Reflections on the Summer of Love

Well it’s officially winter here in Melbourne. Which means it’s summer in the northern hemisphere. And this summer is the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love. Throughout 2017 I have been emphasising the centenary of the Russian revolution as the seminal event in the history of left-wing politics. It is interesting that exactly fifty years later, in Soviet Russia’s great arch-rival the United States, another seminal moment for progressives occurred. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Summer of Love 1967 symbolise very different strands of thinking. One willing to use force, one largely pacifist, one strictly partisan, one inherently vague, one explicitly political, one social and cultural. Yet they both teach us that a different world is possible and, just as we can learn from the Russian Revolution despite its imperfections, we can also learn from the Summer of Love whatever its limitations and flaws.

The Summer of Love took place in San Francisco and brought great mainstream publicity to the new “hippie” sub-culture. During the American summer vacation of 1967 over one hundred thousand young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury suburb of San Fran to experience the alternative lifestyles being practiced there. One of the things that draw people to the area was the widely reported “Human Be-In” at Golden Gate Park where thirty thousand people gathered to hear about environmentally sustainable living, listen to The Grateful Dead and protest the recent criminalisation of LSD in California. The San Francisco Oracle reported the Be-In as “a new concept of celebration… (where) a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind”. It was at this event that LSD advocate Timothy Leary called on his young followers to “turn on, tune in and drop out”. Leary has stated that this slogan has been widely misinterpreted as ‘get stoned and don’t do anything productive’. It was in fact a more sophisticated call to action – he wanted people to turn on their own awareness, tune into the world of those around them and drop out of judgmental, moralistic, capitalist society.

As the weather got warmer, the Monterey Pop Festival came and went, and San Fransisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) made its way up the charts, thousands more flocked to the area. Some came to make art, some to meditate or experiment with non-Christian spiritual practices, and some simply came to party. It was the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that really shocked the sensibilities of the nation. Yet the news reports of such things clearly gave a few people some new ideas about how to have fun. Social attitudes, such as views about sex outside of marriage, started to became more liberal than ever in conservative America. According to Gallup, the number of Americans who viewed premarital sex as morally acceptable doubled from the late sixties to the early seventies. This massive cultural shift is a legacy of the Summer of Love.

The poet Allen Ginsberg has claimed that what all the people who came to San Fran that summer had in common was a desire to reject “middle class morality”. Middle Class morality in America is of course a thoroughly capitalist morality. What was being rejected here was not only the American Dream – the false belief that if you play by the rules and work hard you can have success, what was being rejected was the whole notion that a successful life involves wealth, career, home ownership and a nuclear family.

This rejection is important for leftists to remember. We should never debase ourselves into thinking that left wing politics is a purely materialist politics that seeks to increase the incomes of the working class. This is one of the (many) mistakes that Third Way types like Clinton and Blair make. Even Obama couldn’t understand why Americans were so depressed despite his administration overseeing sustained economic growth and job creation. The good life isn’t all about money. Psychological studies consistently show that a sense of community, belonging, a breadth of hobbies and interests and a feeling that one is being treated fairly and justly are more important than wealth. Once someone has enough income to cover the basics, happiness is not increased with greater income. Governments that understand this fund community gatherings, art, sport, music, nature reserves etc.

The rejection of Middle Class Morality, or at least the rejection of it as some sort of objective ideal, is also important because it is an elitist and exclusive morality. Middle Class Morality denies the poor and working class of social status. It casts out those who cannot afford to buy a house and those who cannot hold down a stable job. It is also a morality grounded in whiteness, Victorian-era gender roles and hetero-normativity. As Paulo Freire argues in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, leftists mustn’t only focus on trying to welcome as many people as possible into the middle class; we must also shatter the notion that it is better to be middle class. We must challenge conservative bourgeois ideology to its core.

However it is certainly the case that these hippies rejecting Middle Class Morality were overwhelmingly middle class themselves. Most who took part in the Summer of Love were University students who returned to their studies when it was all over. Timothy Leary was an ex Harvard Professor. This Vanity Fair essay argues that by rejecting consumerism, hippies made poverty sexy. But it is offensively easy to embrace ‘post-material’ politics when you have parents to fall back on should life get a little too difficult. Working class and poor Americans didn’t have the luxury of having a summer off to ‘find themselves’. Many of those that did have the time to think about the reality of their situation were enraged. There were one hundred and fifty nine race riots across the US that summer. The Kerner Commission found that the rioting of poor African-Americans was a direct result of a lack of any real economic opportunities in African-American areas. It is not always possible to feel ‘love’ when the victim of cruel oppression.

The hippies were right to see that American party politics wasn’t working. Even the liberal welfare capitalism of the Democrats had led to the Vietnam War. And President Johnson’s War on Poverty was so limited that he even rejected the findings of the aforementioned Kerner Commission. And so many of these hippies turned away from party politics entirely. They would focus on personal liberation. On love. They would, as Gandhi had urged, be the change they wanted to be in the world. Some would be entirely hedonistic, others spiritual, all of them different.

Marx and Engels would surely reject this approach as utopian. It is. If you want a different world you cannot just isolate yourself with like-minded individuals in communes. You cannot simply ignore social and political problems and hope they goes away. You must organise and persuade. Yet the hippies had a lot of things right and an emphasis on love, compassion and open-mindedness is important. As is an emphasis on celebrating individuals who have identities that do not fit with social norms. It is right to encourage people to be creative. It makes sense to seek the good life beyond material possessions. Revolutions can turn too violent too quickly without these values. Revolutions without these values can have a misguided and exclusive emphasis on economic development at the expense of all else (such as the environment). Revolutions without these values can be corrupted into a brutal battle for power. Revolutions without these values can lead to Stalinism.

The hippies certainly didn’t save the world. Their generation left their kids and grandkids with global warming and a global financial crisis. But fifty years ago their Summer of Love showed the world once again, as the Russian revolution did, that an alternative way of doing things is possible. It should remind all political party types that enforcing conformity to the party can be as dangerous as enforcing conformity to bourgeois capitalist norms; both eliminate individuality. And it should remind all socialists that love and respect are inspirational tools for change. Yet change of the system, and not just change in one’s own life, must be the aim.

I will end by bastardising a famous quote from the French Revolutionary leader Maximillian Robespierre – Revolution without Love is fatal, Love without Revolution is impotent.”

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