8 aprile 2021


A time of intense struggles and emerging new values, the Sixties witnessed deep social changes, becoming a myth, alive as a subject of great interest until today.

by Emilio Asti

A dramatic but also enthusiastic moment in history, the sixties have been the subject of many discussions and articles, but various things regarding that period remain unsaid, and should be evaluated in a correct way, putting aside stereotypes.

No decade in modern history has generated more controversy than the Sixties, an age when many things began to change, and several
contradictions burst out.

When focusing on those years, often considered a time of social revolutions, drug taking and sexual indulgence, apart from social turmoil, a period of optimism and hedonism appears, but the reality is more complex and difficult to characterize. Those years, not yet untainted by globalization, witnessed the rise of feminism, anti-war movements, the quest for peace and for civil rights, yet some other things have been overshadowed. The traditions to which the earlier generation had conformed were deeply questioned, and a different scale of values was proposed.

Today we often talk about women’s rights, protection of the environment, but their roots can be retraced to those years.

If we look back critically at the ‘60s, we will realize that those years, like any historical period, had also a dark side, but we cannot forget the sincere enthusiasm of so many young people who didn’t hesitate to commit themselves to carrying forward their ideals, despite the many mistakes they did. It is remarkable to consider that now various cultural values of the ‘60s are somehow emerging again.

Winds of change blew through the world, unrest and social chaos were dominating in many countries, and on the international scene various dramatic events occurred. Throughout the world democracy confronted communism in the so called “Cold War”, and this struggle erupted in various parts of the world, and on August 1961 the construction of Berlin Wall exasperated the tension between East and West. The two superpowers stood at the precipice of a nuclear war, and on several occasions, peace was endangered.  Various nations were struggling for independence, new States were created and several of them seemed to be turning to communism.

In the USSR and in its satellite States people were living under strong dictatorships.  In China, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, and his Little Red Book became like a sacred text to youth, also appreciated by many young people in the West.

In those years’ various innovative trends and a very great leap for technology took place. The USA and USSR began exploring space with rockets and satellites; the first man to fly into space was the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin and near the end of the decade American astronauts left their footprints on the moon’s surface. Their words are worthy to be remembered: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Several events and people made popular by television at that time became fixed in every home.

Despite their economic power and political influence in the world the USA were experiencing serious difficulties, the political parties and different Institutions had lost their legitimacy, revealing corruption and moral decadence. A concatenation of conflicts, internal as well external, marked the USA, as this nation was undergoing a deep polarization. Even the government didn’t know which way to turn in order to face such a problematic situation. While young people exalted

freedom as a way to escape from consumerism, conservatives fought to preserve the old social order based on family values and patriotism. Urban centres were shaken by violent demonstrations, and crimes were increasing. Another problem yet was the mounting of the unemployment rate. The killing of President John Kennedy, with which many hopes died, the Cuban crisis, later the USA involvement in Vietnam, seemed to have speed up the course of history.

A kind of a new culture that involved many aspects was starting, something that already had the beginning in the ‘50s, with the “Beat Generation” that showed a conflict between traditional tendencies and the anticonformist spirit expressed in Jack Kerouac’s novels and through new musical rhythms.

An important feature of the 1960s was the Youth rebellion, which became worldwide in scope. It was as if in Western countries youth was in revolt against the increasing modernization that, according to them, represented a restriction on the human being, producing corruption and injustice. It was also a reaction against a way of life based on hypocrisy and formalism, which deprived life of its true meaning. It was the young people, refusing to be moulded into a way of life considered by them destructive, who had been the pioneers of new forms of living. Students mobilized against the discriminatory structure of the educational system, organizing demonstrations to affirm the necessity of setting up alternative forms of education, but at the universities and colleges their demands were suppressed. In the eyes of young people old social customs based on hierarchical roles, lost respectability.  Herbert Marcuse and Jean Paul Sartre, philosophers that theorized the juvenile protest, had many followers.

Women refused their traditional role as only obedient to the male rules, not accepting to be intimidated into silence, and many of them became actively involved in various activities and protests. Some groups started also to oppose the discrimination against the homosexuals, advocating their rights. Divorce rate and abortions increased, and the birth-control pill appeared on the marked.

Apart from disobedience, the counterculture meant also drug use, many boys and girls wanted to try marijuana and other drugs, besides from being an act of rebellion they hoped to open new channels of perception and exploring an alternative reality through drugs. Various influential thinkers like Allen Ginsberg advocated experimentation with hallucinogenic substances, and many public demonstrations to legalize the free use of cannabis and marijuana took place.

Militarism seemed to characterize much of the American foreign policy, suffering a large number of casualties in Vietnam, where thousands of innocent people died and so many cried the death of their loved ones. As the Vietnam war escalated, the call for stopping the military operations in that country resounded from USA to Europe, questioning America’s predominance in the world.  The word Vietnam itself became an icon in many parts of the world for the struggle against imperialism. In many universities, anti-war students, objecting the compulsory military service and showing their opposition to nuclear weapons, organized sit-down protests and many times violence broke out. Often the police fought back violently, attacking young demonstrators, various of which were injured. It would be wrong to consider those demonstrations as no more than a matter of political violence, rather it was a kind of young revolutionary fervour, like the occupation of the university of Berkeley in 1964, that was known even abroad.

A new consciousness was arising and brought many young people to share the same vision of life, denouncing rich countries for exploiting the resources of the world, or expressing a deep concern for the cultural values of peoples, like the native Americans, considered primitive by the establishment. It came from a sense of guilt for allowing a world of abundance, whilst other people were forced to live in poor situations. Sensitive to the Afro-American population needs, many youths took an active part in defending them. Afro-Americans were suffering profound discrimination since American institutions were maintaining a system of racial inequality. Still, since they were no more willing to suffer indignities as they had in the past, the civil rights movement swept across the USA. Martin Luther King, one of the most famous figures of the decade, gathering big crowds of participants at his rallies, had the noble dream of a country in which all peoples of different races could live together in peace. We all remember the meaningful song” We shall overcome” that became an anthem. Martin Luther King’s murder provoked riots in many cities, while the Black Panthers Movement called for an armed revolution.

Unfortunately, older generations and the institutions were reluctant to enter a sincere dialogue with young people, often unjustly considered extremists, which expressed their alienation from conventional society.  Above geographical and cultural differences they shared one common factor: their aspiration for peace and the will to struggle for it, sharing the sense of being part of a new generation, which felt called to carry on a great liberating struggle against the old generation’s obsession with material things, not being able to understand truly what youth needed.   Young people lead a significant break from traditional culture and social rules, when authorities seemed to collapse, and the driving standard lost its importance. Students were determined to shape their own destiny and not follow in the steps of their families and teachers in which they couldn’t find any understanding.

Parents as well as teachers, expressed their critics and worries, but without being able to know what truly young people needed.

The ‘60s bring back many memories, a leap through the years and we may find ourselves in California, where in those years there was the cradle of a kind of a “cultural revolution”, based on free love and drug use. It was an exciting moment when so many hopes and illusions emerged, as a new beginning had started. Many young people coming from other parts of USA, all bound by the desire of new experiences, but fitted with an acute sense of anxiety, were amazed by California’s offering of a different lifestyle. This was undoubtedly California, a mix of rebellion, mystique, drugs, that many boys and girls found fascinating, but which provoked various social problems, as drugs destroyed the life of so many young people. It was 1967 when a big happening attracted people from far, the largest migration of young people in American history. At the beginning an enthusiastic atmosphere reigned, it was a scene of music and bustle, Hindu chanting mixed with rock music with so many boys and girls feeling happy and without limitations, forgetting about problems, all like a big family, but beneath the surface there was a desperate need to leave behind the normal life to reach a timeless world.  In sexual promiscuity as well as in music and drugs they were searching for something more than physical enjoyment.

Another important aspect of that period regards religion. As one author pointed out, religion was the field that changed most deeply in the USA. Many youths felt the necessity to experience an authentic spirituality that could satisfy their need for a complete life. Their parents’ religion was just going to church, but for them it was different, it meant seeking something capable to respond to their spiritual needs in the daily life. Unfortunately, many churches were afflicted with conservativism, paralyzing any independent spiritual experience and failing to apply Christian teachings to solve social problems. On those circumstances many rejected the churches in the name of a more sincere spirituality, not wanting to conform to restrictive religious dogmas, and looking for a more tolerant concept of religious practices. Within several Christian denominations the Charismatic Movement, focusing on the need   of revitalize the faith, grew rapidly.

With its strong emphasis on the figure of Jesus reshaped into a young rebel who represented a role model for promoting equality and peace, the Jesus People Movement offered to many youths the possibility to experience a different kind of life.

That age saw the emergence of many spiritual groups of Oriental origin, mainly from India, recruiting to their ranks quite a few intellectual and artists. Some disciplines like yoga and meditation became popular and attracted the young generation, books about oriental beliefs and occultism sold millions of copies, and many got familiar with Hindu sacred texts.  Several painters, poets and singers, turned to Indian cultural traditions for inspiration. In Europe many got to know Indian spirituality under the American impulse.

The arrival to America of Oriental gurus, to whom many turned for spiritual guidance, was made possible under the new immigration laws of 1965.

In the social context of that time, joining oriental spiritual movements   was supposed to be as a kind of opposition to the dominant Christian culture, voicing a protest against materialistic society. Going to India or Nepal was considered meaningful to those who were on a spiritual quest; many western youths travelled there to have a taste of Oriental spirituality, being convinced that India was a special spiritual place, but reality was different. They went to India also to escape Western consumer society, in search of a primitive way of life. Many youths gave up their study career and work to embark on a new life, joining religious groups that seemed to offer an alternative to the materialistic culture, facing hard criticism from their families that accused these groups of “brainwashing” young ingenuous people.

A new form of spirituality began to spread, characterized by a blend of multiple traditions, that grew rapidly during the next decades and would be called “New Age”, putting emphasis on methods aimed at developing our inner potentialities, connecting with the universal divine energy.

That was also the time for a proliferation of spiritual groups proclaiming that the time had come for a deep transformation of all aspects of life, believing that Earth was going to enter a time of complete renovation, proclaiming the return of Christ and dreaming that a peaceful world would be soon possible.  The rock opera “Hair” presented the song Aquarius, announcing the coming of a new age of peace and enlightenment.          

Like a symbol of those years, the Hippies were a bit of mystery, the name itself was perceived like a kind of label. With long hair, untidy clothes and colourful ornaments, that seemed not to have a clear meaning, they distinguished themselves from the rest of society, calling themselves “Flower Children”, and their customs were subtle and complex.

Hippies were a lifestyle rather than a movement, without a political drive. Various hippy communities were set up in many places and valued very much a life free from material possessions with the freedom to do what they liked and moving as they wanted. They seemed to promise a kind of utopia, showing the possibility of an alternative form of society in which mutual understanding and harmony would reign. Some also made reference to an ancient prophecy of the native Americans that said: “When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colours, classes, creeds, and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again, they will be known as the warriors of the rainbow”.

Unfortunately, they indulged in a self-destroying lifestyle, hoping to attain a kind of enlightenment through the practice of drug use and sexual promiscuity. There were some evidences that political authorities secretly encouraged the use of drugs among them, in order to destroy that movement internally.

As far as culture is concerned, that age witnessed in Western countries the developing of many new artistic styles, various imbued with oriental influences; also, dress code was transformed, blue jeans, miniskirts and trousers for girls became usual.  Various cities in Europe became distinguished as countercultural centres that saw a flourishing of alternative lifestyles as London, defined “the swinging London”, Paris, West Berlin, Amsterdam, etc.

Talking about the Sixties, we can’t ignore the many songs giving voice to protests as well as to the dreams for peace, interpreting the spirit of that time, that became very popular.  

Some influential musicians and bands like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones became world known. We may love them or dislike them, but it was impossible to ignore them, since their songs were a hit all around the world and polarized public opinion, being a magnet for youth who enthusiastically idolized them. Who will ever forget songs like “All you need is love” or “Eve of destruction”, just to mention some whose music and words can disclose much of the spirit of the Sixties? They were the kind of songs able to stir strong emotions, as enchanting today as they were at that time, and conveying meaningful messages as ever.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were an outstanding example that sums up the characteristic spirit of that time. In Dylan's most famous song, “Blowing in the wind”, which became like an anthem for peaceful protests, he showed his deep concern for peace and justice.

As the decade progressed it became more politicized and violence predominated. In many cities of the world rioting broke out raging against authorities and many demonstrations ended in bloodshed.

Under the pretence of pacifism various groups gave rise to violence and many youngsters turned violent.

Synonym for fierce rebellion, that marked a milestone in the history, 1968 was a tense year; in that year also Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered. The ’68 movement with its politicization and a spiral of violence supporting Marxism-Leninism was quite different from the primitive spirit of sincere desire of freedom and change, detached from all forms of political influence.

Che Guevara became an icon for many young people identified themselves in him, who objected to the capitalist system, also some philosophers had a certain power of influence over the youth, attracted by the dream of a classless society.

In France many protests and strikes took place, and hundreds of people in Paris during the May 68 were seriously injured. Never before Paris experienced such a turmoil.  A kind of political rhetoric was used to legitimize utopian demands, proclaiming the support of the struggle against imperialism all over the world; but apart from the political aspect, May ’68 in France was a kind of response to a society still attached to old patterns of thought that youth rejected. Later those protesters suffered a disillusionment, since till then the real situation of the communist countries was quite unknown, and their predictions finally proved untrue.

1968 was also the year when the Soviet empire was shaken by the so called “Prague Spring”, suffocated by Soviet tanks that crushed the Czechoslovakian attempt to liberalize the communist regime, and occupied that country, as they did in Hungary in 1956.

Although today's mentality is quite different from that of the ‘60s, looking back at that period, make us reflect about the course of history, which could have taken a different direction, if some conditions should have been accomplished, but it was not to be.  From this perspective the cultural patterns that we recognize in the ‘60s have a parallel with the time of Jesus birth in the Roman empire, since both periods witnessed a flourishing of messianic expectations and a radical change of the world seemed possible soon enough.

Generally young people are considered inexperienced and naïve, but although their dream of a peaceful world hasn’t yet become reality, they have been a force capable of promoting great changes. From a contemporary perspective they could look like ingenuous dreamers, but their commitment towards a more ethical society remains an inspiration. Some protagonists of those years now remember with a bit of nostalgia those days, thinking that there will never be another time like that again.  The bulk of that spirit remains even in our time as an impulse towards a new cultural revolution based on moral commitment, against dogmatism and prejudices, to broaden the cultural horizons to foster harmony among all the peoples, regardless of race and religious background.

Many relevant questions concerning those years have been left unanswered, but maybe even now “The answer is blowing in the wind”.

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