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 A thoughtful, almost elegiac, examination of liberalism's moral and ideological collapse over ten famously tumultuous years, by historian Burner (John F. Kennedy and a New Generation, 1988, etc.). This is thematic, not narrative, history, by an academic firmly situated not far left of center. Burner carefully delineates what he considers the lamentable decline of the civil rights movement of the early '60s into the black separatism of later years; of the Beats' quest for the self-knowledge that comes from new experiences into the mere self-indulgence of the counterculture; and of a vocal sector of the peace movement into admiration for leftist authoritarianism in Vietnam and elsewhere. He locates the wellspring of liberalism's fall in its deference to constituencies seen as historically oppressed, such as women, blacks, and gays; he argues persuasively that this shift culminated in a narrow politics of group identity at odds with liberalism's historic task of democratically altering power relations for the common good. Burner's focus on the rift between New Deal liberalism and New Left radicalism has serious flaws: It leads him to overestimate the power of ideology in shaping actions, while at the same time smothering consideration of the ultimately more influential conservatism that emerged from the '60s with neoconservative intellectuals, most of them disillusioned liberals, as its handmaidens. This political historian is, oddly, more acute and original in his approaches to cultural than to political currents; his analysis of the Beat writers is perceptive and eloquent, while he has little to add to conventional liberal wisdom on such subjects as Black Power and the Cold War. Still, the book is lucid, and Burner's tone throughout is as measured and reasonable as the creed whose redemption he seeks. This volume does little to achieve the goal of its title, but it should be a valuable contribution for those still trying to make sense of the '60s.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-691-02660-2
Page count: 322pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1996