Lessons From The Youth Movement Of The 1960s

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Above Photo: From oaklandsocialist.com

Protests outside Democratic Party Convention, Chicago 1968.

Today, as a new youth movement is developing across the United States, it’s important to draw some lessons from what was probably the largest youth movement of US history – the movement of the 1960s.

In 1964, UC Berkeley exploded around what became known as the “Free Speech Movement.” In a speech at that campus in December of that year, Mario Savio, the best know leader of that movement said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” (Note the last sentence; it implies that the ultimate goal is to pressure the capitalist class rather than remove it from power.)

“New Left”

Inspired by the black liberation movement and feeling the pressure of the Vietnam War, tens possibly hundreds of thousands of college students nationwide moved into political action, mainly against the war. Disgusted with the war as well as with the racism of US society, many of these students became part of what became known as the “New Left.”

The New Left offered some lasting advances. As opposed to most Marxists of the day, youth of the New Left took up issues like the environment, women’s liberation, gay rights, etc. (They all responded to the black liberation struggle; that was not new.) These are lasting benefits of that then-youth movement.

However, there was also a down-side.

Throwing out the Baby with the Bath Water

In rejecting the “old” left, they threw out the baby with the bath water. Not only did they reject the revolutionary role of the working class; they saw themselves as inventing something entirely new, a movement that didn’t have to study and learn from the revolutionary movements of the past. Most important, they attempted to avoid really considering the main debates that had raged through those past movements; they failed to take a clear position on them.

The result was that the New Left got disoriented and it disintegrated in just a few years. Unclear on the role of the working class, they were also unclear on the role of the capitalist class as a class and the role of its parties. Some rejected those parties, including the Democrats, on the immediate grounds that its president (Lyndon Johnson) was the one conducting the War Against Vietnam. But there was no clear analysis beyond that, so in 1968, six short years later, many on the New Left got sucked into the campaign of “peace candidate” Gene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

Chicago, 1968

In 1968, mass protests in Chicago outside the Democratic Party national convention led to the arrest and trial of 8 leaders on conspiracy charges. The evolution of some of the most prominent of those leaders is instructive:

Tom Hayden got elected as a liberal Democrat to the California State Assembly. He ispresently a functionary of the Progressive Democrats of America.
Tom Hayden today.

Jerry Rubin became a Wall St. stock broker who advocated liberal capitalism.

Jerry Rubin. He became a stock broker.

Abbie Hoffman never sold out; instead he moved to the fringes of society, lost all influence, and ended up committing suicide.

Abbie Hoffman back in the day.

An eighth leader took such an independent and courageous stance that he had his trial separated. This was the courageous Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. Still alive today, while he hasn’t capitulated, he has clearly backed off from his radicalism, recently declaring, for example that “There are (some) good cops, straight cops. They don’t run around brutalizing people for the sake of brutalizing people. They’re my friends. I want people to make that distinction.”

Bobby Seale (left) with singer D’Angelo today.

The Science of Revolution

Today, the lessons of that movement bear studying. Most important, those of us who are looking for a road to revolution should consider the fact that while revolution is one part art, it is also one part science, and like any science it has to be studied. We cannot afford to ignore all the huge issues, the questions that raged through the revolutionary movements and the events that flowed from those questions, from the Chinese and Cuban revolutions to the revolutions in Africa and, yes, the Russian Revolution (and its aftermath), nor the more recent revolutionary movement in South Africa in the 1980s nor the revolutionary movement of the Arab Spring. As the youth movement of the 1960s shows, we fail to clarify and take a position on those issues at our own risk. This includes:

Whether national liberation movements can be won within the confines of capitalism or whether the struggle against oppression and colonialism has to be linked with the struggle against capitalism itself.
Whether any sector of the capitalist class and its organizations/political parties can be an ally.
What is the role of the working class as a whole and whether is it necessary to find a road towards the working class as a whole?
What were the perspectives for how a wider scale working class movement could develop? What was the then-existing mood, what were the factors that created it and how might it change?
All of these issues have been settled by the harsh judgement of historical fact.

There is no need nor is there time to reinvent the wheel.

  • Jon

    While in some cases this assessment is true:

    ” they saw themselves as inventing something entirely new, a movement
    that didn’t have to study and learn from the revolutionary movements of
    the past.”

    it is way over-generalized. There was a GREAT deal of study going on in the sixties as I can personally attest. M-L study groups were prevalent for serious activists. A fair number of radical book stores were founded and run for years. I ran one of them. The questions raised in this article are valid ones, but this critique of the sixties is not a fair one. Some of us lived and breathed high level opposition for years.

  • DHFabian

    It was a very different era, rooted in egalitarianism, focused on fundamental human rights. Maybe because it was still close enough to the Great Depression era, most of the middle class understood that capitalism has some significant flaws. Clearly, a strong middle class is necessary for the economic health and success of the US. Not everyone can work, and there aren’t jobs available for all. People understood that the only way it’s possible to build and maintain a strong middle class is from the bottom up. They knew that without strong regulations on corporate and financial powers, as well as a legitimate system of poverty relief for the jobless, it was not possible to rebuild the economy and strengthen the nation.