Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties
by peter collier and david horowitz
summit books, 352 pages, $19.95
The retroactive glorification of the 1960s has been gathering momentum over the last decade. It reflects and in turn re-enforces what has become the conventional wisdom of a significant segment of public opinion, especially in the intellectual and academic communities. The 1960s has come to be perceived in such circles as a period of beneficial social change marked by an unprecedented outburst of idealism among the young. Thanks largely to their efforts, the anti-war, civil rights, feminist, environmental, and anti-nuclear movements flourished. There were, it is granted, some “excesses” on the fringes of the protest movement, such as the violent activities of the Weathermen, that marred an otherwise glorious chapter of American history. But even these excesses were the fault not so much of the protestors as of an unjust and unresponsive social system that provoked extreme reactions to it. Not much blame attaches to the young. Or as the authors of this volume put it: “Nostalgia artists have made [the sixties] into a ... prelapsarian age of good sex, good drugs, and good vibes . . . a time of monumental idealism ... a time of commitment and action when dewy- eyed young people in the throes of moral passion unknown in our own selfish age sought only to remake the world.”
Peter Collier and David Horowitz present in Destructive Generation a wholly different portrait of the decade. They identify among its characteristics the rise of political extremism, a revival of a no-enemies-on-the-left mentality, and an outburst of uncritical admiration for and identification with left-wing totalitarian systems such as Cuba, China, and Vietnam, whose repressive regimes were invariably depicted as victims of western (especially American) capitalism. Other marks of the decade include a pervasive anti-intellectualism that inflicted lasting damage on the nation's universities and a general loosening of social discipline and moral standards that encouraged hedonism under the banner of “self-realization.”
Destructive Generation has elicited a remarkable amount of hostility. The best explanation for this visceral animosity may well lie in the common tendency to idealize one's youth. Most of the hostile reviewers of Destructive Generation were young during the 1960s; many were actively involved with the movements and ideas of the times. Thus an attack on those ideals and movements becomes an attack on the reviewers' earlier selves, on their personal and political identities. Collier and Horowitz were themselves leading figures among the ‘60s activists and idealists, and their rejection of the past can only be seen as a sell-out and act of betrayal. Most reviewers scornfully label them as turn-coats, unhinged ideologues who switched from one set of rigidly held beliefs to another. Particularly unforgivable to their critics (and often mentioned in the damning reviews) was the authors' strong support of the Reagan administration.
One can find historical precedent for today's ventures in “second thoughts” in the disillusioned soul-searchings of an earlier generation of leftist radicals—the former Communists and fellow-travelers of the Stalin era. It is instructive to reflect on the differences involved in the two generations and in the reactions their recantations have evoked.
Disillusionment with Soviet Communism was a massive phenomenon that greatly exceeded the corresponding disenchantment with the radicalism of the 1960s. The earlier disillusionment gathered weight as it stretched over several decades, beginning with the purges of the 1930s and extending, at different rates among different individuals, all the way up to the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and to Khruschev's “secret speech” in the 1950s.
Liberal public opinion found it easier to accept the defections from the pro-Soviet cause than from the radical movement of the ‘60s. One reason lay in the difference between the nature of the two types of attachments. Pro-Soviet fellow traveling and association with the American Communist Party was in the main a personally more isolated and isolating experience than participation in the ‘60s' movement. Moreover those earlier loyalties had an identifiably alien focus: they involved identification with a foreign power that manipulated American citizens in its own interests. The attachments and movements of the ‘60s, by contrast, were entirely homegrown, and they represented a mass phenomenon that was far from exclusively political. The ties that continue to bind people to the ‘60s have been more diffuse than were the pro-Communist causes of the earlier period. Those ties persist not only because of their partly apolitical character but because they involve large numbers of people who have been able to find safe haven in supportive institutional settings on many campuses and in many churches.
Thus the ethos of the sixties lives on in an extensive and solidly based adversary culture, one whose beliefs, in distinction to those of the earlier generation, are unlikely to wither or wilt. Group solidarity restrains any massive defection, or even significant soul-searching and reappraisal. Enough people persist in the New Left faith to discourage widespread “second thoughts” which in any case would entail the kind of painful reassessment of fundamental beliefs that most people instinctively avoid.
It is therefore the case that a great many people who became estranged from and hostile to America in the ‘60s and ‘70s retained that disposition through the ‘80s. While many of the specific movements and causes of the ‘60s have vanished, a basic suspicion or aversion toward American institutions persists. Indeed, the conviction that “America was guilty and untrustworthy . . . is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the sixties.” Given all this, it is easy to understand why those willing vocally and publicly to defend these devalued institutions—such as the authors of this book—inspire so much hostility.
Collier and Horowitz recognize that the sixties' nostalgia has more than sentimental implications: “the nostalgia is also a political phenomenon. The growing interest in the sixties coincides with a renaissance of the radicalism that was the decade's dominant trait . . . .” The authors pinpoint the specific ways in which that radicalism survives and influences the present. They even suggest that the American political spectrum on the whole did not move to the right despite the Reagan presidencies; they note that many of the values of the ‘60s became, in somewhat diluted form, the conventional wisdom of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
As part of their argument, Collier and Horowitz direct attention to an often overlooked political development, the revival and rehabilitation of the Old Left, a development accompanied by a renewed spirit of anti-anti-Communism. Memories of McCarthyism have played a major part in this process, with both its real and alleged victims “rehabilitated as martyrs and heroes of an American political ‘nightmare.'” In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, and the collective guilt they both inspired, “the specter of ‘McCarthyism' was embraced as a metaphor for a guilty past to which America must never return.” Indeed, it became a “political blunt instrument to beat critics of Leftism into silence” and to discredit any form of anti- Communism.
Anti-anti-Communism has further been sustained, the authors argue, by a revival of the thirties' tactic of “popular frontism.” Memories of that tactic came naturally to those many members of the sixties' radical leadership who were “red diaper babies,” children of Old Left radicals of the thirties and forties. (Horowitz was himself among them.)
The survival of the sixties in the present has found consequential, if sometimes bizarre, expression in municipal politics. A number of cities that contain large universities have found their governments influenced in varying degrees by university-based activists, many of them sixties' radicals now safely tenured faculty members. Among these enclaves—which include Berkeley and Santa Cruz, Madison, Ann Arbor, Burlington, and Amherst—Berkeley has been the most extreme. The book's chapter on Berkeley (“A Tale of Socialism in One City”) details developments largely unknown to the American public. It should be required reading for anybody interested in the survival and institutionalization of the sixties. The case of “the People's Republic of Berkeley” provides a graphic illustration of what happens when the rhetoric of the ‘60s gets implemented in the “real world.”
Run by radicals for approximately twenty years, Berkeley has experienced the virtual ruin of its public school system, a vastly increased municipal bureaucracy, a greatly diminished housing stock (thanks to stringent rent controls and other restrictions on property rights), increased crime and drug abuse, widespread corruption, and wholesale waste of public funds. While disgruntled residents complain of potholes in the roads, the leaders of the city undertake diplomatic missions abroad. Their domestic achievements include the establishment of a special park in which unleashed dogs were expected to “exist harmoniously once separated from their owners' ethic of possessiveness.” But things went badly. As one chastened promoter of the scheme put it, “Some people were sure that the dogs would prove to be egalitarians . . . . But they aren't. They come here and immediately join the pack which is a strict hierarchy controlled by the top dog . . . . They have a great time in the pack, but they aren't really very progressive. It was a hard lesson for some of the radical pet owners ... to swallow. Not only have we failed to create the New Man in Berkeley. We haven't even created the New Dog.”
A lack of notes weakens this lucid and informative volume. Those suspicious of the authors will question some of their assertions in the absence of documentation. Furthermore, the scheme for the organization of the book and its division into three parts is not entirely clear. And since some of the chapters have been published be- fore (in modified or identical form) it would have been of interest to know where and when they had originally appeared.
Such flaws, however, do not diminish the authenticity and importance of Destructive Generation. It may be the most revealing document that has so far emerged about the dark side of the sixties and the long shadow it continues to cast into the nineties.
Paul Hollander is Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the author of Political Pilgrims.
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