March 17 1968. 20,000 gather in Trafalgar Square for a rally and march to the US Embassy in protest against the US war in Vietnam. The Square is full of the flags of the National Liberation Front (the “Vietcong”), who, only weeks previously had launched the Tet Offensive that had taken a largely rural guerilla war into the cities of Vietnam, getting as far as the gates of the US Embassy in the capital Saigon. Someone throws red dye into the fountains to symbolise the blood shed in the war. Police move in but are resisted — a policy of “no arrests” means demonstrators try to snatch back those arrested from the police.
Speeches over, the march sets off and takes over the entire width of the street. Near the front a contingent from the German SDS, considered more skilled at street battles than the Brits. Marchers with arms linked chant “Victory to the NLF”, “Hey, Hey LBJ [US President Johnson], how many kids have you killed today?” and, in honour of the Stalinist leader of North Vietnam, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” — accompanied by jogging up and down.
Reaching Grosvenor Square, the front of the march heads through the police cordon and privet hedges and makes for the Embassy, meeting lines of police with arms linked. Waves follow pressing harder. From two other sides of the square, lots more police, including horses, randomly lay into anyone they can, even those watching from the sidelines. There were over 250 arrests.
The marchers divided into the determined who wanted to storm the embassy and those such as myself (on my first demo) who just wanted to show our opposition to the Vietnam war. One marcher wrote “The March Vietnam demo… was a great turning point. We went on that in the same spirit of [pacifist] CNDism, some people even had kids with them… We were astonished, amazed, couldn’t really believe it was happening here in England when the police…started to push us in on three sides.” For me the demonstration came as quite an (exciting) shock that made me think not merely about the role of the police but also more deeply about the politics of the Vietnam war and whether just calling for an end to it was enough.
The war in Vietnam had led to world-wide mobilisation because many people who had not previously been involved in politics reacted to the nightly news bulletins showing the pulverisation of a small country and its people by the world’s strongest and most technologically advanced power. In Britain there was added disillusionment with Wilson’s Labour government, which, despite the war, remained a close ally of the US. The movement around the war was to be central to the British events of ‘68 and their impact on the left.
The Grosvenor Square demonstration had been called by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), which had been set up by in July 1966 by what was to become the International Marxist Group (IMG), acting through the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. It rejected the line, peddled by the Communist Party, for “Peace in Vietnam” (and accordingly the CP did not support it), instead calling explicitly for victory to the NLF over America. (A discussion of the politics of the campaign is too big a topic to deal with here.) By 1967, its main forces alongside the IMG were the International Socialists (IS — forerunners of the SWP) and various Maoists who departed in ‘68.
Where next after March 17th? At one level, the answer for activists was given by the sequence of events across the world that brought renewed action on the streets of London: the May events in France, Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the attempted assassination of German student leader Rudi Dutschke, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the continuing war in Vietnam. All this — and the growth of militant student action in the UK and internationally — could be wrapped up in vague ideas of a new revolutionary wave and “student power”, supplemented by talk of the need for a “worker-student alliance”. In 1968 the “dramatic effects [of events] outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day.” (Marx)
This inchoate “revolutionism” was best reflected in the paper Black Dwarf edited by Tariq Ali, assisted by some of the gurus of New Left Review who had written of “Red Bases” in the universities, IMGers and various independent leftists. Headlines in early issues included: “Students: The New Revolutionary Vanguard”, “Don’t Demand, Occupy” and “We shall fight, we shall win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin”.
These ideas reflected both the great strengths and weaknesses of the movements of ‘68, — and not just in the UK: the strengths were a passionate solidarity and activism and a willingness to challenge all aspects of the status quo; the weakness a certain naivete and the absence of a strategy whereby the “movement” could be brought into productive contact with the only force that could make “revolution” a reality — the working class.
This was a product of both the political and organisational weakness of the Trotskyist left. Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and Militant both stood back from the movement. The SLL notoriously issued a leaflet, Why we are not marching, to the 100,000 strong Vietnam demo on October 27th. (Why? Because the march was, they claimed, just a stunt to distract attention from the SLL). Militant were there, with a few paper sellers, but buried deep in the Labour Party — not a very popular or worthwhile place to be in ‘68. The IMG, which effectively controlled the machinery of VSC, adapted to the ultra-left and student-power orientation of the milieu. Only the IS (which the AWL’s predecessors joined in ‘68) actively sought to shift the student and anti-war movements towards a more long term strategy of linking up with trade union struggles.
These differences were felt within the Vietnam solidarity movement, particularly in the build-up to the October 27th demonstration, which was to be probably the largest march since 1945. While local ad hoc committees mobilised for the march, its goals and the more long term development of the movement were debated.
Firstly, the Maoists insisted on going to Grosvenor Square for a repeat of the March march, rather than the rally in Hyde Park proposed by the majority of VSC, who felt nothing would be gained by another confrontation with the police. Otherwise the debate was about how the march would contribute to the broader politicisation of ‘68.
By taking over the streets, showing where political power really lay? By linking the Vietnam War to broader issues and movements in Britain and across the world? Or simply by carrying on marching in solidarity with the Vietnamese, leaving the other issues to the revolutionary groups?
The issue could not be resolved. Nobody (apart from sections of the press and ruling class) seriously believed the march could lead to an attempt at revolution or the seizure of buildings. But where next? The impasse reflected the broader problems of the movements of ‘68. Militancy and imagination alone wasn’t going to lead to revolutionary change. In the event, October 27th was a successful anti-climax: successful in terms of numbers and atmosphere, but an anti-climax in that it was ultimately just a demonstration and none of the political problems had been dealt with.
Afterwards, VSC declined rapidly, occasionally reviving, as at the time of the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Its end as an active coalition was sealed at the memorial meeting called for Ho Chi Minh, who died in October 1969.
Amidst a string of eulogies, Chris Harman of IS pointed out that we should also be critical of Ho, because in the late 40s he had been responsible for the massacre of the Vietnamese Trotskyists. (Would the Harman of 2008 have done this, I wonder?)
At this point, the platform fell apart. The Communist Party and official North Vietnamese speakers left the platform, a voice from the audience shouted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. How many Trots did you do in?” and Bob Purdie of the IMG, supposedly a Trotskyist group, declined to support Harman when he spoke next. The VSC coalition was well dead and buried…
The collapse of movements that had been focal points in the course of ‘68 was not unique to Britain. The left student movements in Germany and the US — both called SDS — both fell apart in 1969, with major splits between Maoists and groups moving towards ‘armed struggle’. In Britain, the fallout from ‘68 was more benign, perhaps because of a rising tide of trade union struggles.
Those who remained radical either got involved in specific campaigns such as squatting or the women’s movement, or alternatively joined one of the revolutionary organisations, usually one that had oriented positively to the movements of ‘68. IS went from 450 in 1967 to over 1,000 by the end of 1968, while undergoing a “turn to the class” and abandoning its previous opposition to Leninist organisation. It was at the time a relatively open organisation that offered most to those who saw the need to go beyond the enthusiasms of ‘68.
By contrast, the IMG, which was much closer to the common student-oriented politics of the year and was also central to the VSC, grew much more slowly until later in 1970.
The rise and decline of the movement against the Vietnam war in Britain provides lessons that find more recent echoes in the “anti-capitalist” movement and the movement against the war in Iraq. One cannot continue indefinitely mobilising people on issues without giving them a political perspective and linking them to the social forces that can make their aspirations reality. Otherwise, no matter how large, militant or imaginative, they will drift away.
Similarly, hard political issues (whether the past of Ho, or the need to oppose the Islamists in Iraq) cannot be wished away in the interests of a fake unity.