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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in