Changing America, Changing the World: The Enduring Legacy of the American “New Left”


In this essay, I argue that many of the ideas of the “New Social Movements” that are currently creating space for “civil society” in the Third World (including Malaysia) actually owe a profound intellectual debt to the American “New Left” movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.


PHUA Kai Lit, PhD



In this essay, I would like to discuss the enduring legacy of the American New Left movement of the 1960s and early 1970s on American society (Gitlin, 1993) and more importantly, on the rest of the world today (including Malaysia and Singapore). I also wish to discuss the backlash that it has aroused in the form of the Neoconservative movement, neotraditionalist movements, and other reactions to the excesses of certain versions of New Left thought and New Left-inspired activism. To round out this essay, new syncretisms such as Bobos or Bourgeois Bohemians (Brooks, 2000), “Green” corporations, ecotourism etc. will be discussed with a certain degree of skepticism and bemusement on my part.


The American New Left movement (broadly defined) first started stirring in the mid-1950s under the inspiration of the struggle of Black Americans for equal rights in a society which was still blatantly discriminatory against non-white minorities. As discussed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (Nobel Prize laureate in economics in 1974) in his 1944 book “An American Dilemma” (Myrdal, 1996), the second class treatment meted out to Americans of African ancestry was blatantly at odds with the high-minded proclamations of American Democracy and with the self-perception of the country as the bastion of the “Free World” fighting against the Communist Bloc led by the Soviet Union. Thus, the civil rights struggle was viewed with considerable sympathy and given active support by progressive-minded white groups and organizations in the United States. These included left-wing and liberal (in the American sense or social democratic in the Western European sense) political groups, liberal churches, Jewish organizations and so on. The New Left activists of the 1960s and early 1970s thus were either initiated into political activism through direct participation in the civil rights movement of Black Americans or were inspired by this struggle for equality as they were growing up in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was formed and made public its Port Huron Statement which called for greater social justice and more democracy (“participatory democracy”) in America. The SDS founders envisioned a vibrant participatory democracy in which citizens are empowered to take an active role in the formulation of public policies that directly impact upon their lives rather than just the existing “democracy” in which about all the average citizen could do was to cast a ballot each time a new election came around. The SDS student-intellectuals contributed toward a certain strain in New Left thought. Simultaneously, the Beatnik bohemian movement centred around Greenwich Village in New York City and San Francisco in California contributed to another strain within the New Left. This was the “alternative lifestyles” strain as exemplified by the commune and back-to-nature movements (Gitlin, 1993).


During the 1960s, the New Left gathered steam under the impetus of protests against increasing American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war between Communist North Vietnam and authoritarian South Vietnam. American involvement in Indochina first began after World War Two when the French were attempting to recolonize the region with American-supplied arms and financial support (the Americans preferred a French colonial regime to an independent Vietnam under the nationalist but also Communist leader Ho Chi Minh). After the French were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Indochina was carved up into Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and North Vietnam. This did not end the attempts of Vietnamese Communist forces to unify the two Vietnams (under their domination of course) and thus conflict in Indochina continued. As the situation in South Vietnam deteriorated in the eyes of the American Government, first, military advisers were sent to strengthen the South Vietnamese armed forces. Finally, in the face of impending collapse of the South Vietnamese regime, President Lyndon Johnson made a fateful decision to send American combat troops to Vietnam in 1965.


Over the next few years, more and more American troops were sent to Vietnam in the hope of defeating the Communist forces (the North Vietnamese Army which infiltrated via the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” and South Vietnamese “Vietcong” peasant guerrilla fighters). As the war dragged on and the number of conscripted American troops fighting in Vietnam rose into the hundreds of thousands, protests against the war intensified in the United States. New Left activists were prominent leaders of the movement to end American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict.


At the same time, frustration with the slow rate of progress in the reduction of inequalities between Black America and White America led to increasing militancy as exemplified by the rise of groups such as the Black Panthers (who claimed to subscribe to Marxist-Leninist ideology), Malcolm X and the Black Muslims etc. White New Leftists made ties, albeit often uneasy and strained ones, with Black activists to try to transform America.


The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement inspired other Americans to organize and protest against discrimination and exclusion as well as to press for correction of perceived faults and shortcomings in American society. These groups included other ethnic minorities (Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans), feminists, homosexuals, the disabled, the elderly, environmentalists and so on. A consumer rights movement led by lawyer Ralph Nader also made its appearance in the United States. Native American activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means started the AIM (American Indian Movement) to agitate for a better deal for Native Americans. Hispanic American activists launched organizations such as La Raza and the United Farm Workers (the UFW – to fight against exploitation of Mexican-American migrant farm workers).


Feminism revived in the United States during the 1960s. It had become dormant after the feminist agitation (for the right to vote) of the early 1900s. American feminists were inspired by the writings of Betty Friedan, Simone de Bouvier, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer and so on. Women activists in New Left groups were incensed to find out that their male compatriots often treated them with condescension, e.g., women were expected to make coffee, perform secretarial duties, offer sexual companionship rather than hold leadership positions or participate in making policy. This led them to form feminist groups, consciousness-raising groups etc. to combat sexism and gender discrimination both within the New Left and within the larger American society.


Gays (male homosexuals) and lesbians (female homosexuals) also started organizing and protesting against discrimination and persecution for their sexual orientation. Similarly, the disabled and the elderly started activist groups to press for greater recognition of their needs and to combat prejudice and discrimination. Disabled, wheelchair-bound activists organized effective demonstrations and elderly activists like Maggie Kuhn started groups like the Gray Panthers.


The environmental movement also grew into prominence during the 1960s. Biologist Rachel Carson (Carson, 1994) first identified in 1962 the dire effects of pesticides and other “man-made” chemicals on animals and the environment in her book called “Silent Spring” (i.e., in a heavily polluted environment, all the songbirds would have died and spring would come without any birdsong). Environmental consciousness was reinforced by revelations that the American armed forces fighting in Vietnam were using highly toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange on the jungles of Indochina. These chemicals were poured out of aircraft flying over thick jungle in order to kill the vegetation and exposed the well-hidden Communist forces below. The Americans also used other weapons which caused great destruction to the Vietnamese environment, e.g., carpet bombing by B-52 bombers flying at high altitudes, napalm and phosphorous bombing by fighter-bomber aircraft and so on.


As for the anti-war movement, it was first led by university students who were in danger of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. They were assisted by anti-war and pacifist religious figures like the Roman Catholic Berrigan brothers. Other groups joined in later as American public opinion increasingly turned against a war which dragged on and on with little prospect of a decisive victory at hand. Some returned veterans also joined the anti-war movement by forming groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July (made into a movie by director Oliver Stone) is a personal account of an ardent, anti-Communist American patriot who later became an activist fighting against further American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict.


Thus, the civil rights movement of Black Americans and the American New Left movement either spawned or directly inspired “new social movements” in the areas of human rights, minority rights, feminism, gay rights, rights of the disabled and elderly, consumerism, environmentalism and so on. These ideas subsequently spread to the rest of the world. (In the early days, the American New Left movement directly inspired similar movements in other countries like Britain, West Germany, France, Japan etc. Unfortunately, some of the New Left groups later degenerated into extremist and terrorist organizations like the American Weathermen/Weather Underground, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Japanese Red Army and so on).


Thus, the legacy of the American New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s can be seen in the “new social movements” currently found in many countries all over the world. Some of these new social movements are international in scope, e.g., Amnesty International with its many country chapters and Greenpeace (also with country chapters).  In the United States itself, the legacy is seen in the movement to promote “multiculturalism”, i.e., greater recognition of the contributions on non-white minorities to American history, society and culture; greater acceptance of the sub-cultures and values of minority groups by the white majority and so on. In the universities of America, new areas of academic inquiry such as women’s studies, Black studies, Asian-American studies, gay studies, environmental studies have sprung up and are reshaping the orientation of traditional disciplines such as political science, sociology etc. Academic research in the biomedical sciences and the social sciences have also been sensitized to the needs and problems of minority groups, women, the disabled and the elderly.


However, the New Left and its legacy has given rise to backlash in the form of Neoconservatism, neofascism and neotraditionalist movements such as anti-modernist religious extremism. Neoconservatism (as exemplified by American journals of opinion such as The Public Interest, Commentary, The American Scholar and so on) arose in direct response to the ideological and political extremism of some of the New Leftists. Neoconservatives were incensed by what they perceived as the anti-Americanism and anti-intellectualism of the New Left. In reaction, they started to celebrate the virtues of America. Prominent figures in the Neoconservative movement included Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick etc. The intellectual struggle of the Neoconservatives against New Left ideas (and even against American liberalism) was strongly aided by funds from right-wing foundations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Coors Foundation and the Bradley Foundation (Stefancic et al., 1996; George, 1997). The ideological battle between Neoconservatives and the liberal-left continues in the form of the “Culture Wars” in American higher education and the mass media.


I would argue that the backlash against New Left ideas include Neofascism in USA (e.g. the various White supremacist, survivalist “militia” groups) and in Europe. Neofascism is a potent political force in countries like Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the ex-Communist nations of Eastern Europe. I would also argue that recently deposed Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s so-called Socialist Party actually constitutes a particularly vicious version of contemporary European Neofascism. In complete opposition to New Left ideas of peace and freedom, participatory democracy, equality, calls for brotherhood/sisterhood, international solidarity, racial equality etc., Neofascism is ultra-nationalist, racist, xenophobic and shows strong tendencies toward violence against groups they dislike or despise.


I would also argue that the backlash against the worldwide spread of New Left ideas include Neotraditionalism and neotraditionalist ideas in the Third World. One good example would be religious extremist movements in countries like Algeria, Afghanistan, India (e.g. Hindu extremist movements like the Shiv Sena) and even Malaysia. In my opinion, the rise of neotraditionalism in the Third World is a form of reaction against the spread of Western capitalism (economic ideas plus actual social disruption accompanying capitalist penetration into the Third World) as well as against ideas of New Left origin such as feminism and the emancipation of women, ethnic equality, gay rights and so on. Thus, in Malaysia today, there is increasing pressure on Muslim women by certain groups to take a clearly subordinate position.  This is happening while the educational levels of Muslim women are rising and while they are participating in the labour force in increasing numbers and at higher levels of authority. This pressure is exerted by (in my opinion) certain males who feel threatened or who dislike what they see. They therefore react by campaigning for a return by Muslim women to their (male) interpretations of “religious piety”, appropriate dress and conduct for pious women and so on.


German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel theorized about the dialectic and “synthesis” arising from the clash between “thesis” and “antithesis”. The clash of ideas in America has given rise to new syncretic forms. Thus, we have phenomenon such as Bobos (Bourgeois Bohemians, e.g., Steve Jobs, one of the New Left/New Age-inspired founders of Apple Computer corporation), “Green” corporations, ecotourism and so on. Multinational corporations increasingly claim to be Green (environmentally friendly) and progressive. In fact, we have come to the point where giant chemical companies like Du Pont even run ads on environmental themes in popular magazines! Ecotourism is also a new syncretism. In the recent past, jungle and other forms of wilderness were regarded as undeveloped areas to be “developed” and from which valuable natural resources are to be extracted to hasten “economic development”. The very idea that tourists could be persuaded (and actually pay!) to go into the deep jungle and other wilderness areas for rest and recreation would have resulted in highly raised eyebrows just three or four decades ago. However, thanks to the impact of environmentalism and environmentalist ideas, “ecotourism” is now a respectable and even lucrative phenomenon in many countries (including Malaysia). As for the Bobos, a good example is Steve Jobs – a co-founder of Apple Computer with Steve Wozniak. Jobs clearly shows the influence of the “alternative lifestyles” strain of New Left thought since he had traveled to India (to seek enlightenment and meaning in life?), had practised vegetarianism, espoused a philosophy of “computers for the masses” and also claimed that computer technology could change human society for the better. However, this has not stopped Apple Computer from selling its  machines at high prices and from acting like a typical profit-maximizing company. After he was ousted by John Sculley, he formed a new company called NeXt and continued proclaiming the same kind of quasi-populist and semi-mystical message of computers for the masses and computers for a better society. Today, Jobs is back at the helm of Apple Computer. Computer nerds are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the Bobos. Indeed, most of these people never expected to become millionaires during the early days of the microcomputer revolution. For example, Steve Wozniak built the first version of the Apple computer with no aim of profit in mind. His goal was purely to impress his fellow computer buffs at the Homebrew computer club. The Bobos of California and elsewhere in the United States are materialistic but they are also supporters of environmentalism, healthy lifestyles, and so on. A clear mixing of the ideas of the “alternative lifestyles” strain of New Left thought with dominant, mainstream American culture and values indeed. 


What about the impact of American New Left ideas on Malaysia and Singapore today? The impact is significant even if it is unrecognized by many. Feminist ideas are taking root although there is a backlash in the form of, as argued earlier, neotraditionalist ideas against female equality and emancipation. Thus, we witness groups like “Sisters in Islam” – a group which is feminist in orientation and which attempts to reconcile feminist ideas with Islam. There are also many secular feminist groups in Malaysia today and they have been instrumental in raising public awareness of the problems of domestic violence, sexual harassment and so on. This is also the case in neighbouring Singapore.


“Green” ideas are also starting to penetrate the Malaysian consciousness, e.g., nature clubs and environmental groups have appeared as the environment continues to deteriorate in the face of rapid industralisation, urbanization and urban sprawl etc. The cross-border pollution (the infamous “haze” from Sumatra and Kalimantan) in the region has also spurred the growth of environmental consciousness. In Singapore, its environmentalists have been instrumental in the setting up of the Sungai Buloh Nature Reserve in the northwestern part of the island.


Indigenous peoples (tribal minorities) all over the world are becoming increasingly assertive in defending their rights and in fighting back against discrimination and exploitation. In Malaysia, certain indigenous groups in East Malaysia have organized against outsiders who are attempting to take over their land to exploit its rich natural resources. At the international level, Third World indigenous groups have linked up with sympathetic Northern environmental and human rights groups in a relatively effective manner.

Malaysia also has local chapters of organizations such as Amnesty International (an organization which focuses on human rights, opposes state-sponsored violence and which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace some time ago).


Although almost invisible in Malaysia because of religious sensitivities, sexual minorities are beginning to stir in Singapore. Although public opinion polls in Singapore show a growing tolerance or even acceptance of these sexual minorities, they are basically invisible in the eyes of the Government.

Awareness of the rights of the handicapped is also growing in Malaysia and Singapore. However, much needs to be done to enable handicapped citizens in these two countries to participate as fully as possible in mainstream society. The elderly have traditionally been accorded great respect and deference in this part of the world. However, with the transition from an agricultural to an industrial and service-oriented society, urbanization, migration and so on, the status of the elderly has been steadily eroding. At the same time, declining birth rates have led to “population ageing” (i.e. the percentage of elderly people in the overall population grows over time).  Hence, senior citizen groups are likely to become increasingly active in Malaysia. 


Consumer groups are also a part of the social landscape in Malaysia. One of the most prominent and most well-established consumer rights groups is, of course, the Consumers’ Association of Penang which publishes a highly regarded newspaper called the “Utusan Konsumer”. Singapore has a unique consumer rights group which was established by the Government itself - CASE or the Consumers’ Association of Singapore.


Scholarship in Malaysia and Singapore has also been influenced by New Left ideas. This is clearly evident when one compares academic material written by local scholars in the 1950s and 1960s with material being written today. The material of today often incorporates or discusses ideas dealing with women, the environment and so on. Thus, for good (in the eyes of some) or for ill (in the eyes of others), the legacy of the American New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s continues to live on in the form of civil rights, feminist, minority rights, environmentalist groups, consumer groups and other “New Social Movements” in the United States and in other countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Its legacy also include oppositional groups like the Neoconservatives, anti-modernists and neotraditionalists as well as “syncretic” phenomenon like Bobos, “Green” corporations, ecotourism and so on. Thus, a movement that originally aimed to change American society eventually ended up not only changing America but also the rest of the world.


K.L. Phua is a medical sociologist who just caught the tail end of the New Left era as a foreign student in America during the late 1970s and 1980s. He wishes to acknowledge the profound impact of Ralph Sell, friends from Baltimore DSA and New Left thought on his present thinking.



Recommended Reading


Brooks, David 2000 “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” New York: Simon and Schuster


Carson, Rachel 1994 “Silent Spring” New York: Houghton Mifflin


George, Susan “Winning the War of Ideas: Lessons from the Gramscian Right” Dissent, Summer 1997


Gitlin, Todd 1993 “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage”

New York: Bantam Books


Meyerson, Harold “The (Still) Relevant Socialist” The Atlantic, August 2000


Myrdal, Gunnar 1996 “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” New Jersey: Transaction Books


Stefancic, Jean, Richard Delgado and Mark Tushnet 1996 “No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda” Philadelphia: Temple University Press


Examples of Malaysian NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) Websites


Amnesty International Malaysia


Consumers’ Association of Penang




Sahabat Alam Malaysia (web page)


Sisters in Islam (web page)


Women’s Development Collective