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The Great Refusal


The Great Refusal - Class War

With a penchant for a finely designed poster and a passion for protest, strikes, boycotts, blockades and other forms of sticking it to “The Man”, The Great Refusal exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank was always likely to be right up my street. And it didn’t disappoint. The two-room, free exhibition showcased a colourful range of posters, photographs and ephemera employed by various protest groups from 1948 to 1984.

The Great Refusal - Victory to the Miners

The exhibition took its name from a quote by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse who described the repressive nature of capitalist society in his book One Dimensional Man. He reflects on how consumerism gives the false impression that by working long hours and earning more money we can all buy happiness. Feeling a bit low? In need of a pick-me-up? Why not indulge in a spot of retail therapy?

The Great Refusal - Fuck Housework

As a result, protest is increasingly driven to the margins of a bland, homogenised society. After all, what have we got to moan about? We’ve never had it so good. Marcuse, though, expresses his admiration for counter cultural groups who reject the establishment view that this is “the way things are” and set out to prove that there is a different way of organising society.

The Great Refusal - Anti-Fascist

There are some wonderful posters from the Parisian protests of 1968, the miners’ strike, the feminist movement and groups advocating “class war”. There are several “make love not war” posters from the peace movement and the very real threat of a nuclear war is a recurrent theme.

The Great Refusal - Don't Eat Grapes

A particular favourite is the “Don’t Eat Grapes” poster from International Grape Boycott Day on 10th May 1969. It refers to the Delrano farmworkers strike led by Cesar Chavez in California which began in 1965 and lasted for several years. The workers walked out on strike against Delrano area grape growers following years of poor pay and working conditions. Chavez realised that for the strike to be successful the workers must secure wider support and so the United Farm Workers union appealed for a boycott of Delrano area grapes, the first time ever in a major labour dispute that such a tactic had been employed.

The boycott was a huge success securing mass support for the strike right across the country and connecting middle class grape eating, wine drinking Americans with some of the poorest of the poor. By 1970 the strike had accomplished its aims and the grape growers had signed contracts with unions that granted better pay, benefits and working conditions. On a cold, slate grey January afternoon this story warmed the cockles. Proof, if proof were needed, that strikes can be successful and a lesson for modern times when any form of protest is too often met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from an apathetic public.

The Great Refusal - Stop The Bombing

Leafing through some of the accompanying literature and audio-visual displays at the end of the exhibition, I reflected on how FC United of Manchester embody the spirit of Marcuse’s Great Refusal in our refusal to accept that the anodyne, commercial, “sit down and shut up” face of modern top flight football is the way that things have to be. It isn’t. There is a different way of running football clubs that puts supporters and community first. Maybe in fifty or so years’ time a similar exhibition might acknowledge FC United’s own “great refusal” and include a poster like this from last year’s “fussball und subkultur” trip to Babelsberg, a staunchly anti-fascist, left wing German football club.


And maybe, when we were busy chanting the name of Marcuse* on the Stretford End in the late 1980s we were already sowing the seeds of this footballing great refusal.



* For those not familiar with the Manchester United songbook of the late 1980s; a reference to the cries of “Mark Hughes, Mark Hughes…” with which supporters serenaded United’s big haired, tree-trunk thighed centre forward of the time.


From → Culture, London

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