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Letter from London: The Demo

It was very English to call it “the Demo,” and no wonder the pet name stuck, conjuring up a specter of “demos,” the people (sometimes pejorative), but on the other hand “democracy” (good), which withstood the test of the demonstration. Small family-style states are fond of making up diminutives, whose effect is to diminish, domesticate; compare “the telly” to big gross American “TV.” Yet the peculiar fact about the October 27 dual march was that it was organized and directed by aliens in competition with each other: Tariq Ali, a young mustached Pakistani, leading the way to Downing Street, and Abhimanya Manchanda, a middle-aged clean-shaven Indian, to Grosvenor Square.

For the English, these rival pied pipers were difficult to swallow, let alone assimilate. A well-fleshed, plaintive humorist of a police sergeant sought to explain his obscure sense of injury relating to the Demo, which in principle he did not exactly oppose but saw as a conflict of rights: the right to push your pram, undisturbed, down the Strand on Sunday and the right, slightly less hallowed, to march. We were standing in a pub near a central London police station on the eve of the demonstration. What stuck in his craw, he confided, leaning forward and lowering his voice, was “those foreigners.” “It’s the bill you’re paying for Empire,” I replied. He appreciated the point (English fair-mindedness) and laughed. The discussion continued. I made some feeble joke about seeing him tomorrow, in jail. “You don’t mean to say you’re going to march?” “Certainly!” “Stay home and watch it on the television. Take my advice.” He made a face, leaning forward in another burst of confidence and wrinkling up his broad manly nose. It wasn’t the “pushing and shoving” he minded in those demonstrations. “It’s the B. O. Phew!”

Just then, a police siren blew. “That’s my tune,” he said, grinning. Then another. Outside, cops were racing out of the police station, pulling on their coats, clapping on their helmets, and boarding police wagons. The sergeant hastily left his pint of lager on the bar. We left our drinks too and ran. A large force of alarmed bobbies was converging on Westminster Abbey, where some pink-cheeked, tow-headed schoolboys from Manchester, wearing red and white scarves, in town for the football match, had been apprehended on the sidewalk; their average age was maybe fourteen. A flash had come through that some unknown persons were breaking into the Abbey; possibly one or two of the little Manchester rooters had tried to climb the fence. In a minute, the police, embarrassed, were returning to base. In preparation for the Demo, they had been sleeping in at the police station, with a barrel of beer, occupying it, in short, like the students on guard at the London School of Economics. Both sides were nervous; gloomy, and gay. It worried me that with all that beer the police might have hangovers the next day, which would make them irritable. The sergeant complained that the pigeons under the eaves of his “dormitory” had been keeping him awake.

In the LSE, which we had just visited, the only drinks being served were coffee and tea. As at the Sorbonne last May and June, you could buy apples and sandwiches. Some students were already asleep in the corridors, but most were just milling about or reading the posters and slogans on the walls, many of which seemed to be copied from the French slogans. A local touch was a small notice: “PARENTS: Babies and Children Cared for during Demonstration. Please apply,” etc. In the big auditorium movies were being shown of previous demonstrations: the May-June French marches and street fighting and the March 17 Grosvenor Square rally. This made me think of the Marines at Da Nang watching old Hollywood World War II war movies: the hair of the dog. There were fewer jokes here than in the police station—less irony. An infirmary to receive the wounded was being prepared, and the next morning there would be an ambulance standing in the entrance hall—a camouflaged truck from Cardiff. It was plain that they expected casualties.

What do you hope to accomplish by this demonstration?” I had been asking Tariq Ali in the offices of the new New Left magazine, The Black Dwarf, on Carlisle Street, which was placarded with art work of Fidel and Che, previous issues of the magazine, provocative slogans. There were photos of the enemy: Axel Springer, Getty, Howard Hughes. There was a striking photo of US Marines in bristling combat formation resembling a human porcupine ready to throw its quills. There was an art photo involving a discarded condom, and a typed list of first-aid stations by districts. In this window-case of pop politics, like a vision from another world, hung a very big photograph of Trotsky with his clear, intelligent, spectacled, professorial eyes (“What, you here, old friend?”). A new issue of the magazine had just been printed, and young distributors were hurrying out with it. Someone ran in to say that one of the sellers had been arrested in Piccadilly Circus for “causing an obstruction.” (The British guardians of order, off camera, were still up to their old tricks; see “Freedom of the Park” in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell commenting on the arrests for “obstruction” of five people selling Freedom (anarchist), Peace News, and other left-wing papers in Hyde Park. That was in December, 1945, under an earlier Labor Government, and Orwell wondered how it was that you did not hear of newsboys being run in for selling The Daily Telegraph, The Tablet, or The Spectator.) The Dwarf office, temporary staff headquarters for the Vietnam Solidarity campaign (Trotskyist, as opposed to the British Vietnam Solidarity Front, Maoist), suggested a stage set of revolution, with supernumeraries like spear-bearers entering stage right and left, bit players speaking lines of studied rudeness as in some updated Wildean comedy, breathless messengers, and a general atmospheric litter, the floor serving as a communal ash-tray. I could not resist the feeling that I had been cast in the role of audience and ought to have paid an admission. At the pub around the corner, just off-stage, Special Branch men were posing as customers.

The words “What do you hope to accomplish, etc.?” had, I quickly discovered, the effect of a negative password. It virtually invited the bum’s rush. How narrowly I had escaped that, I realized the next morning during a pre-march briefing at the London School of Economics when a middle-aged man in a hat addressed the same question to the chairman. “Get the hell out.” “Infiltrator.” “Spy.” “Fuck you.” “There’s ladies present.” “Give him a chance, for Christ’s sake.” “This bugger didn’t come here to ask a bona fide question. He came here to cause chaos.” In fact, from the sneer in his voice, I too concluded that the man in the hat was there for no good purpose. His hat itself was a provocation. Yet whatever his intention (or mine), the question was a natural one, which the very scale of the preparations on both sides (forty doctors and nurses and four ambulances at the LSE alone) necessarily brought to the mind of the ordinary perplexed Londoner: “What do they expect to gain by it, I ask you?” the sergeant had mused, in the pub.

I had been thinking about the problem myself, in a US context—would it do any good to march again on the Pentagon?—and it seems to me that there is a law of diminishing returns that applies to demonstrations, though nobody can be sure at what point it will begin to operate. But if a demonstration reveals your weakness, rather than your strength, it may not be a good plan to hold it. And built into demonstrations, as into any kind of warfare, there is the tendency to escalate, to make up in increasing violence what you lack in force, till the number of injured on both sides becomes the measure of the success of a march, and this is particularly true when modern means of publicity are focused on the combat. Here—the opposite of regular warfare—each side tends to overestimate its own casualties and to underestimate those of the enemy. Or, as a police inspector said: “We will be trying to minimize arrests. The students hope to maximize them.”

Tariq Ali, though he did not express it so succinctly, was aware of being caught in a dilemma implicit in the war games of the street. Having attacked Grosvenor Square in March, he did not wish to “repeat himself” in October, for the only way of topping the previous performance there would be by a heightening of violence. Hence he spoke of Grosvenor Square as “a death trap,” to which he was unwilling to commit his followers. De-escalation, according to this reasoning, then became inevitable—a change of pace and direction, to Downing Street and Hyde Park, rather than to the US Embassy, and in disciplined, orderly formation, instead of in fighting salients.

He was thinking, clearly, in terms of showmanship, and in these terms he may have been right, except that the London police stole the show on him. Moreover, in his concentration on the manner of the demonstration, he lost sight of the matter: the US war in Vietnam. Indeed, the Demo, which might have been a tragedy, turned into a comedy of manners. He did not foresee that, of course, on the eve of the march, nor perceive it later by hindsight. What the demonstration had already accomplished, he told me, was that all over England, in pubs tonight, people were talking about Vietnam, which had been practically forgotten since March. Did he really believe this? According to my guess, people in pubs were talking about the Demo all right and about him, but not about Vietnam, and this could not be blamed exclusively on the press. The oncoming confrontation between the police and the marchers was viewed as a domestic sporting event in which you chose sides and took bets, also, if you were fearful, as a sort of invasion from Mars or D-day, D standing for doom. With a tense contest like that right on their doorstep or scheduled, live, on video, how could people be expected to turn their attention to a war in a remote country and to which the sole active British contribution was training police dogs to track down Viet Cong? Like many fiery and histrionic persons, Tariq Ali seemed to have no sense of the impact of the drama he was mounting on the ordinary clowns in the gallery. In short, no common sense. “What do you hope to accomplish, etc.?” is a commonsensical question, which was why it was an unwelcome interruption in a theater of revolution.

In his bed-sitter in Hampstead, Mr. Manchanda, the leader of the Maoist group, accepted the question as perfectly legitimate. “I do not know, he said, and then added, with a mischievous giggle, “But I know we are giving the Government the jitters.” This was incontestably true. The effect of the march, he went on, more formally, would be to call the Vietnamese question to public attention, which was the same as what Tariq Ali had said and yet quite different. Indeed, to my pleased surprise (for on the basis of rumor and press reports I had been expecting a frightening super-left irrealist in comparison to whom the burning-eyed Tariq Ali would look like a board meeting of the Fabian Society), Mr. Manchanda, small and rather merry, had his feet very much on the ground. When we telephoned on that Saturday night to check up on the address, we were told that he was out, which was a blow, because we had an appointment with him for an interview. “Oh, he’ll be right back,” an American girl’s voice said. “He’s just gone to the Laundromat.” In the entry-hall of the two-storey house, not far from where Karl Marx had lived, there was an empty baby-carriage and outside on the steps were some milk bottles. The baby evidently belonged to the family upstairs, perhaps his disciples; we met two American girls and a young Canadian man in the small bed-sitting room whose chief article of furniture was a large duplicator. These young people, unlike the supernumeraries at The Black Dwarf, were not wearing the costumes, hair styles, and fashion accessories of the pace-setting New Left. They were dressed in plain ordinary clothes; one of the girls was in pants. The furniture was old and losing some of its stuffing, but the room was neat and there were ash-trays. Mr. Manchanda went out to make us some coffee in the kitchen. Behind me, above the Regency-style sofa on which I was sitting, was a sight familiar to me from North Vietnam: Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Above them was a big colored photograph of Mao and on the opposite wall a nice one of Ho. No slogans, no poster art. The girls were bending over a tract they had just taken out of the duplicator.

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