Visiting San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1968, Tom Wolfe was struck by the way hippies there “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.” In his essay “The Great Relearning,” Wolfe connects this to Ken Kesey’s pilgrimage to Stonehenge, inspired by “the idea of returning to civilization’s point zero” and trying to start all over from scratch and do it better. Wolfe predicted that history will record that Haight-Ashbury period as “one of the most extraordinary religious experiments of all time.”
The desire to sweep everything away wasn’t just limited to hippies. Wolfe writes:
In politics the twentieth century’s great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system’s bad reputation in the West today (even among the French intelligentsia) it is instructive to read John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World – before turning to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The old strike hall poster of a Promethean worker in a blue shirt breaking his chains across his mighty chest was in truth the vision of ultimate human freedom the movement believed in at the outset.
For intellectuals in the West the painful dawn began with the publication of the Gulag Archipelago in 1973. Solzhenitsyn insisted that the villain behind the Soviet concentration camp network was not Stalin or Lenin (who invented the term concentration camp) or even Marxism. It was instead the Soviets’ peculiarly twentieth century notion that they could sweep aside not only the old social order but also its religious ethic, which had been millennia in the making (“common decency,” Orwell called it) and reinvent morality … here … now … “at the point of a gun,” in the famous phrase of Maoists.
Today the relearning has reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China have begun to wonder how best to convert Communism into something other than, in Susan Sontag’s phrase, Successful Fascism.
Read “The Great Relearning — The twentieth century is over” in the December 1987 issue of The American Spectator.