Paper for the “Before 68” conference held in Norwich in February 2016, which unfortunately I was unable to attend for health reasons.

    Peace Is Not Enough: Algeria and Vietnam and their impact on the French and British lefts

    The factors which produced  the 1968 international social explosion are many and various. They include major social and economic changes taking place throughout the world, consequent ideological and cultural changes, and shifting alignments within the political forces of the left. This paper will aim to look at just one aspect of this process – the evolution of the far left which, from being obscure and marginal, part of the “political fringe”[1],  emerged from the shadows in 1968, drew quite a lot of attention and recruited quite substantially.

    The paper will set this against the background of one of the most fundamental changes in the post-war world – the move to decolonisation and the rise of the so-called “Third World”.  I have focussed on the far left in Britain and France, which had been the centre of the world’s two largest colonial empires, both dismantled in the period between 1945 and 1968.

    The period between 1956 and 1968 saw a restructuring of the left and especially the far left in both countries. The events of 1956, the Khrushchev “secret speech” and the Russian intervention in Hungary, led to a crisis in the international Communist movement, and although the impact on the British Communist Party was much more dramatic, there was a significant impact in both countries.  This was followed by the Sino-Soviet split, which became open in 1962. Many on the left were increasingly sceptical about the Cold War division of the world into two competing blocs.  At the same time significant social changes were taking place -  a long period of more or less full employment and a rapid expansion of higher education.

    The left in both countries was essentially that which had been inherited from the great splits of the post-1918 world, and which had been consolidated by the 1930s and the post-1945 carve-up of the world.

    On the one hand there were the Stalinist parties. The Communist International had been dissolved in 1943, but in practice Communist Parties continued to follow a line emanating from Moscow. The formation and then dissolution of the Cominform, to which the French CP but not the British CP belonged, had little impact on this relationship. Thus in the immediate post-war period the Communist Parties were concerned to preserve the division of the world agreed at Yalta. The British Communist Party [CP] in 1945 urged a continuation of the war-time coalition including Churchill,[2] while the French Communist Party [PCF] actually participated in a series of governments with de Gaulle and the Christian Democrats. This was followed in 1947 by a left turn which marked the opening of the Cold War.

    But at the same time the Communist Parties were basically oriented to a Popular Frontist strategy (an alliance with supposedly progressive elements of the bourgeoisie). The Popular Front had originally been conceived in terms of the fight against fascism, but after fascism was effectively disposed of in 1945 popular frontism remained as a central strategic theme. In 1956 the PCF’s main goal was to reconstruct a political alliance with the Socialist Party [SFIO] and other currents which would enable it to return to governmental participation (something it finally achieved, with remarkably little effect, in 1981). In Britain the CP was essentially oriented on the Labour Party – indeed so much was its policy geared to shifting Labour to the left that there seemed little point in maintaining a separate party and there was a constant draining of members to the Labour Party.[3] There was also a concern to seek cooperation with other forces, notably the churches.

    The Socialist Parties were openly reformist. Certainly the French SFIO continued to claim to be Marxist, but this was a purely ceremonial Marxism. The British Labour Party had totally reformist roots, owing more to Methodism – and Fabianism – than to Marxism. Both parties participated in post-war governments which, in the context of popular radicalisation and an economic revival, carried through some real reforms, in terms of popular welfare and healthcare. They also carried out a number of nationalisations, though these were designed to strengthen the capitalist economy rather than to make socialist inroads into it.

    From the fifties onwards there was a significant move to the right. No major reforms were even promised; the Gaitskell leadership of the British Labour Party attempted after the 1959 election defeat to remove Clause Four of the Constitution, which advocated common ownership. The SFIO’s Marxism became ever more a matter of verbal formulae and had no impact whatsoever on actual policy. It was actually the Gaullists after 1958 who introduced more reforms than the SFIO had done, for example comprehensive education.

    And just as the Communist Parties remained wedded to Moscow, so the Socialist Parties were equally wedded to Washington. When the French Communist Party was evicted from government in May 1947, at the start of the Cold War, it was SFIO premier Ramadier who did the job. (It is often said that the removal of the Communist ministers was a result of the Renault strike. While this may have been the immediate cause, Communist ministers were removed from other European governments at almost exactly the same time.)  The SFIO and the Labour Party both supported NATO and the Korean War.

    The balance of forces on the left was, however, very different in the two countries. In France the PCF was, from 1945 onwards, the biggest single party, with consistent electoral support of four to five million in the years before 1968. The SFIO also retained substantial support and participated in the majority of the coalition governments of the Fourth Republic.

    In Britain the Labour Party was in government from 1945-51 and again from 1964; in between it was the main opposition party. In the early fifties it had around a million individual members, although at this time subs were collected in cash, sixpence per month. The Communist Party was much smaller – its membership peaked at over fifty thousand during the Second World War, and its daily paper, the Daily Worker, had a circulation of 118,000 in the late 1940s. But many of its members were active trade-union militants, especially as shop stewards, and it had a certain influence within the trade-union bureaucracy. It also had a significant ideological influence on the Labour left, which often adopted similar policies to those of the CP.

    Up to 1956 the forces to the left of the Stalinist/Social democratic mainstream were extremely small.  In France the main Trotskyist organisation had a membership of 557 in 1947.[4] It lost half of these in a split in 1948, and in 1952 the organisation again split into two often very hostile halves.[5] There were other currents, notably that around Sartre’s magazine Les Temps modernes, which often positioned itself to the left of the mainstream parties, as on occasion did the daily papers Combat and Franc-Tireur. In 1948 the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire, headed by Sartre and ex-Trotskyist David Rousset, briefly attracted a significant membership to a programme of independence from both Washington and Moscow, but it quickly fell to pieces under Cold War pressures.[6] The 1950s saw the emergence of a new left (nouvelle gauche) which was politically heterogeneous and included various former Trotskyists; it went on to become one of the components of the Parti Socialiste Unifié [PSU] founded in 1960. 1956 saw no significant exodus from the PCF.

    In Britain the forces of Trotskyism were even smaller – perhaps 150 in the early fifties,[7] with various efforts at regroupment and entry work in the Labour Party. There was a Marxist fringe in the Labour Party, but most if not all of it consisted of fellow-travellers with the CP. The non-Stalinist left first began to grow after the exodus from the CP in 1956-57. A small number (perhaps 200)[8] turned to Trotskyism in the organisation that became the Socialist Labour League, while a much broader number were attracted by the emergent New Left, which held big meetings at the Partisan coffee bar.[9]  A new generation of those who had grown up after the Second World War were also attracted. This milieu converged with that of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [CND], and fed into the revival of the Labour Party Young Socialists, where the Trotskyists had a certain influence. But up to 1968 the total membership of the assorted Trotskyist organisations was probably little more than a thousand.

    From 1956 onwards the far left was, albeit slowly, making progress. This has to be explained, not in terms of the far left’s own internal dynamics, which often obstructed rather than encouraged growth, but rather in terms of overall changes in the world context.

    The first was the long post-war boom, which produced around thirty years of full employment and rising living standards. Few Marxists had predicted the possibility of this and quite a few denied that it was happening. The impact was contradictory. On the one hand the existence of full employment gave greater strength and confidence to workers, and there was a considerable increase in militancy, and, in Britain, of workplace organisation. But precisely because this militancy was often able to be successful on a local level, it also produced a certain depoliticisation. In France the division of the trade-union movement led to a colossal decline in union membership.

    Secondly there was a revival of Marxist theory. Under Stalinism Marxism had become sterile and formulaic, except perhaps on subjects remote from current politics, such as Christopher Hill on the seventeenth century or Henri Lefebvre on Alfred de Musset.[10] But the New Left milieu in Britain and the turn to Marxism by Sartre[11] and other non-PCF intellectuals in France led to a renewal of a critical Marxism.

    The third factor, on which this paper will concentrate, was the end of empire. In the decades after 1945 all the great colonial empires of Europe, whose high point had been reached in the nineteenth century, were dismantled.  Only the Portuguese empire lasted till the 1970s, and its ultimate collapse brought Portugal to the brink of revolution.

    As a result, while revolution seemed a very remote prospect in the advanced capitalist countries, momentous events were taking place in the so-called “Third World”.  The term “Third World” was not coined until the 1950s,[12] and it has now become largely obsolete, but for a short period the appeal of Third World revolution was enormous, as it promised rapid change. The Chinese revolution of 1949 was a monumental transformation, and the Sino-Soviet split of the early sixties led to splits within the world Communist movement, with the Maoist currents often attracting the most militant – but also the most dogmatic and irresponsibly voluntarist.  Struggles in Indochina, Algeria and Latin America caught the imagination of a new generation and figures such as Fanon, Lumumba and Che Guevara became heroes.[13]

    There was however a major difference between the decolonisation process in Britain and in France. The British Labour government set about carrying through Indian independence almost as soon as it was elected, and the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire achieved independence in 1947.[14]  Although there was formal opposition from the Tories, there was no significant popular disapproval. The following period, up to Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech in 1960, saw the fairly rapid dismantling of the British Empire. Certainly there was a deal of brutality on the way; John Newsinger has plausibly argued that the British role in Kenya was as vicious and bloody as that of France in Algeria.[15] But it had little impact on political life in Britain, since there was largely a consensus on foreign and colonial policy between the major parties.

    It is often said that Britain had no alternative to allowing Indian independence. But there was an alternative, however irrational it might appear. Britain could have stayed in India, committed vast resources to opposing the struggle for independence, and eventually withdrawn, defeated and humiliated. If this seems implausible, it was the alternative chosen in 1945 by the French government. Although that government was dominated by Communists and Socialists, it quite clearly adopted a policy of preserving the French colonial empire (technically Algeria was not a colony but an integral part of French territory). The Sétif massacre of 1945 showed that France was determined to maintain settler rule in Algeria – and laid the foundations for the Algerian national liberation struggle.[16]  On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam  -  but the British Labour government sent British troops to occupy the country and hold it until the French were ready to return.[17] (An episode generally omitted or minimised in accounts of the Attlee government’s achievements.[18]) It was a decision that led to thirty years of bitter warfare.

    The French left in the mid-1950s was not in a very strong state. The Trotskyist movement had little more than a hundred members, divided into two hostile groupings. The anarchists had perhaps two to three hundred.[19] There was a larger but more amorphous milieu around the Les Temps modernes and the nouvelle gauche. Individual writers like Daniel Guérin had campaigned vigorously against French colonialism, but they remained isolated.

    When the PCF made its left turn in 1947 it launched a campaign of militant opposition to the war in Indochina. This involved a good deal of militant direct action – strikes, sabotage, blocking an arms train by lying down on railway lines, etc. Its militant Henri Martin was jailed for distributing subversive leaflets to naval personnel. But by the early fifties its methods had become less militant, more geared to the Popular Front strategy. This turn was criticised by former Black Sea mutineer André Marty, who was expelled in 1952.[20]

    The defeat of France at Dien Bien Phu and its rapid departure from Vietnam, followed by the partitioning of the country, was an enormous inspiration to the Algerian nationalists. On 1 November 1954 they launched a military campaign which rapidly escalated into a full-scale war, although the French authorities refused to recognise that it was a war, and therefore defined all acts of war as criminal (just as the Nazis had done with the French Resistance a few years earlier).  The leadership in the military struggle was taken by the group which became the FLN, which demanded that all other currents should join with it. The older current of Algerian nationalism, represented by Messali Hadj and Mouvement National Algérien [MNA] refused to accept the FLN’s leadership, and there was a bitter internecine struggle between the two. It is estimated that some four thousand people were killed in mainland France in the armed struggle between the two factions, and perhaps six thousand more in Algeria.[21]

    The response of the mainstream left was appalling. In elections at the beginning of 1956 a centre-left alliance won a majority. Many voters had hoped that the new government would be headed by Pierre Mendès-France, who had negotiated the French withdrawal from Indochina, and that he would find some solution to the Algerian problem. But the new prime minister was Guy Mollet of the SFIO, who had won the leadership of the party in 1946 as the orthodox “Marxist” candidate. Initially it seemed that Mollet might pursue a policy oriented to a peaceful settlement, but when he visited Algiers he was pelted with tomatoes by European settlers, and after that he determined on a hard line. The government took “special powers” which enabled it to take a harder line with rebels in Algeria, and opened the way to the extensive use of torture and execution without trial. The PCF, which put achieving a “popular front” alliance with the SFIO above any concern for Algerian independence, voted in favour of special powers, to the distress of many of its members and of others on the left. The Justice Minister, François Mitterrand, member of neither SFIO nor PCF, took major responsibility for the executions of FLN militants.[22]

    In face of these deplorable betrayals it fell to the marginal groups of the far left to save the honour of the left.  This meant essentially the anarchists and the Trotskyists. In the first year or so of the war the anarchists played a very creditable role in opposition to the war.[23]  But in face of repression their very loose – anarchic – form of organisation collapsed and they largely disappeared from activity.[24]

    The Trotskyist movement was small and divided –  since even the names of the organisations were contested it is simpler to refer to the two groupings as Lambertistes and Pabloites, after their main leaders.  But they had contacts with the Algerian nationalist movement going back a number of years.  When the war began the Algerians turned to them for help. The Lambertistes organised some successful meetings in support of the MNA and against the repression directed against Messali Hadj.[25]

    Meanwhile the FLN turned to some of their friends in the Pabloite group, asking for practical assistance. The Pabloites were already doing undercover entry work in the Communist Party, and so were well prepared for clandestine work.[26] They were asked to take on such tasks as getting literature printed.  The comrades acquired a small printing press and set up an illegal printshop. When they needed maintenance one of their members took the machine to be repaired, explaining that he could not give a contact address because he worked for a travelling circus.[27]

    The level of clandestinity required for entry work in the PCF, although it only involved a handful of comrades,[28] was quite considerable.  Since Trotskyists were the target of hatred it was necessary to be very careful about use of the term, and at times comrades had to deny their Trotskyist allegiance. The young Alain Krivine, who was to play a leading role in 1968, had joined the PCF youth, but became increasingly critical of the party’s line on Algeria. He then became involved in support activity through his twin brother Hubert. He did not know that his twin was already a member of the Trotskyist organisation.[29]

    It was with this activity that what became known as “suitcase carrying” originated.  The “porteurs de valise”, as they were known, assisted the FLN with communications and other organisational tasks. The suitcases that they carried did not, in general, contain bombs or weapons, but rather money.  One of the main sources of FLN finance was the collection of money more or less – generally less – voluntarily from North African workers employed on the French mainland. To get this money to where it could be spent on weapons required people who were less likely to be searched by police. And the racist French police were far more likely to search someone who appeared North African than a relatively respectable-looking French person.

    Some of the activists were drawn into more dangerous activity. Comrades were asked by the FLN to assist with jailbreaks, and some FLN militants were freed.[30] Denis Berger, a Trotskyist involved with the Voie communiste grouping,[31] was approached by the FLN to organise a plan to enable Ben Bella, who had been kidnapped by the French government, to escape. Berger devised two schemes for Ben Bella’s escape, but in the end Ben Bella himself seems to have decided that it was politically better for him to remain in jail.[32]

    Militants from the Pabloite group were also involved in setting up an arms factory for the FLN in Tunisia, disguised as a marmalade factory.[33] Skilled engineering workers from France – and also Britain[34]  – were recruited.[35] And Pablo himself was eventually jailed in the Netherlands for his involvement in a scheme to forge money in order to finance FLN operations.[36]

    Though the Trotskyists seem to have been first in the field, many other activists were recruited as suitcase carriers. Two major solidarity networks were set up, one headed by Francis Jeanson,[37] who had been closely involved with Sartre and Les Temps modernes, the other by Henri Curiel, a dissident Egyptian Communist.[38]

    Activists in the networks came from a variety of political backgrounds, as Martin Evans has shown in his fascinating book The Memory of Resistance.[39] Some from an older generation had been involved in the resistance to the Nazi Occupation, and saw clear parallels between the way the German occupiers had behaved in France, including the use of torture, and the activities of the French armed forces in Algeria. Others were younger and were getting their initiation into political activity in opposition to the war.

    But it also has to be said that there were serious illusions about the nature of the Algerian revolution. That it deserved support as a struggle against imperialism was undoubtedly the case, but many of those who became involved in the support activities had illusions that the FLN aspired towards a socialist transformation.  As Mohamed Harbi, who as an FLN militant was involved in recruiting some of the suitcase carriers, has later noted, the FLN’s Marxist language when addressing the French left helped win support.[40]  Denis Berger, who was an active suitcase carrier (and jailbreak organiser) later wrote quite a sharp critique of the illusions that circulated in the Trotskyist movement.[41] A number of Trotskyists went to Algeria after independence (the so-called “pieds-rouges”). Some of them saw their illusions shattered when they were imprisoned and even tortured. [42]

    In the early years of the war most of the activity in support of the FLN was, of necessity, clandestine, but in the last couple of years there was much broader activity involving public demonstrations. In particular there began to be a mass involvement of students in the opposition to the war. By the end of 1960 this brought them into direct opposition with the PCF student organisation, which had a more cautious line.[43]

    Participation in solidarity activity was a formative experience for a whole generation of students, and prepared the way for a number of splits and further developments in the student movement.  Increasingly both Maoist and Trotskyist students came into direct conflict with the leadership of the mainstream student organisations and there were various splits, notably one leading to the formation of the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire in 1966.[44]

    The biographies of various student activists shows how a generation formed by the Algerian war turned to revolutionary activism.  From finding themselves confronting the brutality of the French state, they rapidly evolved to a position of total opposition to that state.[45] Many of the student activists of 1968 had still been at school during the Algerian war, but they had vivid memories of the violence of those years.[46]

    Opposition to the war was not confined to the student milieu.  There is a fascinating account of the situation in the massive Renault factory at Billancourt in Paris by two French trade-union activists, Henri Benoîts (a longstanding Trotskyist) and his wife Clara (a dissident member of the Communist Party).  They describe how there was considerable sympathy amongst indigenous French workers for the substantial number of North African workers employed in the factory, and even describe how on one occasion it was possible to organise a work stoppage to enable an FLN militant to make his escape when being pursued by police.[47]

    Many of the younger workers found themselves called up to fight in Algeria as conscripts or reservists. Daniel Mothé, another revolutionary socialist militant at Renault, described the contradictory impact on consciousness of serving in Algeria:

    Very few have bad memories. The reservist’s resentment tends to be directed against the army. Often one of them told me bitterly that he was forbidden to shoot, or that he had to account for the number of bullets allocated to him. He would conclude: “we didn’t have the right to defend ourselves”.


    Except for a few Communist militants, there was never any sign of proletarian solidarity between the reservists and the North Africans. However, it would be wrong to think that because a worker has put on a uniform, he has lost all the reactions which characterised him in the factory. The reservist behaved like a soldier towards the North Africans, but he often behaved like a worker towards his officers. He carried in his pack the same contempt he has for those responsible for oppressing him in civilian life. He reacted against army discipline, but as this discipline also limited his power as an occupier, he often had a tendency to tar them all with the same brush, the North Africans and the High Command. [….]

    Even the most gullible didn’t believe in “pacification”; as for patriotism, they were totally without it. [….]

    Yet not one reservist expressed the slightest solidarity with the Europeans in North Africa. First of all, the proletarian’s reaction excludes any sympathy with the privileged layers; then the occupying soldier’s reaction goes to the logical conclusion: Algeria is hostile territory, and its inhabitants, all its inhabitants, are the enemy.[48]

    But even if the impact was contradictory, the experiences of the Algerian war must have had a significant effect on workers at what was to be one of the main strongholds of worker militancy in May-June 1968. And the cooperation between French and North African workers probably had some impact on the role of immigrant workers who played a significant part in 1968.[49]

    One other worker itinerary is worthy of note. At the age of twenty, a young worker from the Sud-Aviation factory near Nantes, Yvon Rocton was sent to Algeria as a conscript; when he spoke up against torture he was sent to a disciplinary battalion. Far from cooling him down, this only increased his opposition to the whole system, and on leaving the army he joined a Trotskyist organisation, the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste.[50] In 1968 he played a leading role in initiating and organising the occupation of Sud-Aviation, which was the very first factory to be occupied in May 1968, and which sparked off the wave of occupations.[51]

    So it is no wonder that in 1968 many student and worker activists had memories of the Algerian war, which had ended just six years earlier. As Kristin Ross points out, there were many echoes of the war and its events.[52] In particular the students were well aware of the role of the police during the Algerian war.  Only six-and-a-half years previously up to 200 FLN supporters had been murdered by police on the streets of Paris,[53] so when the students found themselves confronting the police, they had no illusions about its neutral role. On the contrary, they had a very clear grasp of the class nature of the state. That is why they built barricades.

    Any comparison between the French left and the British left in the same period needs to be made carefully. We undoubtedly had it much easier.  British imperialism avoided disastrous wars like those in Indochina and Algeria. Those of my age-group who were lucky enough to avoid National Service did not even have the possibility of seeing action at Suez or in Cyprus. Nonetheless there are parallels to be drawn.

    The British left began to revive after 1956, with the exodus from the Communist Party and the emergence of the New Left. The New Left in turn played an important role in launching the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which grew up independently of the Communist Party – indeed, for the first couple of years the CP was decidedly sceptical about the unilateralism advocated by CND.[54] For a significant current within CND the Campaign was linked to rising interest in the Third World, with the advocacy of a neutralist foreign policy for Britain, which would have meant closer links with the newly independent non‑aligned states of the Third World.[55]

    There were also major debates about tactics and strategy. On the one hand, many in the leadership of CND wanted to orient primarily to the Labour Party. This seemed justified by the unilateralist victory at the Labour Party’s Scarborough conference in 1960, though the defeat the following year, after the right wing pursued a grass roots strategy much more successfully than the unilateralists, led to considerable demoralisation. The positive result, however, was the decision by many young CND activists to join the newly revived Young Socialists, which gave an initial political education to many of the 1968 activists.

    At the same time there was a grouping within CND arguing for direct action, which crystallised in the Committee of One Hundred. There were diverse currents within this. Some believed in non‑violence, not as a tactic, but as a principle. The magazine Solidarity satirised their attitude as being to “go limp and refuse to bleed”.[56]  While the Committee of One Hundred demonstrations made a useful propaganda impact, those who saw direct action as a principle rather than a tactic were in a minority, and very few followed the Gandhist strategy of preferring prison to paying a fine.[57] But other initiatives challenged the state, notably the Spies for Peace action of 1963, which exposed the Regional Seats of Government planned by the state in the event of nuclear war.[58] On the 1963 Aldermaston March a group broke away to go to the Warren Row RSG. I still recall the irate Peggy Duff, a leading CND bureaucrat, standing by the side of the road screaming “Marchers this way, Anarchists that way!”

    The second issue which deeply influenced the growing British left was South Africa. The boycott movement had a widespread impact, and in March 1963 Labour’s new leader Harold Wilson addressed a rally in Trafalgar Square calling for a total arms embargo on South Africa. Elsewhere there was more militant action. In 1964, just after Nelson Mandela had been jailed, the South African Ambassador was invited to speak at the prestigious Oxford Union. A number of activists disrupted the meeting (including plunging the hall into darkness by removing the fuses) and when the ambassador left his car was attacked. The university authorities (represented by a quasi-medieval pair known as the “proctors”) imposed some disciplinary measures on a number of students – including one Tariq Ali. This led to a campaign for student rights – one of the proctors was a Mr Bond, who found himself the target of slogans referring to “Bond – Licensed to Kill”.[59]  It is arguable that this marked the beginning of the movement for student rights in Britain – and showed how it was closely linked with the struggle against apartheid.

    The link between Southern Africa and student rights became even clearer in 1967, when a man who had collaborated with the racist regime in Rhodesia was appointed director of the LSE, leading to an eight-day occupation. This launched the student movement which would erupt in 1968.

    But it was Vietnam that was the most important influence on the rising movement, and which would separate the revolutionary goats from the sheep-like mainstream. Although the US had had a military presence in Vietnam for some time  it was with the escalation and bombing after the Tonkin incident in 1964 that a protest movement began to emerge. At first it appeared that Vietnam was just one more in a series of international crises, like the Lebanon or Cuba, which had punctuated the history of the Cold War since the late 1940s, but which had generally blown over quite quickly. It soon became clear that Vietnam was something quite different.

    The first British demonstration against the Vietnam war was on 14 February 1965. It was called by students from the LSE just after Malcolm X had visited the college, only ten days before his murder.[60] The LSE students were linked to NALSO (the Labour Party student organisation), which in recent years had had Trotskyists of various affiliations in its leadership (notably Ken Coates and Nigel Harris). It was a relatively small demonstration of a few hundred, and the police were in relaxed mood, allowing demonstrators halfway across the road in front of the embassy steps. That was not to happen again.

    Of course in a sense Vietnam was a soft option. There were no British troops in Vietnam, so there was no patriotic fervour about “our boys”.  Yet Britain was far from innocent. The Wilson government gave slavish support to the American bombing,[61] with one brief exception in June 1966 when Wilson dissociated himself from the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. As we used to sing, to the tune of Where have all the flowers gone?, “Where has Harold Wilson gone, crawling to the Pentagon.”

    In April 1965 the mainstream left had formed the British Council for Peace in Vietnam [BCPV]. This was more or less what it name implied. It advocated “peace” but stopped short of any expression of support for the national liberation struggle in Vietnam. It was supported by the Labour left – with the notable participation of Fenner Brockway, a veteran peace campaigner who had been jailed for refusing conscription in World War I.[62] It was also backed by the CP, who with Popular Frontist enthusiasm were particularly keen to involve churches. The BCPV did organise some demonstrations and made propaganda, but their concern was above all to preserve “broad unity”.  I recall being told by one CP member that not only could we not use the slogan “Victory to the NLF”, but we must not even raise the demand “US troops out now” because it would take a long time to transport all the troops  out.  There were, however, some signs of friction. I recall a meeting in 1965 or early 1966 in Wood Green chaired by a local vicar. One of the speakers was William Zak, a CP member and well-known trade unionist, who had just returned from a visit to Vietnam. To the delight of his audience – but to the absolute fury of the pacifist chair – he produced a bit of metal from a US plane that had been shot down and waved it triumphantly.

    Things changed markedly in the summer of 1966 with the foundation of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign [VSC]. The initiative came from the Trotskyist grouping known as the International Group (in 1968 it became the International Marxist Group [IMG])  which was working closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and in particular Russell’s secretary, Ralph Schoenman.  There were a few undogmatic Maoists and some non-aligned individuals, including David Horowitz, author of the magnificent From Yalta to Vietnam, but who later moved to the right. The Socialist Labour League made one appearance at an event, disrupted it and stormed out, never to be seen again. Another Trotskyist grouping, the Militant showed no interest.[63] Even the International Socialists were initially a little half-hearted.[64]  So a great deal of credit goes to Ernie Tate, Schoenman and the proto-IMG who persevered and got the campaign to take off.[65]

    The politically distinctive feature about the VSC was the solidarity slogan – “Victory to the NLF” and the direct identification with the NLF and North Vietnam – NLF flags were carried on demonstrations. But it also initiated a rather different style of politics. The BCPV had been concerned above all with respectability and finding allies in parliament. But these had a relatively small impact on the radicalised young generation. Thus in his autobiography Stan Newens, one of the most intransigent of the left MPs, describes how, in July 1966, 35 left MPs abstained in a vote on the government’s support for the war in Vietnam. He claims: “The impact on the rank and file of the Labour Party and the public in general was electric.”[66] I have to say that, as a VSC activist, I have no recollection of this episode and no memory of being electrified. While we doubtless welcomed the vote, parliament was not at the centre of our concerns.

    The VSC established itself with the march to the American Embassy in October 1967. From the beginning it was clear that this would be a rather different style of demonstration, not just the peaceful poster parade through central London of which we had seen all too many. I remember writing one of the leaflets for that demonstration (unfortunately I can’t now find a copy of it) in which I stated “We hope this will be the most vigorous demonstration yet”. I think this kept me clear of accusations of incitement, while giving a clear message. A good crowd turned up despite the fact that CP had called a rival demonstration the previous day.

    On the day we approached Grosvenor Square in the corner near the Embassy. Though there was a police cordon guarding the central area of the square, it yielded very easily (I’ve been told that the police later used it for training films, showing how not to do it). But more surprises awaited us. I recall getting to the centre of the square opposite the Embassy and then noticing that it had suddenly gone dark; I realised I was more or less underneath a police horse. There was lively activity in the square for some time. Next day the Times reported events as an “anti‑war riot” and a “pitched battle”.[67] The VSC had fought its way into the headlines.

    A good many of those attending were students. It was the autumn after the LSE occupation, and a radicalised student movement was beginning to grow, though few of us could as yet envisage the scale this would expand to in the following year. Vietnam was getting a good deal of press coverage, and some of the US atrocities had had television coverage and were exciting considerable interest – and indignation. A generation of students were being radicalised.[68]

    A new movement was emerging, still counted in hundreds rather than thousands. It was not homogenous. There were, for example, big divergences as to how far Lenin’s theory of imperialism or Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution were still valid in relation to the contemporary world. The International Socialists’ main theorists, Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron, had developed critiques of these theories.[69]

    There was therefore a range of attitudes to national liberation struggles. Some organisations tended to stand aloof from such struggles – thus Voix ouvrière in France took little part in solidarity action with Algeria,[70] and in Britain the Militant effectively abstained from the movement on Vietnam. In both cases the emphasis was to be put on the struggle at home, whether organising in factories or burrowing into the Labour Party. It should be noted that in neither case did this abstention do the organisations any harm in the long term.

    At the other end of the spectrum were those who indulged in what can be described as “Third Worldism”, that is, taking an interest in distant struggles at the expense of any involvement in more prosaic day-to-day struggles at home.  This was what Tony Cliff used to dismiss as “vicarious pleasure”.[71]

    The problem was to find an intermediate path, which on the one hand avoided the romantic excesses of Third Worldism, but also saw the class struggle in terms of an international battle. The defeat of the biggest imperialist power was an achievement of some value, which shifted the balance of world power for a generation with the Vietnam syndrome, and persists to this day in that no US regime dare bring back the draft for fear of another army as unruly as that which fought in Vietnam. To the extent that the international anti-war movement encouraged the anti-war movement in the USA, and helped demoralise the armed forces, it was a very worthwhile activity.

    The generation who developed their politics on anti-imperialism, on the struggles in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere, had certain distinctive features that separated them from the mainstream dominated by Stalinism and Social Democracy.

    Firstly they were internationalists. Stalinism had deformed the concept of “proletarian internationalism”, which came to mean little more than unconditional support for the USSR. The new generation had a sense of belonging to a single world system, of being aware of the interconnections between struggles in various parts of the world. In particular they were distrustful of both major power blocs (the debate about the exact characterisation of the social nature of the USSR, while it consumed a lot of energy, was actually fairly secondary to that generalised distrust).  So when substantial dissidence erupted in Eastern Europe, notably in Czechoslovakia, it did not catch activists unawares.[72]

    Secondly, they were strongly anti-racist. Racism had its roots in imperialism, and a generation who identified with the fightback of the oppressed was unlikely to capitulate to racist myths. The generation that had been reared on South Africa and Vietnam reacted promptly when Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968.[73] And the French students reacted equally rapidly to xenophobic slurs against Daniel Cohn-Bendit by adopting the slogan “We are all German Jews”.

    Thirdly there was a recognition of the nature of the state. Those who opposed the Algerian war had seen the state at first hand, the quite literally murderous role played by the Paris police in 1961.  They had no illusions about the neutrality of the state and were not surprised by the violence shown by the police in 1968. In Britain the myth of the “neutral” and “benevolent” police died a little harder, but after the Grosvenor Square demonstrations it was a lot easier to argue about the role of the police.

    And fourthly there was an orientation to the working class. The Trotskyist organisations which were central to building both the networks in support of the FLN and the VSC had a clear perspective that the agency of social change must eventually be the working class, even if its immediate capacity for intervention was limited. Thus when Bertrand Russell came to London for the founding conference of the VSC he also attended a rally of striking seafarers in Trafalgar Square (I imagine at the instigation of Ken Coates). I suspect that the pamphlet I edited for the VSC, Vietnam and Trade Unionists,[74] had very little direct influence (I still have several unsold copies)  – but at least it laid down a principle that we looked to the working class. So when the working class eventually came onto the stage, with the French general strike and then the five years of struggle in Britain, including two miners’ strikes and the freeing of the Pentonville Five, which culminated in the bringing down of a Tory government, the militants trained by anti-imperialist activity quickly oriented to it.

    There was also a question of style. It is not that every demonstration had to end with a punch‑up – indeed in October 1968 the VSC wisely decided not to confront the police by marching on Grosvenor Square. But there was a rejection of the pursuit of respectability at all costs. As the 1968 slogan put it: “Don’t demand, occupy.”[75]

    The pre-1968 anti-imperialist left was also beginning to make links between politics and culture in a way that had not been possible for the Zhdanovite Stalinists or the electorally-oriented philistine Social Democrats.  The 1960 Manifesto of the 121, which justified illegal activity against the Algerian war, was signed mainly by intellectual and political activists, but also by actors Roger Blin and Simone Signoret, and film directors François Truffaut and Alain Resnais. In Britain Peter Brook’s innovative play US dealt with Vietnam, and the Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre began by playing to VSC audiences in 1967. Adrian Mitchell’s wonderful poem “Tell Me Lies about Vietnam was an inspiration to many activists. Anti‑war records like Donovan’s Universal Soldier and Barry McGuire’s   Eve Of Destruction were making the charts. It was the beginning of a development that  would later bear fruit in the Lutte Ouvrière fêtes, in Rock Against Racism and SOS Racisme.

    In the twenty-five years after 1945 the two biggest colonial empires, the British and the French, largely disintegrated. The oppressed had their revenge with the creation of new movements of opposition at the very heart of imperialism.



    Thanks to Annie Nehmad for some useful comments and suggestions.

    [1] See G Thayer, The British Political Fringe, London, 1965.

    [2] CP Executive statement, “All Party National Government Is Essential after the Election”, Daily Worker, 20 March 1945.

    [3] Cf.  resolution of  CP’s 25th Congress in 1957: “We fight for an organised association with the Labour Party … The stage of closer political unity possible, for example, in affiliation means that the Marxist view would still be in a minority in the movement. The eventual winning of the majority in the movement for that view will then open up the possibility of a single working-class party based on Marxism”.

    [4] I Birchall, interview with Jean-René Chauvin, Paris, 20 March 1997

    [5]Michel Lequenne,  Le trotskysme: une histoire sans fard, Paris, 2005.

    [6] I Birchall, “Neither Washington nor Moscow? The Rise and Fall of the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire”,  Journal of European Studies, XXIX (1999), pp. 365-404.

    [7] At the founding meeting of the Socialist Review Group in 1950, 33 people were represented; a statement claimed this amounted to a quarter of the total forces of British Trotskyism. Cited, I Birchall, Building the “Smallest Mass Party in the World” at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1981/smallest/index.html

    [8] Bob Pitt, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, chapter 4 at  http://www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Healy/Chap4.html

    [9] For a participant account see Val Clark, “It was PEOPLE who made me a socialist”, Socialist Worker, 1 December 1973.

    [10] Henri Lefebvre, Alfred de Musset dramaturge, Paris, 1955

    [11] J-P Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, Paris, 1960.

    [12] By Alfred Sauvy, in L’Observateur, 14 August 1952.

    [13] See I Birchall, “’Vicarious pleasure’? The British far left and the third world 1956-1979”, in E Smith & M Worley (eds.), Against the Grain, Manchester, 2014, pp. 190-208.

    [14] See I Birchall, “Exits from Empire”, at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2015-exits-from-empire/

    [15] J Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, London, 2006, p. 182.

    [16] Note for example the importance of Sétif for the future FLN leader Ben Bella. See R Merle, Ben Bella, London, 1967.

    [17] See TO Smith, Britain and the Origins of the Vietnam War, Basingstoke, 2007; P Neville, Britain in Vietnam, London & New York, 2007; J Saville, The Politics of Continuity, London, 1993, pp.176-204.

    [18] No mention in K Harris, Attlee, London, 1982; a couple of uncritical references in A Bullock, Ernest Bevin, volume III, Foreign Secretary 1945-1951, pp. 32, 151-52.

    [19] The main source for the activity of the French Trotskyists during the Algerian war is Sylvain Pattieu, Les camarades des frères : Trotskistes et libertaires dans la guerre d’Algérie, Paris, 2002. A substantial part of this book was translated in Revolutionary History Vol. 10 No. 4 (2012)..

    [20] A Marty, L’Affaire Marty, Paris, 1955.

    [21] M Evans, Algeria: France’s undeclared war, Oxford, 2012, p. 217 ; B Stora, La Gangrène et l’oubli, Paris 1991, pp. 143-44.

    [22] F Malye & B Stora, François Mitterrand et la guerre d’Algérie, Paris, 2010.

    [23] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 77-78.

    [24] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 96-98.

    [25] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 71-72.

    [26] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 83-84, 111.

    [27] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp.89-90.

    [28] Michel Lequenne claims, on the basis of a recent academic thesis, that just seven Trotskyists actually entered the PCF: Le trotskysme: une histoire sans fard, p. 284.

    [29] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 107-8.

    [30] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 129, 271.

    [31] For Berger’s break with the Fourth International and the formation of the Voie communiste, see I Birchall, “Denis Berger”, at http://grimanddim.org/under-the-sod/2013-denis-berger/

    [32] See H Hamon & P Rotman, Les Porteurs de valises, Paris, 1979, p. 362.

    [33] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, p. 175.

    [35] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, p. 175.

    [36] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 179-84.

    [37] M-P Ulloa, Francis Jeanson : a dissident intellectual from the French Resistance to the Algerian War, Stanford, 2008.

    [38] Gilles Perrault, Un Homme à Part , Paris, 1984. The English translation, A Man Apart: The Life of Henri Curiel, London, 1987, is only the first half of the French original; the promised second part, which would have covered his activity in support of the FLN, apparently never appeared.

    [39] M Evans, The Memory of Resistance : French opposition to the Algerian War (1954-1962), Oxford, 1997.

    [40] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, p. 172.

    [41] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp.215-16.

    [42] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, pp. 209-19.

    [43] H Hamon & P Rotman, Génération I : Les années de rêve, Paris, 1987, pp. 60-62.

    [44] Hamon & Rotman, Génération I, p. 302.

    [45] See also  Manus McGrogan, “From the Algerian War to May 1968 and After: The  Roles of Left Radicals and Their Press”, Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 4

    [46] See D Lecourt, Les piètres penseurs, Paris, 1999, pp. 25-26.

    [47] Pattieu, Les camarades des frères, p. 123.  See also H & C Benoîts, “The Algerian War Seen from Renault-Billancourt”, Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 4  and “Interview with Henri Benoîts” at http://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/index.php/351-articles/articles-of-rh1004/5244-2lo

    [48] D Mothé, Journal d’un ouvrier, Paris, 1959, pp. 103-106.

    [49] See D A Gordon, Immigrants and Intellectuals, Pontypool, 2012.

    [50] R Gildea et al (eds), Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt, Oxford, 2013, pp. 41, 110; S Zappi, “Yves Rocton, syndicaliste Force ouvrière et militant trotskiste”, Le Monde, 13 October 2008, at http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2008/10/13/yves-rocton-syndicaliste-de-force-ouvriere-et-militant-trotskiste_1106190_3382.html .

    [51] For Rocton’s role in 1968, see F Le Madec, L’aubépine de mai: chronique d’une usine occupée, Nantes, 1968.

    [52] K Ross, May ’68 and its Afterlives, Chicago, 2002, pp. 36-64.

    [53] J-L Einaudi, La bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 196i, Paris, 1991.

    [54] See E Smith, “The Communist Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament” at https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/the-communist-party-and-the-campaign-for-nuclear-disarmament/

    [55] See for example the New Left Review pamphlet J Rex, Britain Without the Bomb, London, 1960.

    [57] See P Sedgwick, “The Direction of Action”, Socialist Review, May 1961 at https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1961/05/action.html    and R Bulkeley et al, “‘If at first you don’t succeed …’: fighting against the bomb in the 1950s and 1960s”, International Socialism 2:11, 1981 at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1981/isj2-011/bulkeleyetal.html


    [58] N Walter, “Protest in an Age of Optimism”, Guardian, 13 April 2013, at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/13/protest-optimism-anarchists-nuclear-beans

    [59] T Ali, Street Fighting Years, London, 2005, pp. 102-3;  I Birchall, “Oxford Mandela Demo 1964” at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/19952007-oxford-mandela-demo-1964/

    [60] The LSE meeting is described in M Sherwood, Malcolm X: Visits Abroad, Oare, Kent, n.d., but there is no mention of the demonstration.

    [61] T Cliff & D Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History, London, 1996, p. 294.

    [62] F Brockway, Inside the Left, London, 1942.

    [63] In its issues of October and November 1968 Militant made no reference to the 25 October VSC demonstration.

    [64] It was Chris Harman rather than Tony Cliff who oriented the IS towards involvement in the VSC;  I Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time, London, 2011, pp. 274-75.

    [65] For a full participant account of the history of the VSC see E Tate, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s, Vol. 2, London, 2014.  See also C Hughes, “The History of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign: the substructure of far left activism in Britain, 1966-1969”, History MA, University of Warwick, September 2008.

    [66] AS Newens, In Quest of a Fairer Society: My Life and Politics, Durham, 2013, p. 126.

    [67] The Times, 23 October 1967.

    [68] For a study of the 1968 generation see C Hughes, Young Lives on the Left: Sixties Activism and the Liberation of the Self, Manchester, 2015 and her doctoral thesis at http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/49428/7/WRAP_THESIS_Hughes_2011.pdf

    [69] T Cliff, “Deflected Permanent Revolution”, International Socialism No. 12, 1963 at https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm ; M Kidron, “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One”, International Socialism No. 9, 1962 at https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm

    [70] See R Barcia with C Bourseiller, La véritable histoire de Lutte ouvrière : entretiens, Paris, 2003, pp. 188, 192.

    [71] Tony Cliff, interview with Idiot International (June 1970), in D. Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-68, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 446.

    [72] See for example D Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968, Harmondswotth, 1976,, pp. 375-77.

    [73] For a vivid first-hand account see Widgery, The Left in Britain pp. 407‑11.

    [74] London 1967; written by Martin Bernal, Paul Foot, Sabby Sagall and Ian Birchall.

    [75] The Black Dwarf, 15 October 1968.