The Long March: Reckoning With 1968's 'Cultural Revolution,' 50 Years On

What William Faulkner said about the past -- it isn’t dead: it isn’t even past -- seems especially true about that convulsive decade, the 1960s. For many observers, 1968 was the annus mirabilis (or perhaps “horribilis” would be more accurate) and the month of May, with its many protests, student demonstrations, acts of violence, and drug-related spectacles, was the epicenter of the year. Now that the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968 is upon us, what does the wisdom of hindsight tell us about that curious moment?

I took a crack at conjuring with the meaning of the Sixties nearly two decades ago in my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America. May 2018 seemed to offer an opportune moment to revisit the issue by reprising and updating some thoughts. As with previous anniversaries of the Purple Decade and the Magic Month, there have everywhere been nostalgic backward glances: Youth! Freedom! Sex! Were not the Sixties the Last Good Time, an era of hope, idealism, the promise of emancipation from -- well, from everything? Some think so. “Only a few periods in American history,” the New York Times intoned in an editorial called “In Praise of the Counterculture”:

... have seen such a rich fulfillment of the informing ideals of personal freedom and creativity that lie at the heart of the American intellectual tradition. ... The 60’s spawned a new morality-based politics that emphasized the individual’s responsibility to speak out against injustice and corruption.

A “new morality-based politics,” eh? It seems so long ago, shrouded in a Day-Glo glaze of grateful recollection. But when it comes to the Sixties, and especially the fulcrum year of 1968, Time magazine is right: “50 Years After 1968, We Are Still Living In Its Shadow.” Indeed, paroxysms of the 1960s, which trembled with gathering force through North America and Western Europe from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, continue to reverberate throughout our culture. The Age of Aquarius did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. It lives on in our values and habits, in our tastes, pleasures, and aspirations. It lives on especially in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog.

Even now it is difficult to gauge the extent of that transformation. Looking back over his long and distinguished career in an essay called “A Life of Learning,” the philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller sounded a melancholy note. “We have witnessed,” he wrote, “what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time, and no indication that it will be overcome in the foreseeable future.”

In democratic societies, where free elections are guaranteed, political revolution is almost unthinkable in practical terms. Consequently, utopian efforts to transform society have been channeled into cultural and moral life. In America and Western Europe, scattered if much-publicized episodes of violence have wrought far less damage than the moral and intellectual assaults that do not destroy buildings but corrupt sensibilities and blight souls. Consequently, the success of the cultural revolution of the 1960s can be measured not in toppled governments but in shattered values. If we often forget what great changes this revolution brought in its wake, that, too, is a sign of its success: having changed ourselves, we no longer perceive the extent of our transformation.

In his reflections on the life of learning, Kristeller was concerned primarily with the degradation of intellectual standards that this cultural revolution brought about. “One sign of our situation,” he noted, “is the low level of our public and even of our academic discussion. The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, or rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling.” Who can disagree?

As Kristeller suggests, however, the intellectual wreckage visited upon our educational institutions and traditions of scholarship is only part of the story. There are also social, political, and moral dimensions to the cultural revolution of the Sixties -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the spiritual deformations we have witnessed are global, and affect every aspect of life. Writing in The Totalitarian Temptation, Jean-François Revel noted that “a revolution is not simply a new political orientation. It works through the depths of society. It writes the play in which political leaders will act much later.”

The movement for sexual “liberation” (not to say outright debauchery) occupies a prominent place in the etiology of this revolution, as does the mainstreaming of the drug culture and its attendant pathologies. Indeed, the two are related. Both are expressions of the narcissistic hedonism that was an important ingredient of the counterculture from its development in the 1950s. The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse was not joking when, in Eros and Civilization -- one of many inspirational tracts for the movement -- he extolled the salvational properties of “primary narcissism” as an effective protest against the “repressive order of procreative sexuality.”  “The images of Orpheus and Narcissus reconcile Eros and Thanatos,” Marcuse wrote. “They recall the experience of a world that is not to be mastered and controlled but to be liberated: ... the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradise -- the Nirvana principle not as death but as life.”

The succeeding decades showed beyond cavil that the pursuit of “the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time” was narcissistic in a far more common sense than Marcuse suggested. It turned out to be a form of death-in-life, not “paradise.”

One of the most conspicuous, and conspicuously jejune, features of the cultural revolution of the 1960s has been the union of such hedonism with a species of radical (or radical-chic) politics. This union fostered a situation in which, as the famous slogan put it, “the personal is the political.” The politics in question was seldom more than a congeries of radical clichés, serious only in that it helped to disrupt society and blight a good many lives. In that sense, to be sure, it proved to be very serious indeed.

Apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, the behavior of the “revolutionaries” of the counterculture consistently exhibited that most common of bourgeois passions, anti-bourgeois animus -- expressed, as always, safely within the swaddling clothes of bourgeois security. As Allan Bloom, recalling Nietzsche, put it in The Closing of the American Mind, the cultural revolution proved to be so successful on college campuses partly because of “the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bourgeois, to have dangerous experiments with the unlimited. ... Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the Last Man.” It almost goes without saying that, like all narcotics, the opiate of anti-bourgeois ire was both addictive and debilitating.

Like Falstaff’s dishonesty, the adolescent quality of these developments was “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” If America’s cultural revolution was anything, it was an attack on maturity: more, it was a glorification of youth, of immaturity. As the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin put it: “We’re permanent adolescents.” The real victory of the “youth culture” of the Sixties lay not in the fact that its demands were met but in the fact that its values and attitudes were adopted by the culture at large. Rubin again: “Satisfy our demands, and we’ve got twelve more. The more demands you satisfy, the more we got.” Everywhere one looks one sees the elevation of youth -- that is to say, of immaturity -- over experience. It may seem like a small thing that nearly everyone of whatever age dresses in blue jeans now; but the universalization of that sartorial badge of the counterculture speaks volumes. At the end of The Revolt of the Masses, his prescient 1930 essay on the direction of culture, José Ortega y Gasset noted that: “Though it may appear incredible, ‘youth’ has become a chantage [blackmail]; we are in truth living in a time when this adopts two complementary attitudes, violence and caricature.”

The idealization of youth has resulted not only in the spread of adolescent values and passions: it has also led to the eclipse of adult virtues like circumspection, responsibility, and restraint. Writing about the cultural revolution in his book The Undoing of Thought, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut described this eclipse as “the triumph of babydom over thought”:

Today youth is the categorical imperative of all the generations. ... People in their forties are teenagers who have not grown up. ... It is no longer the case that adolescents take refuge in their collective identity, in order to get away from the world; rather it is an infatuated world which pursues adolescence. ... The long process of the conversion to hedonism and consumerism of Western societies has culminated today in the worship of juvenile values. The bourgeois is dead, long live the adolescent.

The effect of these developments on cultural life in the West has been immense. One of the most far-reaching and destructive effects has been the simultaneous glorification and degradation of popular culture. Even as the most ephemeral and intellectually vacuous products of pop culture -- rock videos, comic books, television sit-coms -- are enlisted as fit subjects for the college curriculum, so, too, has the character of popular culture itself become ever more vulgar, vicious, and degrading.

A watershed moment came with the apotheosis of the Beatles in the mid-1960s. There is no denying that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were talented songwriters, or that the Beatles (and their technicians) brought a new sophistication and inventiveness to rock music. It is also worth noting that in their proclamations of peace and love (blissed-out on drugs, but still) the Beatles stood in stark contrast to the more diabolical pronouncements of many other rock stars preaching a nihilistic gospel of (as the Rolling Stones put it) “Let It Bleed” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Nevertheless, the Beatles, like other rock musicians, were unmistakably prophets of Dionysian excess; and they were all the more effective on account of their occasional tunefulness and their cuddly image. The dangerous Dionysianism, however, was overlooked in the rush to acclaim them geniuses. Even today, some of the claims made for the Beatles are breathtaking. The literary critic Richard Poirier was hardly the only academic to make a fool of himself slobbering over the Fab Four. But his observation that “sometimes they are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s” in Partisan Review in 1967 did establish a standard of fatuity that has rarely been surpassed.

Unfortunately, the more popular culture has been raised up -- the more vigorously it has been championed by the cultural elite -- the lower popular culture has sunk. At the same time, though -- and this is one of the most insidious effects of the whole process -- the integrity of high culture itself has been severely compromised by the mindless elevation of pop culture. The academic enfranchisement of popular culture has meant not only that trash has been mistaken for great art, but also that great art has been treated as if it were trash. When Allen Ginsberg (for example) is upheld in the classroom as a “great poet” comparable to Shakespeare, the very idea of greatness is rendered unintelligible and high art ceases to function as an ideal. To quote Alain Finkielkraut again:

It is not just that high culture must be demystified, brought remorselessly down to the level of the sort of everyday gestures which ordinary people perform in obscurity; sport, fashion, and leisure now lay claim to high cultural status. ... [I]f you cannot accept that the author of the Essais [i.e., Montaigne] and a television personality, or a meditation designed to uplift the spirit and a spectacle calculated to brutalize, belong in the same cultural bracket; if you refuse, even though one is white and the other black, to equate Beethoven and Bob Marley -- then you belong, quite irredeemably, to the party of the bastards ( salauds) and the kill-joys.

In addition to its general coarsening effect on cultural life, this triumph of vulgarity has helped to pave the way for the success of the twin banes of political correctness and radical multiculturalism. The abandonment of intrinsic standards of achievement creates (in Hermann Broch’s phrase) a “value vacuum” in which everything is sucked through the sieve of politics and the ideology of victimhood. Thus it is that vanguard opinion champions the idea of “art” as a realm of morally unassailable privilege even as it undermines the realities that make artistic achievement possible: technique, a commitment to beauty, a grounding in tradition. Art retains its status as a source of spiritual uplift, however dubious, yet it also functions as an exercise of politics by other means.

Most of today’s college students were not even born when the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, let along when Saigon fell in 1975. To the present generation, the Sixties and all it represented seem like nostalgic snapshots from a bygone era, images cast in sepia. Yet despite the placidity of our own prosperous times, the radical, emancipationist assaults of the Sixties are not confined to the past. Robert Bork’s description of our situation as a “slouching towards Gomorrah” is melodramatic but not, I think, inaccurate. In “The Sixties,” Judge Bork wrote:

... may be seen in the universities as a mini-French Revolution that seemed to fail but did not. The radicals were not defeated by a conservative or traditionally liberal opposition but by their own graduation from the universities. And theirs was merely a temporary defeat. They and their ideology are all around us now.

That ideology has insinuated itself, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; it has significantly altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; it has played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom; it has undermined the claims of civic virtue and our national self-understanding; it has degraded the media, the entertainment industry, and popular culture, even our courts and the rule of law; it has helped to subvert museums and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting high culture. It has even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life: it has perverted our dreams as much as it has prevented us from attaining them.

By the late 1970s, after fantasies of overt political revolution faded, many student radicals urged their followers to undertake the “long march through the institutions.” The phrase, popularized by the German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke, is often attributed to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci -- an unimpeachable authority for countercultural standard-bearers. But of course the phrase also carries the aura of an even higher authority: that of Mao Tse-tung and his long march and cultural revolution.

In the context of Western societies, “the long march through the institutions” signified -- in the words of Herbert Marcuse -- ”working against the established institutions while working in them.” It was primarily by this means -- by insinuation and infiltration rather than confrontation -- that the countercultural dreams of radicals like Marcuse have triumphed. Bellbottoms, long hair, and incense were dispensable props; crucial was the hedonistic antinomianism they symbolized. In this sense, countercultural radicalism has come more and more to define the dominant culture even as the memory of student strikes and demonstrations fades under the distorting glaze of nostalgia. For examples, you need look no further than the curriculum of your local school or college, at what is on offer at the nearest museum or radio station: indeed, you need look no further than your workplace, your church (if you still go to church), or your family to see evidence of the damage wrought by the long march of the counterculture. The radical ethos of the Sixties can be felt throughout public and private life, from the most ordinary domestic situations all the way up the political ladder.

The grisly political history of the recent past also reminds us of the extent to which the totalitarian impulse appeals to liberation in its effort to expunge genuine liberty. Again and again we have seen the promise of liberation dissolve into outright tyranny. The totalitarian impulse occupies a prominent place in most revolutionary movements, cultural as well as political. Think, for example, of the Marxist-inspired tyranny visited upon Russia in 1917 or the megalomaniacal Rousseauvian variety that tore France apart in 1789. Indeed, the political fantasies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau have a great deal to answer for. For two centuries, his sentimentalizing utopian rhetoric has provided despots of all description with a means of pursuing conformity while praising freedom.

It is a neat trick. Words like “freedom” and “virtue” were ever on Rousseau’s lips. But freedom for him was a chilly abstraction; it applied to mankind as an idea, not to individual men. “I think I know man,” Rousseau sadly observed near the end of his life, “but as for men, I know them not.” In the Confessions, he claimed to be “drunk on virtue.” And indeed, it turned out that “virtue” for Rousseau had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others. On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness. For Rousseau, as for the countercultural radicals who followed him, “feeling good about yourself” was synonymous with moral rectitude. Actually behaving well was irrelevant if not, indeed, a sign of “inauthenticity” because it suggested a concern for conventional approval. Virtue in this Rousseauvian sense is scarcely distinguishable from moral intoxication. Anyone who has contemplated the suppression of free speech in the name of sensitivity and identity politics on our college campuses will understand what I mean.

Establishing the reign of virtue is no easy task, as Rousseau’s avid disciple Maximilien Robespierre discovered to his chagrin. All those “particular wills” -- i.e., individual men and women with their diverse aims and desires -- are so recalcitrant and so ungrateful for one’s efforts to make them virtuous. Still, one does what one can to convince them to conform. And the guillotine, of course, is a great expedient. Robespierre was no political philosopher. But he understood the nature of Rousseau’s idea of virtue with startling clarity, as he showed when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” It is a remark worthy of Lenin, and a grim foreshadowing of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric that informed a great deal of Sixties radicalism.

I mention Rousseau here because, acknowledged or not, he is an important intellectual and moral grandfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960s. (Important “fathers” include Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.) Rousseau’s narcissism and megalomania, his paranoia, his fantastic political ideas and sense of absolute entitlement, his sentimentalizing nature-worship, even his twisted, hypertrophied eroticism: all reappeared updated in the tumult of the 1960s. And so did the underlying totalitarian impulse that informs Rousseau’s notion of freedom.

The glorification of such spurious freedom is closely connected with another misuse of language -- one of the most destructive: the description of irresponsible political naiveté as a form of “idealism.” Nor is it only naïveté that gets the extenuating absolution of “idealism.” So do all manner of crimes, blunders, and instances of brutality: all can be morally sanitized by the simple expedient of being re-baptized as examples of (perhaps misguided) “idealism.” The one essential qualification is that the perpetrator be identified with the political Left. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt -- who was certainly no enemy of the Left herself -- cannily observed that

... one has often been struck by the peculiar selflessness of the revolutionists, which should not be confused with “idealism” or heroism. Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau, and it is the equation which has put, as it were, its indelible stamp upon the revolutionary man and his innermost conviction that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will.

In fact, the “peculiar selflessness” that Arendt describes often turns out to be little more than an abdication of individual responsibility abetted by utter self-absorption. It is a phenomenon that, among other things, helps to explain the queasy-making spectacle of left-wing Western intellectuals falling over themselves in a vain effort to excuse, mitigate, or sometimes simply deny the crimes of the Soviet Union and other murderous left-wing regimes throughout the Cold War and beyond. Perhaps we can admit that Stalin (or Mao or Pol Pot or Fidel or whoever) was repressive (or maybe that is just an ugly rumor propagated by the United States); perhaps he “went too far”; maybe some measures were “extreme”; this or that policy was “misjudged”; ... but omelettes require breaking a few eggs ... and besides, what glorious ideas are equality, community, the brotherhood of man ... going beyond capitalistic greed, mere selfish individualism, repressive patriarchal society based on inequitable division of labor, etc., etc. The odor of piety that attends these rituals of exculpation is almost as disagreeable as the aura of grotesque unreality that emanates from them.

One sees the same thing in another key in the left-liberal response to cultural revolution of the 1960s. Whatever criticisms might be made of the counterculture, they are quickly neutralized by invoking the totem of “idealism.” For example, one is regularly told that youth in the 1960s and 1970s, whatever its extravagances and sillinesses, had a “passionate belief” (the beliefs of radicals are never less than “passionate”) in a “better world,” in a “more humane society,” in “equality.” The guiding assumption is that “passion” redeems moral vacuity, rendering it noble or at least exempting it from censure. This assumption, which is part of the Romantic background of the counterculture, is profoundly mistaken and destructive. As T. S. Eliot observed, the belief that there is “something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake, whatever the emotion or whatever the object,” is “a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age.” It is also, he noted, “a symptom of decadence.” For it is “by no means self-evident,” Eliot wrote:

... that human beings are most real when they are most violently excited; violent physical passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behavior of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts. Furthermore, strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men, those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning.

“Passion,” like “idealism,” is a nostrum that the Left prescribes in order to relieve itself from the burdens of moral accountability.

In a subtle essay called “Countercultures,” the political commentator Irving Kristol noted that the counterculture of the 1960s was in part a reaction against a society that had become increasingly secular, routinized, and crassly materialistic. In this respect, too, the counterculture can be understood as part of our Romantic inheritance, a plea for freedom and transcendence in a society increasingly dominated by the secular forces of Enlightenment rationality. Indeed, revolts of this tenor have been a staple of Romanticism since the nineteenth century: Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” who seeks refuge from the imperatives of reason in willful arbitrariness, is only one example (a rather grim one) among countless others.

The danger, Kristol notes, is that the counterculture, in its attack on secular materialism, “will bring down -- will discredit -- human things that are of permanent importance. A spiritual rebellion against the constrictions of secular humanism could end up ... in a celebration of irrationalism and a derogation of reason itself.” At a time when the radical tenets of the counterculture have become so thoroughly established and institutionalized in cultural life -- when they have, in fact, come more and more to define the tastes, habits, and attitudes of the dominant culture -- unmasking illegitimate claims to “liberation” and bogus feats of idealism emerges as a prime critical task.

To an extent scarcely imaginable thirty years ago, we now live in that “moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” The long march of the cultural revolution of the 1960s has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of all but the most starry-eyed utopians. The great irony is that this victory took place in the midst of a significant drift to the center-Right in electoral politics. The startling and depressing fact is that supposedly conservative victories at the polls have done almost nothing to challenge the dominance of left-wing, emancipationist attitudes and ideas in our culture. On the contrary, in the so-called “culture wars,” conservatives have been conspicuous losers.

One sign of that defeat has been the fate of the culture wars themselves. One hears considerably less about those battles today than a decade ago. That is partly because, as Robert Novak notes in his book Completing the Revolution, “moral issues tend to exhaust people over time.” Controversies that only yesterday sparked urgent debate today seem, for many, strangely beside the point. There is also the issue of material abundance. For if the Sixties were an assault on the moral substance of traditional culture, they nonetheless abetted the capitalist culture of accumulation. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are unimportant to the overall picture. Indeed, it happened that the cultural revolution was most damaging precisely where, in material terms, it was most successful. This put many conservatives in an awkward position. For conservatives have long understood that free markets and political liberty go together. What if it turned out that free markets plus the cultural revolution of the Sixties added up to moral and intellectual poverty?

It is both ironical and dispiriting to realize that the counterculture may have won its most insidious victories not among its natural sympathizers on the Left but, on the contrary, among those putatively conservative opponents who can no longer distinguish between material affluence and the moral good. In other words, it may be that what the Sixties have wrought above all is widespread spiritual anesthesia. To a degree frightening to contemplate, we have lost that sixth sense that allows us to discriminate firmly between civilization and its discontents. That this loss goes largely unlamented and even unnoticed is a measure of how successful the long march of the cultural revolution has been.