1989 The year of the crowd

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley introduces a special issue on the year that saw the Berlin Wall co

In July 1989 I graduated from university, and then, shortly afterwards, during that unusually warm and settled summer, set off to travel across Europe by train. The plan was to head east; something was stirring behind the Iron Curtain and I wanted to find out more about what was going on. On one journey I got as far as the Czechoslovakian border, only to be hauled off a train for not having a visa or any other official right of entry. I was kept in detention for a couple of hours in an austere and desolate room – as austere and desolate as the nation states the communists had created – before being bundled back on a train and returned to Vienna.

That year – the year of the crowd, as we call it in this special issue – there was a profound sense, for the first time in my lifetime, that the Cold War was coming to an end; that communist totalitarianism was collapsing. Also obvious was the imminent demise of entire political eras, with Europe’s ageing dictators being toppled from within: Honecker, Zhivkov, Ceausescu and, eventually, Jaruzelski.

Worldwide, it was the year of the restless crowd. There were the rebellious crowds massing in the great cities of central and eastern Europe, their collective and heroic agitation for change precipitating the breach in November of the Berlin Wall. There were the crowds of courageous students, workers’ groups and democracy campaigners in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, their aspirations so murderously suppressed by state dictatorship. (Here, the Chinese Communist Party responded with extreme violence; on 4 June tanks smashed into the square and many thousands of people died.) There were the crowds of frenzied mourners at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral in Tehran. There were the smaller crowds of marchers and book burners in Bradford, Yorkshire, inflamed by Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, their outrage a portent of a new kind of conflict between political Islam and liberal western imperialism (or

Jihad v McWorld, as it would later be caricatured). There was, too, the crowd at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, where, on a warm spring day in April, 96 people were crushed to death on the terraces as they gathered for an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Towards the end of 1989 the American policy thinker and teleological historian Francis Fukuyama published his celebrated essay in which he declared that we in the west had reached the end of history, and were entering a period of rest as we worked together towards the universal goal of progress and world peace. For Fukuyama, history (by which he meant history as a battle between rival, world-transforming ideologies, not the innumerable small details and events of the everyday) had ended because the universal movement towards the realisation of human potential had found its ultimate expression in liberal democracy and

free-market capitalism as the only legitimate models for government. The essay was an exercise in wishful utopianism, but it was also characteristic of the more general mood of western triumphalism.

And yet nothing was certain; this feeling of being in suspension, of not knowing what would happen next, of living at the end of one world-historic era while waiting for another to begin – this sense, more personally, of having graduated and now to be on the cusp of adulthood at just this moment of quickening change: the feeling was heady. It felt as if the world was indeed in motion, not quite spinning out of control but in new and strange ways; a world turning, breaking apart and re-forming, a world in flux. l

Jason Cowley’s memoir about the end of the Eighties, “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football”, is published next month by Simon & Schuster (£14.99)

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times