It may be difficult to demonstrate the beneficial impact of the cultural unrest of the 1960s on the decades that follow. It is difficult to minimise its importance: it contributed, directly and indirectly, to the birth of mass feminism, to the ecological movement, to the growth, expansion and diffusion of the importance of subjectivity and consciousness, to the recognition of the existence of institutionalised and disguised forms of racism and repression. In academia, the movement directly or indirectly led to a revolution in the humanities and social sciences: the development and spread of social history in all its forms, the growth of sociology, the flowering of interdisciplinary approaches, the evolution of increasingly sophisticated theoretical methods.
What baffled and still baffles scholars is that, under the cover of a great similarity in behaviour, style, fashion and action, the trend displayed a complex array of contradictory values. Hard-core young Stalinists or Trotskyists went around with long hair and in tight jeans. Maoists enjoyed listening to the Rolling Stones’ ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’. Defence of individualism and distaste for bureaucracy went hand in hand with staunch advocacy of state or collective action against racism and poverty. Avowed libertarians urged withdrawing free speech from supporters of far-right groups. In the name of liberalism, student radicals defended the autonomy of the universities against the encroachment of capitalism, and condemned any funding from private enterprise or government departments connected to the police and the armed forces. At the same time, they criticised the liberal, elitist and allegedly ‘irrelevant’ nature of much academic research, demanded that the universities should no longer be ivory towers and a preserve for the few, and should instead serve society and the people.