The Sixties have been on my mind lately. I’m currently writing the early chapters of my book on the culture wars, where the Sixties figure large (the “Sixties” being a label loosely connected to the actual decade—the 1960s—yet not overly constrained by the decimal system). I argue it was during the Sixties when the stalemate later called the culture wars hardened to an unprecedented degree (which is not to say the clash over modernity was new, as I make clear in a previous post on “The Return of the Culture Wars.”) So the question I want to ponder in this post: were the Sixties radical?
Participants in the various left-leaning movements of that era, as Ben Alpers points out, mostly wrote the early history of the Sixties. Thus, the focus was often tilted too heavily towards the view that the Sixties were a time of radical change, more so than previous eras in U.S. history. In dialectic fashion, conservatives, or more commonly, neoconservatives agreed that the most significant fact about that decade was the disruptions to traditional America brought about by radical movements. Love them or hate them, the Sixties were remembered as a time of radical change.
This participant-historiography (and its neoconservative flip side), often mirrored by popular cultural portrayals of the Sixties, failed to capture the full extent of American political life. Obviously. As such, it seems historians have since felt compelled to work overtime to correct the misconception that the Sixties were revolutionary. In the tsunami-like waves of books being written about postwar American conservatism, historians now argue that the 1960s were conservative. This is the glue that holds together the excellent new anthology edited by Laura Gifford and Daniel Williams, The Right Side of the Sixties (which includes Jason Stahl’s chapter on conservative think tanks, excerpted in his guest post for us last week).
Reversing course entirely is not the answer. Yes, the ranks of conservatism grew in the Sixties. But this was in part—in large part, arguably—a reaction to the qualified successes chalked up by left-leaning movements. Thus, taking stock of the Sixties necessitates that historians study the right and left in tandem (not to mention everything in between, since the most powerful people in the Sixties—LBJ, Nixon—were neither right nor left). In their indispensible synthesis, America Divided, Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pinpoint the correct word to describe the Sixties: “polarized.” In less measured tones, this is Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland approach, though, more than polarization, Perlstein focuses on the pathological style of politics given birth by the Sixties, specifically, by Nixon.
In my just published Reviews in American History essay, “Up From the Sixties,” where I look at Eric Miller’s excellent biography of Christopher Lasch together with Thomas Jeffers’s lousy biography of Norman Podhoretz, I make a similar point about how the topsy-turvy Sixties recast the intellectual lives of two of the most important American thinkers. They experienced epistemic crises of sorts. My first paragraph gives a sense of my approach:
Reactions to the political disorderliness of the Sixties were often quite dramatic. In response to the violent repression of protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a splinter faction of Students for a Democratic Society formed the infamous Weathermen, an underground revolutionary cell ultimately responsible for exploding several small bombs, including at the Pentagon. At the other end of the power spectrum, the Nixon White House countered high-profile leaks of classified information by setting up a clandestine special investigation unit, the notorious “plumbers” who, among other illegal activities, broke into and wiretapped Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Intellectual responses to Sixties ferment were no less striking. This is made clear by new biographies of Christopher Lasch (1932–94) and Norman Podhoretz (b. 1930), two of the most renowned figures in recent U.S. intellectual history. Lasch’s and Podhoretz’ stunning political reorientations help us make sense of the post-Sixties fractures that still characterize contemporary American social thought.
My favorite synthetic treatment of the Sixties is David Steigerwald’s The Sixties and the End of Modern America. In analyzing the Sixties as both polarized and, more to the point, polarizing, in that we are still living with the legacies of the Sixties, Steigerwald’s tone is pitch perfect. He writes: “U.S. progressives see the sixties as a moment of great change abruptly ended by war and right-wing backlash, the consequence of which was only a partial liberation of the nation. On the right, the decade is seen as the beginning of a national crisis in authority and morality, which in the end has hurt the poor more than anyone else by legitimizing antisocial behavior.”
Steigerwald seems sympathetic to many of the left-leaning movements of the Sixties. He writes about the Sixties, it seems to me, because it was a more interesting time than most. People who believed in radical, even utopian challenges to the status quo, however quixotic, existed in greater numbers during the Sixties than at most other times in U.S. history. In analyzing the overblown rhetoric of the Black Panthers, a tiny group remembered mostly for their ostentatious political aesthetics and for their trumpeting the poor as the revolutionary vanguard, Steigerwald writes, wistfully: “It speaks to the beauty of the Sixties that the lumpenproletariat cats would politicize their bleak condition at all.”
But despite such admiration, Steigerwald is unsparing in his assessment of movement successes and failures. For example, in analyzing the New Left and its close relation, the antiwar movement, he addresses the problems inherent in a radical movement led by middle-class college students, more often than not in search of “mere therapy.” “In the long run, the deepest flaw in the New Left was that, given its suppositions, it could encourage mere rebelliousness masquerading as radicalism, a phony radicalism that saw politics as a vehicle for exhibitionism and self-assertion rather than change.”
Steigerwald seems sympathetic to the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), personified by deep thinker Tom Hayden, which sought to help politically powerless people organize, even though such actions were doomed to failure. But he harbors no love for the later SDS, prefigured by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and its charismatic leader Mario Savio. “Partly because of their early connection to the counterculture, Berkeley’s student radicals were less like the original SDS members and more akin to the second generation of the New Left,” Steigerwald writes. “The Berkeley radicals aimed their attention at the university itself and stood the Port Huron statement on its head: instead of using the university as a base from which students would move into the community, the Berkeley activists sought revolutionary change within the institution.” Of all the repressive institutions that needed change in U.S. society, Berkeley would not have been at the top of Steigerwald’s list. (Things might be different now, of course.)
So back to my original question: were the Sixties radical, even revolutionary? Again, Steigerwald strikes the right tone. In 1967 and 1968, the most frenzied years of the Sixties—when Black Power, combined with urban riots, gave many the impression African Americans were in full-blown revolt, and when the antiwar movement reached its peak alongside a growing counterculture that staged “love ins”— “Revolution was not entirely out of the question,” Steigerwald writes, tongue half in check. “But then again, of course, it was.”
So revolution was out of the question. How then do we explain the massive social and cultural changes that occurred between Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration speech and Nixon’s resignation in 1974? Take one such shift as an instructive example: changes in sexual mores. As Steigerwald writes about the beginning of that era: “the censor and the moralist ruled. In New York divorce was granted only on grounds of adultery. Movies were screened, authors banned, and their books threatened. Privacy rights were routinely invaded. In particular, when sex and sexuality were at issue, the authorities were prudish at best and often repressive. The slightest hint of sexually suggestive material was enough to unnerve the cultural watchdogs. Universities exercised the right of in loco parentis and regulated the lives of their students, separating the sexes and imposing curfews.” By 1974 things were much, much different.
So what explains this shift? In part, it has to be about the left-leaning movements. The radicals. Let me conclude, then, with an excerpt from the introduction of David Farber’s excellent review essay (also in Reviews in American History): “The Radical Sixties” (which reviews Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s).
To start with a banality: a lot happened in the 1960s. And the historiography of the era has come to mirror that banal observation. The Sixties has become a capacious subject, so much so that, I have come to think, we have lost “the Sixties” in writing about the Sixties. On this topic, as I have contributed to that capacious banality, I am a man in a glass house.
Right now historians seem to be taking the Sixties in several different directions, all at the same time. Many of us are invested in writing a history of the transnational Sixties, which is not surprising given the herd-like movement in the transnational direction by historians-at-large. And cattiness aside, I am convinced that the “transnational Sixties” will prove to be a fruitful approach. Similarly, I think (obviously, given my own work) that a “Conservative Sixties” is a useful angle. At the same time, a few historians have begun to re-emphasize the liberal triumphs of the era, with a focus on national civil rights policy and the war on poverty. Given the long conservative policy ascendency that followed the Kennedy-Johnson years, I think these historians are right to argue that liberals were not the soulless, sell-out compromisers some have made them out to be. They were not just impediments, in other words, to greater social justice. Then, too, we are all now convinced that the social changes and political challenges associated with the “Sixties” really transpired over a much longer time frame, making the events that happened to occur in the 1960s less important, or at least less causal, than earlier accounts often made them seem. So we all now acknowledge that the civil rights movement was a “long” movement and not a historical subject best understood as being just of the 1960s or best characterized by the now-legendary Southern protests of the 1960–65 years. Similarly, historians are convincing us to see many of the other classic Sixties-identified historical processes, such as the sexual revolution, as being born of a longer, decade-defying process. A “long” Sixties, then, extending from World War II through the 1970s, makes a certain amount of sense—although why the “Sixties” label should be retained, in that case, is hard to defend. In my own course on “The American Sixties,” I find myself beginning with the New Deal and ending sometime during the Reagan years. It seems to make sense when I do it, but I worry that, in my attempt to contextualize and explain historical trajectory, I have begun to forget the point of talking about a historical subject called “The Sixties.”
Robert Cohen, in his new work, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, wants to remind us what that point might be, what it should be. And given his provocative, even mysterious use of the word radical in his book title to modify the word legacy, I think he wants us to think what the meaning of “the Sixties” could be even now and ever after. In specific, Robby Cohen tells us how and why a brilliant young man born into a conventional Catholic American family in New York City in 1942 became a self-described radical and why the kind of radicalism he championed made the “Sixties” seem so exciting and threatening and explosive to many Americans living through those years. Here is the Sixties as a time of radical thought and radical action consciously pursued by young, white, self-identified radicals out to remake the world. This approach to the history of the Sixties is so old it is new.