The New York Times Book Review
The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974by Arthur Marwick
Now one of the world’s foremost historians
If the World Wars defined the first half of the twentieth century, the sixties defined the second half, providing the pivot on which modern times have turned. From popular music to individual liberties, the tastes and convictions of the Western world are indelibly stamped with the impact of that tumultuous decade.
Now one of the world’s foremost historians provides the definitive look at this momentous time. Framing the sixties as a period stretching from 1958 to 1974, Arthur Marwick argues that this long decade ushered in nothing less than a cultural revolution--one that raged most clearly in the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. Writing with wit and verve, he brilliantly recaptures the events and movements that shaped our lives: the rise of a youth subculture across the West; the impact of post Beat novels and New Wave cinema; the sit ins and marches of the civil rights movement; Britain’s surprising rise to leadership in fashion and music; the emerging storm over Vietnam; the Paris student rising of 1968; the new concern for poverty; the growing force of feminism and the gay rights movement; and much more. As Marwick unfolds his vivid narrative, he illuminates this remarkable era--both its origins and its impact. He concludes that it was a time that saw great leaps forward in the arts, in civil rights, and in many other areas of society and politics. But the decade also left deep divisions still felt today.
Written with tremendous force of insight and narrative power, The Sixties promises to be the single most important account of the single most important decade of our times.
The New York Times Book Review
--The New York Times Book Review
- Bloomsbury Academic
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
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'.
The term does originate within the period (1958-74) itself: those indulging in the various practices and activities I have already listed began to feel themselves to constitute a counter-culture. It was introduced to a limited audience by a young American academic, Theodore Roszak, in an article, `Youth and the Great Refusal' published in The Nation on 25 March 1968:
The counter culture is the embryonic cultural base of New Left politics, the effort to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new aesthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant work ethic.
The term went into wide usage when Roszak put together a number of previously published essays as a book and called the book The Making of a Counter Culture. Readers of the over-written and elaborately rhetorical introduction which Roszak wrote specially for this potential (and actual) bestseller perhaps did not notice how muted his claims actually were on behalf of his counter-culture: he surmised that it might over the next four generations `transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home'. His counter-culture consisted of `a strict minority of the young and a handful of their adult mentors': it was opposed to `technocratic society', and drew its ideas from `the psychology of alienation, oriental mysticism, psychedelic drugs, and communitarian experiments'. In the same year another young professional, Charles Reich, in an even more speculative and less precise work, The Greening of America, suggesting that adoption of the new lifestyles and new ways of thinking would completely transform the world. These books give us insights into concerns of the time about the spoliation caused by the unrestrained application of technology and into some of the euphoric responses; they cannot be taken as embodying authoritative historical assessments. For myself, I accept that the term `counter-culture' was and is widely used, and that most people have a firm sense of what it signifies: my position is that it is a convenient term, valuable if it is deployed in the manner of everyday usage but dangerous if it is taken to imply any Marxisant assumptions about the dialectic, the overthrow of bourgeois society, the triumph of the alternative society. (The theory of the dialectic, I should explain, poses a sharp conflict between existing (bourgeois) culture and an oppositional culture, this conflict resulting in a new stage in human development, a new culture or society--there is no more evidence for the existence of `the dialectic' than there is for the existence of `the Holy Ghost'.)
It is, then, perfectly legitimate to use the term `counter-culture' to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society: the contrast, in slightly hackneyed common usage, is between `counter-culture' and `mainstream culture'. These are terms I shall occasionally use in this book, though my preference is for using the adjective, `counter-cultural', rather than the substantive, `counter-culture'. The crucial point is that there was no unified, integrated counter-culture totally and consistently in opposition to mainstream culture. When I demonstrate the many commercial transactions between those who probably saw themselves as mainly belonging to counter-culture, and those who indisputably belonged to money-making mainstream culture, I am not condemning or mocking the former. We can none of us escape from the larger culture to which we belong--and, in any case, there is nothing inherently objectionable about commercial transactions. Pointing out that hippies and drop-outs, while in some ways making the most complete break from mainstream society, did absolutely nothing to further the reform, let alone the supercession, of that society is not to condemn or mock them either, but merely to point out that what is called the counter-culture was in reality made up of a large number of very varied subcultures. Sometimes commentators, particularly those writing on American society, make a distinction between the counter-culture and `the Movement' or `the New Left': there is no rigid distinction, but in speaking of counter-culture the emphasis is on dress, general values, lifestyles, leisure activities, while in speaking of the Movement or the New Left the preoccupation is entirely with those who were genuinely politically active and took part in protests and demonstrations. The British `New Left', a more restricted grouping of non-dogmatic Marxists, appeared in the fifties; in France and Italy the term `New Left' is applied to the non-Communist radical groups consolidating in the later sixties, above all the `student movement'. These are convenient labels and it is sensible to make use of them, provided always that they are not made to carry a greater load of assumptions and implications than they can bear, and that their deployment is not made a substitute for fully substantiated explanations.
What I shall hope to demonstrate is that the various counter-cultural movements and subcultures, being ineluctably implicated in and interrelated with mainstream society while all the time expanding and interacting with each other, did not confront that society but permeated and transformed it. I shall also hope to convey the message that this transformation was not due solely to counter-cultural protest and activism, but also to a conjunction of developments, including economic, demographic, and technological ones, and, critically, to the existence in positions of authority of men and women of traditional enlightened and rational outlook who responded flexibly and tolerantly to counter-cultural demands: I refer to this vital component of sixties transformations as `measured judgement', to signify (by means of the distant echo from Shakespeare) that it emanated from people in authority, people very much part of mainstream society.
The other fundamental point which I shall hope to establish, and one which perhaps most distinguishes this book from other studies of the sixties, is that most of the movements, subcultures, and new institutions which are at the heart of sixties change were thoroughly imbued with the entrepreneurial, profit-making ethic. I am thinking here of boutiques, experimental theatres, art galleries, discotheques, nightclubs, `light shows', `head shops', photographic and model agencies, underground films, pornographic magazines. With the assistance of the great expansion in mass communications, particularly in television, the sixties was very much an age of `spectacle': leading figures in the counter-culture became very much part of this spectacle, thereby earning both status and prestige and ordinary money. Underground film-maker Andy Warhol mixed enthusiastically with New York high society; the Arts Lab in London was visited by ambassadors and executives from multinational corporations; the book One-Dimensional Man (1964) by Herbert Marcuse (singled out by Roszak as one of the high priests of counter-culture) was actually funded by an American government body and the Ford Foundation. Entrepreneuralism, an entirely admirable quality when it does not depend on the direct exploitation of other human beings, was an indispensable ingredient in sixties change.
Mention of Marcuse brings me to some of the more crudely political theories about the sixties. While some believed that simply by living the counter-culture they would bring about the collapse of bourgeois society, many others stuck to the traditional Marxist view that for the revolution to occur, there had to be a revolutionary class, in the form of the the working class or proletariat. Unfortunately, if there was one thing the working class manifestly did not want to do, it was to carry out a revolution. Many theories were advanced to explain its failure to fulfil its historic destiny as laid down by Marxism, and, indeed, the postmodernist emphasis on language was part of the effort to keep Marxism going. Personally, I have always thought that once Marxist theory has been shown to be simply incorrect, the sensible thing to do would be to junk the theory, rather than try to find ever more elaborate ways of shoring it up. However, many of those who would agree with me about the entrepreneuralism of the sixties would say that in fact the new popular culture, far from being critical of established values, simply formed a part of that commercialism and consumerism which seduced the workers into believing that they were perfectly contented living in existing society. Marcuse was responsible for the notion of `repressive tolerance'--in effect, the idea that the `measured judgement' of which I have just spoken was no more than a cunning way of keeping revolutionary sentiment and radical protest under control, while appearing to be tolerant. Marcuse also argued that, failing revolutionary action on the part of the proletariat as a whole, radical students would have to act as the true agents of revolution. Candidates for playing the role of the revolutionary class being so thin on the ground, other Marxist, or neo-Marxist, or Marxisant thinkers came up with various kinds of `new working class' they hoped would fit the bill. The `new working class' of the French sociologist Serge Mallet was made up of the new `white-coated', highly qualified, technological workers; to the Italian Marxist in the revolutionary group Potere Operaio (Workers' Power) this elusive class was to be found among the marginal riff-raft drifting from one job to another, and particularly among the underemployed agricultural labourers of the Italian south, who often pursued whatever jobs were going in the north. In this book there is no `new working class'; nor do I dispense the magical potion of ideology (in the Marxist sense), the miracle ingredient which stops workers from acting in what are alleged to be their own class interests, and leads them instead to accept the values of bourgeois society.
My complaint about the Marxists will be that they are so busy looking for a revolution which could not happen that they miss the fact that another kind of revolution did happen (or so I shall be arguing), a `revolution', or `transformation' in material conditions, lifestyles, family relationships, and personal freedoms for the vast majority of ordinary people; certainly there was no political or economic revolution, no fundamental redistribution of political and economic power. Slightly hesitantly, I am calling this `revolution' or `transformation' a `cultural revolution'. When I say `cultural revolution' I very definitely do not mean `counter-cultural revolution', although that, I recognize, is what other writers (including non-Marxist ones) have usually meant when they have used the term `cultural revolution' My usage is much broader. The activities of the minorities in the `counter-culture', the New Left, the student movement, played some part in changing the lives of the majority, though there were many other factors. To me the full significance of the sixties lies not in the activities of minorities but in what happened to the majority, and how it happened. For me, `cultural revolution' is a convenient shorthand term to describe that entire process. What is important is giving an accurate account of what happened, not the label one puts on that account; all labels are imperfect. A particular drawback to mine is that China during the sixties actually underwent the `Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' of Mao Tse-tung. This was the most complete attempt so far to put into practice the new theory that if a proletarian revolution was to be complete and irreversible, all bourgeois customs, behaviour, ideology, and language must be obliterated: with intolerable cruelty and inhumanity, all considered to be bourgeois were harried and humiliated, and put to work in crucifying labouring jobs. The cultural revolution of which I (slightly tentatively) speak has nothing to do with the theories and practice of Chairman Mao.
There would be those, including, of course, many of the student activists of the time, who would say that changes in living standards and lifestyles for the peoples of North America and Western Europe are of little import compared with Third World movements for liberation from colonialism and dictatorships. At the beginning of our period, Fidel Castro overthrew the evil, American-backed Battista dictatorship in Cuba. A young member of Castro's government, Che Guevara, gave up his comfortable post to become a leader of the oppressed against their dictatorial rulers in South America, where he eventually met his death. Portraits of Che were reproduced everywhere as he became the single greatest hero of the European and North American protest movements. The Vietnam war--the attempt of the Americans to bolster the corrupt regime in South Vietnam against Communist North Vietnam and the Communist Vietcong in South Vietnam--waging a brutal campaign against ordinary villagers, killing hostages, using napalm, defoliants and other poisons, and then carrying the bombing raids to North Vietnam was the biggest single cause of protests and demonstrations. That unspeakable oppressions and the struggles against them in the Third World received unprecedented attention from young people in the West is very much to the credit of these young people, but does not mean that these events in themselves are the most significant features of the sixties. Indeed, it is very doubtful if the periodization privileging the sixties which, I am arguing, makes sense for the Western countries has as much meaning for the Third World, where colonial struggles extended over a much longer period. Anyway, my history is as unrepentantly a history of the West as Burckhardt's was of Italy. While, incidentally, one must be unsparing in one's condemnation of the misguided and unforgivable American actions in Vietnam, one cannot fail to note that in venerating Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader (a `hero' to put next to Che Guevara), students were once again victims of the Great Marxisant Fallacy: in aiming at (and succeeding in) taking over the whole of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was no noble leader of national liberation; he was an unscrupulous Marxist totalitarian, as the sad condition of Vietnam today demonstrates.
Two other relatively minor controversies should be considered: the first concerning the significance of the events of 1968, when the barricades went up in Paris, and students and strikers succeeded in creating a condition of total paralysis in France; the second relating to the apparent hegemony in popular culture of `Swinging Britain', and to the question of how far, in reality, popular culture continued to be controlled by America. I have already said something about the slightly different events of 1968-9 in Italy: my general answer would be that what happened in 1968 cannot be taken out of the context of other developments throughout the sixties. What was going on in Paris looked like an attempt at the kind of revolution predicted by Marxists: it wasn't. Nor was British dominance of popular culture as total as patriots would like to maintain: American finance was critical to many British achievements after 1964. Yet the achievements really were astonishing, and deserve careful examination.
In discussing certain widespread perceptions of the sixties which will be challenged in this book, I have steadily uncovered my own basic assumptions, and my own basic conclusions, throughout stressing that I believe the period 1958-74 to have been both unique and of special significance with regard to what came after. It is now time to set out systematically my conception of what are the fundamental and historically significant characteristics of that era.
Characteristics of a Unique Era
System and numbers should not be sneezed at. The historian's activities are (or should be) closer to those of the scientist than to those of the novelist or poet. However, neat equations, still less general laws, do not figure in the historian's work. The interactions, convergences, `feedback loops' uncovered by historians testify rather to the significance in their subject, as in the natural sciences, of `chaos'.
What I set out here is a numbered list of developments, characterizing and expressing the significance of my `cultural revolution', or `long sixties'; some emerged out of one or more of the other developments, and most interacted with each other. There is no hierarchy of either chronological or explanatory primacy, but the ordering is not purely arbitrary: given all the complexities inherent in the way in which things do actually happen, it is intended to convey my sense of how things happened in the sixties. I mix developments in which there was a high element of willed human agency and developments in which economic, technological, or demographic imperatives were of greatest importance.
1. The formation of new subcultures and movements, generally critical of, or in opposition to, one or more aspects of established society. These ranged from experimental theatres and architectural think-tanks to New Left, civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay rights movements, Child Poverty, Help the Homeless, and environmental protection groups.
2. Closely associated with these was an outburst of entrepreneurialism, individualism, doing your own thing. Sometimes these initiatives were supported by government or local subsidy, but in essence they were uninhibited examples of private enterprise, and in no way socialistic. I am thinking here of the founding of theatres, clubs, boutiques, modelling and photographic agencies, book shops, cafes, restaurants, art galleries, `arts labs', pornographic and listings magazines, and design studios.
3. The rise to positions of unprecedented influence of young people, with youth subculture having a steadily increasing impact on the rest of society, dictating taste in fashion, music, and popular culture generally. Youth subculture was not monolithic: in respect to some developments one is talking of teenagers, with respect to others it may be a question of everyone under 30 or so. Such was the prestige of youth and the appeal of the youthful lifestyle that it became possible to be `youthful' at much more advanced ages than would ever have been thought proper previously. Youth, particularly at the teenage end, created a vast market of its own in the artefacts of popular culture. But with respect to spending patterns and changing lifestyles attention must be given to young married couples, and particularly young wives, who, of course, not many years before, had themselves belonged to youth, narrowly defined.
4. Important advances in technology: television (including Telstar, the first transatlantic transmission being made in 1962), extended and long-play records, transistor radios, electronic synthesizers, modernized telephone systems (vital to teenagers); a remarkable expansion in jet travel, as well as the complete substitution of quickly accelerating electric and diesel locomotives for steam ones; advanced consumer products such as refrigerators and washing-machines; the contraceptive pill, first available in the United States in 1961 and in Britain in 1962.
5. The advent, as a consequence in particular of the almost universal presence of television, of `spectacle' as an integral part of the interface between life and leisure. The most rebellious action, the most obscure theories, the wildest cultural extremism, the very `underground' itself: all operated as publicly as possible, and all, thanks to the complex interaction with commercial interests and the media, attracted the maximum publicity. Thus one extreme gesture, accelerated into the next. Each spectacle had to be more extreme than the previous one.
6. Unprecedented international cultural exchange, in which, along with (for example) espresso machines from Italy, discos from France, and theatrical innovation from America, Britain, particularly with respect to pop music and fashion, film, and television, played an unprecedent role.
7. Massive improvements in material life, so that large sections of society joined the consumer society and acquired `mod cons'; in many backward areas this involved the arrival of electricity, together with inside lavatories and properly equipped bathrooms. Those who railed, and rail, against the consumer society of the sixties forget how welcome it was to those who were only in the process of joining it. I quote from a survey which is used extensively later in the book: revisiting a peasant family belonging to a community 65 miles south of Rome in 1969 when an inside toilet had been installed--previously family members and guests had had to take to the fields--a Roman sociologist was told by the proud owner: `I feel like a human being, like other people, not like an animal as I felt before.'
8. Upheavals in race, class, and family relationships. Given the importance of the civil rights movement in America, it may seem inappropriate to run these three categories together. Indeed, in writing this book I found that I had to abandon my original plan for Part II of putting race and class together in one chapter: the race question in America was so distinctive and important that I have had to treat it on its own. None the less, I believe it is right to see the challenge to established authorities and hierarchies in human relations as one single, though multi-faceted, process, subverting the authority of the white, the upper and middle class, the husband, the father, and the male generally.
9. `Permissiveness'--that is to say, a general sexual liberation, entailing striking changes in public and private morals and (what I am particularly keen to stress) a new frankness, openness, and indeed honesty in personal relations and modes of expression.
10. New modes of self-presentation, involving emancipation from the old canons of fashion, and a rejoicing in the natural attributes of the human body. If some of the more fantastic forms of apparel did tend to become a kind of uniform for, say, hippies, nevertheless it remained true as never before that individuals could dress to please themselves, rather than to meet some convention as to what was suitable to a particular age, class, or profession. There was for the first time the beginnings of a recognition of the realities of human beauty (specifically, that only a small minority of both sexes are truly beautiful and that therefore this minority have a very high commercial value) as against the traditional polite fictions and evasions.
11. A participatory and uninhibited popular culture, whose central component was rock music, which in effect became a kind of universal language.
12. Original and striking (and sometimes absurd) developments in elite thought--associated with the structuralists and post-structuralists, e.g. Barthes, Foucault, Althusser and also with Marcuse, Marshall McLuhan, etc.--and culture, as seen in pop art, conceptual art, concrete poetry, and the privileging of `chance' in literature, art, and music. Much of the new thinking simply contributed to what I have described as the Great Marxistant Fallacy, but it was also liberating in many areas, contributing to the protest movements and to the new feminism and gay liberation. Most obviously the attacks were on consumer and technocratic society. There was an obsession with language, conceived, along with knowledge, as an instrument of bourgeois oppression. There was a revival of the anti-art notions of Dada. Many of these trends came together in the tiny but fertile revolutionary movement, Situationism.
13. The continued existence, and indeed expansion, of a liberal, progressive presence within the institutions of authority, the characteristic which I have defined as `measured judgement'. The concept should in my view completely replace the erroneous one of `repressive tolerance', spawned by Marcuse. Many of the exciting developments in the sixties, and much of its unique character, are due to the existence of a genuine liberal tolerance and willingness to accommodate to the new subcultures, permitting them to permeate and transform society. The social welfare advances of the sixties were largely due to the protagonists of measured judgement responding to, or often anticipating, the claims of specialist protest groups.
14. Against that, we must place the continued existence of elements of extreme reaction, concentrated in particular in the various police forces but also in certain religious bodies. While it is clear that some of the protesting movements, particularly in the later stages, deliberately set out to provoke violence, there can be no question that throughout the decade almost all instances of violence and rioting came into being because of the insensitive (or worse) behaviour of the police.
15. New concerns for civil and personal rights, and a new willingness to become involved in often risky action on behalf of these. In presenting this heading, I may seem either to be duplicating part of what is contained under heading 8, or to be crudely running together great human ventures which deserve individual treatment. But it is my belief that the major fact of the changing role and status of the black American relates both to the kind of changing circumstances which were producing modifications in class and family relationships and to the conscious protest movements not just against segregation and discrimination but against the destruction of the environment, consumer society, and militaristic imperialism. Also involved are the American urban riots of 1965 and the events of 1968-9, the new feminism, and the beginnings of gay liberation.
16. The first intimations of the electrifying challenges implicit in the concept of the entire West as a collection of multicultural societies. Just when formal segregation between black and white was being dismantled in America, Britain and France acquired substantial racial minorities; a process which began in Italy in the early seventies. It is my belief that the only societies for the future are multicultural ones, societies which will exhibit to the full the vibrancy and creative potential which first bloomed in the sixties. Of all my assertions this must be the most controversial, given that everywhere today there are frequent and ugly reminders of the persistence of racism. Yet the glimpses in the sixties of what multiculturalism might entail may well prove to be the most important legacy of the cultural revolution, or mini-renaissance, of 1958-74.
Sources and Methods
A very Stonehenge of assertion there; validation will be the task of the rest of this book. My methods are those of the professional historian, a scientist, I have said, rather than a poet or novelist (though history is not a mathematical subject in the way that most of the sciences are). Society owes much to its historians: and what a lot we know about the remotest civilizations, about the strange republics which--after 1989--kept turning up in the former Soviet Union, about the origins of the Second World War, about the treatment of women in ancient Athens. The past has such a profound impact on the present, and on what will happen in the future, that an understanding of the past, a knowledge of history, is essential. We need a history supported by evidence and based on dispassionate analysis. We need a history which tells it, as nearly as humans can, as it was. We do not need a history which goes on and on about the wickedness of the bourgeoisie, or which is merely designed to support predetermined theories about language, ideology, narratives, and discourse, as agents of bourgeois hegemony.
It is an inescapable fact of the intellectual world in which we live today that there is, on the one side, the non-metaphysical, source-based, scientific history of the historians and, on the other, the metaphysical history of those committed to left-wing political causes (or, alternatively, to the nihilistic philosophy that humanity is helpless in face of the impersonal structures of bourgeois thought and language): the postmodernists, the cultural theorists. (I am equally critical of right-wing metaphysical histories such as Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992).) Unfortunately, there are historians who feel it politic to keep one foot in each camp, and who spatter their work with the artificial vocabulary of cultural theory, `narrative', `discourse', and that glib verb, `to construct'. If I do not use such words in this book, it is not because I am not aware of them, it is because I am only too aware. They all carry a whole freight of Marxist and postmodernist assumptions about the way societies work. It is terrifically important that it be understood that what I am about to say about the sixties is based on the evidence provided by a wide range of primary sources, analysed with the professional techniques of the historian, and then reflected on at length, and discussed and argued over with colleagues; and also on the evidence provided by other historians in their books (known as secondary sources) based on their work in the primary sources.
What I am definitely not prepared to do is to adopt the stance of the metaphysicians, Marxists, and cultural theorists, and tell you that the songs of the Beatles form part of a discourse which prevents blacks and workers from demanding their rights, that Antonioni's film Blow Up is constructed to persuade everyone that they live in the happiest of all possible worlds, and that the miniskirts of Mary Quant are `texts' designed to make women resign themselves to bourgeois patriarchy. At times I shall have to be rather pedantic in discussing the use of such words as `culture' and `subculture', and `hep', `hip', `hippie', `yippie', and `underground', but I shall not use the language of the cultural theorists. The postmodernists are right about the dangers and difficulties of language, though wrong in the conclusions they draw Very properly, poets and novelists exploit the ambiguities and resonances of certain words and phrases; historians, however, should be explicit and precise. I shall try, though I may not fully succeed, to avoid empty metaphors and flabby cliches. Crafty rhetoric I confine (I hope!) to my chapter headings, where much has to be signified in little. Elsewhere, I shall always seek to spell things out as straightforwardly as I can. A fiendishly difficult task!
At times my quotations from the primary sources are quite long: I want to demonstrate the point that primary sources are not transparent, that, when one is looking for clear evidence, they have many weaknesses and obscurities, as well as strengths. There are many novels, many films, many artists and their works to refer to. Slick references to novels or to films which may well not be known to the reader are not helpful. Thus, in most cases I have adopted the technique of giving as much information about the novel or film as is necessary to give the reader some chance of agreeing or disagreeing with the points I am trying to make. Readers, I think, need to know the basics about the intentions of those who produced the novel or film, and need to know what they are saying overall, and how they are saying it, if my citations and (in the case of novels) quotations are to play a serious part in my developing arguments. I believe it is important to study how `texts' are marketed and `consumed'; I do not for one moment believe the poststructuralist claim that texts exist independently of author, artist, or director. It is a fundamental principle of mine that readers should be fully informed as to the basis upon which I am making my arguments and statements so that they are at all times free to disagree with me: I have gone on record as saying that I don't think any historian, in any one book, can ever get it more than about 80 per cent right--leaving 20 per cent which may be sheer speculation, or just downright wrong. Those who are upset over my atheism in respect to Marxism tend to react as though rejecting Marxism is equivalent to snatching the crust from the starving widow's mouth, or lining trade union leaders up and shooting them. Nothing of the sort: I am just as convinced an atheist when it comes to the ideology of monetarism, market economics, and the virtues of unbridled private enterprise, and I believe in the rational study of the many evils which afflict the societies we live in, in order that effective solutions may be found as quickly as possibly, and applied. I hope that outlook comes through in the pages which follow.
Meet the Author
Arthur Marwick is one of Britain's leading social and cultural historians. He has been Professor of History at the Open University since 1969, and is the author of a number of best-selling history books, including The Nature of History and British Society since 1945.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >