The Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign (SASC) was launched in 1976 in response to the Soweto uprising. SASC supported all movements fighting against apartheid and for liberation in Southern Africa, whether these operated inside the various countries or in exile, and no matter the form of their action.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had been operating for many years, and had organised very successful actions in the UK in support of liberation. It was a movement heavily influenced by the politics of the Communist Party (and the South African ANC), however. What this meant for the revolutionary left was a focus by the AAM on the humanitarian objections to apartheid as a system, and the mobilisation of respectable groups such as faith organisations, the trade union leadership and representatives of bourgeois democracy in local councils and the GLC. For us, this meant the AAM created popular fronts and emphasised the moral as well as the political objections to apartheid.
SASC supported campaigns and mobilisations organised by the Anti Apartheid Movement, such as the demand on campus to boycott Barclays Bank, but aimed to mobilise more militant support, in part summarised by our statement that we would raise funds to buy ‘bullets and guns for the freedom fighters’.
A strike movement began to emerge at this time, beginning in the early 1970s with the copper and uranium miners in Namibia (or SWA as it was then known), and gradually sweeping down to the industrial heartlands of South Africa. For the revolutionary left, this was a tangible movement for change, and one with the potential muscle to defeat apartheid (we were doubtful the guerrilla struggle had the means to bring down an industrialised economy). For this reason, SASC also identified with the emerging trade unions in South Africa, and stated clearly its commitment to the struggle of black workers.
(00:00) Carlus: This is an interview with Mark Winter and Ric Cole, taking place on 18th February 2018, conducted by Carlus Hudson. Could you confirm your names and dates of birth?
Ric: My name is Ric Cole. My date of birth is 4.5.57.
Mark: I’m Mark Winter. 31.12.56.
C: Where did you study and when?
R: I studied at Bedford College, which is part of the University of London, between 1975 and 1978.
M: Mark here – I studied at University of Liverpool from 1976 to 1979.
C: And what did you study?
R: As little as humanly possible. I studied social science and administration.
M: And I did combined honours – that was, in the first year, English and then linguistics and communications studies – which is cultural studies now.
(01:00) C: How did you get involved in student activism?
R: For me I think, actually, it was a fairly quick process. I think I just met some people in the bar. Actually it may even have been during the freshers’ week. It was from the Socialist Workers Student Society – actually it wasn’t called that then, it was called NOISS [National Organisation of International Socialist Students]. And that’s kind of where it started, almost from the word go, during the freshers’ week.
M: Similar story – there was a group of IS students – a motley collection. And there were speeches, campaigns and so on that were happening at the time from freshers’ onwards. So I gravitated from the Broad Left – which was Labour Party, Communist Party – gradually to them [International Socialists] through the campaigns that were being raised at the time.
(01:53) C: What were the first campaigns you were involved in?
R: It’s probably true to say that it was a hotbed from the word go, so it’s hard to say what would be the first. Certainly 1976 with the anti-racism, at some points it would be South Africa. But I can’t actually remember precisely when that kicked in. But I think anti-racism was the first thing – but also there was stuff to do with tuition fees for overseas students which, again, might have been in ’76.
M: Yeah there was a whole collection of campaigns. So there were campaigns on Palestine, campaigns on Iran [around] the time of the revolution and so on then. There was a local campaign against imposing nursery fees – so not so much on racism. There was a campaign to boycott Barclays Bank on campus and lots of other ones I can’t remember here.
R: There were industrial disputes as well. I remember the fire[fighters’] strike which may have been ’76 again. I think before that there were disputes over the bins. And also, the general context of the time with trade union struggle generally. Things like Grunwick came into this which we spent a lot of time campaigning around. So I think really from the word go for the three years I was at college it was basically non-stop. We had a student occupation, we had other societies involved in struggles for women’s rights, against the attacks on abortion rights and so on.
(03:49) C: Could you tell me a bit more about Grunwick?
R: Grunwick was a factory in the north of London, not actually that far from the college I was at. And it was a struggle for trade union recognition and decent pay, and basically led by Asian women. As far as I remember we got involved straight away, which involved me and one or two other people trying to get people to go to the picket line. And there were pickets every day. And we must have gone for quite some time because we used to go to the pickets very early in the morning and then we’d go to college. So it became a daily routine. A bunch of us would go take part. There were some days there were mass pickets. There were fights with the police – all kinds of things used to go on. I seem to remember we tried collecting money for Grunwick, we had benefit gigs. But mostly it was to do with going to the mass pickets.
(04:50) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the Barclays Bank boycott?
M: I was part of a national campaign that sparked in various universities at different times. So it wasn’t necessarily that every uni boycott would [happen] at the same time. So part of the Anti-Apartheid [Movement’s] move against South Africa, part of the general boycott. We had a march to the bank, we occupied the Senate House to try and force their [Liverpool University’s] hand. That occupation was quite short-lived: about half an hour to an hour. We were evicted. There were counter-arguments from the University about Barclays [being] no different. They were very different – they had huge investments in South Africa. I don’t think we won overnight but it was part of the sort of drip-drip campaign of sanctions against South Africa. In the long run Barclays suffered massively but I can’t claim in the short term we won a big victory. It was an important part of Anti-Apartheid’s campaigning, I guess, before we started boycotting food and things like that. That was a big target really, the Bank. And people had their accounts and stuff. We had grants then with Barclays so the idea was to get them to withdraw.
(06:13) C: Could either of you tell me a bit more about the overseas student fees struggle?
R: That’s what we had our occupation over, and it was the first occupation at Bedford College for decades I think – two or three decades. So it was a big deal in the College. And because there were a lot of overseas students at Bedford College and in London – particularly in the centre of London – generally. And the occupations were in not just in one college – they were all in lots of different places. So it became a kind of domino effect: one college occupied, then another one. And then we had a mass meeting and voted to occupy the administrative section of the College and we did that for three or four days and then I think we were kicked out in the end. But it involved lots of different people and it was a pretty big deal really. And there were lots of demonstrations and people were very angry because, I think, it was seen as a racist thing to do. I’m not sure what the authorities actually thought they were trying to achieve, particularly. But basically I think it most of it was a way for them to get a lot of money and they were picking on the most vulnerable people who they could find, really. And it was an easy way for them to get cash. There were big demonstrations, lots of involvement. I think it brought together people from all the different student societies in the college. So if it was a black students’ society or Iranian students or whoever they happened to be, you’d get this coalescing together of different forces of people which was a very positive thing to be involved in.
(07:59) C: What were your campuses like, at this point? Were students especially political?
R: Well Bedford College was a funny place because it used to be an all-women, female college. And then it changed at some point and allowed men. But it still had a lot of that feel from when it was that type of college. I’d say it was partly political – it was a bit of a struggle to get people to do things. Most people had an opinion about the world. You’d often have big union meetings – but then you’d often have union meetings where people weren’t really listening to what was going on. So it kind of came and went depending on the general feel at the time.
M: Liverpool was notorious as a right-wing university. It had a students’ guild – the student union was called a guild, still. And there were quite severe restrictions on what you could or couldn’t do. Lots of medics and so on and so on were traditionally right wing. But – alongside that you had a big left group as well. So it was a mix of the two, really – a strange mix. Some of the Tory grandees were invited to speak, cabinet ministers and so on, by the Conservative society. At the same time you had us chipping away from the left as well. So a mix of the two I guess.
(09:20) R: I think the difference in Bedford College was that the organised left, really, was the International Socialists. There was a small Maoist group, but the College wasn’t particularly big. I think generally in the centre of London, there were all different types of political groups. There were the dying remnants of the Communist Party; bits of the Labour Party, which were quite well-organised; and really, NOISS, the International Socialist Student section was probably quite a big force in central London. So in many of the colleges we’d have branches, effectively. So we used to meet up quite regularly and have committee meetings or general meetings and discuss what was going on – which was a way of spreading whatever struggles there were that were going on.
M: Whereas in Liverpool there was a big Labour Party set up there which later became the Militant and the whole thing around Labour councils in Liverpool. And the attitude of the Militant/Socialist Party was not really to get involved in what they saw as student politics ‘cause that wasn’t proper [politics]. So they got involved in working-class struggle which meant taking them [students] out from the campus. They would be organised there in terms of meetings but they wouldn’t really get actively involved in [student] campaigns, in general.
(10:48) C: What were the IS student meetings like?
R: In the College they were pretty good. We’d have between 15 and 20 people, I suppose. Some people came and went. We were very democratic, we tried to discuss what the issues were, what we could do to build any particular campaign, who else we could work with in the College. We had a very open outlook – we looked out rather than inwards, and so we saw the struggle in the campuses as a pretty important thing, really. It’s completely different from the Militant or Socialist Party. We didn’t go for this idea of colleges as Red Bases which was an earlier idea of the International Marxist Group. But we could see that there were things that could be done. But we did always try to bring in from the outside world other things that were going on like the firefighters’ strike. Actually, we brought a couple of firemen in, they spoke at the union meeting, we had collections for them. I think we organised a couple of concerts to raise money. And that was very good, actually, because that broke down some of the snotty attitudes that people had towards students I think. You’ve got to remember, at that time, only – I think – one in ten over-18-year-olds went to universities. Or maybe it’s even less than that, actually. Maybe one in fifteen. So it was a fairly small section of society from which students were drawn [who were] in higher education. Not in the FE sector but in higher education.
M: Meetings at Liverpool – similarly diverse. We’d discuss Portugal, Iran, Palestine, women’s rights – partly through the nursery campaigns but also developing women’s movements – apartheid, racism, and then campaigns such as to support workers on strike. Quite libertarian politics, really. We were known as the Trots but there was a diverse range of views and if you looked at the members it’d be hard to call us a group other than the fact that we went to the same meetings at times. Because there was a fair range, a fair scope if you like, of opinion on how to organise, and what you felt and believed and so on. I think it’s fair to say.
R: If anything defined those kind of groups it was the idea of Socialism from Below. That was the big thing. That was the big break with Stalinist politics. That was the important thing, and that’s what got me involved, really – the idea of not imposing things on people, of having discussions, of having votes and deciding on something and that’s what we’re going to do. Rather than someone saying ‘this is what you’re going to do’.
(14:08) C: Was there much difference between different campaigns that students were receptive to?
R: What do you mean?
C: Were there some campaigns that got more-
R: Yeah – I mean for example there’s tuition fees. That was a big thing – in my college that was a big thing, actually. Abortion rights – that was particularly big. I think, actually, the struggle around Barclays Bank was not particularly big. Because, I think it’s true to say, this was part of a developing change – because it was presented by the NUS, really, the Boycott Barclays Bank thing. But it was a very formalistic thing so you’d have a notice board and there’d be something on there saying ‘Boycott Barclays Bank’. But that was the end of it, really. It didn’t really go much beyond that. It was really passive. Whereas I think our aim was to try and make things exactly the opposite. I don’t know why we didn’t have a Boycott Barclays Bank campaign but we certainly got involved in anti-Apartheid politics in the College but not really about that bit.
M: I think it’s similar, actually, the campaign to support free nursery places. Liverpool had quite a high percentage of local mature students who attended even then. And pulled them – not surprisingly – on board. So you had the locals plus us young’uns involved. And that probably had more traction than many of the other, if you like, more political campaigns of Iran, Portugal, etc. etc. Yeah definitely.
R: I think what was interesting was if we did have a conversation about Iran, for example, the Iranian students in the College were just thrilled that actually someone was interested. Or wherever the country was that we were having a conversation about. We’d have joint meetings which were kind of, basically, debates, about what was the way forward for the struggle. And it was a positive experience, really.
(16:21) C: Were either of you involved in NUS?
R: I went to quite a few NUS conferences – ‘cause you get elected as a delegate or an observer. From our college I think we were allowed four or five people. So I went a good half a dozen times. You wouldn’t really be involved in NUS in much or any other way unless you were elected onto the Executive of NUS. And I know you’ve spoken to Pat Stack and he was on the Executive. So we always, as NOISS, tried to get one person elected onto the Executive. Just to have a voice on it. And also a public face, not that we expected the Executive of NUS to do a great deal because their role in life appeared to be to do as little as possible.
(17:20) C: Alright, could you tell me a bit about the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign (SASC)?
R: We had a branch of the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign [at Bedford College]. I don’t remember too much about the beginnings of all of this. But what I do remember is that I used to go to the Anti-Apartheid [Movement] version of the Executive Committee. It was kind of a fairly open thing you could go to and it was in the headquarters in Covent Garden, where you would discuss what was going on with the Anti-Apartheid Movement. And we as the International Socialists would put forward certain things that we thought should be raised. And I think it was quite a frustrating process because the campaign seemed to me to be stuck in ever-diminishing circles. Basically, it was a kind of information campaign. If we ever tried to propose any kind of action it didn’t seem to go anywhere, particularly. So I think the frustration with the politics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement led to the growth of the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign. And I think the one thing is you shouldn’t get the impression it was particularly significant. I think it would be wrong to say that. But we did certain things which I think were part of the general process of trying to raise the arguments about what was the way forward for South Africa, how was liberation going to happen. And if Apartheid was to be overthrown, what was going to replace it. So I think that was the context of the situation. And so, we basically, in our little group – which was kind of led by the IS – we, one, wanted to raise the issues about South Africa but also we wanted to raise money. What was the money for? Basically, the money was for the armed struggle. I do remember actually, being a little bit surprised – in fact we got a pretty good reception to this, which told you really about how out of step the Anti-Apartheid Movement really was with younger people. I thought we’d have terrible arguments about this but we didn’t. We organised a number of fundraising events and we actually raised quite a bit of money because, my recollection is that SASC wanted to raise money to get a Land Rover to drive to South Africa. And I’m not sure what we were going to deliver, precisely-
M: Bullets and guns [laughs]
R: Yeah well whether it was going to get to that point- it was more to do with raising the issues. And so it got quite a good response. And I – at one of the NUS conferences – was the person who raised and had to make a speech proposing this. Support for the armed struggle, basically. And this was an amendment to one of the policy motions about South Africa. And again I was surprised at how much support we got. So I think we got about a third of the conference – which was quite a high proportion, considering what we were saying: support for the armed struggle. Which wouldn’t be, necessarily, that easy to raise. You wouldn’t have thought, given the history of the IRA in Britain and all sorts of things like that. So there was a certain audience, actually, for things that happened a bit later with South Africa. And I think it was the murmurings, really.
(21:08) C: Which conference was this?
R: An NUS conference in – I couldn’t tell you what year it was in but it would be-
R: Yeah, ‘77 I think. Not sure exactly – I think it was Easter conference but I don’t remember when. And I remember being quite sort of trepidatious, a bit frightened to make this speech because it was a bit full on. But actually, it was alright. And good that we got so much support. We were never going to get this thing passed – it was more to do with raising the issues and trying to say maybe there’s another way this struggle could go.
C: What sort of stuff happened in the debate around that?
R: Well I think, at the conference, I don’t remember precisely but we would have been slammed by the NUS Executive. Essentially – you know, they would have said we were being ultra-left which was basically just a term of abuse, really, because they didn’t actually explain what you’d mean by that. It doesn’t mean anything. And that we were basically upsetting the kind of cosy world that the anti-Apartheid struggle – which was vicars and tea parties and bits of information and how terrible it was. And all that stuff is absolutely fine, but unless you went into it with a bit more detail and actually discuss how there may be change in Southern Africa, that was the whole point of this exercise. Another thing I do remember is that the IS actually had a Southern Africa group which we used to meet. So we would talk about the politics of Southern Africa. And there’s actually quite a few people involved in this – not just people who were in IS. And there were a lot of people who knew a lot about Southern Africa, who could see what was going on, and could see how the campaign was basically – they wouldn’t say it was dead but it was just dull.
(23:19) C: How well did IS do out of NUS conferences in terms of, say, recruitment and getting word out about [its] campaigns?
R: Generally? Well actually we often did very well. I should explain – after I [graduated] I became the new student organiser for NOISS for two years. And then it became the SWP after a certain point. So it wasn’t the be all and end all – going to NUS conference – but it was an important part of trying to ensure that people got delegated and that they were open about who [they were] – because people actually used to hide their politics in the student world sometimes. So our aim was to be very open about everything and to say who you were, what you stood for – so that when you went to NUS conference you could actually say what you believed in. So we’d have a substantial grouping of people at the conference. And we’d caucus every day and we’d decide how we were going to intervene. And there’s a whole process of – each policy debate would have a kind of written – conference arrangements committee would decide how the thing was going to be structured and who was going to propose what amendments. So you’d have to take part in some of the structure of the conference but the aim was really to raise the politics and obviously to try win some of the policies. And occasionally we would do. But you have to understand that the machine of NUS was quite sophisticated at a certain level. And it was a breeding ground for future Labour politicians: Jack Straw for one-
M & R: Charles Clarke
R: Trevor Philips, David Aaronovitch – these are all people who knew what they were doing. And they were very experienced in deflecting the notion of struggle.
(25:18) C: Do you want to tell me a bit more about the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign at Liverpool? Was it active there?
M: Yeah. If I say something about my background, because I was brought up in Southern Africa. My dad was deported for his part in the campaign against Apartheid. So when I arrived at university, you could say I was an African Nationalist. We had a refugee centre where some of the people who were fighting against South Africa, members of SWAPO [South West African People’s Organisation] were staying with us, one of them being a military commander of SWAPO. So I had direct contact with people we were later supporting in SASC. So that was my impetus, if you like, when I arrived at Liverpool: African Nationalism. And then through contact with IS, as it was then, I shifted my politics to a broader view about the role of class, and so on and so on, and a view about what was called terror – the armed struggle. So SASC was a campaign which was relatively short-lived, as Ric said – I don’t think we should inflate its impact. But what we did – we had meetings, we had discussions, I organised with people to leaflet halls of residence. But with a very right-wing student union which was strangled by conservatives, we never got to NUS because their [the right wing] delegates did. Anything we tried to organise was declared “ultra vires” – which was beyond the scope of what students should be doing and a “guild” – not a student union – should be involved in. So for example the idea of getting money from the student body itself was completely out of the question. So we would raise money by going round halls of residence. Small group of us, really – not that many involved. Half a dozen, probably, at best. Plus the meetings, plus interventions on a much more public platform i.e. meetings of 100-200 to debate questions like that, which again, as Ric pointed out, would be really contentious. There’d be massive rows when you went round halls of residence, knocking on doors – “how dare you support terrorism – you’re supporting killing, murder” and so on. And I’m not sure we got the most nuanced discussions from knocking on doors but the idea was to get a handful of other people, which we did, more involved. And it wasn’t as contentious as you’d expect because there were – it was a small number of people, it was small – who were receptive to those ideas and ideas of – if you like – what was called third worldism at the time. The armed struggle in various countries around the world. Not just Southern Africa. So that formed part of that. On the other hand, the Tories were full of “this is undemocratic, you’re talking about death squads – how dare you” and so on. Moral outrage. And there were a lot of them. So we were really talking to a small minority of people outside our own small group, really, but that was the point of it. Did it gain traction? Yes – with a slogan like “we are raising money for bullets and guns for the armed struggle” you would expect it to be noticed and we certainly were. It was relatively short-lived – we can talk later about why that was, with the Anti-Nazi League. And also, I mention it because it wasn’t immediately clear but things shifted. And I might be wrong but from what I understand, the start of what became a mass movement by workers in Southern Africa began in Namibia, which is why I ended up by the copper miners and, I think, uranium miners against South African control. And that spread throughout the industrial heartlands of South Africa. And so from a campaign we were looking at what was a fairly moribund Anti-Apartheid Movement which involved broad campaigns, respectable campaigns – we were much more involved in [questions of] how do we actually achieve change. And at that time it seemed like armed struggle was the only answer – and relatively quickly it became clear that there was a different answer from the miners, particularly in South Africa. But many hundreds of thousands of other workers gradually became more and more involved. I think later on in the seventies. So there was a shift there – it was still important to talk about armed struggle, but it became less of a priority for us, politically.
(30:10) R: Certain things happened like Soweto – the Soweto Uprising.
M: Yeah, ’76.
R: So [those were] fractures, really, in the political arguments and the possibilities. That changed the perception. So I think that’s one of the reasons we would have got, you know, not a bad reception when we were making these points, because people could see the logic of what we needed to do. I think Mark is right – the industrial change in Southern Africa and the struggles that developed, again that changed it. And that meant, really, that the old way of the Anti-Apartheid Movement – it was pushed to one side. And I think they realised, actually, they had to reinvent themselves a bit as well. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to ignore everything. But they would reinvent it only up to a certain point.
(31:04) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the miners’ struggle in Namibia?
M: I’m relying on my father’s book about this because I was fifteen at the time. But I can give you some references. So the workers were in compounds – most of the population lives in the far north of the country and the mines were in the centre or the south. The diamond mines were right on the border with South Africa. So they were migrant workers displaced from their own land. They were [paid] poverty wages at the time – and the workers organised against all odds and declared a strike. They were then asked “who are your leaders”, they said “we have no leaders”. Who are your leaders – eventually it became clear [who] the leaders were and they were then put on trial, facing death sentences in many cases, on the grounds of treason and so on and so on. So there was a campaign organised in their defence which my dad was involved in – which involved getting people, observers like black congressmen out to the court proceedings so, if you like, the eyes of the wider world were on that. So those struggles were in the face of massive adversity and it would be similar in South Africa where workers talked about when you went on strike, you went on strike knowing that you faced possible starvation, execution, and so on and so on, or life imprisonment. Those were the terms on which you struck – you know, it was serious. So, as I said, the strike movement, I don’t know how it shifted and what the pattern of movement was – but it certainly moved in a kind of arc, if you like, from there [Namibia] to South Africa, and became a hugely significant part of the downfall of Apartheid.
(33:11) C: Could you tell me a bit more about your family background and how it fed into your activism?
M: My dad went out as a missionary to South Africa, to Simon’s Town, which was still part of the Commonwealth at the time. And there was a big Royal Navy port based there. And his brief was to integrate what had been a Church only for white people, just before Apartheid kicked in. So for the first few years [he was] in Simon’s Town and he integrated the Church. There were what they called Cape Coloureds, mostly the population there that joined the Church. And then he moved to Namibia – just before the Group Areas Act and South African independence kicked in, which meant that most of that congregation were moved out into townships outside. So, if you like, there was a golden period, strange to say, even though it was under the Empire and Commonwealth for that part of Southern Africa. So we then moved to Namibia and he eventually became the bishop of the Church of the province there which was C of E. And it became more and more politicised because most of the population was starving or on wages that you couldn’t survive on. And bit by bit became more and more involved in things like workers’ coops, very small-scale, involved black and white people working together on building works and things like that. And then the strike movement kicked off. And I didn’t know at the time that would lead to his – he was deported because he was a British citizen. If you were South African and black or Namibian black then you possibly were murdered. And some of the priests that [were prominent] were, or disappeared. If you were South African white you’d be put under house arrest. That would mean five or ten years where you were not allowed out of your house. And you were allowed visitors but you knew every conversation was being eavesdropped and was under strict control. So it was like a prison of your own making, if you like. Being British, he was deported and became a sort of cause celébre for a while, there in South Africa and in Britain. Not popular with the C of E. They offered him – I’m not making this up – the Bishopric of the Outer Hebrides. And, you know, he didn’t really fit in with the profile of the Church of England.
(35:40) R: Could have gone a bit further.
M: Well it’s about as far as you can go.
R: Seagulls a bit further north.
M: So through my family we were in contact with anti-Apartheid campaigners – many of them Church leaders like Desmond Tutu but not just that. Many of the leaders of tribal groups in Namibia and so on and so on.
(36:10) C: Were either of you involved much in the Anti-Nazi League or Rock Against Racism?
M & R: Yeah.
R: I was involved in Students Against the Nazis. I helped to design and collate a lot of the initial information to do with publicity – which was very interesting for me. But generally, I was involved in the Anti-Nazi League in Camden, which included the College. So it depends what you want to know, really – ‘cause I could talk to you for hours about the Anti-Nazi League.
C: What would you say were the most significant parts of it?
R: Its ability to bring together people from all sorts of different backgrounds with a determination that we weren’t going to let this situation get any worse – I think. And it was a very, sometimes quite dangerous thing to be involved in, because the National Front were very active and they meant business. And these people were street thugs and they had an ideology – fascism. And I was at Southall when Blair Peach was killed. And I remember, with a friend of mine, being chased by the Special Patrol group which was a kind of paramilitary police, half the night hiding in gardens and, basically, terrified. And it was a serious thing. I wasn’t at Lewisham but I was also at Wood Green when we confronted the National Front. And again, that was pretty terrifying. But that wasn’t the be all and end all of the Anti-Nazi League. That was the, kind of, the confrontation was part of what went on but it was a lot to do with bringing people together and setting up different aspects of the Anti-Nazi League. So whatever it was you were involved in there was a branch of the Anti-Nazi League for you. And also, attached to that was, really, Rock Against Racism. So I went to a lot of their gigs. Actually, with it being in Camden, it was the time of punk as well. So seeing the Clash and seeing reggae bands playing alongside white punk groups was quite amazing really. Seeing X-Ray Spex, Generation X, Aswad, Steel Pulse – all these names that people know about, but at the time as a quite young person it was an amazing thing to see. Thousands of people culminating in the Anti-Nazi League carnival in Hackney, having to march through bits of Hoxton with people chucking things at you.
M: Brick Lane
R: Yeah, defending Brick Lane. Fighting the fascists in Brick Lane. Occupying bits of Brick Lane. Seeing the Asian youths get organised which was pretty fantastic. So seeing all these things come together, it was quite something.
M: So at Liverpool – well to say something about the IS/SWP’s organisation. It’s been painted as a Leninist group, because we didn’t actually know it was an IS initiative. My dad actually asked me: “I’ve been approached by this group called the Anti-Nazi League – do you think I should sign up as a signatory?” And I didn’t know what to say. I mention this because it kicked off at Liverpool as a very broad campaign of the Left – which is exactly what it was designed to be, with us trying to run to catch up, to be honest, because we were a bit late starting. So I went to Lewisham with my dad, in his bishop’s outfit, at the time, and he spoke on the platform and so on. And then when things kicked off we politely moved to the back of things – because I wasn’t part of the group that was chucking bricks and so on. But it’s around Brick Lane – my dad was living in the East End in Stepney at the time in the mid-seventies. If you wore the badges around Brick Lane then that was a very dangerous thing to do. So when Ric talks about the kind of – Vicky Park, that was a massive thing that we brought coaches down to from many student bodies including Liverpool. And to see fascists outside the Blade Bone doing Sieg Heils – but in front of a hundred thousand people the Sieg Heils became – I’m not making this up, lower and lower and more and more desultory – because they were just swamped by us. And that was the most important part of it. You had to confront them because Altab Ali Park in the East End is named after a young Asian who was murdered by them. And there were fire bombings. There was a family my dad adopted whose father had died as a result of a heart attack from being fire-bombed in their own home in London at the time. It was a dangerous time so it was critical to get a broad mass of people involved. And comparing with the anti-Apartheid movement I think it drew on – Peter Hain was involved – it drew on the best of that movement because it was very active at the time. And they confronted the police, and so on – at their height. And we knew we would have to do that. But it was a tiny group – crazy and we knew how that would end – it had to be a mass movement. And from the word go it was. So at Liverpool, people couldn’t wait. They wanted to know “where’s the coach, when do we go?” and so on. Because they wanted to be part of this movement because you could see how dangerous things were – you know, the turn things were taking at the time.
(41:52) R: It was something to do with when the National Front got so many hundred thousand votes in the local elections in London. I don’t remember the date precisely but that kind of almost kickstarting this whole thing. And so it was an idea whose time had come, and I think the positive role that revolutionaries played in this was from this idea of “from below”, changing things from below. And harnessing people’s creativity. So if you look at the images from the time, they’re quite striking, a lot of them, because it really did bring together all sorts of different people. So for example, there was a graphic artist David King, I don’t know if you know who he is but he’s dead now, but he’s just had an exhibition at the Tate. And he did a huge amount of work around Russia – Revolutionary Russia – collecting images over the years. But he did a lot of the artwork for the Anti-Nazi League. He was an absolute genius. And it wasn’t just people like him – there were all kinds of people that fed into this. Rock Against Racism, Red Saunders, there’s all different types of people. The punk movement fed into this – the idea of self-activity. But the – I think what the revolutionary Left, the SWP were able to do at the time was feed into this idea that we have to confront. We can’t just do this, we can’t just have nice posters, gigs, raise money – we have to defend people. But we also have to stop these people. We had to understand their ideology to know that we had to confront them on the streets. As Mark said it was just an easy thing to do, and a lot of people didn’t want to do it. A lot of people did it despite themselves, as it were. Because they had the solidarity with other people. Our argument was that basically if there’s a hundred thousand of us, it will stop them. It’s not that we have to physically – five of us versus five of them in a punch up, because we’d probably lose. We had to actually take the ground, take the space, stop them from marching, like they did in the thirties in Cable Street.
M: We gained a reputation as a result of it. And it’s only an anecdote but Tom Robinson turned up in Liverpool and asked the IS student group to be his bodyguards when he went to the gig over in the Wirral because it was notorious for being a fascist stronghold. If you’d take a look at us we were the most unlikely bodyguards you could choose. But it was the reputation because – I was always the one in the back on these things. We knew that the mass was the critical thing. We weren’t actually fighters but we got kind of an unwarranted reputation as that.
(44:55) C: How important was memory of the nineteen-thirties and the Second World War to anti-fascism in the seventies?
R: I think for the young people the memories of the Second World War wasn’t necessarily that important. I think – once you started talking about the thirties, people kind of got it. They could see an economic crisis. They could see the signs of the thirties, so the whole thing kind of fitted together. I don’t think the Second World War per-se, but these arguments about fascism involved all sorts of things: to do with the Holocaust, for example. The Nazis were denying the Holocaust – or they were sidelining it. So exposing them for the kinds of things they’d said about the Holocaust was quite a big part of this as well. That again drew more people into the struggle because of their desire to do something – but also the fear that if this thing gets any worse.
M: And I think also, this is not to criticise Jewish groups but the Anti-Nazi League was vilified in the right-wing press for terror tactics, if you like. So many conventional, mainstream Jewish groups wouldn’t get involved with us. So it fell to us on the Left, really, to raise those arguments about the Holocaust. When tombstones were defaced by fascists, it was us that did that because for fully understandable reasons, conventional figures in the Jewish community wouldn’t stand up and argue against that. Or certainly wouldn’t support our actions. So it felt at times like you were fighting on your own but it became something where we managed, actually, to shift, if you like, the conversation. Because from an argument about “how dare you” and about rights to free speech and so on, it became more about the methods that you used. Again, not uncritical because you can imagine the Daily Mail weighing into us and monstering individuals and so on. That was very much part of the mood at the time. So it was highly contentious to get involved but we had many, many hundreds of thousands. And people got involved through the student movement and through workplaces and so on and so on. The number of [groups] that sprang up and began: Students Against the Nazis, Teachers Against, Social Workers and so on and so on. It became, pretty much, “I am against the Nazis”.
(47:37) R: There was also an argument about no platform as well: no platform for Nazis. And that kind of divided a lot of people – the revolutionary Left plus colleagues and friends – as opposed to the CP [Communist Party] line: not in favour of no platform. And it was quite a big deal, actually. And it was something which we won in a lot of colleges, workplaces. Because a lot of people thought “don’t be ridiculous, there’s no platform for these people, they don’t believe in free speech, they’d put you up against the wall given half a chance, so of course we don’t give them a platform”. It was only the kind of CP element and the Labour element which would introduce arguments which would confuse the situation. ‘Cause generally most people – at my college – it was never a problem.
R: People just voted for it en masse.
M: But the Labour bureaucracy were reluctant – let’s put it politely – to get involved.
M: It was very difficult to get them on board.
R: Yeah. I think the thing about the Anti-Nazi League – the Anti-Nazi League was not really about no platform.
R: That was really the other part of the argument. The Anti-Nazi League was bringing people together to expose – to confront, not peacefully necessarily, but en masse, Nazi ideas. And it worked. Its time had come, that particular campaign. But I think it’s arguable, without the influence of the IS/SWP, that it wouldn’t have worked actually as well as it did – which is something to remember, actually.
(49:33) C: Would you be able to tell me a bit more about no platform?
R: In what way?
C: A bit about some of the arguments you came across when that was being debated.
R: Do you want to go Mark, I mean I can do it?
M: Alright [though] yeah you’ll probably do better than me. Well the argument you still hear, which is that “we believe in free speech, we’re a democratic country”. These people – well the National Front didn’t portray themselves as fascists, they argued they were nationalists, so therefore they should have the right to appear on TV programmes, they should have the right to march in the streets. And from the Communist Party and Labour supporters, the argument would be that “we have a popular front against that”, including people like my dad the bishops and so on and the vicars and so on. Not violent confrontation: a community campaign, that involved peace, love and understanding, which is a very good thing. However in the period we were in we were talking about violence – and what you could see was a deliberate plan by the fascists the occupy the streets. – copying directly what had happened with Mosley, the Blackshirts and the fascists in Germany. So when you asked about the precedents, that was clear in our minds. And it was clear in their minds as well – the fascists. So no platform sprang from that. And in student unions and so on it was debated because, not surprisingly many people would struggle, initially at least, with that notion that you deny people a platform. And they did – it was a difficult argument to win over.
(51:16) R: You often actually had – when you were having this argument you had to keep going with the argument. Because people shouted at you.
R: You had to know what you were talking about – so you had to have studied and understood the history of all of this. Which is if you can get through to the end of what you were saying, you’d actually often win. And that was the point, really. Wherever it happened to be – at college, work, you name it, really. Because for a lot of people it was quite an emotional process, to think that you would deny someone else the right to have a platform, given that you spend half your time trying to have a platform for all sorts of different things, that you wanted to deny some other people. But actually it was part of a process where – I think, for lots of people it opened their whole minds to what, really, this kind of society we live in and what is really going on.
M: I agree – I don’t think it was an argument you’d win with a majority of the Soft Left, if you like.
M: And it wasn’t necessary, I guess, to win that argument, to get people involved on the streets, for example. So people would still turn up and sign up to the idea of confronting on the streets. Because that wasn’t the same – that was saying “we own these streets”. So it was a kind of no platform but not in the same form.
R: If you look at the photos of Lewisham – well I wasn’t at Lewisham but I looked at the photos recently, ‘cause it was forty years ago – who was actually on the march against the fascists, fighting the fascists, were lots of kids, actually. Local kids, local Black West Indian kids. So for them this argument was just irrelevant – about no platform. “Of course you’re not going to give them a platform. You’re mad giving these people a platform.” It was the kind of – so your aim really was to attract as many of these people as possible, essentially. Because once you had the numbers the Soft Left became – not exactly irrelevant but they were pushed to one side. So at Lewisham they tried to divert, as far as I know, divert the march down off to the church or something. And that was just ignored. And so the Anti-Nazi League which organised the demo – well I can’t remember who exactly organised the demonstration, but whoever it was just ignored that and said “no, we are going to stop them.” And that had the mass of people – so, as they say, let the people decide – and that’s what they decided, that this was not going to pass. And it was the same in Cable Street, actually. The CP, nationally, were not in favour of stopping the fascists.
(54:03) M: In fact, the opposite. They barred their members from getting involved.
M: So Communist Party members had to defy their leadership.
R: But lots of local CP, where they were strong, they were strong in the East End – they just weren’t having this.
(54:19) C: Was Palestinian Solidarity a big part of your activism during this period?
M: We were involved in joint-meetings and campaigns with Palestine Solidarity.
M: And from Liverpool we joined a coach that they’d paid for – the Arab Society, rather, paid for [us] to come down to London when there was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, operating at the time there. But it was a very small group that we were happy to support. But it didn’t have a lot of traction, broadly, on campus.
R: I don’t think you’re right, actually.
M: Alright go on.
R: I think it’s true actually, I think it was a little bit later, I think maybe when I was a student organiser [full-time position in the SWP] it was a lot more pertinent, really. There was a lot more going on. But I do remember when we were at college, there’s again another one of those things, if you showed any interest in Palestine, you’d meet people. Palestinian students or students from wherever, Egypt, or wherever. And you’d have good conversations and they welcomed you, even though a lot of their politics were fairly mixed up or they were all sorts of variations of all sorts of different things. But that wasn’t really the issue – the point was, you were willing to talk about it. And where you did talk about it you’d often come up against these sort of Union of Jewish Students would try to stop any kind of debate. Or you’d be labelled anti-Semitic. But I think that labelling of people who [were] trying to discuss this issue came a lot later really. I think it was just even being able to discuss it, at that point, was a bit more relevant. Are we right to think-
M: I think it was-
R: I obviously don’t really remember it, actually.
M: No. I mean, we would organise Jewish socialist speakers from IS to speak because it was actually a very emotionally charged atmosphere. I’m not saying it was the same as now, but it was a difficult one to confront.
M: And you would be charged with anti-Semitism: immediately, as soon as you started challenging the right of Israel to exist. But then you would see Palestinian students, I did, talking to their Jewish counterparts in a common language – ‘cause they said they could understand each other, after these very fierce, heated debates – which at times you felt would actually become violent. The Jewish students were very emotionally charged. Really, it was an act of faith for most of them that you supported Israel. And they couldn’t discuss. Which became difficult because – if you’re not going to discuss, then you’d want to use force, which is often – I think – the way they tended to-
R: That’s why I think it was just a big thing to actually discuss the subject. If you could make that little breakthrough – then the thing tended to open out a bit.
M: I think, because for us it occurred at the same time as the Anti-Nazi League, we were the ones – not the Jewish students – who were pushing arguments to support Jews against attacks – because Jews were being attacked, and synagogues, and cemeteries and so on were as well. So, if you like, we could stand tall and say, well, hang on, we’ve done all of this stuff, how dare you.
R: And that’s actually happened quite often I think. Especially the how dare you bit. And it cut through – because you had your kind of badge of honour, really, you’d actually done something.
(57:55) C: What does 1968 mean to you?
R: Personally? Well I was at school, actually. I was at boarding school and in Germany. My dad was in the army. All I remember of ’68 was the Olympics – watching the Black Power salute in our little dorm on the TV, thinking “blimey what’s all this about?” And that’s kind of what it meant to me at the time. Later, obviously it means a lot really – because I think it’s when the world turned in all its different ways.
M: Do you mean what it’d mean at the time in terms of student politics?
R: Or now
C: If you like, yeah.
R: I think at the time, for me personally, I don’t think it meant a lot, actually. Because I think when you’re 18, 19, your head is in the moment. I do remember actually, things which were more relevant were Chile, actually.
C: Would you like to talk a bit about that?
R: Well I remember one of the first demos I went to was a Chile Solidarity campaign demonstration. And I think I went with the IS group. And I think the Communist Party stewards tried to stop us from going on the demonstration. That’s what I remember – and thinking, not understanding why [you would] do that – ‘cause we weren’t doing anything, particularly – we were just on the demonstration, we had newspapers and leaflets and we were just raising questions about the nature of the struggle for socialism, and obviously the tragedy of Chile. But let’s look at this in a bit more detail. And at that time it was something you couldn’t – it’s not like we were criticising so much we were just again raising issues of difference in tactics that one would have. If you were in that situation in Britain, if Labour was elected with a radical government what would we do? How would we defend it? What would be the tactics? And it was kind of, you know, because it’s part of the CP trying to stop that – so that’s what I remember about Chile. I think Portugal would be another one, really. Portugal was different because it was a sign in Europe that something could have happened really. Workers’ revolution in Chile – it was a big deal and that was seventy-
M: Portugal, you’re talking about? ’74?
R: -four, yeah so – that was the year before I went to college, but a lot of people had been to Portugal, and they’d seen what was going on. And it was actually something that people talked about.
(1:00:40) M: I think, going back to Chile then, it was a point of difference for, if you like, the far Left because there was tremendous support for Chileans who were then in exile. And living in Oxford we took over a refugee centre from Chilean exiles. And I remember there was a professor of music who was cleaning the toilets at Oxford University. Many of them were living in dire straits at the time. But when you got to university the Communist Party wasn’t active but, if you like, there was a resonance and a kind of emotional support for Chileans in exile and for the Popular Unity government of the time. So it was a difficult discussion to have with mainstream students because, if you like, on an emotional level why wouldn’t you support a government that had been gunned down and, you know, when things hadn’t ended well. So for the far Left it was a point of difference because we stood for a different way. And there were small Left groups – the MIR [Revolutionary Left Movement] for example, in Chile – that were sympathetic to that, and probably in MAPU [Lautaro Youth Movement], I think, as well – who you would encounter on campus. So there would be those, fraternal if you like, discussions about that. But they weren’t part of the mainstream.
R: But I think, generally [returning to the earlier question], ’68, for me personally, became something I became interested in the longer I was involved in politics. Because I guess what you do is you start reading. So you read more and more – and you start getting “oh, Vietnam” – because at some point or other you’ve got the tragedy of Vietnam, the boat people [refugees from the Vietnam War] and all sorts of terrible things that went on in Cambodia. And you have to have an understanding so let’s go backwards – and let’s read backwards, let’s read backwards to ’68. The Tet Offensive and how important that was to student politics around the world. And the general situation of ’68 – Paris. And even just the images, personally, I was just very interested in the posters and thinking – well, again, this was another world. And the cinema that came out in the late sixties – the French cinema. [I remember] thinking this was quite something. But not at the time. It was over the following years.
(1:03:03) M: I think for us the way it played out in practical terms was that we had discussions about what our role was as students. And of course you couldn’t help but look back to ’68 – whether consciously or unconsciously, if you like. I mentioned about Militant/the Socialist Party seeing their role as being part of the working-class movement. And that meant not what they saw as student politics – which were abstract and arbitrary, kind of irrelevant. And that wasn’t just us – I think many students were trying to get their heads around about, well 1) you have a space as a student – and this is part of our approach, I guess, well you were neither one thing nor another. Wherever you’d come from – working-class, middle-class – your destination’s probably something a bit different. But you were in this space where you could actually discuss and negotiate who you were and what you wanted to do about the world.
R: Yeah you had those three years.
M: And ’68, I think, was a massive underpinning to that, if you like: the height of student struggle. I think we were conscious we weren’t at that height, either. Although things were – the atmosphere, if you like, was sympathetic to the Left but not on that scale. And I think I was aware of that at the time.
(1:04:21) R: Yeah, I mean I think I personally was aware of the economic crisis, actually the general economic crisis. So we were involved in the Right to Work campaign which – I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to anyone about [that] – that was the campaign against unemployment. And what we did – we organised marches, we took people out of the College, join in, there was a local Right to Work campaign in Central London – again, as far as I remember, initiated by the SWP. But it basically attracted a lot of unemployed kids – and so we’d protest, organise marches. I went on two or three different marches around Britain. We were incredibly busy and active, and there was a hell of a lot going on. And we were in the middle of an economic crisis. We got racism, we got all sorts of things going on. Society is in crisis. So I don’t think we particularly looked to ’68, necessarily. Partly, I think, because we were so busy.
M: I agree with you about ’68. I was in Liverpool where unemployment was very high then, and higher still later, in the early ‘80s. So I helped organise the Liverpool to Blackpool Right to Work march where we’d-
R: I went to [Blackpool] as well, actually.
M: Did you? Alright – so where we would go down to the dole office, leaflet, and usually attract youth, my job was then to keep them occupied for the so many weeks before we actually marched. And the idea on the march was that you marched as unemployed and students – to go back to the ’68 thing, that was your role there – and we would stop off at different workplaces where organisers would have spoken. And you’d take speakers in, either ourselves as students or unemployed kids, to go and speak to these people who were sometimes involved in disputes, whether it was a strike or whatever. And so the idea was that that’s how students became involved – both on-campus and outside, if you like. So peripherally, that touched on ’68 I guess.
(1:06:26) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the economic situation in the seventies?
M: Shall I start? Well to begin with, it was easier as a student or as a young person when I started out at university, putting it mildly then at the end – you could sign on in your breaks, you could claim housing benefit if you were staying on, staying in Liverpool, wherever you were living. You [could] get your free dental and so on and so on. When I left A-Levels I signed on at the local jobcentre and they offered me dozens of jobs that I could have walked into any of those. So work was easy to find and it wasn’t difficult to survive. As students you were means tested so many students then didn’t get the full grant – I did. But you could get a job on the side and it wouldn’t be that difficult, I think. Not that difficult to survive. By the end of the seventies it was a different story.
R: Yeah – housing is a classic [example] because if you were a student in London you’d often be in a hall for the first year. But you could get into some kind of – you could get a council flat, they were hard to let council flats, you’d queue up and you’d get one. We got one – you got one, didn’t you?
R: So you just queue up all night – a big long queue – they’d give you your details and here’s the key. You go and find this block of flats and it’d be fairly run-down.
M: [Cost] you £25 a week.
R: Yeah. And if you didn’t pay, they didn’t bother you particularly for quite a while. But you’d keep the payments – it was a space, actually, where you could be someone with not a lot of money. So when you finished college, you didn’t have to find – like now in London as a single person, you may have to find £600, £700 a month or more – whereas then I think the equivalent would be maybe a couple hundred quid, with inflation, a month, back then which you could manage if you were doing some kind of work. It was a lot of casual work – or if you wanted a job in such and such, something or other, you had a much easier time of it. This is graduates we’re talking about. If you were a working-class kid it’s a different experience because unemployment was high. [There was] racism – so if you were a black kid, you got all sorts of things going on, which had one set of troubles added to another. You got the police attacking you, arresting you, you had [SUSS], you name it. So you got different experiences but, in a way, I think life was easier for this period. Even though they were in the middle of an economic crisis. You may have an economic crisis now, but life is certainly not easy for a vast majority of people. So it was a different period.
M: I think, without trying to generalise, when you studied it wasn’t – well from our point of view from the Left – it wasn’t necessarily with a view to a career. There was a space there – material as well as intellectual, if you like – to exist slightly separate from the system, without being completely outside of it. So my objective was not to get a job as a lawyer or whatever. It was to duck and dive and survive, in a squat or in cheap housing, council and whatnot – to get involved in further campaigns, and not really thinking about a career in my life other than that.
R: Or a mortgage.
M: Yeah. In fact very much the opposite.
(1:10:15) C: Could you tell me a bit about what solidarity means to you?
R: In contemporary times or…
C: Contemporary, looking back?
R: Solidarity is a feeling you get when you’re trying to change something. Solidarity is with other people. Solidarity is with other people in struggle. My idea of solidarity, I don’t think, has changed at all actually.
M: Mine changed very much from when I started as a student to when I got more involved. I would say I would have been prepared to join the resistance movement in Southern Africa and to take up arms. I’m not exaggerating because I know people who I was at school with who did or who got involved as technical advisors for the freedom fighters. So that would have been my form of solidarity then – you know, getting directly involved. And I gradually became aware that there was another way of doing it – partly because I was living in a different country – that involved many others in a mass movement. So solidarity became very much about gaining purchase among students, initially, and then gradually we realised that that would probably involve workers more. I think now if you’re talking about solidarity – I think from Tahrir Square and movements like that are much more conscious of the role of the movement. Whereas we were much, I think understandably, much more fixated about, if you like, classic class struggle which we thought was workplaces first and foremost. I still think that – much the same then but I see the role of movements as much more complex now.
R: I think my view of solidarity is self-activity. And that’s never changed, really. Obviously the forms change but the idea is always there. This idea of people deciding for themselves, democracy, being able to move things forward, struggles against people who don’t want you to decide for yourself.
M: I think one of the arguments that we came up against was the notion of separatism. So if you like, how does solidarity work if – you know, there was massive and very understandable resistance from [radical] feminists of people on the Left. And then Black Consciousness had a purchase there. And there’d be accusations – quite understandable – that “you don’t understand our struggle – how can you be involved in solidarity with us if you haven’t been exploited by the system?” And Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson and other black nationalists, sort of separatists, put those points very persuasively. So you would have to examine, if you like, what it is you were looking for from that solidarity. Because going in naïve and enthusiastic is not enough. And we had to learn a lot, I think. I think the biggest lesson for me is that you don’t know that much and you need to ask many questions and learn from those involved in those struggles.
R: And you don’t go around lecturing people. If you want anyone to listen to what you have to say.
M: No. For example – I don’t want to caricature the IMG only because any Left group can do this. If you wanted to join the International Marxist Group you had candidate membership. You had to read the books, they wouldn’t just let you join.
R: You had to have an exam, actually.
M: You had to read Das Kapital blah blah blah. And then you were deemed worthy. Because then you’d know – you’d know what you were doing. And I think the IS was different then – I’m not so sure about now – in that it was felt that you could pick up the pieces and be shaped [by] as well as shape movements. And I think that was quite important.
M: It’s not glamourising to say that, but we were very shaped by the Anti-Nazi League. We had to learn as we went along as well as shaping it. And that was very important, to shape it.
(1:14:33) C: What does socialism mean to you?
R: Well it’s a good idea if you ask me.
M: Socialism is much the same to me now as when I first viewed it: as equality, as a lot of “nots” as in not capitalism, not so many long lists of things. And a very hazy view of what it could be. A transition to something better – a lot better. And the opportunity to rid the world of exploitation, famine and so on and so on. So socialism has always attracted me for those reasons. Trying to visualise it – again there was a strong current against that in the Left groups I was part of. Because that had to be forged en masse, if you like. And yes you could conceive of what you wouldn’t have but [it’s] probably more difficult to conceive of what a new life might be like.
(1:15:40) R: And also, I think now, probably as a young person trying to think of socialism is not an easy thing to do, actually, because the world is in such a mess. So you can say environmentalist politics – if you look at what’s happening to the world and you think “there’s socialism” where everything’s sorted out. Here’s what’s actually going on. How on Earth are we going to get from there to there. I’m not sure too many people think about the ultimate aim – a lot of people seem to be talking about how to stop it from getting any worse, basically. So socialism is a long way off on the agenda whereas back then it wasn’t, really, because you’d have arguments about what was socialist. So was the Soviet Union a socialist place? Was Cuba, for example? On the Left, Cuba was a big thing, actually. What was Cuba? And if you criticised Cuba – and in fact even if you do that now, there are some left-wing groups who will really get the hump.
(1:16:45) M: I went on a trip to Cuba just after I left university, as part of the World Festival of Youth and Students. So we were delegated as students from various motley groups, mostly – I think it was 200 from the UK, mostly Communist Party-oriented, from the two major factions there. And a very small group of, I think probably about 5 or 6 gay guys, two of us in the IS. And for most, we were going to the socialist motherland – paradise on Earth, an island in the Caribbean Sea where the sea is warm. And there would be many speeches about before and after, before the Revolution da-da-da prostitution, etc., the Mafia and so on. After [Paradise]. We didn’t go with that view in mind. And we met up with Chilean exiles who’d been disabused of that view having lived there for – well, I don’t think it would take long, having lived there, to see how privilege operated through the Communist Party. And just talking to people – I mean literally, we were followed by cops with dark glasses everywhere we went in Havana – and we were chatting to some guy, me in my rudimentary Spanish. And he was – in front of me – dragged off by two people for talking to us. Met him later on – it was a public holiday for two weeks, by the way. And he just told us “this is how it is. Socialism is this – committees for the defence of the revolution, which means your neighbour spies on you”, and so on and so on. And socialism meant – in that Latin country – men and women dancing together in their tens of thousands in Havana at this festival, which to us was wonderful and yet bizarre. ‘Cause gay rights didn’t exist and probably don’t exist there now.
(1:18:39) R: No. I mean there are other examples – I went to a conference in Libya, once for a few days. I think that actually was about Palestine. We were invited – I didn’t really want to go but I thought I’d just go, because to be honest, when else would you get to go to Libya. So I went and it was kind of interesting because there were Ba’athists there who said that Iraq was socialist. You can think now and think, blimey, you know, someone saying that – and we know what happened later and we know what happened and what Iraq is and all the rest of it. But then, actually, bits of the Left actually thought that Iraq was socialist. So the Workers’ Revolutionary Party – they were funded, to an extent, by the Ba’athists. And Libya – also people said that Libya was socialist. So you go there and think “what is this? In what sense is this socialist? Who controls what in the society?” The state controls what goes on – like in Cuba. So this is not Socialism from Below. This is not the mass of people deciding how things are going to be. And for me, that’s what socialism is about, really. And so that’s what got me into it in the first place. So a lot of those things have gone, really – about any illusions in countries being socialist. But although you say that, Venezuela – you know I’ve heard a lot of people say Venezuela was a socialist society. But in what sense was that really true? It’s a bit like clutching at straws to think that that’s true. But actually if your notion of socialism is something you get by trickery, in a way, or luck, that somehow you come in, you are in charge of that country – it’s not for me. I remember with someone else who said to me that East Germany was socialist and the Berlin Wall was there to stop the fascists from invading.
(1:20:52) M: I think it goes back to your question about solidarity though. Because many of the movements at the time were in solidarity with what were seen as [the] socialist states of China [from] ’68 and beyond. Third Worldism was prevalent. So it would be a list – I won’t go through the list – but many countries. And these were seen as real, material examples of socialism. And it took a lot to disabuse – if you like – ordinary students and others of these notions because why wouldn’t you hold on to that notion. It has far more purchase, if you like, than a dream of a different world. Another world existed – it wasn’t possible for many thousands of people.
(1:21:36) R: Which is why I think the IS tradition was so important, because the slogan at the time was “Neither Moscow nor Washington”. So if you think about what that means, we were right in the middle of this argument. And it’s not the same now, but to be honest a lot of the arguments would be exactly the same if Corbyn was elected, for example, on a radical programme.
(1:22:02) M: And also, going back to Southern Africa solidarity and so on. We supported freedom fighters, but without illusions, if you like. So solidarity meant that yes you supported those campaigns. But sorry to namedrop – through my dad I had breakfast with Robert Mugabe in the last day of the Lancaster House talks. I was allowed to ask him one question. So I said “well, what countries do you view as socialist?” And he said “Romania and Bulgaria”. And my jaw dropped – I couldn’t believe it. But for many on the Left you supported those groups uncritically. And we didn’t, but we still supported them to the point where we were prepared to raise money. It wasn’t just token support, if you like. So solidarity meant that you actually got your hands dirty. Kind of literally as well. Realising, if you like, the shortcomings of many of these campaigns, movements, leaderships, and so on.
R: Not to have illusions.
M: No. But you did it, nevertheless, gritting your teeth, if you like. Knowing that.
(1:23:09) C: Is there anything we’ve not discussed that either of you would like to say now, that you think is important to this?
R: Do you mean historically or generally?
C: Historically, yes.
R: I’m sure there is but we probably don’t remember what it is.
M: I think in terms of change and possibly how student politics may be now – notions of gender, identity politics and so on are very different from what they were then. The discussions we had then were about feminism, the relationship between feminism or, if you like, women’s liberation and socialism. And those ideas, I think, have advanced massively in the last forty years. So in terms of solidarity now – our issues were that the Communist Party influenced so much that we were often arguing against that grain. And that grain doesn’t exist [now], if you like. Whereas now ideas of intersectionality and so on and so on, if you like, are predominant. Those aren’t Communist Party ideas but those are the ones that, I think, people on the Left or in movements need to grapple with. My ideas about that have changed massively since then – because the pole of resistance was the Communist Party. And so many of those politics were shaped by that. Good in many, many ways – but not so good in others. And good luck to you!
R: Yeah, that’s a good way to end it I think.