From Conservative and Optimistic to Reactionary, Counter-Revolutionary and Pessimistic: Sociology and Society in the 1960s
Paper delivered to Pacific Sociological Association, Seattle, March 2011

By Gary T. Marx, MIT (emeritus)

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And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days...
Glory days well they'll pass you by

          —Bruce Springsteen, "Glory Days"

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world...
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan...

          —The Beatles, "Revolution"

When I first started attending scholarly meetings I was distressed to see scarce slots on a program taken up by well known persons who didn't really have a paper to deliver. So it is with some trepidation that I offer these remarks today which, like a rock skipping across the pond, will only skim some surfaces, but the format made me do it...

I first consider three questions asked by session organizer Glenn Goodwin about changes in society and sociology —"where were you, who were you and what did you think and do in the 1960s?" Between 1960 and 1970 I moved from being a graduate student and teacher in Berkeley involved in the civil rights movement to being a teacher in Cambridge involved in research on social issues for national and international policy groups such as the Kerner Commission (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.) The articles listed at the end of paper offer more detail and I won't repeat here.

Instead, I will take issue with the session's title about revolutionary times and argue that at the beginning of the decade the sociology and activism that I experienced at Berkeley were conservative and optimistic, rather than revolutionary. 1 Then, in the later 1960s and early 1970s this was replaced by pessimism and reactionary and/or counter-revolutionary attitudes and behavior. The air went out of the balloon; the rainbows were obliterated—whether by the dark clouds of hatred, assassination and backlash or by the haze of hallucinatory substances. Not to mention the co-optive openness of the American political and marketing system that permits moderating, appropriating, incorporating, and often commercializing challenges and novelty.

I will combine the first three questions and end with the fourth question regarding how sociology looks today. Mine (late 50s early 60s cohort) was a 'twixt generation located between, and pulled by, the old left and the new left. We shared the latter's knowledge of the God(s) that failed and despised Stalinism, fascism and demagogues. We were aware of the fragility of democracy and had a strong concern with the morality of means as well as ends, and knowledge and appreciation of the edging forward of rights of citizenship (economic, political and social) that T.H. Marshall wrote about. Ideology didn't really end, but it sure got humbled. We also were aware of the limits of radically changing either persons or societies (particularly in the short run) and of the unintended consequences of such efforts.

Yet we were divided from the old left by our Oedipal ghosts and the youth culture which we shared with the new left, along with youthful impatience and some tilt toward seeing injustice as a result of bad or misguided elites that could be fixed with a "stroke of the pen" [re the call for JFK to end discrimination in federal housing]. The 1960s generation was the first in which parents and children did not listen to the same music (some sense of the gap can be seen today between pre-computer age parents and their electronic kids, but without the infusion of moral superiority.) JFK was the first president born in the 20th century.

Not being true believers in any of the available political positions, we went back and forth between the moral and empirical verities of the old and new left, appreciating America's exceptional good and bad qualities while continually questioning. But this also created angst and guilt about being unable to fully commit and when committed, feeling angst and guilt about not being true to the ideals of scholarship (and doing more of it instead of protesting.) Eventually I found something of a spiritual home in identifying to a degree with the group around Irving Howe, Lewis Coser and Dissent magazine, supplemented by identifying with some of the themes expressed in The Public Interest. From this perspective ideas mattered and in doing good works a division of labor was appropriate and, as D. H. Lawrence put it, it was OK to be "a scribbling fellow."

I found solace and answers in writing about issues such as whites in the civil rights movement confronting the rhetorical excesses of some calls for black power; and more broadly the role of research in social change. (References to the articles on majority involvement in minority movements and the introduction to edited book on Muckraking Sociology are at the end of the article.) Such writing offered a way to be a respectable social scientist, while also helping social change through providing research that documented the gap between ideals or claims by elites and the facts on the ground. This type of research could be a cultural contribution to public consciousness. Such awareness was often necessary for further action—whether ameliorative on the part of elites or challenges by protesters.

The optimistic theme is illustrated by experiences I had in CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the period's high expectations for positivism in social science. The latter had contributed to the WWII effort; findings on intergroup relations and on work were being applied by practitioners; new methods promised ever better data and application.

In the film Berkeley in the 60s my friend Jack Weinberg, a graduate student in math, is shown sitting at the CORE table at the entrance to the campus on Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way. His arrest for sitting there was the event that triggered the Free Speech Movement. Weinberg is credited with saying, "Don't trust anyone over 30." I had sat at that table a few months before, giving out information and seeking donations. 2

The Free Speech Movement was conservative in calling for the return of basic civil liberties to students. The administration (under pressure from the Board of Regents) had banned students from any form of political expression on campus. The movement united students across the campus regardless of their political views. What was revolutionary (as in a radical break with the past) was the university's effort to take away rights students had previously had.

As aspiring graduate students in sociology (one of whom was Glenn Goodwin's former colleague Inga Powell) we took our tools to the streets. We gathered data on employment and customers and then politely called merchants requesting a meeting. In the case of a large bread company and a major department store, we provided data documenting the almost complete lack of blacks in any positions other than the most menial and then requested that they work with us to open up employment for minorities guided by clear goals and a time frame. If not, we would make our findings public, picket and boycott. Imagine our surprise when companies agreed to the demands! We were shocked at how easy this all was and it made us (for a short time) very upbeat about the changin' times and the potential to reform with nonviolence and friendly persuasion.

In cases where our strategy was unsuccessful, as with many of the merchants on Shattuck Avenue, we took to the streets. But the conservative theme was expressed in a strict adherence to legal, non-violent peaceful protest and in the decorum brought to activism. Men wore coats and ties and women heels and dresses on the CORE picket lines I was part of.

The conservative theme can be seen in the fact that this call was to apply the law and American values. It could also be good for business. Public opinion polls at the time routinely found that blacks wanted to be a part of the society, as did women. The goal of inclusion was consistent with American principles. It was the blocking of the promise that fired protest. The excluded wanted to be let in and to have the full benefits of citizenship. There was little talk of changing social values, the economic system or the emphasis on individual effort and materialism. In general, the civil rights movement and the early feminist movement called for equal rights.

My experience teaching also reflected the conservative desire for inclusion. Some of the first members of the Black Panther Party from Oakland were in my classes. Huey Newton's brother was a family friend. Several of the founding Panthers had worked with the anti-poverty program and/or were small time hustlers dealing in contraband. They wanted to get ahead and a piece of the action. College was the means, not revolution.

Their initial acts and their ten point program were not revolutionary. When the Panthers came to the state capitol in Sacramento for a demonstration with their unloaded guns, they were exercising a constitutional right and what they saw as a broader right to self defense should that be necessary.

We marched in the Viet Nam Day Committee's anti-war demonstration in Berkeley in October 1965. It was a beautiful, festive day. Alan Ginsburg riding in the back of a truck led the march, chanting and playing a triangle. When we got to the Berkeley/Oakland line (in a sign of the gathering clouds) the Hell's Angels attacked the front line of demonstrators. The Oakland police were nowhere to be seen (in contrast to the Berkeley police, who had protected the demonstrators until they reached Oakland.)

Even the anti-war movement (which was the most important component of the student movement on white campuses) can not in general be called revolutionary. It was propelled by the personal goal of avoiding the draft. The anti-war movement can be seen as consistent with the long line of American isolationism. This was not propelled by a well developed ideology of revolution or of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, but of indifference and a popular belief that what happened elsewhere was not the concern of the U.S.

Yet for a variety of complex reasons the conservative honeymoon of the 60s revelry became a nightmare—with far less rhetorical and behavioral restraint than in the early 60s. Rather than progressive change, much of what happened at mid-decade and later was the opposite, as both protest and social control responses became violent; goals for change were less clear; ending legal segregation and discrimination and ending the war were far easier to define as goals and to obtain than reducing national and international economic inequality or delivering dignity. Retrogressive goals and self-defeating tactics emerged. Protest energy detoured away from social change into sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the self as a narcissistic project.

"I saw [and heard] the news today" regarding the fairly sudden appearance of the counterculture and the move to drop out when, early in 1966, I came to campus and saw a group on the steps of Sproul Hall—that sacred ground where several years before Joan Baez sang to thousands of Free Speech Movement demonstrators, "We shall overcome." Not this time. The music was the Beatles singing, "we all live in a yellow submarine" and the students were smoking dried banana skins as ersatz marijuana. Drop out, do your own thing, change yourself, if it feels good do it, give in to emotions and spirit. One student who had taken LSD believed that he could literally fly, and jumped from his ten story Berkeley dorm. For some even when a political tint remained, the play or play was the thing, as with the 1967 effort to levitate the Pentagon by singing and chanting. At Berkeley, the president of the student body was arrested for stealing books from the cooperative campus book store (with no ringing declarations à la Proudhon that property was theft.)

Such actions are a far cry from the vision, Puritanism, sacrifice, and community orientation of the dedicated activist, let alone revolutionary. In a line Freud would have loved, I think it was Baudelaire who said after a sexual encounter, "there goes another great poem." The hedonist's self-indulgent, inward focus is not the stuff of social justice (although I must admit that—for research purposes only, of course—we did attend the joyous, uplifting precursor to the San Francisco Summer of Love and of Woodstock: the First Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, in January 1967, along with an estimated 25,000 other celebrants.)

Along with the serious issues of war, poverty, racism and sexism silly strands appeared which were so counter-productive that they might even have been planned by agents provocateurs (if one believed in conspiracies):

  • I recall a group from SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) going to Oakland high schools and pulling fire alarms while screaming, "jail break"

  • A colleague who decided that grading was elitist and automatically gave all students the grade of A

  • The 1969 ASA meeting in Washington DC in which Ralph Turner (a gentle person and gentleman whose work had done much to help us understand protest) had his presidential speech disrupted by protestors (a factor in the rise of radical caucuses, some of which became regular ASA sections)

  • The Yippie party (founded by ex-Berkeley sociology graduate student Jerry Rubin) 3 running a pig for president; bra and flag burning efforts.
For some of the youthful energized the above might be fun and symbolic, but they can hardly be called revolutionary. Rather they were diversionary and served to delegitimize more serious calls for reform and they drew attention away from the goals to means that were easier to discredit.

In contrast to the passive contribution of the counter-culture to the status quo, elements of the post-1965 activism can be seen as downright reactionary, if not medieval and even pre-literate in going back to a society organized around non-hierarchical principles, or one based on ascriptive and separatist criteria and de jure inequality.

Consider some forms of affirmative action. Of course in the short run there is a strong case for affirmative action in the face of blatantly exclusionary policies. But judged against the ideals of the French and American revolutions, policies based on inherited group membership or lifestyle choices, rather than an individual's actions in context (such as the ability to do a given job) is progressive only in a very narrow sense and flies in the face of several hundred years of struggle against inherited status.

So too does radical deconstructionism with its reductionistic silliness that everything is just another text reflecting the point of view of the person offering it (most often in the past white, heterosexual males with the largest megaphone and most history writers.) This takes a vital sociology of knowledge idea and turns it into a universal law, rather than studying its contours and the correlates of variation. The knives of relativism can make anyone into a moral eunuch. An undue focus on political correctness in speech and writing can lead to forms of censorship that clash with traditional values of free expression. The importance of the historical battles against the church and other authorities for freedom of inquiry and communication and for the relevance of the empirical—from the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the many battlefronts today—is underappreciated.

Consider also the New Left's and some urban groups' reactionary response to bureaucracy and indifference to concern about majority tyrannies. In the later 1960s some groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, perhaps copying from the early Chairman Mao, put forth a categorical attack on bureaucracy. Without appropriate qualification, decentralization, community participation, participatory democracy, consensus decision-making and even anarchy were elevated to bedrock principles. The groups quickly disbanded or fell to Michels' iron rules of autocracy.

To be sure one didn't have to be a member of SDS or on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community school board in New York City in 1965 to know that bureaucracy can be inefficient, tilts to favoring those in authority and needs accountability. But the ambivalence that Weber so well identified in writing about iron cages also suggests that such cages can be a tool for protection and equity. Constitutions and procedure go to the core of the idea that we are in principle (and should be in practice) a nation of laws, not of powerful persons or direct majority preferences (apart from substantive content.)

Watts, Detroit, Newark, Orange and Kent State and the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X meant a very different time and the coming of the backlash. Reagan was elected governor of California and Nixon was elected President and the rest—as they say—is history.

Question Four: Today

How does sociology today differ from sociology then? Having not had steady work in the field for more than a decade, I am hesitant to say much here. Clearly its social basis has shifted markedly and is more reflective of society. This is good for equity and a broadening of research concerns, but does not automatically advance broad sociological understanding. When research and writing are too narrowly guided by identity and political interests, rather than by questions, knowledge may suffer.

Sociology has been a victim of its own success. Many of its concerns in the 1960s have been taken over by new multi-disciplinary fields, government agencies and non-profits. Areas of expertise that differentiated sociology such as survey research, race, ethnic and religious relations, gender, sexuality, organizations and social problems have become quasi-disciplines themselves, peeling off some of what was unique to sociology.

A related factor is the growth of ever-narrower fields of specialization within sociology. When I entered the field I think there were fewer than ten interest sections and now there are almost fifty. The field is fragmented with little central cement. Centripetal forces are much stronger than the centrifugal forces.

Apart from the actions of unprogressive protestors and backlashers, our youthful dreams also ended as young Turks became middle-aged elites. Maturity and working one's way through the system which we challenged as outsiders is reflected the old Pogo cartoon that holds "we have met the enemy and he is us." (It will be you too someday.)

Decades of experience with social programs and related evaluation research are also factors eroding high hopes. I recall what a great victory it seemed when JFK mandated (I think by federal requirement but perhaps it was by congress) that a small percent of program expenditures be devoted to evaluation research. At last rationality had a seat at the table and social science could tell us what works and what didn't.

Yet the hearty call for more research, particularly that evaluating social issues, usually results in findings of complexity, unintended outcomes and new questions and can dampen the ardor to get on with social reform. The challenge for the pessimism of the aging scholarly realist is to be glad things aren't even worse, to strive to make them better and to avoid letting discouragement turn to despair.

The Irish scholar and diplomat Connor Cruise O'Brien got it right:

I would like at least that my own intellectual activity should not make things worse or more dangerous, and, preferably, that it would make things by a tiny margin a little bit better, a little bit clearer, a little bit more rational, even a little bit more compassionate.
Today there is far less excitement, passion and hope and perhaps more competition and incivility, given the economic situation and parochial pulls and cultural changes. The perennial burr under the saddle of those motivated by concern with social issues and by respect for the canons of scholarship (and of science in particular) endures. We muddle through.

I wish the discipline (although not necessarily the society) could return to the environment I was so fortunate to encounter at Berkeley in the early 1960s. This was pluralistic (if softly positivist) and civil in spite of deep disagreements, sought the integration of theory and research, appreciated the importance of comparative and historical perspectives and was concerned with human betterment. What is more, its practitioners were learned individuals for whom the pursuit of knowledge seemed a calling, not a job. It was a glorious time.

I will resist the nostalgic and myopic sentiments expressed by Maurice Chevalier when he sang, "I'm glad I'm not young anymore" but...

Additional reflections on the times (more on Berkeley in the 60s and on mentoring)" (on encounters with and studying surveillance) (retirement and looking back) (sociology and travel) (academic careers) (advice to graduate students) (on Erving Goffman) (on Neil Smelser) (on S.M. Lipset) (civil rights movement) (success and failure) (muckraking sociology) (dirty data methods)


  1. As always in the beginning there is the definition. What does revolution mean, is it applied to ends as well as means, is it seen in the attitudes, feelings and behavior of the actor or in the point of view of the outside observer? In these remarks I exclude the handful of privileged activists in the weathermen faction of SDS. The former played at revolution and the appropriately maligned, psychological argument of L. Feuer might even apply in many of these cases. Nor do these remarks apply to blacks such as Stokely Carmichael who sought to become part of a revolutionary movement.

  2. Although at the time of the Free Speech Movement in December of 1964 we were in India looking for art in caves and meaning in life. I have often wondered whether my life would have been different had I been still sitting at the CORE table and been arrested instead of Jack.

  3. Rubin participated in a CORE sponsored "shop-in" at Lucky's market on Shattuck Avenue protesting discriminatory hiring practices, although I have no memory of him. He apparently lasted only a semester in graduate school, entering in 1964.

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