When John Lennon opened ‘Revolution’ on the Beatles’ White Album in 1968 with the line, “You say you want a revolution,” he and his co-lyricist, Paul McCartney, were tapping into a popular sentiment. The counterculture’s manifesto for a more liberal, vibrant and culturally inclusive society was widely subscribed to. Music, fashion, cinema and journalism were being transformed, censorship laws were being repealed, gay rights and women’s rights were high on the agenda and, in Britain, capital punishment had recently been abolished. The times, as Bob Dylan had predicted four years earlier, were a-changin’. It seemed like an entire generation were following acid guru Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out” – or, at the very least, they were skinning up.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone inhaled. US president Richard Nixon’s vaunted “silent majority” were still out there – and they never went away. Now they and their descendants have come back to bite us. This year’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the start of 1966-1969’s social upheaval are happening against a backdrop of reaction and nationalism almost everywhere you look. Little Englanders, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and their fellow travellers want to turn the clock back to the 1950s. A counter-revolution is underway.
But it is not all gloom. Much of the progress people campaigned for in the 1960s happened and its benefits are still with us. Five decades ago, legislation permitting gay marriage seemed inconceivable. So did the idea of a woman leading a mainstream political party (though Margaret Thatcher did just that in 1975). In Britain, you would likely get a prison sentence for possessing a few grams of hash. Vegetarians were widely regarded as figures of fun. Street fashion was the preserve of a tiny minority. Your barber would conclude business by asking, “Anything for the weekend, sir?” Juries invariably believed police witnesses however ludicrous their submissions. Environmentalism was practically unknown.
With the huge exceptions of institutional and “hidden” racism, which continue to disfigure Europe and the US, much has changed for the better, and for this we owe the counterculture of the 1960s a big vote of thanks. Short of the antediluvians taking over civic life, it is hard to see the gains being reversed. But never say never. Now, as much as 50 years ago, we will be wise to make our voices heard.