Marches, strikes and occupations.Trade Union and Political Action In South Tyneside and South Shields in the 60s and 70's.
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The 20th century can be seen as a period of revolutionary change-in the arts, science, technology, politics and philosophy-and we can all choose our own revolutionary heroes: Picasso, Einstein, Darwin, Turing, Marx, Wittgenstein... The events of the 60s and 70s, in what eurocentrics call 'the west', differed from events in other places and other periods in that they arose mainly from grass-root action rather than from the influence of charismatic leaders and monolithic ideologies. Indeed, the activists of that period specifically rejected the cult of elitism and promoted the role of the many. It was the conventional political wisdom that 'leaders would arise from the action'. Some did; and the slogan for the time was 'power to the people'.

The actions were then largely pragmatic and issue driven and, while some comrades surveyed the scene with revolutionary zeal, the mass of the activists remained unimpressed by the then current conventional political perspectives.

Few of those involved in these events of the late 60s and early 70s would claim that their long-term objectives had been realised. Although some local campaigns can claim to have had a limited success-heating allowances for pensioners, social security benefits for students and strikers, etc.-their success was often transient and was overturned by subsequent government legislation. Even the miners' success was to prove ephemeral.

At a national and international level some more general progressive gains might be identified: women's, black, and gay equality; environmental concerns; civil rights; and a less deferential view of establishment values - what might now be described as early manifestations of social postmodernism.

However, from a longer perspective, subsequent political events would seem to deny any construction of really radical advance. Indeed, the period can be seen as a precursor to the Reagan/Thatcher era with the ascendance of the counterrevolutionary right; the emasculation of the trade unions; the curbing of local democracy; the supremacy of market forces. Certainly some with a revolutionary perspective see this as a revolution that failed. Others see this as a period of potential revolutionary change that lost its way - a revolution not so much failed as unfinished.

Herbert Marcuse was to identify this time and these events optimistically, and prematurely, as heralding the 'New Left'. He was wrong. The new left turned out to be the Clinton/Blair 'Third Way' - a far cry from whatever it was that motivated the 60s-70s activists.

The political failure of that period might be attributed partly to a failure to identify and articulate a coherent political strategy - much less a credible unifying political philosophy. The view that radically new values and social structures would arise naturally from the struggles proved to be grossly naive and wildly optimistic.

Nevertheless, viewed from the vantage point of the late 90s, the emphasis at that time on the tactics of grass-root direct action, outside of (and often against) the establishment's power structures, can be seen to have identified an important political dynamic. (An area of possible further interest to both the existentialist deconstructionist and the evolutionary sociologist-for whom the action is more important than the issues).

The effectiveness, and indeed the necessity, of such direct action has been demonstrated in recent times in such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the European communist states; the various civil rights movements in America and elsewhere; and, on a lesser level, the defeat of the Poll Tax in the UK.

Such events pose the classical questions of rebellion: at what point, and in what way, is action outside the established social structures (or indeed against the law) justified in a 'democratic' society which cannot (or will not) respond to perceived injustice; and how can this action be organised to give expression to popular will without allowing access to intolerance, or control by self appointed demagogues?

It might be seen that the 1969-1976 events in South Tyneside addressed these questions and attempted some innovative and creative answers. It could be chiefly in this context that these local events can be seen to have a wider relevance. In a small way, for a brief time, in an unlikely place, they were part of an ongoing social narrative.

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Also by Jack Grassby -- Revolution in the 21st Century / Postmodern Humanism

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