Established in 1971, the New American Movement (NAM) was a descendant of the Maoist branch of the New Left. Seeking to wed the Old Left with the New, NAM saw itself not as a political party per se, but rather as an "interim institution" whose socialist-feminist ideals would ultimately "unify working people and catalyze a large mass movement." The organization's leadership believed that capitalism was teetering on the brink of failure, and that America was thus on the verge of a socialist revolution. Consequently, NAM's founders in 1971 felt that "the time was right ... for a [socialist-feminist] mass membership organization ... that would reach out to new sectors of the population untouched by the Sixties Left." NAM generally sought to pursue its activism outside the realm of American electoral politics, for fear that immersion in that system would dampen the revolutionary imperative its members felt to radically transform society. The group's approach was to strive initially to define its own politics with maximum clarity, and then to engage with existing political institutions at some later date.
The original concept of NAM germinated soon after the disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969, when John Rossen -- a former Communist Party USA district organizer and SDS office landlord -- distributed pamphlets advocating the creation of a new revolutionary force rooted in Marxism and American nationalism. In January 1971, three former SDS members based in Seattle -- Theirrie Evelyn Cook, Charles "Chip" Marshall, and Michael Lerner -- took up Rossen's theme and circulated papers announcing the birth of the New American Community Party. By the spring of 1971, this name had evolved into the "New American Movement."
NAM's first national meeting was held in Chicago in October 1971. Attended by some 75 delegates and observers, the event yielded a resolution affirming NAM's “commit[ment] to democratic socialism,” whose hallmarks included not only “collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production,” but also “the liberation of women and non-white groups” from “the ... ruling class which runs America for its own benefit.” Noteworthy leaders of the nascent NAM included Jeremy Rifkin, Michael Lerner, and Harry Boyte.
From its inception, NAM sought to "overcome the errors of the New Left," which it identified as an anti-leadership orientation, the unwarranted glorification of the Third World, and an insufficient sensitivity to the needs of American workers. In its early years, the organization's energies were devoted chiefly to opposing the Vietnam War, nuclear power plants, nuclear armaments, and rate hikes for local utilities.
NAM embraced the philosophy of the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who had proposed that communists could gain power in a given society by infiltrating and transforming various institutions that were central to shaping public opinion -- e.g., schools, churches, and media outlets. To promote this approach, several NAM chapters -- beginning with those in Chicago and Oakland -- established schools that served NAM members and non-members alike. Then, in the fall of 1975, NAM's Los Angeles chapter opened its Socialist Community School, which proved to be the Movement's most successful school in terms of attracting students and sustaining itself. Supported largely by donated labor, the school charged meager tuition rates -- $5 to $10 for a ten-week course, and $3 for every additional course per session.
"Core" classes at the L.A. school focused on Marxism, Socialist-Feminism, Third World peoples and movements, and local conditions and power structure. The textbook for its political education course, Basic Marxism: What It Is & How to Use It, included works from such writers as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, Sheila Rowbotham, Harry Braverman, John Ehrenreich, and Barbara Ehrenreich. One of the instructors at this school was the prominent Marxist professor from UC Irvine, Stanley Aronowitz.
Throughout its history, NAM’s membership remained relatively small -- never exceeding 1,500 people. Nevertheless, the Congressional Record in 1975 cited the organization as "an appropriate group for law-enforcement monitoring to determine the extent of its threat to internal security."
In the late 1970s, a small but highly influential group of ex-communists -- most notably Dorothy Healy and Max Gordon -- joined NAM and pushed the revolutionary group to become engaged in conventional American politics. These newcomers had been shaped by the “Popular Front” of the 1930s, a period when America’s communists dropped their openly revolutionary language and presented themselves instead as ordinary Americans; that tactic ultimately resulted in the greatest expansion which the Communist Party USA had ever experienced.
Deriding NAM’s longstanding practice of eschewing involvement in electoral politics, Gordon noted that Engels and Lenin had explicitly called for party operatives to participate in American political life. Insisting that genuine Marxists needed to be flexible in their approach to gaining power, Gordon advised NAM to ally itself with the Democratic Party, whose politics were already relatively compatible with NAM's; through such an alliance, he reasoned, NAM could help move the party still further to the left.
When Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President in 1980, a number of NAM leaders became reconciled to the reality that America was not poised to undergo a socialist revolution anytime soon, and that socialists would need to adopt an incremental, stealth approach if they were to have any hope of advancing their agendas in the United States. After a great deal of heated, internal debate, NAM in 1982 decided to merge with Michael Harrington's more pragmatic Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the most well-known socialist party of its time in the U.S. The product of this merger was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which was devoted to promoting leftist agendas by working with the Democratic Party.