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Doreen Massey’s Radical 1980s

A new collection of writings by geographer Doreen Massey features intense dispatches from the political battlegrounds of the 1980s, which remind us that even in eras of defeat, there are vital moments of hope.

Miners from the Maerdy Lodge in Gwent return to work following the miners' strike, 5 March 1985. (Steve Eason / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

There are three decades which have become compulsory analogies in British political discourse—the 1940s, which were our finest hour, the 1970s, which were terrible, and the 1980s, where Margaret Thatcher built a new non-society and Labour became ‘unelectable’. A good place to start understanding the actual 1980s, and what we can learn from the battles of that time, is the new anthology of Selected Political Writings by the great Mancunian geographer and socialist Doreen Massey, who died in 2016.

Massey remains relevant in a way that very few from her generation really are. It is rare to read a book of work mainly from the 1980s with so much resonance for our own situation. We too have a recently renewed but now powerless and defeated left, and there’s an increased interest in subjects—the north/south divide and the inequalities within them, space and place, Latin America, Liverpool FC—that were close to Massey’s heart. The essays in Selected Political Writings run from the early 1980s onwards, mostly written for Marxism Today, New Socialist, and later Soundings, with some co-written with Hilary Wainwright. The work of that generation of socialist intellectuals can often make uneasy reading today, both because of the irrelevance of some of their concerns, and because of the simple fact that many of the CPGB and New Left thinkers of the ’80s gradually became radical defenders of the status quo. Massey’s work is of and about its time, but its sophistication, sobriety, and intelligent optimism put it far beyond the political moment where reconstructed Marxists tried to find hope in Live Aid, Neil Kinnock, the Right to Buy, and ‘stakeholders’.

This is a book of political interventions, but they’re very much by a trained geographer. Place was always crucial, and Massey’s essays would frequently zero in on the details and complexities of the specific place she was writing about, whether it was her adoptive home of Kilburn, or Managua, Caracas, the Wye Valley, or Bolsover, refusing the clichés applied to each. All of the essays in this collection are worth reading—on informal settlements in Nicaragua, on the economics of the Greater London Council, on fan-ownership in Liverpool, on how attitudes to Latin America are a litmus test for western socialists, and a final essay on the first year of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership—but at the heart of it are a series of intense dispatches from the political and geographical battlegrounds of the 1980s.

It’s remarkable reading them today how forward-thinking these interventions were—Massey frequently saw beyond the epiphenomena that got a lot of people at the time either over-pessimistic or over-excited. So, as she writes in 1983 in ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ looking at the closed industries of the north-east and South Wales, ‘it is not decline that is going on; it is recomposition’—allegedly new phenomena such as the greater participation of women in the workforce were a reassertion of a pre-war pattern, and the age-old certainties of working class life were, she insisted, barely a few decades old. Similarly, as early as the mid-80s, Massey recognised the middle class return to the inner city that was then slowly taking place, at a time when many saw suburbanisation as the future.

In the 1988 essay ‘A New Class of Geography’, Massey registers alongside the collapse of heavy industry in the North and the Midlands the emergence of an English ‘sunbelt’ in the southeast and the new towns, created by motorway investment, along networks like the M4, aided by the proximity of the City of London, a too-often overlooked proximity to the spaces of the military, and the desire of those who have succeeded in the British economy to ‘literally distance themselves from dereliction, poverty and decline’. She pointed out the enormous cleavages this was producing, with the south-east vastly richer than the rest of the country. But this never led her to the currently fashionable vacuous bashing of the soft south, or the peculiar leftist versions of trickle-down economics that come with it—as she notes, these ‘sunbelt’ areas are actually the most unequal of anywhere in Britain, and the working class of Swindon or Southampton were the victims of this process as much as anyone else. Meanwhile certain rural towns of the north were growing their own affluent ‘Thatcherland’ in Morpeth or Harrogate, connected closely to the southeastern economy of high-tech, finance and property.

The new was important for Massey, and she could, like most of her generation, be brusque about the failings of social democratic institutions whose absence are keenly felt today. But the difference between her way of seeing the ’80s and the ‘New Times’ of other Marxism Today-aligned thinkers came especially in the places where she saw hope. One of the best essays here takes aim at Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Forward March of Labour Halted’, not so much for its pessimistic account of the old left, but for where Hobsbawm found his anti-Thatcher coalition—in some putative union of labourists and liberals at an electoral level, making peace with the ‘aspirations’ of an affluent working class. By contrast, Massey found her alliance in the really existing socialist activism of her moment—in the then still-new social movements, in the experiments in socialist democracy of the municipal left in the Greater London Council, in Sheffield, and in Liverpool, and in those unions that still maintained a taste for militancy. An alliance of these, she believed, could really transcend the limited (and then, failing) electoral politics and the deep conservatism of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and build alliances between the divided shards of this country.

For a time in the mid-1980s, she found that alliance, and it was in a battle which was written off by too many of her contemporaries as the sad last gasp of the old left—the Miners Strike of 1984-1985. The strike itself was important, for the NUM’s fearlessness at a time in which most unions kidded themselves into thinking they could accommodate a government explicitly committed to the total destruction of trade union power. But she saw just as much hope in the extent of support for the strike elsewhere. What Massey (and Wainwright) found most remarkable was that the greatest solidarity was not in the unions or the Parliamentary Labour Party, but in ‘marginalised and oppressed groups’, whether feminist groups in Liverpool, ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in Southampton, Cardiff, Manchester, York, Glasgow and Edinburgh’, or in the way that ‘Afro-Caribbean groups, Cypriot groups, the Asian community and Turkish people have contributed and organised support’, something that often emerged out of common experiences of police brutality. This solidarity was reciprocated, with miners delegations sent down to ‘the multi-racial Carnival in Brent.’ There were support networks for the miners even in the ‘sunbelt’ of Milton Keynes and Cambridge, or in Hastings, where one contributor to the NUM’s Christmas Appeal wrote ‘thank God at least one union has the guts to stand up to her’. Here, she insisted, in these real events, rather than imaginary coalitions or common programmes, was a glimpse of a new socialist politics, being built in real time.

Defeat is inescapable in all these writings, for all their optimism. There’s an essay from 1985 where she expresses a hope that all this solidarity would lead to permanent links—after 2019, we know very well they were temporary. Similarly, reading the 2016 essay on Corbynism, there’s a bitter taste knowing what happened next, though Massey knew the stakes were high. There, the alliance that she saw happening was in how Corbynism drew on two age groups—roughly those in their twenties and those in their sixties—which were usually seen as opposed. But in much the same way that the people organising solidarity for the miners in Milton Keynes or Hastings could not take their neighbours with them, so the Corbynites in their sixties proved to be strikingly atypical of their cohort.

What Massey was doing here was describing moments, glimpses, where solidarities and alliances were being constructed that could, if encouraged, nurtured and maintained, change society for good. But defeat always has a demoralising effect, and smashes up these brief, fragile coalitions. I met Massey once, in the mid-2010s. She was on a panel with my friend Dawn Foster: two profoundly original and intelligent socialists from different generations. Both are now dead. The politics they believed in is routinely dragged through the mud by the world’s smuggest people. But these moments will keep happening, and eventually, one of them will turn this country upside down.