- Class, Activism and History:Two New Books on the Sixties
There is a certain pattern to the way in which distinct historical eras emerge. Initially journalists, politicians and sociologists start assessing events in the recent past. Then, as the political scientists and sociologists lose interest, historians begin to move in. Historians prefer a certain distance in time before they wade in to the discussion, at least with any serious commentary. This is formed by the nature of the research they have been trained to use, their respect for time as a key element in change and their desire to look at the significance from a certain distance. Before long they begin to create a new era - distinct from the present but instrumental in our understanding of how we got to where we are.
Two recent books, Palmer's Canada's 1960s and Palaeologu's The Sixties in Canada, signal the continuing evolution of that fabled decade as a subject of serious historical analysis. At the same time, the evolution is still clearly underway. Palmer is a baby boomer, as are many of the contributors to Palaeologu's edited volume. Moreover, many were activists in the decade and bring to their analysis not only the usual historical baggage but also nostalgia for an age when all things seemed possible. So nostalgia and the mythification of an already fabled decade are an inherent part of both works.
A definite left-wing perspective is another element clearly present in both works. Palmer explicitly celebrates this and uses it as a weapon to wield against the new graduate student religion of post-modernism. His approach is "more modernist than post-modernist, more historicist than textualist, and more attuned to Marxist sensibilities than it is to the reification of discursive destabilization characteristic of current theoretically fashionable premises . . ." (p. 8). As an edited collection, the ideological perspective of Palaeologu's work is more eclectic but it too views the decade from the Left and, in the case of several contributors, the perspective of a personal experience with activism.
To point out the explicit presence of nostalgia, myth and ideology is not to imply anything necessarily pejorative about either work. Mythification [End Page 409] takes an event, era or person and packages it as a whole, searching for patterns within the qualifications and exceptions that are inevitably present. Nostalgia is also inevitable when people who lived through an event look back on it—especially if the event or era was formative in their own lives. The real question is the degree to which the historians turn nostalgia into insight and mythification into perspective. For the prospective reader, as well as the reviewer, the question is what do these books bring to our understanding of the sixties?
The answer, I am pleased to say, is a great deal. Palmer's book, in particular, though open to criticism on various fronts, is a complex, interesting and important work. Some of the essays in Palaeologu's collection are more varied and present new research that shed light on the decade.
Both works are united by the belief that the sixties were a transformative decade—one in which the Left played an important role. For Palmer this transformation revolves around the redefinition of Canada itself: "What follows builds on the view that the 1960s wrote finis to the safety of being Canadian. As the decade's developments unfolded they did so in ways that ended forever the possibility of championing one Canada, with its Britishness a settled agreement (p. 21)." To Palmer the sixties were a necessary prelude to the modern, multi-cultural society that exists today. The decade had its flaws, he recognizes, but in challenging old views of Britishness, or gender, or race and class, Canada was changed forever. Dimitri Roussopoulos, in his introduction to The Sixties in Canada, is more narrowly focused, but also sees a fundamental change as having taken place. Participatory democracy...