Thursday, March 31, 2016

A REVOLUTIONARY SCHOOLGIRL OF THE 1960s: Meeting report

RaHN meeting notes: 9th March 2016

Speaker: Di Parkin

There were 13 people in attendance.

The meeting started with a brief introductions to RaHN and also of those present.

The talk text which follows was kindly provided by Di herself [Discussion follows, below]:

  1. A REVOLUTIONARY SCHOOLGIRL OF THE 1960s

This talk builds on a previous one “Running down Whitehall with a black flag”

I wanted to widen the timeframe and the focus to include my whole political experience of the 1960s. Not because I think my autobiography is unique, (although revolutionary schoolgirls are somewhat unusual). I want to use it as a prompt to others to remember (so dimly long ago) those times.

The talk covers my period in the Labour Party young socialists, and with the anarchists. It includes reference to CND, protests at the visit of Queen Frederika of Greece and the events of 1968 - student protests/Paris/Czechoslovakia and the Grosvenor Square protest against the Vietnam War.

I suppose the first question is: “What made me a revolutionary?”

A bit like Stuart Christie’s “My Granny made me an anarchist” I would say initially my mother. She was a housing officer for progressive housing associations in West London. In the summer holidays in 1958 she took me, aged 11 to work with her. I remember two things- going into a tenement building in Paddington with outside toilets on the landing and the old lady (who gave me a pink biscuit) could not sign her name. Then we went to properties in Notting Hill, we turned a corner to see a row of terraced houses blackened by fire, with the slogan “Niggers out” on the wall. I was shocked to the core and asked her to explain this. How could human beings do this to other human beings?   This was the era of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. Wikipedia explains:

“A mob of 300- 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys attacked houses every night until 5th September”

There were arrests and interestingly 78 white people were charged and 36 black. But this was the start of widespread police harassment of the black community.

This event gave me a sharp clear understanding of class inequality, oppression and racism and a rage for justice.

My mother thought it would occupy a bored teenager to join the Labour Party young socialists. YS.

I don’t know what she expected, but as I stood with my hand on the door of the meeting room  in the William Morris hall (which we later painted “Imperial Red”)  I knew somehow, at the end of 1962, that my life would change. There they were, the men with long hair and beards, the women in baggie jumpers, all in duffle coats.

One of the early events was a debate “Workers control or co-ownership?” between the YS and the young liberals. The YS speaker was John Palmer, a key figure in the International Socialists IS (forerunners of the Socialist Workers party)

With dramatic clarity I was convinced, there in a church hall, in the deep snow of 1962, dressed as I was in a black polo neck, green box flared skirt, black stockings  and chisel toed shoes. I understood, at that road to Damascus moment, that capitalism could not be reformed away, I became a revolutionary.

As a revolutionary, a supporter of the IS section of the YS, I sold the paper Young Guard at school, had copies and my duffle coat confiscated.


Young Socialists

In 1960 the young socialists were reformed (the previous Labour League of Youth having been shut down because of its Trotskyism) There were 68 branches by October  1969  (according to a pamphlet by Mike Coggins - The Young Socialists: Labour’s Lost Youth). I joined full of verve that I would be engaged in changing the world.

A resolution to the 1963 YS conference put it:

“It is necessary to recognise that the capitalist system itself is the cause of the problems that beset us, we need to put forward a policy to remove the capitalist system and replace capitalist anarchy by a publicly owned planned economy under democratic workers control”

Instead I was plunged into the internecine strife which has always characterised Trotskyism. The young Socialists were riven by sectarianism; they were organised in federations, Wimbledon happened to move into the West Surrey Federation which was under the influence of the International Socialists, with its youth paper Young Guard which I sold for 6d monthly, it was democratically controlled by readers’ groups electing an Editorial Board. It stood for:

“Unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from all military alliances, colonial freedom, nationalisation of key industries, comprehensive education and full rights for apprentices”

The other main Trot group was Keep Left, under the control of malign Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League SLL. The major difference, apart from nuances about the role of leadership in a revolutionary movement, was over the Soviet Union; Keep Left supported the Warsaw Pact.

In 1964 a third group with the paper Militant emerged within the Labour Party.  But they are another story.

Resolutions to the 1963 YS conference (I found in the British Library) called for the nationalisation of industries, of all building land, to municipalise all rented properties, loans for all owner occupiers at a rate not above 2%.

They thought that this policy would end racial tension brought about by bad housing conditions. They wanted public works, raising the school leaving age to 16, a shorter working week, without loss of pay. They also called for Equal Pay for men, women and youth. (We often forget this area of inequality which has now, formally vanished.)

They called for campaigns against “racialist” (when did our term change to “racist”?) and fascist ideas. There were resolutions against support of the Americans in Vietnam, for repeal of the immigration act and against joining the Common Market (that was a contested point).

In March 1964 they (we) met again for the annual conference in the Corn Exchange Brighton and I was there. I remember the long hall (scene of later meetings with Gerry Adams) I remember Reg Underhill the Labour Party’s, to me ancient youth officer (He was then 41) I remember Bessie Braddock MP. She reminded me of Ena Sharples from Coronation street) these two were the Labour Party police of the YS

The resolutions were similar to those of the preceding year:

·         Support the United Nations
·         Withdraw from NATO
·         Oppose the Warsaw Pact (that was contested)
·         End conscription
·         Not to holiday in Spain
·         Repeal 1957 rent act
·         Against Rachmanism
·         Oppose wage restraint, for workers control
·         Payment of not less than £3 a week to school leavers
·         Abolish Aldermen
·         Abolish capital punishment
·         End police violence and persecution of CND
·         May day to be a bank holiday
·         Lower the voting age
It is interesting to look back and see what gains we have made, given that we often depressedly think that capitalism is omnipotent and we are powerless.

I am not saying that the Labour Party Young Socialists were responsible; but none the less, we no longer have conscription, capital punishment, Franco’s Spain or Aldermen. There is a Mayday bank holiday (albeit not on Mayday) and Equal Pay is on the stature books as is the vote at 18.

On the other hand police violence, “racialism” and NATO slum landlords are still with us and we are not all opposed to “Europe” - the Left is still divided on the “referendum".

In 1967 the next year for which the resolutions can be found in the British Library, they remain similar, but now include

·         Support all struggles against the wage freeze
·         For comprehensive education and against direct grant schools
·         Deplore the Labour Government’s support for the USA’s war in Vietnam
·         For family planning irrespective of marital status
But we were not primarily focused on resolutions and conferences.

We marched against the development of more office blocks in London and for more housing. We demonstrated against the visit of Queen Frederika of Greece (a small face surrounded by white mink in a Daimler outside Claridges hotel) in July 1963. This was organised by the Committee of 100.

In my mind’s eye there I am running through the London streets, wearing a cape, on that day famous for a policeman called Challinor planting a brick in a demonstrator’s pocket and being found guilty of it.

At this time the key annual event (sort of political Glastonbury) for the left was the Aldermaston march.

I had been since 1962 (my mother only allowed me to go for the day)

“On the 1963 Aldermaston march, a group calling itself Spies for Peace left the march, much against the wishes of the CND leadership, to demonstrate at the regional seat of government RSG 6. Later, when the march reached London, there were disorderly demonstrations in which anarchists were prominent.” - Wikipedia

(This was organised by the Committee of 100)

There was the high excitement of challenging Peggy Duff and the CND leadership on this the second day of the march, peeling off through the sandy Berkshire woods to the uninspiring and bizarrely unguarded bunker.

Into anarchism

No one had explained to me the Trotskyist strategy of entrism, so once I was a convinced revolutionary I did not see why I was a member of the Labour Party. I campaigned for it in the 1964 election  which Labour won by 4 seats, by the next election in 1966, by which time I was no longer even a supporter, was won by 96 seats.

I went by bus from Raynes Park, south London to Carshalton to meetings of the Surrey Anarchist group, buying a newspaper cone of chips for 6d (i.e. about 2p) on the way back.

Foregoing the chips, one time I accepted a lift home (the bus journey was long) from the evident Special Branch man who attended the meetings. He had, of course, short neatly brushed hair, large proper shined shoes and a half witted manner. In one discussion about education, he got his left groups briefing muddled and opined that what we wanted was an entirely state controlled education system. He would offer a different person a lift each time, which we accepted, until we got bored and told him the meetings were discontinued (telling each other by word of mouth, never the phone or post) where they were.

So in 1964 I was a revolutionary, committed to the ideal of workers control.

This led me towards syndicalism: The Syndicalist Workers' Federation (SWF) was a group active in post-war Britain, formed in 1950, the SWF decided to pursue a more definitely syndicalist, worker-centred strategy from the outset.
In this The Franco era gave particular support to the Spanish resistance and the underground CNT anarcho-syndicalist union,
There was Hortensia mother who would interject randomly into the meetings - “Viva La Revolution, Viva El CNT”.
There was also someone   a sweet little old man with an eye patch, who sat in the corner. “See Jose” said one of the comrades. “He rode with the Durutti column and they killed 30 priests in one afternoon”. Jose smiled sweetly and patted my arm.
Mark Hendy, whom I interviewed in 2013, said he wasn’t sweet at all and at one meeting in London where Falangists attacked, he saw them off very securely.
The SWF was active in many industrial arenas, its paper Direct Action reported on Printers, Bus workers, seamen, right wing ballot rigging in the electricians unions and other struggles such as the workers in a bra factory, who were sacked for joining a union.

It was also, I remember and the pages of Direct Action make clear, involved in other arenas of struggle outside of workplaces. It engaged in direct action in support of Gypsies. It worked with homeless women and children who were herded into hostels, where the fathers and partners could not join them

The SWF was strong in support of the Spaniards, for example when there were 11 of them on death row in Madrid.

“We organised a lot of direct action here, for example against Iberian Airways, including throwing a manhole cover through their office window. We also did quite a bit of 'telephone bombing' (ringing up to say there was a bomb on a plane) so that an Iberian airline had to turn back on its way out of Copenhagen” Mark Hendy 2013

My then boyfriend threw a brick in a paper bag at Spanish embassy and was fined the huge sum of £100.

Spain and the defeat of our side hung heavy in our hearts. It seemed impossible that Franco would ever be defeated, that he would survive for always.
This was the context for Stuart Christie, who had left the Lucas Arms where we met, for Spain in July 1964, just before I arrived. He strapped a bomb to his body and tried to assassinate Franco; we were no armchair revolutionaries.
In 1965 I marched with the anarchists on the CND Aldermaston demo.
Anarchists again tried to repeat their “disorderliness”; we tried to be at the head of the march as the dragon dance of the demo formed, the anarchist flags and banners at a rise in Hyde Park. We ambled along, slightly foot sore and I noticed the police ranks alongside began to thicken.

As we approached Parliament square, the police encircled us, linked arms and violently pushed us off the route. I was 17 and shocked as the policeman raised his thigh hard between my legs. This kettling predated the use of the concept by more than forty years.
They have always done this; just as the reformists have always apologized for them.

This was my memory but Peace News (CND newspaper) editorial puts it thus:

“One wonders what anarchists expect to achieve by their obstructive activities. On Saturday and Sunday their organized attempts at leading and blocking the Easter march had no apparent point to them, They were a considerable nuisance,” Peace News Editorial April 23 1965

Sadly two comrades from Freedom Press piously joined in the criticism

“We wish to disassociate ourselves from the antics of the once a year anarchists” J S & PT, Freedom Press, letters Peace News April 30 1965

But there is also a letter which concurs with my memory:

“The final idiocy came near Parliament square: a police cordon very roughly held the thousand or so anarchists back in a group, pushing them together and inwards – we heard that someone’s arm was broken in the crush, and it was certainly an ugly mess, seen from the outside. The CND Marshalls then waved the rest of the march past, and it trooped by, good comrades one and all and walked passively three abreast up Whitehall…”
B & H M. letters Peace News April 30 1965
I didn’t troop passively, I ran (in rage) down Whitehall carrying a black flag.
In 1965 I went to university in Canterbury, a lone anarchist. I initially kept my connections with the SWF, but the organisation did not survive the 1960s and became the Solidarity Federation.
By 1970 I began my long travail with Trotskyism rejoined the International Socialists
I was involved to some extent in student politics, occupying this and that building as well as on women’s issues.


1968

Is of course the year of all years: Paris Spring (French leftists still say “Je Suis dixneufsoixante huitean”) ["I am a 1968-er"] Prague spring, Soviet Invasion and the Vietnam War
I am here not in the main offering my own memories.
Grosvenor square first demo against Vietnam War March 68, 2nd 27 October
I can’t convey strongly enough the significance of the campaign against the Vietnam War. In my view this was a war in which we had a side; we wanted the Vietcong to win.
In March 1969 there was the first massive demo against the war, occupying the whole of Grosvenor square outside the embassy. If you google and look at the footage it is quite startling, not because of the Police violence (that was/is normal) we are used to that, but because of their Mr Plod amateurishness, dressed in long overcoats, wearing their silly helmets they pushed ineffectively at the crowd. (It was not until some years later, maybe 1976 at GrunwickS that they learned the tactic of linking arms into a tight squad and pushing with their backs.) So their lines broke and police horses were used. Members of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF) and others intervened. Someone had hitched to London with a large bag of ball bearings; horses went down.
The police did not win that day, even though we did not breach the embassy. There are photos of Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave at the foot of the steps.
There were 86 (official underestimated figures) wounded and 200 arrested.
In October at the second demo the police were more organised and the wounded were taken to the London School of Economics, which was then under occupation for the weekend
On 24 October 1968, the director Adams, fearing an occupation and growing support by the students for the anti-Vietnam War demonstration on 27 October, decided to close the London School of Economics for the weekend. As this questioned the right of the administration to close LSE against the wishes of lecturers and students, the move led to 3,000 students occupying. During the occupation, the School was policed against intruders, and cleaned; teach-ins and discussions were organised; and medical services were set up and staffed. The occupation ended that Sunday night.
In 1969 another occupation lead to the removal of the security gates he had installed.
The RSSF were key factors in this wave of occupations, from Hornsey, Guildford, Plymouth colleges of art, Leeds and other universities.
In Dundee they blocked the Tay road bridge making student demands. This was after they had unfurled a banner from a window reading “Fuck the Queen Mum” as that person was arriving at the college
RSSF
This group in which Maoists and the International Marxist group were strong organised around the principle of “Red bases”.
Their reasoning was that
“The institutions of higher education are a weak link in Brigit capital” and the ruling class would be rocked by their occupation.
The RSSF manifesto included:
·         For the revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism
·         To support workers and tenants in struggle
·         To be a “revolutionary ally of the proletariat”
I doubted this and in a student occupation in 1972 argued, as a member of the International Socialists, against the focus on students’ rights and those comrades would be better off on the picket lines with miners 20 miles away at Dover docks.
Conclusion
Some things remain the same for revolutionaries today – the centrality of the Class struggle, Opposition to imperialist wars, anti-racism and there continue to be student concerns. Women's issues became more predominate in the 1970s and the issue of Ireland came into docks at the end to the 60s.
At that time and as part of the whole 60s “cultural revolution” we did feel as if we were on a rising tide and our side would win.
Now I don’t want to say that the tide has gone out, merely that there are still small gains and advances we can make or defend.
It is important to recollect this high point which has informed our lives and speak about it to those who are younger.
Di Parkin
Bristol Radical History group
10/03/2016


  1. DISCUSSION

1963 Aldermaston march – Spies for Peace published details of “Regional Seat of Government” (RSG) bunkers. The RSG pamphlet was circulated throughout the marchers during one of their overnight stop offs.

The next day the Oxford Anarchist Federation formed a contingent and were told by the CND top brass that they couldn't march with the London AF, but backed down when threatened with a sit down protest. CND stewards tried to stop people from marching on the RSG bunkers by directing people to lunch. When the contingent arrived at the bunker it was deserted – unclear what exactly they should do as it was never clear that they would actually get there.

This was later followed up by copycat raids by protestors on other RSG bunkers. The pamphlet was reproduced widely and printed by lots of different people – stencilled, gestetner, carbon copies – and a very nice edition printed by Dutch comrades.

There was general uproar from the public that the government had made arrangements to secure its own survival after a nuclear attack, but that the rest of us would perish. It became part of popular culture for a while – David Frost alluded to it on the satirical TV show “That Was The Week That Was”.

The C100: A patchy summary in
"Peace: 50 Years of Protest" by Barry Miles (2008)
It is sometimes forgotten that Aldermaston was organised by groups like the Committee of 100 rather than CND*, who only supported direct action from 1979 onwards – the political impetus for this came from elsewhere. “I only joined CND in 1980”.
[*It might be more accurate to say that while the Easter marches -- after the first, see Past Tense blog, 4-4-16 --were organised by CND, the Committee of 100 was the instigator of the mass sit-down protests ("civil disobedience"), e.g. Trafalgar Square 1961. - Blogger.]

Memories of the 1960s from various attendees:


  • Marching with the Quakers and singing
  • A busload of people from Aberdeen for the Aldermaston marches
  • 1958 march - “I'd never walked that far, but it was a huge buzz being with that many people” - from someone who was 18 and pregnant at the time (and later got married in a red dress, adding further to the scandal and rumours about her being a communist).
  • Early 1960s was about childcare for me – difficult to keep up with the reading which seemed to be required – more discussion than activism, with the exception of peace marches.
  • Another contributors trajectory was from CND to America, then Algeria and then back to the UK to Warwick University where EP Thompson was lecturing. The first UK women's lib groups emerged (or rather the first to use that name) – circulating literature from the movement in the USA.
  • Divisions in the 60s? Freedom vs Black Flag, pacifists vs situationists, “it wasn't just the trots who were sectarians.”
  • The New Left – also seen as a more disparate movement including self-organised       women's, green, black movements plus bookshops, local papers, strikes and occupations. “The personal is the political”. May Day Manifesto 1967. 
  • 60s cultural revolution – open minds and questioning all aspects of society.
  • Squatting / housing co-ops. London squatters were also involved with Committee of 100. Ron Bailey - “King of the squatters”.

Solidarity

There was some discussion of the UK group Solidarity, with differing views.

Solidarity talked about Paris 68 in a lively way – even though their members seemed to be older than the wider radical milieu. There were differing recollections of the role of women in the group – it may have seemed male dominated to some but many women were involved and were quite vociferous.

One attendee remembered them attending demos around Polaris and the Faslane US naval base as well as selling the Solidarity magazine in Aberdeen.


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland was a rotten state until 1968 – Catholics couldn't get jobs, there were floggings for law breakers, the boundaries were rejigged for political ends (gerrymandering), etc. So a civil rights movement started, which included people from a protestant background. The police brutality against the pacifist civil rights march in Derry on 5th October 1968 essentially marked the beginning of The Troubles – and pacifism receding.

The Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 featured 4 nights of rioting against the police – after which British Troops were sent in to Northern Ireland. What is forgotten is that both parts of the NI community occupied Bogside – initially people saw the troops being sent in as a victory – an indication that the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary had been defeated. This illusion was shattered when the troops didn't intervene in protestant attacks against Catholics – which lead to the rebirth of the Irish Republican Army. Repression continued with state shootings – and internment meaning anyone could be picked up by the police or army for no reason – including members of student left groups like People’s Democracy.
John McGuffin wrote about his experiences
in this article and a later book:
Internment! (Anvil Books, 1973

Article reference: New Blackfriars No. 619. Dec.1971: 532-541.

In 1972 a Derry protest against internment culminated in 26 protestors being shot, 14 of who died. This came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” and marked the end of civil disobedience and marches and the rise of armed struggle. Lessons to be learnt about the limits of liberal “civil rights”.

Calls for unity across the NI border - “We will fight, we will win, Derry, Belfast and Dublin”. There was a People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Dublin in 1969.

One attendee had been sent to Dublin after the battle of the Bogside and produced a used CS gas canister he'd picked up as a “calling card”. Main message - “spread the struggle” - take on the government in Dublin.

Lessons learnt – the nature of the state, but also the power of the people – a couple of thousand residents changed history. Links with current events in Greece and Spain.

Anarchism in Northern Ireland:

John McGuffinBelfast anarchist interned in 1971. Belfast Anarchist Group produced “Know Your Enemy” posters with various “stars” - the British Army, the RUC, Unionists – and finally the church, which didn't go down very well with many people.

Also Ulster Paranoid magazine featured two copulating dinosaurs – one marked “church” and one marked “state”...


The 1970s

  • The occupation of Centrepoint – then a new office block in the centre of London – in protest about lack of decent housing.

  • 1st Glastonbury festival – inspiring at the age of 16 “everyone sharing, no fences, no gates”.

  • The SWF (became the Solidarity Federation - Solfed) – links with Spain and the CNT in the 1970s – very underground at the time. Within weeks of Franco's death 100,000s of people had joined the CNT. There was a strong Spanish exiles movement in London.

  • Some comments about anarchists and the Vietnam war – whilst opposing US aggression, many (most?) anarchists (and the Solidary group) were of course also opposed to the Viet Cong.

  • The police became more militarised in the 1970s because of demonstrations like Lewisham in 1977 (a huge successful mobilisation against a National Front march). This lead to the formation of the Special Patrol Group – used to attack Grunwick strikers.

  • Grosvenor Square - “I saw mounted police for the first time”. People were shocked when baton charges first happened.

  • Torness anti-nuclear power march in Scotland – anarchist occupied the site of the new power station. March organisers chanted “Out! Out! Out!” against them.

Other bits

1980s Holland – US Embassy occupied and then burned down over US Imperialism in Central America. Their answerphone stated “We've been attacked and burned down and we're not taking any calls”.

1958 – rent strikes and the birth of the tenants' movement.

Technology – much of what was possible in the 60s in terms of protest is not now because of changes to policing, the law, surveillance etc.


Summing up

Was the 60s unique? Are we defeated now? (No, but...)

History as a continuum – people are inspired by previous events, campaigns, struggles, victories [and our role as radical historians is to keep this happening!]. Folk memories – the Poll Tax had been defeated already 600 years before it was reintroduced in the late 1980s. The US being defeated in Vietnam has cast a shadow over all their subsequent military interventions.

Calais camp volunteers – some na├»ve, some former climate camp people, travellers etc.

CS gas remains politicising. Participating in things radicalises people.

Perhaps parallels can be drawn between the decline of the Communist Party in the 1960s and the decline of mainstream political parties today. This opens up a space for radical ideas. General agreement that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is not as encouraging as what has happened in Spain, etc. but perhaps he can be seen as a symptom of wider dissatisfaction and an appetite for alternatives. 


  1. UPDATES

RAHN has had a stall at various events including the Anarchist Bookfair and Haringey Local History fair.

Alan Woodward's archive is now partly at Bishopsgate Institute. Apparently cataloguing of the archive must be done by trained/qualified cataloguers – needs to be discussed further.

News From Nowhere regular meetings for over 20 years

RaHN blog – includes RSG pamphlet, Spies for Peace and Duke Street Derry



Radical History of Hackney blog - https://hackneyhistory.wordpress.com/

Not a huge amount of activity recently but there have been posts on Stoke Newington suffragettes, the campaign for justice for Colin Roach, the “occupy the archives” event at Hackney Archives – and links to events of interest.

History Workshop Conference takes place between 30th June and 3rd of July.


1 comment:

  1. Further to discussion and reminiscences, there is a connection between the Committee of 100 and Duke Street on 5/10/68: a C100 banner survived the attack and was briefly carried part way round the Diamond in the centre of Derry that afternoon.

    ReplyDelete