SOCIAL MOVEMENTS OF THE 'SIXTIES: Youth and Counter-culture, Beats and Hippies…


A Poem by Pablo Neruda:


“Tyranny cuts off the singer’s head

But the voice from the bottom of the well

Returns to the secret springs of the earth.”


(Quoted by Duncan Campbell, Guardian Sep 8, 2003: a giant poster of the poem hangs outside City Lights bookshop in San Francisco).


                                                                                                                                                                                                Links to other documents: Imagining Other Home Page



(Ctrl + click on headings):


1. Introduction: Discussion of the nature of “New Social Movements” in relation to the ‘sixties’

2. Background

3. Variety of new social movements

4. Character of the youth movement

5. Anti-authority and ‘autonomy’

6. New definition of politics

7. Postscript


Footnotes: #Footnote 1 Youth in China     #Footnote 2 Gary Snyder quote       #Footnote 3 Allen Ginsberg quote     #Footnote 4 Norman Mailer quote


Other bookmarks: #William Blake   Allen Ginsberg     Norman Mailer



1. Introduction: Discussion of the nature of “New Social Movements” in relation to the ‘sixties’:


NB. The social movements I want to examine reached their most dramatic peak in the 1960s, but several started in the 1950s or even immediately after the Second World War. For “short-hand” I will refer to them as movements of the ‘sixties.


1. There is a set of ‘theoretical’ questions that I would like to explore, concerning ‘new social movements’:


(i) the second half of the twentieth century saw the birth of a number of new protest/social movements - against the Vietnam War, for civil rights, for sexual liberation etc - and they varied in their preoccupations and purposes. They also seemed to be different from previous protest/social movements. Sociologists call them ‘new social movements, and often defined them as non-political – is this justified?


In other words, two questions arise:

(ii) did they have enough in common to justify their being identified together as New Social Movements i.e. as a new type of movement?


(iii) And how different were they from traditional/previous movements? Again, different enough to warrant the label “New Social Movements”?


Here, I would agree with (Scott 1990): many "new social movements" were in fact revivals of earlier movements, as we have seen with the labour movement and the women’s movement. Also, in the US, the students’ movement grew out of the response to the Vietnam war, which itself grew out of the earlier pacifist and peace movement and socialist movement. The civil rights movement under Martin Luther King deliberately took on ideas and methods from Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggle, and of course the anti-slavery movement was a precursor of the civil rights movement. As noted, the women’s movement was a “second wave”, since demands for suffrage went back to the previous century.


The youth movement seems the least derivative of previous movements, and yet it has also been argued that many key ideas went back to William Blake (1757 – 1827). To be explored below…


New Social Movements:

(i) In my view the ‘newness’ of the ‘60s movements was to do with the challenge to existing authorities, and the demand for power at the grassroots. For example, youth have always “rebelled” (and no doubt Freud has something to say about this!), but this had not appeared as a wide social movement before.


(ii) The newness of the phenomenon is also reflected in the new terms - Hippy and Beatnik - created to describe the youth, which originated from the 1940s and ‘50s: the word beat originated in 1948, according to Ann Charters. In her book (Introduction to The Penguin Book of the Beats, ed. Charters, 1992 p xix) she quotes the novelist Jack Kerouac saying that the word beat represented “a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world… so I guess you might say we’re a beat generation”.  The word hip, or hipster, was derived from black culture and from jazz (see op cit p xxi, and see Norman Mailer below) – also in the late ‘50s.


(iii) New Demands. The demands of blacks (against discrimination and for full civil rights – e.g. to higher education) were shockingly new to many Americans at this time! Later, the same shock, lack of comprehension and hostility would be directed at women who dared to suggest that they were not going to be satisfied with cooking, shopping and having babies! What exactly the youth and hippy movements wanted was not so clear! Students wanted to run their own educational establishments, and this was too much for most academics!


(iv) New Forms of Organisation. In regard to the youth movement, a significant contrast lay in the fact that previous protest movements had, on the whole, been disciplined and organised (take the workers’ movement as a good example).  Many said that Hippies and Beats were simply protesting, and they themselves argued for “dropping out” (“Tune in, Turn on, Drop out,” as Leary said). Workers had clear demands, the youth simply wanted freedom to enjoy themselves. Later, the women’s movement began “consciousness-raising” groups, and then “separatism”, based on the view that women had to organise separately to men because whenever men were involved in a movement or an organisation they would come to dominate it. Students developed the “teach-in” (modeled on the hippy “love-in”?) when they stopped going to lectures.


(v) The search for New “Meanings.” Some saw a significant aspect of all the New Social Movements (NSMs) in this change of emphasis from traditional political demands to demanding a right to a new “life-style”, and from reformist demands to the deeper desire to change the way people think (i.e. the meanings attached to roles and to institutions). Women challenged the definition of a woman – and blacks declared that “black is beautiful”. It could be argued that these moves to change consciousness were outside the political arena. Charles Reich, in his book “The Greening of America” (1970) identified three forms of consciousness evolving in America. The first was pioneering, based on the work ethic, and managerial; the second tried to control the corporations using the state, but simply led to the values of business and of bureaucracy dominating Americans’ thinking and life-style; finally, with Consciousness III comes a rejection of the rat race, dope-smoking, “music, hippie clothes, hand-painted vehicles, and sheer joy…” (this quote is taken from a review of The Greening of America in Freedom, 1972). Later the youth movement was described as a “counter-culture” (Roszak, 1970: The Making of a Counter-Culture).


(vi) Anti-authority: another feature that several of these movements had was their anti-authoritarian outlook – and again, the radically democratic (often “leaderless”) nature of these movements seemed to mark them as new. These movements were more sophisticated, too, in their awareness of the dangers of “incorporation” (demands being watered down and weakened by apparent concessions) or “institutionalisation” (bureaucratic solutions and laws do not immediately - if at all - change underlying patterns of discrimination). These lessons had no doubt been learned by the experiences of the workers’ movement.


(vii) Autonomy: for the first time in history whole categories or groups of people were demanding the right to control their own lives (see further below).


2. Background and origins of the ‘sixties’ movement(s) - the post-war scene:


(i) ‘Teenagers’:

After the Second World War, eventually, the economies of Britain and Western Europe began to boom. Once “rationing” ended, young people (“teenagers” was the new term) for the first time had money of their own to spend. A whole new culture was promoted (especially pop music) that appealed to youth, and sub-cultures appeared, based largely on fashion, tastes in music, and patterns of consumption: there were Rockers, Mods, Teddy Boys…  There was an element of rebellion – e.g. James Dean… However, my view is that, despite all the positive aspects of the post-war world, there was at the same time a deep dissatisfaction.


(ii) ‘Consensus Politics’ and the ‘end of ideology’:

The politics of post-war Britain is often described as “consensus politics”. That is, many saw the Second World war as a war against one extreme ideology (Fascism), in which the allies had fought (temporarily) alongside the followers of another extreme ideology (communism). It is argued that, as a result, the population of Britain, and perhaps America, were suspicious of “ideology”, and believed that a pragmatic kind of politics was now needed to re-build the world. Daniel Bell edited a collection of essays entitled ‘The End of Ideology – on the exhaustion of political ideas in the fifties’ (1960). Of course, this is too simple a picture: although there might have been a fear of extreme ideology, which was seen as the cause of much suffering (i.e. not only the war, but also the widespread repression in the USSR), nevertheless there was not an absence of ideology (let alone the “end of ideology” that Daniel Bell described).


(iii) Planning the peace – the state – and large corporations:

Moreover, it was felt that since opposed parties had worked together to “plan the war”, we could now “plan the peace”, using the same kind of state-directed methods. A combination of state power and the strength of large corporations was put to work. Politics in Britain was said to amount to “Butskellism” – a combination of Conservative (Butler) and Labour (Gaitskell) policies. Economics was dominated by “Keynesianism”: the belief that the state played an important role in a capitalist economy, especially by spending to boost demand.


(iv) Technostructure:

With the growth of large corporations at the time it seemed that the individual entrepreneur (Henry Ford, Rockefeller) had become less important, (because no-one could run such large businesses single-handed). Instead there was what Galbraith called the “technostructure” (see CSR Ch 5: technostructure), that is, teams of experts who managed different aspects of the corporation (finance, legal, personnel, production, marketing), and whose goals included the long-term survival of the company rather than just short-term profit. These managers, Galbraith argued, would even become “socially responsible”. Also in America, the Marshall Plan was put into operation, and the state spent generously to assist the damaged economies of Europe to recover.


(v) Conflict:

But many felt that the political consensus was in fact flawed: there was an undercurrent of (socialist) opposition, both “native” and under the influence of Soviet “Communism”. A powerful indicator of the anxiety and fear felt about this in ruling circles was the rise of McCarthyism in the USA. Industrial disputes did not disappear either. Moreover, it has been argued that the Marshall Plan was used to suppress militant workers’ movements, and to boost the kind of apparatus and ideology that was favourable to a “mixed economy” managed by “representative democracy”. That is, the values and political preferences of the “victors” were spread throughout Europe and even into Japan (See Binns 1992).


(vi) Political and economic crisis:

There were also political and economic conflicts in the ‘60s and then the ‘70s in Britain: as James Buchan (Guardian 23.09.06) pointed out, in a review of a book (Sandbrook 2006) on the Sixties, the Wilson government in Britain, whilst hailing the “white heat” of a technological revolution, was faced with a large number of crises: over the unions (who rejected Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” proposals); and in Northern Ireland (riots on Bogside etc); and in ex-colonies (e.g. Aden and Rhodesia). Buchan says the country “could not … indulge both imperial fantasies and the consumer boom that has come down to the present as the legend of Swinging London.” The Tory Chancellor Reginald Maudling is remembered for saying to the incoming James Callaghan: “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess.” In my view, the Middle East war and the subsequent rise in oil prices was largely to blame for this crisis… However, others do not put so much stress on this – and I am not sure why. Eventually, Britain had to go to the IMF for a loan, and restrictions on wage rises, imposed partly because of this, led to the industrial relations conflicts of the ‘70s.


In America, the beats and hipsters were alienated by the Cold War and the Korean War, as well as the growing consumer society.


(vii) Management power:

Moreover, management power was being challenged:  with the growth of large corporations at the time it seemed that the individual entrepreneur (Henry Ford, Rockefeller) had become less important, (because no-one could run such large businesses single-handed). Instead there was what Galbraith called the “technostructure”, that is, teams of experts who managed different aspects of the corporation (finance, legal, personnel, production, marketing), and whose goals included the long-term survival of the company rather than just short-term profit. (These managers, Galbraith argued, would even become “socially responsible”).

However, there would also be a ‘countervailing power’ arising from consumers and from workers who wanted more of a say in their work processes. Whilst these ideas were not particularly radical, they chimed with ideas coming from the New Left.


(viii) Bureaucracy:

Power corrupts, especially where there is little opposition: in the UK, after the Labour landslide following the War, Labour local authorities became more remote (some would say “even more remote” – since when have Councillors, as politicians caught up in bureaucratic machinations, not been remote from ordinary people!) from the people they were supposed to be serving. Though slums were cleared, they were replaced by tower-blocks, designed by architects who were not going to live in them, and without any participation by their future inhabitants in their design. Corruption was rife (see CSR Ch 3: tower blocks). In the USA the CIA and the FBI had unprecedented power – not to mention the Mafia (it was said that Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys were linked by common acquaintances in the world of the Mafia). 


(ix) The Cold War

The “security” of peace was superficial, since a “hot war” had been replaced by the Cold War. There was always the possibility of (nuclear) annihilation, as Norman Mailer argued (see below). See also my notes on the anti-war movement… Nor could anyone be sure that there would be no resurgence of Nazism. For Mailer this insecure and anxious (angst-filled!) mood was reflected in a philosophy that became very influential in post-war France - existentialism…

As soon as we examine our existence and what it means to exist, we may find, with existentialists, that we are plunged into a profound sense of “angst”, as there is no answer to such a question. Consequently we may, with Mailer, seek experiences that heighten our sense of living or give us a sense of meaning in our lives.  


(x) Consumer Culture:

Another suggestion is that the “death of God” as Nietzsche put it, at the end of the 19th century, was replaced by a soulless consumer culture; for consuming material goods (or even mass-produced cultural artefacts) cannot satisfy people’s deepest longings nor soothe their deepest anxieties…  It is hardly surprising then, that social movements grew up around demands for love and honesty, for poetry (see … and see my review: When Poetry Ruled the Streets), as well as for justice and democracy…


(xi) Power to the imagination:

It is worth noting also, that whilst the theoreticians describing the post-war period stressed its rationality, as opposed to the emotional appeal of ideologies, the youth and student movements (like William Blake before them, see below) rejected the narrow application of “reason” and instead emphasised the imagination; and the feminist movement moved on to question male forms of “rationality” (see notes on Feminism).


3. The variety of different movements that were active in the 1960s, in America, Europe and Britain:


The movement on the part of blacks for civil rights in America – this was the earliest movement, and its best-known leader was Martin Luther King, who was influenced by Gandhi, and who rose to prominence in the mid-1950s. In the 19th century, slave revolts and the British abolition movement had brought about the end of slavery, but blacks were still subject to appalling discrimination and persecution for decades before this movement began to protest. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was set up in 1910. In turn, the civil rights movement influenced the 1960s student movement (Astin, 1975, et al.)


The movement against the Vietnam War caused upheavals – not just in America but in Britain and Europe (especially in the universities – see below). The target of the movement obviously, was one specific war, though “left” opponents of American policy were quick to link the war with America’s world role and the growth of capitalism (that is, the struggle against communism).


The socialist and communist movement had undergone splits, especially after the events of the 1950s (Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and repression of protest in East Germany – Khrushchev’s speech attacking Stalin). Those who sought a humanist form of socialism, whilst still attempting to remain revolutionary, formed what soon came to be called the “New Left.” One might dispute whether this could be called a social movement, but its influence was felt in many areas, through all the new movements of the 1960s in fact, except perhaps feminism…


Youth culture, hippies, beatniks: as explored below, in the 1960s youth for the first time had its own culture, and the means to enjoy it (rock/pop music, record-players etc). In America, the “Hippies and Beatniks” dropped out of established society. However, the older generation (one that had experienced National Service, and believed it had “done them good”) still clung to attitudes that restricted the young (e.g. over haircuts!). I will deal with this aspect of the youth movement, especially the Hippies and Beats, in more depth below.


The “sexual revolution” also led to a clash of the generations, as well as clashes with groups of Christians (e.g. Mary Whitehouse). Little wonder that youth felt the need to break out! Fashions were designed to be strikingly different to what had gone before: colourful, exotic, sexy… New mind-expanding drugs were taken up. A whole crop of “small magazines” emerged to cater for the new “swinging” market (International Times, Oz, Frendz) and attempts were made to censor and prosecute them for their “pornography” or their advocacy of drugs. (Rosie Boycott, later editor of a national newspaper, was involved in Frendz and then IT, and later in Spare Rib, the feminist magazine). R.D. Laing’s existential theories on the causes of schizophrenia (he said it arose because of certain kinds of relationships in the family) had political repercussions. Mass poetry readings were held in the Albert Hall, involving radical and provocative poets such as Allen Ginsberg.

Thus also the ‘60s are remembered as a period of sexual liberation: gay rights organisations had been set up in the 1950s in America (the Mattachine Society, and the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians and their supporters); their membership was not restricted to gays/lesbians, and their social base was largely middle-class. In the case of gay rights, after police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969 there was a reaction, and rioting, and support began to broaden to the working class. (Hence the organisation Stonewall, of course.) The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was set up in Britain and eventually the law was changed so that homosexual practices were no longer illegal. The Pregnancy Advisory Service grew out of a concern for women’s reproductive rights in the time of sexual liberation.


Women: Last on the scene perhaps in terms of chronology, but also perhaps the most radical, was “second wave” feminism. Women felt that existing political and social movements – even the New Left – were caught up in the “patriarchy” that underlay the rest of society. “Second wave” feminism went beyond asking for enfranchisement: having the vote had not freed women from male domination. The focus had to be on cultural and political dimensions.


Students: Though the youth movement was broad and cut across social class, it was probably a factor in the rise of the student movements of the 1960s. Also, elements of the anti-American feeling generated by the Vietnam war fused with New Left ideas of democracy (and some Maoist ones!), with the result that students didn’t simply “drop out” but questioned the “top-down” pedagogy of university  teaching, and even the content of the courses they were being taught (was the curriculum a tool for strengthening American hegemony?) The most dramatic manifestation (mot juste! – the word manifestation in French means demonstration) of this movement was in France, culminating in the May Days of 1968. I will also deal with this movement in more depth below. See also Footnote 1. on China.



It might seem that all these ‘new’ movements differed from each other and were not connected. To demand the end to a war is not the same thing as to demand rights for blacks. Civil rights for blacks are not the same thing as respect for youth, or freedom for youth to practice its own culture of rebellion. Students’ and women’s demands were different again. From my perspective, however, “New Left” ideas (equality of rights and respect, socialism ‘from below’) permeated most of the movements, but as I also stress, women had their criticisms of New Left movements (which were led by men, whilst the women organised the crèche, or sold newspapers!).


But there were common features: some writers (e.g. Melucci 1989) point out, they had similarities such as their emphasis on “culture”, their antipathy to traditional forms of (top-down) organisation, and their generally middle-class social basis (contrast the civil rights movement with “black power”). As Melucci puts it, their “social location” was similar, and they had “structural similarities”, although they were heterogeneous.


In other words, this was a period of profound change in social attitudes – the end of “deference” – and what some would call “teenage rebellion” moved from being a purely psychological phenomenon, experienced mainly in families, to a movement that affected society at large.


The paradox was, as some would argue, that the new values being promoted by the left were taken up later by Thatcher (individual freedom, mistrust of the state). In America, the “Hippies and Beatniks” dropped out of established society. I will deal with this youth movement, especially the Hippies and Beats, in more depth below.


4. Character of the youth and counter-culture movement:


(i) As touched on above, the youth/counter-culture movement was imbued with new values, taken from the anti-war movement (peace), from Buddhism (love), and from the Gandhian tradition as practiced by the civil rights movement (non-violent direct action). This was a reaction against the cold rationality of the post-war era.


Thus Ann Charters (op cit p 4) quotes John Clellon Holmes writing (in 1988?) in Nothing to Declare:


“the burden of my generation was the knowledge that something rational had caused all this (the feeling that something had gotten dreadfully, dangerously out of hand in our world – this vast maelstrom of death… the concentration camps that proved too real) and that nothing rational could end it… The bombs had gotten bigger, but the politics had stayed the same. The burden of my generation was to carry this in utter helplessness - the genocide, the overkill - and still seek love in the underground where all living things hide if they are to survive our century.”


(ii) In addition, various drugs (marijuana at first, later LSD or acid, a “mind-expanding” drug) gave their users a sense of freedom and creativity - as well as the thrill of knowing that they were doing something disapproved of by their elders, the establishment, the powers-that-be. And it has to be said that these were in many ways new ideas and new practices:


“flower power” - there are pictures of young demonstrators putting flowers into the barrels of the rifles held by soldiers,


“teach-ins” - an extension of the direct action “sit-in” (workers would sit in their places of work, in an attempt to take over; black civil rights demonstrators would sit in areas reserved for whites) where students took over their university buildings and discussed issues (especially the Vietnam War) themselves, sometimes with invited speakers, but usually excluding their regular tutors


“love-ins” and “be-ins” - where the participants not only took over a particular space but put it to better use by meditating or even making love in it!!


(iii) Some writers who expressed the essence of the youth/counter-culture/beat/hippie movement:


It is worth stressing that the next section of these notes will be non-traditional! In my view it is not possible to convey the essence of the movement using traditional academic/theoretical language...


1. The poet Gary Snyder, writing in Liberation magazine in 1959 (and as quoted in Charters op cit p 306), noted a “religiosity” (compare Norman Mailer below) which “is primarily one of practice and personal experience, rather than theory.” He then identified the following “three things going on [within the Beat Generation]:

Vision and illumination-seeking;

Love, respect for life, abandon.. pacifism, anarchism etc;

Discipline, aesthetics, and tradition. See Footnote 2.


It may be using the benefit of hindsight, but to me there was some conflict within the youth/counter-culture movement, concerning its basic purpose or goal. Many participants sought personal or individual liberation, especially those taking drugs: on the other hand, marijuana users claimed that this was a drug that brought a sense of fellow-feeling, and was most effective when taken with other people. It is clear that the main purpose was for the user to feel “high” – and despite the element of “rebelliousness” this is not a collective, let alone a political, activity!


2. The belief that we should trust out natural imagination and emotions, and not repress them – which was allied to the ‘mind-enhancing’ role played by drugs, was expressed a long time ago by William Blake (1757 – 1827):


Blake was a complex writer, but what the hippies and others seem to have latched on to was his argument that we should trust our natural imagination and our emotions and not repress them. As W.H. Stevenson puts it in his introduction to Blake’s Selected Poetry (1988): Blake lived in revolutionary times - the impact of industrialisation especially, but also the time of the French revolution of 1789 which he supported, and the American Revolution. At first he associated with other radicals of the time -  such as Mary Wollstonecraft – and supported the drive for political change. Later he became convinced (as Stevenson puts it) “that

art, the works of the imagination, not political revolution, were the key to [the world’s] renovation.”  In his own words, in 1809 (from Raine, 1970, p 52):


“I am really sorry to see my countrymen trouble themselves about politics… If men were wise, the most arbitrary princes could not hurt them; if they are not wise, the freest government is compelled to be a tyranny.”


In his early writings, as Stevenson puts it, he “presents his case: the indestructibility of innocence. The soul that freely follows its imaginative instincts will be innocent and virtuous; nature protects this innocence, and the only sin is to allow one’s nature to be perverted by law and custom. Free love is the only true love; law destroys both love and freedom… Freedom could not come about except through the imagination.”  Such sayings of Blake as the following were no doubt influential on the hippies and others:


“Everything that lives is holy” (compare Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl, which starts: “Holy! Holy! Holy!... The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is

holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”)


“The hours of folly are measured by the clock; but the hours of wisdom no clock can measure.” Blake attacked Newton for his mechanical picture of

the universe, and wrote that he saw, in the “Schools and Universities of Europe”…

“… the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire

Wash’d by the Water-Wheels of Newton; black the cloth

In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works

Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic

Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden, which

Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.” (ed. Stevenson, 1988, p 209)


One of his most famous, and beautiful poems is:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,

And heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of our hand

And eternity in an hour.”


“Energy is eternal delight.” The energy of life should be allowed to flow freely – if impeded or suppressed it will become violent and destructive: a subtle explanation of the origins of evil…

“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”  He opposed the institutionalised church and its restrictive moralizing.


For Blake, the Bible (especially the Old Testament), and other myths, taught something different, i.e. the imposition of law. Consequently, Blake rejected all this and worked out his own elaborate mythology.  Later he came to believe that original humans had a harmonious balance to their natures – after the Fall (which Blake saw as meaning the failure of human imagination) our natures became fragmented – reason, the imagination, the spirit; our good and our bad sides.

Eventually he returned to themes of a more religious tone, arguing that (as Stevenson puts it) “the solution to the disintegration of man is reconciliation through forgiveness”, and Christ represents the “Eternal Human” (i.e. the integrated, whole person). For Raine, “Jesus, the Imagination” is opposed in Blake’s scheme to “Reason… call’d Satan.” And:  “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules” (Raine op cit p 57).


3. The importance of Love. The poet Allen Ginsberg exemplifies this for me: his themes are both personal and (in a loose sense) political…

His poem, SONG, starts: (See Charters op cit p 98)


“The weight of the world

          is love.

Under the burden

of solitude,

under the burden

          of dissatisfaction


the weight,

the weight we carry

          is love….”


And for his lengthy poem ‘Howl’ – see Footnote 3.



4. Norman Mailer, the ‘white negro’, and existentialism:

As noted above, the very name used by part of the movement (“hip”) was borrowed from blacks and from jazz. This suggests to me some important influences, and this idea is powerfully expressed (if in over-blown language!) by Norman Mailer in “The White Negro” (first published as a pamphlet, later included in “Advertisements for Myself”, 1959 – and quoted in Charters op cit, p 582):

Mailer begins by quoting an article in Harper’s Bazaar, Feb 1957, by Caroline Bird, which says that the hipster’s main goal is “to keep out of a society which, he thinks, is trying to make everyone over in its image. He takes marijuana because it supplies him with experiences that can’t be shared with “squares.” … It is tempting to describe the hipster in psychiatric terms as infantile, but the style of his infantilism is a sign of the times. He does not try to enforce his will on others, Napoleon-fashion, but contents himself with a magical omnipotence never disproved because never tested…”


Mailer then comments: “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that… we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked…  Continued in Footnote 4.


5. Anti-authoritarianism and autonomy:

The newest feature of the “New Social Movements” and to me the most important was an anti-authoritarianism and, taken further, an awareness of the need to resist” incorporation” or” institutionalisation”. This was especially true of the youth movement, and feminism. The most radical expression of this was, I believe, was in the demand for autonomy (see Scott 1990). 


Again, however, this was not entirely new: autonomy, self-rule, collective freedom from the state and from powerful organisations (including religion) has been the hallmark of the anarchist/libertarian socialist tradition for a good long time. See my Notes on anarchism.


What is interesting to me is that demands for autonomy were made, in most of these movements – for autonomy, that is, at several levels, though these levels were not always clearly distinguished from each other, and indeed it is difficult to separate them from each other!


(a) Personal autonomy i.e. for youth especially, the desire for freedom from traditional social constraints, which with the use of drugs became the desire to expand one’s consciousness. For the women’s movement, consciousness-raising was a practice that aimed to remove internalized patriarchal values.

(b) Inter-personal, or intra-group autonomy: for women, the patriarchal values referred to above were so deeply-imbued, and constantly reinforced (consciously or not) by men, that women also needed their own space to work on their consciousness. With other movements, autonomy meant challenges to restrictions on freedom of a group, and demands for rights for groups that had not been recognised before (women, blacks, youth, students, gays).


(c) Inter-group autonomy: for each movement, autonomy of struggle was essential. There must be no interference from other groups, as each saw their own struggle as needing separate thought and action. This – as noted below – had its dangers, for if it was a feature of society that led to the oppression of both blacks, say, and women – shouldn’t both groups work together?  Of course, there were those who tried to do this, so we have always had “blends” such as socialist-feminism, or green socialism, eco-feminism, etc.


(d) And, as above: autonomy from the state… Given the failure of communism, and of social democracy, to address such issues as disaffection among youth, women’s and black’s rights, it is perhaps no surprise that these movements by-passed the state. Some, moreover, saw the state as part of “the problem”: a society that has grown accustomed to leaving important issues to politicians is not going to even see problems that don’t immediately cause the politicians to lose votes!


There is one important practical problem, I feel, with the demand for autonomy, and this is from the point of view of making changes to society as a whole: isn’t there a danger of different “autonomous” social movements becoming separate from each other. If this happens then movements will not learn from each other, not co-operate, and may even come into conflict. On the other hand, if, like some of those mentioned above, we regard such movements as reactions to a common experience of oppressive social and political structures, provided there is an awareness of this, then maybe they are less likely to become separated from each other and fragmented.


The point I would make is that for any social movement to bring about change, links have to be made between the different levels of autonomy described above: the individual needs to be able to work within the group, and groups need to find solidarity with each other to fight the over-arching social/political structure.


6. The need for a new definition of the “political”:


Of course, for those who see politics as only to do with the state, political parties, leadership etc, then radical demands, such as the demand for autonomy, are not “political”! If we take a broad definition of politics as to do with power, however, then this is a political demand: in fact it is surely a demand for a new way of doing politics!


Others who saw the New Social Movements as non-political emphasise the demands for a new “life-style”, and a ‘counter-culture’ (e.g. Roszak, 1970: The Making of a Counter-Culture), which would involve changing the way people think. They would then argue that these moves to change consciousness were outside the political arena.


For example, Charles Reich, in his book “The Greening of America” (1970) identified three forms of consciousness evolving in America. The first was pioneering, based on the work ethic, and managerial; the second tried to control the corporations using the state, but simply led to the values of business and of bureaucracy dominating Americans’ thinking and life-style; finally, with Consciousness III comes a rejection of the rat race, dope-smoking, “music, hippie clothes, hand-painted vehicles, and sheer joy…” (this quote is taken from a review of The Greening of America in Freedom, 1972).


I put myself in the tradition of the English “utopian” socialists (Owen, Ruskin, and especially William Morris) for whom a fulfilling cultural life is a human need, and inseparable – in their philosophies – from socialism. Hence culture is inseparable from politics. Gramsci, too, saw the importance of education and culture in building a new society. These approaches take “politics” to mean much more than the interplay of political parties.


We could say that the demands of these movements were expressed in terms that attempted to challenge and change existing meanings. Sassoon (1984) puts it that they formed “new relational networks between individuals, opposing the atomised mass, [and] re-defining symbolic relations”. This to me has political repercussions, since meanings are shared by communities (see ‘imagining other’... ) and in this they were also surely different from the New Right? I would go so far as to suggest that in fact they had more in common with the (left-wing) Situationists, especially in their emphasis on the value of the creative arts (by definition based on “symbols”) to bring together those who oppose the state and the dominant capitalist society.

 It is however perhaps also fair to say that this cultural orientation explains, for some observers, why these movements were not connected with the working-class (were in fact distinctly middle-class!): they were not concerned with “bread and butter” issues. In fact they were anti-consumerist (which points towards the green movement!). They were concerned with poetry, theatre, etc, - but, in an unequal society, only those with leisure can spend time enjoy worrying and intellectualizing over the cultural manifestations of our social outlook!


“as artists we were oppressed and indeed the people of the nation were oppressed… We knew we were poets and we had to speak out as poets. We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead – killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.” (Ed. Charters, 1992: Penguin Book of the Beats, Intro. p xxviii: Michael McClure, describing the feelings at a poetry reading in San Francisco, October 1955).


“ [we were] refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars… and general junk you always see a week later in the garbage anyway.” (Spoken by a character called Japhy, in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, 1958, quoted in Charters, op cit p xxix). 


Moreover, the argument that these movements were primarily social or cultural, and only secondarily political is highly debatable. Offe (1980) argues that the movements (especially the youth movement and the women’s movement) were “non-political” only if by this is meant that their demands were not aimed directly at political institutions, or that they did not challenge the state directly. This seems to me to be another narrow view of ‘political’. A similar way of expressing the view that new social movements were ‘non-political’ is to argue that they were located in, or occupying, “civil society”, and that their aim was the mobilisation of civil society, not the seizure of power (Feher and Heller 1983), or even that their aim was to defend civil society from the state (Touraine, Habermas). For these writers, a common feature of the NSMs was their reaction to broad social or political developments, especially the growth of an over-intrusive state.


In the mid-20th century, it is said, many western countries were controlled by a state which did not like opposition, and which did not “see” certain groups (perhaps this is still true?). I have some sympathy with this view, since I believe that it is part of our make-up to resist control by others, and to want collective autonomy (see above, and my notes on Castoriadis: Recommencing Revolution). However, it is surely still a ‘political’ stance to contest the power of the state!


If it is true, both that the state used a subtle kind of authoritarian control (what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance”), and that most people will naturally tend to resist this, then this might go some way to explaining the growth of the NSMs.


Paradoxically this might also explain the growth and popularity of the “New Right,” which wanted to “roll back the state” – and perhaps the ‘Tea Party in contemporary USA  I would want to argue, however, that the New Right was not a “social movement” (even less so than the New Left!). It originated in economists (Hayek, Friedman) and politicians (Thatcher, Reagan) whose interest lay in finding ways for capitalism to free itself from the constraints of social-democratic state control. As pointed out recently in a discussion over points made by George Monbiot, although it professed to want a “minimal state” the new right nevertheless needed the state to act to ensure that the market worked in the way they wanted.


However, as I already argued, any form of resistance to manipulation by the state (or by large corporations!) – whether it comes from the New Right, or the New Left (which was also libertarian), or from a social movement, is by definition “political”!


I would argue that ‘politics’ needs to be redefined, and that another way of doing this is to use the feminist idea: the personal is the political. The liberal argument, that politics must leave a personal space for each of us – that governments must not control every aspect of our lives – whilst serving as a warning against totalitarianism, is nevertheless two-edged: if the lives of half the population are controlled within the family, then putting the family beyond politics does nothing about this. There are even arguments for re-examining political philosophy in the light of this: the classical liberal idea of a “social contract” between citizens and government can be criticised as patriarchal, since when it was formulated only men had the right to draw up contracts, as only men had property and rights that could be “exchanged” in the contract. Women were therefore excluded from politics right from the start by the underlying philosophy – even by those trying to protect individual rights! (See forthcoming notes on Feminism…)


There has been, I feel, a marked tendency – especially on the right – to reduce the scope of politics. I would argue that any movements concerned with rights (for blacks, women, youth, gays etc) are obviously political: but perhaps this is why many voices on the right try to undermine the whole notion of rights. Others discuss politics purely in terms of “citizenship” – but the features of citizenship that are discussed are voting, joining political parties etc, and this is, again, only part of the business of politics (cf. Scott 1990).


In conclusion, the “New Social Movements” were an extension of politics rather than retreat from it, and, to me, those who argue that NSMs are non-political have a narrow (conservative?) definition of the political… I have to admit that for me there are strong links between the all the movements of the ‘60s (and not just the student  movement, or the May ’68 movement) and the political “left” (see especially Touraine 1968) – in fact to me they were a positive and constructive attempt to remove from “socialism” its historical connection with the controlling state. But I recognise that this may be controversial to some!


7. Postscript to Movements of the Sixties:


Did the student/youth movements achieve anything?


(i) as regards the Beats and Hippies:

- an “opening out” of cultural styles, and in particular the rise of small, independent publishers and record producers

- freeing of the content of poetry etc (though the religious right still tried to censor poems or plays or TV broadcast that it regarded as obscene or (even) blasphemous; this in turn led to a debate on the notion of blasphemy and the dominance of the Christian church in British life (a debate still going on, with a focus now on the need for equal treatment of other religions, the issue of faith schools etc)

- skepticism towards religion – but at the same time a growth of fringe religious sects and alternative life-styles (a “mixed blessing” !?)

- perhaps an over-emphasis on individual therapy to deal with issues that might rather have an underlying social cause

- as noted above, the individualism was taken up by the political right: because of the lack of firm links between the arts and “left” politics (despite Bob Dylan, the French cinema avant-guard et al)? To my mind, many of the left groups failed to see the need for a broader approach to the whole culture of capitalism (see the comments by Fred Perlman, in Gregoire and Perlman 1969)


(ii) as regards students and higher education:

- as noted, there were similar events in Britain and elsewhere. In Britain, Hornsey college of Art became a focus, especially as art students felt that their work should be more socially relevant; at the LSE there was quite a long history of protests:


          - there had been demonstrations since 1967; in the words of Martin Tomkinson, as reported by John Mair, (Guardian 10.07.03): students accused the college of “pedagogic gerontocracy” – it was, as in France, a protest against “the world our elders had bequeathed us – Vietnam, the prevalent class system in education, plus a smug and unmerited feeling of academic superiority (“objectivity”)…” After a long period of conflict, and with the students threatening to occupy the college, the authorities locked the gates (January 1969). Some students broke the gates down, and the authorities closed the School. Injunctions were issued against the “ringleaders” including Martin Shaw and Martin Tomkinson.

It must be remembered that the LSE housed mainly social science students (as at Nanterre), and had a “progressive” history, with Directors such as Sidney Webb, and Harold Laski. In the 1960s the School seemed to be moving to the right with the appointment of Lionel (later Lord) Robbins, an economist, and then Walter Adams (who came from Rhodesia…). The changes can be symbolized by the passing of the Chair originally held by the socialist Harold Laski to the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. As in France and with other student protests, triggers included the Vietnam War, apartheid, and in Britain the attitude of the government to the right-wing leader of Rhodesia, Ian Smith (who, famously, made a “unilateral declaration of independence” from Britain). As elsewhere, left group such as the International Socialists played a key role


- in the long term, demands for student participation, to my mind, came to nothing. Although students did gain places on Academic Boards or Boards of Governors, they soon found themselves to be ineffectual – mainly because they were acting within an agenda set by “the authorities”

- the tactic of “occupying” colleges was taken up for a number of issues subsequently, and in particular when cuts began to eat into the universities and to affect especially badly the ex-Polytechnics, which had never been as well funded as universities were, and which did not have the massive endowments that the top universities have, to fall back on. Often, however, the same pattern of events occurred as in France: a left leadership nudged a reluctant student body and an often even more reluctant Student Union into action – where the left had its own agenda, but “rode on the back” of issues that the students could be made to feel strongly about

- there was a lot of optimism (*) amongst students in ’68: take for example the LSE Chant: “London, Paris, Rome, Berlin: we shall fight and we shall win!” Yet many of the leaders of the demonstrations have settled into good jobs, and some have even contributed to the growth of New Labour:


          (*) for example, Paul Hoch and Vic Schoenbach, in the contemporaneous account of the events at LSE (p 204): “the movement was smashed at Berkeley in

’56, but grew back at the Pentagon in ’66; it was smashed in Germany, France and Mexico in ’68, but it grew back in Italy and Argentina.


Thus John Mair, (in the article cited from the Guardian 10.07.03) was reporting on a reunion at LSE, 35 years after the occupation. He noted that former activists were now professors, authors, teachers, and journalists; and there was even a member of the House of Lords, and two MPs, one a Conservative!


So for example:

Martin Shaw: is now Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex

Colin Crouch: is Head of the Department of Social and Political science at the European Institute, Florence

Tom Bower and Martin Tomkinson are established as a writer and a journalist respectively


Two assessments made by leading participants of the LSE dispute reveal different conclusions:

- Martin Shaw, interviewed at the reunion, says that the students turned to a politics that was well to the left of Labour, but eventually returned, because they realized this was a dead end, and now some are behind the New Labour project

- on the other hand, Colin Crouch concludes: “In a curious way, it is neo-liberalism and capitalism that have made the main gains… There has been a shift from authority as such towards the use of market forces as the means through which power is exercised.”


(iii) more general social change:

- there was a revolution in sexual mores: public attitudes to sex before marriage, divorce, abortion, sexual orientation have all now become much more liberal. Eventually the women’s movement challenged remaining reactionary attitudes in the field of inter-gender relations.

- I have already noted the point made in the book “Unsung Sixties” (Curtis, H and Sanderson, M (2004)) – that there were “offshoots” of the events in the form of pressure-groups, and entrepreneurial activities. Ironically, perhaps, “small-scale” or “socially responsible” capitalism could be seen to be the main beneficiaries


(iv) survivors:

- as noted, there is a City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, which was set up by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin in 1953. It had a publishing arm, and published Ginberg’s “Howl” (quoted above). The bookshop is still going (it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003). It undertook symbolic closures to protest against the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War.


(v) more desperate protestors:

- It has to be stressed once more that the student upheavals, and the beats and Hippies, were all non-violent. Although the extreme left groups talked of revolution, none (to my knowledge!) were preparing to carry out violent struggle. With the collapse of the protests, some “left” activists (I use the “ …” because I do not regard them as socialist myself!) took to bombs, kidnapping and other more violent protest. In Britain there was the Angry Brigade, in America the Weathermen, in Germany the Red Brigades and a similar movement in Italy. This is another story!!!


Update: Guardian 02.08.11 (Helen Pidd)  – report that Horst Mahler, founding member of Red Army Faction, social democrat lawyer who later turned to Maoism and then the far right, may also have been informer for East German Stasi. Report in Bild am Sonntag says state prosecutors investigating the shooting of pacifist Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 demo says Mahler was inoffizieele Mitarbeiter (IM - informal collaborator) for Stasi up to 1970. In 1970 he founded the RAF (Baader-Meinhof group) with Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun esslin – spent 1970s in jail.


Possible the Stasi were trying to bring violence into the demos – the policeman who shot Ohnesborg was Stasi…


See Utopia or Auschwitz by Hans Kundnani (about 1968 generation in Germany).


(vi) “velvet revolutions”:

- It can be argued that one inheritance of the ‘60s movements can be found in the way that youth participated in the overthrow of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. (See Collin 2007)


(vii) Latin America:

- in Latin America there has been a strong anti-globalisation movement, involving young people particularly


(vii) and finally:

I do believe that the youth movements marked a number of major social and political changes: the old authoritarian capitalism had to give way and become more responsive; social deference was weakened; cultural styles were opened up and freed from historical taboos; direct action and non-violence became much more widely adopted as a legitimate means of struggle (in the Green movement especially); youth are –despite the cynics, and, as Gary Younge pointed out (Guardian 12.06.06), despite the “asbo culture” (ironically promoted by some who were themselves young in the ‘60s…) – more politically aware and involved in trying to bring about a better world.




In many areas, there was not so much a broad social movement as a current that resulted in the setting up of organisations and pressure-groups. Groups like

this are discussed in the book: The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation, by Helene Curtis and Mimi Sanderson.


Such organisations include: Crisis, Centrepoint, Shelter, CPAG, Claimants Union…  Jim Radford and others in the Committee of 100 campaigned in

the early ‘60s for the homeless. “Squatting” grew out of this, and was as he says a “do-it-yourself” kind of politics. These examples are taken from articles in

the Guardian (SocietyGuardian) 11.02.04. Polly Toynbee, in the above articles, argues that many of the individuals involved were social entrepreneurs (see CSR chapter8 (inequality): social enterprise).


Other organisations were for self-help and/or to put pressure on government for social change. It is important to note the difference between pressure-groups and social movements – pressure-groups have a more narrow focus and, as the name implies, expect to get change by putting pressure on government or business etc. Social movements are not only more broad and complex, but their “aims” are less clearly focused, it seems to me. Certainly social movements do not restrict themselves to pressurizing government, and many – like those examined in this section – are autonomous and aim to gain more power for social



On the fortieth anniversary (!):


John Harris, G 210308: there are exhibitions etc in London… a South Bank Show etc. Sarkozy has said he wants to “liquidate” the legacy of ’68. The evenements were followed by Gaullism, Debord committed suicide in 1994, survivors find it hard to deal with real-world issues, because still going on about commodity fetishism and spectacular consumption… but maybe they have a point: where is the philosophical basis to what we (those representing the dominant ideology) believe now? Thatcherism stole the ’68-ers clothes: “economics is the method; the object is to change to soul.”

Perhaps the ’68 slogan was right: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraint – such people have a corpse in their mouth.”  [more slogans below!]


References and Further Reading:


"New Social Movements":

Melucci, A (1989): Nomads of the Present: social movements and individual needs in contemporary society. London: Macmillan.

Scott, Alan (1990): Ideology and the New Social Movements, Unwin Hyman.


Beats and Hippies:

Charters, A (Ed.) (1992): The Penguin Book of the Beats, Penguin.

Holmes, J C (1988): Passionate Opinions, University of Arkansas.

Johnson, Joyce (2007): Minor Characters: a Beat Memoir, Methuen (Joyce was Kerouac’s partner, and a writer herself)

Mailer, Norman (1968): Armies of the Night, Penguin; and (1959): Advertisements for myself (extracts in Charters op cit p 582).


Youth and counter culture:

Reich, Charles (1970): The Greening of America, Penguin.

Roszak, Theodor (1969): The Making of a Counter Culture, Faber.


William Blake:

Raine, Kathleen (1970): William Blake, Thames and Hudson (with plates in colour and black & white).

Stevenson, W.H. (1988): William Blake: Selected Poetry, Pelican.



Philosophical issues surrounding civil disobedience and rebellion/revolution:

Held, V et al (Ed.) (1972): Philosophy and Political Action, OUP 1972 - see part 2 on "defiance of the state."

Zashin, T (1972): Civil Disobedience and Democracy, The Free Press.



Other issues/references:

Alleg, H (first published 1958): La Question (on the use of torture in Algeria; with preface by Sartre). Published in English as: The Question, translated by John

          Calder, recent reprint: University of Nebraska Press.

Binns, D. (1992), Administration, Domination and Organisation Theory: the Political Foundations of Surveillance at Work,

UEL, ELBS Occasional Papers No. 4

Bizot, F (2006): 200 Trips from the Counter-Culture, Thames and Hudson (illustrations of posters, magazine covers etc)

Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy: article on communes; what was life really like for the kids?


Curtis, H and Sanderson, M (2004): The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation, Whiting and Birch

Marcuse H (1964): One Dimensional Man, Sphere.

Sandbrook, D (2006): White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Little, Brown.



1. Youth in China:

Curiously, youth were “on the move” during this time not only in the USA, Britain and Europe, but even in China, where the Maoist “Red Guards” turned on their elders, with appalling consequences. The so-called Cultural Revolution involved the persecution of anyone who practiced or represented “western” culture; young Red Guards, encouraged by Mao (in fact, some would say, to rid him of opponents) set out to build the “new man”. People were forbidden to play “western” music, and were attacked (sometimes physically) for anything that suggested they were “capitalist-roaders” – many were jailed, some committed suicide, and the psychological effect of this repression was deep and long-lasting. All this was supposed to help China move on towards communism, but in practice the Red Guards and others seemed to be acting in the name of an extreme “democratization” where no authority (intellectual, traditional, religious) was respected.]


2. Gary Snyder quotes:


(i) Vision and illumination-seeking. This is most easily done by systematic experimentation with narcotics… Although a good deal of personal insight can be obtained by intelligent use of drugs, being high all the time leads nowhere because it lacks intellect, will, and compassion; and a personal drug kick is of no use to anyone else in the world…


(ii) Love, respect for life, abandon, Whitman, pacifism, anarchism, etc. This comes out of various traditions including Quakers, Shinsu, Buddhism, Sufism. And from a loving and open heart. At its best this state of mind has led people to actively resist war, start communities, and try to love one another…


(iii) Discipline, aesthetics, and tradition. … What this bit often lacks is what 1 and 2 have, i.e. real commitment to the stew-pot of the world and real insight into the vision-land of the unconscious.”


3. Allen Ginsberg, from ‘Howl’:


“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…


who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of

cities contemplating jazz….


who were expelled from the academies for crazy and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull..


who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued

along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of




What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!                [Moloch was an idol to whom children were sacrificed


…..Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!...


Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!...


They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere

about us!

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! Gone down the American river!....” [from “HOWL” 1955 - 6, in The Beat Poets, pp 62, ].



4. Norman Mailer quote continued:

and so if in the midst of civilization – that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect – …. Our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop”.


He goes on to argue that “the Second World War… presented a mirror to the human condition” – and it was obvious that the societies that had led to mass murder were our “collective creation,” “and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?” Moreover, this crisis had made individuals frightened to stand out, to dissent: “No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve.”


“It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist – the hipster, the man who knows… that the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self… to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present… [where] new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats… attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and mute self-destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square… one is a rebel or one conforms… trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.” 


Some of the remainder of the essay falls into the trap of stereotyping the situation of blacks: “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white – mother and home, job and the family – are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible.” Mailer even talks of Negroes and Hippies getting in touch with the “psychopath” inside themselves… This overstatement is then in danger of weakening his otherwise convincing case that, like the Negro, the Hipster must live “in the enormous present.” The Hipster was attracted to jazz, for “jazz is orgasm, the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad” and it communicates “across a nation” because it says “I feel this, and now you do too.”


But his portrayal of the way that the Hip movement synthesized different strands (the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent and the Negro) rings true to me, as does his picture of the social and political context, where the Hip and others share “a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things” which led to their rejection of other conventions such as monogamy, “the solid family and the respectable love life.”


Mailer also notes the “intellectual antecedents of this generation”: D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Wilhelm Reich – and especially Ernest Hemingway, whose philosophy of life led him to the conclusion that “what made him feel good became therefore The Good.”


Finally, and more positively, “To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself – one must know one’s desires, one’s rages, one’s anguish; one must be aware of the character of one’s frustration and know what would satisfy it.” “… one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’ – whatever the purpose may be.” Like Gary Snyder quoted above, Mailer believes this is a “religious” outlook.