The revolution has stalled but hope springs eternal

October 19, 2001

As The THES turns 30, Simon Jenkins and Tariq Ali review three turbulent decades within and without academia.

Thirty years ago an entire generation refused to accept the permanent insignificance of the poor or the attempts to drown its rebellions in blood. Victories were few, but hope sprang eternal and hope, unlike fear, can never be a passive emotion. It demands movement. It requires people who are active. We were. A few of us - we happy few - still are.

There were many inspirations in those years. The Vietnamese victories against the United States; the Czechoslovak resistance to Soviet occupation; the creativity of French and Italian workers; the soldiers of the Portuguese army who joined students and workers to topple a 50-year-old dictatorship; the three-month uprising in Pakistan that did the same; the epic martyrdom of Che Guevara. And, yes, in Britain a newly radicalised generation enjoyed sex and the Stones, as well as stoning the US embassy while stoned. O history. O happiness. As editor of The Black Dwarf , a journal of its time, I remember a man in overalls who would visit our offices in Soho, take out a wad of money and peel off £500, a fortune in those days, which enabled us to pay the print bills and a few meagre salaries. He had a stall on the Portobello Road. One day I asked why he gave us so much money. The response was straight-faced: "Capitalism's so non-groovy."

The results of this upheaval were felt everywhere, not least in the education system, which had to make serious adjustments under pressure. Likewise men as the women's movement erupted challenging the tried-and-tested traditions of patriarchy. Then came the Gay Liberation Front, a result of the global ferment and the brave decision by a Labour home secretary to end the prosecution of homosexuals. It seems strange now to remember that we had a reforming Labour government. It didn't go too far. Tony Crosland toyed with the idea of abolishing public schools, an institutional obstruction to a democratic education system, but old Labour backed away.

There was a lot of craziness as well, but no reason to mock the past. The American poet, Thomas McGrath, wrote well on this theme in his "Letter to an Imaginary Friend":

Wild talk, and easy enough to laugh.

That's not the point and never was the point.

What was real was the generosity, expectant hope,

The open and true desire to create the good.

Now, in another autumn, in our new dispensation

Of an ancient, man-chilling dark, the frost drops over

My garden's starry wreckage.

Over my hope.

Over

The generous dead of my years.

Now, in the chill streets

I hear the hunting and the long thunder of money.

"Now" began to take shape in the 1980s. In 1981, two lone assassins, crazy as only the United States can make them, went in search of celebrity targets in New York and Washington. One of them scored a tragic hit. John Lennon was shot dead outside his Manhattan apartment. Ronald Reagan survived.

The day Lennon died, his song Imagine was played on radio stations and in shopping malls throughout the western world. In Moscow, four years before Mikhail Gorbachev became the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, young people assembled on the Lenin Hills and sang Back in the USSR .

Gradually, a new Anglo-American consensus emerged. This was neo-liberalism, a fundamentalist vision of global-capitalist supremacy, determined to let nothing obstruct the flow of profits. This new turn was symbolised by two western politicians - Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The new economic regime they promoted had a tough political agenda. This was defined by the dismantling of welfare rights, the disabling of trade unions via legislation and repression, the deployment of military force abroad and the redistribution of income from the poorest to the most prosperous layers in society: 20.2 million households, earning less than $10,000, lost an average of $400 each in benefit cuts, while 1.4 million wealthy families, earning an average of $80,000-plus, received an average of $8,400 in tax-cuts.

Then came Gorbachev, but it was too late.

In 100 Poems Without a Country , German-language poet Erich Fried wrote: Imagine Socialism / freed of everything / that upsets you / Ask yourself / Who then would be really upset / He and no other is / and remains / your real enemy .

Gorbachev's enemies were many. He was mistrusted by an intelligentsia that had suffered too many disappointments in the past and was by now completely hooked on the economics of Milton Friedman and the politics of Margaret Thatcher. He failed.

Today, former radicals occupy positions of power in every European Union government, but these are men and women without conscience. They believe in nothing but power and money. A new generation is rising, disillusioned with traditional politics. Since September 11, I have been watching their eager faces at gatherings around the world. They ask questions. They do not believe the political leaders. They search for truth in a world subjugated by lies. Even in bad times hope renews itself. O history. O happiness.

Tariq Ali is a novelist and playwright. His latest novel, The Stone Woman , is published by Verso this month.

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