Old myth exposed

Dave Douglass reviews John Charlton's 'Don't you hear the H bombs thunder? Youth and politics on Tyneside in the late 50s and early 60s' (Merlin, 2009, pp202, £14.95)

John Charlton has put together a most fascinating social history of the 50s and 60s ‘movement’ on Tyneside, in a book published by North East Labour History.

I put ‘movement’ in quote marks because it is perhaps hard for current political activists to envisage what that was. We speak of the labour movement and we know what that is, such as it remains. However, ‘the movement’ in the era of late 50s and 60s was a milieu of people, across a set of progressive agendas and cultural attitudes. With its various wings, each with its own core and periphery, it was hard to pin down - and there were also loose orbiting cultures and folk on the fringes of enlightened and progressive attitudes, who could also be included as part of this wider ‘movement’. It is a constellation now almost gone, or at least this particular aspect of it.

This was the generation which preceded my own and at its margin overlapped with it. Having written an autobiographical history of our own contribution (Geordies wa mental London 2008) to politics and rebellion on Tyneside, I believe that John’s book puts in place another big piece of the historic jigsaw. For me it was a bit like discovering The Hobbit after having read Lord of the rings. The movement we picked up on had been established by an earlier intervention.

The book takes its title from the passionate Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament anthem, The H bombs thunder. It focuses on the anti-bomb struggle in the north of England and the wider left political movement centred at that time in the youth of the Labour Party. Something like the all-consuming passion of climate change campaigners, convinced that the imminent end of civilisation is upon us, infused us then. Only at that time it was the conviction - almost a certainty - that we had no time left to scrap the atomic bomb before it scrapped us all. We were on the very brink of annihilation; we had to pull political leaders back from the brink by destroying nuclear weaponry - Britain’s first, as far we were concerned. ‘Britain led on slavery; we can do so again’ was one the unilateralist slogans which struck a cord.

After the Labour League of Youth and before the founding of the Young Socialists, there was no Labour youth organisation. Into this vacuum came the 59 Society. For three or four years, it recruited a remarkable group of people. The warring factions of Trotskyism - the Socialist Labour League and the forerunners of the International Socialists - would cut their political teeth here. Militant and the Revolutionary Socialist League did not, it seems, play a prominent part in this period, though in my day they would dominate the Labour Party Young Socialists, as the LPYS was reformed and renamed after the mass expulsions of the earlier dissident young wing, heavily ‘contaminated’ by Healy’s cadres. They, of course, claimed the name and much of the former organisation the Young Socialists as the youth wing of the SLL, and then the Workers Revolutionary Party, as it was to become.

The anti-apartheid movement and the CND were the twin focus for the left in the region and probably in the country. Into these also intervened the members of the Young Communist League, who had quite a presence on Tyneside at the time.

What John has written here is not just an autobiographical review of the movement: it goes deeper and further, into a sort of collective biography of many of the leading characters of the time. Some are notable by their absence, however - Stan Wilkes, the oldest YCLer in the business, for one; Bob Vincent, the Fitzpatrick brothers, Dixie Deans, Tom Kilburn and many other prominent YCL activists; Ralph Robertson, and Tony Jackson from the anarchist and free verse movement. John admits that he was not able to contact everyone, but nonetheless makes a decent job with those he tracked down.

His book takes us beyond biography, going back into the parents’ generation, delving into the class politics of the inter-war years in the region, and points up the sharp influences upon the emerging youth generation of the 50s and early 60s. John’s fellow 59ers are provided the opportunity to talk about their formative influences and the direction their politics were to take.

It is quite chastening really. It made me feel quite guilty about the strongly sectarian attitudes I had struck up against many of these comrades as they emerged into the IS, and later the Socialist Workers Party, or the SLL and WRP. It is rather a revelation, to see the backgrounds, personal tragedies and formative conditions, which forged many of the characters I was to encounter and re-encounter over a generation of struggle. By far and away the bulk of that early team, although they moved on from the region, stayed in anti-capitalist struggle and stayed on the left in one form or another.

Obviously John’s view of ‘the movement’ is coloured by his own involvement and perception of it, and particularly as a leading member of the IS and SWP. He put the peak of anti-bomb campaigning a little earlier than I would have, probably because the IS itself had stopped being so heavily engaged in it.

I think John misses a central reason for the decline of the purely anti-bomb movement, in that people had graduated through it, into more overt pro communist/anarchist/socialist struggle and organisations rather than just the platform CND had provided. The left entered the anti-bomb movement, apart from as a principle in itself, as a means of recruiting people to socialist organisation and perspectives. Once the bulk of activists started to make the connection between anti-capitalism and the bomb directly, it was no longer tactically necessary to be so preoccupied with CND as such. The movement had moved beyond the bomb.

For me the final political death knell for the CND as a mass movement was 1968. I believe it peaked, or certainly its mass marches peaked, in 1963, (not 62, as John suggests) with something of the order of 100,000 on the Easter march (not 30,000, as John claims). Vietnam proved decisive - the horror of that war, coupled with widespread support for the socialist aspirations of the National Liberation Front, demonstrated that being against just the atomic bomb was not enough.

It did something further, in that it broke the pacifist consensus, which had marked the early 50s and 60s peace movement. Armed struggle was justified, and violence on demonstrations was too. While Tariq Ali and the leadership of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign came to Grosvenor Square to occupy the US embassy, the party I was with from Tyneside and Doncaster came to burn it down (one comrade even brought a box of firelighters for the purpose).

John’s history, to be fair, aims at concluding in 62, so perhaps events subsequent to that were not covered, but, without wishing to nitpick, John puts the decline too early in my view. I also believe the ‘movement’ as a whole did not in fact decline: it moved into different territory. In one way this is demonstrated in John’s work - in his ‘Where have all the marchers gone?’ chapter he is able to show how all of the early activists of the 59 Society, and those of my own age and peer group which followed, continued in political struggle, prominently in the unions and in parties of the left.

I found the whole book a heartening read. Very informative and an essential modern history of the political left and peace movement on Tyneside. It certainly goes to disprove the hoary old myth that young people grow out of their radicalism and become conservative in middle age. This team did not: the old YCLers, the Trots and the anarchists are still largely around. If not strutting their stuff any more, they are at least still committed to a socialist world, if now less certain of the route or imminent success than we used to be.