Our Radical Past and Future May 1968 – May 2018 – 50 Years of Liberation
The powerful are constantly celebrating their victories, lording their anniversaries and power over us. It’s so embedded into daily life we hardly notice. Jubilees, war celebrations, days for Kings and Queens and Princesses are a constant presence, as insidious as they are monotonous. We should celebrate 1968 and many more years of revolt. Don’t buy the idea that Scotland has no radical past. Don’t buy the line that 1968 was all worthless. Don’t buy the line that everything is useless. This is a past manufactured for the elite.
From the junky genius of Alexander Trocchi to the surrealist comedy of Ivor Cutler, from the radical roots of the Committee of 100 to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders which was formed in February of that year and would lead to the work-in of 1971, from the groundbreaking work of AS Neill to the revolutionary politics of Stuart Christie and Jake Prescott, Scotland has its place in this era, this history and this movement. Why wouldn’t it?
It’s a really peculiar form of exceptionalism that airbrushes history and erases Scotland from the radicalism of the 1960s. It is the same process by which before the Union Scotland was a barren heath with no art, culture or social movement. And having a history that you can know and understand affects directly whether you have a future you can shape. Many of the themes we are focused on today: information and media, police violence, militarism and imperialism, racism and sexism, freedom of expression were at the core of the movements of the late 60s and we would do well to reflect and measure ourselves on battles won and lost in the fifty years in-between.
The year was not just about France in May. June 1968 saw the famous strike for equal pay by women workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham, which eventually led to the Equal Pay Act. July saw the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, which triggered the modern Gay rights movement. As Tariq Ali has written: “People on the broad left did say, ‘It’s a defeat; we’ve lost,’ but they turned to identity politics – which are also, let it be remembered, the offspring of the 1960s and 1970s. I mean, why was the women’s movement called the women’s liberation movement, clearly linked to the struggles in the Third World against the empire? The gay liberation movement, the black liberation movement, the Black Panthers – all these grew up in the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, and they have left a strong mark. Not that the problems are over, as we know; the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, the incarceration rates of African-Americans – horrendous. So it’s not that we won everything, even on certain questions, especially racism.”
If we think about state power and psychology, issues about play and learning, childhood and education, sexual rights and art and expression, this moment gave us insights and vision and a profound legacy.
Not only did the era give us a bank of alternative press, it gave us literary journals such as Merlin and political press such as Peace News and International Times and the Black Dwarf, all part of what William Burroughs called the Underground Media.
If we avoid the trap of ’68ism’ – loading too much on to one year, we can see the trajectory of Trocchi’s contribution spanning from the early fifties to the Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds (1963), to the Albert Hall on 11 June 1965, for “Wholly Communion” with seven thousand punters (a mythical event in British counterculture) through to the London Arts Lab party of Sunday 13 April 1969 that was billed as “Alex Trocchi’s State Of Revolt” with Trocchi, William Burroughs, R. D. Laing and Davy Graham. The State of Revolt is widely seen as the death-knell of the sixties psychedelic scene, as the movement slumped into drug-addled chaos. Trocchi’s contribution is contested but here we can see a Glaswegian writer at the very heart of radical European avant-garde and acting as a bridge across the atlantic.
Tom McGrath read at the Albert Hall with Allen Ginsberg and became features editor of Peace Times and then founding editor of the seminal British underground journal International Times.
He was instrumental in the founding of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street now the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), and was director from 1974-77. In the early 1980s, McGrath supported the founding of the Glasgow Theatre Club at the Tron, which became the Tron Theatre. So key platforms for Scottish cultural revival, the Traverse, the CCA, the Tron are deeply rooted in Scottish connections to the 60s avant-garde.
As Malcolm Muggeridge – the then Rector of Edinburgh University – gave a sermon from the pulpit of St Giles Cathedral in January 1968 it was becoming apparent that it was the end of an era for calvinist conservative Scotland.
Muggeridge – in a packed cathedral and under intense media scrutiny declared that he could sympathise with a student ‘mood of rebelliousness or refusal to accept the ways and values of our run-down, spiritually impoverished way of life’, but found it ‘infinitely sad’ that ‘the form their insubordination takes should be a demand for pot and pills; for the most tenth-rate sort of escapism and self-indulgence ever known’.
He stated that what he felt as Rector was ‘not so much disapproval as contempt’, making it impossible for him to continue fulfilling his functions.
Muggeridge had been in battle with Anna Coote, the Editor of the The Student magazine which had been championing and publishing on access to contraception and the potential benefits of LSD. Writing in 2008 she reflected:
“The year began noisily. In January, students were revolting in the ancient city of Edinburgh, tearing up chunks of tradition. We deposed the man we had elected as rector to represent us at the university court. One cold, wet morning he delivered his resignation from the pulpit of St Giles’ Cathedral, denouncing us as sex fiends and junkies. Malcolm Muggeridge was the name. He’d been a rebel himself, but had converted to old fogeyism, taking his student electorate by surprise.
We wanted the newly available contraceptive pill to be on prescription at the student health centre. And we wanted our elected representative to make our case for us. When “Saint Mugg” refused, we determined to change the rules and have a student do the job instead. Four years later, Gordon Brown was elected Edinburgh’s student rector. A result of sorts”.
“Probably the most useful thing I learned in 1968 was thanks to a fellow student at Edinburgh, who picked up a book I was reading for my final-year coursework, turned it over curiously and demanded to know “who the fuck” the author thought he was. It hadn’t occurred to me to question the authority of the printed word. I remember the heady alarm as it dawned on me that I was allowed to think for myself.”
Radical publishing would go hand in hand with theatre as bohemian Edinburgh emerged around the Paperback Bookshop owned by Jim Haynes. The shop had been at the heart of the controversy of the publishing by Penguin Books of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. Haynes would go on to co-found the Traverse with Richard Demarco in 1963. If the idea of a bohemian Edinburgh is dismissed by many, so to is the continuity of that tradition emanating from the People’s Festival Ceilidh at Edinburgh Oddfellows’ Hall in the late 1950s. But just because our history has been mislaid or overlooked doesn’t mean it will just go away.
Other dissident press and radical publishing ventures spun out of the Muggeridge controversy and the collapse of deference culture.
As Rory Scothorne writes in Conter (‘On Scotland’s Student Radicalism‘) :
“While they may not have been representative of the student body, their antics created ripples that can be felt to this day. In the aftermath of the “Muggeridge Affair”, for instance, the Edinburgh University Student Publications Board was set up to oversee the Student in place of the SRC. EUSPB rapidly developed into a crucial part of the Scottish publishing scene, producing the influential New Edinburgh Review from 1969 and the Red Paper on Scotland – edited by Gordon Brown, at that point Edinburgh’s second student rector – in 1975. At the end of the decade, EUSPB evolved into Polygon, publishers of some of the most important texts in Scottish literature and history since the 1970s.
This was part of a broader “apparatus of criticism” through which, Harvie suggests, “the treatment of Scotland moved away from myth, recollected grievance and the romanticism which had penetrated earlier accounts,” and towards efforts “to understand why Scotland was different, and what long-term factors, if any, underlay the current political upheavals”. In 1968, an Edinburgh PhD student called Bob Tait, then an editor of the student-run Feedback magazine alongside future Radio Scotland chief Jack Regan, established Scottish International Review (SI) with support from the Scottish Arts Council in premises provided by the university chaplain, Father Anthony Ross.”
The lineage of John Holloway and Richard Gunn’s Common Sense, the publishing of Gramsci via Hamish Henderson and the emergence of the sort of platforms that would give space to Variant, Calgacus, Harpies & Quines, or Radical Scotland amongst many others have their backstory here. You couldn’t have had Chomsky in Govan without Trocchi in Edinburgh. Nor would you have had Allan Ginsberg in Scotland or Hugh MacDiarmid’s 81st birthday in 1973 without this tradition and without this cultural energy. It’s noticeable that the famous Self-Determination and Power event at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990 featuring Noam Chomsky was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne.
From publishing houses and formats. to literary journals and reviews, this era gave the very notion of a radical alternative press connected to an avant-garde its first breath. What connected many of them were maybe two things: an understanding of the relationship between art and politics, and an understanding of the nature of power. It was a realisation that an avant-garde was also a vanguard.
FOOD AND POLICE – VICTORIES AND LOSSES
Fifty years on and stuffy commodified Edinburgh University seems an unlikely safe for radical thinking. In a city gentrified and developed beyond recognition, where student accommodation is now a byword for exploitation not resistance, all of this seems little more than a bizarre curio of history. But ideas have roots and that root base is important.
One of things that hasn’t changed is the level of state violence that will be exerted when the order is feeling genuinely threatened. Yes the radical politics of 1968 may have been undermined by sell-out and a million commodified Che Guevera t-shirts, but it was also undermined by infiltration and confrontation. Looking back with the Miner’s Strike and fifty years of witnessing British political policing we can take a longer view of surveillance and raw power.
Back in France fifty years on, the ZAD (Zone to Defend from the French: zone à défendre) became the focal point of French state violence, exploding the liberal myth-making around Macron and reminding us of the nature of state power.
The ZAD was the threat of an alternative and had to be destroyed.
As one activist explains:
“The ZAD was initially set up as a protest against the building of a new airport for the city of Nantes, following a letter by residents distributed during a climate camp in 2009, which invited people to squat the land and buildings: ‘because’ as they wrote ‘only an inhabited territory can be defended’. Over the years this territory earmarked for a mega infrastructure project, evolved into Europe’s largest laboratory of commoning. Before the French state started to bulldoze our homes, there were 70 different living spaces and 300 inhabitants nestled into this checkerboard landscape of forest, fields and wetlands. Alternative ways of living with each other, fellow species and the world are experimented with 24/7. From making our own bread to running a pirate radio station, planting herbal medicine gardens to making rebel camembert, a rap recording studio to a pasta production workshop, an artisanal brewery to two blacksmiths forges, a communal justice system to a library and even a full scale working lighthouse – the zad has become a new commune for the 21st century. Messy and bemusing, this beautifully imperfect utopia in resistance against an airport and its world has been supported by a radically diverse popular movement, bringing together tens of thousands of anarchists and farmers, unionists and naturalists, environmentalists and students, locals and revolutionaries of every flavour. But everything changed on the 17th of January 2018, when the French prime minister appeared on TV to cancel the airport project and in the same breath say that the zad, the ‘outlaw zone’ would be evicted and law and order returned.”
In the intervening period its useful to remind ourselves that the idea of the “commons” is one of the most subversive and intolerable ideas to persist.
As Spycops and neonicotinoids tell us pollinators and police are the most important issues facing us today. One is about life and food and ecology and the other is about liberty and power.
In the “Revenge Against the Commons” one person writes:
“It felt like we were robbing a bank. So organised, dressed in black, head lamps, maps, scouts etc. Except all we were doing was evacuating the bee hives from the destroyed homes and gardens, getting them off site.” he smiles “we had to carry them full of bees across the hedgerows behind police lines.”
Fifty years on from Paris 1968 the ZAD suppression showed one thing, French state power can broach no more dissent than it could fifty years ago. But the smashing of the ZAD camp showed that it had its own power and had to be destroyed.
If much seems to have been lost between 1968 and today – hope, vision, belief, collectivism, solidarity, our ecology, to name but six – other things have been gained. Indeed, as John Lichfield wrote in 2008:
“The right of young adults to have sex with one another in their rooms was, indeed, one of the first of the demands of students at Nanterre University, which led directly to the events of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre, led by a 22-year-old, red-haired, French-born German called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, successfully used sexual oppression as a symbol for political and spiritual oppression”.
In 1968 Anton Beeke’s creating an entire alphabet of female nudity was a celebrated radical act, expressing “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!” See Erotic Type here.
Fifty years on it seems an anachronism – an alphabet of sexism, a font of mysogyny.
As a banner reads on one of the squatted farmhouses here, Pas de barricadieres sans cuisiniers ‘There are no women on the barricades without men in the kitchen’.
And battle-lines are clearer.
As Zadforever writes:
“The battle lines were made clear, it was not about bringing ‘law and order’ back to the zone, but a battle between private property, and those who share worlds of capitalism against the commons. The battle of the zad is a battle for the future, one that we cannot loose.”
BOGSIDE, CLYDESIDE, JOIN THE ANGRY SIDE
(Communique 11, The Angry Brigade)
On February 27 1968 the Hornsey home of Stuart Christie was raided by police led by Det. Sgt. Roy Cremer with an explosives warrant relating to the Greek Embassy and information received that other attacks were about to take place in London. It was the start of a relentless covert crackdown on dissident thinking and the start of a long process of the militarisation of the police and the emergence of surveillance state. People were fitted-up and an attempt was made to take out an entire leadership.
But the problem wasn’t just the authorities. Historically the problem has been within the political movement itself. The Angry Brigade for example has been relentlessly smeared both from within the left and from the right.
As Jean Weir writes:
“Described as `mad’, `terrorists’, `adventurists’, or at best authors of `gestures of a worrying desperation’, the Angry Brigade were condemned without any attempt to analyse their actions or to understand what they signified in the general context of the class struggle in course. The means used to justify this were simple: by defining the actions of the Angry Brigade as `terrorist’, and equating this with `individualist’, the movement organisations — whose tendency is to see the relationship between individual and mass as something in contrast — neatly excluded them from their concerns. Strangely enough this attitude was not limited to the broad left but was also prevalent within the anarchist movement, where still today there is a tendency to ignore the role of the individual within the mass, and the role of the specific group within the mass movement. When the question is raised, it is usually in the form of an absolute condemnation. For example, in an article entitled `Terrorism’ (sic) we read: “If a few people take it upon themselves to engage in ‘Armed Struggle’, this spells out for us, besides the usual public hostility, police harassment, arrests and defence campaigns, the loss of all our political lessons, gains and strengths.” (Class War)”
“The problems encountered by the comrades of the Angry Brigade were similar to those of other groups active at the time who had refused the limits of struggle delineated by the State — the so-called limits of legality, beyond which the repressive mechanism is is unleashed — and taken as their points of reference the level of mass struggle. This decision was in defiance of the State’s definition of the struggle’s confines. It also defied the limits imposed by the official workers’ movement and the extraparliamentary organisations, including the anarchist movement. The Symbionese Liberation Army in the US, the RAF in Germany, the first of the Red Brigades in Italy, were all isolated by the `revolutionary’ organisations, condemned as agitators, provocateurs, individualist terrorists threatening the growth of the mass movement.”
The process involves not just misremembering but co-optation. Angela Mason a defendant of the Stoke Newington Eight trial became a director of the rights group Stonewall and was later awarded an OBE for services to homosexual rights.
Although now derided in Pythonesque caricature, at the time no-one was laughing.
As Martin Bright wrote in 2002:
” …at the time, the Conservative government took the Angry Brigade very seriously indeed. By June 1971, when the home of William Batty, a director of the Ford plant at Dagenham, was damaged by an Angry Brigade bomb, The Telegraph reported that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Waldron had been instructed to ‘smash the Angry Brigade’. The raids on squats, communes and bookshops that followed, represented an unprecedented crackdown on the counter-culture culminating in the raid on Amhurst Road. The police strategy, which coincided with the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland, had the desired effect: the Angry Brigade was snuffed out before it had a chance to gather momentum.”
He writes: “It is difficult now to imagine the intensity of the times. Edward Heath was locked into a lengthy dispute with workers who occupied the Clydeside shipyards in Glasgow, which would eventually end with a humiliating climbdown for the government. Internment was introduced in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday massacre of civil-rights marchers in January 1972 happened while the Angry Brigade suspects were awaiting trial. One document found in the raids across London that weekend brought the three causes together in a mini-manifesto: ‘Put the boot in – Bogside, Clydeside – Support the Angry side’.
The Angry Brigade – and arguably the Stoke Newington Eight Trial – have been quietly edited out of the history of 1968.
As Stuart Christie explains in this interview with 3am magazine:
“Remember — apart from the First of May Group, which had a long history of clandestine activity rooted in the anti-Francoist Resistance — all the other groups begin to appear in 1969, such as the Tupamaros West Berlin, or in 1970 — the 2 June Group, the Red Army Fraction, the Weather Underground, the Red Brigades, the Partisan Action Group — and the Angry Brigade. They all grow out of the aftermath of May 1968, state repression, discontent with the poor moral and ethical quality of people’s lives, but probably mainly in response to a widespread perception of incipient class war, all aggravated by Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war and the invasion of Cambodia. I’m sure none of the people in the groups started out with the intention of killing or injuring innocent people, certainly not in the case of the Angry Brigade”.
“I became involved fairly early on in the campaign to stop US Polaris missiles being based in the Holy Loch. It was a very serious development having the US Polaris submarine fleet based in the Holy Loch. It effectively turned Glasgow into ground zero for any Soviet pre-emptive nuclear missile strike. There was also a strong sense of anti-American feeling at the time, particularly as a result of the aggressive imperialist policies of the Kennedy administration. I’m thinking in particular of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. In spite of Castro’s authoritarian Marxist regime, Cuba was a revolutionary beacon in those years, and it was the only country to have the bollocks to stand up to America.
Anyway, my libertarian instincts had begun to develop around this period and I quickly became disenchanted with the passive celebrity-and-politician-dominated CND, especially its obsession with influencing the Labour Party. It was for this reason I became involved with the more libertarian and action-oriented Scottish Committee of 100 soon after it was set up in Glasgow, and was involved in most of the demonstrations, almost from the time the submarines arrived.
I was never really into civil disobedience and sit-downs. That part of the Committee of 100 never really took off in Glasgow, certainly with my generation, although there were lots of fine and brave people who did sit down out of principle and got carted off to jail and paid fines. We became more involved in research and direct action projects such as locating and publicising secret government shelters and military installations around central Scotland… and so on.”
What Hillary Creek (pictured right), Stuart Christie and others represented, were individuals who were completely caught-up in the spirit and the struggles of their time. They were embedded in a political movement in a way that is difficult to conceive of today. But at core across all of these radical movements was the deeper understanding that the entire system must be destroyed for real change to be effected.
This idea of immersion in politics is the key to our radical past and a survivable future.
This idea that politics is something you live not something you do is the key and the connection to our radical past.
It is difficult to conceive when the commons has been destroyed, when culture has been so commodified and when supposed gains have been tuned against us: liberation as a new form of oppression.
Tariq Ali talking about the Corbyn breakthrough and the Conservative disaster last year was asked, how did he account for it?:
“Two reasons. The first is that the campaign for Scottish independence, even though it was lost, the way it was actually fought – by both sides, but with the young mainly on the side of independence – was a tonic. I was in Scotland a great deal during that time, speaking at meetings, and it was a joy – something I hadn’t witnessed before on these islands. Everyone in Scotland was talking or thinking politics – everyone, on both sides. How could anyone forget the amazing scene when the Labour MPs, dragooned into campaigning against independence, stepped off the train at Glasgow and a solitary bagpiper stole the show. ‘Here come the traitors!’ he announced. ‘Here come the traitors from London, the members of the House of Commons, who back the Union.’ Most of them subsequently lost their seats.
The other reason was that the voting age had been reduced to 16, so all the schools were involved. I was asked some of the most intelligent questions by sixth-formers, studying both sides of the debate. The young almost pulled it off. It was watched on the social networks by many young people in England. They began to wonder why this should be restricted to Scotland. There was a feeling: ‘Look at the lucky Scots – they’re at least trying to change their system, whereas here we’re completely paralysed.’ And then, soon after the Labour Party lost the election and Ed Miliband resigned there was a fight for the succession, with most of the candidates offering more of the same. The Labour left under New Labour is often allowed a token candidate. This time the token won.”
Of course many in Scotland will become apoplectic at the notion of a connection between the Yes movement and the Corbyn movement. And the idea that the bloggersphere has its roots in the Underground seems fantastical as it becomes dominated by a reactionary narrow politics of nationalism. But we do have a radical past, and so often it’s the key to a radical future.
If Ramsey Kanaan, the founder of AK Press the worlds largest anarchist publisher, or RD Laing, or AS Neill or Stuart Christie or Trocchi or many others had to leave Scotland, many returned. Many of them were, like the ZAD activists, smuggling ‘bees’ across enemy lines whether that was a Scots revolutionary tradition, our generalist thinking, or the carrying stream of folk-radicalism – or merely a visceral reaction against Knoxist Conservatism. It seems obvious we need to renew their sense of hope, radicalism and internationalism to be effective.
As Stuart Christie reminisces in an echo that suggest the worlds might not be so far apart:
“It was an apocalyptic world run by shabby and deceitful politicians for their own self-serving ends. The dynamic and enthusiasm for change was in the air. We were remaking society by default. The future was ours.”
If some of the radicalism seems alluring but alien and irretrievable to be consigned to coffee books and conferences others seem more prescient than ever. As Alexander Trocchi puts it in his ‘revolutionary proposal’:
“We are concerned not with the coup d’etat [seizure of the state] but with the coup du monde [seizure of the world], a transition of necessity more complex, more diffuse than the other, and so more gradual, less spectacular … Meanwhile, with the world at the edge of extinction, we cannot afford to wait for the mass. Nor to brawl with it.”