Something Old, Something New

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Dave Roediger

If I Had A Hammer…:
The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left
Maurice Isserman
Basic Books, 1987, 259 pages, $18.95.

IF I HAD A HAMMER tackles the vital and huge subject of the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left. It brings substantial research, significant insights, stylish writing and keen wit to bear on an examination of that relationship. It is written by a former new leftist who still hopes for radical change.

Its author knows that a viable left in the United States will much more likely be constructed by those who take something of a musician’s approach to differing ideas–borrowing and blending–than by those who have a single correct line to teach.

All these virtues make for a splendid, thoughtful book. However, they also make it all the more regrettable that a narrowness of focus and a tendency to accept uncritically the realignment politics of Irving Howe and Michael Harrington keeps the study from fully realizing its potential.

If I Had a Hammer is far more concerned with the “death” of the Old Left in the ’50s than with the emergence of the New Left in the ’60s. It links the two decades suggestively rather than systematically. It consists mainly of four essays on the thoughts and activities of ’50s radicals, who, as one Communist wrote in 1956, were chastened by experience, but emerged with “freer eyes, ears and hearts to perceive the world with.” These four topical chapters treat Max Shachtman, the group around the journal Dissent, radical pacifism and the collapse of the Communist Party. They are framed by a preface arguing against the image of a sterile left in the ’50sand by a concluding chapter that describes the New Left-Old Left contacts before and just after the 962 issuing of the Port Huron Statement.

The overarching theme, Isserman observes, can be summed up in two words: “Politics matters.” By this, he means principally that the heritage of left political ideas matters, that “the campus radicalism of the 1960s did not just materialize out of thin air,” that the ideas of the early SDS were “in the air” as a result of ongoing debates. And his case for historical continuity is a strong one.

lsserman shows a fine eye for detail. How better, for example, to recapture the redbaiting hysteria of the ’50s than to recall New York State’s resolve to deny fishing licenses to Communists? Similarly, lsserman wonderfully describes the “green feather movement” of 1954 in which student radicals of various persuasions wore Robin Hood pins after Indiana public libraries banned books about that allegedly subversive primitive bandit.

If I Had a Hammer also features a direct, understated, often funny style. Earl Browder, Isserman observes, “was not at heart a Jeffersonian Democrat.”

Selective Generosity

The generous spirit of the book in discussing the ex-Communists, Dissent and Shachtman is worth noting. Isserman sees his subjects, in all their varying viewpoints, as trying to break out of sectarian isolation and as continuing to seek radical change in hard times. His greatest sympathy surely lies with the “tired heroism” of Irving Howe and the Dissent group. The treatment of Shachtman, a figure lending himself to caricature, strives for balance.

Realizing that, as one ex-CPer put it, the whole left was “compromised” by sectarianism and futility,” Isserman is seldom harsh on his subjects for individual failings and consistently admiring of enduring commitment.

Unfortunately, that spirit of generosity does not extend beyond those on whom Isserman has chosen to focus the book (Indeed, it does not even extend to the most radical of the radical pacifists, who are seen as deluded and given to posturing.) The book implies that only those who substantially rethought their old left ideas had a major impact on the New Left. A common earmark of such rethinking was the rejection of Leninism and of revolution.

But Isserman here casts too narrow a net. There were other enduring radicals, some of whom did not substantially change their politics, who made decisive contributions to the New Left.

Part of the problem is that lsserman, in common with James Miller and other recent writers on the New Left, tends to see the “real” SDS as that articulated at Port Huron and to view the later New Left’s pro-Black Power, anti-imperialist, confrontational and revolutionary incarnations as corruptions of the original impulse. Although there are fascinating fugitive comments on Old Left sexism in If I Had a Hammer, women’s liberation—so vital a part of the New Left—is not much discussed.

In Isserman’s discussion of New Left antecedents, the Monthly Review group is dismissed as “such [during the 1950s] in the familiar rut of 1930s fellow traveling,” and its contributions to a later left are not treated. W.E.B. DuBois receives one brief mention. Highlander Folk School, connecting the old left and civil rights struggles, is not mentioned. Nor is Bert Cochran’s American Socialist group, which published important theoretical material by Harvey Swados, DuBois and Hany Braverman.

The important anarcho-pacifist and Catholic worker, Ammon Hennacy, does not find his way into the story and Dorothy Day barely does. C.L.R. James is not included because he was allegedly of only local (Detroit) importance. Those who stayed in the CP (like Herbert Aptheker) and the SWP (like George Breitman) are neglected, despite their manifest contributions to the New Left activities. Herbert Marcuse, incredibly, appears only in passing.

Joining James and DuBois on the sidelines are James Baldwin, a fixture on the socialist literary scene, and Malcolm X, a discussion of whose relationship with Breitman would have added much to the book.

Isserman avoids the howling non­sequiturs of Miller whose Democracy Is in the Streets (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) proclaims that Port Huron activists “took their central political ideas not from the civil rights movement but rather from the tradition of civic republicanism that links Aristotle to John Dewey.”(1) But lf I Had a Hammer shares an approach that too thoroughly isolates the history of the Black left from that of the white.

What Makes People Radical?

The dictum “Politics matters” also leads to a narrowness of focus. The internal ideological debates of the movements come alive in If I Had a Hammer, but there is little sense of what social forces brought people to radicalism or of why more came after 1962 than before. The social context, not only of war and civil rights but also of bureaucratized work, of bureaucratized schooling and of cultural rebellion, is not well developed, though the atmosphere of nuclear threat is skillfully evoked.

All of the above criticisms could be easily dismissed if the book’s publicity and its introduction did not claim to treat broadly on the Old Left/New Left relationship. If the book is seen as just a history of ideas of a few old leftists who had some limited impact on part of the New left, it is largely a success.

However, even in this limited reading, one criticism deserves to be made. At ties Isserman simply does not take his own “Politics matters” injunction completely seriously. He sees debates over the Cuban revolution, for example, as tangential to the course of the New Left. He is a partisan of “realignment,” the idea of Shachtman and others that a labor-civil rights alliance would remake the U.S. political landscape. He wishes that SDS could have more systematically supported realignment and at times seems to suggest that, with more understanding among the leaders involved, SDS might have enduringly embraced such a strategy.

But there is no consistent interrogation of what realignment concretely meant. The issue of whether realignment would take place inside or outside the Democratic Party is consistently glossed over, and the fierce factionalism on this issue inside the Young People’s Socialist League is little mentioned.

Most importantly, it is not clear just what Isserman thinks that a compromise-oriented, inside-the-Democratic-Party realignment strategy offered to the New Left. The “part-of-the-way-with- LBJ,” partial SDS endorsement was one fruit of an early commitment to realignment.

Even if stopped short of Shachtman’s total capitulation to the labor bureaucracy’s hawkishness and go-slow attitude on civil rights, a realignment would have implied much that was problematic: a distancing of the white student left from Black Power, an embrace of middle ground slogans on the war (“Negotiations now!” rather than withdrawal; support of candidates not even favoring negotiations), a siding with the labor bureaucracy against the rank-and-file insurgencies of the late ’60s and early ’70s, an avoidance of confrontation and a hesitancy to embrace radical feminism, gay liberation and the counterculture.(2)

Would such a realignment-oriented movement have made a bigger ongoing impact on the Democratic Party? Perhaps, but it may well have produced as many neoconservative Tom Kahns as neoliberal Tom Haydens. Would it have attracted tens of thousands of young people to radical politics? Would it have contributed as much toward ending the war? These questions, whose answers would have enormous relevance to the end of the ’80s, Isserman fails to ask.


  1. For a superb analysis of Miller’s book, see Ron Grete, “A New Look at SDS,” Radical Historians Newsletter 53 (November 1987), 1 and 7.
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  2. See Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), 258-60, on the later course of realignment.
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September-October 1988, ATC 16

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