The Historical Roots of 1960s Radicalism

The rebellious fervor of the Sixties, with its rejection of traditional standards and authorities, seemed a sudden break from what came before. At a deeper level, however, those developments simply brought to fruition what had long been in the works.

What happened at that time was a further step in a centuries-long process of social transformation. The French Revolution had replaced kings and priests with bureaucrats, and the Industrial Revolution turned artisans into assembly line workers. The events of the Sixties continued the process.

Their basic effect was to replace personal and family obligations by social welfare rights, and inherited community understandings by therapy and political correctness. Instead of family life based on sexual restraint and differing functional roles for men and women, we would have sexual freedom, contraception, daycare, and careers for all. The changes were marketed through appeals to freedom, but they carried forward and radicalized the replacement of local and traditional ways by bureaucratic and market arrangements. Those arrangements are not particularly free. To call them “liberation” is to say that man is essentially an employee and consumer who pursues various diversions in his time off, so that a rationally managed system of production, consumption, and private indulgence is what he needs to give him what he wants and maximize his freedom.

The roots of such changes go back to the dawn of the modern age. For centuries the development of transportation, communication, and markets has been disrupting local and customary relationships; the rise of modern natural science has been promoting an emphasis on control and a skeptical view of informal and traditional knowledge; and the growth of the state has been suppressing local and customary authorities and the international and transcendent authority of the Church. Globalization, the Internet, the new atheists, and the Obama administration are only the latest installments in that long story.

The outcome of the story is a way of life that is increasingly carried on through impersonal and supposedly rational arrangements and supervised by managers and other functionaries with specialized knowledge unconnected to traditional and popular understandings. Such arrangements are claimed to make life freer and more rational and efficient. Their effect, though, has been to make it less comprehensible to ordinary people, and to transfer social power to managers, persuaders, bureaucrats, and experts. Life has become a battle between experts and managers on the one side, and “fear of change” and “deeply rooted social stereotypes” on the other, with the experts and managers always assumed right.

That battle expresses a gap between inherited standards, which are based on traditional understandings of life and the world, and the view of the world now held by people who run things. Why should such people take God or chastity seriously? The issues seem irrelevant from a bureaucratic or market standpoint, so our rulers’ natural response is to treat them as private matters that should be kept out of public discussion as disruptive.

For that reason inherited standards, which are always social, have increasingly seemed unanchored, arbitrary, and at odds with reason. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries those perceptions had given rise to growing cultural radicalism in intellectual and artistic circles. Radicals wanted authenticity, and there seemed something odd about a bureaucrat or industrialist taking moral tradition seriously. If traditional ways are so great, why be a bureaucrat or industrialist? Those in responsible positions rejected such views, so they were exposed to leftist accusations of hypocrisy, but they gradually accommodated themselves to what seemed like moderate reforms such as easier divorce.

The people at large went on as best they could, but the decline of committed and articulate leadership meant that their views lost focus and coherence, so that when pressed they couldn’t explain themselves effectively. Finally, in the Sixties, effective resistance crumbled and the rejection of traditional cultural standards went mass market. That happened for several reasons. An influential section of the ruling class, progressive intellectuals, supported cultural radicalism, while TV, advertising, and commercial pop entertainment promoted personal indulgence and separated imaginative life from the realities of human experience. Young people, who are impressionable and impulsive by nature, were deeply affected by those influences, as well as by a progressive education designed to separate them from traditional institutions and understandings. The result was the outbreaks of 1968, which outraged the people at large but aroused the sympathy of the media and soon led those in power to realize they didn’t need the old standards and could make use of the new. In 1967 contraception was illegal in France, but by 1974 President Giscard’s center-right government was supporting legal abortion. Other Western countries saw similar developments.

The support of ruling elites marked a major step forward for cultural radicalism. Revolutionaries had often favored it, but when victorious had given it up as disruptive in times of emergency. Early Soviet support for free love had given way to official puritanism, and the Nazi homosexuality symbolized by the Brownshirt leader Ernst Roehm had been followed by sporadic persecution. The post-60s West felt secure enough to dispense with such old-fashioned forms of social discipline. The loss of small-scale social cohesion and functionality was more than outweighed, from our rulers’ standpoint, by the increased power of the bureaucratic and market institutions they dominated. The technocratic bias of modern thought also played a role. It is literally inconceivable to most educated people today that traditional moral standards could be rational and beneficial. The standards aren’t designed to maximize and equalize the satisfaction of preferences, so they are seen as oppressive and irrational by definition.

The result is that today the cultural radicalism of the Sixties is not only widespread but official and unquestionable, so much so that if you don’t like it you’re considered an ignorant bigot. In the recent campaign President Obama felt confident he could treat support for compulsory free provision of contraceptives by all employers as a political asset without serious questioning by commentators or even his opponent. As a politician he knew that there is no way to object to such measures that sounds rational and compelling in high-end national public discussion.

So what should we do? I only have space for a couple of comments, but here are some that seem to the point:

Our problem is that people don’t think as the Church thinks or aspire to live as the Church wants to live. Worse, most people don’t understand what those things mean or why they make sense. So what we need most is clarity of thought and purity of intention. If we don’t offer something special people aren’t going to take us up on it. So today more than ever, integrity trumps political pragmatism.

We also need to understand the fundamental strength of our position. The other side wants to replace God, man, and nature by a social machine with human components. The effort isn’t going to succeed. God and nature can’t be eliminated, and man can’t be neutered and controlled. So if confidence in ultimate victory is a source of strength, that strength is available to us. Even at a purely natural level, the battle against the destructive heritage of the Sixties is one we’re eventually going to win.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Edward Peitler

    Nailed it.
    This Sunday’s Gospel about the sun and the moon no longer lighting up the sky and the stars falling from the heavens reminds me of the cataclysmic erosion of societal mores and cultural values. But the Gospel message is not depresisng since it heralds the death and resurrection of one Jesus Christ whose rising gives hope to the world. He has the final word – not death.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I was in Paris during Les événements de mai 1968 and I recall a slogan that one saw everywhere at that time: « Le futur n’a plus d’avenir » – “The future has no future.”

    I thought that summed up the mood of the times very well.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Are you saying that we’re supposed to go back to the Dark Ages? Is it really possible to interpret your words in any other way? Some people accuse the Church of wanting to drag the planet back into the Dark Ages, destitution and disease and isolation and ignorance and all. Are you giving ammunition?

    Furthermore, I have read actual liberal websites. Liberals really do want to preserve and protect human beings. They also want to preserve and protect the environment for future generations. They also want to build peace and harmony. As a matter of fact, they accuse the Church of wanting to build an authoritarian religious machine with human components–Mother Church has a lot of work to do in order to convince them otherwise.

    • Edward Peitler

      Spare us all the lecture.

      • John200

        May I add an angle?

        Brian Cook, I shall ditto, “Spare us the attempt-to-deceive lecture.”

        And kindly leave off with such locutions as, “I have read actual liberal websites.” We know liberals, dissenting Catholics, cafeteria Catholics, heretics, schismatics, et al. By the easy-to-find evidence, we know them better than you do. Nobody here marvels at your reading.

        Others can comment on the rest.

    • Your comments make it sound like you see no mean between a world of pure chaos and violence and a world organized through and through on an industrial model. I object to the latter, so you are convinced I must be plugging the former. You need to broaden your horizons.

      I too have read liberal websites, books, and whatnot. I was educated by and among liberals, and I’ve been surrounded by liberals my whole adult life. That’s why I never deny that liberals like other people want many good things. The problem is not that they don’t want good things but that they have a false understanding of man and the world.

      That understanding makes it natural for them to see the Church as they do. To people who think life is basically about people trying to get stuff, the Church seems a huge system of obfuscation, manipulation, and tyranny. That’s all it could be, right?

      The way beyond that view is to show that the understanding of life is wrong and a better one is possible. That’s called evangelization, and I agree Mother Church has a lot of it to do.

      • Brian A. Cook

        I mean to ask. That’s why I put my first sentences in the forms of questions.

        • To answer the questions, taking them literally as questions: no, yes, and no, except to the extent people who throw around silly accusations will use silly things as ammunition.

          I don’t want the Dark Ages. I want life in accordance with reason, which includes social understandings and relations based on the natural law–on what things are, how they work, and what’s good for them. That’s pretty much what Catholic social teaching wants too.

          The objection to the modern tendencies that I say brought us the Sixties is that they’re based on an understanding of reason that is too narrow, so all it includes is describing the physical aspects of the world and figuring out how to use them to get us whatever it is we happen to want.

          That outlook leads to a view of the ideal social order as a big technically rational machine, designed and managed by experts, for satisfying preferences as much and as equally as possible.

          For a variety of reasons I think that ideal won’t work as expected and won’t lead to a world that’s good to live in.

    • Mark

      “Liberals really do want to preserve and protect human beings.”

      50 million abortions speak to the contrary.

      ” They also want to preserve and protect the environment for future generations.”

      No, they want to destroy capitalism under the guise of preserving and protecting the environment. And if they cared at all about future generations, they would feel disgraced and ashamed of our more than $16 trillion debt.

      “they accuse the Church of wanting to build an authoritarian religious
      machine with human components–Mother Church has a lot of work to do in
      order to convince them otherwise.”

      Sorry, Mother Church owes nothing but the truth to a bunch of arrogant, condescending, irresponsible, socialist, baby-killing sodomites who continually force us all to accept that God should be replaced with government.

      Political Correctness is nothing but Cultural Marxism.

      • Brian

        ” arrogant, condescending, irresponsible, socialist, baby-killing sodomites…” Did you just lose the argument by spitting ad hominen attacks?

  • Brian A. Cook

    Maybe my words were a bit too harsh, but I could not think of any other way to communicate, so I stand by my underlying points. I have been asking difficult questions about the implications of Catholicism for flesh-and-blood human beings. After all, if the earthly Church were completely and totally successful in lifting up flesh-and-blood human beings, surely no one would be able to justify rejecting the Church. Yes, there are historical complications–and that’s exactly what I’ve tried to get at in previous posts. Look at the silencing of women. Look at antisemitism. Look at ethnic tribalism or domination. Look at torture and execution. I have tried to point out that “managers” have redeeming qualities and really do try to help human beings.

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  • Matt

    Our “position of strength” is that of the Catholic clergy in the midst of the French Revolution. Our “clarity of thought” and “purity of intention” are those of the faithful citizens who sought to curb the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our “new evangelization” goes out to a world that has fully witnessed the temporal saving power of Christ and rejected it. We are on the wrong side of this spiritual war. Indeed, our enemies will not succeed, yet we are among them. Our “victory” will come on the receiving end of the wrath of God. Therein lies our confidence and strength. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

    Great analysis as always, Mr. Kalb, and only too true. Would that there were more people of your wisdom and clarity of thought in this society.

  • Keith Parkinson

    This article, I think, would benefit greatly by sticking to particulars. If I were to pick just one example of an abstraction or generalization where something specific would be more helpful, I guess I’d point to reducing all the things “1960s radicalism” (whatever that is) objected to to “inherited community understandings” (whatever those are). You mean like systematically (legally even) relegating a whole race of people to your second-best facilities in the context of a materialist culture? Or confining women to domestication in a culture that no longer values family life, or any of the insight into spirit and nature that women bring to the table? Weren’t a lot of those “inherited community understandings” totally godless and prideful and barren? And hadn’t many others long ago lost the social mores that made them acceptable or good? For example: You cannot justify a social machine that keeps women domesticated in a culture in which that amounts to subjection and dependency upon men who are under no pressure to love or respect or value them. I think that if generalities were to give way to particulars, it would be much harder for the author to stick to his tidy and uncomplicated (and also unfocused, it seems to me) point. I think this is a very interesting and complicated subject, but inadequately addressed; complicated because this “modern movement”, whose values are always inadequate and sometimes destructive, is in many cases much more spiritual in nature than the thing it broke apart the foundations of and displaced. All this is why I think any sort of spiritual revival on better principles must consider “1960s radicalism”, and those who trace their loyalties back to it, and even all the way back to I guess Voltaire (that’s the point of the title, right?), to be misguided allies in spirit. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say, with Mr. Cook, that “if the earthly Church were completely and totally successful in lifting up flesh-and-blood human beings, surely no one would be able to justify rejecting the Church.” People can convince themselves of all kinds of things when something is in the way of their attaining pleasure. But no such movement as this that *I* know of – whether it be Obama’s political career, “1960s radicalism”, or the French Revolution, was at any point set at loggerheads with God as He is, or with an adequate representative of Him on Earth. – Even when they said they were. It was set against something corrupt and evil, that was making everyone around them spiritually discolored and overgrown and stinky. So whom are we to blame? Or perhaps – is finding someone to blame not really all that helpful?

    • Blaming particular persons is not the point, and there’s nothing in the piece that did so. General understandings have consequences, though, and they have to admit enough sources of insight to deal with life as a whole. The point is not that inherited community understandings are perfect or never in need of correction, but that they are normally necessary as something that can be relied on and worked with, so that we can build on what we’ve attained and not be easy victims for tyrants, hucksters, and flim flam artists. Which is our condition today.

  • I’m at a loss. This isn’t about ‘sixties radicals’ at all. The logic of this essay is completly confused, taking little bits and pieces of well-established lines of cultural criticism and just jumbling them up together.

    “Radicals wanted authenticity, and there seemed something odd about a bureaucrat or industrialist taking moral tradition seriously. If traditional ways are so great, why be a bureaucrat or industrialist?”

    That isn’t even clear enough to be a non sequitur. This is the author’s idea of historical analysis? Or this: “The people at large went on as best they could, but the decline of committed and articulate leadership meant that their views lost focus and coherence, so that when pressed they couldn’t explain themselves effectively.” Who? Where? What are you talking about?

    “The outcome of the story is a way of life that is increasingly carried on through impersonal and supposedly rational arrangements and supervised by managers and other functionaries with specialized knowledge unconnected to traditional and popular understandings.” Yes, all that is solid melts into air. And that is the weirdest feature of this stream-of-consciousness screed: it is mostly perfectly consonant with the actual ‘historical roots’ of ‘sixties radicalism,’ Marxism. This is some weird quasi-Marxist, impressionist elegy for the loss of traditional values to what amount to *market forces*. I am not seeing the critique of ‘sixties radicalism’ at all. You do realize that *actual* sixties radicals took “bureaucrats” and “industrialists” hostage, right?

    “Early Soviet support for free love had given way to official puritanism, and the Nazi homosexuality symbolized by the Brownshirt leader Ernst Roehm had been followed by sporadic persecution.”

    Hliarious. Mr. Kalb, here is why yourself and other, equally perplexed, conservative traditionalists are losing, and will continue to lose: Your ideas are unmoored from any objective appraisal of reality and you cannot think clearly through the fog of moribund dogma. The resistance to contraception, for instance, is just insane. If you want to account for the disintegration of traditional society or the rise of the welfare state, look first to the generations of broken families and unwanted children, much of which could have been avoided by proper sex education and access to contraception. But, no, you and your “people at large” can’t consider the messy realities of human life, you prefer to dwell in the mistiness of “how the Church thinks” or how “the Church wants to live.” Meanwhile the dominant public example of “how the Church thinks” continues to be blinkered ignorance and denial of the pervasive and outrageous sexual abuse of children, and the equally warped and confused endorsement of politicians committed to greed and selfishness, whose tacked-on ‘pro-life’ commtiments are obviated by the rest of their platform. Yet the activities of the human beings who make up your Church can, of course, be dismissed as irrelevant, and the example upon children of seeing priest after priest brought up on charges can be waved away, because conservatives are used to living in the heaven of their abstractions and lamenting that the disappointing flesh of the real world just refuses to conform to them (never mind that it never has, or will; the fantasy that this is the fault of human sinners, rather than of the model used to chastise them, is to be preserved at all costs). That is why ‘traditional society’ collapsed. That is why the admittedly confused ambitions of sixties radicalism have displaced it. Because traditional authorities were, and continue to be, too beholden to the illusions that give them power to notice that the strain of trying to fit the (messy, disagreeable) world into those illusions results in hypocrisy, not salvation. I’m sorry, Mr. Kalb, but by the standard of measurement you’re using, things are only going to get worse. You are not going to win.

    • Thanks for sharing! Otherwise I would never have known that contraception means fewer broken families, and children who are much, much more wanted. That’s why those problems have practically disappeared in America since Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Nor would I have known that traditional Catholicism, which put an image of God being tortured to death front and center in every Catholic church, thought that life wasn’t messy. And I would have thought that serious Catholics didn’t like priestly ephebophilia, and that outrageous conduct by clerics had something to do with the collapse of discipline within the Church starting in the late 50s. Live and learn!

      • Edward Peitler

        Right on, James. Michael Ferrer’s last sentence says it all: “You are not going to win.” These leftists are obsessed with power. We follow a Savior who calls us to love. There lies the difference.

    • Thomas Fink

      “You are not going to win.” How are you going to win? By reproducing at a level of 0,8 which is the standard in your milieu of easy contraception and everything else which goes along with the sexual revolution (like broken families and fatherless children)? Do you know that 100 couples (200 persons) that reproduce at a level of 0,8 will have the same number of grandchildren as 4 couples (8 persons) that reproduce at a level of 4? You think you are winning because the 200 liberal baby boomers from the 60s are still alive and dominate society together with their 80 children. Today it is 280 against 24. But when the boomers are dead and the grandchildren are grown up it is 112 versus 48. And one generation later it is over, my friend. You may triumph today, but in 3 generations the Amish alone will outnumber your milieu.

  • Ib

    Good post Dr. Kalb. Some of the comments seem to think that a blog post can accomplish the degree of detailed argument found in a scholarly monograph. What can you do with such inexperienced and unlearned people? Perhaps you could list two or three books that they could read at the end of a post. A bibliography. But that assumes that they’d do it. Big assumption with these guys ….

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  • hombre111

    The change was much stronger in Europe than here, and continues in both places. Can the Church adjust to the change, dialogue with it, grow with it, or simply wither and die as a curious artefact. All the handwringing in the world isn’t going to change that.

    • You raise a big issue. Does the post-Sixties secular society stand for the source of life and being, so that everything that detaches from it withers and dies, or does the Church?

      • hombre111

        Something is happening on a very large scale. The Church has adjusted to huge change in the past. It seems to have hit a culdesac when it encountered the Enlightenment, with its challenge to authority. I think of Chardin, who talked about the growth of life systems. He compared it to a tree with many branches. Some branches found a way to grow and grow. Other branches simply stopped growing and either perished or live on in some sort of stunted shape. The vision of Chardin blows the lid off things: Thirteen billion years of evolution since the Big Bang, a universe beyond our understanding with a hundred billion galaxies…. In the face of that stunning reality, of what consequence is a little old man in old fashioned clothes and a pointed hat, with a fondness for the Latin language?

        • Well, the question is whether it’s the Enlightenment or the Church that’s in the cul de sac. It seems to me it depends on which has a better grip on the basic nature of things.

          One point of the article is to argue that the “anti-authority” business doesn’t work, since there are always authorities. Modern trends of thought have deprived us of the ability to talk intelligently about authority and many other basic things so people obfuscate.

          If the views of one man are of no consequence in the face of the reality of the universe, why pay attention to the views the French Jesuit paleontologist who got involved in the Piltdown Man hoax? In any event, we understand the universe only through our own minds so the number of galaxies and how old they are isn’t really relevant. And making fun of the Pope is downright stupid.

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  • JD Salyer

    Great observations as always by Kalb.
    At this point it should be obvious to everyone not mired in 60’s nostalgia that there is no point whatsoever in left-wing Catholicism; it is at best a lame and sycophantic attempt to be cool. Liberation theology will impress authentic leftists the day “Christian rock” can compete with Led Zeppelin.

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