Radical History is in the Streets

Following the footsteps of folk who made history in our cities, we can learn how to carry on their work, writes Katherine MacKinnon.

There are few better ways of getting to know a city than walking through its streets and learning about the histories of activism and struggles that changed the lives of its inhabitants. Walking tours can be powerful tools for informal radical education, even more so if you are playing the tourist in your own city for a couple of hours. It makes you look at the place differently, makes you consider the changing face of the city over the years. Since May Day last year I have been researching and running radical history walking tours around Glasgow, and this summer under the banner of Radical Glasgow Tours with Henry Bell and David Lees I hope to make these a regular fixture in the city.

Radical histories – of women’s lives, of the working class, of immigrant lives – are so often lazily labelled as hidden. There are undeniable archival silences and gaps, where often a lack of documentation reflects the risks involved in recording that activism, like LGBT histories of the early 20th century, or the histories of those subject to immigration control. But even in these situations material can be found: in oral histories recorded after the fact, in anonymous or collective writing, in fiction or film or songs. There is no shortage of material. People have constantly been documenting and archiving different aspects of Glasgow’s radical history, from Glasgow Women’s Library’s history walks to the Spirit of Revolt Archive and the extensive collections at the Mitchell Library. Any claims to this stuff being hidden should be treated with a degree of scepticism. The material is out there, but you do have to look for it.

Leading radical walks through Glasgow’s streets is a very fast way of demonstrating this, by illustrating how little commemoration these histories receive. Stand on the site of almost any notable moment in the long history of the city as a site of political radicalism and agitation, and there is nothing. The few memorials that we have – the cairn overlooking a dilapidated row of shops, the hard-fought statue – simply remind us of the vast majority of radical history that goes unacknowledged in the built environment. This is compounded by the scale of redevelopment in Glasgow over the 20th century, the demolition of buildings and communities in waves and waves which means that often neither the original building nor the one that replaced it is the one you look at today. Our city streets bear the names of plantations, slave traders, landlords, gentry. Our statues are of monarchs and rich men. Walking along these streets and speaking of their evil deeds, and celebrating those who fought against them, can be a powerful thing.

In Revolutionary Berlin, Nathaniel Flakin discusses the city’s changing street names over the 20th century, from Prussian kings to Nazi figures to leftists or back to Wilhelm and Friedrich again, depending which side of the city you were on. When the prospect of changing street names glorifying Germany’s colonial past is criticised by conservative commentators as too complicated, too much of a hassle, Flakin observes that “it is actually very easy to change street names – they just need to be named after communists.” Glasgow’s celebrated street name change of St George’s Place to Nelson Mandela Place had its roots not in who the street previously commemorated but in what it housed. Home to the South African Consulate, the street’s name was changed to honour Mandela, and the Consulate quietly changed its postal address. I did a stop in Nelson Mandela Place in a recent tour. Of course I included the story about the Consulate, which is well-told and for good reason. But the street outside the former Consulate can also tell the story of the picket which happened there every Friday. There is a recording of activist Isabella Porte talking to Neil Rafeek about the hours she spent standing outside the building week in week out, in the driving rain. At the end of the clip she says, “People ask ye, will it dae ony good? And I say, everything you do makes a difference.” This is what I want to communicate as much as any of the big-name histories. We should hear about the power and impact of the Speech from the Dock or La Pasionaria’s radio broadcasts. But we should also hear about the people who never became famous for their activism, but simply by being present on the streets – organising, demonstrating, intervening – changed the history of the city.

Tours are a two-way process. They are a way of sharing and celebrating radical histories with a wider audience, and they are also a way of learning more about what those sites and events mean to people. This is particularly strong given that many of the events we speak about, from the rent strikes to the Spanish Civil War to later housing struggles to anti-racism campaigns, are still connected to the living traditions of the city. There are Glaswegians alive today whose grandparents went on strike in 1919 for a 40 hour working week, just as there are many Glaswegians who might come on a radical history walking tour who themselves have been part of campaigns and organising in the city for decades. As important as communicating some of the city’s rich radical history is incorporating its rich radical present-day into the ongoing work of these tours.

No two tours are ever the same because of the potential for these contributions from people on the walk, not to mention the ever-moving background of the city that loves to throw an unexpected interruption at you. On our most recent tour which followed in the footsteps of John Maclean around Govanhill and Pollokshaws, the cacophony of national emergency alert tests from 30 people’s phones drowned out a particularly good piece of information from that tour (the 1907 Education Act ruled that in Scotland if enough of the local population petitioned for an evening class it should be provided at the local school, leading to Maclean being hired by the council to teach night classes on Marxist economics, almost certainly the first state-funded classes in Marxism anywhere in the world). We are a part of the environment, in constant movement and in constant interaction with the life of the city. A tour at its best should give people a feeling of connection to the others whose lives move around us, in space and through time.

The tours also do not just look to the past. I am not interested in presenting history as something that is closed off to us. Rather I want people to feel themselves as inheritors of these struggles of the past. The power of these tours lies in holding up the struggles and actions of ordinary people alongside those who stand on podiums or write books or make headlines. We need to hear those people’s stories and we also need the stories of standing in the rain on the picket. Remember: everything you do makes a difference.

Katherine Mackinnon is a writer and researcher interested in histories of migration and everyday life in Scotland.