April 30th this year marked the 40th anniversary of the massive Rock Against Racism rally and concert in London, at which some hundred thousand people marched into Victoria Park to the sound of punk and reggae bands, including X-Ray Spex, fronted by Afro-British Poly Styrene. The context in which this mass movement arose in the late 1970s UK is uncannily familiar. Police were stopping people of color on the streets under the pretext of the notorious SUS (“suspicious persons”) law. Voices once consigned to the margins of the far-right were thrust into public discourse as the Prime Minister lamented being “swamped” by immigrants. Such was the environment in which punk burst into the global spotlight in the second half of the 1970s.
Punk appealed to many people seeking a socio-cultural space radically different from the emerging authoritarian, nationalist, neo-traditionalist trends of the late 1970s and 1980s in the UK, the US, and in the authoritarian–and increasingly, nationalist and neo-traditionalist–states of communist Eastern Europe. Underground punk scenes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR were complemented by spectacularly visible scenes in Hungary and in Poland, where an explosive combination of martial law and a burgeoning market economy fueled a punk rock tempest. The Third World was also intertwined with the development of punk, prompting reggae superstar Bob Marley to sing of an international “Punky Reggae Party” in 1978. Punk had become a global socio-cultural revolution. Today, as countries around the world once again flirt with authoritarian, neo-traditionalist nationalism, it is worth reflecting on how punks responded to similar trends 40 years ago.
Some punks organized, creating new coalitions and embracing activism. As in the UK, US punks from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco set aside animosities and joined forces with the previous generation of radicals, including socialists and Yippies, in Rock Against Racism (and later, Rock Against Reagan). Tim Yohannan and others around the San Francisco ‘zine Maximum Rocknroll connected scenes around the world into a global progressive punk network. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, punks formed alliances with art impresarios, student club directors, sympathetic journalists, jazz unions, and with visiting punk and reggae musicians from the UK and Jamaica, crying out together against their respective versions of the corrupt, oppressive civilization of “Babylon”.
A more typical choice among punks than outright activism was simply embracing alternative culture, carving out ever-expanding zones of fun, freedom, camaraderie, and egalitarianism in their boring, oppressive, atomized, and hierarchical societies.
Yet, maintaining punk coalitions and activism was precarious, particularly when it brushed up against organized politics. Even punks who loved Rock Against Racism were seldom enthusiastic about its sponsor, the Socialist Workers’ Party (or Labour, for that matter), and Yohannan’s efforts to mobilize punks evoked as much criticism as acclaim. The skepticism was often mutual: in Poland, perhaps the world’s best example yet of mass activism leading to political change, the Solidarity labor union invited–then promptly disinvited–punk band Brygada Kryzys to its “Forbidden Songs” festival in 1981. Punks’ efforts to engage with the most pressing issues of their time are inspiring, but also sobering reminders of the difficulty of channeling passion into political transformation.
A more typical choice among punks than outright activism was simply embracing alternative culture, carving out ever-expanding zones of fun, freedom, camaraderie, and egalitarianism in their boring, oppressive, atomized, and hierarchical societies. DIY culture was sometimes a necessity given the difficulty of penetrating the mass culture industry in the capitalist or communist world–but it soon became an ethos for punks, from Ian MacKaye’s independent Dischord record label in Washington, DC to Eastern Europe, where lucky owners of tape recorders could record local punk bands over classical music tapes. Punks also colonized parts of the mass media in the West and the East, including in communist Poland, where listeners to state media could tune in to Republika singing to catchy synth beats about being a cog in an Orwellian machine, watch Lady Pank playfully describing martial law Warsaw as a jungle ruled by wild animals, or listen to Dezerter furiously mocking authority in “Ask a Policeman” (“He will tell you the truth”).
Punk’s history suggests the challenges and possibilities of alternative cultural movements in the world today. Cross-cultural coalitions are as important now as ever, particularly with the current global crisis, fueled by tension between disenfranchised global diaspora communities and disenfranchised rural white communities. Creating alternative cultural spaces–safe spaces, sanctuaries, and micro-cultures–that are welcoming and inclusive is another worthwhile endeavor, particularly since these can become part of a new reality, much as punk has. Ian MacKaye recently suggested that “punk won,” since punks created an enduring space for their alternative culture, becoming so deeply ingrained in society and culture that punk’s innovations are taken for granted. We might ask ourselves, what new cultural developments are emerging today that might win a lasting place in our world? With our work, today’s alternative culture may become the future’s reality.