The Historical Roots of 1960s Radicalism

The rebellious fervor of the Sixties, with its rejection of traditional standards and authorities, seemed a sudden break from what came before. At a deeper level, however, those developments simply brought to fruition what had long been in the works.

What happened at that time was a further step in a centuries-long process of social transformation. The French Revolution had replaced kings and priests with bureaucrats, and the Industrial Revolution turned artisans into assembly line workers. The events of the Sixties continued the process.

Their basic effect was to replace personal and family obligations by social welfare rights, and inherited community understandings by therapy and political correctness. Instead of family life based on sexual restraint and differing functional roles for men and women, we would have sexual freedom, contraception, daycare, and careers for all. The changes were marketed through appeals to freedom, but they carried forward and radicalized the replacement of local and traditional ways by bureaucratic and market arrangements. Those arrangements are not particularly free. To call them “liberation” is to say that man is essentially an employee and consumer who pursues various diversions in his time off, so that a rationally managed system of production, consumption, and private indulgence is what he needs to give him what he wants and maximize his freedom.

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The roots of such changes go back to the dawn of the modern age. For centuries the development of transportation, communication, and markets has been disrupting local and customary relationships; the rise of modern natural science has been promoting an emphasis on control and a skeptical view of informal and traditional knowledge; and the growth of the state has been suppressing local and customary authorities and the international and transcendent authority of the Church. Globalization, the Internet, the new atheists, and the Obama administration are only the latest installments in that long story.

The outcome of the story is a way of life that is increasingly carried on through impersonal and supposedly rational arrangements and supervised by managers and other functionaries with specialized knowledge unconnected to traditional and popular understandings. Such arrangements are claimed to make life freer and more rational and efficient. Their effect, though, has been to make it less comprehensible to ordinary people, and to transfer social power to managers, persuaders, bureaucrats, and experts. Life has become a battle between experts and managers on the one side, and “fear of change” and “deeply rooted social stereotypes” on the other, with the experts and managers always assumed right.

That battle expresses a gap between inherited standards, which are based on traditional understandings of life and the world, and the view of the world now held by people who run things. Why should such people take God or chastity seriously? The issues seem irrelevant from a bureaucratic or market standpoint, so our rulers’ natural response is to treat them as private matters that should be kept out of public discussion as disruptive.

For that reason inherited standards, which are always social, have increasingly seemed unanchored, arbitrary, and at odds with reason. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries those perceptions had given rise to growing cultural radicalism in intellectual and artistic circles. Radicals wanted authenticity, and there seemed something odd about a bureaucrat or industrialist taking moral tradition seriously. If traditional ways are so great, why be a bureaucrat or industrialist? Those in responsible positions rejected such views, so they were exposed to leftist accusations of hypocrisy, but they gradually accommodated themselves to what seemed like moderate reforms such as easier divorce.

The people at large went on as best they could, but the decline of committed and articulate leadership meant that their views lost focus and coherence, so that when pressed they couldn’t explain themselves effectively. Finally, in the Sixties, effective resistance crumbled and the rejection of traditional cultural standards went mass market. That happened for several reasons. An influential section of the ruling class, progressive intellectuals, supported cultural radicalism, while TV, advertising, and commercial pop entertainment promoted personal indulgence and separated imaginative life from the realities of human experience. Young people, who are impressionable and impulsive by nature, were deeply affected by those influences, as well as by a progressive education designed to separate them from traditional institutions and understandings. The result was the outbreaks of 1968, which outraged the people at large but aroused the sympathy of the media and soon led those in power to realize they didn’t need the old standards and could make use of the new. In 1967 contraception was illegal in France, but by 1974 President Giscard’s center-right government was supporting legal abortion. Other Western countries saw similar developments.

The support of ruling elites marked a major step forward for cultural radicalism. Revolutionaries had often favored it, but when victorious had given it up as disruptive in times of emergency. Early Soviet support for free love had given way to official puritanism, and the Nazi homosexuality symbolized by the Brownshirt leader Ernst Roehm had been followed by sporadic persecution. The post-60s West felt secure enough to dispense with such old-fashioned forms of social discipline. The loss of small-scale social cohesion and functionality was more than outweighed, from our rulers’ standpoint, by the increased power of the bureaucratic and market institutions they dominated. The technocratic bias of modern thought also played a role. It is literally inconceivable to most educated people today that traditional moral standards could be rational and beneficial. The standards aren’t designed to maximize and equalize the satisfaction of preferences, so they are seen as oppressive and irrational by definition.

The result is that today the cultural radicalism of the Sixties is not only widespread but official and unquestionable, so much so that if you don’t like it you’re considered an ignorant bigot. In the recent campaign President Obama felt confident he could treat support for compulsory free provision of contraceptives by all employers as a political asset without serious questioning by commentators or even his opponent. As a politician he knew that there is no way to object to such measures that sounds rational and compelling in high-end national public discussion.

So what should we do? I only have space for a couple of comments, but here are some that seem to the point:

Our problem is that people don’t think as the Church thinks or aspire to live as the Church wants to live. Worse, most people don’t understand what those things mean or why they make sense. So what we need most is clarity of thought and purity of intention. If we don’t offer something special people aren’t going to take us up on it. So today more than ever, integrity trumps political pragmatism.

We also need to understand the fundamental strength of our position. The other side wants to replace God, man, and nature by a social machine with human components. The effort isn’t going to succeed. God and nature can’t be eliminated, and man can’t be neutered and controlled. So if confidence in ultimate victory is a source of strength, that strength is available to us. Even at a purely natural level, the battle against the destructive heritage of the Sixties is one we’re eventually going to win.


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