Surviving the Sixties (Not)

Who tells the truth about the '60s? Gitlin and Judt or Collier and Horowitz?

In 1695, the Puritan divine Timothy Cruso, after whom Defoe may have titled his famous novel, wrote: “The days wherein we live are extremely evil, but we have yet a sad and doleful prospect of the next age becoming worse…We see such crowds and swarms of young ones continually posting down to hell, and bringing up so much of hell in the midst of us…we cannot but use some Christian endeavors to open the eyes of these mad prodigals, and to fetch them home.”

Christian endeavors aside, such fears and imprecations are fashionable in every age and testify as much to the unavoidable incompatibility of the generations as to the progressive regression of history. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if a time does not eventually come in which the apocalyptic cliché manifests as ineluctable fact, in which the fears of troubled parents are ultimately realized in their refractory offspring.

This was certainly how it was during the student revolution of the 1960s, when university campuses were turned into raucous boot camps for a new generation of political radicals, utopian socialists and psychedelic epicureans—an incoherent “rainbow coalition” that did some good (the Civil Rights Movement) and much harm (rampant drug addiction, anarchic turmoil and rioting, neo-Marxist blueprints for a “better world.”) This sense of entitlement ballooned into the intrusive policies of the welfare state.

Some observers feel that the ideological residue of these “mad prodigals” was on the whole beneficial. Morris Dickstein, for instance, in a beautifully written memoir, Gates of Eden, feels that “the culture of the sixties had a liberating effect on many of our lives.” True, he cautions that “while we need to remain free, we don’t need to be perpetually liberated,” but, in the final analysis,  concludes that “Utopian hopes may be disappointed but can rarely be forgotten.” Todd Gitlin goes even further in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, which is not nearly as temperate as Dickstein’s book. The late Canadian historian and broadcaster Pierre Berton, in his 1967: A Chronicle of Canada’s Centennial Year, comments that we “were all high in 1967, like somebody who had just won the lottery,” and asks rhetorically, “Without that great adventure, what kind of people would we be now?”

Peter Collier and David Horowitz, however, are not so sanguine. In Destructive Generation, they meticulously chart the disruptive legacy of the period. The generation of the Sixties are now in their sixties. They no longer live in communes but occupy positions of influence in the media, the universities and government, instructing their epigones to continue the struggle to consolidate a political religion built on the “luminous” precepts of equality, fraternity and “social justice.” This is the platform of the New Left, which has issued in the disorder of multicultural relativity in which we are now immersed, the malign dogma of political correctness, the globalizing of resentment, the “unholy alliance” with Islamic extremism, and the postmodern dismantling of the concept of discoverable truth.

It also engendered a social activism that has infiltrated the judiciary, sponsored the uninformed and sanctimonious meddling of the swarming NGOs and polluted the writing of history, transforming it, à la Howard Zinn, William Blum and Noam Chomsky, into a species of disinformation and overt propaganda. Destructive Generation reminds us of “the ability of the Left to wage a culture war after its international commitments [i.e., its advocacy for Communism] had been revealed to be bankrupt. The Sixties created the victim groups that now tear at the fabric of the American enterprise.”

These strictures and insights resonate with me. I was at UC Berkeley at around the same time as Horowitz, participated in the student takeover of Sproul Hall, and fellow-traveled with the leaders of the Free Speech Movement. We reveled in our self-proclaimed status as rebels with a cause, who would remake America and the West in our own bearded image. Of course, not everyone in the revolutionary cadres was politically committed to the dismemberment of society as we knew it. Many came along for the jubilant sex, the acid trips and the music, as did the Woodstock hordes and the plankton-like, free-floating hippies who were content to “let it all hang out.” Visiting Belgrade in the late Sixties, I recall keeping company with a group of young Serbian drop-outs, one of whom spent hours every day listening to British shortwave and taping Beatles and Rolling Stone songs. When I asked him about the political situation in Yugoslavia and his sentiments regarding Marshal Tito, he replied, “Politics is for old men.” But back in Berkeley, and especially in Paris in May 1968, this was definitely not the case.

For, apart from the hangers-on and hangers-out, we saw ourselves as the new Fifth Monarchy Men, a New Model Army of youthful saints marching toward the dawning millennium, chasing our quixotic dream that conflict, hatred, inequality and injustice could be abolished once and for all and replaced by an idyllic world in which the economy would be regulated by an enlightened class of sages and benefactors, poverty would cease to exist, racial prejudice and social disparities would be a thing of the benighted past, everyone over thirty would be put out to pasture, and we would all make love, not war.

Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces: A Secret history of the Twentieth Century remembers those days fondly. “In the fall of 1964, in Berkeley,” he writes, “I was, day after day, for months, part of the crowd that made up the Free Speech Movement…It was a period of doubt, chaos, anger, hesitation, confusion, and finally joy—that’s the word…This event formed a standard against which I’ve judged the present and the past ever since.” Facing the disappointment of a movement fragmenting into dead ends, into “situations without a future” (a quote from French philosopher Guy Debord), Marcus subsequently found an anticlimactic reminiscence and justification of “this public life in punk,” in Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. What a comedown! More importantly, I believe Marcus was wrong in his premature obsequies. As Collier and Horowitz attest, the future of the 1960s is all around us in the present of the 2000s.

The “confederacy of dunces” that we were did incalculable damage to that future. A patchwork collection of Marxists, socialists, Ayers-type guerillas, professional demonstrators, street warriors, Black Panthers and Pantherettes, erotic hedonists, druggies, neo-Rosicrucians, pseudo-Maharishis and, to make a very long story short, utter narcissists, gave us the inchoate and largely brain-dead Western world we now call home. The belief in the redistribution of income and the leveling of hierarchical structures of rank and privilege energized us in the Berkeley and Paris days. At the same time, particularly among the politically engaged core, we embraced the conviction that society’s ills could be cured by the wise rule of a patrician caste of far-seeing legislators and philosopher-kings—namely, us. That these two axioms were in blatant contradiction with one another escaped our sagacity entirely. We were, as the French say, mi-figue mi-raisin, half fig half raisin. In effect, ideological blivets.

What were we reading then? Aside from the pap productions of the Beats—mainly Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, as well as Henry Miller’s printed wet dreams, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy, all de rigueur—our hallowed texts were Plato’s Republic and Laws, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, and, of course, our beloved guru Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and his seminal essay “Repressive Tolerance.”

The more popular and less onerous bibliography inspired us during our vedic moments, of which there were many. From our revered philosophical ancestors, we drank the heady potion of social revolution, dialectical materialism and the imperative to restructure our world to consort with our political delusions, which, as I’ve suggested, were both pyramidical and egalitarian. From Marcuse, who taught at UC San Diego, we learned the value of epistemic subversion, which meant imposing a moratorium on conservative thought and instead teaching leftist and socialist doctrines to the exclusion of all others. The current Academy with its panoply of culturally destabilizing and intellectually frivolous “studies” programs is the lineal heir of that ostensibly “liberating” but patently oppressive ideology, as is the statist political establishment in most Western countries today.

The more serious curriculum we undertook obviously demanded a certain kind of specialized intelligence which did not prevent a certain kind of generalized stupidity from taking hold of our minds. Though in one sense we were all different from each other, at any rate in terms of the maquillage we sported, in another sense we were all the same, practicing what Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse called “identitarian” politics, as we all moved massively to the Left. Tony Judt in his just-released Ill Fares the Land gets it wrong, as he does most things, when he dismisses the collectivist impulse of the Sixties radicals, whom he believes were concerned only with their individual “needs and rights.” As I indicated above, one can be a narcissist and a communitarian at the same time without registering the contradiction. One elevates one’s sense of self-importance by identifying with the masses and speaking on their behalf while magnanimously assuming the burden of leadership. The real problem was that we understood Hegel and Marx—or at least thought we did—but had absolutely no comprehension of the empirical world and of how politics and economics actually work. We were blinded by our vision.

No less distressing, it was as if we had suffered what I’ve elsewhere called a chronosectomy, a temporal amputation, released from the concrete dynamic of history and oblivious of what had come before. We did not believe in the substance of past time, which we regarded as an undifferentiated fantasy or macabre nightmare from which we had suddenly awakened, but invested our faith in the flux of the present and the halcyon future that must inevitably emerge from it. The past was not something to pore over and profit from but to ignore or even expunge from the record, except insofar as it conformed to the theoretical armature of thesis-antithesis-synthesis we had imbibed from Hegel and Marx. In short, we were the generation that sprang from the forehead of Zeus, without parents, without an archive, befuddled by theory and living wholly in present time. We then proceeded to make a holy mess of things.

Some Sixtiers were lucky enough or smart enough to escape the great dumbing-down: Morris Dickstein, for example, for all his nostalgia, takes a measured look back, David Horowitz experienced an intellectual metamorphosis, as he recounts in Radical Son, and others have, early or belatedly, managed to pull themselves out of the mental quicksand that swallowed an entire generation and its descendants. The erstwhile “good” communist Milovan Djilas’ prerequisite book, The New Class, provided a much-needed corrective, showing how leftist thinking had created a realm of autocratic “managers” and powerful bureaucrats that led to the corruption and overthrow of democratic principles. At one point considered Tito’s successor, he was in a position to know. In the light of what is happening all around us at this very instant, Djilas’ book, for which he spent many years in prison, makes indispensable reading.

Though we are still capable of various exploits—technological innovation and expertise, administrative complexity, the circulation of grievances, the planning of agendas—the lamentable fact is that we have become a society of adroit manipulators locked inside an obsolete world-view, “posting down to hell, and bringing up so much of hell in the midst of us.” Barring a miracle, I see no satisfactory solution to the quandary we are in. Perhaps George Steiner is right when he places his hope in small, monastic flares of intellectual light dotted here and there across the cultural landscape, reviving Max Weber’s notion of frail enclaves of enlightenment as the last resort of a civilization sinking into darkness. One thinks, too, no doubt a tad melodramatically, of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz with its obscure abbey in the Utah desert where historical knowledge is kept alive in a blighted world, even if it’s only a sacred shopping list. But is this a feasible scenario? For as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams, “The good minds still do not find each other often enough.”

It may be necessary to start looking harder.