Mood Swings The '60s and the '90s

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #902, April 13, 1997

We can learn more about the situation today by examining more deeply how this period is different from the '60s in some substantial ways. For example, this is not a period of the expansiveness of the imperialist economies. And socially and politically, a lot of the movement of the '60s--the Civil Rights movement, or the early SDS or whatever--was sort of conditioned by that expansiveness of the economy. Even as a movement seeking to change the status quo, it was still conditioned by that expansiveness and the accompanying "optimism"--the Kennedy-Camelot optimism of that time, which reflected the material conditions of broad strata of people in the U.S.

Some people have made the analysis--which I think has some validity, as long as we use it critically--that the '60s was a period of rising expectations, and the particular movements of that time, even the ones that became most radical, were largely shaped by the conflict between the rising expectations and the frustrations or limitations imposed upon those expectations. That was a very explosive mix.

There was a real boom in the economy in the U.S. and internationally before the Vietnam War, and then some factors in the world economy inter-relating with that war started turning things substantially into their opposite. Before that, in the '50s and '60s, large sectors of U.S. society were moving to the suburbs, and it seemed that, in one way or another, everybody had a lot of upward mobility, everybody seemed to be getting in on it. But there were significant sections of people--in particular the masses of Black people and even the middle class of Black people--who were largely and essentially locked out of that; and this was one of the major and most explosive social contradictions of that time.

That's by contrast to today--not that there's no upward mobility at all--or, on the other hand, no phenomenon of people finding their expectations frustrated. But this is a period of a much different social situation, much different expectations. It is a period, if you will, of lowered expectations among large sections of the middle strata--though not all, because there's real polarization going on even within the middle strata. Because of some of these objective-economic changes, and because of conscious policy on the part of the ruling class, for significant sectors of the middle class there are lowered expectations. This is not the same kind of spontaneous optimism (if you want to put it that way) that there was for the majority of society in the 1960s.

Recently I was reading the Jonathan Kozol book Amazing Grace. And while we are very familiar with the conditions that he's describing in the South Bronx--which is the focus of this book--and more generally the conditions of the basic masses, still what he describes is very vivid and very graphic. Obviously, the expectations there, among the most destitute and desperate masses in the U.S., are very different from what they were even for the basic masses 25 to 30 years ago. And this poses some real problems for us in our work. There's a certain degree of fatalism and defeatism which we have to consciously work against--and are working against. But this sets a different cast, if you will, on the way things come down and the way questions pose themselves.

I have made the point in previous writings that things are not going to be a repeat of the '60s. The contradictions will pose themselves and find resolution differently. And strategically speaking that's an advantage for us because it's a reflection of the diminishing reserves of the imperialists (which is something it is necessary to dig into further). And also, along with that, today things come right up against the fundamental relations in society, more quickly than they did in the '60s.

For example, in the '60s with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the South, there developed a pretty broad consciousness that something is really wrong in U.S. society--that we basically have this South Africa within the U.S., when we're supposed to be a democratic beacon for the world--there's something really wrong in the U.S. And pursuing that contradiction led to a lot of radicalization.

Recently I saw a video of the documentary movie Freedom on My Mind, about the civil rights movement in the south. And you can see this process at work there, not only with the masses of Black people but also the Black college students and the white college students and others who took part in this movement. We know it was a very radicalizing experience because many of us came out of that overall experience. But on the other hand, let's put it this way: you could go a fair distance at that time before you came smack up against some of the basic underlying relations and conditions, the underlying limitations of the system. There was more room to move, more room for the ruling class to maneuver within the confines of bourgeois democracy, and more room for people to believe that these contradictions could be resolved within the system, even though people were, at the same time, becoming more and more radicalized.

I read an interview with Mario Savio when he came to Berkeley in 1994 for the 30th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (of which he was a major leader and sort of a symbol). He talked about how he felt the compulsion to get active again because a lot of the things that he was initially inspired to get active around were all under attack in an intense way now, and a lot of the same questions seemed to be coming around again. He also talked about the difference between then and now--from his own viewpoint. And he was saying that things are a lot more complicated now.

The interviewers were asking: "Why do you think college students are different? Why don't they jump into the movement sometimes in the same way you did, in your time as a college student?" And his response was, in essence, that the material conditions are different--also the questions pose themselves differently. It's not so clear the "right" and "wrong" of everything, it's not so immediately evident. Pretty soon you run into questions of class. He also brought out this point--it isn't just the "right" and "wrong" of racism, but you run into questions of class. And what he was saying, in essence, is that you run into the whole way the society is structured--pretty quickly you come right up against that.

And, again, strategically this is an advantage for our cause, but tactically it can pose some problems because spontaneously people don't see the way to deal with this. It seems overwhelming. In both ideological terms (in terms of their own vision) and practically--in the sense of seeing a material force on the stage that can uproot these deep-seated things--people generally don't see the way to deal with it. So they tend to feel defeated rather than spontaneously being inclined and inspired to fight in a more determined way to change things on a more fundamental level. Obviously this whole thing is contradictory, but this is an important aspect of the objective situation and its effect on people's mood and sentiments.

This is just another example of the way things are going to be working themselves out during this period, which is a period of major transition and upheaval in a different way than in the '60s. As I said, strategically this is an advantage, but exactly for the reasons that it's strategically favorable, it's also tactically somewhat more difficult. You are right up against the fundamental contradictions and fundamental solutions that are necessary. Pretty quickly you get to the fundamental questions in the society--the fundamental problem and solution.

I'm not saying there are no false paths out there--it's not a straight line thing. And certainly the situation will be marked by tremendous complexity and contending lines, and there will be plenty of illusions about reformist solutions and so on. But what I am getting at is that, objectively and somewhat even subjectively, you're "boom!" right up against these fundamental contradictions of society, once you move into motion against the injustices of the system. So the period is different from the '60s substantially. Tactically this poses some difficulties, but strategically things are more favorable.

At the same time, we can't expect things to unfold in a "familiar pattern" for those of us who are "veterans" in the revolutionary movement. In a certain sense, we can say, philosophically, that there are no familiar patterns. It is important to recognize that there is relative identity--things have relative (and temporary) identity. Not recognizing this--failing to grasp the relative identity of things--leads to agnosticism and all kinds of philosophical deviations. Complete uncertainty does not correspond to the way the world really is and how it changes. But, on the other hand, that identity is relative--it is contradictory and marked by motion, development, struggle, change. And there are no predetermined pathways--there is the constant dialectical interplay between necessity and accident--so we cannot predict exactly how things will go, even though at any given time we can anticipate certain general patterns with relative certainty.

But even beyond that general philosophical principle, we shouldn't be looking in terms of a '60s analogy--we shouldn't be looking for a repeat of the '60s. There's much to learn and much to bring forward from that period--much to teach the current generation, and much to remind the older generation (if we dare use that term!) about that period and what was learned from the very rich experience then. It is very necessary and correct for us to do that--even to do more of it. But things are going to work out differently than they did then. Those of us who are "veterans" shouldn't be "stuck in the past" in our way of looking at things. We shouldn't be looking for "familiar patterns"--or we're going to miss some very important things.

So there are significant differences between the '60s and now, as well as the fundamental similarities. And there are, after all, the fundamental similarities. That is, we have the same system and the same fundamental contradictions. And a lot of the particular expressions of these contradictions are the same, in terms of the major social questions in the society. Besides the basic class exploitation, both within the U.S. and internationally, and the whole system of imperialism with its material foundation, a lot of the particular questions--the national question, the woman question, other major social questions--pose themselves in both substantially the same ways as previously and in some new ways, some new aspects, which are important. We have to be able to reckon with and deal with both the fundamental similarities--including some essential similarities in how these major social questions are posed--as well as some very different aspects of these things that are posing themselves now as compared to the past.

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