Perhaps two concepts more than any other encapsulate this revolution – free sex and drugs use. Intriguingly why did a rabidly anti-establishment cultural revolution arise when America was flourishing? Foremost it was due to the fact that during the 1960s and 1970s there was deep-rooted social discontent amongst the youth of America. Perhaps there are four reasons germane to this discussion. Did the experiences of all hippies conform to the expectation that all hippie communes operated on the same modus vivendi or were their members’ experiences unique to each commune? What happened to the offspring of these commune members? Did the revolution have an impact on society in general or did it metastasize and influence it in a myriad of ways which now form part of the establishment’s soul.
Main picture: A vivid evocation of the quintessential hippie lifestyle
The Driving Forces
There were multiple driving forces for this revolution which coagulated simultaneously:
The Vietnamese War: Young men were drafted into the Army and forced to fight a war in which they did not believe. The modus operandi of the Vietminh spooked the American Army. Unable to come to grips with an evasive enemy, they resorted to carpet bombing and spraying defoliant on the jungles and forests.
Betrayal was what the returning servicemen felt when they landed back home in America as they were ostracised by their compatriots as “supporters” the war. For the Americans, it was a cathartic experience as the USA’s military might was being challenged by a minnow and surprisingly the once mighty America could not come to grips with the Vietcong and pulverise them.
Many men returned in body bags or else scared – mentally and physically – or as drug addicts. This fuelled further dissent and disenchantment about the war.
No longer were casualties in war acceptable. Unlike during WW1 when 50 000 casualties per day was considered inordinately large, the death of 58 307 Americans over 20 years was considered to be a tragedy. Adding proverbial salt to the wounds was the fact that no progress was made militarily. The final nail in the coffin was the fact that the consequence of defeat would not directly affect the people of America. Furthermore they questioned why they were supporting a corrupt South Vietnamese regime.
Female liberation: Young woman no longer viewed their future as being tied to the kitchen and to a brood of children. Combined with the introduction of the pill, females were for the first time allowed choices which they had never existed before. Many for the first saw their future outside the home and in the work place unlike their mothers.
Myth of an equal society: The abolition of the Jim Crow Laws in the south had not liberated the African Americans from the iniquities of racism, segregation and inequality. This cancer was gnawing at the conscience of society especially the young.
Unemployed college graduates: Instead of being able to walk into a job, the number of graduates with their irrelevant qualifications negatively impacted upon their job prospects.
The product of this dissatisfaction was the hippie culture, and from hippie culture sprang hippie communes–group living spaces, communities, or villages where like-minded individuals could live simply like their agrarian ancestors (usually with the help of some mind altering substances).
The rejection of the society with all its norms and the disconnect between man and nature drove the desire for a simpler uncomplicated lifestyle. A role reversal was in place. Instead of aspiring to bigger cars and huge houses, they desired to return to an earlier life style where all their needs were satisfied by their own handiwork. This meant that everything was Spartan with none of the fripperies and adornments of civilisation as the hippies rejected the industrial for the agrarian, the plastic for the natural and the synthetic for the organic.
Unburdened of all the paraphernalia of society, these exiles from society mostly lived a simple life of manual work in the fields, sex and drugs.
Is this a correct reflection of all the communes?
No; not at all.
They were all completely different.
At some drug use was rampant whereas at others it was forbidden. Some were deeply religious while others were secular. Some saw the future and to them it was self-sustaining agrarian societies whereas other ran various businesses on normal capitalist principles.
Each hippie commune developed its own modus operandi, rules and culture.
Their effect and their future
Most communes faded with time. Some still struggle on, a legacy of a vanished era and an enduring testament to the durability of alternative ideals albeit at the margins.
Nudity was rampant but free love proved to have a cost: intimate long term relationships. The precept of free love was to allow anybody to have sex with whoever took their fancy. In human dynamics, such a concept is impractical. Squabbles arose when somebody fancied somebody else. The existing couples would not tolerate any intimate interactions with other members. Instead their love making was restricted to their partner.
Even though most hippies placed communal needs and values above individual rights, when members were not performing an equivalent amount of work, clashes would occur.
I will never decry the establishment of communes as there will always be segments of society that do not want to lead a “normal life”. But how can one define what a normal life is? Gone today is the virulent antagonism against their alternative living arrangements as it is now rightly viewed as being their right to live their life as they see fit as long as they have no desire to impose their ideals on the rest of society.
Communes exist today in South Africa, maybe not based on the original hippie premise of free love and drugs, but as a coterie of like-minded people. Typical in South Africa they fall into two categories: religious or exiles from multi-racial South Africa.
The legacy of the hippie culture was more subtle than overt. Its concepts became ingrained surreptitiously in the fabric of society. Amongst some of its outcomes what it did was to transform the old fashioned concept of living-in-sin to being main stream. Society embraced the concept unashamedly in the 1960s and 1970s. It was also a defining moment for the role of women in society. A raft of new social concepts regarding the role of women was absorbed without a military revolution as was attempted in Afghanistan in the 1960s when similar reforms were enacted.
The effect of the communes was felt most by their offspring. In a study by an American University on the experiences on these children, the conclusions are not so clear-cut. Most hated the fad of “health foods” and now enjoy a hamburger just like the rest of us. Some of them are themselves hippies or embrace the hippie culture but most are not druggies. Because they were all subject to so few boundaries, the concepts of authority and structure are largely alien to them. Most have grown to be suspicious of authority especially bureaucratic authority. While some have battled to cope with normal society due to their lack of skills or education, most have found a niche to suit their talents and expectations.
In conclusion, the legacy of the hippie communes is neither unequivocally positive nor negative.
Rather it is like the rest of life with its nuanced shades of grey.
The accepted verdict is that the concept of the commune as paradise on earth had been proved to be a chimera.
Given human nature, communal living is an aberration that few wish to participate in.
As society never learns from history, another generation in the future will again attempt to create a more human, less technocratic society.
Voila. The commune will again be back in vogue on the fringes of society.
Better luck next time