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The 'Swinging Sixties'


The 1960s proved to be a decade characterised by changing attitudes on a range of social issues and failed attempts at political change. It was this decade which saw the first signs that the post-war economic boom was coming to an end but it is remembered more for the wave of liberalisation that swept much of the ‘Western World’ on the back of a youth culture that had had its first stirrings in the 1950s.

The sixties was a time of radical change in the worlds of music, fashion and art. To an extent at least, this was mirrored in the appearance of the Socialist Standard. Pictures regularly began to appear on the front cover (and periodically inside) and colour—as opposed to coloured paper—on occasion too. The design of the Standard during this period seems very neat, ‘clean’ and tidy and, in retrospect, the developments in its appearance probably lagged a little behind the radical changes sweeping the wider world of art and graphics, but at times issues of the Standard nevertheless began to look recognisably different to their predecessors in the decades before.

The focus of their content shifted a little too, to address the new issues arising in the political and social fields: sexual politics, the rise of the so-called ‘new left’ of student radicals and Trotskyists and the attitudes engendered by the hippy movement. The decade began with then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan telling the working class that the post-war boom had meant that they’d “never had it so good”, a statement which, while rather more transparently true for the class he represented rather than the one he ruled over, nevertheless reflected the acquisition of consumer durables on hire purchase by a wider and wider section of the working class after the hungry thirties and war-time and post-war rationing. The years that followed proved to be anything but the calm reflection of social content he no doubt imagined they would be.

The rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (famed for their marches from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston) was an early indication of this, and indicative of a partial change in political focus from ‘bread and butter’ economic concerns to wider social and political ones. At its peak in 1960-1 CND had more active supporters than any other mass movement in Britain since the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s, a sign—if anything was—of what was to come as the decade developed.

Even the Church of England was affected by the changing attitudes that characterised the 1960s as our article on ‘The Bishop of Woolwich Squares the Circle’ indicates, the Bishop of Woolwich’s views being an early attempt to rationalise the prevailing Protestant faith in Britain with the ideas of a more humanistic and sceptical era where scientific progress and modernism held sway.

For many, the 1960s is remembered primarily for the development of popular music in something close to its modern form, as well as the entire music industry associated with it. Bands like the Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones were an expression of—and in turn, helped to fuel—changing social attitudes, especially amongst the young, and represented the parallel generation of a distinct youth culture which set itself against ‘The Establishment’ and all it supposedly stood for. As the article of the ‘Politics of Pop’ demonstrates, some of these performers had rather more interesting and profound things to say than others. The so-called hippy movement which developed from the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 onwards was a radical outcrop of these anti-establishment views concentrating on issues such as free love, peace, abortion, feminism and drug-taking. The radical questioning of the values of capitalist society undertaken by the hippies led some of them towards socialist positions, though as our article on ‘Hippies: An Abortion of Socialist Understanding’ demonstrates, they were in a distinct minority.

Other, associated, anti-establishment ideas of the time were what impelled the so-called ‘May Events’ in Paris in 1968 when a student rebellion spread amongst much of the rest of the working class and led to unrest in other countries. This and the cause celebre of the ‘new left’ in the 1960s – opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam war – are analysed from the socialist viewpoint in two articles also reproduced here.

Finally, we include an article that is less representative of the spirit of radical change than some of the others in this section. ‘Man: Ape in Wolf’s Clothing’ rebuts the arguments of the school of evolutionary biology which became popular in the late 1960s through the writings Desmond Morris and others. Their arguments still have an influence now and are an implicit denial that human beings could organise a socialist society of common ownership because of their supposedly innate competitiveness and aggressiveness.