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Democratic Radicalism Resurrected: the New Left in the Netherlands, Germany and France

Por Paul Lucardie

Democratic radicalism can be considered a «thin ideology» or incomplete belief system, unlike complete or «full» ideologies such as liberalism or socialism. Its central ideas were defined clearly by the American Students for a Democratic Society at Port Huron in 1962:

we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.

The ideology does not specify that society should be socialist, corporatist or capitalist. In practice, democratic radicals have alternatively leaned towards socialism and liberalism, while criticizing the bureaucratic and oppressive aspects of both systems.

The origins of democratic radicalism go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Jacobins in France (and other European countries). In the 19th century it was gradually crushed in the class-based conflict between liberalism and socialism. Social democratic movements and liberal parties often incorporated some radical-democratic ideas; thus the German Social-Democratic Party called for ‘direct legislation by the people’ in its Gotha Programme (of 1875). In the first half of the 20th century these ideas were usually dropped or forgotten, while both liberals and social-democrats embraced indirect or parliamentary democracy. Radical-democratic ideas survived only in the fringes of the political system, among anarchists, libertarian socialists or council-communists. However, in the 1960s they re-entered the centre stage, as I will argue here, through various New Left movements. I will not argue that the New Left was ‘nothing but’ democratic radicalism refurbished or revamped, but that democratic radicalism constituted a common core of practically all New Left movements – and has survived them, too. I will try to show this by analyzing (briefly) the ideas of the movements or parties that are usually considered (by themselves and by others) «New Left» (nouvelle gauche, Neue Linke, nieuw links) in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The Five Phases of the New Left

Clearly, the various groups that have been labelled «New Left» either by themselves of by outsiders, differed in many respects. The variations in time – within a country – are probably as important as the variations in space – between countries. While the French distinguish between the nouvelle gauche of the 1960s and the gauchisme of the 1970s, Germans refer to the Neue Linke in the 1960s as well as the 1970s and the Dutch identify the New Left with a particular (loosely organized) faction within the PvdA.

Yet all New Left movements (in the wider sense of the term) seemed to share two characteristics. In the first place, they refused to take sides in the Cold War between Western capitalism and Eastern socialism, unlike social democrats and communists who sided with the former or the latter camp. Many, but certainly not all New Leftists justified their neutralism in pacifist terms; but practically all criticized the nuclear arms race between the USA and the USSR. In the second place, all New Left groups emphasized democracy, which seemed to decline on both sides, in their opinion, and should be renewed and revitalized somehow. How this should be done, was a question that divided the New Left, especially through time. One could distinguish five stages here – going beyond the 1960s.

In the first stage, democracy is almost a defensive ideal, subordinated to pacifism and/or socialism. In this formative stage, the emerging New Left recruited mainly dissidents from social democratic and communist parties who retained many of their old ideas, in spite of their disillusionment with these parties. Quite a few were filled with nostalgia for the 1920s or 1930s, when social democrats still fought for socialisation of all means of production and communists did not yet obey all orders from Moscow. Democratic radicalism remained hidden, one might say, behind socialism and pacifism, but added some notion of industrial democracy to the latter two. This formative stage started in the 1950s and ended roughly around 1965.

Around 1965, fear for escalation of the Cold War into a hot nuclear war began to subside. Besides, the postwar ‘baby boom’ generation began to fill the – rapidly expanding – universities and to look for new, more radical ideas. Some rediscovered ultra left ideas long forgotten or suppressed by the established Old Left: anarchism, council-communism, or the freudian marxism of Wilhelm Reich. As a consequence, existing New Left movements were radicalized and new ones emerged. The small and weakly organized yet intellectually powerful Situationist International inspired students and other youngsters in France, Germany and the Netherlands at about the same time: between 1965 and 1968. Very critical of parliamentary democracy, the new generation of New Leftists (as well as a few older individuals) called for radical or direct democracy, usually associated with workers’councils and similar institutions. Democratic radicalism was fused, one might say, with libertarian socialism and neutralism (in the international sphere). In France, this fusion of ideas seemed to result in a massive explosion in May 1968, in Germany a minor explosion occurred (in Berlin especially) in 1967 and in the Netherlands only a few smoke bombs exploded (in Amsterdam in 1966). The dominant frame was marxist in France and Germany, but not in the Netherlands.

In the third phase, the movement which had acquired at least some superficial coherence in the sixties fragmented in different directions: many New Leftists turned to extreme marxist-leninist groups, giving up (in practice, if not in theory) on radical democracy altogether; others set up communes, women’s groups and other counter-cultural institutions, where they could practice direct democracy everyday; while a third group infiltrated established social democratic parties in order to convert them into radical-democratic and socialist movements.

In the long run, none of these options seemed to satisfy the New Left thirst for radical democracy. Hence attempts were made – in the fourth phase, beginning at the end of the seventies – to build new political parties that would preach as well as practice the (radical) democratic ideal. With the crisis and eventual collapse of the Soviet system in the 1980s, democratic radicals tended to cut all ties to socialism and search new frames to articulate their ideals: ecologism, often mixed with pacifism and feminism.

However, even the green parties diluted their democratic radicalism and joined the Establishment, at least where they had won enough votes and seats to take part in policy-making. By the late 1990s, democratic radicals turned to new movements: anti-globalism and populism, of the Left or even of the Right. The populism of the New Right has perhaps more in common with the democratic radicalism of the New Left than either side would be willing to concede – but that is a topic beyond the framework of this paper.




French movements






1955 – 1965








1966 – 1969

Mouvement du 22 Mars






Nieuw Links


Fragmentation & Infiltration

1970 – 1979









1980 – 1990




Anti-globalization & Populism

1991 – ?




List of abbreviations

CERES Centre d’Études, de Recherches et d’Éducation Socialiste, Socialist Study and Education Centre (leftwing faction within French Socialist Party)
DFU Deutsche Friedens-Union, German Peace Union
D66 Democraten 66, Democrats 66
IS Internationale Situationniste, Situationist International
Juso Jungsozialisten, Young Socialists (within German SPD)
KfA Kampagne für Demokratie und Abrüstung, Campaign for Democracy and Disarmament
LCR Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, Revolutionary Communist League (trotskist)
PPR Politieke Partij Radikalen, (Dutch) Radical Party
PS Parti socialiste, (French) Socialist Party
PSP Pacifistisch Socialistische Partij, Pacifist Socialist Party
PSU Parti Socialiste Unifié, United Socialist Party
PvdA Partij van de Arbeid, (Dutch) Labour Party
SA Subversive Aktion, Subversive Action
SB Sozialistischer Bund, Socialist League, later: Sozialistisches Büro, Socialist Bureau
SDS Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund, German Socialist Student League
SP Socialistische Partij, (Dutch) Socialist Party
VLR Vive la Révolution! Long live the revolution
WASG Wahlinitiative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit, Electoral Initiative (for) Work and Social Justice (split from SPD)

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