes in U.S. politics and culture in the late 20th century.12 Sensing a resurgence of leftist activism in the early 21st century, scholars are beginning to explore the endurance and continuity of the American Left since the 1960s. For example, historians David R. Swartz in Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (2012), and Michael Stewart Foley in Front Porch Politics: the Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s (2013) have studied the relationship between the Left and American values, such as religion and grassroots democracy.13

Primary Sources

State and University Archives

The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison houses a vast collection of leftist archives. The Labor Collection contains newspapers, pamphlets, and periodicals from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Socialist Labor Party, and the Socialist Workers Party, as well as materials from nearly a dozen unions, including the Teamsters, United Packinghouse Workers, and the Textile Workers Union of America. The WHS also holds the papers of the Students for a Democratic Society, New Left Notes, Studies on the Left, Radical America, and an extensive Social Action Collection. The Social Action Collection contains a wide array of sources on the New Left, socialism, student activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, Civil Rights, community organizing, anarchism, the peace movements, and much more. Additional papers pertaining to pacifism, nonviolence, civil disobedience, Civil Rights, women’s rights, conscientious objection, social work, feminism, and civil liberties are available at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection (SCPC) near Philadelphia.

Published Sources

Scholars interested in reading leftist essays and articles since World War II should browse issues from periodicals, such as Dissent, politics, the New Masses, the Liberator, the Militant, the Daily Worker, the Catholic Worker, New Left Review, Democracy Now, and Jacobin. Documentary readers, which contain radical essays and speeches, are also helpful for finding a diversity of sources in one book. Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, et al. (1991), and The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition, edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian (2003), as well as Van Gosse’s Movements of the Left are excellent places to start.14

A number of memoirs offer firsthand accounts of radicals’ experiences. Autobiographies by Bettina Aptheker, Bill Ayers, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Y. Davis, Dorothy Day, Bernardine Dohrn, Tom Hayden, Irving Howe, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary King, Staughton Lynd, A. J. Muste, Rosa Parks, Bernie Sanders, Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X are available in major libraries and online.

Further Reading

Brick, Howard, and Christopher Phelps. Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

    Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. New York: Garland, 1990.Find this resource:

      Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, et al., eds. Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.Find this resource:

        DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

          Diggins, John P.The Rise and Fall of the American Left. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.Find this resource:

            Evans, Sara M.Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf, 1979.Find this resource:

              Foley, Michael Stewart. Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013.Find this resource:

                Gosse, Van. Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.Find this resource:

                  Gosse, Van. The Movements of the New Left, 1950–1975: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.Find this resource:

                    Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. New York: Basic Books, 1987.Find this resource:

                      Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                        Kazin, Michael. American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.Find this resource:

                          Kosek, Joseph Kip. Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                            McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                              McCarthy, Timothy Patrick, and John McMillian, eds. The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition. New York: New Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                McMillian, John, and Paul Buhle, eds. The New Left Revisited. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                  Miller, James. Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.Find this resource:

                                    Munoz, Carlos, Jr. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. London: Verso, 1989.Find this resource:

                                      Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                                        Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973.Find this resource:

                                          Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                            Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                              Swartz, David R.Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                                Wald, Alan M.The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.Find this resource:


                                                  (1.) John M. Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School, 1932–1962 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1988), 104.

                                                  (2.) The Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement,” 1962.

                                                  (4.) SNCC Position Paper, “Women in the Movement,” 1964.

                                                  (5.) Peter Beinart, “The Rise of the New New Left,” Daily Beast. September 12, 2013.

                                                  (6.) John P. Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York. W. W. Norton, 1992).

                                                  (7.) Maurice Isserman, If I had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

                                                  (8.) Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), and Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

                                                  (9.) James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), and Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).

                                                  (10.) Van Gosse, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretive History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); The Movements of the New Left, 1950–1975: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America, and the Making of a New Left (1993).

                                                  (11.) Sara M. Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Knopf, 1979); Carlos Munoz, Jr., Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (London: Verso, 1989); and Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: New Press, 1996).

                                                  (12.) Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); and Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

                                                  (13.) Michael Stewart Foley, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s (2013), and David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

                                                  (14.) Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, et al., eds., Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), and Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian, eds., The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New York: New Press, 2003).