The “New Left” Is Growing Old (and Senile?)

Somewhere the old social democrat Irving Howe wrote of his disgust with Tom Hayden and the New Left when it arose in the early 1960s, saying (if memory serves) after a contentious meeting with Hayden in New York that they were a bunch of “knowitall shits,” and writing in Dissent that the energy of the New Left was mostly “a gesture of moral rectitude.”

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Those New Left “gestures” of moral rectitude have turned into a full-blown authoritarian rage in recent years, such that even some of the founders of the New Left have noticed and are alarmed.

Exhibit 1 is Todd Gitlin, who once upon a time in the 1960s was president of the Students for a Democratic Society, and in most of his books still celebrates the radicalism of 1960s as the pinnacle of American cultural enlightenment, from which it has been all downhill ever since.

Writing today at Tablet, Gitlin sounds the alarm against the post-modern Left’s attack on the Enlightenment:

The other day, at a university meeting, I heard a young professor refer scornfully to “the Enlightenment project,” which (she said) proclaimed that the growth of reason was conducive to a fantasy of ultimate perfection, a fantasy that in turn was used to justify colonial conquest.

For some 30 years now, this peculiar phrase has been bouncing around the academy: “the Enlightenment project.” It’s not meant, most of the time, as a compliment. . .

To put it mildly, the phrase “Enlightenment project” is a term of indignant disavowal, as if it referred to a blueprint for the world’s biggest prison. By using it, the speaker casts an anathema, sometimes with a curl of the lip or a roll of the eyes. In this voice, “the Enlightenment project” means (more or less) the organization of thought, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe and its colonies, around a set of interlocked propositions:

1. the mind is a lone wolf;
2. its rational operations are predatory in that
3. they devalue women, people of color, and the colonized,
4. suppress ways of knowing other than the rational, Newtonian, Cartesian, and scientific,
5. and lead to seeing all of nature—the whole world outside the predatory ego, and in particular those seen as rightly subject to the domination of reason,
6. which is an ideological instrument cultivated by European males to rationalize their exercise of colonial and imperial power.

This is not far from how I put the matter in my recent National Review article (still stuck behind NR’s modest paywall, but coming out soon I am told):

I came to respect several far-left professors at Boulder who plainly held to traditional views about the importance of reason, objectivity, and truth. But these traditional hallmarks of the university — one might call them the original holy trinity of higher education — are fighting words to the postmodern Left, which openly rejects reason, objectivity, and truth as tools of oppression.

Gitlin notes the irony that the very complaint the postmodern Left is making grew precisely out of the extension of Enlightenment liberalism:

Those who scorn “the Enlightenment project” fail to realize how heavily they depend on the very reason they scorn or at least the reputation for reason, even as, instead of deep studies, they are encouraged to play games of citational gotcha: Pin the tail on Kant. They have little taste for the irony that the institutions that harbor them (such as the University of Illinois’ American Indian Studies Program), despite—or because of—their tendentious work, are places where the serious work of anticolonial scholarship gets done.

But Gitlin fails to perceive or acknowledge that the current anti-intellectualism strangling our universities is largely the result of the New Left that Gitlin led and still champions. Gitlin represents the New Left in its senility. Maybe he’ll figure it out yet, and start voting against tenure and promotion for nihilist Leftists in his department at Columbia, where he currently teaches.

And the final irony is that it used to be conservatives, such as Russell Kirk and Eric Voegelin, who attacked Enlightenment rationality because of its role in the rise of revolutionary ideology (i.e., French and Bolshevik revolutions, etc); Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revelation can almost be paired with the founding book of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Some other time we can and should discuss how the utopian “rationalism” of the Enlightenment is a betrayal of right reason, but for now it is the job of conservatives to rescue and revitalize Enlightenment rationality from the nihilist Left.