6.4 The Youth Movement and Cultural Revolution

Postwar Society

What existentialism and postmodernism had in common was that, in very different ways, they critiqued many aspects of western culture, from the progressive narrative of history to traditional religious beliefs. There is some irony in that forms of philosophy that were often radical in their orientation flourished in the midst of the growing affluence of postwar consumer society: discontentment with popular values and a demand for greater social freedom grew along with, even in spite of, the expansion of economic opportunity for many people. Part of the explanation for the fertile reception of radical thought – very much including Marxism, which remained highly influential – was a straightforward generational clash between the members of the generation that had survived World War II and that generation’s children: the baby boomers.

Much more significant in terms of its cultural and social impact than postwar philosophy was the global youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The baby boom generation came of age in the 1960s, with unprecedented numbers of young people reaching adolescence right at the height of postwar prosperity. Enormous numbers of young people from middle-class or even working-class backgrounds became the first in their families to ever attend universities, and the contentious political climate of the Cold War and decolonization contributed to an explosion of discontent that reached its height in the late 1960s.

There were essentially two distinct, but closely related, manifestations of the youth movement of the 1960s: a largely apolitical counterculture of so-called “hippies” (a term of disparagement invented by the mainstream press; the contemporary analog is “hipsters”), and an active protest movement against various forms of perceived injustice. Of course, many young people were active in both aspects, listening to folk music or rock n’ roll, experimenting with the various drugs that became increasingly common and available, but also joining in the anti-war movement, the second-wave feminist movement, or other forms of protest.

Western society faced an unprecedented problem as of the 1960s: there were more highly-educated young people than ever before. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, the purpose of higher education was essentially to reinforce class divisions: a small elite attended university and were therefore credentialed representatives of their class interests. In the relative social mobility brought about by the postwar economic boom, however, far more young people from non-elite backgrounds completed secondary schools and enrolled in universities. In turn, it was often college students who formed the core of the politicized youth movement of the time: taught to think critically, globally aware, and well informed, many students subjected the values of their own society to a withering critique.

There was much to critique. The Cold War, thanks to nuclear weapons, threatened the human species with annihilation. The wars associated both with it and with the decolonization process provided an ongoing litany of human rights violations and bloodshed. The American-led alliance in the Cold War claimed to represent the side of freedom and prosperity, but it seemed to many young people in the West that American policy abroad was as unjust and violent as was Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. On the domestic front, many young people also chafed at what they regarded as outdated rules, laws, and traditions, especially those having to do with sexuality.

A key factor in the youth movement was the American war in Vietnam. Despite Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc, the American government was a much more visible oppressor than was the Soviet Union to the more radical members of the youth movement. American atrocities in Vietnam were perceived as visible proof of the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism and imperialism, especially because the Viet Minh was such a relatively weak force in comparison to the American military juggernaut. Vietnam thus served as a symbolic rallying point for the youth movement the world over, not just in the United States itself. The focus of the youth movement, and a radical philosophical movement called the New Left associated with it, was on the life of individuals in the midst of prosperity. Leftist thinkers came to reject both the obvious injustices of Soviet-style communism as well as the injustices of their own capitalist societies. The key term for many New Left theorists, as well as rank-and-file members of the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s, was “liberation” – sexual, social, and cultural. Liberation was meant to break down social mores as much as effect political change. For example, the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to live with a romantic partner before marriage went from being a marginalized, “bohemian” concept to one that enjoyed widespread acceptance.

Likewise, elements of the youth movement and the New Left came to champion aspects of social justice that had often been neglected by earlier radical thinkers. In the United States, many members of the youth movement (black and white alike) campaigned for the end of both racist laws and the inherent racism of American culture in general. A new feminist movement emerged to champion not just women’s rights before the law, but the idea that the objectification and oppression of women was unjust, destructive, and unacceptable in supposedly democratic societies. In addition, for the first time, a movement emerged championing the idea that homosexuality was a legitimate sexual identity, not a mental illness or a “perverse” threat to the social order.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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