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Vol. 6, No. 4 - May/June 1996  
Who Owns The Sixties?
The opening of a scholarly generation gap
By Rick Perlstein

ON AUGUST 13, 1994, some quarter- million pilgrims journeyed to upstate New York to experience Woodstock II. They were searching for the spirit of the Sixties. What they found was a messy debate over whether that staggeringly commercialized event was a proper tribute to the decade, or its proper burial.

For many Sixties faithful, the commemoration was plainly a sacrilege, and it fell to Maurice Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College, to explain why the original Woodstock was superior. "Partially by design, partially by accident," he wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the 1969 Woodstock "evoked and jumbled together many of the most cherished myths enshrined in the national self-image: self-reliance, agrarian simplicity, and providential mission" -- this "despite the entrepreneurial ambitions of its promoters, its slick promotion, and the miracles of sound technology and stagecraft which made it possible."

Another historian, however, begged to differ. "Most of the big figures at Woodstock in 1969 were hucksters," insisted Thomas Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in a Washington Post story the same day. "They were trying to make a buck and trying to make a name." And what of those who cherish memories of Woodstock as the apotheosis of the good, the true, and the libidinal? "It was just a rock concert," said the professor, "and it was memorable for two reasons: because there were gate crashers, and because the weather was bad."

Isserman, now forty-nine, had been a reveler at Max Yasgur's farm and a member of Students for a Democratic Society. Sugrue, who is thirty-three, says his most powerful Sixties memory is of watching National Guard tanks roll down the riot-torn streets of his Detroit neighborhood; he was five years old at the time. Isserman and Sugrue are both historians of the Sixties, and they are contending over the interpretation of a decade that remains among the most powerful historical reference points in American politics. That grand theme of the 1960s -- the generation gap -- has come to Sixties scholarship, and it has come to stay.

FEW HISTORIANS ARE MORE aware of this gap, or have done more to widen it, than David Farber, who, at thirty-nine, is the elder statesman of the post-Sixties Sixties interpreters. His first book, Chicago '68 (Chicago, 1988), presented that year's tempestuous Democratic National Convention from three different sympathetically presented perspectives: the protesters who came to Chicago to disrupt the convention, the cops who beat them, and the Daley administration officials who presided over the whole mess. "I don't know if my book was the very first of its kind," says Farber in the faculty cafeteria at Barnard College, where he is assistant professor of history. "But it was certainly among the first studies to treat the Sixties as an era, an era that is over."

When Farber's book was published, a review in the Village Voice by baby-boomer novelist Carol Anshaw brooked no such revisionism. Next to sidebars of dewy Sixties reminiscences by Voice staffers ("I was plotting the overthrow of my high school," began one), Anshaw argued that "perhaps [Farber] wasn't the person to write this book." His study didn't convince, she harrumphed, because he "had no experience of a decade that was primarily experiential."

At the Barnard cafeteria, Farber recalls snatches of this seven-year-old review verbatim: "She said that the book was 'dangerous' for 'giving the establishment its due.'" He pauses, and continues: "I think the Sixties generation of activists saw themselves as acting in history. 'The Whole World Is Watching' -- they were literally chanting it in the streets. And that's the irony that's heated up this debate so much. Because in the end, well, maybe they weren't the historical agents of change quite as much as they hoped."

For Farber, this irony has powerful consequences for his generation of scholars. The task of writing about the Sixties, Farber argued in a 1994 polemic in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "has been generational politics within the academy, as older scholars who participated in the Sixties defend interpretations that stem from their own experiences." His conclusion: "People in the academy are kidding themselves if they believe that a young scholar is not bucking the already long odds of finding and keeping a decent job if he or she challenges certain myths of the Sixties."

Not surprisingly, many of the tenured radicals beg to differ. Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at NYU and a former president of SDS, admires Farber's scholarly work. But he finds Farber's assault on his elders in the Chronicle to be "reeking of resentment," and rooted in a mythologization of its own: "It's conventional for young people today," says Gitlin, "to say that the Sixties people, whoever they were, had all the fun, and none of the AIDS, and were cushioned by endless prosperity."

Whatever the merit of Farber's charges, there's little doubt that younger scholars are challenging "myths of the Sixties" from any number of -- often contradictory -- angles. Some argue that the New Left was far broader-based than previously supposed. Others suggest that its base, and its impact, was extremely narrow. Still others believe that the real story of the Sixties was the rise of a grassroots, antiestablishment movement called...the New Right.

DUSTUPS OVER "THE SIXTIES" are as old as the Sixties themselves. In 1960, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills boasted in his "Letter to the New Left" that, after decades of left-wing doldrums, radicalized students were finally turning the political tide against an entrenched liberalism. A book published the same year by M. Stanton Evans concurred, sort of. In Revolt on Campus, Evans argued that students' frustrations "with the conformity of liberalism" promised that the Sixties would be the decade of student conservatism.

By the early Seventies, though, a consensus about the decade had begun to form in the scholarly literature: A salutary upsurge of democratic promise at the beginning of the Sixties was subverted by the dark seeds contained within it. That unsparing thesis was codified most influentially by Rice historian Allen J. Matusow in his magisterial 1983 work, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (HarperPerennial). Matusow laid the decline of America's grand liberal tradition at the feet of student radicalism's excesses; and he exerted a quiet influence on the writing of movement veterans such as Todd Gitlin, James Miller, and Maurice Isserman. In 1987, this trio's works appeared in rapid succession: Gitlin marched through the signal events of the decade in his encyclopedic The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam); Miller proffered a rich collective biography of SDS's early leadership in "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Simon & Schuster); and Isserman chronicled the political roots of the New Left in If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic). All three books related the story of the Sixties in terms of the inspiring rise and tragic fall of the student protest movement. They were sympathetic to student radicalism but sober-minded about its consequences. And, with their rich detail and acute analyses, they set a standard for the writing of Sixties history that has yet to be equaled.

The insider accounts of the Sixties kept on coming; more than a score appeared in 1987-1988 alone. And, for the most part, they followed the Gitlin-Miller-Isserman narrative arc, which has become known among historians as the "declension hypothesis." It goes something like this: As the Fifties grayly droned on, springs of contrarian sentiment began bubbling into the best minds of a generation raised in unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine. At the beginning of the Sixties, students went south to fight for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and came back to elite universities with the audacious goal of changing the world. They created new kinds of political organizations, foremost among them SDS, which were driven by a vague ideal called "participatory democracy." The new politics was to be scrupulously non-hierarchical and pragmatic, promising a humane alternative to both sectarian radicalism and technocratic liberalism.

Meanwhile, in a haze of marijuana smoke, the counterculture tested the limits of personal freedom. At first, the hippies maintained an arm's-length relationship with the politicos. But as the Vietnam War escalated, the line between activist and Aquarian began to blur -- to the detriment of each. Writers sympathetic to the counterculture believe it self-destructed under the pressures of politicization; New Leftists see their movement folding under a crush of countercultural hedonism. Both agree that the Movement ended five years before the Vietnam War did, in a blaze of numbskull adventurism and Maoist masquerade. ("The future of our movement," went one particularly unfortunate slogan, "is the future of crime in the streets.") When it was all over, the Sixties left behind as its bittersweet legacy an America both more free and more divided than ever before.

THAT'S A STORY, say the Young Turks, that's by turns misguided, distorted, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. Take the case of SDS. In the accounting of Gitlin, Isserman, and Miller, the radicals who built Students for a Democratic Society were, like their historians, secular, well-off denizens of elite universities like Harvard and Michigan, often Jewish, and typically refugees from either suburban ticky-tacky torpor or Old Communist Left families. Doug Rossinow, a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. who's finishing up a study of the SDS chapter in Austin, Texas, uncovers a different story. Rossinow is twenty-nine, and his attraction to his subject has little to do with any residual memories: "I never heard about SDS until I was in college. I got interested in this topic because I came across some reference to it in books, and there didn't seem to be a lot of scholarship."

When Rossinow set out to study the New Left, he chose to use a methodology born of the Sixties: he would write political history from the bottom up, from the experience of the rank and file rather than the leadership. Ironically, from Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS (1973) to Wini Breines's Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968 (1982) to James Miller's 1987 "Democracy Is in the Streets," historians had typically written the history of student radicalism as the story of its leaders. But notes Rossinow, "When you look at SDS from the grass roots, you find surprising things." For example: In Texas at least, the most important inspiration for SDS's put-your-body-on-the-line brand of radicalism was not C. Wright Mills or Eldridge Cleaver, but the action-oriented Christianity imbibed at the local YMCA. With this point in mind, Rossinow presents the antiwar movement as one in a long line of Protestant reform movements stretching back to the American Revolution.

Rossinow's revisionist efforts are complemented by those of Ken Heineman, author of Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (NYU, 1995). Heineman, who comes from a blue-collar family and calls himself a "reluctant Republican," finds working-class folk conspicuously absent from the existing historiography (excepting the figure of Joe Sixpack, the Movement's archetypal proletarian spoiler). Yet kids from blue-collar backgrounds formed a large portion of the antiwar activists at the nonelite schools he studied: SUNY-Buffalo, Michigan State, Penn State.

And Kent State. Heineman challenges the conventional wisdom on the Ohio National Guard's 1970 massacre there. Conventionally, it was Kent State that brought the Sixties to the blue-collar belt. The university, remarks Todd Gitlin in The Sixties, "was a heartland school, far from elite, the very type of campus where Richard Nixon's 'silent majority' was supposed to be training." If such naked repression could be visited on such sleepy backwaters (four dead in Ohio, of all places), then few partisans of the Movement, and certainly none in its vanguard, could be safe from state terror.

The only problem with this interpretation, Heineman points out, is that Kent State was the movement's vanguard. Kent Staters protested for the right to organize on campus a full year before the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley supposedly gave birth to white student activism. The Ohio school's first antiwar group was founded a year ahead of Berkeley's. And Kent State students were even among the founders of SDS's ultravanguardist terrorist spin-off, the Weathermen.

Kent State also raises another pointed question: Did Sixties radicalism really implode at the end of the decade? Or might it, in fact, have expanded its reach in the Seventies? According to the declension narrative, Kent State and other end-of-the-decade disasters sounded the death knell for a broad-based popular movement to change American society (after the shootings, wrote James Miller, "the New Left collapsed, plummeting into cultural oblivion as if it had been some kind of political Hula-Hoop"). In a 1994 article in American Quarterly, Doug Rossinow challenges this downbeat assessment: "It is difficult to see how one can view the post-1968 Left as a complete disaster unless one is unsympathetic or unaware of the women's liberation movement, which first emerged in 1967-1968." America changed in the Sixties, Rossinow insists. Most palpably, it changed in its gender arrangements -- a shift in which the New Left and the counterculture played an important but limited role.

This argument about the broader, less visible influence of Sixties radicalism was made most pointedly by Sarah Evans in her 1979 book, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left (Vintage). Alice Echols, the author of Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minnesota, 1989), concurs: "For Gitlin and Miller et al., the tragedy of the late Sixties was the fracturing of the Movement. And the New Left pretty much does go up in flames. Even so, I think the only way that women could have their own movements, and black people and gay people" -- whose struggles likewise produced real changes in the structure of American society -- "was, unfortunately, outside the larger movement."

ALICE ECHOLS'S GUARDED OPTIMISM about the Sixties legacy is shared by many former activists. But what veteran would applaud the message of another camp of scholars, led by U. Penn's Thomas Sugrue, who argue that the Promethean adventures of the New Left and the counterculture aren't all that relevant to understanding the Sixties in the first place? "There's more to the Sixties than social movements," says Sugrue, "a lot more. Let's think about the Black Panthers as an example, or SDS. They had very small memberships. They were made a big deal of in the media in the 1960s. But if you think about the long-term consequences of those groups in building political organizations, their power isn't as great as it appears. To talk about black power, let's look at the election of blacks to local offices after the Voting Rights Act passed. It's not as glamorous a story as Huey Newton walking up the steps of the California state capitol with a rifle. But in many ways it's a far more important story for its enduring effect on American politics.

"Sixties historiography is still so limited," he adds, "and Sixties veterans still have the corner on the market." Sugrue's not just talking about the likes of Todd Gitlin and Maurice Isserman, but also about a group of influential writers that includes Allen Matusow, Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg (Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority), and Thomas and Mary Edsall (Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics). Call them the liberals-mugged-by-radicalism school: They see a Democratic Party that scared away its mass base when it veered from its early Sixties blend of Keynesian economics, labor-management cooperation, and racial integration toward a McGovernik capitulation to radicalism. Says Sugrue: "My argument" -- supported by his research on housing riots in Detroit since the Forties -- "is that white working-class and middle-class members of the Democratic coalition were always very tenuously allied to the liberal tradition."

One of the most powerful insights of new Sixties scholarship, then, may be that Reagan Democrats were a long time in the making. It was the nomination of Barry Goldwater, in 1964, after all, that first turned the Republican Party toward a right-wing populism cemented by "anti-Sixties" themes of law and order, patriotism, and "family values." This is the story told by Mary Brennan, a thirty-five-year old historian at Southwest Texas State University, in her book Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (North Carolina, 1995), one of many new projects that takes chronicling the rise of the new conservatism as a central task of Sixties history. Attention to social movements on the left, says Brennan, misses a scorching irony of the decade: The real masters of grassroots organizing were on the right. "Right-wingers succeeded by exploiting hitherto untapped sources of discontent," she notes. "Moreover, building a political movement from the bottom up allowed conservatives to...avoid the [Republican Party's] liberal-controlled national organization."

Brennan could, of course, have written pretty much the same thing about SDS and the Democrats. That irony has not been lost on sociologists of political movements. Rebecca Klatch, the UC-San Diego-based author of Women of the New Right (Temple, 1987), is just now finishing up a comparative study of activists in SDS and in Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative group formed in 1960 on William F. Buckley Jr.'s Sharon, Connecticut, estate. Klatch finds striking parallels, including the groups' common sense of generational mission and their shared revulsion (voiced in almost identical language) for the liberal managerial state. She has even uncovered a long-forgotten solidarity movement between the libertarian right and left, which had its own organ, the journal Left and Right.

Maybe M. Stanton Evans's quixotic prediction that the Sixties would be the decade of student conservatism wasn't so quixotic after all. Cadres of Young Americans for Freedom activists, Pat Buchanan among them, formed the shock troops for the right-wing capture of the GOP (and later the nation). Nine years after the publication of his book on the rise of SDS, it's a story that James Miller regrets having missed. "In terms of the political history of this country, the New Left just isn't an important story," he says. Focus on it, says Miller, and you "evade the extraordinary success of the forces that first supported Gold- water, then Reagan as governor of California, and then Wallace. I can't help but see that absence in the historiography as integral to the mythologization of the Sixties."

THE MYTHOLOGIZATION OF the Sixties: that, according to David Farber, is exactly what is still wrong with Sixties scholarship today. Is his charge fair? Certainly many of the Sixties insiders have written books that are fragrant with self-criticism. But are other New Leftists manning the barricades again, this time to fight a rearguard battle against revisionism?

Richard Ellis, a political scientist at Oregon's Willamette University, thinks so. He's completed several chapters of a study called The Illiberalism of Egalitarianism (forthcoming from UP Kansas). It's a carefully argued work that provides a theoretical buttress for James Miller's and Todd Gitlin's insights into the fall of SDS. Like Miller and Gitlin, Ellis believes that the group devolved into dogmatic factionalism because its commitment to internal democracy and moral purity frustrated its attempts to work democratic reform in the larger society. When he submitted a version of this argument to the Journal of American History in 1994, he says, "the three readers I could identify were former members of SDS. It's as if you were writing on the Reagan administration and the journal sent your paper to Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ed Meese, and Casper Weinberger!" (One vet's reader's report: "I don't think the author is asking the right questions and I disagree with her/his answers. I do not think her/his thesis is borne out by what I know.... I think it is a fundamental misreading of the New Left." The reviewer left it at that, without going on to explain what the right questions might be.)

It's hard enough to write the history of people who are still around to argue back; it's harder still if they're the ones who are evaluating your work professionally. Alice Echols tells a chastening story. Shortly after the publication of Daring to Be Bad, she learned that a Bay Area feminist study group was reading her book. At one meeting, says Echols, "a prominent women's historian said I'd written an inaccurate history." According to this critic, Echols had overplayed the women's movement's fractiousness. Other veteran activists in the study group disagreed -- their memories pretty much squared with Echols's account from the archives -- and eventually the dissenter came around and admitted that Echols's history was accurate. "But she said that even if the book were true, I shouldn't have written it."

Peter Braunstein, a graduate student at NYU who's writing a history of the counterculture as his dissertation, calls this phenomenon "possessive memory," and has delivered a theoretical paper on the subject at several Sixties conferences. Participating in a sweeping social movement, he reasons, creates a sense of self-regeneration so powerful that it can become a constitutive part of the activist's later identity. Possessive memory, he writes, "leaves the person and his memories in a lover's embrace: The person is in possession of his memories, and no one else can touch them; at the same time, his memories are in possession of him."

Pity the poor young historian who tries to pry them loose. "You interview people who defined themselves by their orientation to the drug culture," Braunstein observes, "and you take out a copy of the East Village Other and say, 'Here you say that LSD is the solution to all the world's problems. What was going through your head back then?' They'll say that drugs were merely fourteenth on the list of motivating factors for the counterculture." Braunstein marvels at this kind of revisionism. Then again, perhaps it's not surprising that historians of psychedelia encounter a memory lapse or two along the way.

Whatever difficulties are posed by studying the counterculture, the subject looms larger in current scholarship than it once did. And much of the new work is dedicated to demystification. Never mind the glamor of Hendrix or Joplin. From the perspective of the Woodstock II generation, the Sixties counterculture doesn't look that radical at all. Tom Frank, editor of the cultural criticism journal The Baffler and a University of Chicago Ph.D., makes the now-familiar point that the Sixties' rebel mystique was better suited to retailing than to revolution. In a forthcoming book on Sixties advertising to be published by Chicago, he writes: "When business leaders cast their gaze onto the youth culture bubbling around them, they saw both a reflection of their own struggle against the stifling bureaucratic methods of the past and an affirmation of a new dynamic consumerism that must replace the old."

David Farber, for his part, seconds Frank's argument. He likes to explain Sixties libertinism by quoting Ernest Dichter, a prominent corporate consultant in the 1950s. "One of the basic problems of prosperity," Dichter wrote, "is to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to life is a moral and not an immoral one." This was the story corporate America was telling on the eve of the Sixties, says Farber, and it shouldn't be surprising that impressionable young Americans took businessmen at their word, with consequences Wall Street could neither have anticipated nor countenanced.

ONE MIGHT ASK, then: Is a Sixties bell-bottom merely a Fifties tail fin rendered in cloth? It's a question that's bound to rankle Sixties veterans, of both the reconstructed and unreconstructed varieties. After all, was there ever a society more self-conscious about its own historical identity, its role as an agent of history, than America in the Sixties? In January 1960, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in Esquire that "from the vantage point of the Sixties, the Fifties...will seem simply a listless interlude, quickly forgotten, in which the American people collected itself for greater exertions and higher splendors in the future." At the decade's close, a Berkeley DJ used to sign off his newscast in the same spirit: "If you don't like the news, make some of your own."

At their boldest, the Sixties revisionists say farewell to this brand of Sixties exceptionalism. They argue that, pace Schlesinger and that Berkeley DJ, the Sixties may not have been all that special in the first place; that "the Sixties" can't survive distanced scholarly treatment of the Sixties. SDS, for all its searing drama, was not something new in the world -- but just another religiously inflected reform movement like the teetotalers. Liberalism began its decline not in the Sixties but in the Forties. The counterculture was not a blot on the American creed but its apotheosis.

And, some add, only those who weren't part of the action have the perspective to see it all so clearly. "I teach a course on the Sixties now," says Thomas Sugrue. "But in fifty years there won't be courses on the history of America in the Sixties. When I look at the land of Leave It to Beaver, and then look at the Sixties, I see a bunch of commonalities. The Sixties memoir writers and historians see radical discontinuities. And that's because we're of different generations."

Different generations, perhaps; but ask Todd Gitlin, and he'll tell you that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Those who would normalize the Sixties may declare themselves impervious to the decade's blandishments. But this, says Gitlin, "sounds to me like an example of a parricidal impulse."

"It's reminiscent," he hastens to add, in the most piquant possible rebuttal to the Sixties revisionists' pretensions, "of one of the least attractive features of Sixties thinking."

Rick Perlstein is associate editor of Lingua Franca.


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