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The Color of the Sixties

On being a card-carrying Trotskyist.

What do Trotskyists actually do? Like some other mysterious groups in society, Trotskyists are much-mentioned and many people have opinions on them, usually mistaken or overblown. The word itself has a certain crackling glamor, with connotations of rapid movement (the “Trot” part) and of the exotic (the Russian “sky” ending). While the name “Lenin” conjures up great shelves of hectoring books on theory, and “Stalin” brings to mind tanks and labor camps, the word “Trotsky” fills the imagination with armored trains, dramatic orations in snowy squares, and (if you know your stuff) a bloody struggle between a bearded, furious and tenacious old man and his assassin, who wields an ice-ax. Oughtn’t you at least to be more interested?

Well, I was interested. And what bliss it was, in the revolutionary dawn of the 1960s, to be liberated by his memory. Stalin had ordered his murder, and so he couldn’t possibly be held responsible for all the crimes and hideous failures of the twentieth century’s greatest political, social and economic experiment. At that time, Stalin’s U.S.S.R. still overshadowed the world with its nuclear bombs and its gigantic armies, and the thinking person needed at least to have an opinion on the matter. The Soviet Union, a diseased giant, was even so still full of menace and power. We had no idea how long it might live. Its supposed opposite, the U.S.A., was up to its neck in sludge, what with the great failure in Vietnam and the unloveable presidency of Richard Nixon. What could the idealist (and I was once one of those) embrace? “Neither Washington nor Moscow—but International Socialism,” we used to say.

Our ideas went unheard in Parliament and ignored in the major newspapers and on the air. So we took them to the streets, where they were noticed at last. Those streets offered the promise of noble battles about Vietnam and racial liberation. Perhaps, there might be the occasional scuffle or brawl, but what young man, especially one who had seen the Paris boulevards engulfed in battle, would object to that? It was our tradition, going back to the eighteenth century—and remember, as Trotskyists, we were as much on the side of those facing Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks in Prague as we were on that of the students battling with Charles de Gaulle’s C.R.S. riot police in Paris. But what was all that for, if it only allowed the expression of dissent, or occasionally righted small wrongs? Wasn’t it necessary to have a deeper proposition in your knapsack, a beloved republic of liberty and justice? I thought so. To this day, I do not despise the impulse, though I also think it was utopian folly. I thought (with reason in those times) that my country and Christianity had failed, and I was beginning to tire (again with good reason) of the incessant reliance on the Second World War as our main moral inspiration.

I did not join some terror group. There was no initiation ceremony, no terrible oath to be sworn, just a few shillings to pay and (as I recall) an unimpressive membership card made of a cheap woven material halfway between cardboard and cloth. As far as I can remember, it contained no declaration of intent, just a record of subscription payments. So much for being a “card-carrying Trotskyist.” It was not even red, but orange—the color of the Sixties, in so many ways. And for the next few years I was expected to attend a great number of meetings, sell newspapers on the street and, when necessary, take part in street demonstrations for various approved causes.

By my own choice, I also read a great deal, attempted to think about it, and went a little deeper into the matter than most. Much of it was student stuff, snappy daily leaflets on current events, distributed round the dining halls, to try to connect those events with revolutionary thought. There were rallies (sometimes very large) with notable speakers who embraced our cause, or we went out haranguing the citizens of Yorkshire towns from steps or upturned boxes. Some of it was just social. After wintry Saturday afternoons selling our newspaper, one group of us would retire regularly to a Ye Olde half-timbered tea room in the heart of the ancient city, for pots of tea and toasted teacakes, for me the real purpose of the afternoon. I still recall those times with pleasure, and would never have permitted the socialist state to nationalize or close such tearooms if I had attained power.

We really did try to connect with what Arthur Koestler calls “the great silent x of history,” in his clever, mistaken novel Darkness at Noon. By this he meant the many millions of people, generally unmoved by political thought, who in our view had finally spoken in 1917 in Petrograd. “Once, we stirred those depths,” muses the deluded old Bolshevik Rubashov, under interrogation in one of Stalin’s prisons. My little grouplet, the “International Socialists” certainly made considerable efforts to penetrate those same depths, sometimes with startling success.

I was once put in charge of cultivating a small group of would-be revolutionaries who worked on the city of Oxford’s municipal dustcarts. I would meet them in the pub to discuss revolutionary theory and they would tell me about their lives. I still treasure the information about the surprising uses for a fireman’s shovel in the cab of a steam locomotive, which I learned from one of them, a former railwayman. Despite the foolish snobberies which still pervade my country, I don’t recall any of them objecting to my private-school voice and manner. I think we had helped them in some strike over pay and they were just glad of our interest. One of our most desirable female comrades had the higher task of cultivating a senior trade unionist in the huge Pressed Steel factory which then stood on the edge of the city. Once again, the barriers of class melted away in mutual co-operation.

I had similar experiences with bus drivers in York and a small knot of serious young men working at a coachbuilder’s plant in the seaside resort of Scarborough, who often put me up for the night in their own homes when I traveled up to talk to them. I have never been sorry about any of this. I came to know my own countrymen, in a way I never otherwise would have done, and my country too. We went out at dawn to sell our newspaper at the docks in Goole, the place with the least romantic name in Britain, not far from Philip Larkin’s Hull. I even spent a summer month in Glasgow, working full time to try to recruit shipyard workers in Clydebank. Heaven knows what the newspapers I later worked for would have called me if they had found out at the time what I was up to, not that it ever led to anything.

I have ever since been amused by most media descriptions of small conspiratorial groups. How absurdly monstrously trivial and self-important we were. How obsessed we were with doing down our immediate rivals, the other Trotskyists. I once found, left in a Student Union duplicator, the minutes of a secret internal meeting of our greatest competitor, the International Marxist Group. Those present were listed under hilarious pseudonyms, the names of prominent soccer players of the time. And I have wasted entire evenings disputing Trotskyist theology with one of them, namely whether the U.S.S.R. was “state capitalist,” as we claimed, or a “degenerated workers’ state,” as they asserted. I will not say I did not enjoy this. The paradox is that our tiny faction, sane and humorous by the standards of such bodies, later became one of the most disagreeable and futile such sects in modern history, whereas our comically conspiratorial I.M.G. rivals, who actually chanted “Victory to the I.R.A.!” during demonstrations, mostly dissolved themselves into the mainstream Labour Party, where several of them emerged blinking into the limelight as members of the Blair Cabinet after 1997.

And there is the problem with this reminiscence. I can tell you only what a Trotskyist was in the sunny, frivolous 1960s and early 1970s. The most interesting part of the story is what so many Trotskyists became. And that I cannot describe, for I gave it all up a long, long time ago.