The May 1968 events in France are generally considered crucial inspiration for the development of the New Left.
As commonplace as that association is, I'm really puzzled by it.
First, a digression. It is an article of faith among the New Leftists that the working class in rich countries is no longer revolutionary. Some go as far as claiming it is positively reactionary.
That, in their views, has an unavoidable consequence: revolution has become impossible in those countries. Further, whatever advances are still possible in developed nations are to be pursued independently from -- or even against -- the working class, through "new social movements". This is one of the points Bruce Robbins, following Étienne Balibar, made as recently as 2013.
Interestingly, the renowned American sociologist C. Wright Mills, one of the founders of the American New Left, made exactly the same points in 1960 in an open letter to the then recently founded New Left Review, in Britain. The differences between Mills and Robbins are stylistic: Mills is nuanced, Robbins isn't; Mills employs a comradely tone intended to nudge already sympathetic readers, Robbins is one of the twelve apostles denouncing the Pharisees. Robbins depicts Balibar as the innovative underdog fighting against an all-powerful establishment, even though the New Left Review has been part of the prevailing establishment for over 50 years.
Back to May 1968. Daniel "Dany le Rouge" Cohn-Bendit jumped to fame as a leader of the student movement which initiated the May 1968 events in France, almost leading to the fall of Charles De Gaulle, once 11 million workers went on a general strike. As such he embodies many of the ideals dear to New Leftists: a leader of a "new social movement", untainted with working class corruption; the lone outsider, the middle class intellectual insurgent telling truth to the all-powerful Marxist orthodoxy.
Shortly after those events, the Cohn-Bendit brothers co-wrote and published "Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative". Stylistically, they sound a lot like Robbins. Like Robbins, Cohn-Bendit is there to excoriate his opponents: the same targets of Robbins' disdain.
However, neither Robbins nor the New Left can take comfort in Dany's fiery words:
"I know that the only chance of resuming the struggle is to put an end to the division between intellectuals, workers and peasants. Every revolution, every radical transformation of society, needs the conscious and creative participation of the working and peasant classes, and not simply their participation as a malleable mass whose only usefulness is their strength and numerical weight." (p. 13)
"The events in France have proved that revolution is possible in even a highly industrialized capitalist society. Those who argued that the working class had outgrown revolution stood convicted of theoretical and practical incompetence, a fact that suggests it is high time to discover why the working class has remained so passive for so long." (p. 17)So we have a situation where "Dany le Rouge", icon of the New Left and hero of May 1968, defends as wisdom what the New Left damns as folly. To compound the absurd both sides agree on something: it's all the orthodox ("theological" in Robbins' rendition) Marxists' fault.
Give us a break, people. Make up your own minds. We can understand the anti-Semitic Nazis accusing Marx of being part of a Jewish conspiracy, while the Blairite Jonathan Freedland denounces Marx's "straightforwardly anti-Semitic" views: we know they are our enemies. The former hate Jews, the latter is paid to write that kind of crap. We expect that from them.
But you guys claim to be our comrades. Let's get serious and, while we are at it, let's quit the underdog rhetoric, and the theological/dogmatic/sectarian bullshit, too.
While there's much more in Cohn-Bendit's book, I brought his testimony on this for two reasons: it carries the weight of his experience, and he is not a worker. I suspect upper-middle class leftish intellectuals may assign at least as much importance to the latter than to the former. I myself am not one of his fans (and I'll explain why soon).
If I had to find an intellectual hero in this debate, I would suggest George Novack, for this prescient reply to Mills' letter. On the other hand, he may not be socially acceptable to intellectuals: he was an obscure Trotskyist, after all.