When students ruled the earth

D.A.N. Jones

  • 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt by Ronald Fraser
    Chatto, 370 pp, £14.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 7011 2913 1
  • Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties by Tariq Ali
    Collins, 280 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 217779 X
  • Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades by David Caute
    Hamish Hamilton, 464 pp, £14.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 241 12174 4
  • Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report by Hans Koning
    Unwin Hyman, 196 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 04 440185 X

Twenty years is a long time in politics. To me, the flavour of the year 1968 is still ‘anti-Fascism’. The meanings of ‘Fascism’ and ‘National Socialism’ are quite well discussed in Roger Scruton’s cold-hearted Dictionary of Political Thought (1982). For me (born in 1931) and for many of my generation, ‘Fascism’ means a system of government which angers us and reminds us of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. A fear of ‘Fascism’ was quite natural in 1968, that year of wild crowds and top people’s plots. I was interviewed by a Swiss television team: ‘Don’t you think England might go Fascist, Mr Jones? A quiet English sort of Fascism?’ ‘Abs’lument pas!’ I snapped (quoting from a favourite French film), ‘Abs’lument pas!’ – with a confidence I could not muster today. Then, a contemporary at a college reunion (a conservative chap, working for the Ministry of Defence) said to me sweetly: ‘I think you’re a Fascist.’ I billed: ‘Oh, you don’t!’ He cooed: ‘But I do!’

There was a reason why I should be challenged in these different ways. It must be confessed, without apology, that I was a noticeable Leftie in 1968: I was editing the Black Dwarf, a magazine I intended to promote socialist ideas for working-class readers. It was welcomed, however, by a quite different readership – the ‘student generation in revolt’ of Ronald Fraser’s title – and I was made to surrender my editorship to Tariq Ali. Before my dismissal, I appeared on television to defend the paper against A.J. Ayer, John Gross and Colin Welch – with a chairman who accused me of being a disciple of Sorel, a writer of whom I had barely heard. (David Caute sardonically notes that ‘the allusion to Sorel was standard nonsense among professors of history and politics hostile to the New Left: one may search in vain for any favourable reference to Sorel in New Left ideology.’) I had also been National Organiser for the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, extending our concerns to a campaign against the use of napalm. I had stood for the Greater London Council, in the Labour interest, and I was after a seat on Lambeth Council. I had worked for two magazines considered left-wing – Tribune, under Michael Foot, and the New Statesman, under Paul Johnson. It was a different world.

In those distant days, Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister. He was being assailed by ‘left-wingers’, people like me, for being too subservient to the United States Government, with particular reference to the American war in Vietnam: the same complaint was addressed to other Labourite statesmen, like Willy Brandt in Germany. At the same time, Wilson had to face covert attacks from right-wingers: it was alleged (and still is) that the British Secret Service was conspiring to remove this prime minister. The most blatant ‘Fascist’ move in the Britain of 1968 came when Cecil Harmsworth King, a hereditary owner of newspapers, invited Earl Mountbatten to seize the governance of Britain.

Had the Earl been corruptible, or mad, we might have had a coup d’état of Latin American proportions. The essence of National Socialism is to exploit the weaknesses of both nationalists and socialists, people who are not very political but who have Tory or Labour prejudices to be worked up. Mountbatten was ‘left-wing’ enough to win the attention of people of my sort, the barrack-room lawyers, and he had a ‘right-wing’ appeal for the more regimental sort, Old Comrades, the British Legion, the cricket, golf and football club members. He exerted some authority even in the Royal Family and he had, surely, much more sex appeal than Hitler, say, or Peron. Altogether, the approach to Mountbatten was quite a shrewd move for the rich and foolish Cecil Harmsworth King.

Another facet of ‘Fascism’ is the organisation of race prejudice. In April 1968, Enoch Powell made his name: a body of deluded meat-porters and dock-workers marched to Westminster, supporting Powell’s campaign against black immigrants. In the same month, by neat coincidence, Martin Luther King was shot dead, during his successful campaign for Civil Rights for black American citizens. Other Hitler-like operations in 1968 included, in the military sphere, the hand-to-hand killing of four hundred-odd Vietnamese civilians by Lieutenant Calley’s men – well recorded in David Caute’s stony book – but we did not know about that at the time, for the attendant journalists were reticent. What we did know about was the war machine rolling steadily on, undiscouraged, offering secure employment to many workers. Napalm was manufactured by Dow Chemical, part of the United States military-industry complex: during our demonstration at Dow Chemical’s London office, I heard the workers coming out, sobbing that it wasn’t fair, they couldn’t help it, they were only doing their job. This could also be seen as ‘Fascist’, rather like Dr Waldheim’s war service.

We were in the 22nd year of the Thirty-Year War to subjugate the Vietnamese: it seemed to be getting worse, as our rulers threw more and more money at their problem. By ‘our rulers’ I mean the rulers of the United States and her allies, including us in Britain: there was a British show called US to remind us. It was filmed in 1968 as Tell me lies; the lyric-writer for US and the author of ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ was Adrian Mitchell, one of my colleagues on the Black Dwarf. He also brought out a book of poems in 1968 with a quotation from a news report about Vietnam stretched across the top of each page:

In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched, legs straddled, arms outstretched from his sides. He had no eyes and his body, most of which was visible through tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus. The interpreter said: ‘He has to stand, cannot sit or lie.’ He had to stand because his body was no longer covered with a skin but with a crust like crackling which broke easily.

Our rulers explained that it was inevitable that such things should be done to the Vietnamese until they all promised to renounce Communism.

Twenty years on, in a different world, the leader-writers yawn: ‘What was all the fuss about? This bourgeois frolic!’ They were probably about fourteen in 1968, not old enough to understand our revulsion. The fuss was ‘all about’ Vietnam. A fair idea of our unsophisticated feelings may be gathered from Ronald Fraser’s useful book, largely the work of oral historians interviewing about a hundred and seventy people, from six nations, who were vigorously involved in the demonstrations and disruptions of 1968. ‘We’d been brought up to believe in our hearts that America fought on the side of justice,’ says a Californian. ‘There was a feeling of personal betrayal. I remember crying to myself late at night in my room, listening to the reports of the war.’ This is the voice of shamed patriotism. A German says: ‘What shocked me most was that a highly-developed country, the super-modern American army, should fall on these Vietnamese peasants. I always saw those bull-necked fat pigs – like Georg Grosz’s pictures – attacking the small, childlike Vietnamese.’ This was a sort of ‘anti-racist’ response. Another American says: ‘Ours was the sane response. One of total outrage. Not to be outraged was more insane than to be outraged and go bananas.’ This reckless willingness to go bananas, to break every rule, to screw ’em all, was quite common among protesters.

When people who felt like this recognised that there were many others with similar simple feelings, they naturally formed crowds and improvised measures to frustrate the United States war effort: there is not much need for the explanations of amateur psychologists or sociologists. One giddying factor, though, was our dissatisfaction with the leading Communist powers – since both China and the Soviet Union seemed to be giving too little assistance to Vietnam, the land of burning children: when the liberalised government of Czechoslovakia was suppressed by Soviet troops, many left-wingers in Western Europe felt as if they were caught in a sort of pincer movement, or double bind. This made the anger wilder – and many more people went bananas.

I was reminded of 1956, when those of us who were angered by Britain’s deceitful attack on Egypt suddenly had to react to the Soviet suppression of Hungary. Working on the Oxford Mail, I had noticed the students’ response. There were expressions of shamed patriotism and of anti-racist indignation – and of going bananas, especially among those who wanted to think well of the Soviet system and also to support Israel against its Arab enemies. Other students, however, put on their officer-cadet uniforms and paraded under the slogan, ‘Shoot the wogs.’ When challenged, these students barked: ‘Haven’t you got a sense of humour?’ Ronald Fraser notices the resemblance between 1956 and 1968, remarking that ‘the New Left originated out of the crisis of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Suez.’ The concept of ‘the New Left’ was prominent in the commentaries of observers in 1968. The Black Dwarf (and I myself) were frequently accused of being New Leftist.

The Black Dwarf is often mentioned and quoted in these books. In fact, I see my own words quoted, here and in other new ‘1968’ publications: sometimes they are wrongly attributed to my successor, Tariq Ali, and sometimes to Thomas Wooler, the founder of the original Black Dwarf in 1818. Another book about 1968, by Hans Koning, correctly quotes one of my Black Dwarf aphorisms of 1968: ‘We have a feeling that students are mostly well-to-do kids sowing their wild oats before becoming graduate trainees and junior executives.’ Probably this lack of optimism was one of the reasons I was sacked. Discussing the event in Street Fighting Years, Ali remarks: ‘Jones had meant well, but he did tend to be somewhat hostile to students.’

Tariq Ali still writes with the spirit of an optimistic student. But he has a slightly different map of the world in his head, taking in much of Asia and Latin America. He begins, sportily: ‘This book is a political memoir. It is not, be warned, an account of mini-skirts on the steps of the Sorbonne.’ In fact, he did not go to the Sorbonne, for the very good reason that, as a Pakistani, he might have been refused re-entry to Britain. The watchword for many governments in that Fascist-leaning year was ‘Pick on the foreigner.’ But he went to Hanoi and to Prague – and to Bolivia, in the steps of Che Guevara. He is strongly aware of the racist dimension in the activities of his opponents, he remembers half-forgotten Sixties atrocities (like Sukarno’s massacre of the Indonesian Communists) and he knows, from personal experience of Pakistan, the reality of top people’s coups – so commonplace in the Third World but scarcely imaginable in Britain, except by dreamers like Cecil Harmsworth King. He travelled boldly, sometimes seeming like a very superior kind of student, a President of the Oxford Union on a debating tour. He mingled with Bertrand Russell, Marlon Brando, Sartre – and, most amusingly, with John Lennon, who rightly urged him ‘to get those left-wing students out, to talk to the workers. All the revolutions have happened when a Fidel, a Marx, a Lenin or whatever, who were intellectuals, were able to get through to the workers.’ I don’t think Tariq Ali has ever quite managed this difficult task. He belongs to the students’ world.

Students, when politically stimulated, often become bibliolaters, faithful to one great Book which will answer all questions, defining what is ‘the Revolutionary Situation’ and what is not: hence the bitter, competing sects and tendencies and gurus of the Left. Tariq Ali joined the International Marxist Group (affiliated to the Fourth International). This sounded quite formidable to right-wing opponents, but it consisted of a few chaps in Nottingham, about fifty of them, ‘much smaller than IS’ (the International Socialism movement, quite popular at the time). With their sophisticated political analysis, the IS addicts were able to shout at Tariq Ali: ‘Why don’t you go back to Pakistan?’ Their guru apologised, says Ali, explaining that ‘none of this would have happened if I had joined IS rather than the IMG, which was sweet of him.’ (The same suggestion did not sound so ‘racist’ when it came from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Karachi: ‘There are only two ways to fight. Like me or then there is Che Guevara. Great man. Why don’t you go to the hills of Baluchistan like him and launch a bloody guerrilla war?’ Ali ‘refused to accept the dichotomy’. His description of other cliques suggests he did well to prefer the IMG, a tiny sect with a grand name to impress friend and foe, but not likely to interfere with his improvisations. Even the IMG, though, had a Great Book to read, the work of an American Communist turned Trotskyist, devoted to ‘the single-minded and relentless pursuit of an oppositional current within the same organisation until it was defeated, demoralised and expelled’.

Tariq Ali, Byronically, makes mock of the sects – and, perhaps, deserves to be mocked himself, for his student-power strategy: but I will resist the temptation, since it was natural and proper that the complaints against our rulers’ insupportable overseas policies should come from wide-reading people, unencumbered with workaday responsibilities. The thing to do was to compel the attention of working people, by linking the overseas atrocity with our domestic complaints. In America, the obvious domestic issue was the blacks’ campaign for Civil Rights, as Ronald Fraser observes. ‘What kind of America is it whose response to poverty and oppression in Vietnam is napalm and defoliation? Whose response to poverty and oppression in Mississippi is silence?’ That must be the least slick slogan in Fraser’s book, but the point was worth making: in 1968 I was myself obsessed with antagonism to ‘racism’ and held that our rulers seemed unable to see the black people of Mississippi and the yellow people of Vietnam as fully human. The shooting of Martin Luther King was relevant to the killings in Vietnam. (I don’t know whether, or how, the shooting of Robert Kennedy was relevant: it may have been done by the Mafia.)

In West Germany, that April, a student protester was shot, as a scapegoat: a dissident from East Germany, with Protestant Christian beliefs, Rudi Dutschke survived the attack for 11 years, half-paralysed and barred from Britain. The domestic issue which had stimulated his crowd was the persistence of Nazism, the guilt of the elders: the Springer Press had singled out Dutschke as the guilty ringleader of the anti-Nazi campaign. Dutschke’s assailant had derived his conception of the student as ‘Public Enemy Number One’ from the Springer Press. After this shooting, German students blockaded Springer’s buildings and policemen had to drive his newspaper vans. In London, we threatened to impede British newspaper production: the Springer office in London was housed in one of the buildings of the treasonous Cecil King.

Ronald Fraser remarks that ‘the hidden, subjective injuries of class ... and the existence of class parties’ led many European students ‘fairly directly into class politics. The same was not true of the United States’: so his American informants have told him. Race means more than class in American minds. ‘The white American movement had always been strongest when it linked the dominant contradiction of the epoch – Vietnam – with the major domestic contradiction – racism,’ says Fraser. A student told him that his comrades had ‘no strategy for reaching people who were different from us, who were either older or more ensconced in working-class or even middle-class jobs’. One country where students and workers co-operated effectively was Italy (mostly in 1969), and a more painful arena was provided by Northern Ireland: Fraser is the only one of these authors to pay attention to that mystery. The Ulster Leftists of 1968 were stimulated by the Czech radicals and also by the Civil Rights movement in America: they naturally compared the local discrimination against Catholics with the American discrimination against blacks.

Like the Americans, says Fraser, they were brutally attacked by the Police. ‘That did the trick here where television was still quite new,’ recalls Michael Farrell, one of the Leftists from Queen’s University, Belfast. The Leftists hoped to unite the Catholic and Protestant working classes, but church-centred sectarianism, very like racism, made it impossible for them to find ‘an inter-communal working-class base’.

Marching from Belfast to Derry, ambushed by cudgel-men, these ‘PDers’ (People’s Democracy) did not look to the IRA – which was, in 1968, wedded to non-violent politics – but to the British Labour Government. Fraser says: ‘Like the Civil Rights workers during the Mississippi Summer four years earlier, the marchers were hoping that the central government would intervene to take power out of the local state’s hands. In both cases they were disappointed, for neither the American federal government nor the British government took steps to protect the civil rights activists.’ A breakaway movement from the IRA, the Provisionals, seized the initiative in 1970 and are still pursuing their miserable policy.

Early in the PD campaign, it was noted that the Police must be given notice of all marches and that one person’s name must be given as the responsible organiser: when no one stood up to accept this scapegoat’s role, Bernadette Devlin said: ‘Mr Chairman, I am an orphan, I have nothing to lose. I will give my name.’ That was the way ‘ringleaders’ and ‘spokesmen’ emerged from the crowds in 1968: they were not so much leaders as banner-men, persons around whom the crowd might congregate, scapegoats for the press to vilify, people like Tariq Ali, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke. It was a year of crowd politics and Fraser’s calm way of using voices from the crowd, recollecting in comparative tranquillity, strengthens his well-constructed history.

David Caute covers much the same ground in a more saddening style: he writes ‘as an historian, a novelist and a playwright’, claims the blurb, justly, and he writes well, in a consistent mood of cold, despondent scorn. This is a tale of too many cities – too many for one book: here are accounts of rebellions in Japan, Yugoslavia and, most interestingly, Franco’s Spain, where students collaborated easily with ‘the militant sections of the working class’. In Spain, however, ‘Vietnam was secondary to the native issue – democracy.’ Another mark of the professional historian is his genuine professional interest in university administration and reform. As a novelist and playwright, he responds more feelingly than other dons to the world of ‘alternative culture’, such a feature of life in 1968: in mingled attraction and repulsion, he engages with sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock ’n’ roll ’n’ Allen Ginsberg.

His special interest seems to be the events in France. Sitting in the Black Dwarf office, striving to keep up with the worldwide insurrections and improvisations, I was less captivated than my colleagues by the news of the French students. I could see the glamour of it all – the chic and the panache which captured the sentimental heart of Paul Johnson – but what was their local issue, the domestic link with the Vietnam campaign? Their President was opposed to the American action in Vietnam – more so than Harold Wilson or Willy Brandt. His riot police were notably brutal and his regime was conservative in a military, authoritarian style – which might reflect one aspect of ‘Fascism’, I suppose – but his most dangerous opponents were far to his right. I confess that I took a strong interest in the French students only when they drew in the working-class trade-unionists – and one of my colleagues said: ‘Just because they’ve roped in a bunch of bloody old Stalinists?’

Caute does well to record and interpret the reasoning and strategy of the French workers and students who brought out so many millions on strike and almost toppled de Gaulle’s government. He disconsolately concludes with an account of the triumphant right-wing demonstration in the Champs-Elysées – well-dressed people cheering the riot police and chanting, ‘France back to work! We are the majority! Cohn-Bendit to Dachau!’ while the cars hooted the old Algérie française rhythm. Caute quotes Stephen Spender’s description of this scene: ‘the triumphant bacchanal of the Social World of Conspicuous Consumption, shameless, crowing and more vulgar than any crowd I had seen on Broadway or in Chicago’.

If Tariq Ali represents ‘the optimism of the will’, David Caute provides ‘the pessimism of the intellect’. Such pessimism marks his account of ‘the decline of the New Left’ in several other nations. He notes that Vietnam became, for American students, a profoundly important issue in 1968 because it was the first year that they might have to go and fight there. Deferment for graduate students had just been dropped by Congress. Previously, 57 per cent of American young men had escaped Vietnam fighting through college deferment. Another bolt-hole for white students was the National Guard, which stayed at home: only 1 per cent of the National Guard was black. Few Harvard men, few senators’ sons fought in Vietnam, says Caute, for ‘the middle classes evaded the draft legally’: also, ‘the white middle classes knew how to fail their medicals.’ Their class privilege was endangered in 1968 – and Caute quotes a Harvard student who admits: ‘A peaceful campus, only marginally concerned with Vietnam, became desperate.’ That self-concerned desperation was imported all over the world, eloquently and efficiently. Such is the nature of ‘student power’, perhaps.