Learning from the 1960s
From the archives of revolutionary socialism
We were on the eve of revolution in the 1960s, we were certain. Instead, capitalism demonstrated that it was far stronger and more flexible than we understood. But we learned a lot. Here I want to highlight five lessons I learned from the 1960s.
Lesson 1: People learn for themselves.
I used the phrase “lessons I learned” rather than simply “lessons of the 1960s” because I don’t think you can learn from the 1960s. You may be able to learn them from your own experience. There is a lot that you can get from studying history, politics, and other cultures: some clues about your own world, and some ideas to test. But unless you actually test ideas, unless you feel for yourself how they work, unless you build them into your own mental framework, you will never really internalize them, much less let them guide you for the rest of your life. So I offer you the rest of these “lessons” from my U.S. experience not as some kind of proven truth handed down from on high. They are ideas that became part of my political psyche and you may want to test them for yourselves under current circumstances.
Lesson 2: Massive and rapid change in political consciousness is a reasonable expectation.
When we look around now it is hard to imagine masses of people engaging in selfless struggle, demanding collective solutions based on values which put the human experience first and personal economic wealth way down the list. The idea of socialism seems thoroughly discredited, corporate values and the market dominate, and “the one who has the most toys” and me-first values seem to be the motor forces of human nature.
I became politically conscious in a period that was far worse. In the 1950s McCarthyism was the tip of the iceberg. Capitalism provided for all (except the poor who were conveniently invisible in the culture). Everyone who was willing to work could send their kids to college and have a suburban home with two cars in the garage. The American Dream seemed to work. (Black people were conveniently segregated out of view). Socialism was either discredited and irrelevant as Daniel Bell wrote in The End of Ideology, or it was the enemy. With very few exceptions, Socialists and Communists were rooted out of unions, driven underground, or “converted” severing the militant leadership and the traditions they represented from the labor movement.
Politics were deeply privatized and people would break off long-time social associations to avoid being fired and socially isolated. Lawyers would not represent people accused of communist affiliation for fear of losing their practice and even possible disbarment. The most radical public activities I heard about were those of the Green Feather Societies. Their main task was to prevent book burning in the libraries and save such books as Robin Hood. As you will recall he stole from the rich and gave to the poor—thus indoctrinating kids to socialism. In the 1960s we were thrilled to participate in a polite march of hundreds, mostly Quakers and other religious groups, asking for an end to the nuclear arms race.
Yet less than a decade later, tens of thousands, particularly among the Black community, considered themselves revolutionaries. Revolution was so popular that it was at the same time denounced by The Beatles in song while the lingo was co-opted by corporate America. Hundreds of thousands participated in militant civil rights and anti-war struggles which ignored the laws and challenged the ability of the social apparatus to function. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson claimed the largest U.S. Presidential election landslide victory in history. By 1967 he required riot police and troops anywhere he appeared and was forced out of the race for reelection. We didn’t yet have the power to remake society. But we did have the power to stop the U.S. from a nuclear escalation of a losing war.
As part of the struggle, the rapid change of consciousness seemed natural. We felt ourselves being transformed and it was fully reasonable that others were being transformed in similar ways in different movements.
Key events for the Black movement were the sell-out at the 1964 Democratic Party convention and the ghetto uprisings in 1965 and 1966. As this movement grew it became more powerful but at the same time ran up against obstacles built into the system. The system could allow legal equality but winning decent lives was another matter. That recognition created a generation of Black revolutionaries.
The famous 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) began over a university ruling that a tiny strip of sidewalk near a major intersection was not public property. Thus with an edict, the university turned the campus activists, who had long used the strip for literature tables, from rule-abiding citizens to rule-breakers. The same pattern repeated itself throughout the three-month development of the movement from a back-water issue to one that engulfed the entire campus. The university, responding to pressures from the socially powerful, would commit acts revealing its disregard for the claimed values of a democratic institution. The movement, for the most part, was able to use these cracks in the façade to build its own case and strength.
The FSM developed activists who were transformed both by the exhilarating sense of collective power and a new understanding of the world as the struggle laid bare the realities of corporate control of the university.
Lesson 3: Multiple movements provide both strength and weakness.
There was rapid motion in several different sectors of U.S. society and throughout the world. The massive stirrings in the radicalization of the civil rights movement, the urban ghetto rebellions, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the antiwar struggles, and the transformation of women’s consciousness had perhaps the greatest general impact.
But concurrently other ethnic groups, along with the disabled, gays, and lesbians deepened their identity and organization. They drew from each other, learned from each other, sometimes artificially copying from each other because they all existed in the same oppressive society. But each movement experienced that oppression differently and therefore had its own character, needs, methods, and even language.
Our central task then, as today, was to find the way to converge to a common struggle while allowing each to build on its own character and agenda. It also required making difficult political choices based on some understanding of history. For example, it was easy to build struggles and get massive participation around hippie, drug culture, and flower-child issues. There were also stirrings among veterans and among factory workers but the work was much harder and the response much slower. The failure to build a solid base in the social power of the working class and link the other movements led to two routes of destruction. One was a vicious cycle of isolation prompting still more isolating actions. The other route accepted the boundaries of the system rather than changing it and led directly to the graveyard of social movements—the reform of the Democratic Party.
Lesson 4: Political leadership and socialist political organization were a central and necessary part of the mass struggles.
Take the FSM. It should shock no one that much of the media and corporate establishment pictured it as a conspiracy where “Marxists-Maoists” manipulated thousands of naïve inexperienced students. In a futile attempt to shield the movement from the red-baiting attacks, liberals and the Left itself tried to downplay the role of the organized Left and portray it simply as students seeking to restore the “American” principles embodied in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
In fact, left organizations played a central role in the FSM. Left activists made up the core of the civil rights organizations whose activity had triggered the reaction from the University which started and maintained the FSM struggle. The FSM itself was a council of campus organizations expanded to include a few representatives of the “independents.” Goldwater and young Republican organizations were encouraged to participate, mostly as a way to deflect attack since not much was expected of them. At the same time, independents were actively supported for leadership.
We understood that the struggle, while initiated by the Left, had to quickly broaden and become the property of a much wider part of the student body. Many new student leaders emerged as the struggle intensified. The new student leadership, with support from leftist groups on campus, were able to successfully lead a mass movement against the liberal campus administration.
For the most part, the experienced left leaders didn’t seek publicity. But they made contributions that were critical during the early days and at crisis points. They provided experience, training, stability, and patience. They were in organizations that backed them up thus bringing important ready resources for the movement. They also had big-picture goals which included helping new leaders emerge rather than self-promotion.
The Left also helped define the broad ideological lines of the battle. When the FSM began, Hal Draper, an adult leader of the Independent Socialist Clubs with a long history in the U.S. socialist movement, recognized early that this was not some superficial confrontation over rules. It represented the fundamental contradiction of corporate domination of the society and therefore the campus, versus the movements of students to aid the oppressed in society. He wrote a pamphlet describing the ideology of the university President as a spokesperson for corporate domination (in a liberal way to be sure) and the role of the university as the servant to the corporate masters. The Mind of Clark Kerr, a very sophisticated political work, had mass sales on the campus and became the “bible” of the FSM. In addition, the ISC sponsored well attended public meetings, forums, and debates, taking on the ideas (and often directly the spokespeople) of the liberal opposition to the struggle helping to create political direction and climate for a large layer of new activists on campus.
Lesson 5: Struggle is valuable for its own sake.
We didn’t succeed but we were not as far off as may appear. Had world events been different and capitalism been not quite as flexible we might now be celebrating the 1960s as the training period for the revolutionary victories of the 1970s. But we didn’t win the big cigar and the following decades found us trying to swim against a rapidly moving rightward stream.
Many, particularly those from the student movement at elite universities have moved on to privileged positions in the establishment. Many of these have made their peace with their current existence and chalk off the 1960s as a rite of youth—idealistic but unrealistic.
But many have continued the struggle in almost as many different forms. We still plan to win or contribute to our progeny winning—it will just take longer. But we learned that you don’t need a guaranteed outcome or even a good bet. The comradery in struggle combined with the liberating taste of a bit of democratic power is a unique experience. Part can be experienced in sports but without the sense of purpose. The power can be felt in business but usually requires checking your values at the door and watching your back at the same time.
Featured Image Credit: Photo of Mike Parker, 1966. Image modified by Tempest.
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Mike Parker View All
Mike Parker was a leader in a number of 1960s organizations including the Free Speech Movement, the Independent Socialist Club, the Student Peace Union, and the Peace and Freedom Party. He was a labor activist and wrote widely on union issues. This article is based on talks he gave for the New Socialist Group in Toronto and Guelph in October 1997.