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Overview of the American Left

The Left

Left and Right as political designations date to the French Revolution when the Jacobins sat on the left in the National Assembly and the Girodins on the right. The Left has come to mean movements, organizations, and intellectual or cultural tendencies that emphasize an egalitarian ethos, a utopian vision of social reconstruction, and a commitment to agitation and action to advance that ethos and vision.

Major Left-Wing Organizations in the Twentieth-Century U.S.

Only three left-wing organizations have attained mass followings in the twentieth-century U.S.: the Socialist Party of the U.S. (SPUSA), the Communist Party of the U.S. (CPUSA), and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Founded 1901 with remnants still in existence today, SPUSA reached a peak membership of about 120,000 around the 1912 election when it polled 6% of the presidential vote. The party declined sharply after 1919 from a combination of government repression, a split between reformists and revolutionaries crystallized by the Bolshevik revolution, and the effects of social change on their core constituencies and on the credibility of their hopes for imminent change.

CPUSA, formed out of an amalgamation of revolutionary factions from the 1919 split in the Socialist Party, reached a membership of roughly 75,000 (with a pool of close sympathizers, "fellow travelers," perhaps five to ten times larger than the membership) at the end of the 1930s and again during WWII. CPUSA declined very rapidly after the war under the impact of the Cold War, disillusionment with the Soviet Union, postwar prosperity, and the Party's dogmatic and sectarian tendencies.

SDS began as the student wing of the League for Industrial Democracy (originally an organization of socialist college students that evolved into a social-democratic policy group of intellectuals and union functionaries). They parted company with the parent organization over Vietnam and anticommunism in the early 1960s, and expanded rapidly during the 1960s as the most visible American exponents of the New Left. In contrast to the old Left parties, SDS did not collect monthly dues or keep systematic membership records, so estimates of its membership vary widely, but at its peak in 1968-69 probably several hundred thousand people identified themselves at least loosely with SDS.

Role of the Left in Modern U.S. History

Although each of these organizations briefly functioned as a mass movement, none sustained substantial organization for much more than a decade. Nonetheless, they had decisive impact on modern American history. Left-wing activists played crucial roles in virtually every progressive social movement in twentieth-century America: labor organization, civil rights and black liberation, antiwar and peace movements, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, and antiglobalism. They shaped terms of debate in American political culture and forced mainstream politicians to respond to their arguments. Understanding the history of the Left is thus critical to understanding key themes in American history.

Origins of this Collection

In graduate school I discovered that the world of antique ephemera and collectibles gave me access to historical raw materials and a source of supplementary income. Selling junk was more fun and more lucrative than other jobs that had carried me through summer breaks in graduate funding. For the last thirty-four years I've followed a sometimes schizophrenic path: radical historian by day, hippy-trippy, petty bourgeois capitalist on the side. Along the way I accumulated a vast hoard of ephemera relating to American working-class and radical history.

With the help of the Digital Research Library staff at the University of Pittsburgh, I wanted to make these materials available to students and scholars. What you see here is the beginning of what I hope will become a much larger resource. It began when I sought to make sources available for students in a fall 2005 senior honors research seminar I teach on the history of the American Left. Since that course focused on three major organizations (SPUSA, CPUSA, and SDS), this initial effort emphasized those organizations. I have since donated my collection to the University's Archives Service Center where it will be properly arranged, described, preserved and made accessible to students and scholars. I hope to continue working with members from both library departments to continue adding material to this Web site in the future.

Richard J. Oestreicher
History Department
University of Pittsburgh

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