I was just beginning to write about 1968 when I learned of the death in New Orleans of Ron Ridenhour, the GI who exposed the massacre at My Lai. He was only 52, which means that he was in his early twenties when, as a helicopter gunner in area, he learned of the murder of nearly 660 Vietnamese civilians. This was not some panicky ‘collateral damage’ fire-fight: the men of Charlie Company took a long time to dishonour and dismember the women, round up and despatch the children and make the rest of the villagers lie down in ditches while they walked up and down shooting them. Not one of the allegedly ‘searing’ films about the war – not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket or Platoon – has dared to show anything remotely like the truth of this and many other similar episodes, more evocative of Poland or the Ukraine in 1941. And the thing of it was, as Ron pointed out, that it was ‘an act of policy, not an individual aberration. Above My Lai that day were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of the brigade, division and task force.’
A few weeks ago, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the state finally got round to recognising the only physical hero of the story, a decent guy named Hugh Thompson who saw what was going on, landed his helicopter between Lieutenant Calley’s killing-squads and the remnant of the inhabitants, called for back-up and drew his sidearm. His citation had taken thirty years to come through. It was intended as part of the famous ‘healing process’ which never seems quite to achieve ‘closure’.
Ron wasn’t interested in any stupid healing process. He wanted justice to be done, and it never was. A single especially befouled culprit, the above-mentioned Calley, was eventually court-martialled and served a brief period of house-arrest before being exonerated by Nixon. The superiors, both immediate and remote, got clean away. A canny young military lawyer near the scene, Colin Powell by name, founded a lifelong reputation for promise and initiative by arranging to have the papers mixed up at the office of the Judge-Advocate General.
I once asked Ron Ridenhour what had led him to risk everything by compiling his own report on the extermination at My Lai and sending it to Congress. He told me that, poor white boy as he was (he left school at 14 and was drafted without protest), he had been in basic training when, in the hut one night, a group of good ol’ boys had decided to have some fun with the only black soldier in the detail. The scheme was to castrate him. Nobody was more astonished than Ron to hear his own voice coming across the darkened bunks. ‘“If you want to get to him, you’ve got to come through me.” I’d’ve been dead if I hadn’t been white and poor like them, but they gave up.’ Later, when his troopship called in at Hawaii en route for Saigon, he went ashore and bought a book about Vietnam by the late Bernard Fall. ‘Shit, this is what I’m getting into.’
A revolutionary moment requires both extraordinary times and extraordinary people, and Ron Ridenhour, despite his laconic attitude, was one of the latter. He wouldn’t have denied, however, that there was ‘something in the air’ in those days. It was getting to the point where you couldn’t shove black people around so easily, or invade any country that took your fancy. There were people who wouldn’t take it, and even people in the press and in the academy who were prepared to make an issue of that. (Though this can be overestimated: it took more than a year for the My Lai story to get into print – in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) Nonetheless, the climacteric that was 1968 had been building for some time. What fused it into critical mass, and provided its most indelible slogans and imagery, was undoubtedly the correspondence between the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, both of them American and both of them therefore, in a time when ‘global village’ was a new cliché, universal in scope and appeal and reach.
Something has to be done to rescue that time from the obfuscations that have descended over it and to fend off the sneers and jeers that now attach so easily. Some people, of course, take a kind of pleasure in repudiating their own past. Some, whether they wish to or not, live long enough to become negations or caricatures. Or indeed partial confirmations: I am thinking of Lionel Jospin, now chief minister of France and in those days a member of an unusually dogmatic trotskiant group; a groupuscule, indeed, and perhaps an excellent school for the inflexible later canons of neo-liberalism. Robert Lowell once said that he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age. I see the point: the fact remains that in midlife and in 1968 he acted eloquently and well, as a citizen of the republic of Emerson and Whitman should when the state is intoxicated with injustice and war. ‘Retrospectives’ which emphasise flowers, beads, dope and simplistic anarchism tend to leave him out, as they also omit the Ron Ridenhours.
I didn’t really lift a finger to stop the colonial bloodbath in Vietnam which was, let it never be forgotten, prosecuted by liberal Democrats and robotically supported by an Old Labour Government. I did give some blood for the Vietcong, at a Blackfriars monastery which had been swept into enthusiasm by the mood of the time. (‘Brother, your blood group is a rare AB. Do you think you might possibly make it two pints?’ ‘No.’) I invited Eduardo Mondlane, the soon-to-be assassinated leader of the rebels in Mozambique, to my rooms, and helped organise a public meeting where he hailed the Vietnamese revolution for presaging the defeat of Salazarism in both Africa and Portugal, which indeed it did. I undertook a little work in helping American draft resisters in Oxford, thereby earning my first but not last file held by creepy people nobody had voted for. I went out with the brush and the poster-paint. And I took part in a good-sized punch-up outside the American Embassy in London, thus disproving (as a pamphlet of the time pointed out) Lady Bracknell’s piercing words in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.’
The My Lai massacre had taken place the day before: we weren’t to know that but it did seem very important to us that, half a world away, the Vietnamese might get to hear about this riot and somehow, I don’t know, take heart. Mike Rosen, who was arrested and roughed up along with one or two other people who might be embarrassed if I printed their names today, wrote a rather fine agitprop poem making this simple point. It was a beautiful spring day and as one looked up from the big, heaving, horse-battered, clod-throwing tussle around the Roosevelt memorial one could see the reflection of binoculars and spyglasses as various members of the ruling class, foregathered on the roofs of North Audley Street, strove to catch the mood of the nation’s supposedly insurgent youth. The editor of the Daily Telegraph the next morning published some sort of ‘I was there’ piece in which he got all the slogans wrong, perhaps from listening through an ear-trumpet. One of the fun things that year was to monitor the hopeless efforts of a rattled establishment to ‘keep up’. At Oxford the authorities had a solemn discussion about covering the medieval cobbles with tarmac, lest there be a nuit des barricades, and in the PPE examination papers an anxious and ‘with-it’ question asked for elucidation of the sage ‘Herbert Maracuse’. That was good for a chuckle. But it wasn’t all doddering and quavering: Home Secretary Callaghan, that red-faced beadle, knew his stern duty. All the Fleet Street rags, the day after Grosvenor Square, printed a leering pic of a girl demonstrator in the grip of several stout bobbies, her skirt round her waist while one especially beefy constable administered a spanking. (For all I know, this is one of the many triggers that may have set Paul Johnson off.)
Tariq Ali was the moving spirit of that rally and this book – which includes the spanking picture – brings it all back with exquisite vividness. It’s hard to recall what a hate-figure he was in those days. I had a friend, a moustachioed Parsee Marxist named Jairus Banaji, who was forever getting picked up and smacked around by the forces of law and order just for the sake of appearances, as you might say. But then, 1968 was also the year when, also to the gloat and awe and wonder of the Tory press, London dockers marched to Westminster in support of Enoch Powell. Seeing the Kenyan High Commissioner entering the precincts of Parliament, they bellowed ‘Go back to Jamaica’ and were much admired in the suburbs for their John Bull spirit. The Communist Party, which was strong on the docks in those times and had the famous Jack Dash as its hate-figure, took the day off and later tried to organise a conciliatory East End meeting addressed by the concerned priesthood. But this is to get ahead of the story somewhat.
Like most such ‘years’, 1968 began a few months early. Premonitory rumbles, in my memory, include the American-inspired military coup in Greece on 21 April 1967, which seemed to challenge the endlessly reiterated notion of reliable ideological ‘convergence’ between Western European political forces (and also allowed us a second look at the ‘defensive posture’ of Nato). One would have to add the hunting down, by CIA men and the agents of a brutal dictatorship, of Che Guevara in Bolivia in October 1967, in which the local Communist Party also played a complaisant part. And, in quite another key, I recall the death at about that time of Isaac Deutscher, who had done so much in the early years of the teach-in movement to remind the young that ‘the end of ideology’ was itself an ideological construct, and that there still existed factors such as class and power. (When he spoke at the main event in Berkeley, the Communists tried to keep his appearance until last and then cut off the microphone.)
There’s a kaleidoscopic feel to the pages of the Ali-Watkins volume. Turn the pages in a hurry and you go from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the strikes in Poland to the murder of Dr King and the ghetto insurrection, getting no time to take breath for les évènements in France and the shooting of Robert Kennedy. Then comes the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the drama in the streets at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the butchery at the Mexico Olympics and the brave (now seemingly almost quixotic) We Shall Overcome moments of the first citizens’ movement in Ulster. Some of these produced imperishable vignettes: microcosmic glimpses that were better recollected in tranquillity. I remember Terry Barrett, a Tilbury docker, giving a brilliant rasping reply to the racists from a May Day platform, and the workers at the Berliet plant outside Paris rearranging the letters of their company logo to read Liberté, and Mayor Daley being lip-read by the cameras as he shouted across the Convention floor at the composed, dignified figure of Senator Abraham Ribicoff: ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch. Fuck you. Go home.’ I also remember Dr Frantisek Kriegel, the only member of the Czechoslovak leadership who refused to sign the humiliating post-invasion document. He was a veteran of the International Brigades, the Chinese revolution and the wartime resistance, and is often left out of the record (including, though not for this reason, of the Ali-Watkins book) because he put the signers to shame and also because he was attempting to save the honour of socialism.
Not entirely with hindsight, one can now identify the significance of 1968 as being perhaps the critical year in that Death of Communism that is now such a commonplace. Some of my best friends in those days, as well as some of my worst enemies, were members of the Communist Party. It was very striking to be able to observe, in both cases, to what a huge extent a year of crisis and opportunity exposed them to awkwardness, put them on the defensive, found them stammering and unprepared. Their international fraternity of parties had become so contorted and congested by past lies and compromises and reversals that they yearned mainly for a quiet life. Thus: the spring developments in Prague could not be accepted in their entirety even by the reform supporters, because they contained a frontal challenge to ‘the leading role of the Party’. But the prospect of a Warsaw Pact fraternal intervention would compromise at one stroke the careful edifice of peace campaigns and ‘broad fronts’ through which the Party had ingratiatingly tried, with some success, to keep in with the Labour Left and the trade-union apparat. I used to read the Morning Star (which had changed its name from the Daily Worker to become, as one comrade put it, a version of the Daily Employee) attentively. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign was denounced, because the Soviet Union ostensibly put its faith in the good offices of U Thant. Enoch Powell was to be challenged by a bureaucratic fiat: prosecution under the incitement clause of the Race Relations Act. The Jew-baiting of the Polish authorities in the ‘anti-Zionist’ purge in Warsaw in March 1968 was to be discussed only in a whisper. Most revealing of all, the stony and mediocre nomenklatura of the French Communist Party (those ‘crapules Staliniennes’, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit invigoratingly termed them) exerted their entire negative weight in order to abort the anti-Gaullist upheaval in France. We know now what we knew then: the Soviet Union had given the PCF a direct instruction to become ‘the party of order’. In a recent edition of the Paris magazine L’Événement du Jeudi, one can read the testimony of Yuri Dobrynin, former fixer at the Soviet Embassy in Paris, who recalls in round terms: ‘La ligne dictée par Moscou était précise: pas toucher à de Gaulle.’ Thus, when the General returned in mid-rebellion from a fraternal visit to Ceausescu’s Romania, and disappeared to Germany to consult with his military caste and agreed to release the Algerian war-criminals, Raoul Salan and Jacques Soustelle as part of the deal, he had a porte-parole from the Kremlin in his pocket. The Fifth Republic with its cynical and fluctuating anti-Americanism didn’t have long to run in fact, but George Marchais and Jacques Duclos and the others weren’t to know that, any more than they did when they became the ‘party of order’ once more and supported the ‘normalisation’ of Czechoslovakia a few months later. Somewhere between those two moments, the remaining breath fled the body of monolithic Communism, which continued to decompose steadily in ways that some soixante-huitards found relatively easy to follow. (I was to have arguments with truly believing Communists only once more, among certain American pro-Sandinistas in the late Eighties, but by then it was like dealing with the squeaks emitted long ago from a dead planet. The real laugh came when dealing with the neo-conservatives who needed the illusion of an unsleeping and keenly ideological foe.)
Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn’s book The Beginning of the End, which I read when it first came out, is more interesting now than it was then. It’s rather sporting of the current Nairn to allow it to be reprinted. At the time, it seemed to those of us in the old International Socialists – who dismissed it scornfully as ‘a long poem’ – to be the sentimentalisation of a romantic moment; an almost hedonistic celebration of youth culture and spontaneity. (At the expense, naturally, of the sterner and more demanding task of educating and equipping the working classes to see through the illusions of Stalinism and social democracy, which I must say I still jolly well wish they had done.) There is an interesting change in the text, however. I am certain, without checking, that the original paperback had on its title page one of those mini-feuilletons which Robert Escarpit used to contribute, box-sized, on the front page of Le Monde. On this exciting occasion, slightly borrowing from the imagery of the old spectre and the old mole, he had imagined the think-tank and dividend-drawing classes discussing the new and virulent infection; inquiring above all whether it might spread.
The book would obviously be more stale and depressing if this spirited but ephemeral contemporaneous thought had been left in. As it is, one winces to scan the Nairn-Quattrocchi ‘Afterword’, the last two paragraphs of which read:
Paradoxically, real inevitability has emerged only after the material century of its triumph, in the final product of its machines: the new society alive within it, invisible yesterday, visible everywhere today, the young negation of its nature.
The anarchism of 1871 looked backwards to a pre-capitalist past, doomed to defeat; the anarchism of 1968 looks forward to the future society almost within our grasp, certain of success.
Well no, actually, I don’t think so. Although it is true that a certain esprit de soixante-huit survived the year of its birth, and had its final – and not least honourable – moments during the May days in Lisbon after the fall of fascism in 1974, there is no red thread of Ariadne, to paraphrase Clara Zetkin on Rosa Luxemburg, to be followed between the Sorbonne commune and the digital and cybernetic age. We are left to contemplate mainly the ironies of history – Deutscher’s preferred trope – and the subtle, ironic, even surreptitious influences of language. Jill Neville’s rough little diamond of a novel is a case in point. (It’s as bitter to think of her early death as it is of Ron Ridenhour’s.) As the mistress of the above Angelo Quattrocchi in the Latin Quarter in 1968, this tough and beautiful and brave woman was well-placed to record the festival of the oppressed, with all its accompaniment of erotic and imaginative charge. She was also in a good/bad position to observe the way that male militants treated the girls’ auxiliary, and thus to prefigure the imminent revival of feminism, which essentially began that year for those reasons. By an amazing chance, she chose the metaphor of sexually-transmitted disease as the bonding element in a narrative of interpenetration. Her book reads more strongly now than that of her ex-lover, precisely because it subliminally knows that there may be a price to be paid for hedonism and narcissism. Jill did not for an instant echo those sadistic authorities of the restored moral order, who said (and say) that Aids was God’s verdict. But she knew that there was more to politics, and to love, than doing your own thing.
So, in a very different way, did W.H. Auden who, a few days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, wrote a short poem entitled ‘August 1968’:
The Ogre does what ogres can
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
The term ‘Velvet Revolution’, used to describe the humbling of secular power in Prague in 1989, may sound as vague and feel-good as the mantra of any ‘human be-in’ from the Bay Area rag-tags of the Summer of Love. But it conceals, within its irritating geniality and inclusiveness, the signal and salient fact that satirists and poets and subversive wordsmiths had simply, bloodlessly worn down the monster of what Ernst Fischer called Panzercommunismus. Auden was more audaciously prescient than he’d realised. The dank, gruesome regime of the langue de bois, of peace-loving forces and progressive elements and internal affairs, gave way before wit and music and understatement – just as if Allen Ginsberg had fulfilled his dream of levitating the Pentagon. To the extent that 68 metamorphosed into 89, then, it carried its point. But no date will ever mark history’s high tide.
In a work-camp of enthusiasts which I attended in Cuba that summer, where the ideological level was not as low as some of you may think, there was a sort of dress-rehearsal when the Warsaw Pact went grinding into Czechoslovakia. All the conventional arguments, about great-power tyranny and the ‘socialist camp’, or about self-determination v. ‘giving ammunition to the enemy’, were gone over as a matter of course. Somewhere in there, but waiting for an idiom in which to be unambivalently uttered, was an expression, or affirmation, of human and civil rights as a good thing in themselves. Easy enough, you say, and of course I’m with you all the way, but neither side in the Cold War had proved, or ever proved, capable of stating such a principle in practice. ‘Double standards’ can waste an awful lot of time. Anyway, I found the exact phrase for it when I met Adam Michnik, one of the Polish sixty-eighters, a few years later. ‘After all, like socialism, the words freedom and democracy have been discredited by governments and parties. But we do not abandon them for this reason. The real struggle, for us, is for citizens to cease being the property of the state.’
Good man, I thought at the time, having then no idea that Michnik would easily outlive Stalinism and go on to be the leading Polish critic of clerical fascism, brute nationalism and all the other mental rubbish of post-1989. Now let’s see if we can’t stop citizens being anybody’s property, or anyone’s disposable resource, or nuclear statistic. In order for that to occur, as William Morris put it in The Dream of John Ball, people will have to cogitate how it comes that they so often fight for something and lose, or think they have won, only to get another thing, and leave to others the task of fighting for the same thing under another name.