From the standpoint of history, 1968 represents a brief interregnum. It did mark the end of the apathetic era of the 1950s. But it also foreshadowed the era of depoliticised conformism that kicked in in the early 1970s.
To understand the meaning of 1968, one has to understand that, during the late 1940s and 1950s, Western societies were haunted by the legacy of the interwar era – an era in which the social structure, and the largely liberal values on which it was purportedly based, were called into question. Such was the postwar fear of drawing attention to what amounted to a crisis of legitimacy that critical thought was banished to the margins of intellectual life. The marginalisation of critique and dissent was aided by the postwar boom, which served to distract society from the political impasse prevailing over public life. The Cold War was useful in this respect. It reinforced the mood of political passivity, channeling the public’s attention towards uniting against an external enemy.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, the 1960s countercultural movement appeared on the scene. To many at the time, it seemed as if the world had been turned upside down. As the head of the conservative Adenauer Foundation in West Germany put it, ‘The revolt of 1968 destroyed more values than did the Third Reich’. The 1960s countercultural movement succeeded in forcing significant sections of society to question the values that underpinned their daily existence.
The highpoint of the countercultural moment was the revolt of French students in May 1968. Their revolt, which helped mobilise French workers and precipitated a general strike, appeared to many as the precursor of an era of radicalism. With good reason: in the months after May, student protests proliferated, the civil-rights movement grew further, and mass demonstrations against the war in South-East Asia continued to dominate the headlines. Yet, in spite of what appeared to be a building momentum, the radical moment soon passed away. By the early 1970s, the counterculture had become de-radicalised, and it gradually entered the mainstream in the form of youth culture.
A reaction to the era of conformism
During the 1950s and 60s, Western governments hailed economic prosperity and consumerism as proof that their societies were superior and far more attractive than those on the Soviet side of the Cold War divide. The project of turning consumerism into a political statement had succeeded in putting socialists and Communists on the defensive, but it could not provide a moral foundation for the Western way of life. In particular, it could not enthuse, inspire or give meaning to the life of its citizens, particularly younger generations and intellectuals. At the time, sociologist Daniel Bell recognised that there was a serious void within Western consumer culture. He wrote: ‘The young intellectual is unhappy because the “middle way” is for the middle-aged, not for him; it is without passion and is deadening.’
Many commentators echoed Bell and voiced concern about the apathy of young people, especially university students. Seymour Lipset, a political scientist, complained that ‘politics is now boring’. That apathy and political inertia was widespread was recognised by sections of the left and the younger generation. In the US, a new genre of literature criticising the cynicism and disengagement of the young emerged. And, in the UK in 1957, the editorial of the first issue of the Oxford University-based Universities and Left Review (renamed New Left Review in 1960) blamed the apathy of the young on the failure of left-wing ideas to move with the times:
‘The debate between those who clung to the slogans of the 1930s’, it read, ‘and those who embraced the new orthodoxies of Welfare Britain, a debate which evaded the critical problems and the main frustrations of postwar society, appeared monstrously irrelevant to the postwar generation. Its very irrelevance flattered their apathy.’
The first book published by the NLR’s imprint New Left Books in 1960 was suitably titled Out of Apathy. Tackling the problem of apathy was clearly seen as a priority by the emerging New Left.
Paradoxically, the postwar consumer culture unwittingly invited young people to rebel against it. In this era of relative prosperity, sections of younger generations found themselves relieved of the burden of economic necessity, and enjoying an unprecedented degree of security and independence. But despite this, society could not provide their lives with much meaning. As their attempt to endow their existence with purpose gained momentum, a new countercultural movement emerged.
By the late 1950s, it was evident that those who voiced the concerns of this generation tended to reject the dominant form of cultural authority — namely, consumerism. Which was hardly a surprise. An authority based on consumption and technical advance succeeded in preserving stability and political order, but it could do little to inspire or give meaning to people’s experiences. As one study of this era in Britain concluded, young people’s estrangement from authority was driven by a reaction against the ‘age of affluence’. In this period the revolt against the conformism of Cold War society in Britain, as expressed in the literary contribution of the so-called Angry Young Men, took the form of a cultural condemnation of society. Soon, such reactions would become more systematic, global and crystallise into a veritable counterculture. As the political philosopher Richard Wolin notes, ‘The 1960s were a time of acute disenchantment with Western modernity’. In a sense, then, the revolt of 1968 can be seen as an expression of profound disenchantment with consumer society.
Accounts of the 1960s understandably highlight the revolt of students and intellectuals. Consequently, the behaviour and the reaction of the ruling elites is often overlooked. Yet it was the defensive and confused behaviour of the West’s political and cultural establishments that created the conditions for the flourishing of the counterculture. The May 1968 events in Paris were as much a consequence of the paralysis of the French ruling class as they were of the inventiveness and radicalism of the student movement.
During the 1960s, the ruling elites frequently adopted a defensive tone, were hesitant in affirming their way of life, and they even expressed doubts about their right to exercise authority. Their behaviour suggested they lacked a vision of the future and felt unable to engage either the intellect or the spirit of their citizens. Their intellectual energies were instead enthusiastically and effectively deployed against their Cold War enemy. But though Cold War and anti-Soviet ideology could secure order and loyalty, it could not offer a sense of what might be inherently valuable about the West’s way of life. Western elites therefore felt exposed on the cultural battlefield. As Bell acknowledged:
‘The traditional bourgeois organisation of life – its rationalism and sobriety – has few defenders in the serious culture; nor does it have a coherent system of cultural meanings or stylistic forms with any intellectual or cultural respectability. What we have today is a radical disjunction of culture and social structure, and it is such disjunctions which historically have paved the way for the erosion of authority, if not for social revolution.’
The 1960s revolt was particularly successful in the domain of culture. Cultural institutions, especially schools and higher education, but also music and the arts, swiftly internalised the new anti-establishment sensibility. Although the May 1968 revolt was often shot through with left-wing talk of socioeconomic transformation, its main successes were in the domain of culture. During the 1960s, establishment values were ridiculed and rejected by a vocal minority of young people – many of whom were the progeny of the old order. To the defenders of the old order, it appeared as if their whole way of life was now under attack.
One reason why the new counterculture succeeded in making such rapid headway was due to the weakness of any elite resistance. By the 1960s, conventional norms and values already appeared to many as irrelevant and pointless. Instead of reinforcing conventional bourgeois norms, the consumer culture of the 1950s seemed to be rendering them increasingly irrelevant to people’s lives. Some commentators even blamed the new prosperity for helping to undermine conventional values. ‘Life has ceased to be as difficult as it used be [and] has become pointless’, wrote Christie Davies in his 1975 study, Permissive Britain. Though prosperity may have facilitated the growth of the 1960s countercultural revolt, the real issue at stake was the loss of legitimacy of the norms underpinning the institutions of Western society.
Not that the emergent counterculture was without its critics. But the strident denunciation of the 1960s countercultural movement by defenders of the status quo is best understood as an expression of their deep moral insecurity about the socioeconomic order. The moral depletion of capitalism meant that the values ruling elites had cherished since the 19th century were now on life support. For the British historian JH Plumb, there was a widespread sense that the old values had grown ‘hollow’. This confirmed to him that the past was dying. ‘Wherever we look’, he said in a 1968 speech, ‘in all areas of social and personal life, the hold of the past is weakening’.
In a diary entry in 1968, Michael Stewart, the UK foreign secretary, wrote that it was ‘the moral deficiencies of what should be the free world’ that constituted the problem of his era. ‘Germany distracted, France selfish, ourselves aimless, USA in torment’, he wrote. Stewart’s reaction typified the mood of defeatism then prevalent among the political elites. That is why the transformation of cultural life in the 1960s was at least in part a result of the elites’ discrete cultural appeasement of 1960s radicals.
The radical moment was shortlived. Even in Paris, the barricades were soon unmanned. French students went back to the lecture halls, and workers back to the factory. By the end of the 1960s, former radicals had turned into peaceniks, lifestyle hippies and youth-culture entrepreneurs. Some even became institutionalised as members of a new class of intellectuals and public-sector administrators. Their very brief revolutionary phase soon gave way to a sensibility that, although radical in form, was no less conformist in content than that of the 1950s.
Unlike the conformism of the 1950s and the early 1960s, the new conformism that kicked in after 1968 was the product of disillusionment. It consolidated an anti-political trend that combined a profound sense of alienation from the past with an estrangement from the idea of future progress. Its self-consciously anti-modernist, anti-humanist themes implicitly communicated a sense of contempt for both humanity’s achievements and towards more future-oriented ideals. As the 1970s progressed, the new conformism led to the displacement of politics with consumerist, environmentalist and identity-related projects. Though to some these seemed to continue the spirit of 1968 counterculture, they were also a reaction to utopian radicalism.
Blaming the 1960s
Despite the de-radicalisation of the countercultural movement, sections of the ruling elites continued to be traumatised by the upheavals of the 1960s well into the early 1980s. They couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge their own inability to hold the line. Instead, they invented a variety of excuses for their failure to retain their cultural authority. The finger of blame was frequently pointed at radical agitators and the unbridled hedonism of the counterculture. The 1960s generation was accused of ‘ingratitude’, of being ‘spoiled children’, of suffering from ‘infantile regression’.
Gradually, elites began to speculate that darker forces were at work. A fashionable conspiracy in conservative circles suggested that 1960s radicals were systematically destroying the Western way of life by infiltrating the media and institutions of culture and education. What this explanation overlooked was that the old establishment had simply given up defending its way of life and had quietly retreated from the battlefield of culture. The institutions of the media, culture and education did not need to be infiltrated; their previous owners had left the doors wide open.
During the 1970s, numerous myths about the 1960s flourished. It became routine to blame the 1960s for all manner of social problems, from the breakdown of family life and the rise of sexual promiscuity, to the rise of crime and the decline of moral standards. The myths were fuelled by the traumatic memories of a period when the empty and meaningless character of traditional elite values had been exposed. To an extent, these values had effectively been modernised out of existence by an elite that was uncomfortable with its own past. But this ruling stratum could not acknowledge its complicity in the devaluation of its own authority. Instead it looked for scapegoats, and found them aplenty in the 1960s.
So what is history’s verdict on 1968? Squeezed between the conformist era of the 1950s and the depoliticised decade of the 1970s, the events of 1968 served as the catalyst for the unravelling of bourgeois cultural norms. Though the May 1968 movement was animated by a spirit of freedom, and a quest for a more meaningful life, it lacked the resources to give these aspirations rigorous intellectual and political content. Instead it adopted a one-sided oppositional style that undermined prevailing norms without offering a positive alternative. Paradoxically, the moral disorientation, defensiveness and cultural pessimism that prevail today are the most durable legacies of May 1968.
For better or worse, 1968 was the moment when many Western societies could no longer ignore the cultural revolution that threatened to undermine their traditional values and conventions. In that sense, it represented an important historical moment. However, it is far from clear who bears responsibility for the radical upheaval that followed: the students marching on the streets of Paris, London or Berlin, or the ruling elites in full flight. Having lost belief in the cultural legacy that underpinned their authority, the political elites stood exposed as emperors without clothes.
Sadly, the decline of traditional authority has not been matched by the emergence of an enlightened, future-oriented alternative. Authority today rarely attempts to speak in the language of human values. Instead it hides behind a cynical technocratic worldview and subjects public life to a narrow instrumentalist logic of performance, delivery and best practice. Many of yesterday’s student radicals have become integrated into today’s establishment. And, in doing so, they have embraced a small-minded, politically correct worldview that readily complements the political class’s ceaseless desire to modernise and ‘reform’ its institutions.
The mainstreaming of the counterculture
The most attractive feature of 1968 was the willingness of large numbers of young people to question, act and commit. Sixties radicalism was motivated by a genuine aspiration to make the world a better place. It raised the expectations of millions and encouraged many of its supporters to experiment and take risks. Unfortunately, though, this movement failed to formulate a viable alternative to the values and politics that it criticised. Worse still, it quickly lost sight of the big picture and became obsessed with issues pertaining to personal life, individual identity and sexual behaviour. This shift was most dramatically expressed through the claim that the ‘personal is political’. During the 1970s, the personal became so political that politics was largely extinguished from the purview of the 1960s generation.
Paradoxically, the movement that emerged in response to postwar conformism was to realise a new form of conformism. In the period between 1970 and 1990, most of the ideas associated with the countercultural movement became absorbed by mainstream society. The 1960s obsession with individual self-fulfilment and emotional and personal issues was thoroughly written into society’s cultural script. Not even the radical conservative regimes of Thatcher and Reagan could do very much about containing the influence of the cultural values promoted by the personal-is-political brigade. These values, which became rapidly institutionalised in higher education, swiftly migrated to the workplace and mutated into the dominant values of Western societies.
Today, we need a new countercultural movement. And it needs to be one that re-appropriates the best of Western civilisation and challenges the values of the post-1960s cultural elites.