The Continuing Legacy of the Sixties
The Sixties ushered in a cultural revolution which is still under way: almost, it seems, out of control. It took its name from the great upheavals which raged in Communist China, also in the late Sixties. While shamelessly parasitic upon the Chinese revolutionary rhetoric, street theatre and worse, the anti-intellectualism, and the attacks upon the sanctity of the family, and what remained of the social traditions and values of the Chinese people, the Cultural Revolution in the West drew upon different sources. For a start, it was not imposed upon a cowed and unwilling population, by the State — as was China's.
When the Chinese rulers decided that their "revolution" and the Red Guards it had spawned had done their work — that is, destroyed the opponents of the previously beleaguered ruling elites — and was itself in danger of getting out of control, they closed it down.
However, the cultural revolution in the West has not been closed down, but has, so to speak, been institutionalised. It resembles Trotsky's dream of the Permanent Revolution — with no ultimate goals or ends, no triumphant final Synthesis; only a succession of antitheses, which move inexorably towards structured nihilism, and, not the transformation of values, but their abolition.
But this is to start at The End, not The Beginning. People associate the Sixties, in America and Australia, with the time when the Youth Culture really took over the agenda; when universities and university students became the centre of public attention, and our guides to the future. And we remember the Vietnam War.
The Hundred Flowers
What one may not realise, is just how many social and political movements got their start in the Sixties: Feminism, and its fifty-seven different varieties; Drugs, which swept through the United States, with marijuana, L.S.D., amphetamines, and then, from Vietnam, heroin. Cocaine followed from South America, and crack. It was thought, for a long time, to be "cool" to take drugs — mind-altering, addictive, but, of course, only recreational. Gurus like Timothy Leary and psychiatrist R. D. Laing preached their liberating influences upon the psyche, and upon one's creativity and imagination.
Few made, or were ever to make, the kind of rueful, even heartbroken, admissions of habitual opium users like De Quincey, or Coleridge, that not only was their health ruined, and their interpersonal relations jeopardised, but their intellectual powers, their vigour, and the authenticity of their imaginations were degraded or trivialised. Their very will-power was fractured. Rather, from the Sixties on, total denial was the general strategy used to evade responsibility for your own actions and choices. Either by denying the quite visible consequences, or by saying that the responsibility was not yours but someone else's — your parents’, the System’s, etc.; or, finally, by saying that there is no such thing as Responsibility any more than, objectively, there is good and evil, or right and wrong: all are subjective. Objectivity is attacked as a conceit of the mind; logically speaking, a class without any members, only usurpers.
Student peer-pressure, and then generational blackmail to join the drug culture, mounted rapidly, supported more and more openly by the Western mass media. They still support it. Four barriers to the epidemic spread of drug-taking by the young barred the way in the early Sixties: parents, the schools and universities, the churches, and the State. One by one, they abandoned their roles — or had these roles wrenched from them. The universities — the new, modern, egalitarian academies — and then the teachers ("Call me Jack, we’re all equals"), were among the leading advocates and consumers of the new drug culture. But a propos of the cost of denial, the American peace and protest movements, including the Negro cadres, virtually wiped themselves out by drugs and general abuse, taking the new pop-musical performers as their mentors. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. could hardly believe their luck.
One striking difference to be noted between protest sub-cultures of the Fifties and the pre-Vietnam Sixties, and those thereafter, is that the former used few drugs: although the worker trade-union segments were alcohol-based. They took reform, revolution and mass action seriously. It was not for pleasure.
All the World's a Stage
However the Sixties’ and post-Sixties’ radical protest culture was for Pleasure; for acting out on symbolism, with social action a kind of group therapy. Most young students joined for the parties, the dope and alcohol, for sexual freedom, to shock parents and the older generation — the "wrinklies" — and to escape from the "repressive" tedium of their families, with their one-dimensional lives. It turned out that by repression, the spokesmen for the young meant the work ethic — then, just work. They avoided the iron hand of responsibility — to others and for oneself — by studying, and being assessed or graded. "Repression" meant accepting family duties — towards one's spouse, one's children, one's parents. These hateful duties had names like loyalty, tolerance, compassion, and the ability to delay gratification. (One mode of this parental hair-shirt morality was saving, not borrowing.)
Another important, and indeed more fateful, development in the Sixties was the Sexual Revolution, so-called. Gay rights received their start; anti-censorship pressure grew and grew (meaning, as always in Australia, censorship of sexual material — for our opinion-formers have rarely been against cultural or political censorship). They realise censorship or marginalisation is one of the best devices for silencing clever people, and preventing the circulation of new ideas, or counter-elites.
Clearly, at this time anti-censorship was about sex, with the radical belief being that if everyone could act out their fantasy lives, talk about them, and make an industry of them, people would become happier, more free, and society more at peace with itself. But this has not happened — there is now only a flourishing pornography industry, linked rather too closely with prostitution and with the spread of disease, and certain kinds of crime.
The Death of the Family and Other Anachronisms
In 1968 David Cooper wrote a book called The Death of the Family, as much a wish as a prediction. He recycled familiar material — dating back at least to the Enlightenment — certainly to the Romantics, saying that the nuclear family is stifling, repressive, patriarchal, with children emerging as the twisted or broken-spirited products of a vassal factory. This was Wilhelm Reich's term from The Sexual Revolution, appearing in the 1930s, and fated to be revived every few decades as the key to understanding Societies — all societies. Children were said to be successively broken in by organisations which used them as their means, rather than treating them as Ends In Themselves, as Kant put it. The Family, the School, the Church, in turn trained and shaped them to serve the family or clan or tribe, to serve the Church by internalising its controls and inhibitions. Then the discipline of the Workplace homogenised the already crippled organism. After which, military service, and obeying the State and its Laws — no matter how wicked, or irrational — would follow naturally.
The necessary precondition for humans accepting these lifetime roles of servitude — or "service" as the Establishment liked to call it — was said to be for the young organism to renounce its sexuality — for it to surrender the free play of its potency, through fear, guilt, sanctions, and so on, by the threat of expulsion from the tribe, from society. By these strategies the near-universal renunciation was said to be achieved.
Reich et al campaigned against all this "repression", and, directly or by implication, attacked the Family, Marriage, Conventional Morality, Religion, the work ethic and automatic conformity to laws, mores, and the State. Work should be play: make love, not war.
The Demystification of Authority
With this seductive but simplistic mish-mash, the young, and the permanently infantile, obtained their drivers’ licences: the foundation of the Me Generation, and of Narcissism. The late Jim Cairns used to sell books with some of this material, worked upon. They were anti-politics; blueprints for the next higher stage in life. And this radical syndrome led to the repudiation, overtly or tacitly, of Authority in whatever form one decided to identify it. One now authorises oneself — nothing else is needed.
Individuality, Groupthink, and Political Correctness
One may wonder how this can possibly square with Groupthink, Political Correctness, Us Versus Them, and the hundred and one ways of getting everyone to think and say, and want, the same thing, and to reject the alternative. It does not square; but these were early days — the Sixties.
Demonstrating ... What?
Another way of not expressing individuality was via the demonstration. This aped the military march, or the religious procession, using all the aggressive terms — fight, struggle, overcome — all the war cries, chanted in unison. "One, two, three, four: / We don’t want no nuclear war. / Five, six, seven, eight: / Ban the Bomb, negotiate." Those were the days. Then on to the Personality Cults of the Vietnam War: "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!". The young used to march into Trafalgar Square like conquerors, 150,000-strong, behind a piper playing When The Saints Come Marching In, like some mediaeval military religious order, with serried ranks, marshals, banners indicating regiments, companies, platoons — they were like the Teutonic Knights at their most confident. A profound Oceanic feeling, as Orwell described it (from Freud) — which psychologists of the masses find endlessly fascinating (and which I only felt as a child, looking at Myer's window at Christmas time) — often took over.
But the readiness, and the eagerness, of our radical free spirits to lose their individuality in group movement, a march, a demo, is quite revealing and sometimes dangerous. One should never forget pogroms, the Gordon Riots, Saint Bartholomew's Night, or Kristallnacht, or Western radicals supporting these events, and their dictator leaders. Is this the work of free spirits?
Education has always been a likely battlefield for factions, interest groups, and ideologists. And only in the brief periods when those contaminatory elements are not running through the schools, the academies and their ancillaries, in publishing, media, and the arts do children have any chance to discover the manifold fruits of Man's creativity, and the enormous variety of things to think about, to compare, and to test, and hence, to enjoy, if they are capable, while developing their intellectual potency and emotional maturity. Too often children have been rationed, fed on one menu for ever, or else have become slaves of emotional takeaways, soundbites, slogans, and tatty myths. That is a result of mass culture, and pop education.
Without idealising the past, one notes that Australians had previously enjoyed educational experiences which did allow them to develop a degree of intellectual freedom and potency, to satisfy at least some of their curiosity, and to build inner lives, if that was what they desired. So the state of affairs which came out of the Sixties was a bitterly disappointing experience for most people interested in the development of free spirits and individualism, or of a liberal democracy. This was what many people had thought the new education — with its stories of ending bureaucracy, ideological conditioning, elitist values, and "freeing" the individuality and creativity of students, each of whom would be released to develop their own potential, their own uniqueness — was to be about.
It was not: it was about replacing a balancing act — a secular, humane, and loosely controlled system concentrating upon learning, studying and rewarding the gifted and industrious, while ensuring the others left with a sound basic education, directed towards the world of future employment and employability, socialisation, and the assumption of roles as citizens in a democracy. The replacement was by an ideologically controlled, intellectually shrunken, undisciplined free-for-all, with a collapse in any plausible system of grading, assessment and promotion — a disruptive system more akin to Lord of the Flies and a literary situation exhibiting all the consequences, as well as the philosophy, of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
Presumably the authors of these last books were engaging in prophecy. This particular legacy of the Sixties’ and Seventies’ cultural revolution has been perhaps the most pernicious consequence of this whole failed enterprise, so far.
Suffer Little Children
Equally damaging was the advent of Dr. Spock around the same time, and the changes in middle-class attitudes towards parenting, the rights of the child and the value of a home environment: as against crèches, kindergartens, endless baby-sitters, and so on. After starring in anti-war demonstrations for many years, in the end Spock returned to view, and review, his earlier findings and recommendations, and the consequences flowing therefrom of parents acting on his emancipatory philosophy. He began to retreat from many of his positions, but the damage has been done.
Incidentally, in all this inspiring talk about the rights of the child, there has been little about asking what the child would prefer: a crèche, or kindergarten, serial baby-sitters — or its mother's company? And few of this Rights Generation ask, in hypothesis, what the unborn child, about to be aborted, might choose. Just as the mother's right to her own personal freedom and development takes priority, if necessary, over her child, so does she have "a right to her own body", which expunges that of the foetus — even when it is admitted that the foetus has rights. But our demonstrators and media publicists were even less interested in such matters then than they are now, and they were as much indifferent as blissfully unaware of the core messages of Kinsey, Leary, Ilyich, Marcuse, Spock, Reich, Fanon, et al. They merely took them all on board as a job-lot — as the new pantheon to replace the old gods — and made as their political heroes Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and Gaddafi. But, they mocked those gods at their peril.
One of the most striking features in the anti-Vietnam-War movement and standpoint, in Australia and in the United States — and the basic thrust of the movements’ leaders and ideologists soon became anti-American per se, and anti-our Australian society and its political system — was the astonishing tolerance shown towards the Communist countries, and their deeds, that is, what they did or had done to their own people, and to others, and to their attitudes towards basic notions like freedom, human autonomy, and even the possibility of democracy. And there was a remarkable indifference, by our radicals, to the methods which the Left despots routinely used to retain permanent domination over their subjects. The same Western radical benevolence was regularly shown to any Third World dictator, and his crony system, provided he was anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-democracy. It greatly helped if the often bloodstained Third World ruler said he was a Socialist.
So Popular Fronts were even easier to construct in the anti-Vietnam-War movement than they had been in the earlier part of the Cold War. But at all times, few members of these fronts wanted to question the bona fides of their allies; few wanted to know the real histories of their new friends.
This Most Flattered, This Most Indulged Generation
The generation of young Australians who attained maturity in the Sixties were more fortunate than any previous generation. They had money aplenty, and had been courted since the Fifties to spend it, and not save it, as their parents had, when they had had money. Their parents advised their young to save, to buy a home, to get a steady — hopefully permanent — job, to raise a family, and to honour their mother and their father.
The messages coming from the new advertising and consumer industries worked against all this, except at Christmas time and Mother's Day. Near-full employment — something their predecessors had never had — gave the young the feeling that they did not have to work hard, for there was always another job waiting. And they did not have to study hard to make sure of a place. Propaganda against parents, the work ethic and the need for scholastic excellence, and then later, against competence itself, started to split off many of the young, psychologically speaking, before Vietnam, from the older generations. They had missed their fathers’ and grandfathers’ Wars, and were encouraged to ignore or devalue what these older men had done. Any secret envies or inadequacy feelings could thereby be assuaged. And there were many activists, with their own very different political agendas, to encourage this amnesia, this disrespect, and ultimately, this callousness and disloyalty.
Told that they all had a right to tertiary education, and that it should not be too hard — in fact education should be fun — they were influenced to view universities and teachers with some disrespect, and to see other, hard-working or gifted, students with something approaching derision. And the universities courted and flattered them, so as to build their own empires.
Who Will Lead the Revolution?
Finally, for the Far Left — the predicted proletarian Revolution was not coming. The proles had become materialistic, docile and conformist. How to have a Revolution? — to bust open the hated system, and tear down its status ladder? People like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse said that the new student population, or at least its vanguard, would be the hammer to smash the icons. They were more intelligent, and socially concerned, and they did not suffer from false consciousness. They were the new Free Spirits. So they must lead the revolution; and the others would follow, as the others always do. Analogues with the young ex-bourgeois leaders of the Communist revolutions, or with the Red Guards, flew around the cafeterias of America and then Australia.
This was a very satisfying picture — Elitism without Guilt. And the Sixties’ young seized it, and have lived off the fantasy ever since. These Believers think that everything worth saying has been said — and is known — by them. Past knowledge and history are bunk. The forever young make the new history, and make sure that no-one with different values is listened to. The similarity of these political fairytales told to our impressionable, upwardly mobile radical young, and those told to young Germans, and Italians and Russians — rather earlier — is striking.
So the psychic groundwork had already been laid for the extraordinary outburst of hubris, of mass intoxication, which exploded when young Australians and Americans were told that they might be called upon to fight in a Real War, not a fantasy Revolution. From where I was standing, at the time, had there been no conscription, there would have been no important peace movement. Earlier ones, such as the C.N.D. movement here, had drawn little support. The other cultural attacks on the status quo, mentioned earlier, would have operated, but without the great pseudo-moral legitimiser of Vietnam. Changes would have been far more orderly — but this was not to be. The genie escaped: for Mars broke the bottle.
National Observer No. 59 - Summer 2004