Thursday, 21 November 2013

A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On

Yesterday, 21st November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Prof. Doug Rossinow (Professor at Metropolitan State University – who is currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of Oslo) to the forth of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly informative talk, Prof. Rossinow discussed ‘A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

From civil rights to black power, and from student radicalism to the Vietnam War, the 1960s 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 characterising events. The movement away from the perceived traditionalism of the 1950s enabled revolutionary ways of thinking and a real change in the cultural fabric of American life to take place. Gaining political traction in the 1960s, these movements fundamentally changed the nation’s trajectory, and as such have helped contribute to the mythical remembering of the decade. The decade has been a constant source of historical scrutiny, with many arguing that the 1960s has reverberations that can still be felt today. In terms of historiography, this period is awash with interpretations, and into this historiographical minefield stepped Prof. Rossinow yesterday. Through his talk, Prof. Rossinow was able to guide the audience through the complex terrain of 1960s history before describing his own suggestions of how best to understand the decade – one that he sees importantly as a conjuncture of forces.

In his presentation, Prof. Rossinow began by outlining the various ways scholars have interpreted the 1960s over time, describing the three main ideas as ‘The Long Sixties’, ‘The Global Sixties’, and ‘A Movement of Movements.’ With a brief summary of the first two interpretations, including an analysis of their respective interpretive problems, Prof. Rossinow moved on to an extended discussion of the ‘Movement of Movements’ idea. This idea is most often associated with Van Gosse, whose work ‘Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History’ stands testament to this.

Here Van Gosse argues that from the 1950s to the 1970s, a host of movements struggled to make democracy and equality realities in America. With the 1960s as his clear focus, Van Gosse unites the movements for civil rights and black power, for peace and solidarity with the Third World, and for gender and sexual equality together in his conception of the New Left. In its summary, Van Goose argues that: ‘From Vietnam to the war at home against African and Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans, from Women's to Gay Liberation, the New Left was the broadest-based movement for fundamental change in American history.’ As Prof. Rossinow highlighted, Van Gosse synthesizes and chronicles the protests, confrontations, victories, and defeats of the 1960s into one umbrella story. However, according to Prof. Rossinow, the complex nature of these movements leaves this interpretation wanting.

Therefore, as Prof. Rossinow suggested, instead of using the ‘New Left’ as a master category, bringing together an array of movements, it is important to think of these movements as distinctive, and as each with their own origins and causes. First there are the movements of the excluded people, who through demanding rights and recognition are quite different from the revolts of the white middle-class youth, who were rebelling against their political and social surroundings within the dominant culture. Thus, with the counterculture as a symbol of the youth’s rebellion against traditional values, to lump them together with movements fighting oppression, persecution, or prejudice is to distort their unique importance within the 1960s.

Instead, Prof. Rossinow encouraged us to think of these movements as a conjuncture of forces. Essentially, these movements had a lot of sympathy for one another, but that does not equate to an automatic alliance/relationship, and scholars should be wary of projecting one identity onto a range of unique movements. By thinking of the 1960s as a conjuncture of forces too, it enables us to identify when the decade ended – which as Prof. Rossinow highlighted, elicits a lot of controversy from those in the field who argue that the 1960s battles are still on-going. For example, if we think of movements of oppression, one could argue that we are still fighting the battle for rights and recognition of many today.  But if we think of the movements of rebellion as a particularly white-middle class revolt, one is able to argue that these movements were unique to their contemporary environment.

In what was an insightful and well-attended lecture, Prof. Rossinow unravelled the various historiographical interpretations of an important era, and offered some of his own conclusions regarding how we should peer through the historical lens to analyse what was a significant decade of transformation. It is true that the 1960s remains the most consequential and controversial decade of the twentieth century. In what dawned as a decade bright with hope and idealism, with many believing that the American state would attain its mightiest reforms and reach, ended in discord and disillusionment. Perhaps no period in American history has been filled with such an expansive and ambitious sense of possibilities—such a grand, inspiring sense of what Americans could achieve. But with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (which happened 50 years ago tomorrow), Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the crushing of the Great Society’s massive social reform plans by the ravages of Vietnam, and the intense backlash to many of the movements discussed above, this hope was shattered. Prof. Rossinow’s talk was deeply informative, and allowed us all to contextualise this crucial decade in American history. From the counterculture to the rise of conservatism, and from the peaceful marches of those oppressed in society to the violent rioting of those demoralised, the upheavals of the 1960s opened fissures within American society that have continued to affect the nation’s politics and to intensify its so-called culture wars. As Prof. Rossinow superbly highlighted, 50 years on, the 1960s is still very much with us.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Sue Currell (Sussex University) ‘New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?’ This is part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, and will be held on Thursday 5th December in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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