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We Should Recapture the Optimism of the 1960s

In order to make progress in our time, we have to remember the radical promise of the 1960s — both what was won, and what's been forgotten.

Anti-nuclear protesters waiting outside Birch Grove, the country home of British prime minister Harold Macmillan, where he and US president John F Kennedy, were having weekend talks, on June 30, 1963. (Kent Gavin / Getty Images)

The 1960s hold a special place in collective memory and imagination, as much because of what has happened since as because of what happened then. As Sheila Rowbotham notes at the beginning of her recently reissued memoir, “the radical dream of the sixties was to be stillborn, for we were not to move towards the cooperative egalitarian society we had imagined. Instead, the sixties ushered in an order which was more competitive and less equal than the one we had protested against.”

As the dream died, the sixties entered its depoliticized, two-dimensional afterlife, “glossily repackaged as the snap, crackle and pop fun time, to be opened up periodically for selective nostalgic peeps on cue: the pill, the miniskirt, the Beatles, Swinging London, Revolution in the Streets.” Or in the immortal words of Danny, the drug dealer of Withnail and I: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” As the subsequent decades have buried the dream ever deeper, the attempt to unearth it has seemed ever more urgent and more impossible. As Rowbotham puts it: “Retrieval has become an act of rebellion.”

Rowbotham’s account of the sixties is, as befits a feminist historian, both personal and political. We follow her through the decade, year by year, as she moves from her Methodist boarding school in North Yorkshire to Paris, Oxford, and London, exhibiting the same understated yet principled promiscuity in her explorations of sex, love, and politics.

Rowbotham recounts her early experiences of political activism in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the hope and disillusionment of the Harold Wilson government, the flowering and rapid fracturing of the New Left. She documents the flourishing, in the wake of political disappointment, of the radical history movement — and her own close friendship with two of its central figures, Dorothy and Edward Thompson.

Throughout, we witness Rowbotham’s struggles to develop and articulate an incipient feminist consciousness for which her immediate context as yet provides no adequate conceptual resources or vocabulary. All the while, she confronts the deep-seated sexism both of the organized left and of a superficially androgynous and sexually libertarian hippie counter-culture.

In what remains a familiar syndrome of left masculinity today, egalitarian pretensions often served both to mask and to intensify an underlying reality of domination. “The divested trappings of masculinity could, as if to compensate, produce a more exaggerated desire to control women,” Rowbotham writes. “It was to be this peculiar combination of a new spaciousness in gender identity and a tighter grip in unexpected places which laid the basis for women’s rebellion.”

Yet in the Britain of the sixties, as Rowbotham relates, “feminism” was still something for “professional” women: a narrow demand for equal access to perks particular to a social and economic elite. The “second wave” of the 1970s would change all that; the course of development of mainstream feminism in the decades since has arguably changed it back again.

As the book closes on the eve of the first UK Women’s Liberation Conference, held in 1970, Rowbotham reflects:

The movement I envisaged was to be an entirely new kind of politics — no leaders, no ego trips, no more sectarian disputes. It would assert the claims of working-class women, not only those of the more privileged, and it was going to be about bread and about roses . . . What actually happened was to be in some ways much more than we initially imagined and in some ways very much less.

To retrieve the sixties in memory is simultaneously to realize how much has been forgotten. The point is not to say that things were better then than they came to be later on — or than they are now. In certain ways, the struggles of and on behalf of women, sexual, and ethnic minorities had barely begun. The thin, individualistic version of “equality” that would later become official doctrine — albeit one now newly imperiled — was yet to be established. Explicit bigotry and bias — resurgent again today — were widespread in the sixties.

But as Rowbotham’s account also makes clear, there was a developing understanding of the structural nature of oppression, something which today’s activists are having hastily to relearn and reassert in the face of the overwhelming dominance of a liberal model preoccupied with “implicit bias” and oriented toward a narrow equality of representation within existing social institutions.

Reflecting on the visit by Malcolm X to the Oxford Union one year before his murder, Rowbotham recalls:

Sociological studies of race current in Britain in the first half of the sixties tended to focus on attitudes, but Malcolm X’s approach, along with an influential 1962 book by a white American socialist, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, connected the sources of material injustice with cultural domination. I seized on these insights from across the Atlantic because they illuminated the daily evidence of race and class inequality surrounding me in Hackney much better than concepts of a ‘prejudice’.

What happened to the promise of the sixties? One part of the answer is that its demise was brought about by the internal weaknesses and divisions of the Left, then the hammer blow of Thatcherism, and perhaps finally secured by the softer, smothering effect of the Tony Blair years, which ushered in a depoliticized dystopia that is only now beginning to crack.

But to ask what happened to the “dream” of a freer and more human form of society is not only to ask how it died, or who killed it. It is also to ask the slightly different question of what became of that kind of conviction or aspiration, and of the people who embodied it. Of the parade of young radicals who appear in Rowbotham’s story, some — and this, unsurprisingly, seems to be truer of those figures who went on to achieve conventional forms of recognition and success — would later take up their places among the prize bores of the establishment. Not everyone is willing or able to conform to this model of maturity. But those who still hold out — the old Trots, old hippies, and trade unionists — have been relegated more and more to the margins, eventually fading into an invisibility beyond curiosity or even ridicule.

The classic joke has it that if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there. In a way, Rowbotham proves that adage wrong. She describes dabbling in weed and acid — but only in moderation. And anyway, she kept a diary. As a result, she is able to document the day-to-day happenings of the (mainly London-based) left in which she was active throughout the decade in more detail than normal human memory could furnish unaided. But there are different kinds of memory.

There is the ability to reconstruct with relative precision what happened when, and in what order. This is quite different from what might be called the “analytic” dimension of memory: the abstraction or drawing out, from an inevitable morass of events, the contours of a trajectory; the crystallization of an insight from particular experience. Rowbotham does far more than merely record events: she recalls her thoughts at the time, supplementing these with reflections in retrospect; she weaves together her insights as a social historian with those of an active participant in a sequence of social movements.

Yet to my mind, the first dimension of memory as chronicle is more developed in Promise of a Dream than the second, analytic one. A consequence of this is that Rowbotham’s memoir can produce at times the paradoxical sense of a rather distant kind of intimacy. The reader has her nose right up against the day-to-day goings on of Rowbotham’s own life, the lives of people she knew and the various organizations to which they belonged, yet without much sense of really being there or truly knowing any of the characters — even Rowbotham herself. As a result, the action tends to roll by without the sense of proportion or perspective needed to make it truly memorable, so that one is left with a lingering sense of remembering simultaneously too much and too little.

Promise of a Dream was first published in 2000 – almost twenty years ago. The difference of perspective afforded by the passage of the intervening years is profound. Viewed retrospectively, the year 2000 appears as roughly the halfway mark of the era of the “End of History”: the high point of the idea that the major political questions had been conclusively resolved in favor of liberal capitalism, leaving only the technical challenges of implementation (the latter best left to the experts). But history did not end, and events since the most recent economic crash of 2008 have left capitalism and liberal democracy — according to opponents and ardent defenders alike — in a state of existential crisis.

Things in 2019 feel almost as different from the way they felt in 2000, I suspect, as from the way they must have felt in the sixties. The combination of anger and hope evident in Rowbotham’s account of that decade — affirmed by virtually everyone who both remembers and was there — is in stark, alien contrast to the 2000 I remember: a time of latency, of nothingness, of a shiny superficiality and deeper sickness. To someone of my generation, the idea of growing up with the sense that things were steadily, albeit slowly and imperfectly, developing in a positive and socially progressive direction is almost impossible properly to imagine. Until very recently, perhaps, so was the experience of the disappointment of real hope.

If the sixties were a time of optimism, the late nineties and early 2000s a time of ominous blandness, the dominant mood of 2019 is one of screeching desperation. If it is to be possible to hope again, we will have to help one another to remember.