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
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.