By Struan Gray
On 11-12 June 2020 an international group of academics participated in an online workshop, organised by the University of Brighton’s Radical Sixties research project. The workshop built on the success of the 2019 conference – Radical Sixties: Aesthetics, Politics and Histories of Solidarity– providing a space to further interrogate key themes and concepts that had emerged, while developing papers that will form part of an edited collection.
Capturing the spirit of the broader project, the event explored histories of struggle and solidarity that are consistently omitted from Western-centric accounts of the radical politics in the 1960s. This included work on the anticolonial struggles of Cabo Verde and Guinea, protests in Pakistan, anti-apartheid cultural campaigns, Islamic activism, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, and revolutionary art in Cuba. Crucially, each paper highlighted the transnational networks of solidarity in which local and regional struggles were embedded.
Experimenting with an innovative online format, all the presenters were asked to share their paper with the group beforehand, and each paper was assigned a respondent. Though the virtual platform was a new experience for most of those present, the video conferencing functioned well throughout, and the limited number of participants helped foster an informal, collegiate atmosphere.
The event was supported by Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE), the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories (CMNH), and the Centre for Design History (CDH), reflecting the interdisciplinary ethos of the event. The participants came from history, critical theory, anthropology, politics and visual and cultural studies, opening up productive discussions about the parallels between different geographical contexts, while prompting critical discussions about the conceptual lenses through which these histories are interpreted.
Notably, there was a discussion throughout about the different revolutionary subjects around which discourses of solidarity were, and continue to be, constructed: the leftist intellectual, for example, student protesters, the guerrilla fighter and guerrilla artist. This also included reflection on those subjects who are excluded from dominant accounts of the Sixties, or are rendered mute through representation. Matthew Myers (University of Oxford) considered the figure of the migrant factory worker in France, while Talat Ahmed (University of Edinburgh) drew attention to the revolutionary tactics of Pakistani peasants.
Another recurring discussion interrogated the tensions, possibilities, and power dynamics contained within the concept of solidarity. Aurora Almada e Santos (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), for example, asked to what extent solidarity can be interpreted as a form of leadership, or control, focussing specifically on humanitarian aid in Angola. Meanwhile Patricia McManus (University of Brighton), Mary Ikoniadou (University of Central Lancashire) and Paula Lopez (Université Grenoble-Alpes) discussed what might constitute an aesthetics of solidarity, while reflecting more broadly on the role of art and culture within revolutionary struggles.
The workshop ended with virtual drinks and reflection on the contemporary significance of the topics that were covered. From the recent mass anti-capitalist protests in Lebanon and Chile, to the Black Lives Matter movement, which reached a peak in early June 2020 the symmetries and continuities between the 1960s and the present moment are plain to see. These struggles demand sustained critical discussion around tactics of dissent, and the politics of solidarity; topics about which the anticolonial, antiracist and civil rights movements of the 1960s still have much to teach us.
As part of the on-going Radical Sixties project, the workshop organisers Zeina Maasri, Francesca Burke and Cathy Bergin are developing an edited collection based on papers from the event, with some other select contributors. Together with a wider group of colleagues, they plan to maintain and expand the Radical Sixties project as a transnational, interdisciplinary network of scholars and activists, committed to exploring the enduring and intensifying relevance of the 1960s for emancipatory politics in the present.