"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Let the Sixties Go

Mike Ely wrote the following concerning Abbie Hoffman, "And that’s the way you have to understand Abby. He wasn’t so much 'promoting drugs' (though obviously he was), but he was arguing that the new communities of youth and youth culture should actively work to politicize themselves even more — to see themselves as a oppressed by the society and the empire, and should more and more integrate radical activism (and revolutionary goals) into the assumptions of the culture and the communities. (I.e. imagining a revolutionary struggle by a ‘Woodstock Nation” — it wasn’t my politics, but it was the very popular and very radical politics of the Yippies.)"

As a peripheral member of the youth culture of the sixties who has transitioned through many political and spiritual permutations in the intervening years, I have thought much about the Hoffman/Rubin wing of the movement and my current thinking has congealed into a few basic ideas. As Mike Ely indicates, revolution was Abbie's ultimate aim, not drugs. But as Gandhi so often emphasized, the means and the ends of social movements are inextricably intertwined. Abbie represented that current in the youth movement who believed that culture in and of itself could be a revolutionary force. Long hair, drugs, rock music, and sexual liberation were not just fashion statements to him, as they were to most of those influenced by the movement, but embodied a revolutionary potential that he and the other yippies exploited for a "higher" purpose. But as much as I appreciated the culture at the time, I saw it even then as lacking serious revolutionary drive. It was a diversion of the hard work of building a true alternative to the culture of repressive tolerance. Of course, at the time, they would have and did say that it is this very seriousness is part of the same oppressiveness that were rebelling against - "Revolution for the Hell of It!" was the slogan. In many ways, they epitomized (and celebrated) the ephemeral nature of the "youth movement". By the early 70s, the yippies had scattered in a hundred directions. Some joined the religious cults. Jerry Rubin eventually became a "revolutionary" stock broker. Jerry, in fact, was quite open about the fact that he was a trend follower and that his anti-capitalism faded with the sixties. Abbie was different and fought the good fight to the end, but his cocaine adventures were exploited by his enemies to gravely harm organizing activities that could have been much more fruitful.

I agree with Mike Ely that the youth movement was politically defused and defeated, but part of the reason they were unable to defeat US imperialism was the confusion of style and substance that was epitomized by the Yippies. They were defeated by a number of forces, but if you read the autobiographies of some of the leading members - Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson and other Weather Underground members - they clearly recognize that they committed grave tactical and strategic errors and that drugs played a role in these errors.

As we learn so well from Lenin, theory must guide action and many of the most politically active currents of the sixties failed to appreciate this. I think Todd Gitlin's writings on SDS are instructive in demonstrating how the cult of spontaneous action ultimately self destructs. Theory should constantly self-correct through feedback from action, but action alone cannot guide theory. Mike's overall point, though, is one I agree with. We have to be prepared at every moment to see and understand the revolutionary potential inherent in new cultural forms. We should celebrate when these forms have the power to drive revolutionary change, but we should not confuse the form with the substance of that change.

There are many senses in which "shocking and radical" can be taken. In the superficial sense of the sixties and many later movements such as punk rock, it meant "outrageous" in violating sexual taboos or taboos about disciplined support of the system of corporate oppression. Drugs were a way of offending against these taboos and still are. But they can also be used to reinforce corporate oppression by creating an artificial zone of "freedom" that makes submission to domination more tolerable. Religion can play a similar role as the "heart of a heartless world" as Marx expressed it. However, "shocking and radical" can also mean people with the guts to form alternative societies and make them work and that has been exceedingly rare since the sixties.