Was there a ‘cultural revolution’ in the Sixties?

In this discussion I would like to reflect on different kinds of source, which exist for the study of the Sixties and which will help us in finding the answer. First of all, it is important to understand the context of the term ‘cultural revolution’.

Clearly the Sixties was very much a time of violent protest, or violent suppression of protest and, perhaps, revolutionary activity. But the term ‘revolution’ we refer to here, concludes the period of Sixties as a period of the transformation of society in material conditions, in sexual behavior, in family and race relationships, in ideas and values, and many more aspects.

Also to answer the question, one must establish a) what actually happened; b) why it happened; c) the significance or consequences of what happened in the main Western
countries between 1958 and 1973.

But since the history of Sixties is very broad, I have chosen the year 1968 for the purpose of examination. If one date delineated the end of the Sixties, it was the year 1968. It struck many observers, then and now, as a revolutionary moment. So what was so significant?

Certainly, violent confrontations between the generations erupted around the world. In France, left-wing students occupied the University of Paris. Led by a man known simply as Danny the Red, students seized parts of the Sorbonne and clashed with police on the streets of the Latin Quarter. On May 13, huge crowds marched in protest against the sitting government, against university regulations, against the distribution of wealth and power in French society. Prime Minister George Pompidou warned that ‘our civilization is being questioned – not the government, not the institutions, not even France, but the materialistic and soulless modern society’. He compared the chaotic scene to the “hopeless days of the 15th century, where the structures of the Middle Ages were collapsing.” (Shulman)

From this evidence, we can clearly see what was “physical revolution” part of Sixties. So where is the “cultural one?”

The changes that occurred in cultural sphere are countless. What triggered those changes, was the period immediately prior to the Sixties with its rigid social hierarchy, subordination of women to men, stuffy and repressed attitudes to sex, the prevalence of racism. We could go on, but this short list is enough to see that the “culture revolution” had to take its place in order to change those attitudes within society. But what kind of revolution was this one with certain divisions in society. While some believed that simply by living the counter-culture they would bring about the collapse of bourgeois society, many others stuck to the traditional Marxist view that for the revolution to occur, there had to be a revolutionary class, in the form of the the working class or proletariat.

One of its historically significant transformations was happening in politics. With many young people growing disgusted with the nation and its basic values. This discontent filled both veterans of Sixties radicalism and millions of young people around the world, who had never demonstrated interest in political protest. In 1969, one SDS leader estimated that three-quarters of the organizations membership could be classified as hippies. “Now the talk has shifted to cultural revolution,” the leader reflected. But despite the fact that many of apolitical people were getting involved, still many of them thought that “there is not going to be any revolution.” As Country Joe McDonald, lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, “rap of the revolution” exclaimed: “You have to have things and most of the people I know are not ready for that.” On the surface, Country Joe´s renunciation of revolution and embrace of “lifestyle” sounded apolitical, but the lines between young radicals and politically aware “flower children” were quickly vanishing.

Young radicals, in the sense of trying to influence government policy, had embraced the wider cultural critique of the counterculture. And the counterculture developed an essentially political edge – a rejection of the values, beliefs, and priorities of mainstream culture.

The counter culture also relied on music as a means of communication, a communal ritual, a gathering of tribes. After the success of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (featuring the first major performances of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin), rock festivals spread around the countries. They offered a potent mix of counterculture and capitalism, having together barefoot hippies and big-bucks event promoters. Music certainly played its important role in promoting new ideas. For the hippies it was mostly the folk music scene that gathered them on the political arena. The Counter culture culminated in 1969, when over 400.000 young people were on their way to Woodstock in New York, a small village far away from the city. Woodstock was a rock festival that lasted for a weekend of bad weather, little food but plenty of Marihuana. All the best rock and folk musicians were there and played. Woodstock got a lot of media coverage, and soon became the symbol for the whole counter culture. The festival gave the 68-generation a so unique identity, that even today many want to identify with it. The society soon started to identify them with «Sex, drugs and rock`n`roll». It was easy to recognize the counterculture in people, because it changed the whole fashion in the Sixties. Boys grew long hair, girls stopped wearing tops and unisex fashion (fashion that both girls and boys wore) became popular. The fashion hang together with the growing of criticism of society. The Counter culture was in itself a politically phenomena. A lot of the political criticism concerned everyday life. Instead of having commercial goods as goal, you can let your hair grow and live an easy and undemanding life. You could have an opportunity to sleep with whom you want, instead of getting married. These were actions and opnions that the authorities found very provocative. Here again we could argue what this has got to do with a revolution. But rather let me set another example.

Some or all of these aspects can be seen in the New Religious Movements (NRM’s) of the Sixties. Some of the conceived attitudes of the counter-culture, such as desire for self-enhancement and spiritual quests, were appropriate for the expansion of religious innovation. The use of mind altering drugs were advocated by Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary in an effort to bring the individual closer to religious experiences. Huxley saw drugs as a tool into a non-verbal consciousness, which he saw a spiritual state and Leary remarked that ‘The LSD trip is a religious pilgrimage.’ (The Sixties, Block 6, page 131) It is easy to see why this would appeal to people searching for spiritual truth – ease of effort and time, a quick-fix religious experience. This aspect could most definitely be seen as a ‘Cultural Revolution’, drug use and direct path to enlightenment, a stark contrast to the mainstream dogmatic teachings, which often rested on guilt and redemption.

. The consequence of the almost universal presence of television, of `spectacle’ as an integral part of the interface between life and leisure was very new to the society. The most rebellious action, the most obscure theories, the wildest cultural extremism, the very `underground’ itself: all operated as publicly as possible, and all, thanks to the complex interaction with commercial interests and the media, attracted the maximum publicity. Thus one extreme gesture, accelerated into the next. Each spectacle had to be more extreme than the previous one. This is just another aspect of the cultural revolution of Sixties.

The real achievement of the cultural revolution of Sixties was the change of thinking in society. This change we can call “the revolution”. The movements and developments in the main Western countries were challenging the established authorities and conventions, and then they resulted in transforming the lives of ordinary people. I guess that this is the most significant transformation of all.