Revolutionary Art and Politics in the late 1970s (part 1)

Looked at differently, Hull RAR posters reveal different things about the late 1970s, early ’80s: about the music scene in Hull, for example, or about screen-printing techniques, or about agitprop art and radical politics. Looking at the latter, in the context of my own experiences as a student on the revolutionary left from about 1976, there are clear contradictions between the Paris 68 images I used for many of the posters and a new community-focused politics that many of us were choosing to take. But let me just re-wind a little…

 

Like many Universities and Polytechnics during that time, Hull Uni was alive with political activity, and I was involved in a number of protests and occupations often targeted at the University’s shameful investments in apartheid South Africa. Around the students union building, at union meetings and at open lectures with speakers like Tony Cliff, E P Thompson and Terry Eagleton, there was a dynamic culture of political debate across a wide range of political viewpoints, from the tories and liberals, to the broad left and the Communist Party, to the International Socialists (who became the SWP),the International Marxist Group, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and many more (including a Spartacist and a Chartist!). The occupations of the University Admin buildings and lecture theatres galvanised hundred of students into political activity because they believed that their own actions could bring meaningful change. So, forty years on, in a very different world, the question arises- what the hell was going on? Why did so many young adults in education believe that political debate mattered, that they could have any influence on the political issues of the day, or that they might even dare to challenge the vested interests of the deeply conservative authorities who ran things – universities, corporations, governments – for their own selfish benefit? Well, let’s start by blaming the French and re-wind a bit more…

 

So, to be brutally brief, the student uprising in Paris in May 1968, intertwined with  the massive upsurge of trade union activity and a tidal wave of strikes, virtually paralysed France, bringing it to the brink of revolutionary transformation. Though, in the end the union bosses settled for wage rises (eaten up in a matter of months by inflation) and stultifying normality was restored, just for a moment, a very brief moment, it seemed that students might play a key role in bringing about major social change. And this idea, this belief inspired a generation of left-wing activists who saw colleges and universities as ‘red bases’ with the potential to create the vital spark for revolution. 

 

Though this kind of idealism had been tempered by the time I arrived in Hull, the level of political activity I got mixed up in testified to its continuing influence, so much so that, when asked to design a poster for a Rock Against Racism gig, the imagery I turned to first

came from Atelier Populaire, the Paris based student silkscreen Workshop who, in the heat of the ideological and physical battle in May 68, produced the most compelling, unforgettable, direct, simple, complex, powerful posters of class struggle. 

 

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