Last week saw the release of Netflix’s Trial of the Chicago 7, directed by Aaron Sorkin of A Few Good Men, The West Wing and The Newsroom fame. The film might occasion some sepia-tinted, nostalgic reminiscing of the 1960s and its culture and politics.

Much of the ‘60s history has reached us through pop culture, especially music. The decade saw youthful ferment and exuberance not just in the West but also in other parts of the world. The movie highlights several renowned activists, such as Bobby Seale, and interesting individuals like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the likes. The wider, global milieu surrounding this cast of characters may have a lot of lessons that might still be relevant for our times. 

There were several, sometimes contradictory, ideas, beliefs and actions on display during that decade in the US, all aimed at overthrowing ‘the man’. This was a collective term for everything considered repressive – governments, consumerism, rigid social norms, racism and anything else considered suppressing free creative expression, personal freedom, ‘spirituality’, other such values. The suffering caused by the US invasion of Vietnam galvanised opposition around the world. 

Activists such as Rubin became rock-stars with mass media attention. Said Rubin: 

“Being a celebrity is a powerful weapon. People listen to you, tell other people about you. You are myth. You are media.”

Rock-stars, in turn, postured as activists, rubbing shoulders with radical political individuals. The term ‘radical chic’ was coined around this time to refer to celebrities and socialites taking up radical political issues in the 1960s and 70s to seem ‘rad’ and ‘cool’ (this is an issue over which barbs are exchanged on social media platforms these days).

‘Revolution’ and revolt became lucrative selling motifs. Not that they were always committed to politics. The Beatles, the original boy band, were busy making deals to purchase an island in Greece in 1967. This was the time when the military regime of General Georgios Papadopoulos was torturing and killing Leftist protestors. 

John Lennon did become more politically active as a solo artist. He donated royalties to the Civil Rights movement and almost sang for the Irish Republican cause, albeit with a lot of confusion. Bob Dylan, another icon, remained an unwilling bard for this ‘revolution’.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono laying in bed during their Bed-Ins for Peace in Amsterdam, 1969 | Photo: Eric Koch, Wikimedia Commons

Activists from the era, including the Black Panther’s Huey Newton (whose death at the hands of the US police is very briefly mentioned in the film), read their own meanings into his abstract lyrics. Political meetings would sometimes begin with his songs. Dylan later on went on to be a vocal supporter of the state of Israel. 

Jim Morrison, legendary front-man of The Doors, in his own words, was more interested in “anything about revolt, disorder and chaos, especially activity that seems to have no meaning.”

The issue at hand was not so much the lifestyle or degree of political participation of musicians. It stemmed from the way in which the music industry apparatus appropriated progressive politics as a marketing tool, to be discarded like a fad when the time came. Sometimes radical political positions were also thrust upon these rock-stars by their respective posse of activists and managers. 

The Western mainstream media and governments, on their part, went hysterical. Carrying on the McCarthyist tradition of persecuting dissenters, they labelled anyone evenly mildly critical of the establishment a Communist enemy of liberty, Christian values and the West. 

As the 1960s passed and the political fervour died down, however, the rock-stars jettisoned their political message in favour of devoting themselves completely to hedonism. Timothy Leary, among others, had already disseminated ideas of ‘mind expansion’ through hallucinogenic drugs.

A significant cohort, including the Grateful Dead, believed that acting in the external world is pointless. It is in inner ‘spiritual’ awakening (through drugs and Asian spiritual practices) that the path to world peace lay. Indian spiritual gurus that The Beatles patronised had a similar outlook.

The Beat poet and activist Allen Ginsberg (also shown briefly in the film) had a heated debate with one such famous Guru. Ginsberg found that under the veneer of genial spirituality was someone who had very authoritarian views and supported the US government. It’s not surprising that punk legends The Clash sang ‘No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977’ (they named their fourth album Sandinista! after the Nicaraguan socialist party).

Not all musicians were the same though. Black artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone remained committed to the cause of Black liberation. They faced government repression and surveillance. As did Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Victor Jara and others in Latin America.

As the ‘80s rolled in, mainstream rock became more and more about hedonism. In Anglo-America, rock’s critical spirit flowered in its underground sub-genres in the ‘70s and ‘80s, criticising idealistic yuppie college kids, constrictive social roles and CIA-backed right-wing death squads in Central America

In addition to the groups seen in the movie – the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Yippies – there were other prominent ones in operation during that period in the US. Some Black nationalist groups sought a return to Africa as the motherland. There were civil rights groups such as the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee (SNCC). Malcolm X was associated with the Nation of Islam. There was even a socialist, anti-racist group named White Panthers, formed by John Sinclair, the manager of pioneering punk band MC5.

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Across the world, young protestors fought against dictatorial and totalitarian regimes during this decade. Images of Leila Khaleda and Che Guevara began their iconic journey. Student protestors were killed in Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico and Prague. Countries across the Global South gained independence.

One of the luminaries of the ‘New Left’, German sociologist-activist Rudi Deutschke, had remarked, “….the great event of ’68 in Europe was not Paris, but Prague.”

Paris here refers to Paris ’68, the students uprising that later on was joined by workers’ unions, one of the hallmark events of the decade.

Rather than the SDS and the Yippies, it is the legacy of the civil rights, women’s liberation and queer liberation movements that have endured to this day. In fact, the SDS leadership had a fraught relationship with their female members throughout the 1960s.

Classroom at the University of Lyon with markings on wall reading “DE L’HISTOIRE KARL MARX,” made during student occupation of parts of the campus as part of the May 1968 events in France. | Photo: George Garrigues, Wikimedia Commons

The memory of the Black Panthers has been re-evoked, both in popular culture and in the streets, by African-Americans battling police brutality. However, in the West, the Left has faced strong challenges, especially after Reagan and Thatcher. The rebellious energy (or the ‘cultural revolution’ that Hoffman keeps alluding to in the film) of the 1960s in the West seem to have been aimed more at uprooting conservative social mores, outmoded hierarchies and family structure, and a sexually repressive culture.

The ‘sexual revolution’ was led by the belief that repressed desires and rigid structures lead to violence and authoritarianism (drawing from psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich). Sex was meant not merely to propagate the family unit. It largely left questions of unequal gender relations untouched. It also did not question how erotic desire is socially shaped, how desirability is hierarchical or how sexuality affects politics.

For many, this revolution was epitomised by the rock-stars and their fawning fans. It let the media and the market capture and commercialise desire. 

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that the gains of 1968 enabled the ‘new spirit’ of capitalism. It did away with the old top-down management hierarchy in the workplace and replaced it with a more informal, ‘friendly’ work environment. Employees had more autonomy but were easier to hire and fire. Wages became based on achievement and initiative. The old job securities are gone. This is most evident in the contemporary gig economy. 

Michel Foucault had, perhaps, rightly warned us to be wary of easy discourses of liberation.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image (centre piece): A political poster in support of the Chicago 8, later known as Chicago Seven | Wikimedia Commons