Back to the future
By the early eighties Thompson had become the world's most-cited living historian. His massive The Making of the English Working Class had changed the course of the discipline by inspiring young scholars to think about the past 'from the bottom up', rather than in terms of the cunning of diplomats and statesmen. Despite his success, Thompson had in 1980 given up historical research to campaign against the deployment of both American and Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe. He had soon became one of the best-known spokesmen for the wider peace movement.
While Thompson spent much of the eighties travelling from one meeting hall and protest site to another, making speeches and scribbling press releases, the octogenarian CLR James lived quietly in a shabby flat in Brixton, the south London suburb known for its large black population and riots. James' great works, like his epic history of the Haitian revolution and his politically engaged study of West Indian cricket, had never achieved the mainstream renown of The Making of the English Class.
Thompson is less sanguine than James about the state of the global left, but he believes that the peace movement which is building in both Western and Eastern Europe may be able to usher in a new era in history, by humbling both the Stalinist dictators of the Soviet Union and the Reagan government and uniting European peoples in some sort of egalitarian confederation.
Both James and Thompson seem to see the Reagan and Thatcher governments, with their aggressive brand of free market capitalism and antipathy to organised labour, as historical aberrations, rather than as harbingers of the future.
For members of my generation, the eighties bring to mind a set of curiously contradictory images. The decade of our childhood and early teenage years was the era of yuppies, synthesiser-rock bands with extravagantly bad hair, and febrile sharemarkets, but it was also marked by mass unemployment, epic industrial disputes like Britain's miners' strike, and fear of nuclear war.
The eighties began with America and its allies recoiling from military defeat in Indochina and anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World, and wondering how to deal with an economic crisis which had lasted for the whole of the seventies, and had prompted wave after wave of industrial unrest. Respected commentators prophesised the collapse of Western capitalism and the ever-increasing power of the Soviet Union and its allies.
Through the nineties and much of the noughties, the triumph of Thatcher, Reagan and their many imitators seemed like an historical turning point. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the exhaustion of the Soviet Union and the popularity of Western capitalism had brought humanity to the 'end of history', and prophesised that America would be the model for all future societies, many formerly radical intellectuals nodded their heads with varying degress of sadness. Organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank set about applying the 'lessons' of the eighties to continents like South America and Africa, forcing government after government to privatise assets, eliminate subsidies, and submit to the erratic logic of the free market.
When Britain's Tories were finally voted out of office in 1997 they were replaced by the 'reformed' Labour Party of Tony Blair, a man who openly admitted his admiration for Thatcher. As Britain and much of the rest of the West enjoyed a period of strong economic growth in the late nineties and early noughties, it seemed that the changes of the eighties had created the basis for a new boom. The decade had become the first page of a new and glorious chapter in the history of Western capitalism.
In the early years of the eighties, especially, Thatcher and Reagan and the policies they promoted seemed destined for the dustbin of history. As Brixton burned and unemployment rose relentlessly, Thatcher fell far behind the Labour Party in the opinion polls. Labour itself was moving leftwards, as it adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and sent Trotskyists to parliament. It was the Falklands War, and not the success of Thatcherism, which turned the tide and gave the Tories their impressive victory in the general election of 1983. Reagan also struggled for much of his first term, as Americans came home in bodybags from Lebanon and unemployment crept upwards.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the beginning of what has become known as the Great Recession, the eighties of riots, strikes, and paranoia have made a comeback in popular consciousness. As Britain's dole stretch and riots return to London, newspaper columnists are warning about a return to bad old days. The economic growth of the early twentieth century seems to have owed more to dodgy accounting and debt than to a successful reinvention of capitalism by Thatcherites. Fukyama's sanguinity seems absurd.
And it is worth wondering whether the long run has completely discredited Thompson and James' speculations. Thatcherism may have triumphed in Britian in the late eighties, as the miners were defeated and the north was deindustrialised, but the hegemony of free market capitalism seems increasingly uncertain a quarter century on. America may have thwarted the revolutionaries of the Third World in the eighties and nineties, but it has seen the International Monetary Fund defied by a series of radical South American governments in recent years. The Iranian revolution may have been betrayed by a grotesque theocracy, but in nations like Egypt and Tunisia the Arab Spring now promises a new era. Watching Thompson and James, we can return to a moment which seems both remote and curiously contemporary.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]