To many people today, the 1960s are ancient history, and neither history nor the past registers strongly with the present-obsessed myopia of our time. Yet the past is always the key to the present. And no one can understand the present crisis in the United States and the West without understanding the ’60s.
Western civilization is in decline, and its lead society, the American republic, is as deeply divided as at any time since just before the Civil War. But why? Is it simply a clash between the “coastals” (New York and California) and the “heartlanders” (the Midwest and the South), or between the “nationalists and populists” (President Trump’s “forgotten people”) and the “globalists” (the George Soros–like Western elites)? There are multiple causes for this deep and bitter polarization, but the deepest of all has been almost completely overlooked—and the ’60s quickly sped up this process. The ultimate source of the current divisions in America is differing notions of freedom between those who think of freedom in terms of the American Revolution and its heirs, and those who think of freedom in terms of the French Revolution and its heirs.
The past is always the key to the present. And no one can understand the present crisis in the United States and the West without understanding the ’60s.
Reflect on ideas such as “progressivism,” “postmodernism,” “political correctness,” “identity and tribal politics,” or the “sexual revolution.” Think about socialism’s recent popularity surge or the leftward drift of the Democratic Party and many in the media. It quickly becomes clear that these ideas have little or nothing to do with 1776 and the American Revolution and its views of freedom. These are rooted in ideas that come directly or indirectly from the French Revolution in 1789, the French Enlightenment, and its later heirs, such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, Saul Alinsky, and Michel Foucault.
Hence the significance of the 1960s and its expression of the “revolutionary faith” that has flowed down from the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The “seismic sixties”—with their “youthquake” (Christopher Booker), “the making of a counter-culture” (Theodore Roszak), and “the greening of America” (Charles Reich)—was the decade when the radical ideas first broke through into mainstream American thinking and life. Even more importantly, the ’60s were the years when many of the seeds of today’s most radical ideas were sown, only to flower more recently in their most destructive forms, such as the extremes of “transgenderism” and the violence of the “Antifa” movement.
My 1973 book The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counterculture and How It Changed America Forever was a journalistic attempt to do justice to the immensity of what I had witnessed in my first visit to the United States in 1968. Nothing prepared me for the impact of that first visit. That year was later described as America’s annus calamitous. “Like a knife-blade,” Time magazine’s Lance Morrow wrote of 1968, “the year severed past from future.” Historian Sydney Ahlstrom described the decade as “a decisive turning point in American history.” George Will called 1968 “perhaps the worst year in American history” and described the ’60s as “the most dangerous decade in America’s life as a nation.”
The horror of the My Lai massacre had been uncovered; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April; Senator Robert Kennedy was killed in July; more than a hundred American cities were burning after the protests; and the anti-Vietnam War movement was surging. In May, French president Charles de Gaulle’s government had been brought to its knees by student-led radical protests, and many hoped the same would happen to the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The ’60s were the years when many of the seeds of today’s most radical ideas were sown, only to flower more recently in their most destructive forms, such as the extremes of ‘transgenderism’ and the violence of the ‘Antifa’ movement.
To be sure, many of the iconic events of the late ’60s and early ’70s were still to come—the euphoria of the Woodstock festival in August 1969, the violence at the Rolling Stones’s Altamont concert in December 1969, the Kent State massacre in May 1970, the startling eruption of the Jesus Movement, and the like. But 1968 was enough to stop me in my tracks. The counterculture was coursing powerfully, but the radicals, their cheerleaders, their anxious handwringing opponents, and commentators such as Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich were wrong. The dream of revolution and the hopes for a successful counterculture would not and could not succeed the way they were going. Conservatives in the 1980s were equally wrong to crow that they were “dancing on the grave of the sixties,” but it was already evident by 1968 that the ideas of the ’60s were radical and powerful but fatally flawed. Marcel Proust’s “dust of death” began to settle over the dreams and passions of the ’60s, prefiguring its end.
Hindsight Is 20/20
There are many things I see more clearly now than I saw in 1971, and there are things I would write differently. Cultural analysis is never Olympian. It’s not only about a particular time and place, but it’s written from a particular time and place, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The Dust of Death was an analysis of the ’60s from the vantage point of the ’60s. Each succeeding year could write the story of the ’60s from its own perspectives. But that would be tedious. Better by far to acknowledge the time and place of any analysis, and then to ask whether its arguments and conclusions still hold.
In this case, I think the central argument of the book has stood the test of time—in contrast, say, to what can now be seen as the utopian dreaming of some books from the ’60s.
There are areas, of course, where I would write things differently were I writing it today. First, for all the consciousness-raising of the 1960s, terms such as “man,” “modern man,” and “Western man” were still commonly used in ways unthinkable today. Similarly, I’ve since joined those who use the term “Christian faith” rather than “Christianity.” I find the progression from “Christ” to “Christian” to “Christianity” to be a movement toward impersonality and abstraction, both ideologically and institutionally.
Second, I over-relied on the history of ideas as a tool. Today, I would see the complementary approach of the sociology of knowledge as equally important. The former works top-down, from thinkers to their influence on the everyday world (how ideas wash down in the rain), whereas the latter works bottom-up, from the everyday world to its influence on the thinking and living of all of us, thinkers included. For a generation shaped as much by television and the pill as by Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, the neglect of the sociology of knowledge was a serious mistake.
Third, I would be more careful today in my use of the notion of a “third way.” To be sure, the precedent of the early Christian movement as a “third race” between unwelcome extremes is inspiring, and once again important. At the same time, the notion of a third way and tactics—such as President Clinton’s celebrated “triangulation”—has little to do with principle and everything to do with an unprincipled splitting of differences. Worse still, I didn’t mean that followers of Jesus should leave all other groups and parties and work only for a movement that is expressly and distinctively Christian. As critics have pointed out, this misunderstanding lacks realism, and it leads to what has been justifiably dismissed as “helicopter thinking.” In the search for a clear, pure Christian position, many Christians remain hovering in midair and fail to make necessary choices in public policy issues. That said, the inspiration for the notion of a “third way” and its relevance in a world of idolatry, polarization, and extremism is as strong as ever.
Grand (and Long) March
There’s a fourth and crucial area where hindsight has proved critical. That point lies in understanding “the long march through the institutions.” Ever since 1789, “the grand march” has described the forward progress of “revolutionary faith” and its dream of fraternity, equality, and unity. The long march is, importantly, different. Rudi Dutschke, leader of West Germany’s Red Brigade, introduced this phrase to promulgate the tactics he urged the radical Left to take after the failure of the counterculture. The allusion was to Mao Zedong’s Long March in China in 1934, in which Mao escaped the encircling army of the Nationalists, marched 6,000 miles through the mountains to the north, and regrouped to sweep down through China and win the final Communist victory in 1949.
Antonio Gramsci, in the 1920s, sitting in jail under Mussolini, reformulated Marx’s failed revolutionary vision into what is known as cultural Marxism. In his Prison Notebooks, he argued that the revolution should be slow and incremental. Its goal must be to gain dominance (“cultural hegemony”) in the “ruling class” through penetrating the “gatekeepers” and the “switch points” in society—first “demoralizing” the previous leaders of the ruling class, and then slowly replacing them with new revolutionary ideas and narratives. If revolutionaries were to gain “mastery of human consciousness” in this way, they wouldn’t need concentration camps and mass murder. Thus, in Dutschke’s words, “Revolution is not a short act when something happens once and then everything is different. Revolution is a long and complicated process.”
Although it wasn’t evident at the time, the ’60s sowed the poison seeds that are producing today’s bitter harvest. The roots of those ideas predate the ’60s, but it was in the ’60s where these ideas became dangerous.
Fifty years later, it’s clear that the long march through the institutions has succeeded. Academia, media, and Hollywood all reflect the thinking of the heirs of 1789, rather than the ideals of 1776. America has been bewitched. The republic is in the process of switching revolutions from the American to the French. I’ve attempted to address this present predicament in my 2018 book, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat. The salient point here is that, although it wasn’t evident at the time, the ’60s sowed the poison seeds that are producing today’s bitter harvest. The roots of those ideas predate the ’60s, but it was in the ’60s where they became dangerous.
In sum, the 1960s were a fascinating era—colorful, passionate, noisy, angry, intoxicating, and earth-shaking all at once. But their significance is more than political, cultural, or historical. It was the period that shaped the lives, faith, hopes, experiences, and horizons of a generation—a generation that in the ’60s and early ’70s were students, but are now the leaders and gatekeepers of the nation.
In one way or another, we’re all children of the ’60s today, and we need to assess the best and worst of the legacy given us by that decisive decade.
The Gospel Coalition