THE cultural revolution (of 1966) was started in the People's Republic of China. At the behest of the "Maximum Leader," Mao Tse-Tung, young people in China rose up against their elders to "cleanse" (purge) society. This was controlled from "top down," in the manner of Otto von Bismarck's "Kulturkampf" of the 19th century.

On the other hand, a bunch of other spontaneous "cultural revolutions" took place about the same time in the United States (1965) and in Western Europe (the French refer to the "evennements" of 1968). These were driven from the "bottom up," by the young people themselves.

In their 1991 book, "Generations," (the late) William Strauss and Neil Howe offered an explanation of why this might be. The timing of the occurrences were (suspiciously) 20-25 years after World War II, whose soldiers begat "culture" (as opposed to physical) warriors.


Strauss and Howe's basic argument was that the post World War II prosperity had largely freed young people (of the 1960s), of their parents' fear of lack of safety and material well-being. This enabled them to move up at least one step on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs The "next step" is the search for love and belonging. This helped spawn the sexual revolution of the 1960s, as well as the civil rights movement, of fortunate young whites reaching out to less fortunate young African-Americans.

Is this a widely accepted theory about the causes of these events? If not, are there any other widely accepted general theories as to why these "cultural revolutions" happened about the same time? Or should they be regarded as striking, if rather unlikely, coincidences?

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    Ernst Gombrich pursued an interesting, IMO generation-centric approach in his The Story of Art, which may be also relevant here.
    – Drux
    Apr 7, 2013 at 7:25
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    You seem to be going from extreme to extreme: Some great underlying cause on one hand, "striking, if rather unlikely, coincidences" on the other. Perhaps somewhere in middle is most accurate: Imitation, but without common cause: The French imitate the Americans, then Mao takes the cue: get the kids involved, etc...
    – user2590
    Aug 25, 2013 at 22:11
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    -1 : This question is seriously ill founded: The turmoil in the '60's USA can be traced directly back to the Civil Rights movement, which was in early 60's, and was by no means a "spontaneous cultural revolution...driven by the young people" Failure to recognize this point invalidates the entire question IMO. – Vector 27 mins ago
    – user2590
    Aug 26, 2013 at 2:17
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    I don't see what is "cultural" about the any of the student protests or revolts that happened in 1968. Also the cultural revolution was a prolonged campaign of political purging starting in 1966 and officially ending 1969, so I can't even see these things as coinciding. If we exclude the cultural revolution, then 1968 was a year of many protests, and it can be discussed why, but including the cultural revolution in that seems wrong. Aug 26, 2013 at 4:34
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    Looking more into this it seems to me to be a long string of independent events in several different countries. This then sparked copying in many cases, and then things like the killing of Martin Luther King made everything a little bit worse, meaning that 1968 was a year of more protests than usual. But I don't think a general theory exists or is needed. Aug 26, 2013 at 4:54

2 Answers 2


Let me recommend Mark Kurlansky's "1968". If I correctly summarize Kurlansky's discussion, it would be due to the turmoil left in the wake of World War 2, the end of colonialism, that produced a longing for freedom and rejection of the establishment blamed for causing the WW 1, WW 2 and the existing cold war of that time. The emerging media (TV & satellite) made instant broadcast possible, which quickly spread shared sentiments allowing for near-simultaneous revolutions world-wide.


Is this a widely accepted theory about the causes of these events?

No. The critituqes of Strauss and Howe relate to the failure of their hypothesis to explain its own data adequately, and the limited data pool drawing from primarily US experience. The rapid breakdown of the theory when it was brought into contact with its own claimed evidentiary base means that we should not accept it.

Contrasting explanations for the cluster of late 1960s revolutions that I am aware of tend to be Marxist in bent.

Economic determinism is a fairly useful card here, 1968 is generally put as the start of the post-Bretton Woods economic configuration, as crises in production became evident and manifest. The important question to ask is: why did it take so bloody long? Marx's 7 year business cycle, based on capital stock renewal, should have indicated an earlier crisis, such as the mild crises the Australian economy experienced 1945-1968 as a resource exporter.

One point is that the United States had chosen to reduce the return to capital as dividend / consumed profit, forcing returns to labour to keep up consumer confidence and improve the quality of labour, and spending loads of money on waste (war, space) as well as productive forced capitalisation (highway programme replacing the transport stock of rail, etc.). This was atypical in capitalism.

Another point is that the Soviet Union existed which forced a changed set of behaviours, the apparent possibility of workers taking over changed capital behaviour in the 1930 depression, and this changed behaviour continued until the late 1970s.

For this I'd suggest the Trotskyist economists and the debate on the long boom, Kondratieff, the Autonomist debate on the fragment on machines etc.

I would suggest that following out of the debate on the machines we also ought to reflect on the cycle of accumulation of class struggle. Autonomia came out of the Socialist and Communist background of Italy, the failed partisan struggle, and the reflection on these in the context of the new forms of resistance to the factories implemented in the North. So the post-war capital stock renewal created the forms of resistance that emerged in Italy in 1968.

In Czechoslovakia the failed post-war revolution, and the semi-modernisation of Stalinism, created the sentiment in the party that would back the sentiment in the working class, created by the same semi-modernisation.

In France, a similar structure of production in white collar work, with the expansion of the universities, combined with a radical discontent with the traditional left (Socialism ou Barbarie, Situationalism.)

In the United States the changed composition of the working class post war had led to a crisis in the capacity of the old unions to keep a lid on the plants, and a similar mass discontent with the armed forces (see the sociology in Radical Amerika, for example).

Similarly with Japan.

The outlying case here is China, where a more traditional explanation of the economic development of a soviet style society is useful, the "cultural revolution" was as the Great Purge was to the Soviet Union, in a Ðilasian analysis—it was the party sorting out its own house, removing any remnant of loyalty to external bodies such as the working class.

So the two key Marxist explanations are: end of the long boom economically, end of the Fordist-Taylorist control systems' effectiveness in their post-1945 form; with a minor explanation in relation to China of a Ðilas style new-class internal purge.

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    I think your answer has much of value, but also suffers from the perceived need tomfit everything into one tight Marxist model. One point that struck me as very odd and prompted this remark: the US hippies of 1968 were, as far as I know, not working class at all, rather what you'd call, from the bourgeoisie. But your model seems to ignore this. Apr 7, 2013 at 15:31
  • I specifically didn't deal with the hippies as such. Not unsurprisingly they didn't have a particularly big influence compared to the anti-War movement. If you have a look at publications from the period, HS Thompson, PK Dick, Haight drug culture accounts and the like, you'll actually discover that the majority of pre 1968 hippies were working class. Also, what better grand narrative to explain a "spring time of the nations?," particularly when the question is specifically about "general" historical theories. Apr 7, 2013 at 21:00
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    Upvoted. I'm not sure I buy the economic explanations posited at all (I think they are looking for their keys under the street lamp), but the criticims of the Strauss/Howe theory seem valuable.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 25, 2013 at 18:19
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    -1 You don't explain what data Strauss and Howe fail to explain, and you base your explanation on a theory proven wrong for about 130-140 years. Aug 26, 2013 at 4:40
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    Also, your main explanation is an economic downturn, the end of the long boom. However, that didn't happen until the early 1970's, so this explanation is several years off. Aug 26, 2013 at 4:47

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