My book, New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition, will be released by Princeton University Press on September 7, 2021. In it, I demonstrate a continuity between three moments in the history of the German and Western European left: radical antifascism in the 1920s-30s, left socialism in the 1940s-50s, and anti-authoritarianism in the 1960s. That continuity I call neoleftism, and it was based on internal revolts against the organizational form of traditional left parties and unions. Small groups of militant youth such as New Beginning (Neu Beginnen) in Germany tried to sustain grassroots movements without reproducing the bureaucratic, hierarchical, and supposedly obsolete structures of Social Democracy and Communism. Several generations of neoleftists experimented with alternative modes of organization such as councils, assemblies, and action committees. Eventually, many of them would experience the irony of defending the same institutions that their younger selves opposed. That irony came to a head in the 1960s amid the transition to a post-industrial society, when across Europe and beyond a self-styled New Left rebelled against the welfare state supported by their formerly radical parents.
If not outright dismissed as political failures, new lefts have been misunderstood by historians who focus on discrete moments rather than longer continuities or who favor the perspective of mass electoral parties. But creativity occurred at the margins of mass politics, even especially amid defeat. Problems that still afflict social movements today, such as the risk of institutional cooptation or the lack of durable structures, can be traced back to this history of new lefts.