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Years of Hope, Days of Rage

THE SIXTIES: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, 1958-1974.\o7 By Arthur Marwick (Oxford University Press: 872 pp., $39.95)\f7 ; TOO GOOD TO BE FORGOTTEN: Changing America in the '60s and '70s.\o7 By David Obst (John Wiley: 282 pp., $24.95)\f7

October 11, 1998|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is Book Editor of The Times

There almost always is a gap between intentions and experience. If it is very wide, we are obliged to reexamine both our expectations and our experience. For the generation whose lives were indelibly stamped by the '60s, such self-scrutiny has been rare. A clutch of activists (coming to very different conclusions) has sought to do so: Todd Gitlin, David Horowitz, David Hilliard, Elaine Brown, Margo Adler, Paul Berman, Tom Hayden, Mary King, John Lewis, among others. Instead, it has preferred to assign responsibility for the collapse of its hopes on "others"--Nixon, COINTELPRO, Red squads everywhere. There is, of course, a measure of truth in this. But the failure to leave an enduring political legacy has more to do with a fundamentally stunted conception of politics. It is, sad to say, a flaw that is embedded in the heart of the sensibility of the '60s.

Much of the activism that animated that period revolved around the idea of authenticity: an end to estrangement and the construction of community were constant refrains. (Today's identity politics with its inherent distaste for the very notion of a common civic culture is one unhappy consequence, alas, of that idea.) The injection of moral passion was deemed a necessary antidote to rouse an America (as well as a world) whose political sensibilities had been dulled by the elixir of alienation. Politics was a form of Gestalt, a species of social psychoanalysis. Its aim was not merely reform but catharsis.

There was an implicit thirst for politics as a total art form. To shatter resignation, rebellion was decorated with symbolic acts and varnished with the jargon of "authenticity." To the "end of ideology" was proposed a mystique of participation. To the sluggishness of reform was proposed the cult of direct action. The result, as the late Christopher Lasch so clearly understood, "imprisoned the Left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance--a mirror image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the Left to unmask."

Politics as a total art form embodies a terrible logic: Only by increasingly provocative spectacle can the veil of apathy be pierced. Such a politics can express itself in either harmless gesture or in violent acts. Extremism is elevated to the level of strategy. Direct action is the barometer by which commitment is measured, authenticity the result of an ordeal endured. It is a dialectic of defeat.

The '60s contained less a politics than a collection of extremely seductive moral sympathies. Ultimately, the confusion of the personal with the political would subvert its better intentions. The hope that unbridled passion was capable of not merely transforming society but of changing those within it, that it would give lasting meaning to otherwise empty lives, was as dangerous as it was naive.

Historical truth is always elusive; things are always more complicated than we care to remember. Lucidity depends on one's angle of vision--and, it should never be forgotten, on one's stake in the present. Arthur Marwick's dense and important book, despite a prolix prose style and a certain aridity of presentation, goes a long way toward providing us with a more subtle sense of what a historical moment contains. (For a taste of the spirit of the '60s, Geoffrey O'Brien's unjustly neglected gem, "Dream-Time: Chapters from the Sixties," remains invaluable.)

Political renewal, it might be argued, lies in the spirit of the '60s. But it would be wrong, however tempting, to turn that time into self-serving myth. Its limits are etched in the collapse of the movements it helped to engender. And yet, one hopes that autopsy does not mean that the moment of exhausted possibilities is at hand.

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