Price-sensitive passion?

The Sixties
December 4, 1998

Come mothers and fathers,/ Throughout the land/ And don't criticise/ What you can't understand./ Your sons and your daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is/ Rapidly agin'/ Please get out the new one/ If you can't lend a hand/ For the times they are a-changin!

Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changing (1964) "The search for historical watersheds is a notoriously unrewarding one," pronounced Arthur Marwick a year before the release of Dylan's adenoidal anthem. The Sixties is a confutation of his younger self. According to Marwick - appointed founding professor of history at the Open University in 1969 at the age of 32, and, judging by a marvellous photograph on the dust-jacket, still a hep-cat - "the long 1960s" witnessed a cultural revolution, a tectonic shift in the moral and material condition of western societies: not merely a dissident minority, he is at pains to stress, but a complaisant majority.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, he argues that mothers and fathers did lend a hand, willingly, as in the widespread liberation of censorship. Marwick's expression for this is "measured judgement" (in opposition to Herbert Marcuse's "repressive tolerance"). It becomes one of his leading themes. "What I shall hope to demonstrate is that the various counter-cultural movements and subcultures I did not confront that society but permeated and transformed it I This transformation was not due solely to counter-cultural protest and activism but also to a conjunction of developments, including economic, demographic and technological ones, and, critically, to the existence in positions of authority of men and women who responded flexibly and tolerantly to counter-cultural demands: I refer to this vital component of sixties transformations as 'measured judgement', to signifyI that it emanated from people in authority, people very much part of mainstream society."

Here then is a true watershed. Marwick is its minstrel. His conclusions are cliches, as he freely admits. "There has been nothing quite like it. Nothing would ever be quite the same again."

Marwick himself proposes an analogy (a rather superior one) with Jacob Burckhardt's classic treatise on The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, such that his own work might be described as "the civilisation of the cultural revolution in the West", with particular reference to four countries whose language he speaks - Britain, France, Italy and the United States. Of these, Italy and to a lesser extent France emerge as the poor relations, in contrast to an understandable, if at times questionable, concentration on the Anglo-Saxons. (In terms of cultural product, more space is devoted to the British than the French "New Wave", which is to substitute a trickle for a tsunami.) The treatment is broadly thematic within a loose tripartite periodisation:

"First stirrings" (1958-63), "The high sixties" (1964-68) - a neat encapsulation - and "Everything goes" (1969-74). A mighty introduction crushes a meagre conclusion.

By way of orientation and prospectus, Marwick sets out a kind of resume of revolution as he sees it, transnationally, encompassing 16 aspects or developments that might be summarised crudely as follows: counter-culture, entrepreneurialism, youth, technology, spectacle, cultural exchange, mod cons, emancipation, "permissiveness" (he emphasises, not sexual permissiveness but frankness and candour), self-expression, rock music, intellectuals, measured judgement, reaction, protest, and multiculturalism. Some of these are evidently more familiar than others.

Like measured judgement, entrepreneurialism is one of Marwick's most insistent and distinctive themes. It is not necessarily to be condemned, though it smacks of commercialism, and perhaps ultimately of exploitation. "Don't follow leaders/ Watch the parkin' meters," as Dylan advised. The 1960s, according to Marwick, was not so much about free love as price-sensitive passion.

He is equally interesting and robust on multiculturalism. At the end of the book he sets a kind of loyalty test for his protagonists. "What did they do to foster or frustrate the advance of multiculturalism? The counter-cultural and movement groups, with their genuine celebration of the colour, the variety, and the mutual stimulus to be found in a multicultural society, score well. So do some of the liberal Democrats in America, politicians like Roy Jenkins in Britain, and some Hollywood film-makers. Those who advocated segregation, discrimination, or separatism (including Enoch Powell and Toni Morrison) were the unseeing and destructive members of their generation."

This is "take no prisoners" Marwick at his trenchant best. He clearly prides himself on his no-nonsense delivery, and with good reason. It carries him forward on great sweeps through this densely wooded decade, percipient and unfatigued. A vast array of enterprising research - notably in the flotsam and jetsam of little magazines, from Shrew to Rodent by way of Spare Rib - is communicated with professional solicitude and frequent jabs to the solar plexus. Pugilism has its pitfalls, however, and one of them is intrusiveness. This author intrudes a lot.

In a curious shadow-play of entrepreneurialism, he informs us not only that the Open University research committee denied him funds for his researches, but that he largely financed them by taking visiting professorships abroad. His position on art is at once simplistic ("all contemporary art is 1960s art") and eccentric. "It seems likely that more new labels for types of art were invented in this period I, and certain that more were in use simultaneously, than in any comparable period before, and probably since."

His position on scholarship is draconian. He admonishes Ferdinand de Saussure for not writing up his lectures, or even leaving adequate notes, and upbraids Marshall McLuhan for the habitual sloppiness of his books. Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan come in for similar treatment. He abjures "crafty rhetoric" but inveighs periodically against what he calls the Great Marxisant Fallacy (of a bad bourgeois society in a state of incipient crisis): "nonsense (which) was to have a continuing influence in patterning what were to be the hipsters, miniskirts, maxiskirts, topless bathing-suits, and hot-pants of academia, that is, deconstruction, sociology of knowledge, semiology, semiotics, cultural studies, feminist studies, new historicism discourse theory, cultural materialism, and postmodernism in general." In the Marxisant School of Correction, those who can, do history -Jthose who can't, teach poststructuralism.

As if in ironic recapitulation of his own thesis, Marwick recently appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. "Man the barricades!" urged the press release. "1998 will be a revolutionary year for the Cheltenham Festival, as it explores the literature of rebellion, the poetry of freedom and the language of rock 'n' roll." The event was sponsored by British Energy, Virgin and Waitrose. Turn on, tune in, shop out.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c .1958-74

Author - Arthur Marwick
ISBN - 0 19 210022 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £ 25.00
Pages - 903

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