John Patrick Diggins, 6 March 1997
In the mid-seventies, when the New Left in America was beginning to sense its impotence after the part it had played in bringing to an end the war in Vietnam, I was asked to give a talk at the University of Florence on the subject of American radicalism. Italian students and academics, many of them Marxists and feminists, seemed to appreciate my account of a student phenomenon that was unable to reach beyond the campus. Then came a question from the audience. What did I think was the biggest mistake the New Left made? If young radicals wanted to reach the ‘masses’, I replied, they should connect means to ends and refrain from abusing the symbols of American patriotism. The American New Left was almost unique in turning against America’s own patriotic heroes and traditions. In Italy, I reminded the audience, Antonio Gramsci had been able to synthesise Marxian radicalism with Mazzinian nationalism. I came away from the conference pleased that my remarks were received more with respect than with rancour. Yet shortly afterwards, taking part in a conference on the Sixties, held in Philadelphia, I made the same reply in response to a similar question about the failure of the New Left. This time my remarks about patriotism were greeted with hisses and I was told that no one could love a country that had attempted genocide in Asia.