When youth rode `a wave of privileged vision'. An insider revisits the '60s
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, by Todd Gitlin. New York: Bantam Books. 483 pp. $19.95. THE 1960s in America were not ``history as usual.'' Vietnam, Freedom Rides, assassinations, sit-ins, the Summer of Love, women's liberation, student revolt, Apollo 11, the Rolling Stones - all ran together, creating a time that seemed to exist outside ``normal history.''
As Todd Gitlin's excellent new work shows, nowhere was this more true than in the ``New Left,'' the student ``Movement'' of the '60s. The flagship of the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which Gitlin was an early leader, grew from a few hundred members in 1960 to more than 100,000 by the demonstrations outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968.
As in the transcendentalist movement in New England more than 100 years earlier, there was a sense in SDS that history could be suspended long enough for new forms of freedom and justice to emerge.
In some ways it was. Student leader Tom Hayden claimed later that the New Left ended a war, toppled two Presidents, and desegregated the South. Very extravagant, but not altogether wrong.
As Gitlin documents, however, this was not the experience of the student radicals. Like the transcendentalists (from whom many borrowed ideas of nature, civil disobedience, communal living), the New Left started with Utopian idealism, went through intense experimentation, only to end in bitter disappointment, disagreement, and exhaustion.
The central insight of ``The Sixties'' seems to be the increasing inability of the Movement to resolve the tension between the new '60s energy of release, letting go, being free, radicalizing - and the patience and discipline required to accomplish tough political compromise and change; between the impulse for dance and self-discovery - and the desire to restructure the institutions of mainstream ``Amerika,'' which meant sometimes someone had to be around to answer the phone.
Even in civil rights efforts, which mark the Movement's finest hours, things unraveled. The close-to-the-ground radical pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the (black and white) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, was destroyed when the black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was not seated at the '64 Democratic convention. ``This proves the Democratic Party is just as racist as Goldwater,'' said SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael; and soon young blacks turned to the streets for a solution, and to the militant Black Panthers.
Then there was the problem of ``floaters.'' Floaters were newly awakened upper-middle-class white liberal baby-boomers who got ``high'' on the participatory side of democracy, but only when they felt like it. Gitlin quotes one ``hardline'' Southern organizer: Floaters were ``great talkers ... loved to bring meetings to a screeching halt with open ended, theoretical questions. In the midst of a crucial strategy session on the problems of community leaders in rural areas, one of them might get the floor and begin to hold forth on the true meaning of the word leader....''
By 1968, no one - or everyone - was running SDS. Splinter groups such as the violent Weathermen, and media pranksters like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin - who pulled stunts like dropping bags of dollar bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or held midnight vigils to levitate the Pentagon - formed an image in the public mind of SDS and the counterculture that bore little relation to its more sober and civil origins.
No book yet can claim to cover all the '60s. But this one is a rich source of information and history never covered in the ``straight'' press. Much of the record has been hidden from the mainstream until now. More important, like James Miller's readable and penetrating ``Democracy Is in the Streets,'' and Abe Peck's 1985 ``Uncovering the Sixties'' (on the underground press), Gitlin reveals the incredible vitality of the politics inside the New Left and SDS - a far cry from the reductionist caricaturing of that period found in everything from ``The Big Chill'' to the National Review.
The impact of the cold war on youth, the betrayal of the Kennedy administration on civil rights, and its role in pushing SDS activists from liberalism to radicalism are closely examined. And Gitlin separates and examines a rich weave of political student types and logic (arguments about individualism vs. collectivism, the third world, war and peace, feminism, influence of music, drugs, Haight Ashbury, Eugene McCarthy, etc.).
Gitlin, whose 1980 book ``The Whole World Is Watching'' (on the media and the counterculture) still gets attention, employs a unique narrative style in ``The Sixties.'' He blends autobiography (including passages from his diary) with a more ``straight'' history - using everything from his 1959 Bronx High School of Science yearbook with its rhetoric of ``opportunities unlimited'' to a fateful ideological brawl between SDS members and the old Left represented by Irving Howe and Dissent magazine.
The result is a vivid picture of the culture and sensibility out of which the New Left emerged. For a young college student concerned in 1961 about social injustice and the perceived arrogance of an American ``power elite,'' ideas of protest seemed to shimmer in the ether. You didn't need history. Paperbacks by Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills were in back pockets across campus. Basement study groups met on Cuba or hunger. Answers were blowing in the wind.
Who needed the painfully worked out politics and experience of the '30s socialists, or the stodgy anticommunism of the cold war liberals? Better to borrow their romance and penchant for organizing. Just cross-fertilize. Reinterpret. Write an article. Move to California. Create your own reality.
The first line of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the SDS manifesto written by Tom Hayden, reads: ``We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.'' As Gitlin writes, youth was riding a wave of ``privileged vision.''
But by the end of the decade, history had come for the bill. Down came the Ch'e Guevara posters; up went Renoir and Degas.
Essayist Lance Morrow has pointed out that in a media-driven world where news is spliced, compacted, and rushed, the important lessons of history are not assimilated well, ``dealt with adequately in spiritual, cultural terms.''
Journalists will tell you, he says, ```We've done that.' OK, Watergate's over, whoosh, it's gone. But it may not be. There are things that are not digested.'' Conscience is not satisfied.
Gitlin's book is a refutation of the too-easy and flat denial of the 1960s found in the Reagan era.
But it's also a warning. It's a conscience.
Robert Marquand is on the Monitor staff.