What did the '60s leave us?

Issue 

By Jeremy Smith

Anti-disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism
By Julie Stevens
Cambridge University Press, 1998. $29.95

Yippies to yuppies, students to stockbrokers, hippies to entrepreneurs, grand narratives to relativism. Did the '60s "fail"?

Since the 1980s, a flurry of retrospectives have speculated on the legacy of the 1960s movements. It has been a one-sided attempt to negate the anti-capitalist challenge of those movements.

Recollections of the "lost" radicalism of the allegedly naive baby boomers have either a romantic or disparaging tone. But, as Julie Stephens argues in this important book, this does not do justice to the complexities of '60s radicalism, nor does it address its intricate but neglected legacies.

Stephens bitingly criticises the selective reminiscences of post-'60s commentary, but she also raises questions for the left that she provides no answers for.

Postmodernism is a theme, as the postmodernists themselves often trace their origins to the '60s. However, it is also a theme because in the "postmodern" 1980s, the 1960s were pronounced dead. Stevens' argument is launched with a critique of the "success/failure paradigm" in which the balance sheet of the decade is variously drawn up.

Stephens says that accounts which focus on the '60s successes often read revolutionary objectives into the activity of all US youth. On the other hand, those who believe it "failed" — Stephens' main concern — are quick to blame the grand narrative of Marxism for this failure. By implication, such postmodernist retrospectives celebrate the May 1968 revolt in France as the end of socialism as a project and the beginning of the proliferation of identities as sources of political loyalty.

Neither approach tells us much, according to Stephens. But rather than measuring the '60s against a standard of traditional political objectives, Stephens argues, following French academic Michel Foucault, that baby boomer radicalism should be understood as "anti-disciplinary politics".

Anti-disciplinary politics collapsed politics into art, culture, everyday life and ambiguity (or what the postmodernists now term "irony"). On this basis, the '60s succeeded, according to Stevens, and that's why postmodernist views flourish today.

This may be true, to a point, but what about those who did remain active, the activists of the 1970s and 1980s? One other retrospective, the documentary Berkeley in the 60s, focuses on less tragic figures than Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. Some of these lesser souls have continued because of their seriousness about politics. There are lessons in this for radicals of the 1990s, who can scarcely afford some of the theatre of the 1960s.

An alternative assessment of the period can point to its significance for the 1970s women's liberation movement, 1980s anti-nuclear movement and 1990s environmental movement. Beyond this, the '60s should be remembered for reinvigorating the socialist project; new activists embraced the idea of socialism and drove it in an anti-Stalinist direction.

While Stephens rightly talks about the rich heterogeneity of the '60s, she is silent on this component of it. She is quick to distinguish between different strands of anti-disciplinary politics, but does no such favour to the left, except to separate "old" and "new" left. The differences between old Stalinism and youthful Maoism, the many anti-Stalinist, Trotskyist and anarchist groupings, emerging currents of feminism and the new left of social democracy (although limited in the US) do not receive such attention. The "disciplinary" left sits at the margins.

Yet the book does have a good deal going for it. Fascinating chapters on Westerners' romance with India and the yippies' tragic (and anti-disciplinary) attempts to resist cooption are recommended. The overall argument is that the 1960s should not be forgotten in the rush of enthusiasm for postmodernity.

Stephens is no fan of postmodernism; she highlights how perplexing the concept and the theories revolving around it are. However, she does not belong formally in the camp of Marxism.

And important questions remain unaddressed. Why did the May 1968 revolt not achieve a deeper transformation? What about the momentous "disciplinary" movements for civil rights and women's liberation that emerged in the mid-to-late 1960s?

And what about the '60s in France, Italy, England, Australia, Mexico, Chile? Their experiences seem to have differed from those in the economically prosperous US. The 1960s should be explained as an international phenomenon, which means going beyond odd references to events in France and reminders that the socialist tradition in the US barely survived McCarthyism.

These questions are important not only because they might settle historical curiosity but also because they have important lessons for the radicals of the 1990s. But contemporary radicalism is not an issue in Anti-disciplinary Protest. If it were, the angle of the argument would shift dramatically and we might have a better source of understanding both postmodernism and the 1960s children of the revolution.