Activism and History

Activism and History – By Tom Dowling

At first sight there may be something vaguely demoralising about a project approaching Sheffield’s justifiably proud record of social and political activism since the 1960s as a subject of history. Nowadays words like ‘history’ and ‘tradition’, are too often employed to suggest a sense of distance and foreclosure, or, worse still, irrelevance. Correspondingly, to identify someone (or something) as a subject of history is also to consign them to a peculiar kind of secondary status, as if whatever value or perspective they may have once had to offer can no longer be usefully assimilated within the, no doubt, infinitely more complex and sophisticated terms of our contemporary public discourse. In this way vast tracts of past human experience, both contradictory and consoling, can be effectively denuded of its potency. Confronted, as we perpetually are, by the often disquieting or humbling experiential record of our forebears, many of us instinctively find ourselves reaching for those talismanic and reassuring words ‘a different time’, through which virtually every challenge or threat to our most cherished contemporary beliefs and assumptions may be safely neutered or contained. Are we to assume, therefore, that this is the position we have now chosen to adopt with regard to the various campaigns and causes of the last five decades, and to which the stories collected here provide a unique kind of testimony?


When it comes to recording the history of social and political activism in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century the notoriously condescending tendencies of posterity must be considered as particularly pronounced. The period from 1960 to 2000 remains one of the most contested and divisive epochs in modern British history; nevertheless, a familiar strategy of those who would seek to deny or evade some of the enduring complexities of the past (or indeed who would now seek to claim a premature victory for their side) is to insist that virtually all of the political and social campaigns and causes of that period have now either been settled, or else, transcended, by the rather more urgent and distinctive demands of our contemporary globalised world. In the face of these, it is suggested, the past – even the very recent past – clearly has very little to offer us.


Despite certain enduring stereotypes of the ageing barricade bore forever intent on reliving the campaigns and causes of yesteryear activists are not generally distinguished by their readiness to recount or document their past experiences; the questionable aims of posterity, outlined above, they perhaps have more reason to doubt than most. Moreover, activism, by its very definition, seems to compel a focus on the nowness of particular sociopolitical iniquities or injustices – a focus that is all too likely to be diluted by turning one’s gaze towards the supposed ‘glories’ of the past, or anticipated consolations of the future.


With that said, however, it might also be claimed that activists have always had much to gain from keeping a certain sense of history – processive, if not quite, progressive – in view. Activists, after all, often require some standard or ideal against which they can oppose (or expose), the comparative deficit in the contemporary social and political landscape. In most cases, this assumes the guise either of a fall from former grace, or a vision of a better world to come; and it is no surprise that where we have come from has invariably proven a more accurate guide to human possibility and potentiality than the, by now, equally expansive catalogue of variously utopian and apocalyptic speculation about where it is we might ultimately be going.


Arguably, however, the relationship between history and activism goes considerably further than this; indeed, abstract them from the specifities of their respective contemporary or historical sociopolitical focuses, and it soon becomes clear that historians and activists often engage in projects with markedly similar aims and objectives: thus both are concerned with raising awareness of and giving credence to things which others, whether through insouciance or expediency, would perhaps prefer to be overlooked; as part of this commitment both seek to problematise and undermine the too-complacent assumptions of the established or orthodox view, as well as the spurious self-justifications of those who would seek to perpetuate it. Arguably, what much of this mutual effort boils downs to is a fundamental insistence on the right to recognition; an essential adjunct of which is the right to tell one’s story, and, perhaps more importantly, to have that story heard, which is not quite the same thing. Whilst historians aim to redress the various lacunas, denials and evasions in the stories we tell about the past, the activist hopes to expose the parallel deficiencies in our too-settled image of the present.


For this reason it is occasionally suggested that activists are somehow outside, even opposed to, what is routinely invoked as the British ‘way of life’ and its associated ‘democratic process’. As it is, most of the activists recorded here have, at one time or another, had to endure being characterised as ‘anti-social’, ‘troublemakers’, ‘fifth columns’, if not considerably worse. Behind virtually all activism, however, rests a principle that, arguably, goes to the very core of social-democratic aspiration itself: namely, that human beings can awaken things in each other; that we are not (or at least not only) closed-off, self-interested, isolated individuals, but that we also have other capacities and potentialities: for empathy, for compassion, for understanding and for solidarity. Correspondingly, anybody who had lost faith in these principles could not remain an activist for long. To this extent, we perhaps all owe a debt to those men and women who have, for whatever reason, ‘dared to have a purpose’, and ‘dared to make it known’; whilst we may not always agree with the particular cause or perspective they seek to advance, in doing so, they serve to reaffirm the right of all us to be heard and respected; far from being democracy’s enemies, activists perhaps constitute its true guardians.


With that said, it will be noted that very few of the stories recorded here yield to any reassuring national cultural script or historical narrative: they jar, they provoke; and, not least, they suggest a considerable degree of ongoing anger and outrage on the part of those who share them. Perhaps another way to think about this is to consider that these stories remain unfinished. As such, they should not be approached as artefacts in a museum, or as something to preserve under so much academic aspic; rather they are something for us to engage with now, to argue with now, and perhaps even to find ourselves inspired by, now.


There is a sense that over the last few decades we have become increasingly estranged from our native radical heritage and activist traditions in Britain. The symptoms of this estrangement, like its causes, must be considered as myriad. In way of a conclusion, however, one local example may suffice. Recently, the former headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, having lain unoccupied in Sheffield city centre for the best part of thirty years, was granted planning permission to be turned into a restaurant and casino. Until the current owners opted to dismantle the concrete steps leading towards the revolving glass doorway entrance, it was possible for curious types to peer in to the building’s front reception and foyer: there, amidst the accumulated dust and debris of nearly three decades, could still be seen one or two fading posters and flyers detailing the latest attempts of the NUM to offset the onslaught of Thatcherism during the 1980s, and, through a crack in a blind, the pint glasses and beer mats of the former Union Bar. Few of us now could wish to see a return of the pernicious social and political divisiveness of those years. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of a better metaphor for the profound cultural sea-change that has taken place in this country over the last three to four decades, than to consider that soon all this is to be cleared away in order to make room for slot-machines and roulette wheels, upon which rather different conceptions of human ‘progress’ and self-emancipation find their expression.


Assailed as some of may feel by historical ‘ironies’ of this sort it should perhaps not surprise us to find an inherently melancholic, if not bitter, thread running through a number of the stories and testimonies collected here, containing as they do so many latent reflections on what may have since come to seem like the misconceived strategies or misunderstood potentialities of the recent past. Ultimately, however, the only thing that could possibly make them tragic would be our failure to recognise them as unfinished. As you read or listen to them, therefore, try to regard them less as echoes or artefacts from a squandered or by-gone moment, nor less still as epitaphs to the misplaced idealism, or hubris, of our forbears; than as auguries of our own time and our own ongoing struggle to build a better, more decent, and more humane world. Seen in this way, they may begin to appear less like epitaphs than they do exhortations, chiefly, that we keep the story alive; or, at the very least, that we strive to hold those perpetually complacent and dishonest words, THE END, at bay a while longer.