1968 was a bad year for the left. MLK and RFK, two leading figures of hope, were conveniently murdered. Antiwar protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago were met by a full-scale police riot, which of course the Republicans blamed on the demonstrators. In November, Richard Nixon was elected President, ensuring seven more years of war in Vietnam.
The movement for peace and human rights continued in the 1970s, and the new women’s rights and gay rights movements sprung to life, but in hindsight we can see that 1968 was the peak year of a leftist revolt that was then beaten back by an extended reaction from the right wing. With this reaction consolidated by the victory of the Reaganites in 1980, a development that has marginalized progressives right up to the present day, it is natural that we ask ourselves: What happened?
Two main factors are evident: 1. The concerted backlash by reactionaries, and by extension, the corporate-political establishment of which they formed a major part. 2. The shortcomings and internal contradictions of the movement itself, which made it vulnerable to this reaction.
In our zeal to examine the second factor, it is easy to underestimate the importance of the first. The FBI’s secret COINTELPRO actions, initiated by the rabid anticommunist and racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the late 1950s, went into high gear when antiwar protests and black liberation movements started rocking the nation in the 1960s. This was an illegal program designed to circumvent Supreme Court rulings protecting dissident groups from government spying. Progressive groups were infiltrated by agents posing as activists, who would then foster disunity by advocating violence and even committing violent acts to discredit these groups. They would create feuds within groups by sending fake letters to movement leaders from other leaders that caused personal animosity and splits. They planted false stories in newspapers and on TV attributing words and actions to individuals and groups that were untrue. They created false evidence in order to convict dissidents in court, and suborned perjury by officers for the same ends. They vandalized groups’ offices, broke in and stole documents, contrived to have dissidents threatened with violence, beaten, and assassinated. (The murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by Chicago police was part of a COINTELPRO operation.) They tapped phones, conducted surveillance, and used the IRS as a weapon against people, including Democratic politicians. This is only a brief summary. The range of illegal FBI activities against the movement was extensive. The targets weren’t just militant groups, either, but also nonviolent groups like The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP; along with numerous public figures who expressed antiwar or pro-civil rights views, such as Dick Gregory or the actress Jean Seberg.
A significant example of the right turning events to its own advantage was the indictment of eight prominent leftist leaders for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. The charges were absurd, and the verdicts were eventually overturned, but this outrageous circus trial sidelined these leaders for over a year and focused the country’s attention on personalities and sensationalism rather than the real issues of racism and the war.
On the public side, Republicans and right-wing Democrats demonized the movement as violators of “law and order,” which was one of Nixon’s campaign mantras. They exploited white racial fears, stoked by the black riots in the cities, to characterize black activists as anti-American criminals that needed to be put down. The “get tough” approach to crime resulted in a beefed-up “war on drugs” that conspicuously targeted blacks. With the advent of Reagan, mandatory minimum sentences were combined with a massive investment in new prisons to create a huge prison population, close to half of which was African American. Fringe groups like The Weathermen were given prominent attention in order to cast the entire movement as dangerous. In the absence of the internationally revered Dr. King, black leaders such as Jesse Jackson were routinely ridiculed and marginalized.
The right was deeply humiliated by the failure in Vietnam, and set about scapegoating the protesters and the press as the culprits for “losing” the war. Myths such as the protestor spitting on the returning veteran at the airport were widely propagated. The campaign against the media for being too “liberal” frightened the media elites into the cowed subservience and abandonment of journalistic principles that we see today. Similar backlash efforts were made on the political and cultural fronts against the women’s movement, stereotyping feminists in the public mind as scary man-hating radicals who were destroying the country’s morals. After the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, the right used abortion as a wedge issue to marginalize the women’s movement. The gay rights movement has also, of course, met with continued public backlash.
The combination of secret illegal harassment and political reaction was so massive that it can’t be fully catalogued here. Racism was a major element, but the reaction was a broad-based one against all movements towards peace and social justice. Even if the movement had been more disciplined and unified, and had been able to overcome its failings, it is doubtful that it would prospered under such an onslaught. The people who own the country were determined to have their own revolution, against the Great Society and the New Deal, and for the complete deregulation of business.
So after this exhausting description of right-wing reaction, what can we say about the shortcomings of the human rights and antiwar movements? With the distance of four decades, we can look back without being blinded by passion, or by the knowledge that the movement was, in most important things, right. We were right about the war, right about racism, right about the inherent inequalities of the system. Yet self-examination can perhaps help new generations to avoid our mistakes.
First of all, the antiwar movement was primarily a student-led movement. Young people were the ones threatened by the draft, so naturally they were the ones that spearheaded opposition to the war. Some of the tactics, such as shutting down the universities, spurred opposition, but that was to be expected. There’s an element that will always be offended by any kind of demonstration, and there’s no point in trying to mollify that element. The antiwar movement succeeded in drawing the public’s attention to the war, and turning public sentiment against it.
But some of the youthful anger expressed itself in counterproductive ways. Against the background of a youth culture explosion, there was a fairly overt hostility to the older generation. The struggle was characterized as between freedom-loving youth and repressive old people—“Don’t trust anyone over 30” and similar nonsense. A movement must build bridges between age groups, not put up barriers. The frequent stridency and absolutism of the rhetoric tended to alienate middle-aged and older Americans who were otherwise sympathetic to more progressive visions of society. A similar effect occurred regarding class differences. The movement generally ignored economic issues that affected working people. It failed to exploit the rampant inequalities of the American economy, which cut across racial lines. Instead, the cultural aspect intruded—the youth culture inveighed against “straight” people with short hair and more conventional social habits as if there were no commonalities of interest. To a large degree, the working class turned its back against the movement, perceiving it as just a group of spoiled, well-off brats. Some of this was inevitable, but it might have been mitigated by a conscious effort to welcome a much more diverse cultural mix into the movement.
Youthful rage also expressed itself against authority in ways that were politically naïve. I’m thinking of the widespread and popular use of the term “pigs,” especially referring to police officers. Yes, the police were tools of repression. But calling them pigs only increased the divide between the majority of middle and working class Americans that respect the police, and the student-dominated movement.
The civil rights movement made great gains against incredible odds. As long as the issue was segregation, the public sympathized. A more difficult task was ahead: the bringing of the struggle to the whole nation rather than just the South, coupled with a broader protest against economic inequality. Dr. King was making steps towards that goal. Meanwhile, younger black activists got fed up with the brutality aimed against their communities, and a more militant wing of the movement emerged, starting with Malcolm X and continuing with the Black Panthers and others. Malcolm was demonized as an instigator of violence, but in fact he was advocating self-defense. That, and an outspoken defiance of white supremacist assumptions, made him a powerful voice. There developed, however, a tension between the proponents of nonviolence such as Dr. King and the black militants. I think it was a mistake for Malcolm to criticize the nonviolent movement as he did, which only served to create a rift in the movement that was readily exploited by its enemies. It would have been wiser to express support for Dr. King, and not emphasize the tactical differences in public. One may discount the important of this, but I remember African American radicals who despised Martin Luther King as some sort of Uncle Tom. There were also black liberals who condemned Malcolm X. A movement needs to support its strategic allies, even if there are major differences in ideas on how to go about making change, rather than fight one another while the movement’s enemies sit back and enjoy the show.
A major misstep of the movement was a general rallying around the idea of “revolution” as a goal. Elements of the movement, historically naïve regarding the history of the Soviet Union and China, embraced a “Third World” brand of Marxism. Mao, Ho Chih Minh, and Che Guevara became heroes of the movement. This was so outside the mainstream of American political consciousness that it was doomed to failure from the start. An armed revolution was always impossible in this country, and to advocate it was really nothing more than youthful folly. With the might of the military-industrial complex facing us, the belief that a few militant groups could overthrow the government was lunacy. To be fair, the majority of the movement knew that political progress was incremental, but the cry of revolution, fueled by the urgency of Vietnam and the absolute necessity of ending the war, became a rhetorical cache that produced nothing but a massive political backfire. It was natural to sympathize with the forces struggling against imperialism in the Third World, and this led to open support of the North Vietnamese and “Vietcong,” with Vietcong flags flying at demonstrations, and so forth. As it turned out, the Vietnamese resistance established yet another authoritarian statist regime after their victory in 1975. Leftists didn’t anticipate that, and perhaps they shouldn’t have been expected to. But in terms of practical politics, there’s a great tactical difference between protesting a war and openly siding with the people who are shooting at your country’s soldiers. Regardless of the ideological issues involved, it was bound to create an alienating effect. The most prominent symbol of this effect was the widespread demonization of Jane Fonda for visiting North Vietnam in 1972. As usual, public perceptions are watered down into personal terms by the media, and then turned into fodder for the right.
An American progressive movement, then, must embrace America and its Constitution in order to succeed, not advocate the overthrowing of America. Some of that wisdom was expressed in the movement, but not enough to undo the damage done by unreflecting anger and ideology. A corollary to this is that the movement needed to work both inside and outside “the system.” One can’t abandon the field of practical politics and expect to succeed. Many people refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because of his connection to Johnson and the war. The feelings are understandable, but the alternative was Nixon, and there was a far better chance of ending the war, and a lot of other needed things, if Humphrey was in the White House.
I have mentioned the cultural context a few times. This is in fact central to the wider public’s perception of the “60s,” and gives us a key as to some major movement flaws. Coinciding with the predominately youthful civil rights and antiwar movements was a cultural youth explosion. There were a lot more of us, because of the postwar “baby boom.” Rock and roll became more popular than any adult would have predicted. As a reaction against the emotional repression of their upbringing, young people also started experimenting with drugs, especially ones that heightened perceptions and feelings, i.e. cannabis and psychedelics. Combined with a sexual mores, this resulted in the proverbial “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” a catchphrase for a new supposed “counterculture.” Since the leftist movement was predominately youthful in character, the counterculture influenced it with a broadening of sensibility and outlook. The influence worked the other way as well, with youth in general being exposed to progressive political views, but this influence was not of the same strength or degree. Most people were not politically active, and that applied to counterculture people as well. Reactionaries have always equated the two, hating them both equally as the same thing, but events have proved that they were different in important ways.
With a few exceptions, most rock groups were not overtly political, outside of a general advocacy of love and peace. And the notion that music was a revolutionary force was soon proven illusory. The potential for big profits from rock music became obvious, and the groups went from peace and love festivals to stadiums in fairly short order, while the music itself lost most of the faintly progressive flavor it once had. By the end of the 70s, rock’s message was basically “let’s party and have fun,” which is what it was in the 50s. The arrival of punk heralded a general rejection of mainstream values, but not a political consciousness of any significance. Capitalism has proven that it can swallow almost any cultural phenomenon and turn it into an affirmation of itself. Long hair on men was originally a startling note of defiance, and it suggested a redrawing of assumptions about gender roles. A little bit of that still remains, like an aftertaste, but it’s really just a hairstyle at this point. When Newt Gingrich’s hair is longer than that of the Beatles in ’64, you know that long hair doesn’t have much meaning.
Drugs were also supposed to be revolutionary in some way. The more traditional leftists generally avoided this trap, but the Yippies proclaimed it as part of a new world of freedom, and of course Leary and Kesey and the Beatles and all the rest of them indicated a general expansion of consciousness. Well, it was, in a way, and for a little while, but for many it became an end in itself. The fact is, there’s nothing inherently radical about pot smoking or tripping on acid, outside of it being a defiance of the law. A guy smoking a bong in his basement and listening to Pink Floyd is not working for peace or social justice. He’s just having a good time. And many right-wingers, racists, and apolitical pleasure seekers have also enjoyed having a good time in the last forty years, without it affecting their political awareness at all. It could even be argued that the contemplative nature of the altered states involved, usually somewhat passive, works against the kind of energy and commitment needed in a political movement. Then, once other drugs came into the picture, such as heroin and cocaine, whatever progressive cultural effects drug use might have had evaporated to almost nothing. There is evidence that this transition to the so-called “harder” drugs was secretly promoted and enabled by the national security state.
Looser sexual mores had arguably a more long-term effect on the political culture. The women’s movement was born partly in reaction to the rampant sexism within the leftist movement. The gay rights movement was helped along by a greater tolerance for sexual diversity. Still, sexual “liberation” was easily co-opted by capitalism and incorporated into a culture of objectification and pornography that is not politically progressive in the slightest, but only reaffirms patriarchal structures in a new form. In general, we see the effect of the 60s on our cultural environment to a far greater degree than on our political one. Much of this is to the good, but without change in the political and economic power structure, cultural changes are confined mostly to the private sphere, where they can be assimilated by anyone regardless of politics, and are in any case constantly under attack from the religious right and other cultural conservatives.
We return then to my distinction between the movement and the counterculture. The counterculture involved far more people, and it was only briefly and tangentially connected to the movement. Once the draft ended in 1973, the antiwar movement deflated. The only logical conclusion was that many young people were involved because it was their lives on the line; once that threat was removed, they left. A movement cannot survive solely on opposition to a particular war—instead of an antiwar movement, it needs to be a peace movement that targets the confluence of military, corporate and political interests that continue to keep the country involved in wars. And a movement based on young people cannot win—it must contain the widest spectrum of ages, ethnic background, and classes in order to sustain itself for the long run.
For indeed it was the “long run” that we ignored. The ferment of the 1960s was so new, so exciting and intoxicating, and so dominated by youth (which of course doesn’t take the long view but always looks to the present) that the movement failed to work for sustained progress over decades of struggle. The urgency of ending the war played a major part in this. Of course it had to be stopped, but not to the point of disregarding the long-range goals that were vital to sustaining political progress. But rather than continue to mourn over a promise unfulfilled, or seethe with rage over battles lost, we can learn from the past. The movements for peace and justice today are still somewhat fragmented, separated into different identities and issues and thus not always united in focus. But they are more inclusive than the movement of the 60s, more mature, paying more attention to social and economic issues that face Americans, less naïve regarding what is possible, more strategically savvy in terms of its public relations and pronouncements, with eyes more surely trained on the future for the planet instead of this group or that. The challenges are also greater. We face the threat of environmental disaster and a resurgence of fascism. But I feel more hopeful seeing the activists of today, and their great energy and effort, then I did in the 1960s and 70s.
So what happened, after all? Just this: we were forced to grow up.