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Abstract

In the Spring and Summer, 1964, issues of the American new left journal Studies on the Left, political economist James O’Connor grappled with the concept of community unions.1 He argued that increasingly the social basis of working class organizations was in the community. Debate about the nature and efficacy of what could be called community unionism was a feature of the new left’s mid-life in the 1960s. The overall intellectual context in which this debate occurred was one of disillusionment with traditional leftist dogmas and pieties. The political context was one reminiscent of the Russian Narodnik movement of the nineteenth century. Thousands of students had worked and were working amongst the black and poor in a variety of projects and, specifically, in the mid 1960s around three hundred students from the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) immersed themselves in northern working class communities. Organising the poor was the aim of SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). Michael Harrington’s 1963 book The Other America had placed poverty on the agenda but the student new left was itself making it part of a larger question—that of historic agency.

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