The spirit of 68: Chris Harman at the LSE

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Harman.jpg

Chris Harman in 2009

Wenda Clenaghen was a student at the LSE during the radical period of 1968. Here she recalls the involvement of the young Chris Harman in events, from the anti-war movement to the streets of Paris.

Chris was a familiar figure, along with Richard Kuper, Steve Jefferys and David Adelstein, on the London School of Economics Old Theatre stage. He was the most shambolic of the four. With wild curly black hair and a strange stuttering style of speaking, that often matched his movements, he was convincing to the uninitiated of which I was one.

His speeches had a combination of intellectual depth, a call to action and sincerity. The International Socialists’ (IS) slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was particularly attractive.

1968 was the crescendo of two years of intense militant activity at the LSE disputing the appointment of Walter Adams as the new director. Adams was at the time principal of Salisbury University in Southern Rhodesia under Ian Smith’s white minority rule.

Basker Vashee, a close comrade, had spent time in jail under the white regime for supporting the Zimbabwe African People’s Union independence struggle on that very campus before being deported to Britain.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson had been ineffectual in preventing Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. Hundreds of Labour students who hitherto had been hopeful started to turn towards an alternative view of society. Marxism in the form of the International Socialists, of whom Chris was a leading member, attracted them.

In the LSE the Socialist Society’s paper pushed the boundaries worthy of its title.

It was easy to condemn US imperialism in Vietnam. Its machinery of indiscriminate destruction was so vast, it was bound to mobilise thousands of young people willing to throw themselves against the police at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Chris was always there, at the front, grasping a bundle of Socialist Workers for sale.

The apex of the events of those years was May 1968 in Paris. We were all astounded and inspired. The revolution was coming. Busloads of comrades travelled there at the height of the street fighting, debates and strikes.

For some reason Chris and I couldn’t get to Paris until the end of May. Due to poverty we had to hitch. It was hard. Chris was a big, gangling, black-haired guy and not attractive to pick up. We tried having him hide in the bushes and leap out when a car stopped for me, but they usually sped away when they saw him.

We had to spend the night in the foundations of a half-built house. But we made it to Paris the next day. Trotskyist comrades put us up. Chris knew lots of them.

The state had retaken the Paris streets but gaggles of citizens held intense debates at every street corner. Green buses of riot police, “les flicks”, swayed around every corner. Torn-up paving stones scattered the streets.

The universities were packed with militants discussing the way forward. Sadly, my French couldn’t follow the debates. Chris’s did...I think.

We had to come home and set off with our thumbs again. Amazingly, we were picked up by a handsome 40-something Englishman in a flash Mercedes.

In the front seat (women were always in the back in those days) he questioned Chris intensively about the May events. Nodding all the time he seemed captivated by his answers. Chris could, unknowingly, captivate complete strangers. He had no guile and never patronised.

We expected to be dumped at Calais but instead the car diverted to a small airfield whereupon the Mercedes drove straight into an ancient small carrier plane, no doubt a veteran of the Second World War. Was this guy a spy? Was he James Bond? Hilarious.

We were ushered up to a sort of gallery and strapped in. The plane roared over the Channel, which could be seen through cracks in the battered fuselage. Chris was scared stiff; it was the first time he’d flown.

We landed in Lydd and quite quickly got a lorry ride to London. The driver was an Enoch Powell fan. We attempted to disabuse him of this opinion, which must have worked a bit because he didn’t dump us.

The Prague Spring coincided with the Paris events and Chris became a major contributor to the debate, outlining IS support for the uprising in the context of state capitalism and Stalinism. He later wrote important books on Eastern Europe.

After my final exams I immediately left, minus Chris, to hitch through the US to Mexico where an LSE comrade put us up. Rolando said I could get a job in a hotel but it was not to be. A revolt against the cost of the Olympic Games and a clamp down on university free speech led to a massive demonstration of 30,000, faced with the usual police brutality. We were warned that we were being targeted as “foreign agitators” and had to flee Mexico City.

A year later the Rolling Stones were to give a free concert at Hyde Park. Comrades, including John Rose and Basker, took up a position on a grassy knoll about 30 yards from the stage. After Alexis Korner’s support set the Stones came on and started strutting their stuff. I thought Jagger looked ridiculous in his white, muslin skirted outfit resembling a Greek palace guard, but then I was a Beatles fan.

One song in and Chris turns up. He demands that we decamp to a nearby Palestine Liberation Organisation meeting. I agreed to go. The others didn’t. There were only about 12 Palestinians at that meeting but, as usual, Chris gave his heartfelt contribution to acclaim, which I greatly admired.

I could just about hear the acclamations to the Stones in the distance. Little did I know that we had deserted probably the most famous love and peace gig in pop history. That was Chris’s deep commitment and mine also.

Wenda Clenaghen was Africa writer for Socialist Worker as W. Enda and secretary of the International Socialists Irish Subcommittee in the early 1970s.