Monday, August 21, 2017

“Eyewitnesses of the origins of the British Revolution” – October 1968

With the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1967-68 academic year looming, and the world again (still?) worried by American government war-mongering, it seems a good enough time to look back at the heady days of student and (let’s not forget) other militancy which to some gave real hope, as in this letter written in the immediate aftermath of a large anti-Vietnam-war demonstration in London.
It gives a rather different account from that currently available in mainstream sources, as well as from that provided by the media at the time – no surprises there. Whatever reservations we, and no doubt its writer, may have - especially with half a century of hindsight - about its tone, analysis and (obviously) predictions, it stands as a spontaneous testimony to "what it was like" back then. Or what it could be like on a good day. And might even be like again?

(Slightly edited from heat-of-the-moment typescript.)

Monday [28/10/68] 
        It was wonderful to be in London this weekend; it was without doubt the high-water mark reached by the revolutionary movement in Britain for at least 30 years. Ignore all the press & TV reports of course, they are just venting their spleen at Popular Power in Fleet Street, which was possibly the highlight of the march.
1. L.S.E. Commune
We spent most of Saturday, Sat. night and some of Sunday in LSE. Over 1500 were there on Saturday night, sleeping in the halls and corridors - there was no vandalism [or] stealing and what mess there was was cleared up. Food, drink and medical stations were all organized quite efficiently, as was defense [sic] against possible police attack. Many people - not all of them hostile - came along to see what it was all about. [Chris] Pallis estimated that 500 LSE students - 25% - were involved in the occupation. They were probably right to abandon it after the demo, since they could have been hammered by the police quite easily then. The level of militancy at this LSE affair was much higher than at the sit-in last year. French comrades showed how to do silk-screen posters and designed some - notably "We are all foreign scum" and "Workers' Control. Money for this was made by collections. Leaflets were also produced for workers on the establishment presses and given out Sat. & Sun.
The meetings which were organized were generally good, but suffered a bit from vociferous disrupters. One on Sat. afternoon was attended by over 500, to hear Pallis, [Tom] Nairn and a CP-ite on France. Pallis more or less repeated his article from the last Solidarity, and the CP-ite was given a very hostile reception when he tried to defend the role of the CP in May. Seminars were also held on SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], Latin America etc. and films on France & Vietnam shown. The road up to the building was hung with red flags and banners – “Long Live the Socialist Revolution”. We slept in the corridors – all the Aberdeen comrades were on the 4th floor – and woke to find that the “News of the World” had discovered another LSE where completely different events were happening. At 1.00 we marched out of the building to the assembly-point of the march.
2. The Insurrection.
          Disregard official estimates of the march – there were over 50,000 and possibly as much as 70,000 there. We assembled at the Embankment, filling the road 10 deep for over two miles and waited to move off. Now and again we’d move a yard and stop. Excitement was rising, and when about a 2,000 strong IS [International Socialism] contingent crossed Westminster Bridge to join the March, wild cheering broke out – the first real sense of our own power was felt. We moved off fairly slowly, linking arms. Groups made little surges forward on our left and right, chanting. People began talking to each other, even reserved me, who never does these things.
          By the time we reached the turning into Fleet Street a great good-humour, enthusiasm and sense of power had built up. Everyone just ignored the police – they were irrelevant. As we turned into Fleet Street a gap of about 50 yards opened in front of us – a few folk pulled saying ‘come on’, others hesitated, but with a bit of shoving and laughing about 1500 folk launched a great arms-linked run forward – no, more a dance. (Slogan in LSE: We don’t want a demo tomorrow, we want a party in the streets). The streets were ours – no traffic, few police, just us who today had taken over all the strategic and important streets of London in an immense show of strength. Slowly we moved down Fleet Street. Outside the Daily Express offices it was incredible. About 2,000 folk stopped. The police looked worried. The marchers formed a semi-circle round the offices and an intense hissing broke out. Then someone shouted “Sieg Heil” – soon two thousand were shouting, arms raised. Faces disappeared from the window of the office, the police grouped - we passed on. This was repeated at various gutter-press offices - including a shout of "The Broons [popular strip cartoon] is a plot to mystify the workers" at the Sunday Post. This was undoubtedly the most humiliating day ever for the press barons, as witnessed by their reactions in the Monday editions. Next time there must be no Monday editions.
       Out of Fleet Street practically the whole march erupted into a wild run down the Strand, flags waving, arms linked. A new chant was shouted at the bystanders "The streets are yours, join in" – a few did. At Australia House buses of police and a squad of mounted police stood by as an Australian flag was burnt. After Trafalgar Square, where about 5,000 anarchists and Maoists broke off to go to Grosvenor Square, Whitehall was occupied by lines of people, linked at least 20 deep. As we rushed forward again, wild euphoria gripped everybody - I've never seen so many people HAPPY at one time before. Parliament was empty and barricaded - we ignored it and surged forward. In Victoria Street, where the Midland Bank was guarded by coppers 3 deep, occurred for me the second high point of the demo. A sudden intense silence descended on the march and we walked along feeling it - I could hardly breathe for the tightness in my throat. Then behind us, deep down a great roar erupted and surged forward, involving us and the folk in front "Victory to the NLF". Someone began clapping - soon the shouting and clapping was so great I thought the buildings about us would collapse. Again we rushed forward through our streets - the march was our creation, self-activity reigned. No one was bossing us [or] thwarting us or dared to. In Park Lane we shouted derisively at the bourgeoisie in the Hilton and the Playboy Club: "Jump" to those brave enough to come to windows, "Dirty old men" to the bespectacled fear behind the heavily guarded Playboy Club. As we approached Hyde Park Corner another 2000 broke off down a side street to go to the Embassy on a different side. At the rally speeches were made, a very good one by an IS bloke about going home and carrying on the struggle there, getting involved in tenants' and workers' struggles and putting across Vietnam propaganda to them to counter press lies. We dispersed, streaming down Regent Street as night fell. Grosvenor Square you probably read about - apart from a little-publicised incident where about 300 Fascists threw bottles and pulled knives. How the press can say the police were restrained when only 5 were injured and 20 demonstrators went to hospital and 30 to LSE field station is beyond me.


   1. A massive show of support for the Vietnamese against the Americans. 3½  times as many were mobilised on Victory to the NLF as on the Geneva/U Thant [UN Secretary General] old-style demos. The links between the struggle here and in Vietnam were emphasised. 

  2. Unmasking of the apparatus. The press, media, government, police, banks and big business were all seen to be the enemies by their common reaction of fear to the demo, their lies and slanders prior to it and their precautions to safeguard their property during it. The apparatus was not only unmasked - it was ridiculed. Our power on the streets ridiculed their strength, and our revolutionary self-discipline ridiculed their fears.

  3. Beginning of a movement of social change in Britain. Everybody on that demo now knows he or she has 50,000 comrades, with whom the city has been occupied, the ruling class exposed and a blow struck against Imperialism. Few people did not find the demo exhilarating, and a great encouragement. This cannot be the end, only the beginning. Every one there was ready for violence; if the police had engaged in the slightest provocation at any point, there would undoubtedly have been an uprising of some dimensions. As it was the march achieved everything it set out to do as outlined above and any insurrection was really irrelevant at this stage.

   4.  Fragments of revolutionary totality.

        Met Chris Pallis, had a long discussion with him about joining 'Solidarity', about Marxism, demystification (him) & human irrationality (me). He bought me a half pint. I've decided to join the group nationally and so has [another Aberdonian]...

P S. Keep this - we'll publish a book, “Eyewitnesses of the origins of the British Revolution...”

Note: "Victory to the NLF " was not the sort of slogan that found favour with Solidarity. 
See Solidarity Pamphlet 43 and numerous articles in the magazine.

Photographs from a museum
in Vietnam, July 2017 (MFW)