In popular mythography London is portrayed as the epicentre of the ‘swinging sixties’. As  the cosmopolitan heartland of fashion, music, media, arts and entertainment, and what was coming to be known as the creative industries, the metropolis is widely credited for having been the launch pad of a youth led cultural revolution that swept away the last vestiges of  post-war austerity Britain, and inaugurated a ‘permissive society’  associated with personal liberation from the repressive, authoritarian constraints of a rigid, patriarchal and  class bound  ‘ancien regime ‘ [i]. The emergence of what Theodore Roszak dubbed a ‘counter culture’ amongst sections of middle class youth [ii], dedicated to the pursuit of alternative life style,  coupled with the advent of political ferment in the universities and on the streets against the Vietnam war led by a student movement inspired by Marxist  and anarchist ideas  was a matter of  mounting  concern amongst  traditional elites who saw their own sons and daughters abandoning  their values, if not always their privileges.

Most  commentators, both in the media and the Academy, then and since,  have   focused  on the  ‘spectacle’ of youth revolt, seeing it  as symptomatic of a wider social alienation or an intensive form of generational conflict[iii].  On the Left  the 1960’s counter culture tends to be  seen as prefigurative of much of what was to come. In fact  it is still a tacit  reference point, both negative and  positive, for much contemporary political debate on  the Left. For some, mainly Marxists, it is a cautionary tale[iv]. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs,  the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the new Jerusalem  and  capitalism goes  cultural as well as global, and becomes hip.  The so called  youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  Sex and drugs and rock n roll  may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole culture of narcissism that post fordism, and the just- in- time production of the self requires. Playing  it cool becomes the motto  of a whole ‘post’generation, post modernist, post Marxist, post feminist, post human [v].

The other reading, which is mainly from anarchists  and the libertarian left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular anti-authoritarian politics, a youthful generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation[vi] . It is also about  an aesthetic revolt  against the  dead weight of elite bourgeois literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of   party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation, anti racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do it yourself urbanism:  the so called rainbow coalition. It prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.

All these accounts rest on large generalisations. They treat  counter culture, and indeed youth, as a unitary phenomenon. In fact `‘60’s counter culture’ is  made up of many different strands, and   is not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically. The ‘alternative  society’ mirrored  the stratification of so called ’straight’ society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the children of  actual aristocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, (like BIT, Release  and the underground press), and then it had its foot soldiers, the young people  who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the economic margins. In so far as accounts are at all evidence based, they rely  heavily on memoirs written by leading protagonists,  organisational archives   and media coverage rather than  depth interviews with rank and file participants. As a result  the role of the student movement and of avant garde arts movements tends to be privileged  at the expense of , for example,  the street commune and hippy squatting movements[vii]

A further limitation is that accounts are rarely site specific. The ‘London underground’ had a complicated social and cultural geography which was glossed by common references to the ‘scene’,a highly mobile term which, like its less hip synonym ‘milieu’ , includes floating signifiers of a diffuse  sense of belonging, indicating a critical mass of counter-cultural activity   shifting  between  different locations over time. These locations included the older bohemian areas of Soho, Fitzrovia , Bloomsbury and Chelsea, as well as  emergent inner city areas like Notting Hill,  Camden Town ,Whitechapel and Brixton.  In central London the ‘dilly’  street culture was a stronghold  of the rank and file  where homeless young people, rent boys, beats and hippies  interfaced , and which gave birth to the street commune movement. There were also suburban outposts like  Muswell  Hill and  Richmond  that constituted transient hubs of activity.

The rudimentary maps of  the sixties counter-culture which have been  drawn so far tend to be  genealogical and  focus  on  ideological  affiliations – how one  group evolved, fused, or subsumed another;  such maps  lack the granularity needed to  grasp the micro-histories of  particular sites : coffee bars, pubs, clubs, bookshops , streets and other public spaces, arts centres,  colleges, hostels, and a host of other ‘hang outs’, all of which served as  meeting places and foci of counter-cultural activity, from drug dealing to ‘happenings’. 

A final limitation of existing studies is that they make large assumptions about the societal impact of the counter culture but do not   trace through the effect that  different types of  involvement actually had on the subsequent lives, values and attitudes of  those caught up  in the various ‘scenes’. There is a widespread  notion of a ‘sixties generation’ i.e young people who   were  turned on to  radical politics or alternative life styles  and who variously  sustained  these  choices or abandoned them in the face of  Thatcherism and the neo-liberal counter-revolution. However ‘generation’ is always a retrospective, and not a  demographic  construct, an invented tradition through which members of an age cohort become invested in an imagined community  of shared experience and value. As such, it  is  a self fulfilling prophecy, with little heuristic purchase on the vicissitudes of cultural affiliation or political socialisation. These can only be registered  through an approach which  maps  life journeys and embeds participant accounts of particular site specific  contexts and conjunctures  within a narrative of longer duration and wider scope. In  this way the creation of a multi-dimensional cartography of the counter culture can  also address  a range of contemporary issues: generation rent and the  new precariat, the privatisation of public space, the limits and conditions of cultural action , the  youth revolt against austerity politics  etc. That, at least, is  my ambition for the research project  on which I am about to embark.[viii]



Phil Cohen

Illustration: Claire Palmer



Phil Cohen is research director of the LivingMaps network ( He played an active role in London’s counter culture in the sixties and seventies, especially as  ‘Dr John’  in the London Street Commune’s  occupation of 144 Piccadilly and other mass squats in central London.

[i] See Frank Mort ‘London and the Permissive Society’ 2013

[ii] Theodore Roszak ‘The Making of a  Counter Culture’ 1995

[iii] See Phil Cohen ‘Rethinking the Youth Question’ 1998

[iv] See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  ‘The New Spirit  of Capitalism’ 2005 

[v]  See Thomas Frank ‘The Conquest of the Cool’ 1997 and Dick Pountain and  Dave Robins  ‘Cool Rules’2000

[vi] See, for example Iain Boal’s   ‘ West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in North California’ 2012

[vii]  This is discussed in Phil Cohen  ‘Reading Room Only: memoir of a radical Bibliophile’ 2013

[viii]  For the purposes of  constructing  an online  counter- cultural map of London 1965 – 78 I would be interested in hearing from anyone who played a  part in its various scenes.   Further information from or email [email protected]


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    1. I was in the Drury Lane Bell Hotel squat, next door to the London Arts Lab. This was as I remember it, the origin of the London Commune of the Streets. I remember time spent with Dr John, Phil Cohen whose excellent article above really takes me back. I would like to find more reference online to this mass squat which precedes 144 Piccadilly, but so little is presented. Any links to this event would be appreciated.

      Comment by Rev Allen Morgan on 2 February, 2016 at 8:07 pm

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