Questions About The Counterculture
Before examining the origins of the BC counter culture, it is necessary to have an overview of the 1960s counter culture in general. Below are some common questions and myths about the counter culture.
Why did the counter-culture develop? What were the issues that inspired the youth to create it?
Counter cultures arose historically because people wished to live in as much freedom as possible now and not have to wait until "after the revolution." The 1960's youth were impelled to rebellion by the following, not necessarily in order of importance: 1. parental and pedagogical authoritarianism. 2 the paranoid, conformist ethos of the Cold War Era. 3. realization that there was more to life than accumulating a lot of things. 4. The heroism of the Civil Rights Movement. 5. The threat of nuclear annihilation. 6. opposition to the creeping bureaucratization and commodification.
Overall, there was a desire for freedom in a society that preached endlessly of freedom and democracy, yet the reality for the great mass of the population was wage slavery and domination.
Artists and intellectuals are humanity's mine canaries. Fifty years before the present crises, the people who created the counter-culture knew the dominant system was sick and would ultimately descend into barbarism unless changes were made. For this they were denounced as "stop the world I want to get off" weirdos. Today, it is the minority that deny we have serious environmental, social and economic problems that look like the oddballs. (Think only of the climate change denier conspiracy theorists.)
Wasn't the counter-culture nothing more than the Hippie Movement?
Not true. The Hippie Movement merged with most of the New Left to form a self-described counter-culture after 1968. Hippie was only a moment in that development. The counter-culture is a process, not a fixed thing.
The counter-culture was a baby boomer movement, was it not?
Only partially true. Most of the people who developed the 1960s counter-culture were war babies, born 1939-1945. Some were even older than that. Many contemporary counter-culturals were born in the 1980s.
Wasn't it something that only happened in the 1960s-early 1970s?
Not true. As you will see from this web site, there were many previous attempts to produce an alternative society, and these attempts laid the foundation for what occurred in the 1960s. Furthermore, it still exists. The counter-culture continued to evolve and develop in the 1970s and '80s right to the present. So many of the ideas have been adopted by large sections of the population, that some have forgotten where these concepts came from.
Wasn't it a middle class movement? (and thereby worthy of dismissal)
“Middle class”, as it is generally used, is a meaningless term. One's class is based upon one's relationship to the means of wealth production, not on status, color of one's collar or even education. Those who own/control the means of wealth production are the ruling class. Everyone who dose not own/control, and thus must work for someone else, is working class. A small group of independent professionals, little shop keepers and middle level executives do exist, and these are the petty bourgeois or true middle class. While some counter-culturals came from petty bourgeois, and even upper class backgrounds, many, if not most, had white collar worker origins. Furthermore, most radical movements are made up of people from a mix of classes and are rarely purely “blue collar” proletarian. This goes for socialist, populist and communist movements alike.
Wasn't it just a bunch of long haired kids wearing colorful clothes, smoking pot and listening to rock music?
This is the mass media portrayal. These were the most superficial aspects of the counter culture. Many counter-culturals did not fit that description at all. The genuine counter-culture entails, not a change in hair style but a substantial attempt to live in a new manner – by building democratic alternatives such as coops, by protesting against war and environmental destruction, by eliminating misogyny and authoritarian relations.
Weren't the Hippies fooling themselves in their refusal of the dominant culture? No one can live outside of the system.
No one ever thought they were living totally outside the system. Rather, the counter-culture seeks to “build the new within the shell of the old.”
Didn't the counter culture merely modernize the system, thus helping to keep its dominance in a new form?
This could be said for any of the historical progressive movements. Did not the labour movement drive up wages and give rise to consumer capitalism? Certainly the system coopted and used superficial aspects like rock music and clothing styles to its benefit. Certainly, it created watered down versions of anti-authoritarianism, environmentalism and feminism and absorbed these into its ideology. But the genuine forms still exist and along with community, self-management and opposition to war, are completely anti-thetical to capitalism.
Didn't the 1960s hippies and radicals end up joining the establishment they claimed to be against?
This is a variant of “socialist at 20, conservative at 50”, and like that cliché, there is never any statistical proof given. If a study was taken it would show that most of the old '60s radicals, if not involved in environmental groups, coops, left wing parties etc, are still highly sympathetic to progressive ideas. Most people's ethics are established as young adults. Someone egalitarian and libertarian at 20 will usually be so at 50. But there are always those who turn against a progressive movement. In the case of the '60s counter-culture, there was a mass of youth who had only the most superficial connection to it. Many of these would find no problem sliding back into conservatism. Indeed, some had never left it. By the mid-1970s there were more than a few long-haired pot smoking types as racist, sexist and capitalistic as their parents. Every growing movement attracts a few narcissistic or border-line sociopathic individuals. When they find the movement does not acknowledge their “brilliance” or allow them to dominate the group, they turn against it.
Even the most favorable description of the 1960's counter culture does not ignore its more foolish aspects. Why were these mistakes made?
The media can be blamed for many of the problems we faced. Its creation of hippie as a mindless hedonist flooded the nascent counter culture with a host of children unprepared for the sort of life style we had proposed. Repression and harassment did not help either. But we also made some serious mistakes. The often naive forms that the 1960s counter culture took were not so much the result of deliberate choice, but more the fact that these young radicals had to "reinvent the wheel." This was less true in Canada than the United States, due to the existence of a strong socialist tendency in our country, But even here, a gap existed between the Old Left and the new radicalism. There simply weren't a lot of Elders to pass on the experiences of past revolutionary movements like the IWW. Social democracy seemed interested only in social welfare reforms – fine in themselves – but not really inspiring a new way of life. The Communist Party, beaten down by repression and a shadow of its former self, defended a bureaucratic Soviet Union that did not inspire youth in any way. Added to the problem was that while there had always been a bohemian left, most of the Old Left were culturally and socially as square as their right-wing opponents.
Essentially, we worked with what we could find. Those few Elders with an appealing vision such as Paul Goodman, George Woodcock, Dorothy Day, Mildred Loomis, Buckminster Fuller or Aldous Huxley, combined with the Beat writers and the pacifism of Gandhi, helped lay the foundations of counter culture thought.
With our lack of experience and limited knowledge, we replicated the worst errors of the past. These included mindless forms of utopian socialism - communes with a total lack of structure and no economic base, the bombing and extreme rhetoric of the armed factions that mirrored the late 19th Century "propaganda of the deed" anarchist faction and the adoration of Mao by the political groups which aped the Stalin Cult of the 1930's. But it does say a lot that we managed to survive these apalling errors, move beyond them, and give rise to the present green, women's, new cooperative and anarchist movements.
Is forming a counter culture the answer to our problems?
No, it is only a partial answer. The existence of a counter culture is always tenuous, always under threat from the dominator system. While counter cultures – at their best – provide a glimpse of future possibilities, change mass consciousness, and provide a freer and less exploitive way of living in the here and now, you cannot simply create a new way of living and expect it to overcome the system of domination. While the ruling classes might tolerate minority experiments, they will not allow a threat to their power to exist. Only a mass social/political movement which abolishes the root of that domination - capitalism and the state - will free people to live the way they choose.
The Origins of the BC Counter Culture
The BC Counter Culture, and also the counter-culture in Canada generally, had indigenous origins. It was not, as some Canadian nationalists have proclaimed, a US import brought in by Viet-nam War resistors. US resistors did not start coming in large numbers until 1967, by which time the foundations of the counter-culture had already been laid in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Very few of the early counter-culture people I encountered in the years 1965-67 were Americans, it was overwhelmingly a Canadian movement. What the influx of Americans in the years 1968, 69 and 70 did, was not create the counter-culture , but to swell its numbers.
Of course, counter-cultures do not exist in isolation, they borrow from each other, and their overall viewpoint is international, rather than narrowly national. “Hippies” in London, Prague, San Francisco, Vancouver and Santiago felt they had more in common with each other than the squares of their own nationality. This situation had historical roots. Bohemians in the 19th and early 20th Centuries could be found in all major European and “New World” cities. So too with the Beat Generation of the 1950s.
One point should be stressed. The mass media reduced the counter culture to “hippies”, who in turn were reduced to a-political hedonists and lay-abouts. The counter-culture, both in BC and elsewhere, was always much broader than Hippie, both in its origins and later when this new attempt at an alternative society began to consciously refer to itself as a counter-culture and not as a beat or hippie sub-culture. The counter-culture-in-formation of the mid-1960s was made up of pacifists, artists, poets, folk musicians, student radicals and members of the earlier Beat Generation. All, at one time or other, were involved in protest movements. In other words, people who were anything but a-political hedonists and lay-abouts.
Roots of the BC Counter-Culture
The roots of the 1960s-70s counter culture lie in attempts to create an alternative to the authoritarian and inhumane established system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many different historical roots come together to form the trunk of the counter-culture. The most obvious root is the Bohemian Movement.
Bohemia had its origins in 1840s France and was an anti-authoritarian movement in rejection of bourgeois society. Originally made up of artists and writers, other people joined because the were attracted to the life-style. The movement soon went international and Bohemian hang-outs and neighborhoods could be found in most major cities, such as London's Soho District or New York's Greenwich Village. Individuals or tiny groups of Bohemians could be found in many locations, even in British Columbia. Some of these people may well have not self-identified as Bohemians, but their life style certainly evinces it. The highly eccentric Amor De Cosmos immediately comes to mind, and of course, Emily Carr.
There was a small Bohemian community in Vancouver in the late-1930s and 1940s. This consisted of Malcolm Lowry and his friends who settled in a squatter village at Dollarton. I have also heard mention of a kind of Bohemia which existed in a community of house boaters in Vancouver. In the 1950's a jazz subculture existed, linked to the junkie subculture which had been in Vancouver since opiates were criminalized in 1907. The pianist and composer, Al Neil was part of this scene.
The late 1950s saw a group of youth who identified with the Beat Generation. (I remember in 1958 CBC Radio did a program on the Beats and after listening, I immediately wanted to join them. I was not alone in this desire.) “Beatniks” - the derogatory term invented by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen – settled into old houses in Vancouver's West End. At this time there was a bit of a “scene” along Robson street. Other Beatniks went to UBC, and attracted to the new developments in poetry – both the Beat Generation and Black Mountain, created the review, TISH. The building of high-rise apartments in the West End eliminated the inexpensive old houses and many Beats moved to the Kitsilano area, at this time a low-rent district, where many UBC students resided. This lay the basis for the Fourth Avenue Scene of 1967 (Canada's answer to Haight-Ashbury)
Although a derogatory term, we self-identified as beatniks, though with a bit of humour. I never heard the term “hippie” until late 1965 and still though of myself as a Beat well into 1967. Up until '67 most of the media referred to us as beatniks, then that year started calling us hippies.
The difference between beat and hippie?
The mass hippie movement was much more of a media creation than the Beat scene. The early hippies – the ones who created the underground newspapers, shops and communes were just beats and student radicals with a new name. Beats were activists and intellectuals. The media portrayed hippies as air heads dancing in the mud - far removed from discussing Baudelaire, painting a picture or demonstrating against war. Many young people were attracted to the media portrayal and so the original hippies were inundated by waves of naive children who only wanted to have fun, dance and get stoned.
This tidal wave of youth broke the Hippie Movement. Much time and energy was spent in housing, defending and feeding these youth. Much conflict developed as criminal elements took advantage of the situation with bad drugs, rip-offs and rapes. The problems of the Hippie Movement helped to give rise to the more structured, and highly-politicized counter culture that developed from 1969 - on
British Columbia seems to have had a special attraction to the builders of utopian colonies. There was a wing of the late-19th Century socialist movement that had back-to-the land, arts and crafts and even spiritual tendencies, foreshadowing the 1960s commune movement. These were the socialists who attempted to build such intentional communities as Ruskin and Sointula. (There is photo of the Sointula people circa 1910, and you could swear you were looking at a group of 1970 commune members.) The Doukhabours, who settled in the Kootenays, and briefly on Vancouver Island, lived communally and were highly successful until the Great Depression. Experimental communities were initiated up until the mid-1950's, when the best known, and most successful of these, the Quaker community of Argenta, was formed. The Doukhabours and the Argenta Quakers were the two groups of people most sympathetic and helpful to the new communards of the early 1970s.
Both the Socialist Party of Canada, and most especially the IWW, developed their own counter-cultures. Rooted in the union halls which served as a combination of meeting place, drop-in centre, library, and crash pad, the Wobs had a well developed literature, songs, art and life-style. The CCF and the Communist Party circa 1935-50, developed cooperative institutions such as coop stores and credit unions as alternatives to capitalism. Most of the major BC artists and writers of this period were sympathetic to socialism. The CP, with thousands of members in BC at this time, had its own sub culture.
Radical labour emphasized mass protest, direct action, cooperative institutions and opposition to war. These were to become key aspects of the Counter Culture.
BC has a long history of people simply ignoring state or private “ownership” of land. Many people occupied the provincial government owned foreshore in float houses, cabins on pilings or cabins near the beach. The best known of these foreshore squats was the Dollarton Mudflats community of Malcolm Lowry and friends in the 1940s. Others simply went into the woods and built a cabin. There were entire squatter villages on Denman Island and other islands. These foreshadowed the 1960s Sombrio Beach village and the Wreck Beach squats.
Radical Christians like the Unitarians, Quakers, Doukhabours and Catholic Workers were all found in BC before the advent of the Counter Culture. All were anti-war, some favoured cooperative living, and all were in sympathy with the youth movement of the 1960s.
More influential to the Counter Culture in spiritual terms than the radical Christians, was Theosophy and its offshoots. Many artists and writers, and no few socialists, embraced Theosophy in the 1920s. This opened the Western mind to Yoga, Buddhism, Vedantic philosophy and the so-called occult. The Cabbalist and mystic, Frater Achad (Charles Stanfield Jones) organized a branch of Aliester Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis in Vancouver in the 1930s. Frater Achad had an important influence upon Malcolm Lowry and his circle. From 1959 to mid-1960s, the Yoga Vedanta Bookshop on Georgia Street was a source for Eastern philosophy as well as works on psychedelics, alchemy, tarot and wicca. William Balderstone, an expert in tarot, who was rumoured to have been taught by Frater Achad, could often be found there.
A note on the Psychedelic Movement. In many ways, “Hippie” was synonymous with the use of psychedelics. While Tim Leary and Ken Keysey were the main motivation in this development, the roots lie deeper and further back in time. Cannabis, a mild psychedelic, had been Bohemian circles from the very beginning. Some had read of the Indigenous use of peyote and tried it. In the 1950's a number of writers and investigators has used LSD or mescaline in clinical settings and wrote about their experiences. Just as the proto-counterculturalists had an interest in Eastern philosophies, they also had an interest in these experiments.