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Keith Locke – Reminiscences of a Student Radical

Keith Locke has been a Green Party MP since 1999.

Poster for 1968 Labour History Project seminar

Looking back, 1968 was one of the most amazing years of my life.

I was living in Canada at the time. I had gone there in 1966 to study for an MA in Sociology, and to continue my political activities. I had been engaged in antiwar and anti-apartheid organizing in Christchurch, and served as secretary of the University of Canterbury New Left Club.

In Canada, the anti-Vietnam war movement was the driver of the new radicalization, affecting young people in particular. I helped organize some big antiwar protests, although they weren’t as large in Edmonton, where I was studying, as they were in big cities like Toronto.

The Canadian antiwar protests also didn’t have the sharp edge of similar protests in New Zealand and the United States, because Canada didn’t have troops in Vietnam. Our two demands in Canada were ‘US Troops Out of Vietnam’ and ‘End Canadian Complicity’ (the second slogan referring to the Canadian government’s political support for the war, and the US bases in Canada). Living in Canada I also had American ‘draft dodger’ friends, some of whom were antiwar activists.

My biggest problem on some of the Edmonton protests was the weather – particularly when it was 20 below zero. In general life the cold wasn’t much of a problem, because we usually moved quickly from a warm building to a warm car or bus. Even the central city footpaths were warm – with heat radiating from the verandahs in front of shop windows. But on demonstrations you have to stand around in the snow for quite a while waiting for things to start, or listening to speeches, and unless you had very, very thick socks your toes froze. This was the mini-skirt era, and I admired/pitied the young women who stuck to the fashion amid the snowdrifts.

In Edmonton I joined a Trotskyist group, the League for Socialist Action, which was heavily involved in antiwar organizing and strongly influenced by the Cuban revolution. In 1967 we were particularly inspired by the revolutionary internationalism of Che Guevara, who had taken up the struggle – reputedly in Bolivia – and was calling for ‘two, three, many Vietnams’.

It is interesting that the internationalism of Che Guevara is more alive in the minds of today’s young people than the other dramatic events of 1967/68. But it shows that the spirit of those times is not dead.

In 1967 I was flatting with some fellow socialists and a radical Ethiopian student. One day in October my Ethiopian flatmate came in with a gloomy look on his face and whispered: ‘Che is dead.’ We sat in silence for a while, feeling great sadness, but not defeat. From that point on Che became even more of a symbol of commitment to global justice for millions of young people.

Che and the Latin America struggles became merged, in our minds, with the struggles of the Vietnamese people. The Young Socialists (youth group of the League for Socialist Action) produced hundreds of red flags with the famous Che profile on them, which were very popular on the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968.

The year 1968 is famous for the intersection of three dramatic achievements of the global people’s movement: the Tet uprising in Vietnam (in February), the student/worker revolt in France (May-June), and the mass movement of the Czech people and Dubcek government for ‘socialism with a human face’ (July-August). What made this combination particularly powerful was that it linked up people’s struggles in the First World (France), the so-called ‘socialist’ countries (Czechoslovakia) and the Third World (Vietnam).

I have described these as ‘three dramatic achievements’ not defeats because:

-even though the Vietnamese nationalist fighters were later pushed out of the cities they captured during Tet, it was a moral defeat for the US-led forces that they never recovered from.
-even though the student and worker strikes ended, and repression followed, the May/June events put a ‘progressive’ imprint on French politics which remains to this day.
-even though Russian troops overthrew the Dubcek government, the Czech movement reduced the power of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and lay the seeds for the democratic revolutions twenty years later.

For the international anti-Vietnam war movement 1968 was a good year. Following the Tet offensive we saw a much brighter prospect for the full withdrawal of US-led forces from Vietnam. There were very big demonstrations that year. One Toronto demonstration I helped organize, on October 26, was a little scary because we were defying a Police order not to march down the main street, the normal route for Xmas parades and the like. In a letter to my family I explained how things went with the Police, as follows:

‘The Police decided they would make sure things went their own way and pulled in hundreds of policemen, dozens on horses, and they had tear gas, plastic shields, big sticks, etc. They also closed down the shops on one side of the Yonge Street, presumably so that any fights would be kept on the pavement. The 2,500 people on the march were trotting merrily along when they came upon this awesome sight. Joe Young [the march leader; also my flatemate] was arrested when the demonstration kept advancing toward the Police lines‚ There was no violence, except that the police could have been a bit more gentle in arresting people. We didn’t want any violence; we just wanted to test the undemocratic decision of the Police [regarding the march route]. Joe was charged with obstructing the police and creating a disturbance. I kept well away from the Police because I was already in too much trouble with the Canadian state.‚Äù

This was a reference to the unhappiness of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the Canadian SIS) with my political activities – none of which had been illegal. In July 1968 I was told that my student visa to Canada would not be renewed. I then had to retain a lawyer and go through a lot of rigmorale to prove I was not a danger to the state. I am not sure they ever accepted my arguments, but fearing a public campaign around my right to stay in Canada they relented and renewed my visa.

The May-June events in France felt even closer to home. Here were people just like us – students of the first world – holding their own on the barricades, defending their right to freedom and to a better education system. And here were the workers of the first world, who we had thought were lagging a bit politically, going out in their millions on a general strike in support of the students and for more control over their own workplaces.

In Canada we held support actions for our French brothers and sisters after their leaders were arrested in the wake of the general strike. In Edmonton, where I was, only about 30 people turned up to our solidarity protest. But elsewhere in North America things were bigger. In Berkeley, California, the Police moved in on the French solidarity demo and the local students took up the challenge and fought back for a couple of days with a few rather primitive barricades. It was a sign of the times that they won the central issue – the right to protest in the main street, Telegraph Avenue – and 5000 people turned up to a victory celebration.

The consciousness of ordinary Canadians also changed. Over the summer I visited Toronto and vividly remember walking up the main street Yonge St selling as I went copies of the magazine Young Socialist Forum. The magazine had a front page picture of a young French woman, proudly holding up a red flag. It was a sunny day, with not too many people around, and I didn’t expect to sell many. But lo and behold I sold 40 copies of the magazine in two hours.

Part of the greater attractiveness of socialism to ordinary Canadians was the effect of the ‘Prague Spring’. In January Alexander Dubcek (pictured below right) had displaced an old Stalinist as leader of the Czech communist party and in April he launched a programme for ‘socialism with a human face.’ In June censorship was formally abolished and there was a huge political ferment among the Czech people and optimism that a democratic socialist path was possible.

This hope was dashed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 12. I remember how much ‘easier’ it was to organize a protest against the Soviet invasion in an Edmonton park. Ironically, because of the Cold War divide, our protest activity was not treated with the same hostility by the establishment that we had experienced with antiwar protests.

The year ‘68 had several other political dimensions. In Canada efforts by indigenous Canadians for land rights and greater control over their communities was reinvigorated, particularly by young native Canadians in the cities – some of whom I mixed with in the Edmonton socialist movement.

South of the Canadian border the Black movement gathered pace, albeit with a serious setback when Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. In October there was wide support in Canada for the Black Power salutes of the US athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos during the 200 metres medal ceremony at the Mexico Olympics. Less media attention was given to the massacre of dozens of Mexican students on October 2, as the one-party state crushed any dissent before the Games opening ceremony. However, the radical movement did respond and in Canada we organised some activities in solidarity with the Mexican students.

The Mexican students had been occupying major universities, which is something that was starting to happen in North America too. Student power groups sprung up on several Canadian campuses too, with a push for greater control of the institutions by students. Between October 8 and October 21, 50,000 Quebec students went on strike and occupied their schools, or engaged in their own ‘study sessions’ to gain more power to improve their schooling. In the University of Toronto sociology department, where I began studying in September, the student pressure was applied in a different way but we were able to gain parity with staff in running much of the administration, with the exception of hiring and firing.

Feminist writers like the American Betty Friedan and the Britain Juliet Mitchell (Women: the Longest Revolution, December 1966) also started to get a wider audience, and in 1968 there emerged the first women’s liberation groups, in Toronto and Vancouver. Socialist groups like the one I was in were supportive in theory, although sometimes slower in changing their practices.

What about the lifestyle revolution you might ask. Was 1968 a stimulus to more sex, drugs and rock and roll? Both yes and no. There was spread of revolutionary hedonism among young people, but also a move to a more serious, collective approach to solving the world’s problems. The music and culture of the time (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.) reflected both. Mick Jagger notably wrote ‘Street Fighting Man’ after the Police clashed with antiwar protesters in London in March 1968. In Edmonton I went to hear one of the cutting edge Canadian singers, Leonard Cohen – who I will probably see again when he visits New Zealand next year.

Canada in 1968 also saw a generational change in the government. A younger Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (pictured left), known for his tolerant views on such things as abortion and homosexuality, came to power at the head of a resurgent Liberal Party. ‘Trudeaumania’ as it was known, had some parallels with ‘Obamamania’ today, in its inspiration of young people. Personally, I was involved in campaigning for candidates of the New Democratic Party (Canada’s Labour Party) in the 1968 elections. In Alberta the New Democratic Party tolerated League for Socialist Action members like myself joining the party and being part of the election campaigning. In 1968 the NDP just held its own, winning 22 seats, as Trudeau’s Liberals rode into power.

The radical political developments of 1968 were either important in their own right, or at least they planted seeds for the future. Looking back my greatest disappointment was the crushing of the Czech movement for ‘socialism with a human face’. If that had been able to flower in 1968 it would have provided a better example for the world than the ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ transition from bureaucratic socialism to free market capitalism that we saw in Eastern Europe between 1989 to 1991.

More Information about the 1968 Seminar can be found here.