Totalitarian Recall


Seeds of the Sixties, by Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 235 pages, $25.00

It doesn't take a Baby Boomer in the White House to know which way the wind blows. But it sure helps. While Bill Clinton may not be Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin, having a faux student radical (he almost smoked pot, he almost dodged the draft) as president drives home the fact that the "1960s" are now our central cultural, social, and political reference point. Forget those musty old issues—the Spanish Civil War, the New Deal, the Cold War—that once demanded a response from all "concerned" and "engaged" citizens. It is more relevant now whether you "grokked" Spock, dug Phil Ochs records, or "fucked the system" every chance you got.

Although this referential shift from one generation to the next is a natural progression, this time around it is more ironic than usual: After all, the generation that came to power following World War II didn't spend its youth warning that "you can't trust anyone over 30." Irony notwithstanding, the stakes in defining the activities loosely referred to as the "counterculture," the "movement," and the "New Left" remain very high. If they are seen as part of a righteous revolution, the current power elite will try to recapture them in law and spirit; if they are viewed as a series of cultural catastrophes, their legacy will be spurned.

So far, the various countercultural movements of the '60s have been portrayed in movies, TV shows, and books mostly as noble, liberating struggles of pure-hearted, peace-loving longhairs against small-minded, selfish squares—a serious version of Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. As urban-guerilla-cum-establishment-pol Tom Hayden wrote in his 1988 memoir, Reunion, "Like the American revolutionary period, the awakening of the early sixties was a unique ingathering of young people….The gods of our parents had failed or become idols….When we first used the term revolution, it was not about overthrowing power but about overcoming hypocrisy."

This self-congratulatory scenario glosses over a much more complicated—and interesting—reality. However they might have started, the counterculture's '60s ended on a sour note, as "All You Need Is Love" segued into "Gimme Shelter." Martin Luther King's integrationist plea of non-violent resistance was discarded, even before his death, in favor of the armed insurrection of the Black Panthers; the "child of man" conceived at Woodstock was delivered stillborn at Altamont four months later; Students for a Democratic Society transmogrified into the bomb-throwing Weather Underground; the anti-draft movement turned virulently anti-American and uncritically embraced North Vietnam as a model society; in a past-as-prologue moment, Charles Manson was hailed as a pop-culture icon for offing rich "pigs."

These are some of the demons haunting the ruin of the counterculture's love shack. Although former New Left players such as Hayden have made peace with their pasts, other participants cannot exorcise the ghosts so easily. David Horowitz and Peter Collier, former editors of the radical-chic journal Ramparts and current editors of the anti-P.C. tabloid Heterodoxy, have disowned the '60s as "the decade that would not die, the decade whose long half-life continues to contaminate our own."

Other ex-activists are formulating less strident but no less critical responses to their "movement" activities. In the introduction to Rads, his 1992 book about the 1970 bombing of the University of Wisconsin's Army Math Research Center (the "Hiroshima of the New Left"), Tom Bates writes, "The political utopianism, drug experimentation, and sexual license that I and my contemporaries had innocently associated with liberation looked completely different to me now …in full knowledge of the consequences. …[T]he radical rhetoric that had fallen so easily from my own lips now seemed dangerously puerile."

Seeds of the Sixties, by Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman, enters this debate from an oblique but promising angle by focusing attention on the New Left's intellectual forebears in post-World War II America. The authors, American scholars at Sweden's Lund University, contend that the "social creativity and experimentation" of the '60s can be best understood by analyzing "dissident intellectuals" of the '40s and '50s.

But even though the authors challenge the "great myth" of "historical uniqueness" perpetrated by student activists in the '60s, Seeds of the Sixties fails to engage where and why things went wrong, opting instead for a relatively uncomplicated, feel-good nostalgia in the guise of creating a "usable past." Instead of a thinking man's "Won't Get Fooled Again," we are treated to an intellectual's remix of "Those Were the Days."

The bulk of the book is devoted to case studies of post-World War II social critics who had some kind of enduring impact on the New Left. Chapters are arranged around particular themes and particular people: "Mass Society and Its Critics" (C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm), "The Ecological Intellectuals" (Fairfield Osborn, Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson), "Shaping New Kinds of Knowledge" (Leo Szilard, Herbert Marcuse, Margaret Mead), "The Reconceptualization of Culture" (Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy), and "Making Politics Personal" (Saul Alinsky, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr.).

The book is at its best when bringing to light the more obscure figures, such as community organizer Alinsky, Catholic Worker founder Day, early ecologist Osborn, and atomic-scientist-cum-peacenik Szilard. The discussion of better-known personalities makes for less interesting reading, in some cases because Jamison and Eyerman's approach adds little to previous discussions and in others because the authors fail to nail down a figure's relation to the counterculture.

Jamison and Eyerman are right, for instance, to suggest that author James Baldwin "contributed to the development of an explicit black way of seeing" and that he "inspire[d] the more committed popular authors that emerged in the 1960s." But it may be more precise to say that Baldwin functioned, especially for black radicals, as a negative example, as the embodiment of a cultural Uncle Tom. While Jamison and Eyerman recount part of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's scathing dismissal of Baldwin, they fail to note that Cleaver, speaking for many radicals, rejected Baldwin in favor of other, already available cultural role models, especially Richard Wright: "[Baldwin's] hatred for blacks, even as he pleads what he conceives as their cause, makes him the apotheosis of the dilemma in the ethos of the black bourgeoisie who have completely rejected their African heritage," Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice. This is influence of a sort, but not the kind Jamison and Eyerman mean.

Given the authors' goal of "reinventing partisanship," though, it's not really surprising that Seeds of the Sixties treats its subjects in the least problematic, most charitable fashion possible. In an effort to present a united front against the baneful "ascendancy of market liberalism," Jamison and Eyerman want to downplay dissent among the dissenters. And although they explicitly eschew dogmatism, Jamison and Eyerman try to suppress any heresy that might challenge their articles of faith.

For instance, it matters less to them that Margaret Mead was intellectually dishonest than that she used the cover of ostensibly disinterested research to further a progressive political agenda. Similarly, C. Wright Mills's enthusiasm for Castro and Herbert Marcuse's for the Black Panthers "can perhaps be considered transgressions. But even then, the ideological commitment was temporary and qualified, born more from overexuberance and desperation than from anything else."

What is particularly frustrating about Jamison and Eyerman's approach is that it suggests but does not pursue a potentially fascinating reevaluation of the '60s, one that links the left and right wings in new and disturbing ways. For example, in discussing Mary McCarthy's opposition to the Vietnam War, the authors note, "It was not only the Westernization of Vietnam that shocked Mary McCarthy but also the language that made this possible. For her, Americans were able to act with such cultural and physical brutality toward the Vietnamese people because of the language they had constructed to filter out what they inflicted."

The New Left, of course, similarly abused language, as when the Rev. William Sloane Coffin declared that "the social justice that's been achieved in …North Vietnam [is] an achievement no Christian society on that scale has ever achieved." Pentagon war hawks had no monopoly on doublespeak, as countless victims of "cultural revolutions," "reeducation camps," and "agrarian land reforms" could testify. But since Seeds of the Sixties is written in the service of socialist partisanship, such telling continuities between radicals and reactionaries must go unremarked upon.

Insofar as Jamison and Eyerman are not interested in examining either the conclusions or presuppositions of their intellectual gurus, they replicate the worst tendencies of the New Left in the waning days of the '60s by drawing a cartoon version of reality. They argue solely by repetition that 1950s America was "quiescent" and "authoritarian"; it was "the age of affluence and conformity, when so many Americans had become fat and contented." Perhaps realizing that the Seeds of the Sixties in fact documents open dissent during a supposedly "repressive" time, they grudgingly admit that "the hegemonic culture opened spaces within which critics could operate."

More tellingly, though, Jamison and Eyerman readily embrace the notion of the United States as a totalitarian regime on a level with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy (the Soviet Union, of course, is conspicuously absent). In discussing postwar America, they note, "It was the [uniformity, consensus, and order] of both the society and the thought that seemed most typical but also, for some of those who had seen other totalitarian regimes close up in the 1930s, most oppressive" (emphasis added).

Ironically, the idea of America—or more accurately, Amerika—as gulag resulted from the uncritical application of both Marxism and later European social theories formulated in the face of actual totalitarianism. Jamison and Eyerman correctly locate part of its origins in the writings of figures such as C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. But even as they note in passing Arendt's admission that it was wrong to interpret American society through the prism of Nazi Germany, they fail to consider its larger implication that imported "radical ideas" needed to be rethought in an American context.

To do so, after all, would invalidate the need for the wholesale revolution that the New Left sought to effect and for which Jamison and Eyerman express lingering affection. This methodological hubris, which simultaneously sanctioned the most extreme violence while failing to accurately described a common, lived reality, was the fatal flaw of the counterculture. By refusing to take into account the inclusive political, cultural, and economic structures in American society (and noticeably absent in countries such as Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union), the New Left purchased a supreme theoretical consistency by trading in the ability to actually account for the world it sought to change.