The piece below is the second part of the latest in an occasional series of essays by our expatriate English correspondent Peter on the history of the Socialist Left in Britain.
The Red Evolution IV: The Subversive Left, the Destabilising Left, the Antecedents of Generation Snowflake and the Ultimate Surrender of Rationality
In the mid-1960s many of us stopped reading the mainstream press, preferring the more radical International Times, Oz and the UK version of Rolling Stone, which wasn’t a patch on its American original and was why founder, Jann Wenner, closed it down. There were many, many others, too, most of which were of questionable value. I continued to take the Times and the Sunday Times as in those days, their government and law reporting were second to none and I had been encouraged to read both by my college lecturers, during my part-time study at Southampton College of Technology funded by my employers.
While the political pages of the mainstream media featured our own grey and boring governmental figures like Harold Wilson, the alcoholically challenged George Brown, and the pudgy-faced Edward Heath, the alternative press concentrated on more interesting people such as Regis DeBray, Rudi Dutschke, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Tariq Ali. There were others, too, such as Marcuse, Adorno and Erich Fromm, but in spite of that, most of the so-called underground publications were largely incoherent. Their contributors appeared to have partaken liberally of those substances they were campaigning to legalise, but if anything, that tended to enhance their appeal to a youthful readership which, having rejected the mainstream, were rapaciously seeking out something in which they could believe. For many, that already existed.
In my late teens, I became aware of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), better known by one of their much-used slogans — “Ban the Bomb.” As far as I could see, they consisted of a large number of student types and other sartorially inelegant individuals who would assemble en masse in various public places, make speeches, march, wave banners and shout anti-American slogans. The movement started in 1957 when Kingsley Martin, then the editor of the New Statesman, chaired a small meeting at a flat in Central London to discuss the widespread fear of nuclear conflict and its potential consequences. On 17 February 1958, the Campaign was launched formally at a public meeting in Central Hall, Westminster attended by 5000 of the great, the good and the Left, a number of whom, including politician Michael Foot, author J.B. Priestley and journalist James Cameron had already been selected as Executive Committee members. Some commentators cite Islington Labour Party members Pat Arrowsmith and Pat Pottle as founder members, too as well as the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
The declared intention of CND was to persuade the UK government by peaceful means to renounce unilaterally “ the use, production of or dependence upon nuclear weapons by Britain and the bringing about of a general disarmament convention; halting the flight of planes armed with nuclear weapons; ending nuclear testing; not proceeding with missile bases; and not providing nuclear weapons to any other country,” which made a lot of sense, didn’t it? At the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ republic of China had nuclear weapons, as did the USA and France. Not to be similarly armed while keeping the same company seemed at the time to be suicidal, but the concept appealed to the leftists and much of the CND membership consisted of Labour Party members and other left-leaning people, although — officially — the Labour Party wanted nothing to do with them. Every Easter, from 1958 onwards, CND members took part in a march between Central London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire, a distance of some 52 miles. This became an annual pilgrimage attracting growing numbers each year.
Many CND supporters in those days were unemployed student types, while those of us who had jobs tended to look down on them, particularly since our taxes paid for their student grants, we were better dressed, had more money and as a result, attracted all the women. Also, as stated earlier, the idea of disarmament in those dangerous times did not seem to be rational. In hindsight, I believe that the reason no nuclear war broke out then was that those nuclear-armed governments put their trust in the theory of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) rather than the impassioned pleas of CND.
Prior to the formation of CND, the international peace movement had been dominated by the World Peace Council (WPC), an anti-Western organisation funded by the Soviet Communist Party, so that the WPC and its adherents became identified with communist ideology. This caused difficulties for CND, which, although totally detached from the WPC and from any political party, was accused of being a communist-controlled and -influenced organisation, and a number of its leading members were subject to active surveillance and occasional arrest by the UK counter-intelligence services. Support for CND diminished after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, and it tended to focus its attention thereafter on the escalating war in Vietnam. CND still exists, though it is often overshadowed by more vocal movements such as the “Stop the War Coalition,” set up by Socialist Workers Party supporters.
1968 was an apocalyptic year as the entire world seemed to explode in protest and insurrection, and the war in Vietnam was by no means the only grievance. Demonstrators occupied college buildings, banks and offices while protesters fought pitched battles on the streets against the forces of law and order, whatever law and order it was they claimed to be upholding. I will only look at what I consider to be the most significant of these — readers may well disagree with my selection, but I am writing an essay, not a book.
On 17th March, an anti-war rally in London organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign resulted in the worst peacetime violence seen in that city since World War II. A well-attended gathering, estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000 protesters assembled in Trafalgar Square where they heard speeches by Vanessa Redgrave, an occasional actress and full-time far-left activist, and Tariq Ali, a part-time writer and prolific left-wing agitator. The mood of the crowd was described as good as they marched towards the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where Ms Redgrave handed in a petition while the Metropolitan Police cordoned off a section of the square nearest the Embassy. As they marched, the protesters had been chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” leaving nobody in any doubt that they were not necessarily anti-war, only anti-American and, of course, rabidly pro-communist, as most students seemed to be in those days. However, the combined mass of demonstrators eventually swept aside the thin blue line that was the police cordon and a pitched battle ensued as the police endeavoured to prevent the mob from penetrating the embassy compound. Afterwards, the police were criticised for the use of police horses, albeit against a crowd who were “tooled up” and had clearly come for a fight. The police gave as good as they received, and video footage of proceedings clearly shows police officers kicking protesters as they lay on the ground. Twenty demonstrators were arrested and 50 people needed hospital treatment including 25 policemen.
On 4th April, Martin Luther King Junior was declared dead at St Joseph’s Hospital, Memphis after being shot by one James Earl Ray, who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment and died in captivity in 1998. The murder led to riots in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington DC, and many other US cities, resulting in 46 deaths.
On May 6th, hostilities broke out between five thousand Parisian students and police, ending in a full-fledged riot. Whether police charged the rioters pre-emptively with unprecedented violence or whether they were provoked by students tearing up paving stones and propelling them at the police is still a matter for dispute, but the rioters ultimately set up barricades and the police responded with tear gas grenades. The trouble started with a series of student occupations and marches with protests against capitalism, consumerism and all the usual leftist bunk as well as “American Imperialism,” whatever that was. Strange one never heard the phrase “Soviet Imperialism.” The violence escalated and spread to factories, with strikes eventually involving up to 11 million workers — up to 22% of the total workforce, the largest general strike ever seen in France. Many of the student marchers carried banners bearing the legend “Marx, Mao, Marcuse.”
The disturbances were punctuated by outbreaks of violence of such intensity that many political leaders were afraid that civil war or revolution was occurring and, at its height brought the entire French economy to a brief standstill while the Government itself temporarily ceased to function. President de Gaulle left the country, presumably to save his own skin as he had done in June 1940. He pitched up a few hours later at a French military base in Germany before being persuaded to return to Paris before anyone noticed he’d gone.
The violence ceased almost as suddenly as it began and when elections were held in June, the Gaullists were returned with a resounding majority, but the communists had made their point, and had very nearly overturned an elected government by non-democratic means.
On 5th June, Senator Robert Kennedy, a former US Attorney General and at that time a presidential candidate, was assassinated while leaving the stage after addressing supporters at the Ambassador Hotel, San Francisco by one Sirhan Sirhan, described as a Jordanian national living in San Francisco. Senator Kennedy had already won two primaries and was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, if not for the presidency itself. He had only declared his intention to run on 16th March, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to announce that he would not be seeking re-election.
With one of the two favourites dead from an assassin’s bullet while the other had withdrawn his candidacy, the democratic nomination appeared to be wide open. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was in the pole position, followed by Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Humphrey’s candidacy was unpopular with anti-war factions, as he was identified, unfairly as it turned out, with President Johnson’s escalation of the war, while questions were asked as to the validity of his running at all when he had never contested a primary. Also, Richard Daley, the Mayor of Chicago who hosted the convention, was not trusted, and many feared some sort of electoral manipulation behind the scenes in favour of Humphrey. Abby Hoffman declared his intention to protest the convention along with his “Yippie” supporters and encouraged like-minded people to join them. Many did, so that when Mayor Daley opened the Democratic convention and delegates proceeded to nominate Hubert Humphrey as the presidential candidate, this did not go down well with the thousands of anti-war demonstrators camped outside, who made their feelings known. The Yippies decided to nominate their own candidate, a pig called “Pigasus” which they were originally planning to slaughter and roast but never did. Speeches were made by various campaign leaders, including Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman for the Yippies and Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, but in all, the demonstration was relatively peaceful and there was no need for the violence that followed.
On 28th August, Mayor Daley ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city along with 18,000 Illinois National Guardsmen “defending” the conference centre itself. During the evening the police made an unprovoked attack on the protesters, beating some of them unconscious and leaving 100 of them in need of emergency hospital treatment, while a further 175 were arrested, presumably for bleeding on the sidewalk. The incidents were shown on national television, and ultimately the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence described them as a “police riot.”
The Convention lasted five days, and in the course of those five days and nights the police used tear gas, mace and batons on the protesters, while many journalists recording the action were also battered by the police or had cameras and film “confiscated.” Ramsey Clark, President Johnson’s attorney general, refused to prosecute the protesters, but that was not the end of it.
The day after the Convention had concluded, Mayor Daley held a press conference at which he explained the police action as follows:
“The policeman isn’t there to create disorder: The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
On 5th November, Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey, gaining 301 Electoral College votes against 191 for Humphrey, although the popular vote was much closer.
In his election campaign Nixon tapped into the anti-war vote, promising to “Bring the Boys Home”. Regardless of everything else he did, he delivered on his promise.
Johnson was due to hand over the presidency in January, and whatever anyone said about Mayor Daley, everybody agreed he was vindictive. The reluctance of Johnson’s Justice Department to prosecute the rioters had enraged Mayor Daley, who took the protests personally. He persuaded close friend and Federal Judge William Campbell to empanel a grand jury, which, on 20, March 1969 returned indictments against Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, John Froines, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner , Bobby Seale and eight Chicago police officers. Seven of the police officers charged with violating the civil rights of the demonstrators were acquitted while charges against the eighth were dismissed. In the wake of this, one observer stated that “The people who sit on juries in this city are just not ready to convict a Chicago policeman.”
Incoming Attorney General John Mitchell gave the go-ahead to prosecute the demonstrators, and a trial lasting five months started on 24 September 1969 before Judge Julius Hoffman, reputed to be a colleague and close associate of Major Daley.
The accused were prosecuted for violating what became known as the Rap Brown Law, a prohibition that had been affixed to the 1968 Civil Rights Bill, making it illegal to cross state lines in order to riot or to incite rioting. It was questionable whether there actually was a conspiracy, as most of those accused did not know each other well, if at all. Both Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin did meet with other leaders of counter culture groups like the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Mobilization Committee (MOBE) as did David Dellinger and Rennie Davis. Unfortunately for them, the FBI had undercover agents at those meetings so it was not difficult for them to fabricate a case of conspiracy, if that had been their brief.
In a trial later called a travesty of justice, Judge Hoffman displayed open contempt for the defendants and their legal representatives, while the accused themselves turned proceedings into a circus, ridiculing procedures while saving their most biting sarcasm for the judge himself. Judge Hoffman’s pre-trial decisions hindered defence attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass by prohibiting certain lines of questioning for potential jurors, so that federal prosecutors were able to select a jury that was either unsympathetic or antagonistic towards the defendants. In evidence, the poet Alan Ginsberg, in one of his more lucid moments, accused the court of trying the defendants for their lifestyles and personal beliefs rather than anything they might or might not have said or done.
The eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, had been wrongly denied his chosen counsel, who had been recovering from surgery at the time. As the trial progressed, rather than postpone the hearing, Judge Hoffman refused Bobby Seale the right to defend himself and proceeded with the case, leaving Seale with no defence against the charges he faced. Seale protested his situation vigorously, so much so that Judge Hoffman ordered him to be gagged and chained to a chair in court. In the face of mounting protest, Hoffman later relented and removed Seale as a defendant but not before sentencing him to four years imprisonment for contempt of court.
Ultimately, the jury found both John Froines and Lee Weiner not guilty of any of the charges against them while the other five were found guilty of violating the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Not content with that, Judge Hoffman sentenced every one of the Chicago seven and their legal representatives to a number of years imprisonment for contempt of court, although all sentences were subsequently overturned on appeal by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1972, due to Judge Hoffman’s unreasonable behaviour during the trial and the excessive length of the sentences he had handed down.
In January 1973, a final peace agreement was concluded between the US and North Vietnam ending open warfare between them, although the war continued between the South Vietnamese and the North. By the middle of August that year, 95% of US forces had left the region, leaving the South Vietnamese Army outnumbered and unsupported. In August 1974, Nixon was forced to resign over Watergate, leaving the North Vietnamese army free to cross the Demilitarised Zone and complete its invasion of Saigon, which it did on 30 April 1975 in violation of the Paris Peace Accords.
In total, two million Vietnamese perished in the hostilities, while three million were wounded and twelve million became refugees. Additionally, between 240,000 and 300,000 Cambodians, 20,000 Laotians and 58,220 US personnel perished in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action, while Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to Communism.
From the fall of Saigon in 1975, student protest gradually tailed off, probably because their side had won. I was in Vietnam for a goodly part of 1997 and spoke to many Vietnamese people who had been actively involved in hostilities on either side or who had survived time spent in political re-education centres. I was told that many others had died in those centres because of the treatment they received. I concluded that America was right to try to prevent the imposition of a vile, repressive ideology on the Vietnamese people. I recall impromptu police road blocks being set up to extract money from unsuspecting victims. Their favourite trick was to demand that any foreigners produce their passports, which would instantly disappear into one of the satchels Police officers wore as part of their uniform and would remain there until the owner produced a $50 or $100 bill. Word got around, though, and travellers in South East Asia soon started to carry photocopies of their passports while retaining the originals in their hotel safes. The police would also stop tourist mini-busses on a regular basis, but again, their demands for money were largely unsuccessful. I used to pretend that I did not understand them even though I spoke better French than they did. They were always in a hurry, which suggested that the authorities frowned on what they were doing, although not so much that they would stop them from doing it.
It has been estimated that 65,000 Vietnamese people were executed after the end of the war and a million others were sent to re-education camps where approximately 165,000 died. Many more South Vietnamese feared communist rule with some degree of justification, particularly if it was revealed that they had fought against the North, as many had. From 1975 to 1978 and after, many Vietnamese people took to the open sea in overcrowded boats — an illegal act under communism, not to mention a highly dangerous one. There are no definitive figures available for the numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodians or Laotians who attempted to flee communism in this way. Estimates for deaths by drowning vary from 50,000 to 200,000 according to figures provided by the Australian Immigration Industry, although many of these boats were attacked by pirates who murdered the occupants or sold them into slavery or prostitution. Those who tried to land in Malaysia were often turned back while many others eventually settled in the USA and Europe. Of those who did not make it, they calculated the odds and decided death was better than Communism. I would not disagree with them.
After being freed on appeal, the defendants in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial returned to something approaching a normal life. David Dellinger continued to take part in civil demonstrations until he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004. Upon his release from court, Abby Hoffman went straight into hiding to avoid prison for cocaine possession. He re-emerged in 1980, squared, things with the authorities, served a year and tried to resurrect the Counterculture movement. Events had moved on and people had moved, on but Hoffman remained stuck in the ’60s. He became disillusioned and committed suicide in 1989. Jerry Rubin became a successful businessman, but on 14 November, 1994, he was run over while trying to cross LA’s Wiltshire Boulevard and died of his injuries two weeks later.
Rennie Davis became a public speaker on motivation and self-awareness, while Lee Weiner remained an activist primarily in support of Jewish issues. Bobby Seale became a writer and lecturer on civil rights, while John Froines retired from the UCLA School of Public Health in 2011 after a relatively low-key career in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Tom Hayden went into politics and became democratic senator for Santa Monica while being married to “Hanoi” Jane Fonda for 17 years, which can’t have been all that bad, since she funded his political career. And, as I recall, Jane looked more like Barbarella in those days and less like her father Henry, as she does now. Several of the Chicago defendants wrote books. I read Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time, before making the mistake of buying Rubin’s Do It. This epistle made little sense and left me wishing he’d done it over somebody else.
To be continued…
Peter is an English expatriate who now lives in Thailand. For his previous essays, see Peter’s Archives.