U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Summer of Love/The Counter Culture: Toward an Intellectual History

Note to readers: this is the final essay in our Summer of Love Roundtable. (Follow these links to read the first, second, third, and fourth instalments.)  Richard H. King is Professor of American Studies (emeritus) at the University of Nottingham.

The Summer of Love/The Counter Culture: Toward an Intellectual History

By Richard H. King

Haight Ashbury: the birthplace of modern American counterculture, San Francisco, California. Photo by Joey B. Lax-Salinas (CC 3.0)

There is something counter-intuitive about  trying to identify the intellectual and cultural roots of The Summer of Love and the counter culture. And yet counter cultural thinkers and writers drew upon the very traditions they sought to undermine for their ammunition against the established cultural order. The summer of 1967 saw the culmination, in George Cotkin’s words, of a post-war “new sensibility” that became evident in various “feasts of excess,” including San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the Monterrey Pop Festival between June 16 and 18th. It was both a generational sexual revolt and something like a religious revival, a flaunting of body consciousness and pursuit of spiritual transcendence, a rejection of conformity to established norms and an attempt to construct alternative communities . Above all, the counter culture rejected cerebral, highbrow and elitist notions of culture—though it was far from a working class or subaltern revolt.  Finally, the sources of the proposed cultural revolution of that summer were found in American, European and Eastern thought.[1]

Here, I would emphasize that there was more to the Summer of Love than hanging out in Haight-Ashbury and getting high at rock festivals. The 1960s saw the proliferation of communes around the country, devoted to living out new ideas of the family, marriage and childrearing, rethinking education at all levels, and creating a self-sustaining way of life through small scale technology. As with the New Left, the participation mystique was a central aspect of the counter culture. Publications such as Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue anticipated books such as E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (1973). The more mainstream Esalen Institute, founded in 1962 at a spa in the Big Sur area, was dedicated to cultivating personal growth for those who had the money and inclination to do group work there.

What might an intellectual history of that summer and of the counter culture look like?   An initial answer arrived early in the form of The Making of the Counter Culture (1969) by Theodore Roszak, a young historian in the California state college system. Though by no means uncritical of it. Roszak posited a conflict between a youth culture, devoted to exploring new forms of social, intellectual and spiritual life and the power of “the technocracy”, a form of life propelled by what he called “objective consciousness,” a philosophical descendent of the Cartesian split between self and the world. At the core of the book was a series of chapters dealing with writers and thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, Allen Ginsburg and the Alan Watts, Tim Leary, and Paul Goodman, with preparatory chapters on young people, specifically students, as the core constituency, a kind of “visionary company.” Indeed, for Roszak what was most valuable about the counter culture was the visionary perspective, one open to other realms than what secular science and technology were committed to.[2]

Foundations and Explanations

One way of grasping the nature of the counter culture was, and is, to distinguish between political and cultural radicalism, between a revolution in institutions and a revolution in consciousness, including between the New Left(including the anti-War movement) and the counter culture. Some in the counter culture did not see the point of conventional politics, including the New Left. Rather it aimed for a revolution in forms of daily life as well as in the large traditions of meaning and purpose. Yet others thought that what was needed was a coalescence of Marx and Freud, as it were. For Marxists, this meant another look at the Marx who stressed the alienated consciousness and what it might have in common with the radical wing of the psychoanalytic movement. This convergence of Marxism and psychoanalysis also grew out of two unanswered questions: why had the working class parties in 1914 fought for their respective countries rather than refusing to take up arms against the capitalist powers and, second, why and how did Nazism and Fascism have the appeal they did, even to the working class? The pioneering work here was often done by figures who fled the Nazis and came to America—Wilhelm Reich and also Erich Fromm, along  with Theodor Adorno and, of course, Herbert Marcuse from the Frankfurt School in exile(based in New York and southern California). Ultimately, the goal was to transcend the dualism between public and private and to formulate a vision of a non-repressive society, one that no longer operated according to what Marcuse called the “performance principle,” a play on Freud’s pleasure and reality principles and closely related to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic.

2] The dichotomy between nature and culture itself bothered counter cultural thinkers.  Independent radicals such as poet and utopian thinker, Paul Goodman and maverick classicist Norman O. Brown, not to mention the novelist and essayist, Norman Mailer, spent the first decade or so after the war rethinking forms of radical consciousness.  All shared a hostility to the restrictions on freedom demanded by conventional political and cultural institutions. In the context of the 1960s, the “natural” was often represented in terms of sexuality and the erotic and should be the basis for a non-repressive society and culture. This position fit into an American tradition, stretching back to the Transcendentalist movement and the utopian experiments of the first half of the 19th Century,  that was built on a deep hostility to institutional and corporate power, whether private or public. The assumption was that, once free of imposed institutions, our true natures would emerge.[3] Communitarian anarchism was a popular political position. Antinomian in psychology, this strand of the counter culture was attracted not just to sexual freedom but to mystic, ecstatic and visionary forms of consciousness. Here such disparate sources as Alan Watt on Zen, Allen Ginsburg’s cultivation of forms of Indian spirituality, and above all, the claims of the pioneers of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, were of vital importance.  Norman Brown was probably the most radical in his critique of human society(not just bourgeois or socialist forms) and of the structure of the self. He used Freud to go beyond Freud’s own dualisms. For Brown the underlying logic of existing forms of human existence had to do with the fear of death. Culture itself was a function not just of sexual repression, but more fundamentally of our fear of death and the attempt to deny time.

3]Weber— Roszak’s focus on the repressive power of the technocracy and objective consciousness pointed to the relevance of Max Weber’s idea of “rationalization of the world” as the power driving modern life. Socialist rationality was not an oppositional force to, but merely another version of, capitalist rationality. Rationality, itself, involved the instrumentalization of human and natural resources, for any number of purposes, good and bad. Nature itself was “dead” and thus offered no normative source of values. Though pessimistic  in the long run, a Weberian framework nevertheless left more room for alternatives to emerge within the social systems of advanced industrial societies.  Rationalization seemed to generate irrational and religious impulses, which instrumental rationality had supposedly consigned to historical irrelevance.  Significantly, the 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of a third Great Awakening, but on the cultural and political right not the left. Indeed, it may be that a culture in which the secular and sacred, the modern and the traditional, continually jockey for supremacy is not a way station between modernity and post-modernity, but just the form that the period after modernity, e.g. the post-modern, has come to assume.

Critiques and Limitations

Already by the 1950s, sociologists of culture such as David Riesman sought to take the measure of the new, post-war, American middle class; popular journalism followed suit with endless accounts of American conformity and the quest for social status. But what sociologist Philip Rieff identified as crucial was the post-1945 diffusion of psychoanalytic ideas, terminology and taglines through books and articles, novels and films, and, of course, television. In three books between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, Rieff tracked the way that the normative language of moral and religious discourse (good and bad/right and wrong, sin and guilt) was being diluted by terms such as healthy and sick, neurosis and acting out. Punitive moralism was becoming passe. In his Freud: The Mind of the Moralist(1959),Rieff identified the emergence of “psychological man,” a character type who lived according to a new ethic that taught ironic self-distancing and coping with reality, all in the name of the reality not the pleasure principle. In 1966, Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic proposed that American society was witnessing “the triumph of the therapeutic” among the middle-classes. Not just  coping but the active pursuit of self-fulfillment and the search for communal belonging were what made this therapeutic type run. Yet Rieff’s larger point was that the twin goals of the therapeutic were impossible to reconcile. Indeed the therapeutic culture’s central impulse was to want it both ways. In this it was an impossible cultural ideal. With the publication of his Fellow Teachers (1972) Rieff had assumed the stance of prophet of doom, predicting that wherever the therapeutic culture spread inherited traditions and values were under threat. It was guided by an ethic, which emphasized remission not repression, self-expression not self-denial, private satisfaction not the public good. Rieff’s own theory of culture was founded on the idea that culture’s first principle was a “No,” a “Thou shall not.” In his view, the counter culture was an anti-culture whose future was foretold in the murder at the rock concert at Altamont in 1969 and the nine murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his “family” that same year. In Fellow Teachers, Rieff offered his verdict: “After the hippies come the thugs.”

But we need not totally buy into Rieff’s hostile view of the counter culture to see the problems with it. First, the relationship between political and cultural radicalism were never worked out in any detail. Already in Eros and Civilization(1955) Herbert Marcuse noted the dangers of “repressive desublimation”: the promise of sexual freedom could be used by the economic system to sell goods not create a non-repressive society.  Not only Marcuse but also Roszak, among many others, spoke of the vulnerability of affluent youth to commercial exploitation and manipulation of consumption patterns.  From this perspective, the Monterrey Pop Festival, June 16-18, was a way for music groups to showcase their commercial appeal, not undermine mainstream popular and mass culture.

Second, the counter culture was undoubtedly dominated by white males. Its ideas and ideals were noticeable for the absence of black sources and feminist input. For African Americans, June meant not “the Summer of Love” but the onset of the “Long Hot Summer”( and Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964).  Nor did the Oakland-based, Black Panthers, play a major role in the counter cultural coalition in the Bay Area. In addition, sexuality was still largely heterosexual in the counter culture, despite Brown’s introduction of the term “polymorphous perversity” into the discussion of sexual freedom. Significantly, the bi-sexual Paul Goodman spoke and wrote relatively little about this aspect of contemporary life.  For all its freshness, his Growing Up Absurd pretty much ignored what it meant for young women to grow up in American society, except to say that, as women, they already had a fixed roles to assume. The national debate over gender roles and sexuality was still yet to come. All these criticisms aside, and others, it should be said that that much of the agenda of the counter culture and what was made public in the Summer of Love was both easily co-opted by mainstream institutions and also helped transform much of the mainstream culture they so objected to.


[1] See George Cotkin, Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of  the New Sensibility (New York:OUP, 2016). All sorts of taglines and slogans are associated with that much heralded place and time/ movement/ experiment: “sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll,” “ free love,“ “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” the “psychedelic revolution,” “dropping  acid,” “acid rock,” “bad trips,” “Hippies,” “youth culture” and “generation gap.” The list goes on

[2] The Visionary Company (1961) by Harold Bloom was a major study of Romantic poetry. In fact, the counter culture might be seen as a late product of American and European romanticism. Other accounts of the intellectual and cultural origins of the counter culture included other thinkers to the list— C. G. Jung, Reich and D. H. Lawrence(Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic);Hungarian anthropologist,  Geza Roheim, besides Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich(Paul Robinson, The Freudian Left) , and Goodman, Marcuse, and Brown, plus Reich(Richard King, The Party of Eros). Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, another Englishman besides Zen master, Alan Watts, was also an important figure in counter cultural circles as was novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who were the central focus of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) which appeared one year before Roszak’s The Making of the Counter Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).

[3] In the late 1960s, literary critic Frederick Crews referred to the radical movements of the decade as examples of an “inverted Transcendentalism.”

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This essay made me think about that Reiff’s ideas need revisiting by intellectual historians. Of all of the “greatest hits” of counterculture/New Left/postwar intellectuals and literary figures (Marcuse, Brown, Reisman, Mills, Goodman, Laing, Watts, Leary, Ginsberg and the Beats, Kesey, down to Roszak and maybe also Charles Reich), Reiff is the least read now. Maybe because of the intense turn away from Freud?

    I wonder if we might both distinguish and notice the intersections between the therapuetic side of the counterculture and the turn to a sort of personalist politics (I think of James Farrell’s work here on a history of personalism that fed into the “spirit of the sixties”). Are these one and the same? What if we were to say no? What then?

    Reiff also asks us to think about what constituted bourgeois ideology within the moment of liberal consensus during the 1960s: was the counterculture, in a sense, a sort of spark generated from the irreconcilable goals of self realization and collective belonging? In this way the problems of the counterculture at its most malevolent (Manson, Altamont) have their origins in the contradictions of the middle-class itself, post-WWII? Or perhaps even in the contradictions of capitalism, with the middle class as its engine in that historical moment, i.e. Daniel Bell’s theories?

    Two small corrections (very very minor): Monterey, CA festival, not Monterrey, which is in Mexico (there was a Woodstock-like Festival at Avandaro, Mexico, in 1971, a reminder that the global story of the counterculture might take us toward a different intellectual history, one that involved non-American youth appropriating hippie lifestyles for their own hybridization purposes, to achieve a sense of modernity connected to their particular locations in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, even behind the Iron Curtain with The Plastic People of the Universe and their fan Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia or the “hippi” of the USSR itself). Also, Allen Ginsberg not Ginsburg.

    A bigger issue and question. What? No black sources for the counterculture? Rock music? The term hippie itself emerges from the bohemian jazz-Beat scene of the 1950s? Mailer’s White Negro essay, with its existentialist reading of middle-class white male disaffiliation and dissent? I suppose this is an issue of what we want to count as intellectual: only traditional kinds of social critics and philosophers or a broader set of cultural forms and mediations? And while it’s true that there were fewer “black hippies,” they too did exist, in the Haight Ashbury and in Detroit and elsewhere, i.e. Jimi Hendrix). I think there is more work to be done about the intersections of civil rights movement/black nationalism and the counterculture. After all the Grateful Dead played benefits for the Black Panthers (not without some friction, however). Groups such as the Panthers looked for alliances, both political and cultural, among white youth. Not that any of this overcame or at times didn’t reproduce bitter injustices and inequities. But, I don’t think the history is, well, black and white, by any means. I found Robyn Spencer’s work powerful in this respect as it begins to expand what the commune movement of the 60s entailed among the rank and file of the Black Panthers in Oakland as much as the hippies in the Haight or the rural communards heading out for the backcountry.

    And of course Richard King’s own The Party of Eros remains a go to book. I return to the chapter on Paul Goodman all the time!

    • I just want to second the suggestion that Rieff deserves more attention from intellectual historians, including but not limited to his connections with the counterculture, or what Wickberg at one point called “the triumph of the triumph of the therapeutic.” To me one of the richest sources for something of the foundational problematic of Rieff’s thought is the essay “History, Psychoanalysis, and the Social Sciences,” in Ethics 63, 2, Jan. 1953, which develops his critique of the use of psychological models or analogies for understanding society, as if the social world were personality writ large.

  2. And the Panthers helped Leary escape and avoid capture until they judged him to be nuts and sent him along

  3. I wonder if there’s a chronological distinction to be made, where the post war intelligentsia up to the mid-60’s was developing ideas with a relatively small audience, and where the late 60’s and after saw a “flash-over” effect as the ideas found a wider audience.

    I find something of a parallel in the more recent switch in popular thought to support of same-sex marriage and LGBT issues.

  4. It may have been that by that time there were just a lot more people. I don’t have figures, however, to show one thing or another

  5. Thank you, Richard King, for this essay, and thanks to all the other participants and discussants in this roundtable.

    I was working on an essay for the roundtable myself — it’s an essay that I’ve been wishing to write for a while, and this seemed like a good occasion — but I ended up getting lost down the path of memory instead of history, so I’ve posted a rough first draft over at my own blog, and I’ll come back to it when I can. I’d just note here that it’s easy to imagine that “hippie culture” or “the counterculture” or “the youth culture” was triumphant and ubiquitous in northern California, but that was never the case — at least not in the part of the state that people mostly drove through just to get somewhere else.

    Also, I wanted to note that it was Lilian Barger who suggested this topic for a roundtable here at the blog, and we are all very grateful for that fine idea.

    And I want to especially thank the roundtable contributors for engaging with each other’s essays/arguments — that really added to the energy and coherence of the whole project.

  6. At this late date, I want to thank the several people who responded to my essay. I was on vacation and simply couldn’t respond to Michael Kramer, Bill Fine, Andrew Parker and Bill Harshaw as they weighed in with contributions.
    First, the point Bill Harshaw makes about the crucial juncture at which a concern of intellectual elites flips over or generates a mass appeal to a large number of people is an important one. At the least, it reminds us that a single idea, for example, “love”, can take on different levels of complexity and/or be subject to oversimplification the more it is subject to mass scrutiny and acceptance. The standard analysis of the 1960s in history of religion/theology was to distinguish between eros, agape and philia, the three notions A. Nygren developed in his work. Martin Luther King drew heavily on this analysis in his discussion of love, but while, he referred primarily to love as agape, the dominant notion of love in the counter culture was, I think, eros. It is hard to unpack exactly what idea of love James Baldwin was articulating in his work of the 1960s, but I would suggest it was some combination of eros and agape. This in itself is a vast oversimplication, but I want to call attention to the differences among the meanings of love that emerged in the intellectual and cultural developments of the 1960s. This relates not only to the question of the relationship of the counter culture to black politics and culture raised by Andrew Parker and Michael Kramer, but also to the theological issues raised by Lilian Calles Barger in her contribution to the roundtable.
    The other issue that the responses underscore is the importance of the work of Philip Rieff for us intellectual historians. Bill Fine’s and Michael Kramer’s comments are excellent pointers toward the salient issues that Rieff opened up for our consideration then and now, including the relationship between middle class ideology and the ideology of the counter culture; the relationship between culture and politics, as in the “personalist” politics he makes reference to; the shift in Rieff’s own political and cultural views which anticipate the (neo-)conservatism to come in the 1970s; and a study of the 1960s as the watershed between modern and post-modern culture. Readers may be interested in the attack on Rieff, Christopher Lasch and Daniel Bell for their hostility to the counter culture and a defense of the concept of narcissism from a psychoanalytic and cultural perspective Liz Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism.
    Thanks, again, for taking the time to respond to my contribution to the roundtable.

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