Paul Goodman and the Old New Left

Paul Goodman and the Old New Left

I’m still puzzled fifty years later by what it was about the climate and the culture in 1960 that encouraged many young people to think they could make the world over. That was the year when little groups of black students brought down entrenched segregation by putting their bodies over lines they weren’t supposed to cross. In that same year, students rose up en masse in Turkey, South Korea, and Japan; a host of African countries declared their independence from colonial rule; John Kennedy became the first person born in the twentieth century to take over the U.S. presidency; Bobby Zimmerman started to perform as Bob Dylan. A strong sense of youth rebellion and generational cleavage was emerging, and it was in that year that Paul Goodman succeeded in publishing Growing Up Absurd.

Goodman was by then a mature intellectual, who prolifically produced serious and often profound social criticism, illuminating fiction, and poetry. But no one outside of a small circle of New York intellectuals had heard of him, until that book appeared. Its very title resonated with the growing cultural mood among intellectual youth; its argument about the ways in which bureaucratic, consumerist, “overdeveloped” society was destroying the sense of useful work and right living struck home. Goodman soon was a sought after campus speaker, and as the sixties’ rebellions became organized and focused, his way of thinking was, I think, deeply influential.

Goodman fused two philosophical streams that were central to the early sixties outlook of young new leftists like myself and other “founders” of groups like Students for a Democratic Society. He, like another intellectual hero, C. Wright Mills, was a pragmatist. Our generation saw the established Left as defined by ideology rather than lived experience—and this was just about as true for the whole gamut of those who identified as socialist. Deriving one’s political strategies and analyses from ideological foundations resulted in what Mills called “futilitarian” politics and in a vocabulary unintelligible to the masses. The main point of claiming the need for a “New Left” was to envision a way of acting and speaking politically that connected with experience, that was experimental, that had effects on the world that could be seen as good for people’s lives.

SDS, THE Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other expressions of the New Left were anarchist without at first even knowing anything about the anarchist tradition. Paul Goodman’s use of anarchism was very instructive. To make change you join up with friends and neighbors and try to create alternatives that meet needs blocked by the big institutions. Or you demand new rules that can make life more livable directly—these modes of action are more practical and effective than appealing to authorities and institutions to bring the change.

Rather than spend primary energy to get the university to become a community of scholars, create your own—and by so doing you may affect the institution as well as making a practical difference. To oppose war, refuse to fight it. Goodman’s fusion of the utopian and the practical, in a series of essays during the sixties, provided substance for the impulses of resistance and the visions of a decentralization and community that defined the youth counterculture and the early New Left.

I wish he were here to challenge the Left we now inhabit. We have largely fallen back defensively to support of the welfare state and electoral strategies. Goodman would say that we are blocked by the decline in utopian thought and creative direct action. If we could figure out why Paul Goodman is now forgotten, we might get a better understanding of what’s happened to us all in these last decades.


Dick Flacks’s books include: Making History: The American Left and the American Mind and the forthcoming: Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (with Rob Rosenthal). He was active in the founding of Students for a Democratic Society.