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The Sixties

Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974
Oxford University Press Read the Review

Was There a Cultural Revolution c.1958-c.1974?

Nostalgia, Prejudice, and Debate

Mention of `the sixties' rouses strong emotions even in those who were already old when the sixties began and those who were not even born when the sixties ended. For some it is a golden age, for others a time when the old secure framework of morality, authority, and discipline disintegrated. In the eyes of the far left, it is the era when revolution was at hand, only to be betrayed by the feebleness of the faithful and the trickery of the enemy; to the radical right, an era of subversion and moral turpitude. What happened between the late fifties and the early seventies has been subject to political polemic, nostalgic mythologizing, and downright misrepresentations. If asked to explain the fuss, both survivors of the decade and observers of the repeated attempts subsequently to conjure it up again could probably manage to put together a list of its most striking features, which might look something like this: black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion; the triumph of popular music based on Afro-American models and the emergence of this music as a universal language, with the Beatles as the heroes of the age; the search for inspiration in the religions of the Orient; massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behaviour; a general audacity and frankness in books and in the media, and in ordinary behaviour; relaxation in censorship; the new feminism; gay liberation; the emergence of `the underground' and `the counter-culture'; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world. They might, in addition, be able to contrast this with a list of key features of the fifties, including: rigid social hierarchy; subordination of women to men and children to parents; repressed attitudes to sex; racism; unquestioning respect for authority in the family, education, government, the law, and religion, and for the nation-state, the national flag, the national anthem; Cold War hysteria; a strict formalism in language, etiquette, and dress codes; a dull and cliche-ridden popular culture, most obviously in popular music, with its boring big bands and banal ballads.

    A conservative, of course, would see the fifties as a last age of morality, patriotism, law and order, respect for the family, tuneful music, and a popular culture which was pleasing, not shocking. A conservative would point out that the gross abuse of drugs began in the sixties (fashions in hard drugs have changed, but it was in the sixties that society's defences were decisively breached), aided by self-serving claptrap about the mind-expanding and enlightening qualities of psychedelic experiences; that hippie communes were often as notable for violent squabbles and lamentable hygiene as for peace and spirituality, reminding us also that after the long student occupation of the Sorbonne, that august centre of learning was found to be in a disgusting condition; that dubious theories about language and knowledge as instruments of bourgeois and patriarchal oppression were propagated, leading to the paralysing miasma of political correctness which has affected the academic world ever since. Conservatives would also argue that because of the propagation of `progressive' ideas, crime statistics swung upwards while educational standards dived downwards. Let us listen to a couple of conservatives. Who better to lead off than Margaret Thatcher, radical right prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1991? `We are reaping', she declared in March 1982, `what was sown in the sixties ... fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.' Defining the sixties as `the period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts', the American Professor Allan Bloom declared in 1986 that, intellectually, sixties theorists were as destructive as the Nazis:

The American University in the sixties was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the thirties. As Hegel was said to have died in Germany in 1933, Enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the sixties. The fact that the universities are no longer in convulsions does not mean they have regained their health ...

Most recently, a strongly hostile view of the radicals of the sixties was put forward by Professor Paul Bearman. And while, in his own introduction to Reassessing the Sixties, Stephen Macedo presents a very balanced account, several of his contributors take up very hostile views of radicalism, feminism, and black liberation.

So, left-centre and right do seem to agree that, for good or ill, something significant happened in the sixties. But the disillusioned revolutionaries, the extreme left, declare that nothing very much happened in the sixties. It was all just froth and empty spectacle, in which so-called counter-cultural practices were manipulated by the usual commercial interests; the distribution of economic and political power was exactly the same in the seventies as it had been in the fifties. There is a kind of `soft left' variation of this negative view, propagated by many of those who were active in the cultural innovations of the time: `The sixties were great--i.e, we were great--but of absolutely no enduring significance. Tough you weren't there.' That is the approach of Jim Haynes, of Traverse Theatre and Arts Lab fame, and of musician George Melly:

Pop culture and the sixties are long gone, and all I can hope is that my resurrected book may offer those too young to remember those heady days and nights some idea of what they were about. Silly and transient they may have been, but at least they were alive, kicking and, above all, hopeful.

    Is it legitimate to make contrasts and comparisons between the `fifties', the `sixties', the `seventies'? We readily think in decades, but that is only because we count the years as we would our fingers or our toes. In historical study we do need a concept of periods, or eras, or ages, though such periods do not automatically coincide with decades or with centuries, nor do they have any immanent or natural existence, independent of the analytical needs of historians. Periodization, the chopping up of the past into chunks or periods, is essential because the past in its entirety is so extensive and complex; but different historians will identify different chunks, depending upon their interests and the countries they are dealing with--a periodization which suits the study of Western Europe will not suit the study of Africa or Japan. The implication of periodization is that particular chunks of time contain a certain unity, in that events, attitudes, values, social hierarchies within the chosen `period' seem to be closely integrated with each other, to share common features, and in that there are identifiable points of change when a `period' defined in this way gives way to a `new period'. Books covering relatively long stretches of time will usually be divided up into a number of shorter periods, indicating points of change. In his book covering the years 1914-91 Professor Eric Hobsbawm has chosen one title for the entire period of his book, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, and three further titles for the shorter periods he identifies within that long period: `The Age of Catastrophe' (1914-45), `The Golden Age' (1945-73), and `The Landslide' (1973-91). Hobsbawm does not see the sixties as a separate period, merging the sixties with the fifties into his `Golden Age' starting in 1945; and he is far from alone among historians in doing this.

    However, my starting-point for this book is that the prima facie evidence is strong enough to warrant exploring the proposition that there was a self-contained period (though no period is hermetically sealed), commonly known as `the sixties', of outstanding historical significance in that what happened during this period transformed social and cultural developments for the rest of the century. Two schoolteachers, writing in the first person singular in an essay looking back on their days as teenagers in sixties Liverpool, stressed the lasting effects of the upheavals, even while confessing to the naivety of some of their beliefs:

And did all that upheaval in living standards, in attitudes and fashion have a lasting affect on the lives of the adults who were teenagers in Liverpool in the sixties? I believe it did. It gave us tolerance for new ideas, and brought us a step nearer to equality of rights, removing many prejudices of sexual, racial and moral origin. It gave us the freedom to accept or reject things on their own merits and according to our own individual preferences. I believe that the sixties were a mini-renaissance in which the right of individual expression was encouraged, applauded and nurtured by a generation whose naive belief was that all we needed was love.

    The image of `a mini-renaissance' is a striking one. Few historians today would contest the proposition that, viewing the past with certain social and cultural preoccupations in mind, we can identify a period in European history which we can legitimately label `the Renaissance' (c.1300-c.1600), in which artistic standards and values, and ideas about society and the individual's relations with it, were transformed, and which thus had profound effects on succeeding centuries. The prima facie evidence is overwhelming: the city of Urbino, St Peter's in Rome, the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and a hundred others, The Prince by Machiavelli, the plays of Shakespeare (being English, he only squeezes in after extra time). In my researches for this book I have visited archives in France, Italy, and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom. Aside from masses of archival evidence, which I shall be citing copiously in this book, I have everywhere encountered fascinating traces of the sixties, some trivial, some portentous. The Beatles and their origins are commemorated in the Cafe Liverpool on the boulevard Clichy in Paris, the fashion street of sixties London in the Cafe Carnaby on via Cusani, Milan. On my first morning in Memphis (adopted home of Elvis Presley, scene of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and location of fabulous archives of sixties sources, the Mississippi Valley collection and the Memphis and Shelby County Library Special Collections), I watched a team of black garbage collectors, with their enormous automated lorry, order an elegant white lady, trying to park her Mercedes sports coupe, to get herself and her car the hell out of their way. A later chapter will describe the appalling conditions endured by black sanitation workers in Memphis at the time of their strike in 1968. Here, in 1991, I was witnessing one enduring gain from the sixties civil rights movement. Walking across Overton Park I was immensely cheered to see goalposts for my own kind of football: `soccer' had come to America in the later sixties.

    And Urbino ... St Peter's? No. Too much of sixties architecture is awful, the low-cost public housing (much of it now demolished) disgraceful. But at least the sixties was a time of changing perceptions and objectives, a time of the first really major initiatives in regard to both the natural and the urban environment, a time of pedestrianization and the conservation of historical city centres (a time also, it must be added, of some appalling environmental disasters, which, indeed, served to strengthen the nascent environmental movements).

    Naturally, developments in the sixties were affected by what had gone before in the forties and fifties: but I shall be arguing that minor and rather insignificant movements in the fifties became major and highly significant ones in the sixties; that intangible ideas in the fifties became powerful practicalities in the sixties; that the sixties were characterized by the vast number of innovative activities taking place simultaneously, by unprecedented interaction and acceleration. In my view the critical point of change came, as precisely as one could ever express it, in 1958-9. So, just as Hobsbawm has `a short twentieth century', I am postulating a `long sixties', beginning in 1958 and ending, broadly speaking--many of the new trends of the sixties continued throughout the seventies, and right on to today--in 1973-4. This terminal date pretty well coincides with the one chosen by Hobsbawm for the ending of his `Golden Age': he takes 1973 because it was the year of the international oil crisis, when the doubling of oil prices lead to widespread recession and a general crisis of confidence; it was also in 1973, following the conclusion of a formal peace treaty in January, that all American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, though Nixon continued to provide massive aid to the Saigon government. I prefer to go up to 1974 because it was only in that year that the mass of ordinary people began to feel the effects of the oil crisis, because some of the crucial developments initiated in the sixties only culminated then, or even later (18-year-olds in France and Italy got the vote in 1974, the year also of the referendum in Italy safeguarding the right to divorce and of the passing of abortion law reform in French parliament), and because only in August, with Congress drastically cutting aid to Saigon and Nixon resigning, did the anti-war movement feel it was achieving victory. Justifying the choice of 1958-9 as a critical point of change will be a major aim of Part II of this book.

    It is very important not to get into the position of idealizing, reifying, or anthropomorphizing periods or decades, attributing personalities to them, singling out `good' decades from `bad decades'. History was a more naive subject when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Jacob Burckhardt wrote his famous The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Seeking to express the immense significance that he attached to his period, he said that it `must be called the leader of modern ages', explaining that he was `treating of a civilization which is the mother of our own, and whose influence is still at work among us'. Well, I shall certainly not say that `the sixties was the mother of the nineties'--the contemporary mind rightly boggles at such crass metaphors--but I would be very tempted to say that this book is about `the civilisation of the cultural revolution in the West', were it not that I have confined myself to only four countries, Britain, France, Italy, and the USA.

    I have stated the proposition which I intend to explore. There are many `counter-propositions' among the debates which pervade all discussion of the sixties. In discussing these I shall at the same time be adding further details to my own basic proposition. We have already encountered the first of the `counter-propositions'. Hobsbawm's `Golden Age' begins in 1945, not 1958. Hobsbawm is in the excellent company of most economic historians, who envisage one long period of economic recovery and economic expansion beginning at the end of the war. French historians tend to speak of les trente glorieuses, `the thirty glorious years', which followed the ending of the war, embracing the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Historians of France and Italy (and West Germany) rightly stress that the `economic miracles' in these countries belong to the fifties, not the sixties. My response is that if we are purely concerned with economic history, this periodization is sensible one, but that if we are primarily interested in social and cultural developments, the growing power of young people, the particular behaviour and activities associated with them, the changes in family relationships, the new standards of sexual behaviour, then the idea of a point of change around 1958-9 begins to make great good sense after all. Economic expansion began in the fifties, but the social benefits came in the sixties. That does not end the matter. Italian studies concentrated on social and cultural matters have presented the years 1968-9, the years of student protests and workers' strikes, as the beginning of a new era of rapid change. Martin Clark, the authoritative British historian of modern Italy, has a chapter called `The Great Cultural Revolution' which in fact refers to the 1970s, not the 1960s. My detailed counter-arguments can only emerge in the course of this book. But my quick answer here will be that such historians overemphasize the significance of the events of 1968-9, forgetting that these events were only possible because of deeper changes taking place in Italian society throughout the sixties. Finally there are those, mostly British, perhaps unduly influenced by the poet Philip Larkin's declaration that `sexual intercourse began in 1963', who maintain that the sixties only `began' in that year; some, in the manner of George Melly, claim also that the sixties `ended' in 1968-69. I believe we can resolve these puzzles by thinking not just of a `long sixties' but of that period being divided into three distinctive sub-periods, 1958-63, 64-68/69, and 1969-74. It is on that premiss that I have structured this book, striving at the same time to bring out the links between apparently disparate activities--rock and roll dancing by teenagers and environmental protest by the middle-aged, for example.

    The second counter-proposition, in its scholarly form, belongs almost entirely to American historians of the United States. It is the position that the things that happened in the sixties--there is full recognition that distinctive things did happen--on the whole had harmful effects on the societies in which they happened. The polemical form we have already met in the words I quoted from Margaret Thatcher. The more scholarly version, in its application to the United States, is well expressed in the title Allen J. Matusow chose for his general history of America in the period, The Unraveling of American Society, a theme not dissimilar to that expressed in the title of an earlier book by W. L. O'Neik, Coming Apart; recent versions of the `unraveling' thesis are John M. Blum's Years of Discord and David Burner's Making Peace With the 60s. In Destructive Generation, former radicals Peter Collier and David Horowitz maintained that sixties developments turned American society `into a collection of splinter groups'. All of these historians were deeply sympathetic to the liberal reform policies of President J. F. Kennedy and his advisers, as they were to the entire civil rights movement. They were profoundly shocked by the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, and then by the assassinations in 1968 of Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy. They deplored the way in which social welfare programmes were curtailed as a result of the colossal expenditure on the Vietnam war; even more they regretted the bitter divisions in American society provoked by that war, the often violent demonstrations, and the still more violent repressions by the police. They were shocked, again, by the split in the civil rights movement after 1964, with blacks moving towards violence and separatism; shocked too by the destructive and murderous rioting in the black ghettos in the major cities. They had put faith in the liberal instincts of the Democratic party, then found that party in utter turmoil by 1968, before its defeat by Richard Nixon and the Republicans. Havoc, largely involving white students and white police, was wreaked in 1968 and 1969; attacks by the secret terrorist organization, the Weathermen, continued into 1970, which was also the year in which white student protesters were shot dead at Kent State University. Horrific events, indeed. But they were not, in my view, indications of new fractures in American society; they were indications rather that fractures which had long existed and had been too long ignored were now being brought out into the open. The Vietnam War was a tragedy and a crime; but by 1973-4 the anti-war cause had achieved a wonderful victory. Despite the advent to power of Nixon and the Republicans, welfare programmes did continue, and in some cases were actually improved. American socially did not `unravel': forms of discrimination continued, but blacks did win basic civil rights, and some prospered as never before.

    It will be a major theme of this book that it is a mistake to concentrate on politics and changes of government: the social and cultural movements I am concerned with continued largely irrespective of the political complexions of governments. If we look outside America, it is true that racial discrimination got worse in both Britain and France from about 1968 onwards. It is also indisputably true that in 1969-70 a new era of terrorism and violence, `the years of the bullet', began in Italy. We are not studying a `golden age'--there are no golden ages--and many appalling events took place in the sixties. We may well throw up our hands in horror, but we must also make long-term assessments. Italy survived its crisis, as America did not `come apart': on the other hand, it will be argued in this book, the true gains of the sixties proved enduring.

    We now come to the most fraught field of contention when it comes to the scholarly analysis of the sixties, as well as the popular mythology. This counter-proposition is inextricably bound up with the arguments and debates which actually took place in the sixties, since most of the activists and protesters at the time themselves believed in it. At its heart lies what I shall call the Great Marxisant Fallacy: the belief that the society we inhabit is the bad bourgeois society, but that, fortunately, this society is in a state of crisis, so that the good society which lies just around the corner can be easily attained if only we work systematically to destroy the language, the values, the culture, the ideology of bourgeois society. (I say `Marxisant' because I am speaking of a broad metaphysical view about history and about how society works, derived from Marxism, but forming the basis for the structuralism, post-structuralism, and theories of ideology and language developed in the sixties.) In reality the society we live in has evolved through complex historical processes, very different from the Marxist nonsense about `the bourgeoisie' overthrowing the feudal aristocracy. It contains genuinely democratic elements as well as gross inequalities and abuses of power; the only thing we can do is to work as systematically and rationally as possible to reform that society. In the eyes of the upholders of the Great Marxisant Fallacy, of course, that opinion condemns me as a dupe of bourgeois ideology. Practically all the activists, student protesters, hippies, yippies, Situationists, advocates of psychedelic liberation, participants in be-ins and rock festivals, proponents of free love, members of the underground, and advocates of Black Power, women's liberation, and gay liberation believed that by engaging in struggles, giving witness, or simply doing their own thing they were contributing to the final collapse of bad bourgeois society. To say that is not to withold admiration from the activism and the idealism, nor to deny the many positive achievements of the protesters; but it is to recognize that their ultimate objectives were based on a fundamental fallacy. There was never any possibility of a revolution; there was never any possibility of a `counter-culture' replacing `bourgeois' culture. Modern society is highly complex with respect to the distribution of power, authority, and influence. Just as it was not formed by the simple overthrow of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie, so, in its contemporary form, it does not consist simply of a bourgeois ruling class and a proletariat. Contemporary societies, as I shall stress throughout this book, are certainly class societies--using `class' as the ordinary people we shall be studying (as distinct from the ideologists and activists) used the term when, say, they talked of `upper-class education', `upper-middle-class professions', `lower-middle-class leisure activities', or `working-class housing', and not in the loaded Marxist way with its assumptions of class conflict and class ideologies.

    Mention of the term `counter-culture' brings me to one of the most important aspects of the whole muddied field of controversy we are now tramping our way through. One of the most basic problems in the production and consumption of history is that many of the most important words we have to use are actually used in different ways, that is to say, have different meanings. `Culture' is one of the classic instances. Often the word is used as a collective noun embracing opera, painting, poetry, and so on, broadly what is dealt with in the arts, entertainments, and books pages of our posher newspapers. Sometimes `popular culture' is also spoken of, referring to films, popular music, romantic, crime, and other less ambitious fiction, and, perhaps, spectating at football matches. Sometimes in this book I use `culture' in that way--there is no space for elaborate reformulations. But when we come to terms like `counter-culture', `culture' is being used in a wider sense to mean `the network or totality of attitudes, values and practices of a particular group of human beings'. This definition is far from solving all of our problems, because much uncertainty remains as to the size of the `group of human beings' which would be appropriate. One might speak of American culture, or of aristocratic culture, or of youth culture, or, perhaps, of Western culture, signifying `the Western way of life'--all the attitudes and values and practices springing from the traditions of ancient Athens, modified by Christian religion, by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, by the French Revolution, by Romanticism, by overseas conquests and colonialism, by the upheavals of the twentieth century. A single `culture', obviously, may be very big, or it may be quite small, depending upon the context in which the concept is being used. For myself, I intend throughout this book (though such is the slippery nature of language that it is always difficult to achieve total obedience even to self-imposed rules) to use the word `subculture' where I want to drive home the point that the `network' I am speaking of is, in the last analysis, a part of a larger network, or culture. Thus I speak of `youth subculture', because I do not believe that there was a `youth culture' which ever became completely independent of, or alternative to, the larger culture involving parents, educational institutions, commercial companies, technology, and the mass media. Indeed, it is one of the absolutely fundamental contentions of this book that the essence of what happened in the sixties is that large numbers of new subcultures, were created, which then expanded and interacted with each other, thus creating the pullulating flux which characterizes the era. I shall return to that, but meantime let us stick with the concept of `counter-culture'.

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