Changing the world, changing ourselves

Issue: 152

Geoff Brown

A review of Celia Hughes, Young Lives on the Left: Sixties Activism and the Liberation of the Self (Manchester University Press, 2015), £70

For those who argue that women and men make history, it makes sense to assess the 1968 generation, those at the heart of “the fire last time”, their strengths and weaknesses. What better way than oral history of capturing the extraordinary spirit of the last time the rulers of the world feared they were losing control? Celia Hughes is not the first to take this approach. In particular, Ronald Fraser’s, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, written nearly 30 years ago, is still worth reading. For Hughes’s own book she interviewed 70 “68ers”, mainly former members of the International Socialists (IS), forerunner of the SWP, and of the International Marxist Group (IMG), now Socialist Resistance. She has also talked to some who were “non-aligned”, mainly North London activists who opposed the Vietnam War. All were decisively shaped by the political upturn of 1968, many are still active, a fair few are readers of this journal and indeed some are contributors.

Her questions have a wide scope. They include growing up during and after the war, family, school, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Young Socialists, university, work, political activities, branch life, organising, campaigning, living collectively, sex, family and childcare. Her central focus is what she calls the New Left, which grew out of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) 1967-9, and the “new politics” of the women’s liberation movement, emerging a little later.

Her interviews show how individuals change, moving from feelings about what is wrong with the world to ideas about how to change it, how they become revolutionaries. For many, key moments included challenging their parents at home, their teachers at school and their colleagues and managers at work, going on a first demonstration, picketing or being thrown into a police van. But Hughes also demonstrates how people change through engaging with ideas such as workers’ control, challenging the revisionism of Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism, reading Marxist literature, watching films such as Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film if…..

Much of the narrative is about intense collective struggles against the police, government, university authorities and employers as well as racists, fascists and male chauvinists. The interviewees were also aware of being part of an international movement against war and imperialism, racism and women’s oppression. The outcome is a book with much fascinating detail of how times were a-changing, for example showing how CND, a movement from below, prepared the ground for campaigning over the Vietnam War.

Memory is often faulty and we have our own agendas when people ask us questions about our past. We forget and we “forget”. We want to construct our histories in our own way and are sometimes afraid of challenging the interpretations of others. What is lost when some of those invited refuse to be interviewed? Hughes recognises the difficulties with oral history and is rigorous in dealing with them. While sometimes critical of her interviewees, for example in pointing out the failures of some to change chauvinist attitudes in relationships in the face of the women’s liberation movement, she remains sympathetic towards the people she speaks to and their revolutionary aspirations.

The problem with the book lies not in Hughes’s method but in her agenda. Her title refers to “the liberation of the self”. But as she acknowledges, this wasn’t how many of the interviewees saw their actions. To change the world people needed to change themselves—but this was a means to an end rather than their main objective. They certainly did change and the book captures many of these changes but why should this be the subject of investigation? For all involved, it was about collective agency: “How do we shape events? How do we organise? What works? Where did we get it wrong?” The key to these questions was (and is) politics.

The New Left of 1968 was divided in its answers. For those who joined the IS, the slogans “For workers’ power” and “Neither Washington nor Moscow?” were of critical importance: Can workers run society? Is Russia socialist? How does capitalism work? When does it go into crisis? Hughes sees this but does not pursue it. Her interest is in subjectivity; her aim, to make “an informative contribution to the unfolding subjective turn in social history”. Important as this might be, for those seeking to change the world, social history is not enough. The subjective needs its context, the circumstances “existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. Events such as the long post-war boom, the Hungarian Revolution, the seafarers’ strike of 1966 and the Vietnam War changed how people saw the world. If we are to make a judgment of the revolutionary left, these events and the arguments they generated need to be included in the history. In the meantime, it is far from clear how the concept of a “left ­subjectivity” should be used.

In itself, this shouldn’t stop this book being something we might want to read or recommend to a younger generation. Sadly this book is not written for those starting to shape their lives in the struggle but for academics. The sometimes dense interpretation and academic referencing frequently obscure the narrative created by the interviews. Nevertheless, as Hughes points out, the history of the 1960s is still contested, its movements often labelled superficial or dangerous. While Chris Harman’s The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After remains indispensable, there is still scope for assessing the ’68ers.

Geoff Brown is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party based in Manchester.