I’m an urban guerrilla
I make bombs in my cellar
I’m a derelict dweller
I’m a potential killer
Hawkwind, ‘Urban Guerilla’ (1973)
Christ, you know it weren’t easy. London in 1968 might still be swinging (albeit a couple of years past its peak), it might still be making hip music and movies, but it wasn’t really where it was at anymore. Not if you were the kind of angry young man whose blood quickened at the prospect of protest.
No, Paris – that’s where the action was. Manning the barricades, students and workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, calling for the overthrow of the state. Or, for the more anglophone agitator, there was Chicago – battling Mayor Daley’s cops outside the Democratic National Convention. Sleepy London town, on the other hand, as Mick Jagger pointed out, didn’t really cut the mustard for a street fighting man.
There were demonstrations to attend, of course. You could express your displeasure at America’s attempt to hold back the advance of communism in Vietnam, by joining the throngs who marched on the Yankee Embassy in Grosvenor Square. (At least, it was called ‘marching’; actually it was more of a disorganized amble. But it did give you a chance to chant ‘Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh’, and then have a bit of a punch-up with some – unarmed – London bobbies.)
Still, it didn’t mean the same here as it did in the belly of the Amerikan beast, where your contemporaries and comrades were getting their call-up papers. Burning a draft card was the kind of dramatic defiance you could only dream of. When push comes to shove, solidarity is no substitute for sacrifice.
Spare a thought, then, for the likes of Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Born in the first half-decade or so of peace after the Second World War, these were young men spending the 1960s under the mostly benign Labour government of Harold Wilson. That’s the one that legalized homosexuality and abortion, ended capital punishment, and outlawed discrimination on grounds of sex, race and disability. It wasn’t really what you’d call a fascist police state.
There is a recognized phenomenon of war-envy, whereby men who have never served in the armed forces feel that somehow they’re not real men – they haven’t been ‘tested in battle’. Read pretty much any Tony Parsons column (or novel) at random to see this expressed on a personal level. Or, for the political manifestation of the same trait, cast an eye over the premiership of Tony Blair.
The Left equivalent is revolution-envy. You can’t really call yourself a revolutionary until you’ve faced armed pigs, and fought fire with fire.
Denied this, the Left alternative in Britain found solace in the 1970s scrapping with the National Front on the streets. It also resorted to the fetishizing of the urban guerrilla. You could see it, for example, in the way that the anarchist terrorists in the Angry Brigade received favourable coverage not merely in the underground press – International Times, Oz, Friendz – but even in the Guardian. Or in the way that Patty ‘Tania’ Hearst briefly became a pin-up to rival Che Guevara himself. Later in the decade, it was evident in the Clash’s purloining of the imagery of the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof, and their salivating over the Notting Hill riots and ‘Sten guns in Knightsbridge’. In fictional form, it was depicted in the ‘1970’ episode of Our Friends in the North.
Amongst those who dedicated themselves to a political life on the far left of the Labour Party, there were three approved groups where a hero-worship of the armed revolutionary was especially indulged. There was Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC in South Africa; there was the Palestinian Liberation Organization, together with its offshoots and rivals; and there was the Provisional IRA. For their admirers, these were the folk heroes of our time, engaged in direct action against the forces of bourgeois imperialism. A fine cocktail was concocted, comprised in equal parts of adolescent solipsism, the anarchist doctrine of propaganda of the deed, and the Leninist doctrine of revolutionary defeatism. And for some (a shout-out to Little Johnnie McDonnell), there’s the macho hardman fantasy that prompts you to make jokes about kneecapping.
By the 1980s, despite its embrace of CND, the Hard Left was not pacifist but partisan. It spoke of peace but opposed only wars waged by America, Israel and Britain – even, bizarrely, denouncing the operation to retake the Falklands Islands from a military dictatorship. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, on the other hand, attracted no such condemnation.* In 1989 Tony Benn spoke at a rally in support of the demonstrators killed in Tiananmen Square and – as though in surprise at himself – wrote in his diary: ‘It was the first time I had ever spoken in public against a communist government.’
When, during the recent general election campaign, the Tories and their friends in Fleet Street attacked the current Labour leadership for past association with terrorists and enemies of the country, it wasn’t a smear campaign; it was an essentially truthful – if somewhat lurid – account. It may not have had the impact on the election result that was intended, but the facts remain.
All of this, it must be stressed, is now in the past, discarded along with Diane Abbott’s Afro. (‘The hairstyle has gone and some of the views have gone,’ she said last month. ‘We have all moved on.’) Labour’s election campaign was an almost entirely successful exercise in re-branding. Whilst still claiming its anti-establishment credentials, the Left now insisted that theirs is also the party of the police and the security services. (What do we want? More fuzz!)
Even so, there’s still the old lack of faith in a parliamentary road to socialism. The campaign is more important than the outcome. ‘I think it’s pretty clear who won this election,’ said Jeremy Corbyn. He may have got fewer votes and fewer MPs than the Conservatives, but out on the streets he was surely victorious.
And ‘the streets’ are still where the real business of politics is conducted. It’s so much more exciting out there than it is in the chamber of the House of Commons. ‘What we need now is the TUC mobilised, every union mobilised, get out on the streets,’ said John McDonnell earlier this week. ‘Just think if the TUC put out that call – that we want a million on the streets of London in two weeks’ time.’
Does any of this matter? Is it anything more than the harmless romantic fantasies of some pathetic fellow-travellers and useful fools?
I fear that it might be. There’s an ugly mood in Britain at the moment. The ugliness of government policies is being matched by ugliness within Labour ranks. There is the tacit tolerance of anti-Semitism, denied by Labour but recognized by Jews. There is an open hatred of the media, so that the BBC is now under greater attack from the Left than from the Right. There is a level of personal abuse, unprecedented in scale and nature in a mainstream party, that is not simply a result of amplifying and anonymising social media.
The response to the general election result was a rejoicing that was almost ecstatic in nature. But Corbyn didn’t win, and there may well be a reaction.
It feels as though there are bad times coming. And the question will be where the sympathies of the Labour leadership lie, and how careful will be the rhetoric of those who acquired in adolescence a fetish for street fighting men.
* CORRECTION: Chris Bertram has pointed out that there were those on the left who opposed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and he draws my attention to a 1980 article by Tariq Ali in Socialist Challenge that did precisely that. (‘Soviet Troops Out of Afghanistan!’, on the last page of the issue linked to here.) My thanks to him. – Alwyn Turner, 24 January 2019