It was fifty years ago today! — Won’t Get Fooled Again

Fifty years ago, The Who released ‘Wont Get Fooled Again,’ the first single from their classic album Who’s Next, which followed in August. It is one of the greatest conservative rock songs ever recorded (a thin field, admittedly).

William F. Buckley Jr. was famously quoted as saying:

A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

This might be a bit much: would Buckley have yelled ‘Stop’ at the American revolutionaries? Just as not all change is good, not all change is bad, either. The trick is to tell the one from the other. More modestly, and more usefully perhaps, the conservative performs a valuable function by standing athwart history, yelling ‘Hang on a minute, shouldn’t we think this through more carefully?’ 

There is, as I’ve written before:

…a value in the lessons of experience. They might well be telling us what not to do, but they might also warn us against certain mistakes. There is also a limit to our ability to reason everything from first principles. There are limits to our knowledge, for one.

So conservatism, at least in one sense, is a skepticism of revolutionary change. When we look at how the utopias of the 20th century played out in the Gulags of the Soviet Union or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, this seems valuable. And when you have one of the most successful social arrangements in the world – which the United States is – proposals to alter it radically ought to be set a pretty high bar to clear.

The dawning of the Age of Aquarius

This was an unpopular attitude in the late 1960s. In 1964, Bob Dylan sang:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Much needed reforms in areas like civil rights were followed by increasing calls for broader change, almost for the sake of it. What was was automatically assumed to be bad and in need of replacement. What it would be replaced by was less certain. A couple of years ago, in our magazine Thinking Minnesota, I wrote that: “1968 did not usher in the Age of Aquarius,” which is probably just as well:

From the glimpses we got, like the Manson Family and Altamont, the Age of Aquarius would have been the ultimate bad trip.

Meet the new boss

The Who’s Pete Townshend saw this at the time. In ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ first comes the revolution:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Then comes the aftermath:

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they are flown in the last war

There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by the bye
And a parting on the left
Is now a parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

The Russian revolution ultimately amounted to replacing a dictatorial nonentity like Tsar Nicholas II with a dictatorial nonentity like Leonid Brezhnev. The Iranian revolution replaced the oppressive Shah with the even more oppressive Ayatollah. Mao Zedong was a popular figure with the revolutionaries of the late 1960s, but the Chinese who swapped the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek for the genocidal dictatorship of Mao may have thought, as Townshend wrote:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

In truth, the major British rockers of that period were more ambivalent about ‘revolution’ than they often appeared. On The Beatles’ White Album in 1968, John Lennon sang on ‘Revolution 1‘:

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out, in

When the single was released, the lyric became:

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

That same year, as riots exploded in Prague (against Soviet tanks) and Paris (against French police officers), The Rolling Stones sang on ‘Street Fighting Man‘:

Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man

Once again, today, there are calls for radical change in the United States. Indeed, the “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” are under attack. As The Who warned us fifty years ago, be careful what you wish for.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.