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Sixties Radicalism and Social Movement Activism: Retreat or Resurgence?
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Sixties Radicalism and Social Movement Activism: Retreat or Resurgence?

by Bryn Jones (Editor), Mike O'Donnell (Editor)

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This book’s four main aims are to examine: firstly, why movements happened in the socio-historical context of sixties’ radicalism; secondly, its distinctive legacy of crucial, cultural, societal and political interconnections; thirdly, continuing links between seminal ideas and movements and socio-political activism today; fourthly little-discussed


This book’s four main aims are to examine: firstly, why movements happened in the socio-historical context of sixties’ radicalism; secondly, its distinctive legacy of crucial, cultural, societal and political interconnections; thirdly, continuing links between seminal ideas and movements and socio-political activism today; fourthly little-discussed national instances and divergent impacts of sixties radicalism, in relation to contemporary 'global' social movements. A conclusion traces all these dimensions from current social movements back to sixties radicalism’s pioneering upheavals.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

‘Recommended.’ —R. C. Cottrell, California State University, Chico, in ‘Choice’

‘This edited collection originated in the British Sociological Conference “1968: Impact and Implications”… The engagement is both critical and sympathetic, and this is refreshing in an area where partisan stances are easily adopted. This book establishes that there was no such event as the 1960s, rather there were multiple mediated social, cultural and political responses to the prevailing changes based in both shared concerns and “difference”.’ —Ian Welsh, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, in ‘Social Movement Studies’

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Anthem Press
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Anthem World History
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Sixties Radicalism and Social Movement Activism

Retreat or Resurgence?

By Bryn Jones, Mike O'Donnell

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Bryn Jones and Mike O'Donnell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-340-3



Bryn Jones

'The new left worked to give life to politics as community ... rejected the criteria of narrow efficiency, efficacy, compromise, discipline, of the "rules of the game", as they are played in politics today.' (Breines 1989, 151)


There is an influential historical consensus that 1960s radicalism in Britain had no significant or lasting impact on the social and political order. In this view, the longer-term effects of the ideas and movements, often associated with the climactic year of 1968, have been confined to popular culture, life-styles and inter-personal relations. It is said that political institutions remained unperturbed and almost unaffected by the intellectual and ideological ferment occurring in the arts, media, universities, street politics and youth cultures. From this historical-empiricist perspective the significance of '68 in Britain was apolitical and confined to the personal and cultural sphere (Marwick 1998, 15–20; Sandbrook 2007, 543–5). Proponents of a revolution in society ended up changing little but their own life styles.

The present analysis examines sixties radicalism in Britain –and potentially more widely – as the fusion of counter-cultural and radical political ideas and movements that came together in the late 1960s to challenge the ruling socio-political order. It will critique 'culturalist' interpretations of this radical upsurge – as confined principally to life styles and sub-cultural institutions – on two grounds. Firstly, that the critical feature of the cultural upheavals of the high 60s, acknowledged by virtually all commentators, was not the immediate establishment of distinct and operational values. Rather, an amorphous and inchoate, but very widespread complex of radical sentiments or sensibilities dominated. Secondly, it will be argued that, despite contemporary rhetoric, the logic of much of sixties radicalism was a defence and reformation of civil society institutions, rather than a transformation of the political sphere. The implication of the first point is that the legacy of the sixties in social values is one that has been continuously unfolding in different spheres rather than something that crystallised forty years ago and was soon superseded. The second point, on the scope of the upheavals, is important because it provides a different set of criteria with which to assess the persistence and success of late 60s' radicalism. If, as will be argued, the essence of that upsurge was to defend or expand those aspects of civil society that Habermas refers to as the 'lifeworld', then the legacy today must be judged in relation to this sphere; and not to change or stasis in the wider political system.

Contrary to a corollary of the cultural impact view, that the main political outcome of sixties cultural disaffection and protest was statist neo-liberalism (Cockett 1999; MacDonald 1995), I argue that one outcome has been a more libertarian micro-politics. This politics is much more deeply rooted in the institutional complexes of civil society and is therefore still consistent with the underlying sixties ethos. The analytical and empirical focus therefore becomes the changing frontier between civil society and the state over the past 40 years. Habermas's theory of new social movements is applied critically to this focus for two reasons. One is that for Habermas the main concern of social movements is establishing rights and institutions for personal politics and identities; rather than, like older social movements rooted in economic interests, with capturing or adapting state power. The second reason is that the contours of Habermas's 'lifeworld', which social movements seek to defend, can be mapped fairly directly, though not completely, onto the social sphere conventionally known as civil society.

Across a variety of viewpoints there is a similar acknowledgement that it is both the personal networks of the lifeworld and its morals, and the broader civil society in which they are nested, that are the areas most affected by sixties 'revolution' (Hobsbawm 1995, 320–343; Marwick 1998; Cockett 1999; Sandbrook 2007; Cohn-Bendit 2008) But it is along the watershed between state and civil society communities that these changes have transformed, and continue to change institutions and micro-politics. British governments have increasingly changed their governance processes to engage with, and work through a range of civil society entities: community and campaign groups, charities, non-governmental organisations and leisure and residents associations; within which core sixties values and legacies persist. The analysis firstly details prevailing verdicts on the nature of the value changes of that period. Then in the second and third sections it explores the socio-political crisis affecting British society during the 1960s and its relationship to Habermas's thesis of lifeworld colonisation and rebellion. In the fourth section the value clashes and shifts accompanying these changes are related to the contemporaneous crisis of community and the rise of urban activism affecting the lifeworld. The final, fifth, section focuses on the resurgence of both state and civil society involvement in community regeneration and the question of whether the sixties ethos and its aspirations still influence an age of renewed state paternalism.

Cultural Change: The Problem of Sixties Values

In the historical-empiricist perspective of observers such as Sandbrook and Marwick the 1968 'Revolution never happened in Britain'. Its long term significance was acceleration of prior cultural changes, particularly in the arts, popular culture, life-styles and personal relationships (Marwick 1998, 15–20; Sandbrook 2006, 545;). This containment effect is attributed by Marwick et al to the low numbers involved in either 'counter-cultural' activities, or more overtly political acts of protest and rebellion. It is claimed that these were confined to specific and minority strata. Two propositions point towards a rejection of this rationale for restricting long-term impacts to apolitical fields. Firstly those most directly involved in the developments and events symbolised by '1968' were indeed minorities. But they were from social groups best equipped to practice and propagate new values in later years; so their impact could be wide: for example, and inter alia, higher education graduates and those in, or entering professional fields such as arts, media, politics, education and welfare. An outcome recorded for the USA by O'Donnell in his chapter. However, research evidence on value formation in general is confused, contradictory and eclectic (Hitlin and Piliavin 2004). On the other hand, because much value formation takes place during the years of secondary socialisation, it was particularly important for the younger cohorts of the 1960s. As McDonald points out in his chapter, these young people were not only experiencing value socialisation in conditions of material change but also whilst the discourses and institutions propagating values were themselves in transition or turmoil.

The second contradictory proposition, on which this chapter concentrates, is that precisely because the cultural changes were diffuse and initially low-impact in nature, new sentiments and beliefs could be shared in partial or tacit ways by much wider groups; especially amongst the young. A university place wasn't necessary to sing along to Lennon or Dylan protest songs or the Rolling Stones' ambiguously worded, Street Fighting Man. A song explicitly rejoicing in an imminent armed 'revolution' – Thunderclap Newman's Something in the Air – couldn't top the record sales charts for three weeks without its many buyers sharing some of the lyrics' sentiments. Evaluation of the relationship between these new outlooks and their long-term consequences first requires theoretical clarification of the nature of such cultural changes.

Sentiments, Values and Anti-System Radicalism

The most prominent description and analysis of the post-World War II schism in Western popular political cultures comes in Inglehart's large-scale, cross-national surveys of an alleged dichotomy between materialist and post-materialist beliefs. But these dichotomous clusters have been criticised on the grounds that individuals' socio-political values are both more diverse and multi-dimensional; e.g. comprising different combinations of conformist, rebellious, individualist and collectivist attitudes (Majima and Savage 2007). Though indicative, Inglehart's distinction between values stressing material and personal security versus those prioritising ideas, democracy and environmental improvement (Inglehart 1990,130–43) fails to capture the distinctiveness of the sixties watershed in sentiments. Some components of the latter were significantly materialistic; not only in an emphasis on personal hedonism for example, but also egalitarian beliefs in wealth sharing. Moreover, the distinctive late '60s ideals fluctuated both in their range of adherents and specific meanings; albeit within a generalised bedrock of underlying sentiments.

'Sentiments' are important because historiographers are now recognising that periods of fundamental socio-cultural change arise less from the conscious and articulate propagation and pursuit of clearly defined values than from shifts in a more general and deeper set of emotional and cognitive 'sensibilities'; instanced in Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages. Wickberg advocates a history of sensibilities which:

'focuses on the primacy of the various modes of perception and feeling, the terms and forms in which objects were conceived, experienced, and represented ... rather than the objects of representation themselves....' (Wickberg 2007, 662)

An analogous value-changing shift in sensibilities was the transformation in outlooks shaping the humanitarian movements, such as the anti-slavery campaigns, at the start of the 19th century (Wickberg 2007, 665; Wilson 2008, 78-83). This approach suggests it is pointless to presume that what Inglehart refers to as cognitive values – articulate, internally-coherent beliefs – were the decisive keystones of sixties culture. Rather we should focus on the underlying sentiments, or 'sensibilities' to use Wickberg's term, from which more coherent values may form into specific ideas and contexts.

The New Sensibilities of the 1960s

Perhaps the key change in sensibility from the mid-60s was a widely acknowledged basic belief, an omnipresent 'leitmotiv' of 'personal emancipation, or liberation'. Adherents applied this sentiment to 'the entire variety of human life, economic, social, physical and moral' (Cockett 1999, 89). The ensuing 'decompartmentalising' of conventional categories and restrictions – also reflected in the holistic perspectives of the Gestalt psychology of the self-styled Counter-Culture (Roszak 1970, 186–9) – logically entailed removal of lateral social barriers, of ethnicity, gender and class and vertical barriers of social, political and cultural hierarchy. These interlocking dimensions of liberation through decompartmentalisation of social barriers entailed a belief that personal emancipation was dependent on social liberation, often of less fortunate others.

This sensibility was undoubtedly influenced by overseas developments. However, the British anti-war and student protests of 1967–68 were less connected than the interlinked American anti-war movement and campus rebellions. The British anti-war demonstrations peaked and dwindled by the end of 1968 (Young 1972 222–6; Sandbrook 2007, 540–1). Such movements and their beliefs therefore functioned as temporary conduits feeding international ideas and causes into the more general groundswell of libertarian and anti-authoritarian sentiments. The more generalised, fluid libertarian lebensphilsophie could sustain and encompass both lifestyle-cultural and quasi-political movements. The new 'sensibilities' were most widely expressed in a non-sectarian, populist, loosely ideological and tacit counter-culture. Informing yet exceeding the burgeoning lifestyle cults, intellectual and artistic innovations and political sects, new sensibilities towards sex, leisure, creativity, authority and sociability were adopted across swaths of Britain's younger generations.

Horn, in his detailed comparative analysis, specifically singles out this phenomenon as the distinctive English-speaking contribution to the sixties political culture (Horn 2007, 32–5). A counter-cultural sensibility, fostered through the anti-war, anti-nuclear protests and the mushrooming arts and popular music scenes became precariously institutionalised in rock festivals, communal living experiments and the 'underground' press (Nelson 1989, 6–7). However, this contrary, sub-culture was broader than, and extended beyond the self-professed Counter-Culture. Its libertarian and solidaristic ethos was sufficiently general and flexible to include anyone from office-working festival goers and week-end drug trippers to anarchistic artists and radical welfare professionals. Many, perhaps most of these participants, did not espouse, may never even have considered the credos of personal and collective liberation articulated by Counter-Culture intellectuals and radicals. However they connected to and shared the underlying sensibilities. In some senses the cultural and chronological phenomena of '1968' can be compared to an astrophysical Big Bang. As early as 1968 the general counter-consensus of basic libertarian values of social equality, democracy and cooperation (Wainwright 1990) – to which, following Horn, we should add 'participation' – began to differentiate. Life-style libertarians sought to build alternative institutions. Looking for more organisationally effective and intellectually rigorous politics, other campaigners moved towards more doctrinal forms of Marxist theory and practice. By the end of the decade ideas in these latter trends were even influencing the underground press and cultural figures such as former Beatle John Lennon (Nelson 1989; McDonald 1995, 288).

The Peculiarities of the British '68: Politics or Values?

Britain seems the one major country, whose political system was least affected by the protests, political campaigns and disorder centred on 1968. Britain differed from developments in France and Italy, which destabilised governments or industrial relations; or Germany where political party alignments changed; or even the USA where black civil rights activism was boosted, and the Vietnam War and party politics partly de-legitimised (Jarausch 1998; Horn 2007, 151–2). Historians' downbeat verdicts on the British case seem justified. Minor public order problems apart, the explosion of radical ideas, acts of deviance and spectacle, protests and cultural and sub-cultural ferment in higher education and urban centres had little or no direct impact on establishment politics and policy-making. Indeed by 1970 any prospect of direct socio-political transformations seemed to have evaporated (Young 1972, 226).


Excerpted from Sixties Radicalism and Social Movement Activism by Bryn Jones, Mike O'Donnell. Copyright © 2010 Bryn Jones and Mike O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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From the Publisher

'A vivid and timely account of the most scene changing decade of the last century. This book is required reqding for anyone who wants to understand how we are today.' —Chris Rojek, Professor of Sociology & Culture, Brunel University, UK

Meet the Author

Bryn Jones is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bath.

Mike O'Donnell is currently Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Westminster.

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