Chris Harman


A decade the right will never
forget or forgive

(19 June 2004)

In my view, Socialist Worker, No.1906, 19 June 2004.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHY SHOULD right wing commentators froth at the mouth over one decade? They certainly did so last Saturday night, during the second of BBC4’s series of weekends devoted to the 1960s.

David Aaronovitch of the Observer combined forces with Daily Mail stalwarts Peter Hitchens, Simon Heffer and Peter Osborne to denounce what they called “the decade of destruction”. They portrayed it as a time in which civilised values were subverted by consumerism, selfishness, egalitarian uniformity and commercialisation. They built up their case by playing on stereotypes of the 1960s as just being about Mary Quant or “flower power”.

What they really objected to was something very different. The 1960s was one of those periods where cumulative long term social changes suddenly led to people questioning old attitudes.

Footage in the BBC series from the early 1960s shows just what was being challenged. Young people were expected to take for granted beliefs and practices that seem prehistoric today. A Tory aristocrat could be prime minister. All TV announcers had unbelievable upper class accents. The police were almost universally presented as kindly souls. Sex was never spoken about in public – except as something only enjoyable for married men.

Newspapers and TV presented whatever the US did (including the endless bombing of Vietnam) as part of the defence of freedom. And racism was far more deeply entrenched in society, with “no coloureds” notices in newsagents’ windows, strikes against the employment of black bus workers in Bristol and unashamed use of foul racist language.

It was all this that many young people began to challenge. And the challenge became greater as the decade went on.

Fighting for liberation

One programme showed wonderful footage of Malcolm X addressing students in Oxford, shortly before he was murdered with FBI connivance in 1965. Black people had to begin the fight for their own liberation in the US, he insisted.

But when they did so, he went on, they would cause groups of white people to break with racism and fight for a better society. He got an enthusiastic reception when he said everyone listening had to see what part they could play in this fight.

A marvellous documentary from the spring of 1968 showed fresh-faced 19 year olds from Manchester taking up that challenge, as they sped down an empty M1 to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.

The result, according to contemporary TV commentary, was “the most violent demonstration for years” as tens of thousands tried to storm the US embassy, chanting again and again, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Such experiences led to a massive challenge to all the old stereotypes. Old attitudes were transformed as news reached Britain of the new struggles sweeping the world – the black movement in the US, the May 1968 events in France and the revolt against Stalinism in Czechoslovakia.

For some people the attitude changes were superficial. They abandoned wearing suits or dresses for jeans or miniskirts. They tried to “drop out” of society rather than confronting it – and they soon discovered capitalists ready to cater to their tastes. They provided much of the image of the 1960s that is often regurgitated in the media today.

But many others tried to fight for real liberation. They did not, in the end, succeed in defeating the system. That task still awaits us. But they did beat back some of the nastiest forms of oppression and slightly relax the system’s stultifying effects on people.

Above all, their struggles have passed on a heritage of questioning the whole of official ideology – a heritage taken up by the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of today. That is why the 1960s are still hated by those who defend every sort of reaction today.

Last updated on 13 December 2009