Mike Phipps reviews Definable Traces in the Atmosphere, by Mike Marqusee, published by OR Books
It’s over three years since the death of Mike Marqusee, for many years editor of Labour Briefing and author of several books about sport, politics, music, identity and a lot more. It’s truly welcome that OR Books have published this collection of short pieces originally written for various publications, now with thoughtful introductory pieces from Mark Steel and Liz Davies. The question is: do these bits of journalism have anything relevant to say to today’s thinkers and activists?
They undoubtedly do. There’s a considerable body here not just of fine writing, but deep thinking, impossible to convey fully in a short review, so a couple of examples must suffice. Ten years ago, Mike wrote for Red Pepper about the significance of 1968. Now, fifty years on from that historic year, its legacy is hotly disputed, with a hard right narrative laying the blame for a range of social ills on the movements and events that mark that year out. Much of the left’s response, unfortunately, has been in the form of self-serving memoirs from self-styled leaders of that era.
Mike’s article here reminds us that 1968 was a political turning point, the year more young Americans were drawn to the left than any time since the 1930s. The year saw an escalation in the unwinnable war in Vietnam and the radicalisation of the US Civil Rights Movement in the context of mounting inequality and the outrage following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Mike’s grasp of the pressures facing the anti-war movement in particular has the understanding of an active participant - as he indeed was.
But he also sees this political radicalism as part of a broader counter-culture that was challenging authority and social and sexual convention on a number of fronts. Latino Americans, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, formed their own militant organisations and the following year would see the genesis of the gay liberation movement and a big growth in industrial action by the American working class.
In many respects, these developments were matching those across Europe and beyond. They also shaped a generation. Mike wrote: “The frustrations and failures of the year left me with a distrust of revolution demagoguery and of unaccountable leaders manufactured by the media, and a wariness over the ease with which politics could be blunted by ‘lifestyle’ choices. I drew the lesson that spasms of activism were no substitute for building enduring and democratic institutions.”
He added: “But I also drew from 1968 the absolutely priceless lesson…that resistance comes in unexpected forms…in the right circumstances large masses of people can move quickly from apathy to radicalism.”
The second area I want to highlight is Mike’s commitment to the NHS, “a jewel in the crown of human civilisation.” As an American, Mike could not be unaware of the differences: the US spends two and a half times as much per capita on healthcare as Britain, but its citizens live less long and suffer more ill health. Child mortality is 38% higher in the US - the same rate as Malaysia, where per capita income is only one tenth of the US. This article was written as a warning against Tony Blair’s plan to “import this madness into Britain”, with NHS hospitals competing against private corporations for services - a process immeasurably advanced since Mike railed against it twelve years ago.
Mike had nothing but praise for the staff - drawn from all over the world - who contributed to his treatment for cancer at Barts hospital, although he was equally aware that he was a ‘winner’ in a postcode lottery for treatment, amid budget limits and overpriced drugs. In a final, unpublished article, Mike goes further: “Whenever I’m treated at an NHS facility, I’m touched by the ethos of care and cooperation; in escaping momentarily from the cash nexus, I experience a little taste of utopia.”
These writings give the reader too a taste of the breadth and depth of Mike’s thinking. They also convey a thirst for knowledge and a fighting spirit that is still sorely missed.