In 1968 I was a 14 year old student at a posh school in the centre of London. Events of that year did not pass unnoticed even among the sons of the bourgeoisie. The film If made an impression and, even if we didn’t machine gun our teachers, there was at least one organised protest there demanding the right to party unconstrained by school rules on Saturdays.
A few of us decided to go on the March 17th demonstration against the war in Vietnam (see the article in Solidarity 129 for what happened and my impressions). In my case, this was the culmination of a growing awareness of Vietnam and things such as the civil rights movement in the US, the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the election of Labour in Britain. The demo, quickly followed by May ‘68, provoked a leap in developing my political commitment: I subsequently took on board most of the issues that whizzed past in 68, demonstrating in solidarity with French workers and students and against the Greek junta, Enoch Powell and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. I got involved in a local branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign preparing for the huge October demo, listening to discussions at the occupied LSE on the weekend of the march. I also sold the Black Dwarf on the streets — a nice little earner!
I was certainly naive at the time — as were many older and ‘wiser’ 68ers – particularly when it came to the labour movement. I penned a letter arguing in a debate that you couldn’t join the Labour Party because the Wilson government was in thrall to the ‘gnomes of Zurich’ (international bankers) and remember feeling smug that Tariq Ali and Bob Rowthorn had thrashed Michael Foot and Eric Heffer when the Black Dwarf debated Tribune at the start of 1969.
But despite this I came quickly to two views I continue to hold: firstly, that Stalinism had nothing to do with socialism and had to be destroyed and secondly that if you were serious about revolution you had to be part of a political organisation. The first – together with some personal contacts – led to me finding out more about Trotsky and Trotskyism. I went to a meeting of the International Marxist Group – the most ‘68ist’ of the Trotskyist groups and prominent in VSC – and later knocked on the door of their office in the East End to ask about joining. I talked to Pat Jordan, the IMG’s full timer, who sent me away with what was, in retrospect, a rather strange collection of literature to read. I cannot remember why exactly my intention to join the IMG faded – probably a combination of my not being taken very seriously and of me becoming more aware of the left and the IMG’s own lack of own seriousness with their ideas such as ‘student vanguardism’. In 1969, I eventually joined the International Socialists, like many because the group was open, provided a perspective for doing something in Britain and also had called for left unity.
This must all sound horribly precocious – recently at a ‘68 conference in Berlin someone asked me my age and then disputed that I had been active in that year – and I suppose it was in a way. But I don’t think anyone with a germ of socialist awareness could just let the events of that year pass without being affected by them and, unlike many who use the exuberance and naivete of ‘68 poliitics as grounds for repudiating their youth and justifying a move to the right, I don’t feel sorry about that.