Decades are often characterized for reasons of historical convenience, using a kind of shorthand or mnemonic device: 1890s = the Gilded Age, 1930s = the Depression Era, and so forth. The 1960s, for which no further descriptive tag is needed, immediately connotes a period of protest and social transformation with a resonance issuing, at least in part, from the living memories of so many who experienced the decade and participated in its characterizing events.
Subtitle: Histories of Radicalism
Editor: Dan Berger
Subject: American Studies
Paper: ISBN: 978-0-8135-4874-6
Pages: 302 pages
Publication Date: October 2010
But this classifying impulse can impose a kind of false historical memory syndrome and render obscure important events that demonstrate the persistence of trends and tendencies outside the boundaries that convenience imposes. There is an emerging scholarly idea of the “long sixties:” a period of heightened progressive (and radical) activism in the US that really began with the post-war struggle for civil rights and lasted well beyond 1968 or ‘69.
The Hidden 1970s (Rutgers University Press, 2010) is a collection of rigorously documented but engaging and accessible articles that aims to chart the continuance of radical organizations and movement activities in the US in a decade that has elsewhere been seen as a period of renewed complacency, political conformity and solipsism. The period limned here looks very different from Tom Wolfe’s facile “Me Decade.” Written by a mixture of long-time community activists, independent scholars and university professors, these studies add needed nuance and a corrective vividness to 20th century histories of the US left. At the same time, all the included writings have been produced within the last few years, that is, at least thirty years since the period of the events they describe (and thirty years of essentially unremitting political reaction in addition). Thus there is an inevitable air of twilight that hangs about them: The phenomenon we call “the sixties” may have lasted beyond 1969, but in the following decade it appears to have had its swan song.
Editor Dan Berger has selected fourteen articles grouped in three sections that identify the dominant characteristic of the radical movements and moments they describe, which he calls Insurgency, Solidarity, and Community. Collectively, the focus is on movements that persisted and even grew in radicalism (if not in expanded capacity to instigate the radical social transformation they sought) in the wake of the New Left. Feminist, LGBT, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, and African American struggles are detailed, as are examples of pacifist and working class white radicalism. Berger’s classification helps break with traditional schema that simply follow and reinforce the fracturing of progressive movements into entities of so-called “identity politics.” All of the articles provide a worthwhile service in presenting a more complex understanding of these movements – a view from the inside, as it were, which gives context and relevance to both the period that preceded them and the period that followed.
With the exception of the American Indian Movement, very few of the organizations chronicled in The Hidden 1970s achieved national prominence or recognition of their priority demands in the period. Many of the studies deal with examples of local or regional organizations that undertook particular campaigns in their areas, and trace their arc of emergence and disintegration during the decade. If a characteristic seventies movement zeitgeist emerges, it’s that the participants were radicalized in the sixties and particularly by the degree of repressive reaction that the system unleashed against attempts to transform it through mass organizing. The movement organizations described here, such as the Black Liberation Army, Puerto Rico’s FALN, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, or the Sojourner Truth Organization, were not interested in mild reform. They had an essentially revolutionary analysis, but in most cases their bases were small relative even to their own demographic and never grew significantly during their existence. It’s clear in retrospect that this systemic analysis far outstripped the US majority’s receptivity to it; i.e., the degree to which the US population was in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary state at the time. That said, an impressive boldness of thought and action still marks many of the campaigns described, which would likely not have been possible at all in a time of less receptivity to radical ideas.
It’s significant that another characteristic that emerges is the degree to which some amount of reform also undercut the scope of 1970s radical movements, while further radicalizing small groups of committed activists who became aware that such reform, by its nature, would never lead to real social transformation. This dynamic is most effectively described in Liz Samuels’ article on the prison abolition movement. According to her, the concept of abolition gained credence almost step by step with prison authorities’ implementation of weak post-Attica reforms. And in her article on the American Indian Movement (AIM), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes that the Nixon administration expanded Native American rights to self-determination, and then-California governor Reagan implemented social programs to address the problems of urban Indians, temporarily slowing AIM’s momentum. The 1970s also saw Jimmy Carter grant clemency to Puerto Rican political prisoners and pardons to Vietnam War resisters. And as COINTELPRO began to collapse in the years after J. Edgar Hoover’s death, the Church Committee instigated reforms of US intelligence agencies. It’s a truism that the denial of reform by a sclerotic and autocratic state has historically created the strongest conditions for social revolution.
The “Community” section contains the articles that demonstrate most clearly the evolution of US radicalism in the 1970s from doctrinaire ideological struggle to a unique, if ultimately equally limited “whole lifestyle” approach that countenanced sexuality, spirituality, and day-to-day collectivity as elements of social transformation. As globalization reduces the word community to a lexical phantom, used ubiquitously but mainly in instances that indicate its absence in any sense implying real cohesion (the “online community,” the “black community,” etc.), it’s in this section that the longing for that lost or never possessed but somehow fundamental organizing principle of human life emerges most powerfully. The Hidden 1970s helps to illustrate that so-called identity politics, while still subject to the full contradiction-wielding power of bourgeois individualism, was really always about collective identities: the development of ideal communities in which the individual, as per Marx, could be fully realized—as a collective being.
While Berger’s collection clearly strives to be panoramic in its scope, and mostly succeeds, there is only passing reference to the emergence of deep ecology or the back-to-the-land movements of the period. This may be because these movements tended to lack the ideological rigor or the orientation toward social revolution that most of those described in this collection possessed. And likely as well because their base was generally more privileged in US society, although this was also true of the anti-nuclear movement, which does get a more in-depth look.
The Hidden 1970s aims to demonstrate that US radicalism based in a concept of revolutionary transformation (and directed primarily by and towards the groups most affected by the system’s inequalities) both developed out of, and persisted well beyond, the almost spontaneous upsurge of transformative momentum with which the 1960s has become associated. It does this rigorously and compellingly. But such a focus also means that one of the most salient conjunctions of movement activity in today’s world – the joining of economic and racial justice movements with a vision of true ecological sustainability – is left without historical roots in the period. Love Canal, the first shot across the bow for the environmental justice movement, was a primarily white working class neighborhood transformed in the late 1970s by the revelation it had been built upon a dumpsite for toxic industrial waste. Activism by resident Lois Gibbs and others led to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund for toxic cleanup.
In the thirty years of political reaction that have followed the seventies, movement activity has never ceased in the US, but the collapse of socialist alternatives that took power through revolution and the emergence of a professional activist class working for NGOs funded by liberal foundations has significantly changed the context in which any kind of radical challenge has to take place. However, if there is a place where grassroots radicalism’s fires are still kept lit by the people most prejudiced by the current system, it is probably in the fight for environmental health in the US “third world:” mining communities, urban industrialized areas, the devastated city of New Orleans, reservations (still) fighting concessions to extractive industries, and many other examples. No struggle from now forward that does not make questions of ecological viability as well as economic and social justice central to its vision can be considered to address the fundamental transformation that the current system requires. The people with this vision are the inheritors of a rich tradition of US grassroots radicalism down the decades, from the long sixties and beyond.
The Hidden 1970s is still a valuable reminder that the struggle for social justice is continuous, even if it ebbs and flows, and that it provides a baseline for US history, even in periods that it does not define. It is also lived as vividly by those who participate in it in ebb times as in any other, and the detailed experience of lived history is another of the gifts this worthwhile book has to offer.