In the bright autumn of my senescence

Christopher Hitchens

  • In the Heat of the Struggle: Twenty-Five Years of ‘Socialist Worker’ by Paul Foot
    Bookmarks, 288 pp, £12.50, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 94 2
  • Why You Should Join the Socialists by Paul Foot
    Bookmarks, 70 pp, £1.90, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 80 2

If there is one term that illustrates the rapidity with which historical truth can degenerate before one’s very eyes, that term is ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. According to those who employ this smooth and evasive construction, the lesson of the Vietnam War is that the United States suffered greatly from being ‘entangled’ in a ‘quagmire’ in Indo-China, and should henceforth be extremely prudent about overseas military commitments. Jimmy Carter put it very gruffly, when he said that both America and Vietnam had suffered equally. Henry Kissinger, in his memoir Years of Upheaval, phrased it even more prettily: ‘Hanoi and Washington had inflicted grievous wounds on each other; theirs were physical, ours psychological and thus perhaps harder to heal.’

This connects perfectly to the sickly fashion for therapy and esteem which it partially prefigures, and to the essentially Stalinist reading of history which allows that ‘mistakes were made’ but maintains that it was either everybody’s fault or nobody’s. I can only say, for myself, that I don’t remember Vietnam in this way at all. There were days when it was almost physically unbearable to look at the papers or to watch the news, and to be a spectator to the disgusting superpower aggression that was levelling ‘every work of man in Vietnam’ (General LeMay, speaking approvingly) as well as reducing its population by a million or two. The clear lineal descent of this policy from Japanese and French imperialism, the relentless campaign of lying and falsification by which it was justified, and the coercion and bullying of those brave Americans who resisted it, made the Vietnam War a rather urgent cause for those of us who were essentially politicised by it.

For people who had been enthused by the Labour victory in 1964, the prostitution of the British Government both to this crime of war and to these war crimes was a burden of responsibility. How to show that one was not represented by such a depraved Cabinet? Sometime in the spring of 1967, I trudged along to a protest meeting at Oxford Town Hall. The line-up was of the sort summarised by the phrase ‘stage army of the good’. A moon-faced vicar or two, talking about giving peace a chance. A self-satisfied Labour councillor wearing a CND badge. John Berger, the star guest, putting his usual spin on the dishonest line of the Communist Party. No doubt there was a resolution to send a telegram to Downing Street. There was also, I dare say for the sake of ‘unity’, a pro-Chinese speaker (for some reason I remember that his name was Henderson Brooks) who maintained that all this proved the rightness of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. That was too much for me, so I made a brief intervention from the floor. As the meeting broke up, I was approached by a small, scruffy and slightly misshapen chap, with some suggestion of ironic intelligence glinting behind his pebble glasses. He proposed a cleansing ale. I fell in with his plan. I had met the International Socialists.

My new chum was called Peter Sedgwick, and he didn’t really wear the aspect of the recruiter. Well-known for his edition of Victor Serge, he was soon to become better known for his clinical evisceration of the work of R.D. Laing, and for his hilariously mordant critique of Herbert Marcuse. (This is important, because a feature of the IS, as it called itself, was that it was inoculated against certain Sixties fads in advance.) Over the next several months we continued to meet and (while I was doing a ridiculous job of teaching in the West Country before ‘going up’ to Oxford) to correspond. By the time I was ready to attend my first freshers’ fair, I knew enough to join the Labour Club as a candidate member of The Group – an open conspiracy which scorned to conceal its aims, objects and analyses.

The essential precepts descended from Luxemburg rather than Lenin. They consisted of three or four central tenets. These were that, contrary to the babble of smart-asses like Crosland, Britain was still a class society in every sense of the term; a central fact that the Labour and Communist Parties played down for reasons of opportunism. That the capitalist system had only temporarily stabilised itself, and that the stabilisation was not by means of Keynesian welfarism but by reliance on a permanent war economy which proved the continuing irrationality of this mode of production. That the Soviet Union and its satellites were not the affirmation but the negation of socialism, resting on a system of ‘state capitalism’. That while the globe was ruled in this way, it was idle and romantic to expect anything of peasant and Third World revolutions.

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