Politics Out of Doors
AUTONOMISTS AND THE ALTERNATIVE SCENE
Terrorism presupposed extremes of alienation, where people lost respect for the system. This went furthest in big cities with masses of younger people marginal to mainstream society—with higher educational qualifi- cations yet displaced from career paths, partially employed, stylistically re- bellious, and living and working in distinctive collective arrangements and quarters, often with bohemian or multicultural links, like the Hafenstrasse in Hamburg’s St. Pauli or Kreuzberg in West Berlin, with its 40,000-strong alternative scene, 40,000 Turks, and 50,000 “normals” in 1989. Cooper- ative living and alternative scenes went with squatting—illegal occupations of empty buildings. These “liberated zones” flouted respectable society via style, music, drugs, sex, and indifference to rules of property.10
These subcultures presupposed the countercultural militancies of 1968. They preferred subverting politics to its constructive renewal. The Metro- politan Indians’ Manifesto of 1 March 1977 in Italy demanded squats of all empty buildings to create alternatives to the family, free drugs, destruc- tion of zoos, destruction of patriotic monuments, destruction of youth pris- ons, and the “historical and moral reevaluation of the dinosaur Archeop- terix, unfairly constructed as an ogre.”11 This stance, for all its irony, encouraged nihilistic displays of public disrespect—a profaning of demo- cratic values. It produced violence, not just against police but against unions and other Left organizations. Pitched battles in PCI-governed Bo- logna and the barracking of Luciano Lama in occupied Rome University exposed a savage gulf between Communists and the youth revolt.12
Similar battles involved the
whose squats dated from
Activity was highly organized, but on the anticentralist and participa- tory
PARTIES AND MOVEMENTS: A DIFFERENT POLITICAL SPACE
How should we put this together—squatters, alternatives, autonomists, Metropolitan Indians, Marxists, and wider movements surrounding the West German Greens, including ecologists, antinuclear protesters, peace campaigners, and the feminists common to them all? They came from the polity’s grassroots. They involved a politics of refusal, showing at best am- bivalence to the parliamentary system. They faced mainstream Lefts that seemed exhausted, despite an ability to continue winning elections—a Eu- rocommunism (Italy, France, Spain) that failed to break through; a sclerotic social democracy (West Germany, the Low Countries, Britain) stuck in its accommodations to capitalism, dogmatically dismissing the new left; and a technocratic socialism (France, Spain) shedding all relation to unions or movement cultures of the working class.
Established parties were melting away, and even where socialist parties kept support, they became a different kind of party—drastically losing ac- tive members and no longer able to rely on traditional “solidarity com- munities” among a shrinking working class. Instead, they were busily re- making themselves into exclusively electoral machines.15 And beyond them
“new social movements”—feminisms, ecology, peace,
“from below” across
1983, a million West Germans rallied against the missiles; between 500,000 and a million in Rome; 250,000 in London; 400,000 in Brussels; 100,000 in Madrid; followed by 550,000 in The Hague and 40,000 in Bern. The West German Greens translated this into electoral success.16
Elsewhere, moves into national
Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright, published Be- yond the
and Socialist Centers in Newcastle and Islington. They presented “the women’s movement
of the Labour Party and suspicious of self-defined vanguards.”17 They sparked a chain of meetings, including a
(GLC) on a radical program, Wainwright joined an Economic Policy Group and the Popular Planning Unit, where Rowbotham also worked.18 With Labour out of office nationally, local government became a key site. If Labour lost four hundred thousand paper members in 1975–81, it was acquiring a new activist cohort, a missing generation—supporters from the early 1960s, who left, joined community action or the sects, and returned in the late 1970s.19
Such activists appealed outside the old class-political framework. For the GLC leader Ken Livingstone, Labour had to go beyond “the organized working class” to “articulate the needs of the minorities and the dispos- sessed” and “single-issue groups” as well, because people no longer saw themselves in the “broad class concepts” of “thirty years ago.” London Labour Briefing, started by Livingstone’s circle in 1980, recalled Women’s Liberation in the 1970s, which had joined feminism to local activisms around housing and rents, public transport, welfare rights, recreational fa- cilities, childcare, adult and further education, cultural and arts activity, and the plethora of single-issue campaigns from Northern Ireland and an- tiapartheid to Vietnam and other Third World solidarities. The GLC’s agenda in 1981–86 paralleled that of the German Greens but with the resources and problems of a huge metropolitan region. Its policies—cheap fares for public transit, creative development strategies for mass unemploy- ment—captured popular sympathies, while setting a collision course with Thatcher’s Conservative government. It welcomed inflammatory causes, in- cluding Irish Republicanism and gay-lesbian rights. It promoted a new Left
coalition based on “skilled and unskilled workers, unemployed young and old, women, black people, as well as the sexually oppressed minorities.”20
This urban left subcontracted with the grassroots, directing funding to
“small, relatively informal, community groups who were able to develop projects too politically controversial for councils themselves to engage in.”21
This was a decisive
War.22 When Labour began recapturing local government in 1971, its political profile was al- ready different.
30–45, having joined the party in the mid-1970s. On expulsion from La- bour for refusing to accept spending cuts in 1980, they built alliances be- yond traditional frameworks with feminists, gays, antiracists, housing cam- paigns, community centers, and public sector unions, returning to win the council in 1984.23 The culture shift was extreme: “Councillors in jump suits and jeans; clenched fist salutes in the council chamber; the singing (and flying) of the Red Flag; employees wearing CND badges; office walls dec- orated with political posters and cartoons; disdain for many established practices and procedures.”24 “At the first meeting of the Labour group,” the GLC’s head administrator remembered, “there was a baby and cans of coke. Senior officers found it a great upheaval.”25
THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY: LEFT IN THE LURCH
But if the urban left and the GLC captured a sense of opportunity, the national Labour Party reflected chances missed. Labour’s Left acquired a tribune of the people in Tony Benn.26 His New Politics: A Socialist Recon- naissance (1970) declared politics more than “the marking of a ballot paper with a single cross every five years.” He contrasted Labour’s governing debacle with rising extraparliamentary activism—“community associa- tions, amenity groups, shop stewards’ movements, consumer societies, ed- ucational campaigns, organizations to help the old, the homeless, the sick, the poor or under-developed societies, militant communal organizations, student power, noise abatement societies.” Benn set out to bridge the gap between Parliament and the extraparliamentary arena, intensifying his ef- forts after 1970.27
Benn was “hoping to start a great new debate within our movement.”28
He rode the militancy of 1970–74, determined to prevent new betrayals in which Labour governments ignored the party’s wishes. His supporters spearheaded pressure for Labour’s constitutional reform via the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and the Labour Coordinating Com- mittee (LCC). Where CLPD operated inside the party, LCC addressed Left
groups more widely, from the National Council for Civil Liberties, Am- nesty, Child Poverty Action, and Shelter to the Socialist Education Asso- ciation, Counter Information Services, and Friends of the Earth. After the
1979 election defeat, mandatory reselection of MPs was achieved, estab- lishing the principle of accountability. Then the Special Party Conference at Wembley in January 1981 passed new rules for electing the leader by membership, unions, and parliamentary party rather than by the last- named alone. Michael Foot, the parliamentary party’s longstanding radical voice, had already succeeded James Callaghan as leader in November 1980. The left’s position seemed stronger than ever before.29
Yet by 1982 it was in retreat and by 1987 utterly beaten. In protest against Wembley, the “Gang of Four”—Shirley Williams, William Rodgers, David Owen, and Roy Jenkins—launched a new Social Democratic Party
(SDP) on 25 January 1981, taking 29 Labour MPs with them.30 Left and right traded bitter accusations of splitting the party.31 The right vilified Benn for contesting the deputy leadership, and after his defeat in October
1981 by less than a single percent, the Foot-Healey leadership counterat- tacked ruthlessly, removing Benn and his allies from their committees. The
1983 elections, stamped by the patriotism of the Falklands-Malvinas War, proved a nightmare, as Labour crashed to its worst defeat since 1935.32
This fiasco hastened the realignment. Under a new leader, Neil Kinnock, the party was drastically restructured. The National Executive’s control of policy was dismantled, supplanted by the Campaigns and Communications Directorate, which replaced democracy with market research. Kinnock an- swered another election defeat in 1987 with a policy review, and when the
1989 Conference approved the results, the left’s policies had all gone— nationalization and a strong public sector, union corporatism, unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to the EEC, and the guiding thread of democratizing the party. Kinnock bequeathed a party more united, more centrist, less distinctively socialist, and wholly demobilized.
This story showed nothing better than the tenacity of right-wing and centrist social democrats in resisting change. For Benn, democracy required more than simply changing Labour’s Constitution: “If democracy is based on a moral claim to equality, the issues opened up are as wide as life itself,” he argued, and included women’s equality, nuclear energy, gay liberation, racial discrimination, immigration, youth culture, pensioners’ rights, and more.33 But even under left-wing influence, Labour’s 1983 Manifesto had barely integrated these issues with the Alternative Economic Strategy. The latter invoked a Keynesianism already under fatal attack, in a national- economic framework superseded by global interdependence and the EEC. It said little about the changing nature of work and was innocent of fem- inist ideas on unequal pay, part-time working, or domestic labor. The Man- ifesto adopted new social issues without new social movements. Instead, it cobbled together the old Left goals least appealing to a broader electorate— like nationalization, union power, anti-Europe, and unilateral disarma-
ment—with a ragtag mixture of new causes conjuring respectable England’s worst nightmares, from Irish Republicanism and lesbian-gay rights to ab- olition of the House of Lords and antihunting. Issues of potentially broad appeal, like feminism, peace, or the environment, were squandered.
There were no thoughts about uniting the parliamentary party with ex- traparliamentary actions in a single movement. And this was precisely the strength of Livingstone’s GLC and other Labour councils—their ability to lower the boundaries between party control and broader activism. The GLC’s real popularity, after the defeat of the Fares Fair campaign in 1982, was perhaps unclear.34 Its relations with community activists, particularly on the racial front, were often vexed. Local socialisms—in parts of London but especially in Liverpool, where Militant ruled—sometimes followed dog- matically class-centered approaches keeping other issues like gender, sex- uality, and race away. But the possibilities were there, and the Labour left’s national strategy passed them by.
LEFT FOR THE FUTURE?
Thus the space for
the one hand, like most of its fellow socialist parties, the Labour Party remained stuck in a
parliamentarist groove. On the other hand, the new activism, with
for the left’s renewal in the 1980s, and the urban
with “identity” issues, at its most earnest and exuberant during Living- stone’s reign at the GLC, brought this home especially well. Two other examples from
“Embrace the Base” in December 1982 and 50,000 in 1983, together with repeated blockades and many symbolic protests. Invasions, courtroom ac- tions, small-scale sabotage, and protests of all kinds occurred, including monitoring and harassment of cruise missile convoys. Above all, the Camp’s permanence entailed constant inventiveness. This incorporated the legacies of 1968, declaring a new, distinctively feminist presence:
Whether linking together 30,000 women to “embrace the base” or en- tering time after time, through the lethal-looking fence of the base, to
plant snowdrops, have a picnic, dance on the silos, occupy a sentry box or a traffic control tower, or paint peace signs on a US spy plane; whether tearing down mile after mile of fencing and padlocking the gates, dressing up as witches or taking two hours to walk 200 yards, women at Greenham have been able for years to mock at and disrupt the efficiency, security and routine of a key military installation of the most powerful country in the world.36
Separatist banning of men caused tensions with the general peace move- ment, and the ecological and spiritualist dimensions of Greenham philos- ophy made many in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament nervous, wor- rying about public reactions to the Peace Camp’s misbehavior. The spectacle of an unruly and unfeminine women’s collective, excluding men and often rejecting husbands, living roughly, celebrating lesbianism, and generally ignoring the rules, was an affront to “normal” society. But this transgression—the decision of so many women, grandmothers and school students, lesbians and straights, middle and working-class, professional and unemployed, to step unconscionably outside society—was precisely the point. Greenham women were unassimilable.
The second emblematic event,
against the government’s brutal reduction of the coal industry, was the longest and most violent industrial dispute in Britain since 1926. At its height,
187,000 miners had returned to work, and it ended without a settlement.37
For the charismatic NUM president, Arthur Scargill, the miners ex- pressed the unchanged centrality of the traditional working class for so- cialism, the classic labor movement in motion. Miners were class conscious- ness incarnate: heroic champions of the class struggle, defiant embodiments of working-class masculinity, overwhelming their opponents via their col- lective strength. The strike evoked equally classic images of working-class community in the mining villages’ homogeneous solidarities. It was a pro- test against deindustrialization itself, defending a whole way of life against vandalism. It made an extraordinarily powerful class-political statement.
As such, it condensed
government.”38 Conversely, Thatcher intended to break the NUM. The new head of the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor,
unions were being demonized. Early in the strike, Thatcher declared: “In the
But the strike lacked broader working-class enthusiasm. It came during union retreat, as the main unions shifted right, unemployment rose, and strikes became restricted under law. British Steel was savaged after a 1980 strike, under MacGregor’s previous assignment. In 1984, the “Triple Alli- ance” of coal, steel, and rail failed to cohere, as did the broader workers’ coalitions needed for mass picketing. Worst of all, the NUM itself was split:
20 percent of miners continued working, leading to the Union of Demo- cratic Mineworkers, formed in Nottinghamshire by a 72 percent ballot, with 30,000 members. During the strike, neither TUC nor Labour gave official support. More generally, the labor movement’s breadth was erod- ing. In 1979–83, Labour’s electoral strength among trade unionists shrank from 51 to 39 percent, while unions lost popularity with the public.40
However, the strike inspired big solidarity along urban
So the strike did produce a politics. “Mines Not Missiles” provided a common link to antinuclear campaigns. Ann Suddick, a clerical worker in the Durham Women’s Support Group, made connections between Blyth Power Station and the pit closures, thence to Greenham Common, and finally to the global context of nuclear fuels; she organized a conference in
1986 called “Make the Links—Break the Chain,” also involving anti- apartheid and
groups.43 The strike’s cultural
workshops.44 The Cambridge Support
Group’s weekly meetings drew 15–50 people, “intellectuals and white- collar strata
ularly feminism and the nuclear question.” It worked through concerts, socials, house
Afro-Caribbean Club, the Peace Group, and Ecology Party, and a
bership of 150–200.45 Multiculturalist support
TWO LEFTS: PARLIAMENT AND PEOPLE
The British miners’ strike dramatized the European Left’s dilemmas more powerfully than any other event. It evoked precisely those traditions of class-political militancy now under erasure. Languages of socialism had always presupposed the collective agency of industrial workers, backed by broader community solidarities, in the ways the miners now asserted. A more powerful example of traditional class consciousness could hardly be imagined, but now the latter’s relationship to socialist politics was becom- ing increasingly decoupled and disavowed.
Socialist parties had always mediated their accountability to the work- ing class, whether viewed as the labor movement, an aggregation of inter- ests, or a social abstraction. As a project of democracy, the Left’s agenda was also larger than any class-based vision of socialism. Once socialist parties started accepting government responsibility, and certainly when they became governing parties, presenting themselves in parliaments and elec- tions as voices of the nation, their relationship to the working class became displaced. Given the power of the changes since 1968–73—capitalist re- structuring, with deindustrialization and massive class recomposition—so- cialist politics and traditional images of the industrial proletariat became ever more disjointed. The main axis of progressive politics changed, dimin- ishing the centrality of labor movements and demanding that the Left’s basic appeals be rethought. During the 1980s, socialist and Communist parties began disengaging more explicitly from class politics. The British miners’ strike was only the most dramatic commentary on this process. German Social Democrats pointed the way. A younger cohort around General Secretary Peter Glotz and Saarland Premier Oskar Lafontaine pro-
duced the Berlin Program
eralized” EC and “social
But rhetorically listing these new issues wasn’t enough to recast the pol- itics. It was one thing for Glotz to extend the agenda via discussion doc- uments, reaching out to new social movements, translating Italian Com- munist texts, and even talking to feminists; it was another thing to change the SPD’s operative language. Its 1987 election campaign remained boring and gray, treating the Greens as troublemakers rather than allies. New issues might be noticed as slogans and sound bites—common security, in- ternational economic justice, gender equality at work, rational technology, qualitative growth, quality of life, new forms of democracy based in the liveliness of civil society. The SPD might eventually convert these slogans into a winning strategy. But the quality of political action was also at stake—the empowerment of participation, the promise of 1968. That was what really lay behind the civic upsurge of the 1980s.47
This was the difference: between an additive approach to new identities and interests, grafting them onto established policies and constituencies, in a revamped “people’s party” updating Godesberg for the 1990s and, on the other hand, imaginatively binding the latter into a new philosophy of the future, harnessing new social movements to the remaining socialist cul- tures and working-class solidarities of the old Left, in a new radical vision. The new social movements had a different kind of drive. They were not based in high-intensity membership parties like the socialist subcultures and solidarity communities of old. Parties in that traditional sense were in de- cline. Instead, the new activisms implied loose federations of the like- minded, through which autonomous citizens and local groups pooled their electoral hopes.
What did this splitting into party and movements mean? Left-wing par- ties’ ability to generate activist identification, binding their members to- gether with wider progressive networks, had gone. They became parlia- mentary operations. In the extraparliamentary world, on the other hand, vigorous social movements developed locally, unconnected to a national party, for in truth socialist parties were scared of extraparliamentary en- ergy. Broad social movements formed without the backing of socialist par- liamentarians—peace movements, abortion campaigns, West German anti- nuclear protests, Sicilian anti-Mafia campaigns, squatting in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and West Germany, support actions for British miners, and so on. A national politician like Benn was exceptional in endorsing that ac- tivity. Communists were more open to it, although only the PCI matched
socialist parties in weight, given the PCF’s Stalinist decline. The countless neighborhood and city-based agitations of these years overlapped with the local socialist parties but rarely agitated their national parliamentary sur- face.
The model of the nationally organized socialist party and its affiliated union federation, so effective from the later nineteenth century to the
1960s, was at an end. For the first time since the rise of labor movements, the main impulse for democratic enlargement came from elsewhere—not only outside the socialist parties but often against them too. But if new social movements were potential sources of renewal, how in practice would this occur?
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