The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s

By M. Keith Booker | Go to book overview

Introduction:
America as Utopia-Or Not

In 1962, the newly formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued the “Port Huron Statement” (drafted by Tom Hayden), in which they announced their radical agenda and explained why they felt that agenda was necessary at this particular time in American history. Among other things, they argued that radical action was needed because the popular American mind was so thoroughly in the grips of a conformist ideology that it was no longer capable of imagining alternatives to the status quo. Thus,

the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Be-
neath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that
America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have
closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no
alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias,
but of any new departures as well. (qtd. in James Miller 330)1

In this, Hayden and the founders of the SDS oddly echoed the diagnosis of neoconservative social scientist Daniel Bell, who argued in The End of Ideology (first published in its original form in 1960 and in a revised form in 1962) that a principal phenomenon of American political thought in the 1950s was the “exhaustion of Utopia,” and indeed the exhaustion of “ideology” altogether.

In typical Cold War fashion, by “ideology” Bell mostly means “socialism,” but the similarity in these diagnoses is not surprising: it arises from the fact that both are simply correct and that the American Utopian imagination did, in fact, collapse in the long 1950s (1946–1964)2. At first glance, it might seem surprising that this collapse should occur at this time, when American capitalism expanded at an unprecedented rate, producing an ever-expanding domestic prosperity. Meanwhile, emerging from World War II as the most powerful nation on earth, America

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