Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Arthur Marwick's "The Sixties": Book Review

People changed, not the system. Extremism enriched culture, Marxism disappointed realists. Dreamers believed in Mao and music to remake the world, but personal changes failed to sustain lasting economic or political shifts in power. This sums up the thesis from a founding professor of history at The Open University since '69: ideally placed to comment on this decade, in fact spanning 1958-74.

This enormous book, published in '98, hides within its heft, its reams of data, its dutiful reporting much wisdom, many archival gems, and innovative research. Marwick favors primary texts in Britain, the U.S., France, and Italy, and these transcend expectations. "Room at the Top" and "This Sporting Life" gain in-depth analysis and comparison of text to film to illustrate the evolving mores in Britain as consumer frivolity eroded postwar frugality. Memphis State U's paper "Tiger Rag" documents student reactions to desegregation. A French Communist magazine aimed at youth (of both sexes) has its reviews of early Beatles pop records compared to those of Catholic competitors in the press (one for each gender). Diaries show how political change affected not only the young but their parents. An widowed Italian mother, who in mid-'68 picks up caramel wrappers after her radicalized son entertains boorishly his privileged comrades, over the next eighteen months starts to read the Communist Manifesto and to investigate this feminism that the boy's girlfriend carries on about.

Liberalization on the personal level, as goods cheapened and wages rose, allows sexual and philosophical transformation, but Marwick stresses how the mooted "working-class awareness" distinguishes itself from "consciousness" contrary to Marxian pieties. The latter condition carries the expectation that such proles and students must be "in constant struggle against the middle class in order to overthrow it," while most working class people were content to contemplate their distinctions, rather than to work to abolish them. Theorists failed to challenge Marx's 19th. c. "epochal pattern of history" that expected a false dialectic. Marwick argues: "There was never any possibility of a revolution; there wae never any possibility of a 'counter-culture' replacing 'bourgeois' culture." (10)

Trite analyses by Roland Barthes stating the obvious while overlooking the context; catch-phrases and slogans trickling down to a wider, idealistic, and often naive activist audience; impractical solutions for deeply rooted injustice: the Sixties promised more than its participants could deliver, and they lacked guidance on how the already dated concepts of class struggle could truly solve global inequality. This conflation of Marx with (post-)structuralism and social construction of roles never questioned this "lousy history" (290) any more than biologists denied Darwin. On this groundless trust in "the Marxisant fallacy," Marwick finds "there is no more evidence for the existence of 'the dialectic' than there is for the existence of 'the Holy Ghost'." (12)

Confronted with such a wealth of detail, what emerges are such spirited moments of contention, and the archival eye for the telling remark. Much of this does read at times as if a write-up of the scholar's notes, but he's able, when accounting in one long paragraph for the success of the Beatles, for instance, to use the example to stand for the whole. Their eclectic, experimental, and extremist mood, in lyrics and in music that for its variety always sounded "like the Beatles," best characterized the decade's "expressive mode."

Even the fabled Paris uprisings in '68 showed that while stylistic and aesthetic exuberance counted for a lot of evident change, that our world's power structures were too embedded to be easily overturned by Western protesters in scarves and jeans. "In the end France was not that different, since the whole theory that revolution ought to take place was simply false. Everybody piled in with their particular fads and philosophies, then just left it to happen. A badly typed statement from the 'Children's Cell of the Revolutionary Communist (Trotskyist) Party' declared that children were part of the struggle." (614) The stylistic assembly of statement, observation, and supporting fact delivered with deadpan "dispassionate analysis" (20; his term for being an "atheist" towards glib jargon and tired theory I welcomed) shows the tone of this social-political history.

This study shines in such moments amidst the perhaps inevitable amassing of evidence that may overwhelm. As a Californian, I did catch a few slips betraying the author's British base. He repeats the familiar claim that black casualties in Vietnam were "grossly disproportionate" but gives no statistics. (535) (In fact, 10.6% of enlisted men were black, 12.5% of those killed; this compares to blacks of military age being 13.5% of the U.S. population at that time.) James "Chancy" was not killed as a Freedom Rider, but "Chaney" was. There is no "County of Oakland," Alameda County encompassing the city of Oakland within county limits. The San Francisco Giants, cited by "Ebony" here, boasted not Willie "McCorey" but "McCovey." The L.A. riots in "Watts 1993" were in 1992. And, while no native would call it "the Big Sur" using an article, it may be technically correct to locate this beauty spot "north-west" of Los Angeles. Yet it's two-thirds up the coast nearer San Francisco, its more fitting geographical neighbor and a better culturally aligned designation.

I read this straight through, but others may wish to dip in and roam about the chapters, thematically arranged along a chronological framework from '58-63 as the foundation for a cultural revolution, the "High Sixties" from '64-'69, and the coming down into the early seventies, ending the postwar affluence boom in '74. Marwick, like his decade, perhaps shines best in the British New Wave and then in the upheavals of '68; the last stretch of the book's anticlimactic even as gay rights, antiwar demonstrations, feminism, and environmental causes at last start to work smaller, often less dramatic, but still astonishing and longer lasting feats of eroding the power base. He closes his chapter on '68 pondering how the student protests could be chronicled, for such events are important to sort out, whereas "it is much easier to pontificate about 'hidden structures', since nobody can possibly tell whether you are right or wrong". (675)

He finds the protesters show the idealism and bravery inherent in the decade's uprisings; they also show "the folly of their obedience to the great Marxisant fallacy; the absurd faith that there was a promised land ready-- given sufficient protest, sufficient violence, sufficient unconventionality, sufficient vulgarity-- for the taking." Yet, Marwick, who was there, or close by, humanizes his critique. "I do not mock the protesters; I salute them, recognizing that they never had a hope of success in their revolutionary aspirations. I do mock commentators since, who, looking for the revolution decreed in the Marxist scriptures, have gone and on picking over their failure, missing the real cultural revolution." (Published to Amazon in the U.S. and Britain 8-25-09)

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