Encounter Books, 2000.
In many ways the cultural revolution of the 60s has been as influential and momentous as other great social upheavals, such as the Industrial, French or Russian revolutions. All have left a lasting impact, and we still feel their effects today.
The counter-culture revolution of the 60s really began with the Beats of the late 50s and continued into the mid 70s. By then the revolution was all but complete. A minority of social agitators on the fringes of society had managed to subvert and infiltrate the important institutions of power and influence (the media, academia, politics) in a very short period of time, resulting in a complete reversal of fortune. Thus today those concerned about faith and family values have found themselves displaced and marginalised. The counter-culturalists have become mainstream, while those who had previously occupied the middle ground are now the new fringe-dwellers.
This volume traces the story of how this tremendous upheaval happened and why. It examines in some detail the “long march through the institutions” which the radicals took. The phrase, attributed to the Italian Marxist Gramsci, speaks of the need to overthrow societies from within, instead of relying on bloody revolutions from without. The strategy, laments Kimball, had been all too effective.
Indeed, no one could have foreseen how quickly and easily the institutions did crumble before the radical activists. The moral, cultural and social blitzkrieg has been as thorough as it has been all-consuming. And the success of this revolution, Kimball reminds, “can be measured not in toppled governments but in shattered values”.
Values of every kind have been thrown to the wind in this far-reaching revolution. Religious values, cultural values, moral values and social values have all been deeply affected, making this one of the most thorough and successful revolutions to date.
In this volume meaty chapters are devoted to the main characters of this revolution. Kimball begins with figures from the 50s such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He reminds us that although these characters are idolised by many today, they were in fact dirty, rotten scoundrels. Ginsberg, for example, was a homosexual who especially liked children, and was an active supporter of the North American Man Boy Love Association.
And the poems of Burroughs were “surrealistic hymns to violence, drug abuse, and extreme sexual degradation”. The Beats sought to glorify “madness, drug abuse, criminality, and excess” summarises Kimball. Not a great footing for the next generation to build upon. But that is exactly what transpired.
Social and cultural nihilism became a hallmark of the hippy generation, with plentiful servings of sex, drugs and rock and roll defining the movement. But it is not just the hedonism and decadence of the 60s that Kimball highlights, but the leading intellectual and cultural movers and shakers that undergirded it. Thus he devotes much of the volume looking at the usual suspects in the cultural revolution.
A whole chapter is therefore devoted to leftist novelist Norman Mailer. Susan Sontag, the leftwing feminist and intellectual also gets a whole chapter, as does Charles Reich and his The Greening of America, LSD guru Timothy Leary, and one time Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman, among others, are also covered.
In an intriguing chapter entitled “The Liberal Capitulation” Kimball recounts the days of the violent campus protests. Beginning with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, he recounts how the campus takeovers and violence spread around the nation. Kimball notes that the radical demands of the university activists were matched by the pathetic surrender of the campus chiefs. Heads of most universities quickly caved in to the demands of the radicals, and the political correctness run amok today is the direct result of this capitulation.
Thus higher education in the US today is mainly about promoting radical political agendas and ideologies, and has very little to do with the idea of the unbiased pursuit of truth and knowledge. (Kimball of course has explored this theme in much more detail in his 1990 study, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education.)
Kimball also covers other leading lights in the cultural revolution: Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Daniel Berrigan, William Sloane Coffin, and Rap Brown. He notes that most of these radicals were products of the bourgeois, capitalist system: “Whatever else it was, the long march of America’s cultural revolution was a capitalist, bourgeois revolution: a revolution of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged.”
Kimball concludes by asking where such activists can be found today. The lack of campus activism and social radicalism is mainly due to the success of the 60s revolution. The truth is, “there is little that the radicals demanded that they did not get.”
Unfortunately the book ends with no proposals as to how to turn things around. He carefully analyses how the culture war succeeded, but offers no real advice for the way ahead. He does seem to want to eschew complete despair and surrender. He rejects, for example, the advice of culture-warrior Paul Weyrich. In a famous open letter to his friends and supporters in 1999, Weyrich basically raised the white flag, saying we had lost big time, and that perhaps our best response is to head for the hills. But all Kimball can offer instead is a one-line summation: “the answer to a cultural revolution is not counterrevolution but recuperation”. He does not tell us what that means, however, nor how to achieve it.
Thus we have to look elsewhere to find strategies for reclaiming the culture. But as a helpful overview of the 60s revolution and the damage it has wrought, this is as good a volume as any, and well worth the read.