U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Return to the Radical Sixties

The Sixties have been on my mind lately. I’m currently writing the early chapters of my book on the culture wars, where the Sixties figure large (the “Sixties” being a label loosely connected to the actual decade—the 1960s—yet not overly constrained by the decimal system). I argue it was during the Sixties when the stalemate later called the culture wars hardened to an unprecedented degree (which is not to say the clash over modernity was new, as I make clear in a previous post on “The Return of the Culture Wars.”) So the question I want to ponder in this post: were the Sixties radical?

Participants in the various left-leaning movements of that era, as Ben Alpers points out, mostly wrote the early history of the Sixties. Thus, the focus was often tilted too heavily towards the view that the Sixties were a time of radical change, more so than previous eras in U.S. history. In dialectic fashion, conservatives, or more commonly, neoconservatives agreed that the most significant fact about that decade was the disruptions to traditional America brought about by radical movements. Love them or hate them, the Sixties were remembered as a time of radical change.

This participant-historiography (and its neoconservative flip side), often mirrored by popular cultural portrayals of the Sixties, failed to capture the full extent of American political life. Obviously. As such, it seems historians have since felt compelled to work overtime to correct the misconception that the Sixties were revolutionary. In the tsunami-like waves of books being written about postwar American conservatism, historians now argue that the 1960s were conservative. This is the glue that holds together the excellent new anthology edited by Laura Gifford and Daniel Williams, The Right Side of the Sixties (which includes Jason Stahl’s chapter on conservative think tanks, excerpted in his guest post for us last week).

Reversing course entirely is not the answer. Yes, the ranks of conservatism grew in the Sixties. But this was in part—in large part, arguably—a reaction to the qualified successes chalked up by left-leaning movements. Thus, taking stock of the Sixties necessitates that historians study the right and left in tandem (not to mention everything in between, since the most powerful people in the Sixties—LBJ, Nixon—were neither right nor left). In their indispensible synthesis, America Divided, Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pinpoint the correct word to describe the Sixties: “polarized.” In less measured tones, this is Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland approach, though, more than polarization, Perlstein focuses on the pathological style of politics given birth by the Sixties, specifically, by Nixon.

In my just published Reviews in American History essay, “Up From the Sixties,” where I look at Eric Miller’s excellent biography of Christopher Lasch together with Thomas Jeffers’s lousy biography of Norman Podhoretz, I make a similar point about how the topsy-turvy Sixties recast the intellectual lives of two of the most important American thinkers. They experienced epistemic crises of sorts. My first paragraph gives a sense of my approach:

Reactions to the political disorderliness of the Sixties were often quite dramatic. In response to the violent repression of protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a splinter faction of Students for a Democratic Society formed the infamous Weathermen, an underground revolutionary cell ultimately responsible for exploding several small bombs, including at the Pentagon. At the other end of the power spectrum, the Nixon White House countered high-profile leaks of classified information by setting up a clandestine special investigation unit, the notorious “plumbers” who, among other illegal activities, broke into and wiretapped Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Intellectual responses to Sixties ferment were no less striking. This is made clear by new biographies of Christopher Lasch (1932–94) and Norman Podhoretz (b. 1930), two of the most renowned figures in recent U.S. intellectual history. Lasch’s and Podhoretz’ stunning political reorientations help us make sense of the post-Sixties fractures that still characterize contemporary American social thought.


My favorite synthetic treatment of the Sixties is David Steigerwald’s The Sixties and the End of Modern America. In analyzing the Sixties as both polarized and, more to the point, polarizing, in that we are still living with the legacies of the Sixties, Steigerwald’s tone is pitch perfect. He writes: “U.S. progressives see the sixties as a moment of great change abruptly ended by war and right-wing backlash, the consequence of which was only a partial liberation of the nation. On the right, the decade is seen as the beginning of a national crisis in authority and morality, which in the end has hurt the poor more than anyone else by legitimizing antisocial behavior.”

Steigerwald seems sympathetic to many of the left-leaning movements of the Sixties. He writes about the Sixties, it seems to me, because it was a more interesting time than most. People who believed in radical, even utopian challenges to the status quo, however quixotic, existed in greater numbers during the Sixties than at most other times in U.S. history. In analyzing the overblown rhetoric of the Black Panthers, a tiny group remembered mostly for their ostentatious political aesthetics and for their trumpeting the poor as the revolutionary vanguard, Steigerwald writes, wistfully: “It speaks to the beauty of the Sixties that the lumpenproletariat cats would politicize their bleak condition at all.”

But despite such admiration, Steigerwald is unsparing in his assessment of movement successes and failures. For example, in analyzing the New Left and its close relation, the antiwar movement, he addresses the problems inherent in a radical movement led by middle-class college students, more often than not in search of “mere therapy.” “In the long run, the deepest flaw in the New Left was that, given its suppositions, it could encourage mere rebelliousness masquerading as radicalism, a phony radicalism that saw politics as a vehicle for exhibitionism and self-assertion rather than change.”

Steigerwald seems sympathetic to the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), personified by deep thinker Tom Hayden, which sought to help politically powerless people organize, even though such actions were doomed to failure. But he harbors no love for the later SDS, prefigured by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and its charismatic leader Mario Savio. “Partly because of their early connection to the counterculture, Berkeley’s student radicals were less like the original SDS members and more akin to the second generation of the New Left,” Steigerwald writes. “The Berkeley radicals aimed their attention at the university itself and stood the Port Huron statement on its head: instead of using the university as a base from which students would move into the community, the Berkeley activists sought revolutionary change within the institution.” Of all the repressive institutions that needed change in U.S. society, Berkeley would not have been at the top of Steigerwald’s list. (Things might be different now, of course.)

So back to my original question: were the Sixties radical, even revolutionary? Again, Steigerwald strikes the right tone. In 1967 and 1968, the most frenzied years of the Sixties—when Black Power, combined with urban riots, gave many the impression African Americans were in full-blown revolt, and when the antiwar movement reached its peak alongside a growing counterculture that staged “love ins”— “Revolution was not entirely out of the question,” Steigerwald writes, tongue half in check. “But then again, of course, it was.”

So revolution was out of the question. How then do we explain the massive social and cultural changes that occurred between Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration speech and Nixon’s resignation in 1974? Take one such shift as an instructive example: changes in sexual mores. As Steigerwald writes about the beginning of that era: “the censor and the moralist ruled. In New York divorce was granted only on grounds of adultery. Movies were screened, authors banned, and their books threatened. Privacy rights were routinely invaded. In particular, when sex and sexuality were at issue, the authorities were prudish at best and often repressive. The slightest hint of sexually suggestive material was enough to unnerve the cultural watchdogs. Universities exercised the right of in loco parentis and regulated the lives of their students, separating the sexes and imposing curfews.” By 1974 things were much, much different.

So what explains this shift? In part, it has to be about the left-leaning movements. The radicals. Let me conclude, then, with an excerpt from the introduction of David Farber’s excellent review essay (also in Reviews in American History): “The Radical Sixties” (which reviews Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s).

To start with a banality: a lot happened in the 1960s. And the historiography of the era has come to mirror that banal observation. The Sixties has become a capacious subject, so much so that, I have come to think, we have lost “the Sixties” in writing about the Sixties. On this topic, as I have contributed to that capacious banality, I am a man in a glass house.

Right now historians seem to be taking the Sixties in several different directions, all at the same time. Many of us are invested in writing a history of the transnational Sixties, which is not surprising given the herd-like movement in the transnational direction by historians-at-large. And cattiness aside, I am convinced that the “transnational Sixties” will prove to be a fruitful approach. Similarly, I think (obviously, given my own work) that a “Conservative Sixties” is a useful angle. At the same time, a few historians have begun to re-emphasize the liberal triumphs of the era, with a focus on national civil rights policy and the war on poverty. Given the long conservative policy ascendency that followed the Kennedy-Johnson years, I think these historians are right to argue that liberals were not the soulless, sell-out compromisers some have made them out to be. They were not just impediments, in other words, to greater social justice. Then, too, we are all now convinced that the social changes and political challenges associated with the “Sixties” really transpired over a much longer time frame, making the events that happened to occur in the 1960s less important, or at least less causal, than earlier accounts often made them seem. So we all now acknowledge that the civil rights movement was a “long” movement and not a historical subject best understood as being just of the 1960s or best characterized by the now-legendary Southern protests of the 1960–65 years. Similarly, historians are convincing us to see many of the other classic Sixties-identified historical processes, such as the sexual revolution, as being born of a longer, decade-defying process. A “long” Sixties, then, extending from World War II through the 1970s, makes a certain amount of sense—although why the “Sixties” label should be retained, in that case, is hard to defend. In my own course on “The American Sixties,” I find myself beginning with the New Deal and ending sometime during the Reagan years. It seems to make sense when I do it, but I worry that, in my attempt to contextualize and explain historical trajectory, I have begun to forget the point of talking about a historical subject called “The Sixties.”

Robert Cohen, in his new work, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, wants to remind us what that point might be, what it should be. And given his provocative, even mysterious use of the word radical in his book title to modify the word legacy, I think he wants us to think what the meaning of “the Sixties” could be even now and ever after. In specific, Robby Cohen tells us how and why a brilliant young man born into a conventional Catholic American family in New York City in 1942 became a self-described radical and why the kind of radicalism he championed made the “Sixties” seem so exciting and threatening and explosive to many Americans living through those years. Here is the Sixties as a time of radical thought and radical action consciously pursued by young, white, self-identified radicals out to remake the world. This approach to the history of the Sixties is so old it is new.

33 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. “People who believed in radical, even utopian challenges to the status quo, however quixotic, existed in greater numbers during the Sixties than at most other times in U.S. history.”

    I find this a problematic assertion — but this seems to be the heart of your argument. So I guess I’m saying that I find your argument problematic.

    I don’t dare get into an intellectual ruckus with you over the historiography of the Sixties — not my bailiwick.

    However, I’d suggest that the Revolutionary era, the Antebellum reform era that swept in on the millennialist coattails of the Second Great Awakening — especially radical abolitionism — and the Progressive era are all larded with individuals that would fit that description.

  2. Very interesting post, Andrew.

    One factor that I think is very important in explaining the politics of the ’60s (and, for that matter, the ’30s…and arguably the ’40s, ’50s, and even the early ’70s), is that, whether or not revolution was possible, enough people in power believed at the time that it was that they altered their behavior accordingly.

    This makes the middle decades of the twentieth century fundamentally different from the last quarter of that century (and the early 21st century), when the revolutionary vision has largely lost its credibility in the American mainstream as either a dream or a nightmare (an exception might be made for the Tea Party crowd…but I think its elite backers like the Koch Brothers treat its apocalypticism with a large degree of cynicism).

    People in power behave very differently when they truly believe that, for better or for worse, There Is No Alternative.

  3. If we must go all ancient, you’re right, of course. All kidding aside, in thinking about the twentieth century only, there were more radicals in the 60s than in the progressive era. There were more in the 30s than in the progressive era. Anticipating the next question: What do I mean by “radical”? For me, it’s analogous to the left, which Kazin defines in his most recent book (“American Dreamers”) as “that social movement, or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements, that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.”

  4. I want to offer what I hope is a useful distinction: let’s talk about the difference between (a) radical Sixties rhetoric and (b) radical Sixties action. Insofar as the action was less than revolutionary, well, there’s your answer to the question of Sixties radicalism. But the voices—the cacophony—of radicalism were legion. The rhetoric of revolution of was in the air—a metaphor, you might say—which puts us in Rodgers territory (SIGH!!—in a good way). So Sixties rhetoric puts us in a radical frame of mind, but our bodies were ultimately unwilling to cash that check. – TL

    • Not sure I agree, Tim. Many thousands of people, way more than typical, were willing to subvert the law in the 60s, putting their bodies on the line, in jail, etc…

    • Thousands? I agree insofar as we’re talking the anti-Vietnam War movement. I do not define that as radical as much as sensible. So maybe we’re back to your definition of radical. What counts—or how do you count them? Not all anti-war protestors were not “dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society” (using Kazin’s def.). – TL

    • Correction: Not all anti-war protestors were “dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society” (using Kazin’s def.).

    • Also, I didn’t mean to imply that radical rhetoric doesn’t matter. It does, and in important ways.

      And when I said “cash that check” with their bodies, I meant in terms of the ultimate sacrifice = willing death for a clear radical cause.

      I’m not sure if these further distinctions help, but I offer them nonetheless. – TL

    • I mentioned the anti-War movement, but I didn’t mention the Civil Rights Movement. So, depending on whether one considers that “radical” or “reformist,” as well as how one particularizes “radically egalitarian transformation[s] of society,” then that certainly affects the counting game in relation to who was radical and who wasn’t. Those folks were definitely putting their bodies on the line and risking death, or severe bodily harm. – TL

  5. Going all ancient = HISTORICIZING

    Seriously, part of the mythos of the Sixties as this Uniquely Radical Time of Awesome Revolutionary Potential/Social Disaster derives from the broader cultural myopia of temporal proximity.

    It’s hard to compare one era’s radicalism to another — you have to abstract “radicalism” as a kind of transhistorical value that can be compared across different historical contexts. But, if I *were* going to engage in such an exercise, I would suggest that the most radical period in American history would be from the days of Bloody Kansas to the end of Reconstruction.

    • Part of what we do as historians is try and walk the fine balance between historicizing on the one hand, and abstracting the transhistorical value on the other, of this or that term, ideology, concept, etc… It’s not like it’s all or nothing, either/or.

  6. “People who believed in radical, even utopian challenges to the status quo, however quixotic, existed in greater numbers during the Sixties than at most other times in U.S. history.”

    The phrase “mind-altering substances” springs to mind.

    • But what else would I expect from the person I know most cynical about left-leaning movements for social change (and maybe right-leaning movements, too)?

      Drug use was a problem, especially with the Yippies and others who in the late 60s tried to marry the antiwar movement with the counterculture. But the degree of drug use has always been mythologized and overstated. The biggest problem with it was that it gave police the window they needed to crack down on dissent.

    • Haha, it’s true, I am cynical about movements for social change, or at least movements for social change, right or left, which claim they are recapturing some lost historical glory. Which may be most of them. But not here! Here I’m merely making the obligatory cliched joke about ’60s drug use. No more, no less.

  7. Andrew, how in the world would you recommend that historians go about “abstracting” transhistorical value from a concept? I suppose we can ascribe transhistorical value, but our very ascription is utterly a product of our own historical moment.

    Here’s a case in point. You write:

    What do I mean by “radical”? For me, it’s analogous to the left, which Kazin defines in his most recent book (“American Dreamers”) as “that social movement, or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements, that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.”

    This is hardly a transhistorical idea the meaning of the term “radical,” but one that is highly dependent on particular interpretive contingencies. And invoking Kazin here doesn’t provide much clarity, because Kazin uses the attributive in his own definition of the left. So you’re saying that “radical” = “radically egalitarian in aims/commitments.”

    What “radical” meant in the Sixties, for the Sixties, is one thing; what “radical” means across the vast sweep of human history (or the tiny blip of American history) is quite another. And to suggest that “radical” equals/has always equaled “egalitarian” is, I would submit, to not adequately historicize the term. It strikes me more as a definition from the Sixties than a definition of them.

    (And no, I am not going to thread my comments. I am radically resistant to such practices, because I prefer to encounter comments in chronological order, rather than having to scroll up and back in a comment thread to find the newest bon mot.)

  8. I’m not sure yet what constitutes “radical” but let’s consider what changes came out of the 60’s.
    1. The assassination of a President Kennedy
    2. A more liberal application of due process, civil liberties Griswold, Map, Miranda
    3. The acceleration of the civil rights movement by a more receptive country, Civil Rights acts from 1964 – 1968
    4. A marked challenge to authority (a byproduct of the draft) by the anti war movement.
    5. The environmental movement
    6. Landing on the moon
    7. The assassination of Martin Luther King
    8. The assassination of Robert Kennedy
    9. Relaxation of laws outlawing abortion
    10. Birth control pill approved in 1960 by FDA
    11. Desegregation, school busing
    12. Engel vs. Vitale outlawing school prayer
    13. Vietnam War on TV every night

    There are numerous other social and cultural events you all know; race riots, drugs etc but other than the civil war era name a decade with more demonstrably dramatic across the board changes. It is no wonder that a conservative backlash would result and that in some sense most political battles since have been defined by the controversies that originated from this decade. I tend to think that the speed of change out paced the “radicals” of this era and tended to negate their impact. Ironically, it seems they spent more time attacking liberal policies as they did conservative ones.

  9. Paul’s list leaves out a very serious development. The 60s were the era when the enormous expansion of college enrollments that began after World War II begun bumping up against the economy’s ability to provide suitable jobs for college educated kids. Post graduate education, in particular, suddenly looked like a Ponzi scheme once the cycle of profs training profs to train profs came to a crashing end, at least in the liberal arts and social sciences. These developments had two consequences: first, there were lots of educated but disappointed young people and, second, making money quickly replaced more idealistic goals as Hippies morphed into Yuppies.

  10. Upon further thought,and Kazin’s quote in mind, I would say that the sixties had dramatic egalitarian changes that were due to a confluence of circumstances that may have been modestly affected by radical politics.

  11. But despite such admiration, Steigerwald is unsparing in his assessment of movement successes and failures. For example, in analyzing the New Left and its close relation, the antiwar movement, he addresses the problems inherent in a radical movement led by middle-class college students, more often than not in search of “mere therapy.” “In the long run, the deepest flaw in the New Left was that, given its suppositions, it could encourage mere rebelliousness masquerading as radicalism, a phony radicalism that saw politics as a vehicle for exhibitionism and self-assertion rather than change.”

    There is nothing phony — or irrational or misguided — about trying to leverage exhibitionism and self-assertion in the service of radical social change; nor about trying to radicalize the middle class, or, for that matter, trying to radicalize elements of the ruling elites themselves [archived]. On the contrary, these tactics were critical to the achievement of such successes as 1960s radicalism did accomplish. We need to revive such tactics and push them to their utmost if today’s radical social movements are to succeed. It was not the middle-class radicalism of the 1960s that was phony and inauthentic, but the subsequent craven retreat into babbittry, money-grubbing, and false consciousness.

    In the short term, of course, radical politics is about class warfare — or, as at present, the warfare of 99.99% of the population, to the extent that they understand where their true material interests lie, against an ever-shrinking but ever more obscenely opulent gang of criminal degenerates who hardly even qualify as a social class anymore. But in the long run, the status quo benefits no one, not even those at the very top. Historically, attempts to establish and maintain deeply inegalitarian social institutions have led to increasingly stringent codes of behavior for the privileged classes, designed to maintain their material privilege at the expense of their freedom as individuals. Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus provides numerous lurid examples from ancient Sparta. My own ethnic background in the white American Deep South has given me first-hand acquaintaince with many more.

    The middle-class radicals of the 1960s accurately perceived that their self-assertion not only permitted but required the eradication of the social structures of privilege in which they found themselves. Why should anyone want to be Darth Vader? What is authentic about that?

  12. What is often missed, by people generally rather than historians, is that the great changes of the era we are calling the Sixties were brought about by aging Progressives, like Earl Warren, and New Dealers, Lyndon Johnson foremost among them. The radicals seemed to come to prominence in the wake of the changes, rather than in advance of them.

    What I mean is that the people who brought about the Sixties, as we have come to understand them, are very different from those who revel in the Sixties mythology. Most of them were complicated and compromised politicians who would not make good mythological heroes.

  13. @LD: In thinking about this, I prefer the label “left” (as framed by Kazin) over “radical,” but I used the term radical for this post because: a) it was the term used by Sixties leftists (as you astutely point out); and b) It was the term used by Farber in his review essay, which is part of what sparked the idea for this post. In using the “left” term, historicizing is important. Although the term originated following the French Revolution, as everyone knows, as an American referent the term is of more recent vintage and only goes back to the 1930s (this is true of “right” as well). So I generally reserve using the term “left” for twentieth century history. But since that’s mostly all I write about, I haven’t been compelled to give too much thought to comparing and contrasting the radicalism of left groups in the twentieth century to the radicalism of groups in the nineteenth. (Kazin, on the other hand, stretches the term left backwards to encompass the abolitionists.)

    But to poke back a bit: historicizing has its limits. A label might mean something slightly or vastly different from one time to the next. But this is true whether we’re talking about the term radical meaning something different in the context of Reconstruction compared to the 1960s, or whether we’re talking about the term radical between 1965 and 1969, where in four short years the label took on new meaning due to the rapidly changing political winds. But where would we as historians be without our labels, our useful metaphors? As long as we recognize contextual issues, we should hold onto our labels. And to go a step further with this, some political experiences are more universal than relative: repression, and movements against repression, are not new, and aren’t experienced all that differently across contexts (within limits of course–I like to limit such universalistic analogies to modernity, which is admittedly a small sliver of time, but large relative to our contemporary imagination). Such is the logic of Corey Robin’s “Reactionary Mind,” which I find a compelling universalization of conservatism.

  14. Thanks for all of the smart comments. I stand about where Paul stands when he writes: “Upon further thought, and Kazin’s quote in mind, I would say that the sixties had dramatic egalitarian changes that were due to a confluence of circumstances that may have been modestly affected by radical politics.” I never argued in my post that the radical or left movements of the Sixties are the most important development of that decade. But, in our efforts to balance the historiography, that we should not lose sight of the actual radicalism of that decade.

  15. Reading the comments, I suddenly realize that all you folks are youngsters. What is most striking to me, looking back at, and trying to historicize, the lived experience (doing that over and over for 30 or 40 years), is how rapidly “the sixties” cycled through a series of stages in which “radicalism” meant different things. From Port Huron and Arnold Kaufman’s “Radical Liberalism,” to MLK’s emergence as a national figure, Freedom Summer, SNCC’s hayday, and the first civil rights act, to the early anti-war movement and early student new left, all of which called for radical reform, with none of us yet thinking of (fantasizing)ourselves as “revolutionaries,” to the new Malcolm X and his assassination and the turn of SNCC toward Black Power contemporaneous with the explosive growth and radicalization (but of a reasonable sort)of the anti-war movement in 1965-66, to the major turning point of 1967-68 (lots of different stuff), to the subsequent downward spiral into craziness (various forms) for many, and withdrawal into identity politics or personal (including academic)”garden-tending” for others –with reasonable radicalization going forward only in the women’s movement (but later to make some reappearance in things like the movement against Reagan admin intervention in Central America).

    BTW, the UC-Santa Barbara conference on Port Huron at 50 was good. Afterward, I circulated the following comment:

    To elaborate a little on the comment/plea I made after Michael Kazin’s dinner presentation:

    We might think of ourselves as in ‘62, on our way to ‘68, but now we’re the Old Left. Can we do better for the new New Left than our elders did for us – and better than their’s did for them from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s?

    Our own history is a model of how hard it is to find the right way of combining idealism and realism. (If the Left doesn’t do that, nobody will, as is so well demonstrated by the current state of affairs.) First we thought we could force Liberals to recognize their failure in that regard, their betrayal of their avowed ideals and the “crackpot” nature of their realism. Then we concluded that we had been profoundly unrealistic in believing that such was doable, and we swung (during and after 1968) to the denunciation of all Liberalism and the glorification of third world revolutionaries, Che, the Black Panthers – who, in fact, were mostly pretty unrealistic about their own situations and their own peoples. This led to the utter unrealism and perverted idealism of ideological dogmatism and “picking up the gun,” and to the disintegration of the New Left. Followed by the retreat of most of us into various narrower forms of political activism, careers, forms of cultivating one’s garden – including a lot of writing about what had happened.

    But we’ve never come up with a theorization of how we might have and should have done things differently – the errors of the Left in dealing with Liberals and Liberalism in the second half of the 1960s – and in the second half of the 1940s – and how the latter infected the former. We need that theorization to inform what we do now – now that we have come to recognize that all along there was a growing elephant in the room that none of us could grasp more than a small part of – an elephant destined to overwhelm other aspects of reality – so that our long-term failure to recognize it turns out to mean that every other way in which we were unrealistic is swamped by this unrealism – I’m talking about the elephant climate change and ecological/environmental crisis. If we continue to flail and fail on this front, in only a few more decades, nothing else will matter – anything else is “crackpot realism.”

    Bill Barnes

  16. Whatever good (call it left-radical, if you want — I so want) came of “the sixties” came of building on the work — the blood, sweat, tears and dreams — of people who came earlier, and of providing a foundation for the work of those who will come later, who will continue, who will persist, whether or not they happen to persist in an era that invites historians’ laudatory era-labels. This is to keep the faith. The arc of justice….

  17. I know the sixties are important but what of the more revisionist argument for…the 1970s? Was the 1970s a profound shift, or a continuation of the sixties? Do any of the scholars here think there is anything to what Bruce Schulman and others have added to the discussion, or are they going to hold to the notion of sixties exceptionalism and centrality?

  18. I have to plug what I consider perhaps the most radical shift in the 1960s, the relationship the Catholic Church had to its laity and people of other faiths. While barricades did not go up, one might argue that in regard to the church they certainly did come down.

    • Absolutely, Ray. But I also think that the Catholic Church looks very different today than observers would have imagined the future Church would look when Vatican II came to a close. In 1965, I believe there was a sense that the Church was at the beginning of a period of radical reform. In fact, the period of radical reform had essential come to an end. The last four-and-a-half decades of church history (and especially the last three decades of church history since the start of JP II’s papacy) have been a period of retrenchment in many ways.

      All of which is to say that the question “how radical were the Sixties?” applies to the Catholic Church, too…though perhaps the answer is still “quite radical.”

  19. Ben: You raise an interesting point as I am reading a very good essay by William Portier, a theologian at the University of Dayton who is speaking at Marian University tonight. I am about to have dinner with him! His essay, Here Come the Evangelical Catholics: http://communio-icr.com/articles/PDF/portier31-1.pdf

    speaks directly to the issue you raise. Portier argues that while retrenchment might describe one side of the post-Vatican II transformation, it doesn’t describe another transition. He writes: “In the second story, post-Vatican II politics of liberals and conservatives take a back seat. The main issue is now Catholic identity. This is a story of Catholics learning how to be truly Catholic in American pluralism without a subculture.” And as Portier acknowledges, both this story and the one you identify, Ben, are both true. What Portier’s essay demonstrates better than most essays on these transformations is that these different Catholics can agree on some issues and be on opposite sides on others. Either way, though, the “dissolution of a Catholic subculture” is a radical change.

    • Ray: I’m going to read the Portier essay. My tentative thesis on the “Evangelical Catholics” is that, as conservative Catholics (politically, socially, economically, and theologically), they fear pluralism and are aligning with Evangelicals primarily as a voting block, though there are significant overlapping cultural concerns between the two. The agree that non-Christians and American culture need to be evangelized, and are ignoring their credal differences as long as possible. – TL

Comments are closed.