The Success of the Counterculture in Becoming the Dominant Culture

July 21, 2021 Updated: July 21, 2021

Commentary

By the late 1970s, after fantasies of overt political revolution faded, many student radicals urged their followers to undertake the “long march through the institutions.”

The phrase, popularized by the German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke, is often attributed to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci—an unimpeachable authority for countercultural standard-bearers.

But of course the phrase also carries the aura of an even higher authority: that of Mao Tse-tung and his long march and cultural revolution.

In the context of Western societies, “the long march through the institutions” signified—in the words of Herbert Marcuse—“working against the established institutions while working in them.”

It was primarily by this means—by insinuation and infiltration rather than confrontation—that the countercultural dreams of radicals like Marcuse have triumphed.

Bellbottoms, long hair, and incense were dispensable props; crucial was the hedonistic yet hectoring antinomianism they symbolized.

In this sense, countercultural radicalism has come more and more to define the dominant culture even as the memory of student strikes and demonstrations fades under the distorting glaze of nostalgia.

For examples, you need look no further than the curriculum of your local school or college, where the woke imperatives of Marxist-inspired Critical Race Theory is all the rage; at what is on offer at the nearest museum or radio station; indeed, you need look no further than your workplace, your church (if you still go to church), or your family to see evidence of the damage wrought by the long march of the counterculture.

The radical ethos of the Sixties can be felt throughout public and private life, from the most ordinary domestic situations all the way up the political ladder, not only in the swampy institutions that define the administrative state but, increasingly, even in the military, an institution that has recently and ostentatiously succumbed to the poison of political correctness and the divisive directives of “diversity.”

Rhetoric of Liberation

The grisly political history of the recent past also reminds us of the extent to which the totalitarian impulse appeals to the empty rhetoric of liberation in its effort to expunge genuine liberty.

Again and again we have seen the promise of liberation dissolve into outright tyranny.

The totalitarian impulse occupies a prominent place in most revolutionary movements, cultural as well as political.

Think, for example, of the Marxist-inspired tyranny visited upon Russia in 1917 or the megalomaniacal Rousseauian variety that tore France apart in 1789.

Indeed, the political fantasies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau have a great deal to answer for.

For two centuries, his sentimentalizing utopian rhetoric has provided despots of all description with a means of pursuing conformity while praising freedom.

It is a neat trick.

Words like “freedom” and “virtue” were ever on Rousseau’s lips.

But freedom for him was a chilly abstraction; it applied to mankind as an idea, not to individual men.

“I think I know man,” Rousseau sadly observed near the end of his life, “but as for men, I know them not.”

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, circa third quarter of 18th century. (Maurice Quentin de La Tour/Public Domain)

‘Virtue’

In the “Confessions,” he claimed to be “drunk on virtue.”

And indeed, it turned out that “virtue” for Rousseau had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others.

On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness.

For Rousseau, as for the countercultural radicals who followed him, “feeling good about yourself” was synonymous with moral rectitude.

Actually behaving well was irrelevant if not, indeed, a sign of “inauthenticity” because it suggested a concern for conventional approval.

Virtue in this Rousseauian sense is scarcely distinguishable from moral intoxication.

Anyone who has contemplated the suppression of free speech in the name of sensitivity and identity politics on our college campuses will understand what I mean.

Establishing the reign of virtue is no easy task, as Rousseau’s avid disciple Maximilien Robespierre discovered to his chagrin.

All those “particular wills”—i.e., individual men and women with their diverse aims and desires—are so recalcitrant and so ungrateful for one’s efforts to make them virtuous.

Still, one does what one can to convince them to conform.

And the guillotine, of course, is a great expedient. Robespierre was no political philosopher. But he understood the nature of Rousseau’s idea of virtue with startling clarity, as he showed when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.”

It is a remark worthy of Lenin, and a grim foreshadowing of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric that informed a great deal of Sixties radicalism, not to mention such successor totalitarian regimes as Cuba, Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

I mention Rousseau here because, acknowledged or not, he is an important intellectual and moral grandfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

(Important “fathers” include Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.)

Rousseau’s narcissism and megalomania, his paranoia, his fantastic political ideas and sense of absolute entitlement, his sentimentalizing nature-worship, even his twisted, hypertrophied eroticism: all reappeared updated in the tumult of the 1960s.

And so did the underlying totalitarian impulse that informs Rousseau’s notion of freedom.

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Maximilien Robespierre, bust by Claude-André Deseine. Terra cotta, 1791. (Rama via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

‘Idealism’

The glorification of such spurious freedom is closely connected with another misuse of language—one of the most destructive: the description of irresponsible political naiveté as a form of “idealism.”

Nor is it only naïveté that gets the extenuating absolution of “idealism.”

So do all manner of crimes, blunders, and instances of brutality: all can be morally sanitized by the simple expedient of being re-baptized as examples of (perhaps misguided) “idealism.”

The one essential qualification is that the perpetrator be identified with the political Left. For a contemporary instance, I invite you to go back an scrutinize the rhetoric that greet the “mostly peaceful protestors” who swept through America’s cities last summer, burning and pillaging, but who somehow earned not the obloquy that should greet genuine “insurrectionists” but the seemingly endless patience—amounting nearly to adulation—that also greeted the thugs and rapists who populated the Black Panthers in the1960s.

In her book “On Revolution,” Hannah Arendt—who was certainly no enemy of the Left herself—cannily observed that

one has often been struck by the peculiar selflessness of the revolutionists, which should not be confused with “idealism” or heroism. Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau, and it is the equation which has put, as it were, its indelible stamp upon the revolutionary man and his innermost conviction that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will.

In fact, the “peculiar selflessness” that Arendt describes often turns out to be little more than an abdication of individual responsibility abetted by utter self-absorption.

It is a phenomenon that, among other things, helps to explain the queasy-making spectacle of left-wing Western intellectuals falling over themselves in a vain effort to excuse, mitigate, or sometimes simply deny the crimes of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other murderous left-wing regimes throughout the Cold War and beyond.

Perhaps we can admit that Stalin (or Mao or Pol Pot or Fidel or whoever) was repressive (or maybe that is just an ugly rumor propagated by the United States); perhaps he “went too far”; maybe some measures were “extreme”; this or that policy was “misjudged”; … but omelettes require breaking a few eggs … and besides, what glorious ideas are equality, community, the brotherhood of man …  going beyond capitalistic greed, mere selfish individualism, repressive patriarchal society based on inequitable division of labor, and so on, and so on.

The odor of piety that attends these rituals of exculpation is almost as disagreeable as the aura of grotesque unreality that emanates from them.

Passion

One sees the same thing in another key in the left-liberal response to cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Whatever criticisms might be made of the counterculture, they are quickly neutralized by invoking the totem of “idealism.”

For example, one is regularly told that youth in the 1960s and 1970s, whatever their extravagances and sillinesses, had a “passionate belief” (the beliefs of radicals are never less than “passionate”) in a “better world,” in a “more humane society,” in “equality.”

The guiding assumption is that “passion” redeems moral vacuity, rendering it noble or at least exempting it from censure.

This assumption, which is part of the Romantic background of the counterculture, is profoundly mistaken and destructive.

As T.S. Eliot observed, the belief that there is “something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake, whatever the emotion or whatever the object,” is “a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age.”

It is also, he noted, “a symptom of decadence.”

For it is “by no means self-evident,” Eliot wrote:

that human beings are most real when they are most violently excited; violent physical passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behavior of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts.

Furthermore, strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men, those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning.

“Passion,” like “idealism,” is a nostrum that the Left prescribes in order to relieve itself from the burdens of moral accountability.

Materialism and Spiritual Anesthesia

In a subtle essay called “Countercultures,” the late political commentator Irving Kristol noted that the counterculture of the 1960s was in part a reaction against a society that had become increasingly secular, routinized, and crassly materialistic.

In this respect, too, the counterculture can be understood as part of our Romantic inheritance, a plea for freedom and transcendence in a society increasingly dominated by the secular forces of Enlightenment rationality.

Indeed, revolts of this tenor have been a staple of Romanticism since the nineteenth century: Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” who seeks refuge from the imperatives of reason in willful arbitrariness, is only one example (a rather grim one) among countless others.

The danger, Kristol notes, is that the counterculture, in its attack on secular materialism, “will bring down—will discredit—human things that are of permanent importance. A spiritual rebellion against the constrictions of secular humanism could end up … in a celebration of irrationalism and a derogation of reason itself.”

At a time when the radical tenets of the counterculture have become so thoroughly established and institutionalized in cultural life—when they have, in fact, come more and more to define the tastes, habits, and attitudes of the dominant culture—unmasking illegitimate claims to “liberation” and bogus feats of idealism emerges as a prime critical task.

To an extent scarcely imaginable a few decades back, we now live in what one commentator called the “moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.”

The long march of the cultural revolution of the 1960s has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of all but the most starry-eyed utopians.

The great irony is that this victory took place in the midst of a significant drift to the center-Right in electoral politics.

The startling and depressing fact is that supposedly conservative victories at the polls have done almost nothing to challenge the dominance of left-wing, emancipationist attitudes and ideas in our culture.

On the contrary, in the so-called “culture wars,” conservatives have been conspicuous losers.

One sign of that defeat has been the fate of the culture wars themselves.

One hears considerably less about those battles today than a decade ago. That is partly because, as Robert Novak notes in his book “Completing the Revolution,” “moral issues tend to exhaust people over time.”

Controversies that only yesterday sparked urgent debate today seem, for many, strangely beside the point.

There is also the issue of material abundance.

For if the Sixties were an assault on the moral substance of traditional culture, they nonetheless abetted the capitalist culture of accumulation.

Yes, there are exceptions, but they are unimportant to the overall picture.

Indeed, it happened that the cultural revolution was most damaging precisely where, in material terms, it was most successful.

This put many conservatives in an awkward position. For conservatives have long understood that free markets and political liberty go together.

What if it turned out that free markets plus the cultural revolution of the Sixties added up to moral and intellectual poverty, not to mention the illiberal imperatives of “woke” ideology.

It is both ironical and dispiriting to realize that the counterculture may have won its most insidious victories not among its natural sympathizers on the Left but, on the contrary, among those putatively conservative opponents who can no longer distinguish between material affluence and the moral good.

In other words, it may be that what the Sixties have wrought above all is widespread spiritual anesthesia.

To a degree frightening to contemplate, we have lost that sixth sense that allows us to discriminate firmly between civilization and its discontents.

That this loss goes largely unlamented and even unnoticed is a measure of how successful the long march of the cultural revolution has been.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.