The Nineteen Sixties: A Long, Strange Trip

by Chris Caldwell
Saturday, January 30, 1999

The striking thing about the rash of 1968 commemorations—the articles, the documentaries, the books—is that none of the reminiscing parties has identified the grievance that blew the lid off the civilized world thirty years ago. Until they can, another question is bound to take center stage: Why thirty years? Who commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of anything?

The best answer thus far has been provided by Jacques Julliard, an editor of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. Thirty years, he points out, is a generation, and now is the natural time for the most generation-conscious generation of all to assess its achievements. “All of a sudden,” he writes, the ’68ers “are historical.”

Illustration by Taylor Jones

In other words, it’s the generation of ’68, not any particular event it lived through, that is being celebrated. The events of that year—the assassinations, the riots, the wars—are pretexts for a discussion of that generation’s “ideals,” their “hopes,” their “dreams.” But what were those ideals, those hopes and dreams? There was less to them than meets the eye. Reduced to its essentials, the generation of ’68 was pushing an agenda of self-aggrandizement that, thanks to the baby boom, it happened to have the size and social standing to carry out.

Vietnam was of course the focus of most American campus politics, but that hardly explains the student uprisings in Mexico, England, Ireland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and France. And most of the political/cultural business that late-sixties youth in America deluded themselves they were mobilizing around had already happened. Timothy Leary was ejected from Harvard for his LSD demonstrations in 1963. The Civil Rights Act passed Congress in 1964. Medicaid and other Great Society legislation became law in 1965. Even the vaunted “end of hope”—which the young radicals flatter themselves they bore so bravely in the wake of assassinations—was old hat. The “Port Huron Statement” of the Students for a Democratic Society bemoaned a loss of ideals in 1962, even before President Kennedy was killed.

Early SDS activist Todd Gitlin, in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, described his own intellectual predicament with considerable honesty: “Asked to write a statement of purpose for a New Republic series called ‘Thoughts of the Young Radicals,’ I agonized for weeks about what it was, in fact, I wanted.”

If not even the participants could figure out what they wanted, it’s hardly surprising that the student movement—judged as a political movement—was a failure. In November 1967, only 10 percent of Americans favored withdrawal from Vietnam. A year later, the hated Richard Nixon was elected president. It is a commonplace to describe Nixon’s success in 1968 as a right-wing reaction to sixties’ protests. But even Democrats behaved as if the political landscape were shifting rightward—and well before Nixon’s triumph. Robert Kennedy, debating Eugene McCarthy during the California primaries, backpedaled on withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam. And in response to McCarthy’s suggestion that suburbs should share the cost of public housing, Kennedy (the great racial “healer”) accused McCarthy of wanting “to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange County.”

Hubert Humphrey, too, seemed to think the country’s heart was on the right. “I think we ought to quit pretending that Mayor Daley did anything wrong. He didn’t,” said Humphrey, after the police clashes with rioters at the Chicago convention. “The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night in front of the hotels was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed, every human being. . . . You’d put anybody in jail for that kind of talk.”

True, opposition to the war rose, but contemporaneous polls showed distrust for the student antiwar movement rising concomitantly. In fact, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe, in Generations, the largest prowar subgroup in the later sixties were baby boomers who had not attended college.

Between sixties’ protesters and their antagonists lies an insufficiently explored division—that of class. The working classes had almost nothing to do with what we call “the sixties.” Underlying the protests of the sixties was a current of elitism that played itself out in a poignant semiritual whenever the police were called in to quell a campus takeover. As Roger Rosenblatt notes in Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969:

Many of the cops who busted University Hall were the sons, nephews, cousins, and grandsons of all those Irish immigrants who . . . had been treated like the servants they in fact were by generations of rich Harvard boys. . . . The students . . . might rail against Vietnam, but there was scant danger of their going there. They were protected, as the sons and nephews of the cops were not.

A left that turns its back on the working classes has for three decades been a norm disguised as an anomaly. Is it worth noting that of all the post–World War II developments despised by the sixties’ protesters, the ones despised most fervently and unanimously—from Levittowns to the modern kitchen—were the most egalitarian ones? The ones that the protesters themselves had grown up taking for granted?

What 1968 did was introduce a politics in which the problems of production and prosperity are assumed solved. A good standard of living was no mean achievement for Depression-era men who had spent their teens and twenties dodging German and Japanese gunfire. But their children wanted something more exalted. The students had little use for Marxist dogma, but they valued Marx as a progressive credential, provided his writings could be watered down and rendered relevant by such gurus of “alienation” as Herbert Marcuse.

Theodore Roszak was the first to describe where these new strands of political argument were leading, in his brilliant 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture. Roszak claimed that “technocratic” social organization and a pervasive managerial ethos had created a “Myth of Objective Consciousness,” which impoverished human relations, making life lonely and frightening at any income level. So the young were right to be “distrustful of authority and suspicious of leadership.” Alienation, not immiseration, was “the central political problem of our day.”

Roszak’s insight was largely right. But the politics that arose from it was directly in conflict with the politics that had gone before—indeed, with ideology as most people still understand it today. The left split into a “socialist” political wing and a “Woodstock” lifestyle wing. As in cartoons where the coyote saws off the roadrunner’s branch and it is the tree that falls, the Woodstock limb survived and the socialist tree collapsed. It was the newfangled and faddish-looking political tendency that proved enduring. Compare the legacy of the Beatles with the legacy of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Compare the legacy of birth control liberalization with the legacy of SDS’s economic position papers.

The victory of lifestyle politics over class politics had huge consequences. It broke the lower classes’ monopoly on grievances against society; the well-off—or subgroups of them, presenting themselves as “women” or “gays” or “students”—could suddenly be “alienated,” too. And they pushed their claims of oppression under a wholly new type of political discourse. The Myth of Objective Consciousness could not—by definition—be dethroned through rational argument. As Marcuse said, “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization.” Because that civilization was so reasonable, so democratic, to argue on its rational terms was merely to make oneself a dupe of power. So sex and drugs and, most of all, “feelings” became appropriate weapons in the political arena.

Any politics arising from elite complaints and based on feelings rather than “objective conditions” was open to abuse. It was only a matter of time before lifestyle demands were masquerading as political ones, and self-interest as social conscience. This might explain why anti-Vietnam student protests all but stopped after Nixon announced the end of the draft in 1970, even though the next three years would see the most ferocious bombing of the entire war. What could put a bigger crimp in one’s lifestyle, after all, than getting blown to pieces by a grenade in the Mekong Delta?

That’s why it is reasonable to ask whether sixties’ youth ever really shared the Roszak diagnosis, whether they really were in revolt against “technocratic totalitarianism” and “elitist managerialism.” For the aging counterculture has become today’s seatbelt law culture, the product liability culture, the no-smoking culture, the speech code culture. The 1968 generation has extended the “unfreedom” of Marcuse’s technocracy into areas that the old American elites could scarcely have imagined.

In every country where it once existed, the counterculture has since bound itself intimately to power and government. If the protesters of the sixties despised technocracy, it was clearly not the authoritarian aspects they objected to.

Many proud scions of 1968 are given to complaining that today’s historians dwell too much on the superficial, libertine, recreational side of the year. But the more we learn about the sixties, the more it seems that it was the political side (the socialism, the antiwar protests) that was recreational. The seemingly recreational—the sex, the drugs, the fashion, the identity politics—was where the serious business was taking place.

Perhaps the sixties was based on nothing more than the sheer demographic mass of the generation that is now celebrating itself. More babies were born in the years 1948 through 1953 than had been born in the previous thirty years. By 1970, fully 18 percent of the adult population was between eighteen and twenty-four. By 1980, with the entire baby boom having found its way into the electorate, those born between 1946 and 1962 made up 38 percent of the voting age population—as they will, more or less, until boomers begin to die of old age in significant numbers. Roszak noticed the all importance of mere demographic bulk: “The young seem to feel the potential power of their numbers,” he wrote. “They have been pampered, exploited, idolized, and made almost nauseatingly much of.”

That’s because, in a democratic society dependent on technology and newly dominated by mass media, to be a big generation is almost ipso facto to be an elite generation. Let’s look first at technology. The very “technocratic” society Roszak speaks of spawned a need for administrators and a massive increase in college attendance. As early as 1960, the United States had more undergraduates than farmers. Education spending rose from $742 million a year at the end of World War II to $7 billion in 1965, while the university population tripled from 1955 to 1970. In a democracy, this is an extraordinary concentration of power—not just in raw numbers of people but in per capita education, training, and credentials. Now, mass media. If Jacques Ellul is right that “propaganda” is only the sum total of mass media buzzing around society, then the largest age cohort in society—that is, the largest advertising market—will almost automatically create a spontaneous rah-rah campaign on behalf of its wishes and its politics.

Over the long haul, as a result of technological and media conditions already in place, the generation of 1968 was able to suck power away from both the generation above and the generation below. The Silent Generation of 1930–1945 was pushed aside by sheer force of numbers. That there was never a president from that generation has nothing to do with its temperament; rather, by the time they grew old enough to produce presidents, around 1992, their cohort accounted for an anemic 13 percent of the electorate, vastly outnumbered by the boomers who produced and elected Bill Clinton. Once the boomers came of age, these two generations shared responsibility for running a technological society. The difference is that the younger generation had been specifically educated in huge numbers to run such a society, while the older generation had not.

Meanwhile, those born after 1960, Generation X, have gained a reputation as listless slackers not because they’re lacking in inner resources but because, by the time they began arriving in the workforce in the early 1980s, all the positions on the most promising career tracks were clogged to overflow by baby boomers jealously protecting their status.

Napoleon said that, to understand a man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty. Napoleon’s aphorism is based on the premise that at twenty, people are still suggestible, that they’re still being influenced. But the twenty-year-olds of 1968, because of their preponderance, have always been influencers. As university attendance ceased during the 1960s to be an exceptional privilege, the exceptional discipline that once characterized the university was felt to be more onerous and the twenty-year-old boomers demanded libertarian changes. At fifty, this very same generation has ruthlessly reimposed a pre-1960s moral regime to keep the streets safe and the campuses quiet—in other words to keep their own twenty-year-old children in line. Some legacy. What kind of revolutionaries spend their entire maturity seeking to undo the revolution they made as children? I’ll tell you what kind: ones with no values, only interests. Those sociologists who look at the ’68 generation as having brought about some kind of sea change in human character are wrong.

Today, the members of that generation run the country. One of them sits in the White House. If they did not overthrow “the system,” it is because the system served their needs well. Because of their numbers, the ’68 generation—or at least the university-educated segment of it—was destined to be a ruling elite no matter what it did. Its “revolution,” from the moment it left home for college, was aimed at carving out—in the heart of drab, prefab, egalitarian, one-size-fits-all America—a niche that was fit for such a ruling elite to live in. In this, the rebels of 1968 proved to be winners indeed.