As the year draws to a close, HWO editors reflect on 10 moments in which radical history was made in 2018.
In 2016, Rebecca Solnit wrote about the radical potential of hope:
“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It is also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both…
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others… It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
22 February – The UK University Pensions Strike
On 22 February, the longest strike in UK higher education began. Lasting 14 days and spanning 64 universities, industrial action led by the University and College Union (UCU) was triggered by proposed cuts to pensions. As the immense strength of support from students and precarious academics without a pension revealed, however, the dispute also became a rallying cry for a rising tide of discontent about the marketisation of higher education – which has resulted in higher fees and debt for students and worse conditions and pay for staff, while vice-chancellors and pension fund managers are paid increasingly astronomic salaries.
On the picket lines and in student occupations, new solidarities were forged and many reflected on the strike as a fulcrum of political education and an invective to collective action. As Mark Pendleton observed in HWO’s ‘Picket Line Perspectives’ series, the ‘conversation around what and who makes up the university is beginning to shift’. With valuations and negotiations as yet ongoing, this conversation continues to bubble under the surface and the conviction that a different university is possible may propel future action.
- Elly Robson
Read further reflections on the strike from historians, students, and university staff
12 March – The Long Kisan (farmer) March, India
On 12 March 2018, a sea of red flags descended upon India’s financial capital Mumbai. Farmers holding the flags were protesting the low prices for crops, rising debts and farmer suicides that are gripping the countryside. This was followed by tens of thousands of farmers who marched to the Indian capital city of New Delhi in December to protest the failure of the government to resolve the prolonged agrarian crisis that India faces.
Historically, in the colonial and early postcolonial era, cultivators, landholders and forest dwellers constantly rebelled against unjust laws and poor conditions that the state imposed. In recent memory, however, there have been few protests and instead Indian farmers have been committing suicide, mainly due to accumulated debt. The tide might just have turned in 2018.
- Aditya Ramesh
25 May – Abortion rights in Ireland: Repeal of the 8th Amendment
On 25 May, Ireland voted to repeal the 8th Amendment of the constitution, liberalising abortion laws that have restricted women’s right to choose for decades. Women and men flew home to exercise voting rights, campaigns like Speaking of IMELDA used spectacular direct action (including knicker-bombing) to raise awareness, and important and painful conversations took place in homes, pubs and streets across Ireland. This victory was the culmination of a long and tenacious struggle by abortion rights activists in Ireland and beyond, who have campaigned to change laws and have provided practical solidarity to those travelling to seek a legal and safe abortion in the UK. It highlighted the potential for deep-rooted attitudes to shift and revealed the uneven timescales of activism and opportunities for change.
- Elly Robson
Read campaigner Ann Rossiter’s reflections for HWO on the eve of the referendum
12 June – The opioid crisis: holding the Sacklers accountable
In an unprecedented action to combat the opioid crisis, the state of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the makers of OxyContin. It named not just the manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, but sixteen of the corporation’s current or former executives, charging them with knowingly misleading doctors and patients about the drug’s risks. The lawsuit specifically targeted several members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma whose multibillion dollar fortune (which has funded museums and academic institutions in the US and the UK) has accumulated in large part from the drug’s sales.
“Their strategy was simple”, said the state attorney general Maura Healey. “The more drugs they sold, the more money they made, and the more people died”. Since June, the move to hold the Sacklers personally responsible has grown exponentially in the US, with lawsuits filed in more than 1200 cities, counties, and municipalities and with a mounting campaign (led by artist Nan Goldin, who nearly died of OxyContin addiction) to persuade museums, galleries, and universities to refuse the Sacklers’ donations and to shame the family into putting their money into drug rehabilitation.
It will be an uphill battle, to say the least: as Johan Matthews explored for HWO, the intertwined relationship between business and drug traffickers has a long and tenacious history.
- Marybeth Hamilton
Read Johan Matthews on philanthropists and drugs:
5 July – 70th Birthday of the NHS
On 5 July, the UK’s National Health Service celebrated its 70th anniversary. The Welsh Labour Party politician Aneurin Bevan spearheaded the campaign to found a health service free at the point of service for all users. In his 1952 book of essays, In Place of Fear, Bevan argued that “Preventive medicine, which is merely another way of saying health by collective action, builds up a system of social habits that constitute an indispensable part of what we mean by civilization.” Bevan knew that private charities could not meet the necessary costs of creating and sustaining such a health service; it must be the work of the state.
Today the NHS is one of the world’s largest employers, with more than 1.5 million staff, and serves more than one million patients every thirty-six hours. As Angus Seaton argues, the NHS has changed a great deal since its foundation in 1948, but current themes of “crisis” in the discourse surrounding the service have parallels in public debate from the moment of its foundation. Anne Summers suggests that we might return to Britain’s medical history to better understand the challenges facing the NHS today, including stealth privatisation. Bevan may have believed that a national health service could ensure that “the claims of the individual shall subordinate themselves to social codes that have the collective well-being for their aim, irrespective of the extent to which this frustrates individual greed”. But with profitability the priority of many companies now running the NHS, it is unclear how long it will survive as a force for the collective good.
- Rachel Moss
Read Anne Summers on private healthcare provision:
12 July – Ash Sarkar: ‘I’m literally a communist’
An ITV breakfast television show hosted by Piers Morgan is probably the last place you would expect to kickstart a debate on the merits of Marxism, but in July this is exactly what happened. When Ash Sarkar was invited on the show to explain why she was joining protests against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK, only to be subjected to a tedious and belligerent line of questioning from Morgan – why did she oppose Trump on deportations when similar policies were pursued by ‘your hero Obama’ – she grew impatient. In a clip that went viral, Sarkar told Morgan she was a critic of Obama, ‘because I’m literally a communist!’ At a time when discussions of radical politics are notably absent from mainstream media, even as they are gaining a larger constituency in the country, Sarkar – and in a strange way Morgan and ITV – arguably did more to put communism on the agenda than many who have spent years trying.
- Steffan Blayney
Read Seamus Flaherty’s reflections on the historical meanings of the term ‘communism’:
28 September – #MeToo: “Don’t look away from me”
The most electrifying moment of the protests surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court happened in an elevator, when Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, both survivors of sexual assault, confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake as he headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favour of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter”, Gallagher insisted as the women blocked the door. “Don’t look away from me”. While it may not have blocked Kavanaugh’s appointment, this riveting moment galvanised untold numbers of sexual assault survivors and, in the year of #MeToo, became a landmark in their struggle to be seen and heard.
- Marybeth Hamilton
13 October – London is Anti-Fascist
One of the effects of the resurgence of far-right politics internationally – in the United States, Latin America and Europe – has been to embolden reactionary, racist and outright fascist elements in the UK. With far-right street marches in 2017 attracting numbers not seen since the 1930s, and former head of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson awarded significant media exposure by Sky News and the BBC (as well as a new job with UKIP), we risk sleepwalking into a situation where fascist politics become normalised. A response from the left is more vital than ever, and it has been heartening and inspiring to see the mobilisation of anti-fascist, anti-racist and feminist protests against the far right this year. In October, a coalition of groups led by London Anti-Fascists and Feminist Anti-Fascists brought together 1,500 people in London to successfully block a march by the far-right so-called Democratic Football Lads Alliance.
- Steffan Blayney
22 October – ‘I don’t want to be the UK’s only black female history professor’: Olivette Otele
That it has taken centuries for the UK to appoint its first female black professor is anything but radical. However, it’s been a sobering year for the higher education establishment in the UK, as it reflects, takes stock and comes to terms with race as a category that structures it. Otele’s appointment was followed by the Royal Historical Society publishing its Race, Ethnicity and Equality report. The report revealed that history is one of the least diverse disciplines in the country. The conclusions are not startling to many, but will hopefully serve as space for opening discussion on the meaning of diversity, equality and (eventually perhaps) decolonization. Professor Otele’s appointment is only a starting point, as her own words indicate – but nevertheless a start in what is a very long road.
- Aditya Ramesh
Read Jonathan Saha’s reflections on the reception of the RHS report:
10 December – Resisting Borders: The Stansted 15
On 10 December, fifteen activists were found guilty under terror-related legislation for preventing a charter flight from deporting dozens of people to Ghana and Nigeria in March 2018. Secretive charter flights are used for forced and unaccountable deportations of people who face life-threatening danger at home and often have appeals pending in their immigration cases. They are part of the UK’s hostile environment, which has seen borders extended into homes, hospitals and schools. This may seem like a strange instance of radical hope to conclude with. When they are sentenced in February, the activists face sentences of up to life in prison. Yet their actions – which resulted in eleven people remaining in the UK, including trafficking victims and a new father – are part of a huge wave of action in solidarity with migrants and refugees seeking safety on our shores. Ordinary people everywhere – in ways big and small – are acting to resist repressive border controls.
- Elly Robson
Read more about migration struggles in the UK and the history of migration and mobility: