John Dewey, the New Left, and the Politics of Contingency and Pluralism
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Most histories of the New Left emphasize that some variant of Marxism ultimately influenced activists in their pursuit of social change. Through careful examination of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), I argue that New Left thought was not always anti-liberal. Founding SDS members hardly rejected liberal political theory during the early years of the movement (1960-1963). New Left thought was profoundly indebted to John Dewey's political and philosophical method. Deweyan liberalism suggested theory should be directly applicable in the world of social action and truth should always be regarded as contingent. The connection between Dewey and SDS becomes apparent when one considers the role of Arnold S. Kaufman in the movement. Kaufman, a University of Michigan philosopher, applied Dewey's political and philosophical method in his work as an activist and academic. He coined the term "participatory democracy" for the New Left. Consequently, this key New Left concept was itself grounded in Dewey's philosophy.