Spectacle, spaces and political change: reflections then and now

Over 14 days in March and April, academics and professional staff at over 60 universities across the UK went on strike in defence of a decent pension holding teach-outs on a multitude of subjects, on the streets, in parks, student unions, and other off-campus venues. Renewal ​is posting some of these on our blog, to showcase what academics have been teaching outside the university. In this talk, Alex Campsie reflects on the the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, 50 years on from 1968. 


This teach-out was hastily organized between myself and someone in the student occupation of Old Schools, the University of Cambridge’s main administrative buildings. The time (‘come in half an hour’) and the broad topic were agreed as myself and colleagues marched in solidarity with students urging the university to divest from fossil fuels. It was strange struggling to think of what to say whilst strolling through an unusually sunny Cambridge city centre as lunchtime shoppers looked on at the smoke bombs, spray-painted banners, whistles and pots and pans wielded by the marchers. One of the people I interviewed for my PhD on the New Left in Britain claimed that as an undergraduate here in 1968 the city had been ‘ablaze with revolution’. I’d always been highly sceptical of that particular remark (to say the least) but the past month has certainly felt different.

We’ve seen remarkble gestures of solidarity from our students who’ve come to picket, brought food and drinks, and tried to convince their peers to join too. And in visual terms, as well as the smoke bombs et al., we’ve seen a giant picket fence erected outside Senate House, colourful posters depicting the VC Stephen Toope on a giant throne grasping a wad of money (starkly captioned STEPHEN TOOPE EARNS £1000 A DAY), chalked slogans marking pickets, and of course the occupation of Old Schools, an unmissable reminder that management’s monopoly on the institutions of power is fragile. The imaginative pickets – as well as lucid analysis on social media – have also successively shown how much of a crisis of governance exists in the higher education sector, and indeed in society at large.

So I thought I’d talk about another moment in British recent history where the politics of the spectacular, the reclamation of space, and a general sense of disruption came to the fore: what one historian has called the ‘euphoric anti-authoritarian thrust of 1966-1972’.1 I don’t have any ready-made answers to the particular significance of this period or what we can learn from it, but I wanted to open up a discussion about the relationship between disruptive protests, politics, and social change more broadly by skimming over some movements I’ve looked at in this period.

1968 itself is remembered as a spectacle of pure liberation – we will once more see all the familiar images in popular commemorations come the 50th anniversary this May. But it 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 other for collective, reciprocal force. Lawrence Black has argued the late 1960s saw a broader shift towards a ‘post-material’ politics, 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 And 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

But such techniques were not always successful; hundreds of police dispersed the marchers with brutal force. And 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 cadet’s 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 a ‘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 organization. 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, over the subsequent years groups like Big Flame, for example, 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 colonization of space had practical and symbolic merit, demonstrating that economics’ did not ‘control men’, but that rather ‘men can and must control economics’.

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 to 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 organizing movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s too 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) that would have seen the wholesale destruction of formerly solidly working-class neighbourhoods. Community groups staged mass open meetings at which 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 the organizing 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 colonized 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 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 ‘Ruben’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 photojournalism would pierce through the mysticism of capitalist society, and 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 patronized by their treatment in the avant-garde press, 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 this rigidity.  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 decentralization 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’ when setting up a WLM office and research centre. 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 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 energized 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, more broadly, 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.

Today we have new fragments to energise us, which is especially exciting after decades of moribund thinking on the left – and, unlike then, we have a Labour Party more responsive to their causes. But can we unite them? And should we even try to? I don’t really have any concrete answers here (sorry), but I do have some thoughts. I think having a good structural critique can be a useful way of uniting potentially disparate interests. Students here have advanced the charge that Cambridge is run like a ‘Corporation’ – operating in the interests of finance, and ignoring racial and sexual inequality and oppression in the university, the well-being of its staff and students, and the negative impact its investments have on the environment and society at large. Likewise it’s clear (as the 2017 General Election seemed to prove) that 8 years of austerity, precarity and a sense of the future being eroded have increasingly drawn together a broad range of social and generational groupings. Perhaps their struggles need not necessarily be fused together; rather the links between them can be expressed by a compelling – and attractively presented – argument about contemporary capitalism.

Moreover, spectacles and spaces – symbolic and literal disruptions – are useful not just for pointing out what’s wrong with the world, but can also serve as platforms for sharing experiences and stories that bring us together, without losing a sense of distinctiveness. Occupations such as this, but also picket lines, and wherever discussions continue after this dispute is over, are intensely productive places out of which to think about how we as workers in the late-twentieth-century university should think and act. This dispute has been interesting because there’s no obvious collective identity for university staff versus more ‘traditional’ forms of work out of which the trade unions emerged, so it’s important to think about how we talk amongst ourselves and build resources for future struggles.

In this strike, there’s been a lot of pitting the enlightened power of knowledge against the apparent faceless bureaucracy of the neo-liberal academy – often expressed through witty (or twee, depending on where you stand…) academic-related signs on pickets. This is useful for thinking about the collective stories we tell ourselves about academic labour. But how do we decouple these messages from the unsustainable patterns of work and generally individualized practices that fuel such self-images away from the picket line? We also need to hold onto the importance of our labour, whilst also thinking of ways of challenging the existing gender, racial and class hierarchies that are often embedded in the everyday functioning of our workplace. Finally, how do we link the question of precarity – which has been so prominent in discussions about the strike – to build solidarity with cleaners, administrative, IT and support staff without whom the university would really grind to a halt – and whose own struggles against pension cuts were largely overlooked in 2013?

Asking these questions, I think, would help us not only to radically re-imagine the university as a workplace, but also to ask broader political questions about Britain in 2018, a society – like its universities – marked by stark inequality, division, precariousness and anxiety. We’ve been given the space to disrupt the status quo and ask such big and exciting questions – and I thank you all for helping to create it! – and now there’s lots to think about and act on.

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

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, p.249.

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, p.207.

4. Editorial, ‘The Marxism of Régis Debray’, New Left Review, 45, September-October 1967, p.9.

5. M. Shaw, ‘LSE: Lockout and After’, International Socialism, 36, April-May 1969, p.10.

6. Ibid., p.10.

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, pp.14-33.

10. P. Hain, Neighbourhood Participation, London, 1980, p.123.

11. J. Moran, ‘Early Cultures of Gentrification in London, 1955-1980’, Journal of Urban History, 2007, p.107.

12. P. Wollen, ‘Surrealism’, Seven Days, 11, 12.1.72, p.20.

13. ‘Militant Gays Come Out’, Seven Days, 2, 3.11.71, p.46.

14. G. Stedman Jones, ‘Down With Nature’, Seven Days, 13, 26.1.72.

15. D. Fernbach, ‘The Sexual Revolution’, Seven Days, 4, 17.11.71, p.17.

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]’, SA 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.