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If I had a hammer ... the death of the old left and the birth of the new left.

If I Had a Hammer. . . . The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left.

Maurice Isserman. Basic, $18.95. The fifties were a tough decade for the left in America. In the popular mind, socialism and communism were two words for the same evil. To be a radical was to know penury; it was to be hated and despised. In 1952, the treasurer of perhaps the most important group of pacifist activities in America reported that the organization had $12.84 in its bank account. Three years later, when its leader A.J. Muste participated in the first modest act of collective disobedience in the fifties, he and his comrades were promptly arrested. Their crime? Gathering in a park outside New York's City Hall and refusing to take shelter when the air-raid sirens sounded. At their trial, the judge called these self-styled pacifists "murderers,' on the grounds that their disdain for civil defense would mean the death of millions of New Yorkers in the event of a genuine nuclear attack.

Still, the fact is that a radical American sub-culture did survive the big chill of the fifties to influence the young activists of the sixties. As Maurice Isserman shows in this scholarly and lucid study, the recent history of American radicalism is "less spasmodic' than is generally supposed.

Isserman, a professor at Smith, is best known for Which Side Were You On?, a history of the Communist party during World War II. Although his new book begins with a chapter on the collapse of the American Communist party, its chief interest lies in the detailed accounts he gives of three more obscure groups: the activists who swore allegiance to Max Shachtman, the intellectuals associated with Irving Howe and his small journal, Dissent, and the radical pacifists linked to A.J. Muste.

The strangest story in many respects is that of Shachtman. A Jewish immigrant born in Warsaw in 1904, Shachtman was a communist in the twenties, a follower of Trotsky in the thirties, and--after he broke with his mentor in 1939--the leader of an independent and increasingly esoteric Marxist sect that has left a surprisingly large mark on American political life. Shachtman recruited Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, among others, into the socialist movement (both eventually broke with him). He also, at different times, struck up alliances with Norman Thomas and George Meany. Cunning, narrow-minded, and ferociously anti-Stalinist, Shachtman turned out several generations of seasoned political cadres with a militantly Manichean view of the world. In the late fifties, he began to drift slowly to the right, eventually harnessing his Marxist faith in the working class and his Trotskyite hatred of "bureaucratic collectivism' to the Cold War anticommunism of the AFL-CIO. Today, some of his former disciples support Ronald Reagan.

In the final chapter of his book, Isserman offers a brief account of how the New Left arose from the ashes of the Old Left. This account is not entirely satisfactory, largely because his emphasis on the Old Left leads Isserman to downplay the importance of the black civil-rights movement, of an increasingly rebellious youth culture, and of maverick liberals and iconoclastic intellectuals like C. Wright Mills. Besides, as Isserman points out, the arid scholasticism of the Old Left sectarians left most young activists cold. That was one reason the New Left chose from the start to ignore the long-standing sectarian debates over the meaning of the Russian Revolution. Ironically, in the late sixties, students inadvertantly mimicked the old sectarian struggles with their own competing chants of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' and "Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-Tung.'

Despite its limitations, Isserman's book is an invaluable historical resource. It is also useful reading for all would-be activists, if only as a collection of the kind of cautionary tales that, to judge by the perennially self-destructive behavior of the beleaguered American left, cannot be told too frequently.
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Author:Miller, Jim
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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