Woodstock 50’s Failure Is the New Left’s Success

Promoter Michael Lang (R) and his bodyguard Lee Blumer watch the Woodstock 94 music festival in Saugerties, N.Y. Lang was an organizer of the original Woodstock concert of 1969. (Joe Traver/Reuters)
The revolution of the 1960s isn’t dead; it has been fully realized, to the great confusion of its proponents.

The revolution has been canceled, or at least postponed for a while. Apparently, we are told, there were some “unforeseen setbacks.”

That’s the vague explanation provided for the catastrophic failure of Woodstock 50, a doomed attempt at recreating the famous 1969 music festival in upstate New York for its 50th anniversary. Michael Lang, a cofounder of the original Woodstock and the mastermind behind this recent planned reincarnation, endured months of nightmarish organizational impediments — bureaucratic issues, lagging enthusiasm, and the withdrawal of a host of significant investors and performers — before ultimately throwing in the towel earlier this week.

This is not Lang’s first attempt at resuscitating the utopian bliss of the original Woodstock. He organized revival concerts in 1994 and 1999, but they were plagued by a host of rape and sexual-assault allegations, violence, looting, fires, and the burning of American flags. In both, the original Woodstock’s atmosphere of rapturous love was replaced with petulant anger — singers such as Joan Baez were exchanged for bands such as Rage Against the Machine — and its communitarian, cost-free idealism was replaced with the corporate cynicism of $150 tickets and $12 pizza slices.

The variety of obstacles that Lang has encountered is hardly symbolic of an energized mass sociopolitical movement like the one that fueled the original Woodstock. Indeed, the collapse of Lang’s vision is not attributable to any one logistical issue, but is rather indicative of the larger corporatization of the ’60s counterculture that Woodstock represented.

How does one restore the revolutionary spirit to a revolution that has already been won? The “New Left” that Woodstock embodied — a coalition of radical cultural and political movements of the time — has ascended from the streets to the universities. Its contemporary proponents are more likely to write for the New York Times than for the hand-printed underground publications of old. Along the way, they have in many cases become parodic antitheses of their former selves, warmly embracing the establishment in opposition to which they once defined themselves.

Take feminism, for example. The feminism of the New Left was radical, combative, and distinctly revolutionary in its disposition. It was also, as one might expect, vehemently anti-capitalist. Angela Davis, summing up the zeitgeist of the 1960s feminist movement, famously declared that “as long as we inhabit a capitalist democracy, a future of racial equality, gender equality and economic equality will elude us.” And yet present-day feminism has wholeheartedly backed the capitalist system that Davis and her compatriots so vocally denounced. In their quest for elusive gender equity, feminists have enthusiastically reduced women’s humanity to the sum total of their economic output. Women everywhere were liberated from the “patriarchal oppression” of motherhood and the nuclear family, only to be made cogs in the capitalist machine. Cut off from the familial structure, encouraged instead to pursue economic accumulation at the expense of motherhood, the daughters of the Woodstockian radicals are now corporate executives at Google, Facebook, and Starbucks. The patriarchy has been dismantled, it seems — replaced instead with a corporate boardroom.

And what of the radicals of the Black Power movement — Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and their many revolutionary affiliates? They, too, have found their way to a comfortable position within the establishment. The Nation of Islam’s leader, Louis Farrakhan — despite having claimed that a Jewish conspiracy caused 9/11, that Jews control the government and the media, and said that “satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit” — continues to associate with many mainstream Democratic leaders. Public intellectuals such as Ta Nehisi-Coates, Cornel West, and Michael Eric Dyson, casting themselves as the inheritors of the Black Power legacy, have cushy, six-figure teaching positions, elite writing fellowships, and the sycophantic, fawning adulation of the progressive establishment. The theoretical underpinnings of their movement — neo-Marxism, philosophies of “decolonization,” critical race theory, etc. — have come to dominate the social-science departments of our country’s most prestigious universities and exert enormous control over the minds of our cultural tastemakers.

Yes, after decades of righteous struggle, the counterculture has become the dominant culture. The political radicals of the Woodstock generation, instead of abolishing the oppressive institutions and power structures they’d hoped to abolish, ended up inhabiting and changing them. This has led to a variety of absurdities, not least of which is the odd marriage of neoliberalism and performative wokeness — what some on the right have appropriately dubbed “woke capitalism.” It has also robbed our culture of its vital power to cultivate meaningful discourse, producing a certain revolutionary spirit that regards any dissent as dangerous and in need of crushing.

This is why Woodstock will never again occur, why Lang will never recapture the spirit of 1969. The feeling of community at the original event came from attendees’ shared knowledge that they did not belong in their society’s mainstream. Now, in many ways, their ideology is the mainstream.

And yet, in many ways, Woodstock 50’s failure could be interpreted to mean that the initial movement was a success. The cultural assumptions and traditions against which the New Left revolted have been so transformed as to make them unrecognizable. The revolutionaries of old have found themselves as the new occupants of the halls of power, expounding on the virtues of “diversity” and “inclusion” in corporate boardrooms, lecturing on Foucault and Gramsci to crowds of enrapt college students, and tweeting out 280-character political takes to hundreds of thousands of approving followers.

The dream of the 1960s isn’t dead; it has been realized in full, to the great confusion of its own proponents. Vive la révolution!

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