Book Review


It is well known that the New Left of the 1960s was not a classically revolutionary movement, nor did it emerge from classically revolutionary conditions. It was primarily a movement of middle- to upper-class white youth and was centered around universities in San Francisco, New York, Madison, Ann Arbor, Austin, and a few other places. Historians have long known that it was the product of a "post-scarcity" culture and was fueled by students’ alienation from mainstream society. It is surprising, therefore, that not until Doug Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America, published in 1998, did an author argue that the New Left’s origins lay in an existentialist yearning for personal and cultural authenticity rather than solely in outrage against social injustices. “More than a new existentialist departure in a continuous history of leftist agitation,” Rossinow writes, “the new left was a newly insurgent departure in a continuous and multifaceted history of existentialist hopes for authenticity” (p. 164). Thus, the New Left should be located, first and foremost, in the existentialist tradition, not in the leftist tradition. It adopted a radical politics through its encounter with the civil rights movement in the South, which students interpreted as a rebellion against the inauthentic, artificial, alienated society they themselves abhorred. Rossinow analyzes students’ existentialist rebellion by focusing on their experiences in Austin, Texas, although he also considers the trajectories of the New Left movement as a whole.


The Politics of Authenticity is divided into two parts: the first considers "existentialist" developments at the University of Texas in Austin during the late 1950s and early 1960s, while the second considers the later history of the New Left in Austin and around the country. Austin in the 1950s was a very conservative place, from which liberals of secular and Christian persuasions were decidedly alienated. Christian liberalism and existentialism, however, associated with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel and others, became influential at the university through the presence of two institutions: the Christian Faith-and-Life Community and the YMCA-YWCA. Here, the social gospel was preached and lived as “young people, influenced by existentialism, came to believe that activism was the path to authenticity” (p. 85). They studied existentialist authors like Tillich and Albert Camus, but more importantly, they manifested their commitment to spiritual "wholeness," anti-conformism, authenticity, freedom, love and personal regeneration by taking up the cause of civil rights. White and black students mingled at the university Y, which desegregated itself in the 1950s, and the whites came to identify with the emerging Southern struggle for racial integration. Indeed, secular white students too yearned for a social life in which blacks and whites could be ‘natural’ around each other, in which the vision of a "beloved community," free of estrangement, could be realized. After the 1960 sit-ins in North Carolina, students in Austin therefore began their own interracial sit-ins and stand-ins at movie theaters and other venues, with some success. Activist organizations spread among Christian liberals. Rossinow suggests that the interracial contact of the civil rights movement in Austin and elsewhere affected white students more deeply than anything else, pushing them to the left. It was in fact “the annealing experience” in which the New Left was formed:


All that came before [the civil rights experience]—Christian liberalism, secular liberalism, libertarianism, existentialism—might have come to very little, politically, had it not been for the moral challenge that the civil rights movement presented and the deeply personal meaning it held for young white activists. This experience told them that although they were implicated in a rotten society, they could be redeemed. It told them they could feel love and acceptance and that they could spread these things outward… It also helped push the 1950s quest for authenticity out of the realm of the individual self. Instead, in the 1960s this quest became a search for a ‘whole’ and democratic society [p. 151].


In part two of his book, Rossinow discusses the many directions in which this search took the New Left. The antiwar movement, the counterculture, feminism, environmentalism, the co-op movement—all were expressions of the urge to overcome forms of alienation that the affluent society had produced. New Left activists were endlessly asking themselves which group evinced the most authenticity and hence had the greatest revolutionary potential: was it the poor, young people, women, blacks, workers, or all of these? Participatory democracy was celebrated, for instance in the Port Huron Statement, as the most authentic kind of political experience, and it was practiced as well. One of the main differences, in fact, between the old and the new left was the latter’s attempt to live the new world, the future authentic culture, rather than simply "bring it about" politically. This is related to the New Left’s emphasis on cultural revolution rather than "mere" political and economic revolution. A change in values, in lifestyles, was the desideratum; the youth would embody the new culture in their daily life, and they would work to bring it about through political activism. Rossinow distinguishes between the counterculture and the New Left, but he argues that they both belonged to the larger youth existentialist movement and rejected mainstream society for the same reasons, as being a culture of death, dishonesty, and repression.


The New Left branched off into new movements in the late 1960s, but these too manifested the broadly existentialist orientation to social change that had been evident a decade earlier in Austin. Environmentalists, for example, sought an end to estrangement between humans and nature. As one participant stated, “Nature is not where the skin stops. We exist in nature, not with it” (p. 279). Insofar as both Communism and capitalism demonstrated a hubristic urge to control nature through technology, they were equally alienating. The proper goal was to live harmoniously, not to dominate fellow humans and nature. 


A particularly successful movement that arose in the late 1960s was feminism. Women had come to see in the New Left an overt sexism that was supposed to be justified by the fact that mainstream society had emasculated men. Masculinity had been domesticated and attenuated by bureaucracy and 1950s social norms; young men were now determined to reclaim their authentic manhood. In practice, however, this led them to lord it over women in such organizations as SDS. Women rebelled against the equation of authenticity and masculinity; they sought their own authentic womanhood in response, launching thereby a powerful critique of sexism. Some activists focused on sexual liberation and a critique of monogamy, while others advocated for women’s rights over their bodies in connection with abortion. The point is that the common goal uniting all their efforts was existential empowerment and cultural revolution, an end to the objectification and subordination of women.


Rossinow is very sympathetic to the New Left’s attempt to forge a more meaningful politics and culture, but he argues that ultimately it was unsuccessful. “In the end, the new left achieved instead a holistic consumer society, naturalized sexual commodities, a less bureaucratic university education, and an authenticated capitalism: a softened social experience for themselves, not a transformed society” (p. 295). Moreover, he sees in contemporary society the same search for authenticity that took a political turn in the 1960s; now, however, it has become apolitical, more personal and "therapeutic" in orientation. All these judgments are surely correct and not very controversial; few participants in the New Left, for example, would now claim that they succeeded in their overall goals. What is controversial is Rossinow’s existentialist reinterpretation of the New Left, his placing it in the tradition of middle-class revolts against anxiety and cultural alienation rather than leftist revolts against oppression. How much truth is there in his analysis?


It would have been illuminating, first of all, if he had considered in more depth earlier instantiations of the existentialist tradition. There is certainly no dearth of examples to choose from. The "Beat Generation" of the 1950s comes to mind, as do the existentialist and literary circles in France after World War I and up to the 1970s or later. European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s had the function, for many people, of alleviating anxiety and alienation in what was thought to be a corrupt, selfish, materialistic, individualistic bourgeois culture, uniting the masses in a more authentic and spiritual nationalist experience. Going back further, one could point to the Transcendentalist movement in New England and the Romantic movement in Europe, both of which were occupied with "spiritual" questions of how the alienated or semi-alienated middle-class individual could live an authentic life. America’s First and Second Great Awakenings, too, in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were definitely existentialist in essence, addressing as they did anxieties generated by rapid social change and the perceived breakdown of old traditions and communal ties. The Protestant Reformation itself is plausibly interpreted in this existentialist vein. One can even take this tradition back to antiquity, with such philosophical sects as the Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans, as well as the proliferation of magical and mystery religions in the Hellenistic era, when the Mediterranean world was in flux. In China and India, Taoism and Buddhism arose to salve the anxious soul. Returning to more modern times, one might, ironically, locate the New Right at least partially in the same tradition as the New Left, to the extent that it was a middle-class response to what was perceived as an increasingly degenerate, meaningless, Godless, inauthentic modern culture.


Does it make sense, then, to place the New Left in such a tradition? The answer has to be yes. It is hard to define this "tradition" with any precision—certain movements might have an ambiguous character, and such disparate phenomena are classed together that one is inclined to doubt the meaningfulness of the so-called tradition —but it surely has some meaning. And insofar as it does, the origins of the New Left, which Rossinow analyzes in relation to Austin, show that these white youth movements of the 1960s exemplified the existentialist tradition just as well as existentialism itself did. They turned left due to the broader social context of the time, particularly the civil rights movement.


The Politics of Authenticity is an unusually thought-provoking and original book. The controversy it has stirred is justified, but so are most of the conclusions Rossinow reaches about the character of the New Left. The paucity of institutional connections between the Old Left and the New Left is yet another indication that the "essence," the social origins and motivations, of the two broad movements differed. Rossinow’s book will surely continue to stimulate reconsideration of the constantly reconsidered 1960s.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright