New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 627-648
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Mapping the New Left Roots of Identity Politics
Grant Farred *
Just when polite liberal (not to mention correct leftist) discourse ceased speaking of us as dykes, faggots, colored girls, or natives, we began speaking of ourselves this way.
Wendy Brown 1
The new rights that are being claimed today are the expression of differences whose importance is only now being asserted, and they are no longer rights that can be universalized.
Chantal Moufffe 2
If all social movements have genealogies, then the origins of identity politics is easier to trace than most. The movement to define the contemporary public self (or, to put it differently, the self in public) owes more to the emergence of the New Left than to any other political movement. While identity politics is not the only heir of the New Left, it is certainly one of the New Left's more politically endowed progeny, a significant beneficiary of the "Ban the Bomb" marches in late-1950s Britain and the Civil Rights, Black Power, and gay rights struggles in 1950s and 1960s America. Without the birth, successes, and failures of the New Left, identity politics as we knew it in the final decades of the twentieth century--and continue to understand it now--is an unimaginable project. Ideologically connected as they are, the link between the two movements is nevertheless laden with historical paradoxes.
This essay is an attempt to map the New Left origins of identity politics and to reflect, not only on the accomplishments of that movement, but [End Page 627] also on the ways in which the new social movements reinterpreted and appropriated the strategies of the New Left. While understood here as central to the process of explicating the historic--albeit paradoxical--role the "1956 movement" played in the formation of identity politics, the contributions of the New Left will also be read as an ideological formation against which the new social movements (implicitly) defined themselves: the New Left had to be rejected in order for gay, ethnic, and women's organizations to produce their public voices and visages. This ambivalent relationship to the New Left apart, the delineation of the history of identity politics simultaneously serves as a reminder of this social movement's tradition of struggle and stands as an argument for its continued relevance.
The British New Left was founded in 1956 out of the three famed crises that marked that year: the Suez crisis, Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Such was the impact of "1956" that it inaugurated a reconceptualized notion of radicalism in Western Europe and the United States, 3 spawning a New Left movement that redefined politics through its challenge to and skepticism about the prevailing top-down communist orthodoxy--a mode of politics that had dominated Old Left praxis. There are significant differences between the development of the New Left in the United States and Britain: the American New Left was more racially diverse and more defined by the cultural and the students' struggles of the 1960s; the British New Left retained its links to formal political institutions such as the Labour Party for a longer period; it was less populist and more organized around its main intellectual organ, The New Left Review, a central mouthpiece which its American counterpart lacked. Despite these differences, the two movements nonetheless share the same fundamental genealogy.
By way of intellectual grounding, this essay draws more explicitly on the traditions of the British than the American New Left, owing more to the legacy of 1956 than the uprising of 1968. Needless to say, however, this examination of identity politics is also aware of the tremendous overlap between these two movements and the process by which they influenced, shaped, and informed each other. The American and the British New Lefts shared a commitment to the significance of culture as a transformative political practice, they recognized the shortcomings of the Old Left, and they understood how the postwar ideological landscape had changed the...