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  • Cutting the Sixties Down to SizeConceptualizing, Historicizing, Explaining
  • Tor Egil Førland

Sixties, Student revolt, Protest, Counterculture, Peace movement, New left, Rock, Resource mobilization, Protest opportunities, Threshold model

This essay argues that the events subsumed under the concept“the Sixties” have received disproportionate attention, considering how predictable and unexceptional they appear from a distance. Attempting to debunk the myth of the uniqueness of the Sixties, I claim that the protest or revolt was merely “normal” radicalization magnified by an unprecedented number of people with protest opportunities in the years around 1968. I substantiate this claim, first, by pointing to forerunners of the ideology and lifestyle that have come to epitomize the Sixties in the West; second, by referring to theory that should lead us to expect protest or revolt if certain factors were obtaining; and third, by showing that these factors indeed obtained.

Having thus cut the Sixties down to size, I suggest that its inflation at least in part is because many Sixties scholars were also at the vanguard of the wave of protest, or at least were swept up in it. Cherishing their own formative myth of radical revolt, students born during the 1940s constructed the Sixties as an extraordinary phenomenon. Historians—many of them part of the very cohort of soixante-huitards (“sixty-eighters”)—have propagated the Sixties myth. [End Page 125]

Conceptualizing the Sixties: (Student) Revolt and Protest

Alone among decades, the 1960s has gotten its own scientific journal. The Sixties in its “Aims and Scope” asserts that “no recent decade has been so powerfully transformative in the United States and much of the world as the 1960s.”1 This claim of causal effectiveness has been questioned.2 Our questioning should go further, however, to the very conception of the Sixties.

Period concepts are imperialistic. They do violence to neighboring periods, usurping events that rightfully belong elsewhere: in the 1950s or the 1970s. Perhaps worse, they are discriminatory, and in this respect misleading. “The Sixties” subsumes only a small amount of what happened in Western Europe and the United States in the decade—and an even smaller segment of events in Eastern Europe or Asia.3 Underlying our conception of the Sixties, distinguishing it from other decades and metonymically filtering out from it most of the events in the period, is a thematic selection criterion. Two related candidates vie for this position: revolt and protest, sometimes specified by reference to the revolting or protesting groups, normally students.4 The reference may also be to what is protested against, as in Vietnam War protest. Most Sixties protest took the form of social movements, from civil rights to peace to minority rights to incipient feminism. The countercultural or anti-authoritarian revolts could have a more private, sometimes downright antisocial, character,5 amounting to what has been termed “lifestyle movements” that “consciously and actively promote a lifestyle, or way of life, as their primary means to foster social change.”6 The variations leave us with a Sixties composed of several facets, partly overlapping in composition and subject matter, from the surge in interest in Hindu religion and yoga at one extreme to militant Maoism at the other.7

Due to its vagueness, the Sixties vessel has been loaded with such variation that it is tantamount to each scholar having his or her own Sixties. The descriptive ecumenism produces a sort of explanatory anarchy since there is no consensus on the explanandum. This essay aims at radical reduction: explaining the revolt with one factor, namely the surge in the student population that led to increased protest opportunities. But first I shall show that the uniqueness of the Sixties is [End Page 126] much less when seen from historical distance than when studied at close range, as most Sixties students have been prone to. When the decade is put in proper historical perspective, the enchantment of the revolt vaporizes, and the need for exceptional explanations vanishes with it.

Historicizing the Sixties: Déjà Vues

Having declared the Sixties a calendric fallacy and its substance tenuous at best, it may seem odd to continue by depicting the ideology and lifestyle of the decade. What follows should be seen as an...


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