Counterculture in the United States and Europe

Counterculture in the United States and Europe
Counterculture in the United States and Europe
Counterculture is a sociological term that describes the radical values and models of a group of people clashing with those of the majority, or cultural mainstream. The term entered common usage during the 1960s and 1970s when movements of youth rebellion against conservative social standards swept the United States and western Europe.

The countercultural movement represented a reaction against the conformist values embodied by 1950s society, the repressive principles of the cold war, and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Young people throughout the world advocated peace and fairer race relations.

They challenged conventional gender and sexual role—ideas spawned by the revival of feminism—and pushed legal boundaries to the limit by the recreational use of drugs such as marijuana and LSD. The political and social aspects of counterculture are inseparable from the unconventional postures and appearances of its members.

The 1960s counterculture originated on U.S. college campuses and later arrived in European universities. The University of California at Berkeley was a particularly important center, and its 1964 free speech movement became one of the first occasions of tension between youth and the authorities. To scholars of counterculture, the free speech movement was the point of departure for the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s.


The movement demanded that campus administrators suspend the ban on university political activities and recognize the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom. On October 1, 1964, former student Jack Weinberg refused to leave the table where he was campaigning for the civil rights association Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).

His arrest by the police led to a spontaneous demonstration by fellow students, who blocked the police car containing Weinberg for 36 hours. The following month the university decided to bring charges against those who organized the sit-in.

This led to imposing demonstrations and the arrest in early December of 800 students in front of Sproul Hall, the university’s administrative center. After more protest parades the University of California started reconsidering its rules on political activities on campus, permitting tables and discussions on the steps of Sproul Hall at certain times of the day.

The decade continued in the United States with the outbreak of more tensions, often along generational lines, concerning the Vietnam War, sexual behavior, the role of women in society, African-American civil rights, and drug experimentation. Vietnam became a specific target of criticism, which was also heightened by the imposition of a compulsory military draft.

A veritable revolution took place in sexual mores with the spread of contraception and the legalization of abortion in 1973 with the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. The Summer of Love drew thousands of people from around the world to San Francisco in 1967, particularly to the Haight-Ashbury district.

The end of the 1960s also witnessed the organization of gays and lesbians in groups to acquire visibility and to have their identities recognized. Drug taking stopped being a social phenomena linked to urban ghettos and became part of middle-class life. Feminist thinkers asked for comprehensive social change, pointing out that economic structures are at the base of women’s subordination.

The United States shifted from the family-oriented society of the 1950s to one that had individual rights at its core. It was in the 1960s that women started to challenge the cultural expectation that they would take primary responsibility for child rearing.

Most feminists demanded the alleviation of the social burdens of motherhood through paternal involvement in parenting, quality child care, flexible work arrangements, and a system of social and financial welfare that did not leave them to rely completely on their husbands.

At the beginning of the 1960s few Americans were aware of the struggle of African Americans for civil rights. The Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation in public schools dates back to 1954, but progress in the implementation of integration had been slow.

The 1960s witnessed renewed activism of young African Americans, who refused to leave lunch counters when they were denied service or to travel on segregated buses. In 1962 the admission of African American James Meredith to the state university in Mississippi caused a sensation and an outburst of violence from white supremacists.

Martin Luther King, Jr., became the leader of the Civil Rights movement, and in August 1963 he managed to draw together hundreds of thousands of African Americans and white Americans in his March on Washington to call attention to the fact that a century after emancipation many African Americans were still unable to exercise basic citizens’ rights.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were important achievements of the Civil Rights movement. The acts outlawed segregation in public facilities and authorized federal examiners to register black voters, thus ending disenfranchisement.

The counterculture soon arrived in European capitals, with devastating effects for the established power. As in the United States, the young people taking part in the countercultural movements were well educated, often at the university level. As riots became widespread throughout European streets, this provoked heated debates within the left.

Who were the true proletarians? The students or the policemen who had to battle with them in the streets? Left-wing groups independent from the communist and socialist parties were formed in Italy, France, and Germany. These groups—such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua in Italy—did not have parliamentary representation, but still became the avant-garde of the movement because of their capacity to attract young people.

Cultural Forms

During the 1960s and 1970s new cultural forms emerged in all artistic fields from cinema to music, from fashion to media. The music of the Beatles came to embody the need for change and the experimentation of younger generations. The Old Hollywood of dated melodramas controlled by studio moguls was replaced by the New Hollywood.

Young directors such as Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese reflected in their movies the rise of the counterculture and expressed the longing for freedom shared by thousands of young Americans. In Europe the French and British New Waves and the New German Cinema rejected the classic norms of filmmaking, experimenting with photography and editing.

They also focused their films on the ordinary lives of the working classes and on those outside of the social mainstream. Underground newspapers spread throughout the United States and Europe, constituting a network of resistance to the establishment.

One of the most visible icons of the counterculture movements was the figure of the hippie, who often expressed the distaste for social conventions by renouncing consumerism and living in communes guided by forms of spiritualism outside the Christian tradition.

The figure of the hippie encapsulates a major contradiction in the countercultural movement. The communal thrust of the movement is countered by an equally strong emphasis on individual choices, which tends to prevent any form of cooperation.

The more fascinating and controversial aspects of the counterculture should not overshadow the contributions of the movement outside the arts. The counterculture influence reached less spectacular and more stable fields such as economics, business, and law. Many of today’s nongovernmental organizations, for example, have their roots in the 1960s search for a fairer and more environmentally minded development.

In general, as the counterculture evolved in the 1970s and its icons began to lead more moderate lives, the movement started to be absorbed to a certain degree within the mainstream. As such it left its mark on various fields like philosophy, morality, music, art, lifestyle, and fashion.

Yet, especially in the European context, there were those who refused to be absorbed, and pushed their refusal to dangerous extremes. The late 1970s and the 1980s were characterized by the rise of terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy, Action Directe in France, and the Red Army in Germany.

The most apparent features of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture were unconventional appearance, music, drugs, communitarian experiments, and sexual liberation—mostly practiced by white, middle-class young Americans and Europeans.

To some the counterculture represented the longing of young people for free speech, equality, and a more inclusive and less exploitative world. Others denounced the counterculture as hedonistic, meaninglessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive of the Western world’s moral order.