HOW USEFUL IS THE TERM ‘CULTURAL REVOLUTION’
I propose to define and to argue the question “How useful is the term ‘Cultural Revolution’ when applied to the Sixties?” My objective is to include examples from history, history of science and religion.
Let us first consider Arthur Marwick’s decision to periodise the sixties from 1954 to 1975 and Eric Hobsbawm’s periodisation (within his book Age of Extremes, written in 3 parts) with the sixties contained in the ‘Golden Age’. These dates of periodisation are certainly interesting hypothesis.
War dominated the culture existing at the beginning of the 20th Century, i.e. the 1914-18 War, followed a few years later by the World War II 1939-45. Europe and Britain suffered massive losses of life. Then came the spread of Communism after the World War II. America became paranoid about the spread of Communism, and because of this entered into a war with Vietnam; with disastrous consequences; they lost hundreds of thousands of young men; and completely failed to stop the spread.
The Vietnam war came to an end through ‘people power’. Country-wide mass protests were held; people were sickened by the numbers of lives lost, and they questioned the futility and morality of war Then came the many threats of global annihilation by the so-called super powers (America and Russia). In Britain, children born at the end of the World War II were brought up in a stultifying economic and cultural environment. They were taught not to question; “seen and not heard.”. Adherence was given to the churches’ strict moral teachings; and the class system was still very deeply entrenched in society. Sex was not discussed openly; therefore, many young people were sexually inexperienced and had little or no knowledge of contraception. Young unmarried women who became pregnant outside marriage were ostracised. The working classes at this time were quite poor, with little or no modern amenities; for example housing was poor, without bathrooms, electricity or inside toilets.
Now let’s look at what happened in the sixties, which will help explain how historians have concluded that the huge social changes that took place in the sixties could be termed ‘Counter Culture’. Was it only a matter of time before young people rebelled against such repression? Look at social oppression throughout history – this type of regime almost inevitably fails. America, Europe, and Britain were experiencing the first stirrings of opposition to authority; young people started to question, authority. Universities staged protests against many things, e.g. the Vietnam War, civil rights etc. In 1955 Rock and Roll music ‘came over’ to Britain from America. This caused a great transformation in popular music. The staid BBC radio were forced (through the popularity of illegal pirate radio ships), for the first time, to broadcast popular music all day. The fight for civil rights by black Americans began in Montgomery, Alabama. The taking of recreational drugs such a marijuana and LSD began. The masses could now afford to buy a television This made a huge impact on people’s lives in the widest cultural sense. They could see what was happening throughout the world, they were more informed and educated through this medium. The recovery of the post war economy brought a brighter future as there was more money available, people began to buy large household items on credit (the ‘never never’) they filled their houses with (‘all mod cons’) the like of fridges, vacuum cleaners and washing machines; at last women were liberated from household drudgery They started to fight for equality (Feminism), and certainly the discovery of the ‘pill’ gave them freedom from unwanted pregnancies and therefore greater sexual equality with men. Was this discovery the most important social change in the sixties, undoubtedly it had a great impact and effected the attitude of young people towards sex in the sixties? Education saw more working class people attending University. There was a new entrepreneurial surge especially by the young. Even the clothes the young wore were novel and highly distinctive. In looking at some of the historical happenings mentioned, it is obvious that a great deal of opposition and shift in culture was happening in a way that had never occurred before, but through the use of periodisation you can see distinct similarities to other periods in history. For example the Feminist cause could be said to be a natural follow-on from the Suffragette Movement. The fight for civil rights in the ‘deep south’ of America is related to the fight to abolish slavery as this area was where the greatest concentration of slaves lived and worked in the cotton fields, therefore there was still a large population of blacks living in this part of America. Was it these circumstances that brought about the Counter Culture of the Sixties? They could be asserted as the trigger for the shift in culture, but again many other things must be taken into account that had a huge influence on the lives of people throughout the period of the sixties.
By the end of the 19th Century science seemed to have managed to shake off the restrictions placed upon it by religion. No doubt this did not affect the working class as in this period they would not ‘question’, because of insufficient understanding of science, through lack of education. Those that were interested in science were the educated, i.e. the clergy, middle and upper classes. The scientific profession seemed to have survived the dogma, that the likes of Darwin and Wallace were unable to escape.
Science in the Sixties seemed to advance in a markedly rapid way. Russia beat America in the ‘space race’ by launching Sputnik I. America soon followed and was the first to land a man on the moon. In Britain, Sir Christopher Cockerill invented the Hovercraft; and Christiaan Barnard carried out the first Heart Transplant in South Africa. America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) with hundreds of thousands of people wiped out at a stroke. This act brought science into question, how could it justify its involvement with something so amoral. Did Science travel too fast; did it reach a peak and topple over in the sixties? To reiterate, the sixties was the time of the sceptic, and certainly science or ‘technocracy’ did not avoid an ‘assault.’ The American academic, Theodore Rozak, believed that science had the ‘authority’ to control, that it used fascination rather than compulsion to weave a web of acquiescence. I think you can see history repeating itself, ordinary people did not understand science, and therefore Rozak felt it had a position of misplaced reverence. Did the improvement in education erode the pedestal upon which society had placed science? Inevitably if you educate the masses this will ultimately change the culture – there are certainly echoes of Rousseau here. Rozak’s students felt that it “ruthlessly eroded their spiritual values”, so here again is the question of religion in conflict with science; history again repeating itself? Did this rejection of technocracy by the radical left cause the quintessential paradox with the radical right and left, unknowingly dovetailing themselves into some sort of consensus? It seems the sixties were the time for rejecting all that was traditional including established religions. Did the growing power of institutions become so repugnant that it caused a revolution in order secure a measure of independence and freedom.? The counter arguments that I have given, again show how difficult it is for historians to conclude that the Sixties ‘Cultural Revolution’ included Science within its suppositions.
Religion began to be studied ‘historically’ in the late 19th century but is the outcome of developments dating back to the Enlightenment. The Christian church, during the period of Enlightenment, went through great revolutionary upheavals. A hypothesis was put forward and upheld that people should have the right to question religious authority. The belief was that human reason and truth were sovereign and not God. This was really radical thinking, but also at this time people were beginning to travel to Europe and new words pertaining to far eastern religions came into being such as, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism.
Here again we can detect parallels to religion in the sixties. and to the (periodisation) Enlightenment. Britain did not seem to be affected as much by the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in respect of religion as America. Some historians and social thinkers thought modernisation and secularisation were inseparable, that at this time ‘God withdrew to a deistic heaven and watched his creation from afar’. America did not abandon, religion, at this time, it only appeared to abandon ‘mainstream’ religion and by doing so many divergent faiths, NRMs arose; albeit many appeared rather ingenuous with names like Jesus People, Divine Light Mission, Krishna Consciousness, Children of God and the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, (the Beatles were members of this group for a short time. Many looked to the Eastern religions to learn techniques such as spiritual transcendence and personal fulfilment. The discipline of studying religion requires a variety of approaches and plurality of the traditions involved, does this enrich the research or does it create perplexity, so was the involvement in religions of other cultures revolutionary. After wars and poverty does culture find itself in a void, does this void need assuaging with more than science, therefore, is this where religion gets the chance to take over as the comforter.
Historians, have a very difficult task when practising periodisation and contextulising. How have Marwick and Hobsbawm come to their conclusion on periodisation for the sixties? Was the sixties strictly contained within a single decade, did it start from 1945 until 1973 or from 1958 to 1973? Hobsbawm and Marwick will have studied primary and secondary sources, such as books, film archives academic papers etc to confirm their theories (i) Marwick that a Sixties ‘Counter Culture’ did exist and (ii) Hobsbawm that the Sixties were part of his ‘Golden Age’. They will have applied subjectivity to an absolute degree in order to confirm that something different was happening, that huge cultural shift were taking place. Is the history of the this period easier to investigate and study because of the great advances made in communications in the sixties, television, film etc were available and could give an immediate primary source. Does this make the historian’s work easier because he has this form of primary source where he can actually watch an historical event unfolding on the actual date and time. Or, is it only another source for the historian to study and assess in the usual way, assessing they are truthful depiction’s, and have been treat by the producers with due it objectivity, and that they no hidden agendas have been used for propaganda purposes or exaggerated to such an extent that it turns out to be fiction rather than fact
“I do believe the term ‘Cultural Revolution’ when applied to the Sixties?” is most useful. As many of the events I have mentioned were unique to that time, and their effects on mainstream culture were so radical that the term ‘revolution’ could be used. I think it should also be noted that this appeared to be a cultural revolution by the young, how were these young people triggered into such dissent. Allan Bloom, in his book “The closing of the American Mind” stated (when writing about student uprising at Cornell University in 1969 “I know of nothing positive coming from that period, it was an unmitigated disaster for them” . He felt the misdeeds of the campus New Left were an intellectual catastrophe comparable only with the experiences of German professors under the Nazis. This is pretty strong stuff, Others felt “it was a ten year fall from grace, the loss of the golden age of consensus, the end of an edenic epoch of shared values and safe centralism.” I am sure not only America’s ‘conservative’ population, hankered for the ‘warm and kindly fifties’, but also Britain and Europe, but the past is always viewed more favourably than it actually was, and it must be remembered that it is gone for ever, even though the sixties are so close. Time always dims the memories of an era, they become vague and generalised and therefore erode the absolute objective truth. Arthur Marwick’s and Hobsbawms’s suppositions on periodisation are equally sound premises. given that they come to different conclusions, but that is the nature of History, nothing can categorically be stated to be absolutely right. Only good research and balanced premises will take you anywhere near the truth. Finally, given all the information in this essay, I believe it does indeed show how useful, the term ‘Cultural Revolution’ is when applied to the sixties.
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