Don’t let the praise on the back of this book from Christopher Hitchens – whose name has become synonymous with the word ‘turncoat’ – put you off reading it. Tariq Ali was one of the most prominent figures of the movement against the US’s ferocious war on the Vietnamese people. He, unlike Hitchens, has continued to campaign against the violence that imperialism inflicts upon the world, as an interesting new introduction covering Iraq, the deaths of Paul Foot and Edward Said, and the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela shows. This republished autobiography takes us to the heart of the global uprising that broke out against war, racism, oppression and capitalism in the 1960s, causing the ruling classes to quake.
Tariq Ali was born into a left wing family in Pakistan in 1944. He was encouraged to move to Britain by a relative who was the head of military intelligence and was not impressed by the activism that had brought Tariq to the attention of the authorities. He arrived in what seemed a sleepy Britain, ruled over by the Tories, in 1963. But, just like in the rest of the world, something was about to crack the surface of calm.
Like many others, Tariq rejected the stultifying influence of Stalinist Russia, which in 1968 crushed a flowering movement for more democracy in Czechoslovakia. He looked to the ideas of Leon Trotsky, class struggle and the Third World revolts to bring about fundamental change. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, in which Tariq played a fundamental role, was set up to raise support for the most important of these revolts, and challenge the pro-US policies of Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
It mobilised tens of thousands of people onto the streets, including at the famous battle of Grosvenor Square in March 1968, when police and protesters fought outside the US embassy in London. The scale of the demonstration terrified the authorities. Just as in every other case where a left wing movement is challenging the basis of the status quo in society, it turned to its traditional weapon of demonisation.
The media and the authorities used racism and scaremongering to attempt to create a space between the movement and sympathetic workers. The Labour government was looking for any excuse to kick Tariq out of the country. When Tariq wanted to go to France to witness the events there in 1968 it was only a warning from an anonymous informer at the Home Office that he would not be allowed to return that stopped him heading across the channel.
The one criticism I would have of this book is that it concentrates on those at the top of the movement. Tariq seems to have met almost anyone who was anyone in the 1960s – Marlon Brando, Malcolm X, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Kenneth Tynan, Régis Debray and many others. The book also contains an interview that Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn conducted with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971, when the former Beatle was at his most left wing and putting his music at the service of the movement against capitalism.
It is the doings of these people and Tariq’s travels around the world that Streetfighting Years focuses on. It covers his visits to Bolivia a few months before Che Guevara was killed during his ill-fated mission there, and his eyewitness reports of the atrocities the US were committing in North Vietnam.
Apart from reports of Tariq speaking to huge meetings, the book doesn’t give enough flavour of the grassroots of the movement and where it had come from, or a deep enough political analysis of the crisis. But this is mainly due to the memoir form Tariq uses.
With the defeats of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the advance of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, the world’s rulers had wished to excise opposition from the system. But, as Tariq hopes in the final chapter and as the movements since Seattle in 1999 have shown, this was a vain desire. These memoirs are not just of one person, but of a movement that was interrupted for 25 years.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot