The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
By Todd Gitlin
Bantam Books, 513 pages, 24.95
YEARS OF Hope, Days of Rage, by Todd Gitlin '63, is a thoughtful and intricate study of Sixties radical politics and culture, melding vivid personal reminiscences of that most tumultuous of decades with rigorously acute political and social analysis. The author, currently a media critic and associate sociology professor at Berkeley, was one of the early presidents of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an organizer of the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War, and an observer or participant in many of the signature events of the decade.
In his patient and probing search for the Sixties zeitgeist, Gitlin devotes considerable space to the often uneasy relationship between radical politics and radical culture during the period. He argues persuasively that the New Left, the handful of committed student radicals who started SDS and similar groups in the early years of the decade, were the core and catalyst of the mass youth movement that powered the great civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the mid and late Sixties, as well as the tribal orgasms of Woodstock and the Summer of Love.
The tiny generation of politically aware students which first bit its activist teeth into the Cuban missile crisis and the bloody civil rights struggles in Mississippi and Birmingham became the sometime leaders and spokesmen of the vast and unruly coalition that marched on Washington, disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and flocked to Yasgar's farm and Haight-Ashbury.
Gitlin avoids, however, the facile inference that the New Left somehow "caused" the counterculture and Sixties radicalism in general. Rather he succeeds brilliantly in distinguishing the origins of the radical student movement from those of the youth counterculture with which it frequently overlapped. He portrays the New Left as a generational reaction against the moribund remnants of 1930s labor union socialism. He is adept at tracing both SDS's breakaway from its older parent party, the League of Industrial Democracy, and the influence of "red diaper babies"--the children of Old Left families--on the political radicalization of himself and many of his friends in the movement.
GITLIN FINDS the origins of the counterculture, on the other hand, in the mass, Beat-catalyzed youth reaction against the complacent cultural totalitarianism that characterized the Fifties and the economic affluence that allowed for the possibility of widespread alternative lifestyles outside the work force.
Exploiting an extraordinary wealth of scholarly, journalistic and pop culture documentation--everything from Dr. Spock to Elvis Presley to Mad Magazine--the author develops a complex web of historical context to explain the origins and antecedents of a movement that has all too often been simplistically reduced to single determinants (the war, the Bomb, the generation gap, etc.). Both rigorous and readable, his analysis convincingly explains how the student movement and the counterculture came into being without either trivializing them or drowning itself in its own data.
Gitlin is a skilled sociologist, an accomplished and witty storyteller, and a scrupulous historian. He inspires confidence in his work that is rare in Sixties chronicles; like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the period seems to exert a strange, objectivity-stripping influence on those who would describe or pass judgement upon it. Most impressively, perhaps, he is able to look back honestly on the student movement and his own involvement in it without losing his sense of humor and his compassion.
Quoting liberally from his earnest student diaries and poetry, as well as from correspondence with influential period figures such as Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby and Martin Peretz, he brings an extraordinarily charged period to life with skill and decency. Drawing on song lyrics, wall posters, street leaflets, Movement manifestoes and period literature, he creates a compelling picture of a time when world revolution was just around the corner and every political and cultural event seemed to be another manifestation of the same overarching zeitgeist.
GITLIN NEEDS all his honesty and courage to tell the darker story of the Movement's fragmentation and subsequent dissolution at the end of the decade. A movement that had scorned bourgeois hierarchization and centralization throughout its history eventually reached the critical mass of a congenital inability to control and unify its own constituent groups, from radical Maoists to feminists to Black Panthers to Hell's Angels to just plain street crazies.
All the groups went their own separate ways; some, like the Panthers and the Weathermen, down a dark road of alienation, hermetic ideology and increasing violence that frequently ended in death or prison for their followers. Others, like the women's movement, were able to sustain their political vitality into the Seventies and beyond.
But many former activists simply tuned out and dropped out to Vermont and Marin County, where they forgot politics in favor of T.M., hot tubs and whole grain wheat. Others like Tom Hayden, now a California State Assemblyman, chose to moderate some of their radicalism in order to attain a measure of influence within the system. But the Movement as such was a spent force by the end of the decade.
In one of the most moving sections of the book, Gitlin compares the disillusionment, hopelessness and general atomization of many former activists in the Seventies with the Ghost Dance of the defeated Sioux in the 1890s, who believed that if they practiced a particular ritual purification and circle dance, the spirits would intervene and drive away the otherwise all-powerful white conquerors. Hence, Gitlin argues, the encounter culture of the Seventies, when many old radicals drifted unhappily from guru and method to method, seeking the lost solidarity and exhilarating sense of purpose of their Movement days.
BUT GITLIN also argues that, despite the turmoil and tragedy of the period itself and the radical movement's undignified implosion in the Seventies, the Sixties left a potent political and social legacy that continues to operate in our own day, in forms such as a liberalized racial and sexual climate and a powerful social counterweight against Executive warmaking.
In his conclusion Gitlin writes; "Disappointment too eagerly embraced becomes habit, becomes doom. Say what we will about the Sixties' failures, limits, disasters, America's political and cultural space would probably not have opened up as much as it did without the movement's divine delirium." Gitlin's greatest achievement in this monumental book, perhaps, is that he is able to avoid the elegiac fatalism of the Ghost Dance in his analysis of the complex impact that this seemingly most self-contained, all or nothing of decades has had on contemporary society.