Remembering the 1960s – Part 1 of 3

Posted December 15, 2009

Four decades after the zenith of the youth radicalization of the 1960s, 1969, a veritable cornucopia of books penned by the now-aging veterans of that radicalization is pouring forth in full flood.

The appearance of this torrent of memoirs and historical analyses of the 1960s is not surprising. Most members of the generation of youth who participated in one manner or another in the radicalization of the 1960s, commonly referred to vacuously in the media as “baby boomers,” are now between the ages of 57 and 63, and sufficiently advanced in their careers to no longer have to worry about how published recollections of their youthful radical pasts might adversely affect their jobs. Moreover, this stage in most people’s lives summons a nostalgic fondness for the bright and exciting times of their youth, particularly if those times were especially bright and exciting.

Without a doubt, the time of the youth radicalization of the 1960s was indeed among the most bright and exciting times of the 20th century. Unlike the 1920s, the decade of the “Lost Generation,” celebrated by Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway that followed World War I, the 1960s were not only bright and exciting, but were also filled with hope for and expectation of a better world, rather than merely being a decade-long escape from the horrors of World War I, whether the venue of escape in the 1920s was Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village.

As one might expect, the memoirs and other books relating to the radicalization of the 1960s are uneven both in quality and what they add to the historical record. But they are appearing at an especially propitious time, in the midst of the current economic depression, a depression comparable in some respects to those of 1929 and 1873 – a depression that also marks the end of 38 years of right-wing neo-liberal dominance in American society and a opens new period. While still tentative, this rekindles the hopes of those who participated in the the 1960s that a new radicalization might lie just over the horizon – hopes that had been, for the most part, extinguished over the past four decades.

The recently published books relating to the radicalization of the 1960s are intended, of course, to be read by the present generation of youth in the hope that they might learn something from them and might benefit, if they are to be participants in a new radicalization, from the accounts of the experiences of a previous generation of radicals. To be sure, the historical link between the radicalization of the 1960s and the current period is gossamer thin, given the past four decades of reactionary domination and diminished expectations, but there is such a link, however thin, which the recent published memoirs and studies should augment.

What was the radicalization of the 1960s all about? Depicted insipidly by the media as merely a cultural period peopled by apolitical dope-smoking “flower children” in tie-dyed T-shirts mesmerized by the rock music of Woodstock or simply “hanging out” in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the generation of the 1960s has been caricatured far beyond any modicum of reality. Hopefully, however, what was “real” about the youth of the 1960s will at least be partially recovered with the aid of this recent wave of “60s” memoirs. Such a recovery of reality will not be uncontested as evidenced by the right-wing demonization of Barack Obama’s “friends,’ Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were among the leaders of perhaps the most notorious of the radical groups of the 1960s radicalization, the “Weathermen.”

The youth radicalization of the 1960s was the third major radicalization in the history of modern U.S. capitalism. The first radicalization engaged large sectors of the U.S. working class from 1877 until the entry of the U.S. into World War I in 1917. This radicalization was an organic component of the struggles that occurred as a relationship of forces was being established between the newly minted ruling class that prevailed over the rise of modern finance and industrial capitalism in the United States and the newly forged American industrial working class. The second radicalization came during the great Depression of 1929-1941, the greatest crisis of modern U.S. capitalism, and was highlighted by the working class’s fightback, beginning in 1934, against a weakened, but still powerful, ruling class and by the organization of the working class into industrial unions. Much like the first radicalization, the second came to an end with the United States’ entry into another world war.

The youth radicalization of the 1960s has to be seen in the context of the emergence of the U.S. from World War II as the preeminent global economic power and the resultant quarter century of relative economic prosperity that the U.S.’s global economic dominance engendered. The vibrant U.S. postwar economy created the need for a vast expansion of the college-level public educational system in order to provide a much better-educated work force. Former teachers colleges were transformed into large universities virtually overnight during the late 1950s and 1960s as the former farm fields that surrounded them began to grow high-rise dormitories rather than corn.

The post-war G.I. Bill had rewarded discharged World War II veterans with a free college education, which enabled a large portion of the working class to attend college for the first time in U.S. history. This unprecedented opportunity in turn created great expectations for the educational, social, and economic future of the workers’ children when they came of college age. The post-war economic prosperity financially allowed millions of members of the working class, mainly white but also including a small, but none the less significant layer of African Americans, to send their children to college in the 1960s. The post-war prosperity, the need of the expanding economy for a college-educated work force, the expectations generated by the G.I. Bill, and a vastly expanded college public education system combined to create a wholly new situation in the United States in the 1960s resulting in millions of youth attending college.

This was the objective context of the radicalization of the 1960s. The subjective basis was the transparent contradiction between the way things actually were in the United States and the way that they were supposed to be according to the values that the young students had been taught growing up. The prelude of the youth radicalization of the 1960s was two-fold: the Civil Rights movement and the “Ban the Bomb” movement. The yeast which initially fermented the youth radicalization was comprised of what were called “Red Diaper babies,” more about them later. The “trigger” that launched the radicalization was the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam in February 1965.

To be continued…

Patrick M. Quinn was a member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South, became a founding member and eventually one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, and was an active member of the Madison trade union movement and the leader of the Young Socialist Alliance in Madison.


5 responses to “Remembering the 1960s – Part 1 of 3”

  1. RED DAVE Avatar

    Patrick, your remarks about drugs and the radical milieu are generally spot on. However, with regard to the YSA, my own “feeling” is that there was a weird kind of “left puritanism” operating with regard to drugs. There was also a stereotype that “workers” didn’t do drugs (“Okie From Muskogie” and all that shit) but instead drank beer.

  2. patrick Avatar


    Prior to the “turn” to the working class, which came after all of the supporters of the majority tendency of the Fourth International were expelled from the SWP and the YSA on July 4, 1074, the SWP and YSA concentrated their efforts of the campuses. The “ban” on the use of drugs had nothing to do with the working class not doing drugs (which many young workers used). It was based on protecting the SWP and YSA from police harassment. Long hair was discouraged until 1967 but not after that. (I had to shave my beard off before being allowed to join the YSA. Gay members were formally not allowed to be in the SWP or YSA until 1969, after that it became fashionable to be gay in both organizations. Neither the SWP or YSA had a campaign to legalize the use of drugs. Young members of the YSA did, of course, smoke dope even though it was strictly against the organization’s policy. It would have been impossible to have been an activist on campsus and not smoke dope.

  3. Amauta Avatar

    I didn’t know that was the reason the YSA/SWP banned pot and other drug use by its members. I thought it was because the leadership held up some silly stereotype of “American workers” that they were afraid of alienating themselves from. Didn’t the YSA/SWP also have a policy against long hair. Also, workers were assumed to be straight, right? I remember reading about the sanctioning or expulsion of members for being openly queer. Pretty terrible.

    So I take it the YSA/SWP didn’t have a line on the legalization of drugs or campaign against the arrest and imprisonment of movement people on drug charges or the Controlled Substances Act of 1970?

  4. Patrick Avatar

    You ask a good question. In response I would say that the use of LSD was not nearly as widespread as you suggest. “Grass” on the other hand was much more widely used. It seemed like everybody smoked grass. It was readily available, relatively cheap and gave a pleasant, relaxing high. For a majority of the generation of the 1960s (those born between 1946 and 1953) grass replaced beer as the “intoxicant” of choice. I would not say that the use of it played a central role in the radicalization of the 1960 but it was definitely a part of the rebellious culture of the 1960s just as was music by Jimmi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and the Grateful Dead, among many others. A personal disclaimer: the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party forbade its members to use grass or any drugs because they were convinced that the cops would bust members for using drugs and thereby destroy the organizations.

  5. Amauta Avatar

    Patrick, You rightly criticize the characterization of 60’s radicalization as just a hippie drop-out culture.

    Many factors converged, and I’d say the most important was the Black insurgence.

    But I’ve often wondered why, though, drugs and in particular psychotropics are almost absent from left or alternative culture these days, compared to the 60’s. Of course people didn’t organize and protest the war because they were all high. But it’s also the case that tens of thousands of young people took acid (stronger then than today) and that pot and acid weren’t done so much for fun but more like experiments in breaking-down habituated understandings and seeking alternatives to the bourgeois dulldrums.

    Hallucinogens, of themselves, don’t a revolutionary make. On the other hand, I think they’re mostly good and should be used more. LSD in fact is known to be really helpful in addiction therapy – it may help those addicted to individualism and the “American way of life.”

    One thing that’s impressive about the 60’s is that so many adopted a generalized refusal of bourgeois society and social norms. Guess you could say that’s what happens in any mass radicalization – but what role would you assign relatively popularized usage of LSD and other psychotropics during that time? Thanks and I look forward to parts 2 and 3.