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Spectacle, spaces and political change: 1968 and now.

We are fifty years on from 1968. The moment seems right, therefore, to think about the relationship between disruptive protests, politics, and social change more broadly, in 1968 and now. This was a moment when the politics of the spectacular, the reclamation of space, and a general sense of disruption came to the fore.

1968 was swiftly mythologised as a moment of disruptive change, though in fact we should think of a 'long 1968' spanning several years. One historian has written of the 'euphoric anti-authoritarian thrust of 1966-1972'. (1) This moment is remembered as a spectacle of pure liberation. This year's 50th anniversary will be marked by all the familiar images. But 1968 was also produced and reproduced as a spectacle too: images of militancy in Mexico City, Chicago, the Sorbonne, Bolivia and Belfast drew on and referred to one another for collective, reciprocal force. Lawrence Black has argued that the late 1960s saw a broader shift towards a 'post-material' politics, marking the point where the instrumental appeal to distinct class interests gave way to the spiritual, the humanist and the self, enabling claims to be made about universal revolt. (2) These symbolic tools were used in revolutionary upheaval in Britain too. In Grosvenor Square, thousands marched against the Vietnam War, occupying the square, with placards and banners 'bringing a sense of theatre' to the anti-militaristic message. (3)

Such techniques were not always successful: hundreds of police dispersed the Grosvenor Square marchers with brutal force. Belief in the utility of symbolic protest was not always shared on the Left either. During the occupation of the London School of Economics in October 1968--as the police chained the gates of the university shut--students and intellectuals associated with the New Left Review journal urged what they saw as their quiescent classmates to join them in storming a nearby sea cadets' hall in order to procure rifles to ward off the police, and to offer non-revolutionaries what they had elsewhere called a 'moral summons' to the socialist cause. (4)

Martin Shaw, a member of the Trotskyist group International Socialists (IS) and an LSE student at the time, ridiculed the suggestion that symbolic acts would somehow shock anyone into revolt as 'curious wishful thinking'. (5) He argued that the only way to truly build social change was to reach out to working-class communities and actively 'build links' here--or else the student movement would doom itself to self-conscious 'isolation and defeat'. (6)

Shaw himself was part of a group of LSE students who had joined strikes in Fleet Street and at Ford's Dagenham plant. Eschewing the politics of symbolism, the workerist tradition of the British Left instead preferred direct action and class-based organisation. IS and others called for the Left to link up with the increasingly militant shop stewards' movement. As radical class and factory-based politics exploded into view in the late 1960s, groups like Big Flame participated in factory occupations with workers (in this case at the Fisher-Bendix plant in Kirkby). (7) As Jimmy Reid commented of the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders 'work-in' in 1972--where the workers took over the ship-yards and demonstrated that they were still economically viable and need not be shut down --this colonisation of space had practical and symbolic merit, demonstrating that economics' did not 'control men', but that rather 'men can and must control economics'. (8)

Notably though, there was also a latent scepticism from within 'the working class' towards external groups coming from outside to co-opt the struggle. In first-hand testimonies from Tyneside, workers expressed defiance towards activists or sociologists from elsewhere, and were as likely to make sense of social difference through either stories of individual escape or the invocation of place-based solidarity as they were class consciousness. (9)

The community organising movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s also illustrated that working-class communities could manage themselves. Neighbourhoods mobilised over inadequate housing and amenities, as well as grand council plans to destroy inner-city areas and replace them with looming motorway flyovers and gleaming shopping centres. In Notting Hill and Covent Garden respectively, socialist activists Jan O'Malley and Peter Hain observed residents coming together to challenge the plans made by the Greater London Council (GLC); plans that would have seen the wholesale destruction of formerly solid working-class neighbourhoods. Community groups staged mass open meetings, where those affected aired their grievances. There was a remarkable force generated at these occasions--people had proven that they understood their own lives in ways that the planners did not.

But as O'Malley and Hain also commented, the arena of a de-centred gathering could also provoke tensions--they were often 'rowdy' and found it hard to reach conclusions, whilst quieter residents often found it difficult to speak up. The GLC (with whom the residents' groups were in negotiation) became 'exasperated' at what they saw as this 'disjointed and unproductive meandering'. (10) Eventually in Covent Garden, the middle-class architects and planners who had joined to aid the dispute split themselves off from the working-class tenants, and began negotiating separately with the council, creating a new cleavage along old class lines which community organising was meant to resolve.

Conversely, as Joe Moran has shown, there was a section of the 'progressive intelligentsia' who successively benefited from what he calls the 'early gentrification' of London (and, in turn, UK cities more broadly). The 1960S saw the coming to the fore of a new, putatively classless cadre of urban professionals, who colonised previously working-class housing in the city and refitted their homes with exotic decorations, furniture and foodstuffs that 'evoked fond memories of the foreign holidays they were beginning to take in places like Provence and Tuscany'. (11) Exposure to the Continent came in the form of theory too. A whole swath of radical magazines were formed out of this avant-garde London milieu. Seven Days and Bananas, for example, used constructivism, surrealism and situationism in an attempt to disrupt 'bourgeois aesthetics', using photomontage, disordered poetry and avant-garde creative writing to puncture the spectacle of capitalism and bring to light the cause of liberation struggles at home and abroad. (12)

Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) activists famously deployed situationist tactics when disrupting the 1970 Miss World contest--using rattles, whistles, and the throwing of flour and paint to interrupt the ceremony. Gay Liberation Front (GLF) activists also reported on their situationist-inspired protests against the 1969 book Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) by David Reuben, which argued that gay men were inherently incapable of monogamous relationships. GLF protesters picketed book shops with placards reading 'Reuben's Book--LIBEL! Inaccurate anti-homosexual propaganda', and surreptitiously placed stickers on copies which read 'WARNING--this book does not represent the majority of medical and psychiatric opinion'. (13) Unsuspecting customers walking away from shops with their new purchase would find themselves challenged by the GLF's stark message.

Whilst the WLM and GLF productively deployed situationist tactics, in the hands of the largely white, middle-class and male London avant-garde, these disruptive strategies were used inconsistently. Seven Days announced that its radical photo-journalism would pierce through the mysticism of capitalist society, and promised to shed light on the true nature of existence in a 'properly conscious way'. (14) However the desire to attain a single objectively 'realistic' standpoint on the world was problematic--it assumed that this was possible, and it assumed that this standpoint would be male, white and middle-class.

The GLF activist David Fernbach pointed out that Seven Days' faith in the universal power of its analysis elided over differences between 'black and white people, between women and men, between gay and straight'. (15) For example whilst Seven Days wrote about the emergence of Black Power and anti-imperialist groupings, we know that these groups often felt patronised by their treatment on much of the British Left, instead looking abroad to the American civil rights movement for inspiration. (16) Similarly, the implicitly white 'male-biased' outlook of the London avant-garde was sometimes echoed in the division of labour at these journals. (17) Feminist contributors recall being either consciously or unconsciously relegated to performing administrative tasks, whilst the men took charge of the writing.

Indeed, some women in the London-based WLM tried using psychoanalytic ideas to disrupt these rigid norms. Stressing the role of the unconscious and the self offered a way to 'narrativise' political practice in a way that paid more precise attention to marginalised subject positions, stressing greater 'openness' and plurality than the male Left. (18) This radical decentralisation took a lot of work; it required effort and goodwill to maintain these personal and political relationships, and the relentless meetings, protests and various administrative tasks required were tiring. One WLM activist charged with setting up a research office felt herself 'constantly under pressure'. Struggling with an impossible workload and harassed by fellow members who felt she wasn't doing a good enough job, she eventually decided it was just 'too much strain' to continue. (19)

But as well as the general stresses of seeking to build a grassroots social movement, the explicitly open style of the WLM brought specific difficulties. Whilst the WLM was a pioneering exercise in collaborative political work, many felt that the nominal lack of leadership enabled the most confident women to seize the space and to assert their own views. Moreover, the tendency mainly to discuss theoretical issues created a sense of 'inaccessibility' around the milieu. (20) As Natalie Thomlinson has shown, the WLM found it difficult to push beyond the London-based, leftist middle-class world in which it was steeped. Reflecting on her work as a feminist social worker in North London throughout the 1970s, Elizabeth Wilson wrote that many of the women she visited were uncomfortable with her bohemian appearance. Her 'comfortable salary' meant that 'period bargains' picked up at jumble sales were a fashion statement--for her clients, they were viewed 'as the last shameful resort of those on the dole'. (21) Choosing to dress in this manner--rather than being forced to--reminded these women of the vast inequalities that separated them.

These are only snippets of the radical movements which energised British politics in the late 1960s, providing the Left with new strategies and tools which saw it successively integrate new perspectives of race, gender, and locality across subsequent decades. These themes percolated into the wider culture too--at a time when British life became broadly less in thrall to hierarchy, more irreverent and (partially) more tolerant. And yet, as witnessed in this admittedly highly schematic discussion, these differences were as difficult to work through as they were productive in clarifying political causes. In subsequent years, it was arguably the crude 'solidarity' of the New Right's very different vision--forged through a much less nuanced idea of the family, of nationhood, and of the market--that won the argument in the mid to late 1970s. It is no wonder that a group of feminist activists surveying the state of the left in 1979 felt that the key task was now to unite and move 'beyond the fragments'. (22) And, despite attempts to co-opt these perspectives into the Labour Party as 'mass movement' in the early to mid-1980s, the parliamentary left increasingly strayed towards managerialism and top-down control.

This piece started out by talking about socio-economic and political disruption in the late 1960s. It is a theme that, in a rather different way, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss has been vigorously (and rather bizarrely) championing of late. From the 'coffee bars of Camden to the gin joints of Norfolk', Truss argues that technology and the gig economy means that Britain is now marked by a new, young generation of '#Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters'. This seismic transformation, Truss argues, will benefit small-state loving Conservatives, and see voters shun the 'bitter socialist hooch' of the Labour Left. (23)

Truss's specious claim echoes much thinking on the right--that new technology sees us living through a moment even more disruptive than the one I've discussed; a moment which is shaping a new, even more individualistic cultural ethos. This argument is wrong, but also obliquely cheering. In the late 1960s, many socialists proclaimed that the progressive revolution would be heralded on the back of social change. And yet, as has been shown, the ethos of disruption was just as easily corralled behind right-wing values. (24)

Today--and contra Truss's claims--it is we who make the running with thinking about how shifts in economic and social life are changing society.25 It is movements, organisations and local governments of the Left who are devising the most creative solutions to the problems of climate change, wealth-sharing, and cooperation in the workplace--on how, then as now, to manage space and resources in an equitable way. (26) It is the left which is thinking about how to create democratic institutions, responsive and tailored public services, and how to empower individuals in the workplace and the public sector.

We must remember the lessons learned by the activists of '1968'. Just as the movements of the late 1960s soon found, every space (or every 'platform'), remains embedded within gender, racial and class hierarchies. We must ally our reading of the future to a deep commitment to eradicating these inequalities. We must think intersectionally. (27) But we must also attempt to bridge the gaps, despite the tensions that ultimately saw the spectacle of 1968 break down into 'fragments'.

But how do we construct inclusive political movements while still acknowledging the importance of multiplicities of intersectional identities? I think the answer is to develop a big narrative about contemporary capitalism. As the 2017 General Election appeared to show, 8 years of austerity have increasingly drawn together a broad range of social and generational groupings in an experience of precarity. (28) Whilst the Right speaks of a liberty held back by vested socialist interests, it is clear that a society run by faceless oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats provides little real freedom to most individuals, whether that be in the workplace, in the community, or in the home. By continuing to stress this--and highlighting our alternatives--we can appeal to divergent groups without necessarily fusing them together in shared struggle. And if we continue to work away at these problems, we can ensure that we turn simple disruption into long-lasting progress.

Alex Campsie is lecturer in modern British history at the University of Cambridge and a commissioning editor for Renewal.

This talk was first given at a teach-out during the UCU strike at the University of Cambridge on 26.3.18.


(1.) G. Stedman Jones, 'Why is the Labour Party in a Mess?' in his Languages of Class: Studies in British Working Class History 1832-1982, Cambridge, 1983, p249.

(2.) L. Black, Re-defining British Politics: Culture, Consumerism and Participation, 1954-70, Oxford, 2010.

(3.) P. Hain quoted in J. Davis, 'Community and the Labour Left in 1970S London' in C. Williams and A. Edwards, The Art of the Possible. Politics and governance in Modern British History, 1885-1997: Essays in memory of Duncan Tanner, Manchester, 2015, p207.

(4.) Editorial, 'The Marxism of Regis Debray', New Left Review, 45, September-October 1967, p9.

(5.) M. Shaw, 'LSE: Lockout and After', International Socialism, 36, April-May 1969, p10.

(6.) Ibid., p10.

(7.) 'Bendix: how the workers took over,' Big Flame leaflet, 1972. On militant factory politics more generally see: J. Saunders, 'The Untraditional Worker: Class Re-Formation in Britain 1945-65', Twentieth Century British History, 26, 2015.

(8.) Reid appearing in Cinema Action, dir., prod., Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders, London, Cinema Action, 1971.

(9.) F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England, 1968-2000, Oxford, 2018, pp14-33.

(10.) P. Hain, Neighbourhood Participation, London, 1980, p123.

(11.) J. Moran, 'Early Cultures of Gentrification in London, 1955-1980', Journal of Urban History, 2007, p107.

(12.) P. Wollen, 'Surrealism', Seven Days, 11, 12.1.72, p20.

(13.) 'Militant Gays Come Out', Seven Days, 2, 3.11.71, p46.

(14.) G. Stedman Jones, 'Down With Nature', Seven Days, 13, 26.L72.

(15.) D. Fernbach, 'The Sexual Revolution', Seven Days, 4, 17.11.71, p17.

(16.) N. Thomlinson, Race, Ethnicity and the Women's Movement in England, 1968-1993, Basingstoke, 2016; R. Waters, 'Black Power on the Telly: America, Television, and Race in 1960S and 1970S Britain', Journal of British Studies, 54, 2015.

(17.) A. Walter and D. Fernbach, 'Wham Bamn!', Seven Days, 14, 2.2.72.

(18.) Rosalind Delmar interviewed by Rachel Cohen, 'Sisterhood and After Project', British Library, London, September-October 2010.

(19.) Janet Hadley interviewed by Sally Alexander, September 1974, Sally Alexander Papers, 7SAA/5.

(20.) 'Red Rag futures--Notes from Adah [Kay] for July 15 [1976]', Sally Alexander Papers, 7SAA/5.

(21.) E. Wilson, 'Women in the Community' in M. Mayo ed., Women in the Community, London, 1977.

(22.) S. Rowbotham, L. Segal and H. Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, London, 1979.

(23.) L. Truss, 'The young are born disruptors, but they need freedom, not socialist strictures, to succeed', Telegraph, 25 April 2018.

(24.) L. Boltanski and E. Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, London, 2006.

(25.) J. Stafford and F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, 'Work, autonomy and community'; T. Watson, 'Improving the Quality of Work'; L. Butler (interviewing), N. Srnicek, 'Technology, Capitalism and the Future of the Left', Renewal, 26.1, 2018.

(26.) P. Billington, 'Climate Change is a Class Issue', Renewal, 25.2, 2017; M. Kelly, S. McKinley, V. Duncan, 'Community wealth building: America's emerging asset-based approach to city economic development', Renewal, 24.2, 2016; J. Stoddart, 'Place-based health: why local accountability would lead to better quality and outcomes', Renewal, 24.2, 2016.

(27.) M. Charles, 'Race, feminism and intersectionality', Renewal, 26.2, 2017.

(28.) L. Antonucci, 'The revolt of the 'squeezed middle'', Renewal, 25.3-4, 2017.
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Author:Campsie, Alex
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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