Forty Years On
Tariq Ali is sixty-four years old. But instead of asking age appropriate questions like “Will you still need me?” and “Will you still feed me?” he is asking “Where Has All the Rage Gone?”
Prompted by a TV show called “Revolution 68”, he asked that very question last Sunday in The Guardian, in a long and nostalgic article about the events of forty years ago —in the spring of 1968— when it was bliss to be alive and very heaven to be young. For a time —albeit a very short time— it seemed as if the tide of revolution might spread all the way from Paris to Prague.
In fact, most of it was illusory, as even the misty-eyed Mr. Ali is forced to admit.
The Tet Offensive, which he credits with kicking everything off? “It was undoubtedly a suicide mission, but…”
And the student uprising in Paris that stirred so many souls? “The revolution did not happen, but….”
Or the heady hopes raised by Alexander Dubcek courageous leadership in Czechoslovakia? “On August 21, the Russians sent in the tanks and crushed the reform movement.”
Or the pro-democracy movement Mexico City? “The army was sent in to occupy the universities and did so for many months, making it the best-educated army in the world.”
But even if the good old days weren’t actually all that good and the outcomes were downright disastrous, at least back then the kids were alright and had the correct revolutionary attitudes.
Alas for Mr. Ali, he isn’t able to report that things have improved all that much over the intervening four decades. In his bleakly angerless 2008 nightmare landscape:
Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up. Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won’t earn. The French intelligentsia, which had from the Enlightenment onwards made Paris the political workshop of the world, today leads the way with retreats on every front. Renegades occupy posts in every west European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere, displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional rivals on the far left.
A Pakistani-born rebel, Tariq Ali was a sufficiently clubbable man to be elected President of the Oxford Union. This is a highly politicized position largely based on the candidate’s abilities as a debater. Achieving it is no mean accomplishment and not for the weak-hearted, and Mr. Ali’s critics have always underestimated him at their own risk.
Those were the days when Marxists and Leninists fought bitterly with Stalinists and Trotskyites for control of the revolution that never quite got off the ground. Tariq Ali, young, dashing, totally committed, relentlessly articulate, and prolifically literate, was everywhere you looked — in all the papers, at every rally, on every telly. He was the mainstay of the IMG —the International Marxist Group— and he founded and edited the seminal revolutionary rag The Black Dwarf (until he was overthrown by a Leninist coup and founded the Red Mole).
In London, Mr. Ali led the anti-war protesters against the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. (“Like the Vietnamese, we wanted to occupy the embassy, but mounted police were deployed to protect the citadel,” he writes with curious naivete.) He was rumored to be Mick Jagger’s inspiration for the song “Street Fighting Man” (a connection which, then and now, he has actively encouraged.) Oh les beaux jours.
I happened to be around there back in the day, observing Mr Ali’s rise, at least on a couple of occasions, from quite close up. I remember a rainy spring afternoon in Oxford when the Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister), James Callaghan, was visiting my college and a protest was organized outside the gate. One of the more civilized aspects of the college was the free tea provided every afternoon. Right on time, several of the college’s members among the protesters broke ranks and came in from the cold to enjoy a warm cuppa and a nice biccy. I observed this with a friend, a student from Prague, who was totally appalled. He said to me disdainfully: “There are no tea breaks in revolutions.”
A few months later I had just begun teaching at the London School of Economics when Mr. Ali was active in the occupation of the buildings by student protesters. One of the porters had a heart attack trying to defend his building against the occupiers. Revolution, for me, meant being paid not to teach for several weeks until, faced with administration intransigence and decreasing media attention, even the occupiers finally tired of the squalor and quietly decamped.
Mr. Ali’s Guardian tiptoe down the garden path of history mixes equal measures of Marxism, monomania, and megalomania. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about some things. “The glorious decade (1965-75), of which the year 1968 was only the high point,” he writes, “consisted of three concurrent narratives. Politics dominated, but there were two others that left a deeper imprint – sexual liberation and a hedonistic entrepreneurship from below.” I think that’s true where Europe was concerned — Europe, where the western countries were beginning to get out from under the grinding and humiliating privations of wartime, and where the eastern countries were producing the first post-Soviet takeover generation.
In this country, things were quite different. There were also three concurrent narratives underlying America’s student protest movement in the late 1960s, but the lie of the land was uniquely American. They were, first, the emergence of a youth demographic cohort (13-21) with serious economic resources and clout; second, the abject abdication of responsibility on the part of the educational establishment; and, third, the existence of the military draft threatening to interrupt the marathon idyll of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that was otherwise known as a college education.
In an entertaining article in The Times (inspired by the same TV show), playwright Tom Stoppard exposes the degree of posturing and play acting that underlay a lot of the British participation in the events of ’68. Compared to some of the grittier continental manifestations, the UK version was “little more than a saturnalia”. Sir Tom writes:
The English version of continental eruptions suggested a national character in control of itself. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, political activism at its extremes included murder, kidnap and bombs. My Italian publisher, one of the most sophisticated, charming and charismatic people I’d ever met, was later killed by his own explosives while trying to blow up an electricity pylon outside Milan.A few miles away across the Channel, clashes between protesters and riot police were affairs of burning cars, overturned buses and buildings turned to rubble. Our own street-fighting man was only rock’n’roll.
If Tariq Ali’s influence were purely notional it might be quaintly nostalgic to read his proto-Marxist ruminations and be reminded of those not so distant days when leftist intellectuals seriously debated how many Trotskyites could dance on the heads of pins. But can there be any doubt regarding how he sees at least one event of October ’68 applying to August ’08? He writes:
On October 2 – with the eyes of the world on Mexico City 10 days before the Olympic games were due to begin there – thousands of students poured on to the streets to demonstrate. A massacre began at sunset. Troops opened fire on the crowd listening to speeches in one of the city’s main squares – dozens were killed and hundreds more injured.
In England, Tariq Ali is part a tradition of radical gadflys who hover perennially on the edges of politics and academics and popular culture. In the mornings he can man the barricades; in the afternoon he can take tea with the publishers of his many volumes of memoir, fiction, and non fiction; in the evening he can attend the gala premiere of his latest play; and if he gets home early enough he can catch the end of the movie he wrote for the BBC. In this country, we have no such niche. Perhaps if Tom Hayden and Gore Vidal had an articulate and prolific love child, the result might be an American Tariq Ali. (I know — it’s a vile image and is not to be dwelt upon; it is introduced only for the purposes of comparison.)