The Young and the Restless – Youth protest and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign

Throughout the history of political protest in London in the 20th century, a familiar name appears again and again – Bertrand Russell. As mentioned in an earlier post, Russell was heavily involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and then the Committee of 100. He had also taken part in pacifist and anti-war demonstrations in the early 20th century, even being imprisoned for it in 1917. It is no surprise then, that he was enthusiastically involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) in 1966, despite his advanced age.

It is age that is of importance here. Russell was one of the few older protestors of the war, as these protests are now seen historically as representative of the beginning of major youth protest in Britain, and the creation of a generation that would worldwide be defined by their opposition to the state. Perhaps the levels of protest involvement did not reach those of the U.S. or France, but they were still significant considering Britain’s comparable lack of a vested interest in the Vietnam War.

However, the argument that youth involvement in protests in the second half of the 20th century was down to a generational desire to rebel rather than an interest in the actual issues does a disservice to the protestors. There is no doubt that there was a counter-cultural strain running through the British youth, a desire to engage in contentious politics and a deep dissatisfaction with the state. Yes, the protests against the Vietnam War were used partially as a way to oppose the Labour government and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, as the VSC hit hard against what they called ‘British complicity’ in the war. But that does not mean that people did not feel strongly about the war, or that they only used it as a screen to fight other issues.

The sheer numbers of people involved demonstrates that people must have cared about these issues to some degree at least. The October 27th 1968 protest, when 100,000 people marched peacefully in London, demonstrates certain aspects of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C: their peacefulness is equitable with a sober demeanour, although they lacked elder members in the crowd; they wore matching badges and held banners with the same symbols to express unity and make their cause clear; they had physical presence and numbers, causing major disruptive damage in the city centre (even if they were considerably more peaceful, unlike on more militant marches); and given the frequency of their protests (4 major protests in less than 14 months) their commitment seems clear. However, Tilly’s theories are more appropriate for early protests, so perhaps they are not a clear assessment of protests of this period.

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(VSC-sponsored protest on October 27th, 1968)

Let’s consider the minutiae of the protest instead. The movement had a very well-defined protest culture, which the images above and below both demonstrate. Given that this was a protest for the freedom of Vietnam from American involvement in war, you see the repeated use of the Vietnamese gold star and red background. The badge below makes that clear, as does the large banner above.

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(VSC pin, circa 1968)

The sheer numbers of protestors demonstrate their use of space and particularly their ability to cause disruptive damage to central London and hijack spaces of informal encounter, social exchange and collective belonging for their own ends. The earlier protests also brought the activists into conflict against police – the March 17th 1968 protest is the best example of this, as there were a notorious number of arrests for an ostensibly peaceful protest, as the activists linked arms to break through police lines.

The success of these protests is difficult to determine, seeing as Britain was not directly involved in the war and the VSC, by definition, stood for solidarity rather than a specific tangible goal besides the end of the war. British support for Vietnam did not stop after 1968, and the war itself would not end until 1975. But these protests do show us that British youth had the potential to fight against injustices in huge numbers, and that their methods of doing so were sophisticated and well-organised. Considering the amount of time and work that went into these protests, it seems fair to determine that there was some genuine belief in this movement, that went beyond youthful rebellion.

People Power: Fighting for Peace at the Imperial War Museum

On the 23rd of March I decided to head to the Imperial War Museum and see their new exhibition, ‘People Power: Fighting for Peace‘. I had never been to this museum, but I knew enough about it to be very surprised that such an exhibit had been created in the first place. The staff member who sold me my ticket echoed my confusion when I asked him if (as it was the first day of opening) he had seen the exhibit yet. He replied that he had, but that he did not understand why it was there.

The exhibition, I was pleased to see, was full of objects and documents related to the exact movements and groups we had encountered at university – pacifism and pacificism during the first and second world wars, the anti-Vietnam war movement, anti-nuclear movements (particularly the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100), and groups such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. I even saw footage from Threads, Protect and Survive, and other public information released in preparation for nuclear war.

Although the letters and pamphlets from the first half of the 20th century were very interesting, the highlight of the exhibition was the nuclear disarmament section.

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The above image showcases some of my favourite posters in the exhibit. These were produced by the CND in the 1950s/1960s, during the first wave of anti-nuclear campaigns in Britain. They all reference the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, intending to provoke horror at those attacks so that people would understand the necessity to prevent such things ever happening again. They use bold images and text over black backgrounds to catch the eye and hammer their message in, relying on simplicity and distinctiveness rather than overcomplicating their posters. To a degree these posters echo the pop art style which was popular in this period, which is an example of the movement taking aspects of the dominant culture to make their message more palatable and recognisable to their audience.

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The CND famously held annual marches between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston (the first march being from London to Aldermaston, and all the following marches being the other way around). These marches were great examples of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C. – their worthiness demonstrated by the solemnity of the marchers and the presence of many older members, their unity presented by their large banners and the repetition of the ‘peace symbol’ (as it is now known) which had been designed specifically for their movement, while the power of their numbers was enhanced by the commitment of the activists, because even though there weren’t always as many people marching as were seen in other movement events, the fact that a reasonably large number of people were marching in inclement weather for 52 miles was incredibly impressive.

It would appear that the CND was made up of ad hoc and communitarian activists, rather than professional. This is because the movement waned between the 1960s and the 1980s when a large number of its supporters became focused on the Vietnam War instead of nuclear disarmament. Therefore, some of their former members may have just disappeared when the Vietnam War took precedence as their focus was specifically anti-nuclear war (the ad hoc activists), whilst the others (communitarian) changed movements in this period, before returning to the CND in the 1980s.

 

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But back to the exhibition. The above images show posters and fliers from the Committee of 100, the group that broke away from CND as they preferred active non-violent protest and civil disobedience to achieve their ends. The repertoire of the Committee of 100 was made up entirely of non-violent protests, which were episodic. They held a number of sit-downs and marches to cause disruptive damage rather than violent damage, by obstructing important areas and causing traffic (an example being their demonstration on September 17th 1961, when they blocked approaches to Trafalgar Square by sitting in the road). In breaking away from the majority of the CND and forming the Committee, these activists specifically sought to take their threshold of participation in their movement from direct action to more illegal non-violent activities, making sure never to proceed to violence on principle. By doing so they were changing the nature of the spaces which they occupied, as their protests were taking place in social spaces intended as sites of collective belonging (such as Trafalgar Square) or informal encounter (the streets) which were then unable to be used in their traditional ways. Occupying these spaces was symbolic (as Trafalgar was the emblem of British nationalism), performative, and disruptive.

One particularly recognisable face in images from the Committee of 100 protests is that of philosopher/mathematician/writer Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell had been prominent in pacifist and anti-war movements since the First World War, during which time he was charged under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 in 1916, dismissed from Trinity College, Cambridge the same year, attended the famous Leeds Convention in 1917 (a gathering of ‘anti-war socialists’) and was even imprisoned in 1918. He is perhaps an example of something in between a professional and a communitarian activist, as he was consistently involved in anti-war movements for upwards of 50 years (and would likely have been active during the second wave of the CND had he not died in 1970) but did not remain with the same specific groups throughout that time.

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This final image shows my favourite poster from the exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive’ (1980) by Peter Kennard. This piece took the government pamphlet sent to the public in the event of nuclear attack and exposed it as the fallacy it was. This pamphlet was essentially useless, as none of the suggested actions would actually be of much protection at all, and people who tried them would be left as dead as the skeleton in the artwork. Kennard took a popular image from the dominant culture and exploited it for the sake of the movement.

References:

  • Hudson, Kate, CND – now more than ever: the story of a peace movement (London: Vision Paperbacks, 2005)

  • Lefebvre, Henri, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)
  • Reiss, Matthias, ed., The street as stage: protest marches and public rallies since the nineteenth century (Oxford, 2007)

  • Taylor, Richard & Pritchard, Colin, The protest makers: the British nuclear disarmament movement of 1958-1965 twenty years on (Oxford, 1980)
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30
  • Tonkiss, Fran, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)

     

William Morris and the Socialist League

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(William Morris from Prose and Poetry, published 1913 by Oxford)

Artist, poet, textile designer and novelist, William Morris was a major figure in mid to late 19th century England. Early in Morris’s career he had been part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who defined themselves in opposition to existing ‘mechanistic’ approaches to art and instead favoured naturalistic work. In the late 1870s, he began to become a vocal political activist, and was heavily involved in the Social Democratic Federation in the early 1880s, before splitting off with several other members and founding the Socialist League in 1884. They believed in Revolutionary International Socialism, advocating a world revolution rather than confining it to single countries. Morris was known the travel around the country and spread the word of the Socialist League in workingmen’s clubs and parks, giving public lectures and speeches, particularly in London’s East End. He was also the editor of their weekly paper Commonweal. He believed that the conditions and experiences of workers in the East End meant that they had lost any faith or interest in the labour movement, and it was therefore the duty of socialists such as the league to enter these communities and encourage workers to participate.

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(Cover of the Manifesto of the Socialist League, 1885)

The inclusion of artists such as William Morris meant that the Socialist League and the labour movement overall gained significant artistic and creative talent. The design of the Manifesto of the Socialist League is a perfect example of how Morris’s artistic talent was used in the socialist cause. The beautiful emblem on the title page uses natural and classical imagery to present the league’s name, familiar themes to Victorian readers (the leaves are particularly Morris-esque). Aesthetically it is clear and beautiful, but it also incorporates the famous words ‘educate, agitate, organize’, first used by George Bernard Shaw in 1884 to describe the mission of the Fabian Society.

A clear manifesto with artistic merit was important to the repertoire of the Socialist League. It exhibited worthiness as explained by Charles Tilly, as it was well-presented, clearly thought out and explained, and had the name of an authority figure like Morris attached to it (although his ‘authority’ stemmed from his position as a famous and respected artist and poet). Although it is difficult to express unity in a written manifesto, the use of the league’s beautiful emblem would have made it recognisable. It also contributed to the visual culture of the movement, using existing ideas from the ‘residual’ cultural reservoir (the classical and natural imagery) to present the league’s political beliefs and slogan.

Morris’s involvement in the League was not all design and rhetoric. He was arrested once during a demonstration, and was arrested and fined on a second occasion for ‘public obstruction’ while he spoke about socialism on the street in July 1886. The Black Monday riots had only occurred 5 months before this, and there had been a spate of violence between activists and police for some time. Morris felt particularly passionate about this issue, condemning the ‘bullying and hectoring’ that Socialists experienced at the hands of the police. Whether this was entirely justified or partially hyperbolic is debatable, but there is certainly evidence that the police in this period were not particularly accountable for their actions, and could use more coercive strategies (to intimidate activists at best, and physically detain and/or harm them at worst).

Most famously, Alfred Linnell was trampled to death by a police horse during a demonstration on the 13th of November, 1887. Although it’s highly likely that this was simply an accident and he wasn’t even involved in the demonstration itself, his death was used by socialist groups at the time (particularly by Morris himself) to engender sympathy for and interest in their cause. The Repression-Protest Paradox, whereby an increase in police force can result in either an increase in activist response or the decline of the movement, can be applied here. The best explanation in this case is the Rational Individualist theory by Mason & Crane, because while the police had used increased force during demonstrations, the specific (if unintentional) targeting of the movement membership by killing Linnell meant that the involvement in the cause increased in response. There was a large and highly-publicised funeral for Linnell, with a huge demonstration of tens of thousands. As well as writing a poem on Linnell (whose proceeds went to his non-existent orphans), Morris famously spoke at his funeral, referring to him as ‘our brother and our friend’. The few police who attended were heckled with cries of ‘that’s your work’ by activists present. Although it does not appear that anyone knew Linnell before his death, the symbolism of that death was used by the Socialist League and a host of activists from across the country in their specific movements and general condemnation of the police force.

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(The poem dedicated to Alfred Linnell, written by William Morris)

 

References:

  • Cover of ‘the Manifesto of the Socialist League ‘(1885), digital image from the Tim Davenport collection
  • ‘William Morris’, Southgate Green Association (2012-2017), <http://southgategreen.org.uk/christ-church/william-morris/&gt;
  • ‘Walter Crane’, Working Class Movement Library <http://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/creativity-and-culture/art/walter-crane/&gt;
  • Foot, Paul, ‘Blair: Our Brother Our Friend’, in Socialist Worker (1979)
  • Krane, David, and Mason, Dale, ‘Political economy of Death Squads’, in International Studies quarterly (1989)
  • McAdam, Doug, ‘Culture in Social Movements’ in Buechler and Cylke, Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues (1997)
  • Porta, Donatella della, and Reiter, Herbert, Policing Protest (1998)
  • Taylor, Rosemary, ‘”The City of Dreadful Delight”: William Morris in the East End of London’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 18 (2009), 9-28
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30
  • Vallance, Aymer, William Morris: His Art, His Writings and His Public Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1897)

Pride & Space

It is curious to consider the function of town/city squares, whose importance is central to understanding social movements in history according to Don Mitchell in ‘The Right to the City’ (2003). Take the Agoras of Ancient Greece – a larger area than a London square, but still a public space specifically created to facilitate discussion and political debate. While they were not necessarily intended for the expression of contentious or transgressive political views, they were still politicised from the outset.

The garden squares of London (such as Russell Square, St James’ Square, etc) were originally designed to be accessed only by the residents of the surrounding houses, and were therefore private. They were never intended as a meeting place and certainly never a space for the mobilisation of protestors or any form of contentious politics – instead, they acted as a symbol of wealth and power, a reminder of the exclusivity of those neighbourhoods and the importance of their inhabitants. On the other hand, most stone squares – most notably Trafalgar Square – were intended for public use from their creation. As they are usually much larger and more accessible than garden squares (which are fenced off and have a handful of narrow entrances), they’ve been regularly used for rallies, marches, sit-ins, and political gatherings of various kinds. Trafalgar Square in particular has often been used for this, despite the large amount of space taken up by the fountains as a deterrent.

One event particularly interests me in its use of space in London, and that’s Pride. One’s experience of Pride can be radically different depending on whether one is marching, and where exactly they march. I’ve been able to march twice at Pride in London, and see it once from the sidelines. The first year (2014) I marched with Bisexuals of London, who were in party part of the parade. The march mostly consisted of a lot of smiles, pop music, waving flags and throwing glitter around. This was really fun, but wouldn’t be considered particularly contentious (unless you share Mike Pence’s views). In 2015, some friends and I marched with LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and other activist groups in the political end of the parade. This consisted of angry chanting, waving placards, and the singing of unionist and socialist songs.

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(Me at Pride 2015, on the left with the Defy Tory Rule placard. From what I remember, we were chanting ‘Stone/wall-was-a-ri/ot; we-refuse-to-be-qui/et!’ at this point.)

London is the perfect place for Pride, both due to its large size and the long winding streets (which create good march routes) and the large squares and parks (which allow for people to assemble). Every year, the people of Pride start to get together in Regent’s Park and eventually end near Trafalgar Square, where events and performances follow. Since 2006, Regent Street and Oxford Street have been closed off to traffic for the Pride march to pass through. The shops on these streets are still accessible to the general public, but the roads themselves are closed off and can only be crossed on foot at certain points (with significant delays). According to Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Conceptual Triad of “Social” Space’ (in ‘The Production of Space ‘, 1974), the ‘representational space’ has changed, as the streets are now used in a different way to what they were originally intended. Although they are technically sites of informal encounter, the existence of the march means that the shops lining either side of the street are disrupted in their ability to be sites of social exchange (as defined by Fran Tonkiss in ‘Space, the City and Social Theory’, 2005). During Pride one year in the 1980s, the march routed down Oxford Street illegally as a form of protest, which is an excellent example of ‘counter-spaces’ and protest over societal space. This was a direct and unsanctioned challenge to the power-holders (the British government) which asserted the use value of the street over its exchange value.

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(A photograph from the first Gay Pride March in 1972, which was almost entirely politicised while modern pride is more of a party)

Trafalgar Square is particularly important as a place for political demonstrations and protest, as it holds national significance and is a ‘site of collective belonging’. Since modern ‘Pride London’ was formed in 2004, there have been political rallies held in the square following each march (although in the last 2 years, there have mostly been performances and more positive events).

It is worth noting that other squares and streets in London provide events on the day of Pride, even though they aren’t on the march route. In 2016 Soho Square was surrounded by stalls, most run by LGBTQ+ organisations and support groups. Several days beforehand, a vigil had been held in nearby Old Compton Street for the victims of the Orlando Nightclub shooting.

References:

  • Lefebvre, Henri, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)
  • Tonkiss, Fran, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)