The so-called ‘Summer of Love’ was born in the sun-drenched streets of San Francisco, centred around the Haight-Ashbury area in the summer of 1967, as portrayed in the BBC documentary The Summer of Love: How Hippies Changed the World. The three tribes of hippy, the Naturist, the Truth-Seeker and the Political were drawn there by the promise of freedom. The freedom that is, to do whatever one pleased, whenever one wanted, in whatever way one saw fit depending on the inspiration drawn from their drug-addled minds.
The climate in America at this time was ripe for a revolution. America had been struggling to reconcile its basic principles of the equality of man imbued with a sacred dignity as instantiated in its founding with the relativist approach to race that it had also instantiated at the beginning. The results of this cancerous relativism at the heart of American society and the struggle to end it by obtaining the final equality of rights to their fellow Americans is what Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights campaigners were striving for, against heavy opposition and a less than cooperative federal government.
The impact of all this is movingly portrayed in Shelby Steele’s book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarised Our Country. An interesting aspect of the book is when he recounts his realisation that the violent revolutionaries like the Black Panthers were following a course of action that would ultimately do far more harm than good, and instead of helping to bring equality of opportunity and equal rights would only serve to divide America even more than it already was, as they wanted to tear down the system, not reform it. The trouble with this is that it never ends well, and nearly always involves appalling violence along the way. What may start out as a wish to change society for the better – and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. was forcing through changes that needed to happen – ends up with society teetering on the edge of chaos.
In its own way, the hippy movement, while it started out based on a naive understanding of human nature and society, and how it could be made better, dissolved into self-satisfied, self-indulgent moral bankruptcy, and went down the same path of revolutionary violence. If there was one single, fundamental difference between the approaches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers and hippies, it was that King wanted reformation, and the Black Panthers and the hippies wanted a revolution.
The influences on the various hippy subcultures that came together in this period of orgiastic hedonism were varied and stretched back into the period before the war, before 1900 even, crossing over one ocean to Europe and another to Asia. From Europe, a big influence on the naturist component of the hippy movement was the 19th-century German phenomenon of the ‘nature boys’, who wandered around the Black Forest, living off nature’s bounty and moving with the seasons.
This idealised form of civilisational sentimentality, of course, had its roots in Rousseau’s view of man as burdened down by civilisation and only able to be truly free and truly moral in a state of nature. This view of human history is romantic because it is pure wishful thinking; tribal humanity was an extremely violent social organisation, and hunter-gatherer societies today, in South America for example, can still be extremely violent.
This emphasis on the communion between body and nature found its way, along with the ‘nature boys’, to California, with various groups choosing to live out in the California countryside, and moving around according to the seasons. They became somewhat of an object of fascination, particularly to the left-leaning group of actors and artists known as the Diggers, who looked to them for inspiration in their quest to feel closer to nature and the self-knowledge apparently inherent in it.
After a period of time, however, some members of the ‘nature boys’ tribe tired of life near the built up centres of human habitation and, following the crackdown on certain more radical members of the hippy community by law enforcement, decided to literally head for the hills. The hippies who went back to nature founded communes out in the wilds where they could be as close to nature as possible. Everything would be free (including each other’s bodies), everything would be shared (including children), and everyone would be equal (except the women weren’t and were often little more than female cattle to be used by the male bulls when they so desired).
An interesting note on which to conclude this section is that the commune movement, and the hippie movement more generally, had a profound influence on the development of Silicon Valley, in particular, future tech giants like Steve Jobs. The ethos of the commune translated itself into the realm of cyberspace, the most obvious example being the internet, where everything is free, can be shared, and everyone can be equal.
Except when it isn’t, like when not everyone was free or equal in the communes, and when only a tiny proportion of people win hugely from the otherwise totally Darwinian wilds of the internet. See, some people tend to just end up more equal than others in a state of nature.
The Truth Seekers
The Truth-Seekers were closely aligned with the Naturists but went further in their attempt to discover the true nature of humanity and to try and build a common consciousness that would bring people together on a higher plain and would enable the human race to leave behind all the evils that they saw as manifested in modern society, which was a hopelessly oppressive, violent, exploitative and bigoted structure thought up and kept by those in power in order to crush the souls and break the backs of the many. Or some such pretentious rubbish.
The Truth-Seekers attempted to reach this state of enlightenment through the use of LSD and other hallucinogens. Aldous Huxley was a big inspiration in their quest towards a higher understanding and state of being, with his “The Doors of Perception” filling the role of the Truth-Seekers’ Bible on what acid and other mind expanding drugs had the potential to bring about. Cary Grant lent the acid trip an edge of glamour along with the note of respectability brought by Aldous Huxley, although his claims that his 100+ trips led him to see himself as a giant penis launching itself from earth neatly characterises the moral emptiness at the base of the movement. Aleister Crowley meanwhile, in his search for new experiences and the true nature of things, engaged in witchcraft, Satanic rituals and free love (which devolved into “all women are free and fair game”), demonstrating that for more than a few people the whole thing was a gateway to enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle in service to a nothingness that was fronted by an empty, vacant smile and even emptier, vacant words that said little and meant less.
Having said all that, drugs like LSD, DMT and Psilocybin have been shown to induce truly spiritual experiences, as shown in the trials at Johns Hopkins University, and should, therefore, be researched much more thoroughly and carefully so that we can possibly stumble some way towards answering some of the most fundamental questions about humanity’s need for some sort of spiritual belief, and how and why this might have come about .
However, in service to a dangerously naive system of ideas based on little understanding (or willful misunderstanding) of how the world works and of how human nature manifests itself, LSD turned what was something touted as the next stage of human societal evolution into what was effectively a middle-class freakshow of young people off their minds on drugs, wallowing in syrupy sentimentality and foolish notions of the universal applicability of love to drive forward a revolutionary bulldozer through the society that allowed them to pursue their foolishly naive dreams in the first place. The fact that so many who experimented in this way at the time now resemble mad-eyed, burnt out shells perhaps suggests that the experience wasn’t as beneficial as it was claimed.
The last group of people present in San Francisco during this fervent period of cultural foment were the Politicals, the tribe of left-wing radicals, now known as the New Left who had incubated on college campuses, in particular at Berkeley. These were people who were heavily invested in left-wing ideas and theories, who wanted to change the system, mostly by burning the whole structure of society down and starting again. They saw the other two elements of the nascent hippy movement as possible allies in their attempts to change the world. By revolution, if they had to.
Just how revolutionary were the hippies and those they influenced and inspired? A Gallup poll in 1970 found that 44% of college students felt that violence was justified in order to bring about social change, 40% thought revolution was needed in the US, while 1.7 million saw themselves as revolutionaries. 20% of respondents had a favourable opinion of the Soviet Union as opposed to 1.9% in 1956 and 4% in 1980. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral captures the mood of these radicals, this progeny of the politicals, referencing a quote from Weatherman John Jacobs: “We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares”. They certainly were.
The Politicals’ guru was Professor Herbert Marcuse, the most famous member of the Frankfurt School of Marxist philosophy, aka Critical Theory, whose members had fled Hitler’s rise to power and found refuge in America. Marcuse was teaching at the University of California, San Diego at the time of the formation of the hippy movement. Marcuse influenced many scholars and activists, such as Norman O. Brown, Angela Davis, Captain Charles Moore, Kathy Acker, Abbie Hoffman, Rudi Dutschke, and Robert M. Young.
Marcuse’s name is often invoked by the conspiracy-theory obsessed radical right in connection with the vague and demagogic ‘Cultural Marxism’, whereby Marxist ideas are applied to the culture instead of the economy. The Frankfurt School existed, but Cultural Marxism as a descriptor of a vast, overarching phenomenon is not concrete enough to be useful. Many of the political activism commonly associated with it preceded it and had little to do with it while it existed.
Most of Marcuse’s work didn’t even have anything to do with New Left themes, concerned as it was with the role of technology. Yes, Marcuse was friendly with the wider New Left, but he and his fellow Frankfurt Schoolers had little interest in activism, indifference for which they were derided, as the 1969 incident where feminist activist mockingly bared their breasts to Theodor Adorno attests. The Frankfurt Schoolers weren’t monolithic on much of the contemporary politics: Adorno was Eurocentric and despised jazz, while Horkheimer defended the Vietnam War and the Catholic Church’s abortion stance.
In reality, the lumping together of the Frankfurt School in an oversimplified intellectual bloc simply serves as a target for lazy, shallow conspiratorial thinking that all too often ends in bigotry. Indeed, one only needs to go down the rabbit-hole a short way before one encounters a hook-nosed Jewish caricature manipulating Western culture out of a desire for revenge. Like many other conspiracy theories, Cultural Marxism in its shallow application to political currents and events is often a thin cover for anti-Semitism.
However, some of Marcuse’s theories did have an impact on the thinking of the New Left, not least in his arguments on free speech. In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance”, Marcuse claimed capitalist democracies can have totalitarian characteristics, which given his experience in Germany was perhaps not a surprising position to adopt, and one with which one can empathise. The argument Marcuse put forward was that genuine tolerance does not allow support for repression because to do so would ensure that marginalised voices would be kept silent. He characterises tolerance of what he sees as repressive speech (anything not left-wing) as ‘inauthentic’. Instead, Marcuse advocated a kind of tolerance that was intolerant of right-wing political movements which he saw as inherently totalitarian:
“Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”
Along with his concept of repressive tolerance, Marcuse also argued that the way to overthrow the oppressive bourgeoisie was to apply Marxist philosophy to the realm of culture, a realm more important, more fundamental to human life than politics. He no longer believed that the working class was the tool that would cause the collapse of the ‘affluent society’, and instead looked to certain marginalised communities to act as the revolutionary vanguard for what was ultimately the doctrine of equality of outcome.
He placed great emphasis on complete personal liberation for the mind and body and a breaking down of traditional structures and mores like the family. This was in his view a tool of oppression and an incubator for right-wing totalitarianism that was used by the oppressive political right to keep their grip on power. Marcuse, like his post-modern counterparts Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, wanted to dissolve the social structures that glued society together and provided a separate ‘realm of value’ away from the state by questioning the value of everything to the point where nothing had any inherent, objective moral value and everything was morally and culturally relative. However, it must be reiterated that this was not the majority of his work, and was not the sole focus of all Frankfurt Schoolers who didn’t fit into a single box.
And what was the result of all this? The ‘Summer of Love’, led by those who sincerely believed that they were the ones who would drive a fundamental, societally-altering change in American social and political culture, descended into a welter of protest and violence in order to speed the revolution along. All that achieved only a sense of bitter estrangement between those who supported the cause of the various militant organisations that grew out of the hippy movement, like the Weather Underground, and the rest of society who were horrified at what was happening on the west coast and at how it spread to places like Chicago where the clashes between the protesters and police led to the deployment of the National Guard.
The bombing campaigns carried out by groups like the Weather Underground lasted from July 1969 to April 1985. As Bryan Burrough writes in his book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence on the violence perpetrated by the radical-Left in the 1970’s, during a period of 18 months in 1971 and 1972, 2,500 bombings were reported in the US by the FBI. That was almost 5 a day.
The rhetoric of destruction that came from many of the intellectuals who inspired the New Left movement played into and fed the worst and darkest emotions in the human hearts of those not old or experienced enough to know better; resentment, bitterness, envy, anger at what many saw as the most violent political system ever created. And what does one do against something or someone who perpetrates violence against you? You destroy it. Apparently, history wasn’t the strong point of the hippies and their fellow activists, otherwise they might have proceeded with more circumspection.
And this is the point; it is better to reform society, through its culture and institutions, rather than burn it to the ground. Those who are determined to subvert or destroy society’s institutions fail to realise that the most likely outcome in destroying these institutions – that either guarantee equality under the law or have the potential to do so after reformation – is a form of oppression and domination far worse than the one they opposed in the first place.
The remedy to injustices like those that the civil rights movement campaigned against is not to blow apart the established order and impose some new, ill-thought out and ill-planned socio-political order by coercive force, as the more extreme elements of the hippy movement ended up doing, cheered on by their less militant brethren. Mao was wrong; power doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun. Stable political power and a stable and prosperous society that all can enjoy are grounded in the healthy relationships and feelings towards one another that mitigate the more destructive passions we all bear within ourselves.
These relationships, between us and God, us and our country, and between one another, provide the basis for a civic partnership that allows citizens to work together to raise up one another’s best interests. The disputes that are an inevitable part of living in a large social unit are thus easier to resolve with as little conflict as possible.
The hippy movement and the different strains of the New Left ideology that birthed along with it brought none of these things. Instead it brought a shallow self-righteousness that all too easily brought the ugly aspects of human nature to the surface; the oppressive (and some of those attitudes were indeed oppressive and repressive) values of their parents were removed, but the vacuum was instead filled with a vacuous self-regarding yearning for participation in a revolution which many did not fully understand, let alone what the consequences of their actions might entail.
If there was a maxim that might best respond to the hippy movement and other revolutionary movements in the West, it might be something like “reformation, not revolution; cultural innovation, not cultural immolation”.
The hippy movement started out in the naive belief that love could conquer everything and that all that the West needed to do was give up on its oppressive past, socio-political structures and cultural mores and just jump into the whole caring, sharing, free love society that would release people from their humdrum existences. The fact is, none of the hippies’ forays into decadent hedonism would have been possible if not for the fact that the rest of the country, and indeed the West, still clung to the ways of doing things that meant these people could afford to do nothing and waste away in a muddy field trying to connect to the earth-spirit.
In some ways, the hippy movement was one of the most selfish cultural movements in modern human history, and when it didn’t get what it wanted, it lashed out like a spoilt child. It’s just a pity that their temper tantrums cost lives. We are still dealing with their legacy today, and because the revolution always eats itself, we now have the phenomenon of the modern university campus.
Aren’t we lucky?