You Say You Want a Revolution: Remembering the 60sby Colin Kinniburgh
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY | JANUARY 19 - SEPTEMBER 1, 2018
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
At first glance the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) You Say You Want a Revolution: Remembering the 60s offers a familiar picture of that turbulent decade. A send-up of psychedelic art frames the entrance, with the exhibition’s title radiating outwards in playful lettering against a wash of electric orange and purple. Inside, the scene is set by a ten-foot-tall photograph taken by Walter Bredel of the crowd at Woodstock in 1969. It too is printed in that same lush gradient. Illustrations from the San Francisco Oracle (1967), dripping with acid-laced mysticism, are blown up to similar proportions. On the right-hand wall, a poster for a 1967 “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In” marries caricatures of Native Americans with psychedelic ooze. Lining the exhibition panels are well-worn slogans like “Give Peace a Chance.” Harvard-psychologist-turned-hallucinogen-evangelist Timothy Leary figures prominently, flowers in his hair. In the glass cases, visitors are invited to pore over Tom Wolfe’s scribbles from Haight-Ashbury (which became The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968) and pamphlets on Eastern spirituality. A headphone-equipped music section features a full catalog of the era’s iconic artists, spanning hippie-rock favorites like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix to soul and blues singers, folk revivalists, and jazz players, too numerous to list here.
Who needs another tribute to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll? Fortunately, You Say You Want a Revolution offers much more than just that. The artwork, photographs, and documents offer a layered look not just at the counterculture in its contradictory forms, but at the underpinnings of the wider political revolt which transformed the United States in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Among the more surprising artifacts recovered by the NYPL’s curators are pamphlets and posters produced by the Diggers, an early Bay Area counterculture group that borrowed its name from the seventeenth-century British radicals who demanded the abolition of private property. A “disciplined group of community anarchists,” as the program notes put it, the Diggers had little patience for turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. After the 1967 Summer of Love brought a “consumerist frenzy” to Haight-Ashbury, they issued a mock-Victorian funeral notice, complete with black border and quaint lettering, inviting San Franciscans to mourn the “Hippie, devoted Son of Mass Media.” The exhibition’s curators note that this event “attracted around 80 marchers, several of whom bore a cardboard coffin with a cardboard ‘hippie’ inside.” The agitprop art and pamphleteering were part of the Diggers’ efforts to create a “free city,” starting with a communal kitchen that served free meals daily in Golden State Park. Much of this is memorialized in Joan Didion’s classic 1967 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
The backdrop to these efforts, sunny as they often were, was the violence of the Cold War order, as exemplified by the war in Vietnam as well as enduring racial segregation and the brutal repression of the rising Black Power movement in the second half of the decade. One unattributed 1969 poster captures the consolidation of the military-industrial complex, depicting a Honeywell cluster bomb alongside the slogan “We Aim to Maim,” while a pamphlet from the same year, Black Marines Against the Brass, makes explicit the connection between the war abroad and the war at home, demanding justice for two black marines imprisoned in 1967 for refusing to take part in either Vietnam or the crackdown on that summer’s black urban uprisings.
You Say You Want a Revolution offers a thorough cross-section of the radical movements that seized on the decade’s growing discontent and sought to give it revolutionary form. Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the Gay Liberation Front, the Weather Underground, and the lesser-known Young Patriots, a group of mostly Appalachian poor whites who joined Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, are just a few of the New Left groups to make an appearance. The panoply of groups hold out both inspiration and a warning to today’s rising generation of millennial activists—inspiration for the depth of their ambition and transformative influence on politics and culture, warning for their liability to splinter and vulnerability to the backlash that followed.
For all of their differences, as the curators put it, these groups shared a central underlying goal—“the overthrow of the government and its replacement by a more representative socialist democracy.” In the face of Cold War conformity and the repression it entailed—both overt and more subtle—these radicals sought self-determination. And the only way to achieve it, they felt, was through revolution. The shared language of Marxism undergirded the armed patrols and community kitchens of the Black Panthers as much as it did the early organizing of the Gay Liberation Front, whose name consciously echoed that of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.
For many of these groups, 1968 affirmed the conviction that revolution was not only necessary but imminent, with strikes and protests of unprecedented scale erupting everywhere from France to Czechoslovakia, Mexico to Pakistan, putting the established order on hold. Radical movements never reached quite the same crescendo in the United States, but the combination of campus unrest, black militancy, and increasingly widespread hostility to the Vietnam War suggested to many that the possibility was still around the corner. Marxist scholar Paul Heidemann recently noted in Jacobin that in the fall of 1968, one poll found that some 350,000 college students considered themselves revolutionaries; by 1970, that number had gone up to a million.1
But the tumult that swelled the left as it crossed into the 1970s also amplified the divisions within it. Those divisions are on display at the NYPL too. Increasingly unmoored from organized labor and the working class more generally, the student movement fell prey to various forms of vanguardism, with one faction of SDS splitting into the self-destructive (at its worst, literally suicidal) Weather Underground, on one hand, and the no less misguided Maoism of the Progressive Labor Party on the other.
In one of the era’s more mind-bending historical footnotes, the LSD guru Timothy Leary himself tested the limits of solidarity in Algeria after escaping a California prison on drug charges; he was smuggled out of the United States by the Weather Underground and received in Algiers by Eldridge Cleaver, who headed the International Section of the Black Panthers. Their relationship soon soured, however, and Leary was briefly placed “under ‘revolutionary arrest’ for his LSD advocacy” before being pushed on to Switzerland and then Afghanistan, where he was nabbed by U.S. drug agents.
Back stateside, factions multiplied and disillusionment deepened. The San Francisco Diggers denounced their New York counterparts for actions like showering dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange, which made for good theater but did little to disrupt financial markets. What bound the carefree Yippies with groups like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army was effectively a form of narcissism—the idea that in the place of an organized mass movement, a handful of radicals could jolt the system into submission through a series of well-coordinated stunts (which, needless to say, failed).
It's not that larger protests, strikes, speak-outs and teach-ins did not continue well into the 1970s: historians Michael Stewart Foley and Lane Windham, among others, have provided valuable correctives to this common view. The queer and women’s liberation movements, especially, made important strides during this period, as did the budding environmental movement, but they could not ultimately match the neoliberal counterattack emerging at the time.
Partly as a result of this neoliberal turn, it was the depoliticized side of the counterculture that won out in the popular imagination—the side that touted self-indulgence as liberation, that brought us the proliferation of New Age cults and communes, that took us from the Whole Earth Catalog to the iPhone. Some lucky dabblers may have found their way to the “LSD Utopia” proposed in a 1967 issue of the Los Angeles Oracle, but most of the United States had to make do with stagnating wages, growing austerity, conservative moral retrenchment, and the abandonment of the utopian visions that animated the sixties’ mass movements.
Fortunately, those visions—of true racial and gender equality, of an economy managed by and for the people, of a society where no one can tell you who or how to love—never altogether died, and the last ten years have seen them taken up by a “next” left as ambitious and uncompromising as that of fifty years ago. The explosion of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) since Trump’s election—as well as the larger ecosystem of movements, from Black Lives Matter to the Parkland students to #MeToo, that has taken shape since Occupy—marks the potential for a new, transformative coalition. The groups comprising it are leaving behind the stodginess of the post ’70s left and discovering, or creating, a new language to connect with the people they seek to mobilize. There is an aesthetic side to this, too, if not yet on the level of the ‘60s: DSA, for example (of which I am a member), has seen a proliferation of illustrators, designers, filmmakers, and musicians turning their talents toward building a vibrant mass movement. And their efforts are proving increasingly effective.
You Say You Want a Revolution may not quite teach today’s leftists how to avoid their predecessors’ mistakes, or how to overcome a tide of reaction at least as destructive as the one wrought by Nixon, but it still provides an instructive glimpse into the world they sought to make, and a reminder of what it will take to get there. For all its recent growth and dynamism, the organized left in the United States today, as in much of the world, is a fraction of the size and strength that it was fifty years ago, while its enemies have only grown more organized. Will the shock of Trumpism be enough to reverse that trend? No exhibition can answer that question, but mining the history of earlier movements and the backlash against them can offer some clues. For that alone, You Say You Want a Revolution is well worth the visit.
- Paul Heidemann, “Half the Way with Mao Zedong,” Jacobin Magazine, May 23, 2018. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/05/half-the-way-with-mao-zedong
COLIN KINNIBURGH is a senior editor at Dissent.