Radical Ambition: A Portrait of the Toronto New Left, 1958-1985

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Graham, Peter
new left , social movement
This thesis examines the rise and decline of the New Left in Toronto from 1958 to 1985. It argues that New Leftism — whose three leading ideals were self-management, national liberation, and community — arose as much from the Old Left as it did from the peace movement. In contrast to earlier readings that interpret the New Left narrowly — essentially, as the combined forces of the white student and peace movements evident mainly on university campuses — this thesis documents the extent to which New Leftism, interpreted as a political formation, provided a framework for a diversity of radical social movements, especially feminism, Black Power, gay liberation, resistance to the capitalist redevelopment of the city, and transnational solidarity. It also questions a declensionist narrative that adopts a “decadal” approach to the radicalism of the sixties, according to which 1970 spelled the end of “60s” radicalism. Quite the contrary, this thesis argues: in Toronto, it would be truer to say that 1970s were “the sixties,” in that only in this later decade did many New Left movements attain their full maturity. New Leftists successfully challenged a host of institutions, sometimes with permanent effects. The educational system was transformed. Cultural institutions and practices were revolutionized. Questions of race and gender, once peripheral to the left, were made central to it. Democratic community institutions became far more powerful. A token of the strength and durability of the New Left in Toronto was the extent to which it remained the bête noir of a series of other radical groups upholding the model of the vanguard communist party — which challenged the New Leftists’ prominence but many members of which often wound up agreeing with their positions. It was only in the early 1980s, with the ascent of a new right, that Toronto’s New Left unmistakably entered a period of decline. Yet, even then, many of its key themes were picked up by fast-growing anarchist and socialist feminist currents. Far from constituting a minor phenomenon, Toronto’s New Left, one of the largest movements for social justice in Canadian history, bequeathed to its progressive successors an imposing legacy of struggle and cultural achievements. It is the purpose of this thesis to evaluate, both critically and sympathetically, the extent to which the New Left attained its radical ambition.
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