Dreaming and Doing: the Role of Idealism in the New Left

Idealism increasingly became a central concept in the movements of the 1960s. This week’s readings and viewings highlight this, specifically in the New Left movement. At first, the idealistic ideas and Utopian visions in these excerpts made me think back to how Anne Moody’s experience during the March on Washington in Coming of Age in Mississippi. Hearing speakers like Martin Luther King Jr., Moody says she discovered “we had “dreamers instead of leaders leading us… in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream” (335). Keeping this in mind as I read this week, I wondered if the idealism of the New Left encouraged unrealistic pursuits primarily by middle-class college kids. The focus of Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory on poets and barefoot artists who paint their feet gold and riot for their right to yodel, for example, added to this thought. However, I reconsidered my initial skepticism after reading Casey Hayden’s “Raising the Question of Who Decides,” as I realized that I was misunderstanding the use of idealism. The movements of this era used idealism as a tool to challenge the reality, but they did not forget the reality. And this idealism really helped these activists organize and create a community, giving voices to people who were previously barred off due to wealth disparity and discrimination. Sources like Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory, Bob Dylan’s song “Blowing in the Wind”, Casey Hayden’s “Raising the Question of Who Decides”, and Connie Brown’s “Cleveland: Conference of the Poor” make this clear.

Though idealistic, the characters in Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory do not disregard the real threats of their society, as Sanders mentions their fear of police brutality, nuclear war, the FBI (Sanders, 89, 223, and 227). Sanders also notes that these unorthodox lifestyles and new movements centered themselves around idealistic concepts out of a “desperate search for some indication that the universe was more than a berserk sewer” (Sanders, 80). He also highlights that idealism was a tool used to help the new generation in their fight to be accepted for their authentic selves. Similarly, the music of Bob Dylan highlights both this desire for complete authenticity, as well as the acknowledgement of real-life threats. His style and demeanor in the video we watched this week oozes realness – he is not putting on a show but sharing his personal (and political) art. The lyrics of “Blowing in the Wind” ask questions like: “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Dylan calls for a better society without ignore the reality. His sobering questions help us better understand the use of idealism as a tool, not to be misunderstood as unrealistic.

This is something other key activists remind us, as well. In “Raising the Question of Who Decides,” Casey Hayden brings up a point that stuck with me while reading the other excerpts. Hayden stresses that people should not misunderstand the new movements as calling for outlandish change, noting “some of these ideas in articles about the New Left… always sound very mystical… they’re not” (Hayden, 78). Rather, idealistic concepts like participatory democracy called for fundamental equality, and it helped the various movements of this era to organize and establish a sense of solidarity and community. Participatory democracy itself seems idealistic, but the push for it encouraged increasing participation and organization with people beyond middle-class students and intellectuals. Describing her experience at the 1964 “Conference of the Poor” in Cleveland, Connie Brown shows the organization and participation idealist concepts like participatory democracy enabled. During this conference, she notes, “barriers of fear and distrust were dissolved… people were able to feel the idea of an interracial movement of the poor as an emotional reality” (Brown, 87).

Returning to Moody’s comments on dreamers, it seems that the idealist concepts of the New Left and the activists of this newer generation actually made it more possible for those previously barred from dreaming about a better society (due to racism, wealth disparity, etc.) to not only dream, but work within these movements to create a better reality.

One Reply to “Dreaming and Doing: the Role of Idealism in the New Left”

  1. This is a really wonderful reflection of the readings — that really gets to the heart of what the cultural and political rebels were about. The idealism that fueled their pursuits allowed them to both imagine a better world and do the work they believed would make that world possible. Without some level of idealism and hope, it’s hard to imagine how one could work for social change. And the loss of that is what is so striking about the end of Anne Moody’s memoir. Thanks for sharing these thought-provoking ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *