Once again, college students are in angry rebellion—against almost everything, it seems. I remember the feeling. But it is more than half a century since I smelled the anger and the tear gas. Here are my best recollections of an earlier time of rage, revolt, and high expectations.
It is 1965, and a crowd of students has gathered on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley. They protest with chants and shouts against war, racism, and oppression. They are addressed by a young grad student named Mario Savio, one of the leaders of this youth rebellion. If any photos remain of the event, they might show a young man standing next to Mario, holding a tape recorder. This is me. I’m not a rebel but a screenwriter sent by a Hollywood studio to see whether there’s a movie in this happening. They are hoping it will be a musical.
It didn’t turn into a musical, but it did inspire a few bad movies for which I wasn’t to blame. What those days of rage and hope did produce was a myth. Myths are a form of truth-telling, even when the details are fanciful. But like historical accounts themselves, they can be deceptive, even self-deceiving.
At the heart of the Myth of the Sixties is a view of that decade as a time of radical change that promised a bright yet unrealized future—or, conversely, a descent into libertinism and nihilism. Both perspectives assume that something fundamentally new occurred in the sixties. A paradigm shift altered our perception of not just politics and sex but reality. But the myth gets it wrong. The sixties were not the beginning of an era but the end of one.
The durability of this myth is striking. The myth has lasted this long because it remains needed. It romanticizes a sad time of lost hopes. The movement it spawned was short-lived because the animating spirit was less promising than expiring. The young rebels, especially as they aged, naturally rejected the idea that they were merely the tail end of a dying dragon. But conservatives have likewise rejected the notion of a definitive closure. In short, the myth obscures the fact that this rebellion, which took place in less than a decade, was a historical hiccup.
How did this “happening” happen? The rhetoric of the sixties affirmed the ideals of the eighteenth-century revolutions, though it was more French than American in spirit. Both Marx and Nietzsche were forerunners, and Freud, too, played a hand. The rebels of the sixties stood not so much on the shoulders of the communards as on those of their grandparents in the free-spirited twenties, their parents in the militant thirties—and, believe it or not, even some of us in the fifties, or at least our movies.
The part of the story with which I’m most familiar is Hollywood’s takeover of radical politics. The fifties had brought some changes to my hometown of Hollywood. The film industry was threatened by the rise of television and the potential loss of the adult audience. But some Hollywood producers saw an opportunity in the youth revolt. The antiestablishment trend could be commodified, especially if it were aimed at middle-aged parents who lived in the suburbs and watched I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke. And so the adolescent revolt became the basis of box office hits such as Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. The “sexual revolution” became an international media phenomenon and has remained so, at least in advertising and product development, ever since. Only in Hollywood could cultural decline be so shrewdly turned into profit.
I was there in the fifties, when left-wing politics took a nose-dive. I watched the immediate predecessors of the sixties radicals, the “Old Left,” expire. I had been a communist until almost the end of the decade. My excuse was youthful ignorance, which lasted until the Soviet leaders’ admission of Stalin’s crimes, including mass murder. By that time the intellectual credibility of Marxism was shaky. The dogmatism and ruthlessness of local Communist parties, including the tiny American contingent, were not merely the result of orders from Moscow. The new aspiring revolutionaries inherited the remnants of a left-wing ideology not just fractured by “deviance” but lacking any philosophical grounding. We have no statements from the New Left that count as doctrine. By contrast, we have doctrinal statements from Marx and Lenin, who actually said and wrote coherent things. The new revolutionaries were acting out the loss of the Old-Left worldview. Incoherence doesn’t constitute a “new start.”
Long before the Berkeley chants, the 1950s had witnessed a loss of faith in modernity itself. The disillusionment was evident in the writings of Greene and Waugh in Britain, in those of Mauriac and Malraux in France, and in the openly despairing works of Kafka and Ionesco. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World appeared in 1932, and Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World in 1956. Add to these works the existential credos of Albert Camus (The Rebel, 1951) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, 1952). I offer these titles as data, not as oracles. Whatever we make of them now, they were signs of a society in decline.
I observed firsthand the flight from reality into drugs and narcissism that followed the collapse of the sixties rebellion. Many scholars, such as Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman, and Alasdair MacIntyre, documented it in the seventies and eighties. In the seventies, we were told we were living in a “postmodern” condition, which is like calling a corpse “post-living.” We all knew it was over—whatever “it” was.
Of course, the causes of youth anger in the sixties were closer to home, or to where home had once been. They can be summed up in two words: divorce and drugs. Divorce meant the loss of family, which in time meant the loss of tradition and community. The erosion of these relationships, essential for human flourishing, created anxiety, from which Americans sought an escape. One escape was drugs, the other was the mass media. What has sustained the sixties myth ever since is that at the very height of the youth revolt, its efforts were immediately transformed into profitable mass media products.
This is why Columbia Pictures had sent me to Berkeley. Though the hoped-for musical never materialized (my producer had been a dance director in the thirties), something much bigger and lasting emerged. The commodification of the symbols, events, and personalities of the sixties created the “youth market,” or what was mistakenly called “youth culture.” (It wasn’t a culture, only a marketplace.) I played only a minor role in the development of the youth market, but I knew the intentions of the players. My final task was to write the screen test for a big rock star at the time. I won’t name him. He was a nice guy and it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t act.
The myth of the sixties holds that the youth rebellion was finally defeated by malice and ill will. But it was not defeated. It was simply the last stage of a historical period that had been gutted by two world wars and several genocides. The “revolt” was against this grim reality. This is why it was so susceptible to the illusory escapes of drugs and promiscuous sex. It had lost hope in what was already a lost hope.
For me, the youth revolt of 2020 is “déjà vu all over again,” and it confirms my contention that we are seeing yet another chapter of a prolonged ending. What might a less romanticized account of the sixties tell us about the rebellion of today?
The student protesters of the sixties are the tenured professors of today. They have lost many battles but not their faith, and indeed, some radical changes are sorely needed. But, as in the sixties, without any transcendent goal, only the quest for power remains, and power is eventually revealed as force. This desperate quest, evident in the sixties, is manifesting itself again. A half-century is a parenthesis in historical time.
The ironies abound. This is not a philosophical movement, so the fact that Nietzsche rather than Marx is the true patriarch is a matter of indifference to the marchers. Given their adulation of power and the thrill of force and coercion, the fact that many of the protesters identify as “anti-fascist” only further reveals their indifference to history.
In Matthew 4:8–9, we are told of Satan’s last test of Jesus. He offers Jesus the “kingdoms of the world.” The pitch wouldn’t have been wealth and fleshpots, but the chance to set everything right. Jesus could bring about the universal order to which many still aspire, as did the kids of the sixties. But it is an order based on politics and, most of all, on power and all that power implies.
Jesus knew the card that Satan had up his sleeve. Do we?
Ron Austin was a writer-producer in Hollywood for more than thirty years.