In the 1960s in the United States, the New Left was a loose movement mainly composed of college students. It is very difficult to make general statements about a movement whose prime characteristic was its disunity; reading their memoirs and essays, one can simultaneously see how such a diverse movement managed to attract so many among the young and why they failed to coalesce into groups that could agree on what they wanted and achieve concrete change.
It is worth remembering the context of 1960s America to be able to understand sixties radicalism more clearly. To European eyes especially, it seems incomprehensible - and strangely heroic - precisely because we do not have anything like the same context, even though our politics is generally more prone to existential conflict than that of the United States.
The manifesto of the New Left was the Port Huron Statement, which was published by Students for a Democratic Society, the most important New Left group, in June 1962. This was only a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed to demonstrate the thin thread by which humanity's survival was hanging, and still some years before the civil rights movement reached its culmination. Battles raged. Bombs were going off in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Voting Rights Act was still three years away, but so was major escalation of the Vietnam War. Some of the New Left activists participated in the civil rights movement, and others were educated and comfortable enough to be able to turn their thoughts to the scandalous position of black America. The dazzling diversity that America offers and improvements in communications technology made events in the South and the contrast they illuminated seem very immediate to students in Berkeley, California.
The New Left was based on an explicit rejection of the resources that the American left had to respond to these challenges, which seemed to them almost apocalyptic in scope. As I said before, the SDS was the most important New Left group, and it had its origins in the League for Industrial Democracy, an old socialist group that believed in trade unions and the power of peaceful, democratic change. SDS was originally the student arm of the League, but they rebelled against the faith of their fathers, who they thought had become too complacent and too bureaucratic, too willing to sit on the successes of the New Deal and call it a day.
The members of SDS looked at the conflict in American life between the left and the right and decided neither was radical enough: neither would emancipate the blacks, neither would end the Cold War or the arms race. This is, incidentally, the kind of fire we play with when we let our rhetoric get the better of ourselves and exaggerate the stakes in political conflict - the young might just take us seriously and take action which is appropriately drastic given the supposed threat.
Politically speaking, the New Left could hardly have been more drastic. As a movement, it started with a contempt for liberalism - of course, it was contemptuous of conservatism too, but that hardly needed saying. This became obvious when one observed its methods of criticizng liberals: by saying that they were merely conservatives in disguise. American leftism, having made peace with ordinary democracy and with rational discussion as a means of solving problems, had become in the eyes of the New Left irredeemable; using ordinary dialogue to try to change an entrenched social and economic system was useless, and so it was treason of a sort because it would never achieve change. Bear in mind that it was not at all uncommon among the New Left to draw comparisons between Nazi Germany and the United States, and then imagine the moral smugness that comes from knowing that one's enemies are Nazis. Imagine also that your bourgeois father suggests that you solve your differences with the Nazis by discussion.
Having rejected ordinary democracy and reason as a form of bringing about change, the New Left sought expression in what is beyond reason - feeling, or we might say sentiment. In fact, if anything united the New Left it was the primacy of emotion over reason - the New Left in this sense was almost more of a style than it was a discourse. Herein lies the importance of drugs and sexuality to the movement, not only as a calculated attempt to shock bourgeois society but also as an attempt to solve the world's problems by an appeal to love and brotherhood. The New Left was almost mystical, almost religious, in its belief that mankind could best be unified by our mutual hedonism - but it combined this belief in pleasure with a belief in radical, destructive political action that would destroy the corrupt order it found around itself.
It was a strange mix, and not a stable one. What united the two poles was this: the belief that the only way to save the world, to end the Cold War and the oppression of the blacks and the grinding down of the poor, was to harness the power of the individual to create something new out of nothing, to toss aside the decaying culture which they believed surrounded them and build a new order in which free love and marijuana would feature strongly, if not literally then very definitely metaphorically.
But it was not to be. The reasons ought to be obvious. All of human political life is a dialogue between the world we inherit and our desires to change it; the conservative and the liberal want to stress one of these things over the other, but they are united in the belief that this dialogue has to take place.
The New Left wanted no such dialogue: they wanted to start anew as if from nothing, so disgusted were they with the world they saw. This was easy to imagine from a university campus, and impossible to do from outside of it. "If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable," says the Port Huron Statement. But life in ordinary America was not unimaginable to most people; quite the opposite. The political tradition of the United States, which is strong and vibrant, innoculated it against this zealous appeal to emotion over reason. Some of the most acute observers even asked the question: to put emotion over reason, your own community over that of the democratic system, a mystical reverance for "truth" over the facts of the world we see around us - is that even leftism, and if not, then... what is it?
A great book on the New Left is A Tale of Two Utopias by Paul Berman, who is one of my favourite writers on politics and fantastically entertaining.