Thursday, November 15, 2007

Not Much Street Fighting Here

Much to his own disappointment no doubt, Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties is now a staple on bookstore over stock piles after its recent re-publication two years ago.

It's one of those works that confirms history is easier to digest if people can hinge events on individual characters, Germany had Dutschke, Paris Cohn-Bendit so here Ali consciously stands himself in as that token foreigner who through a few waves of a well educated Oxford finger summoned a mass movement into being against imperialism abroad.

He excels at describing how the development of the sixties movement was intertwined with the dashed hopes of the Wilson government and social democracy. Not that many had illusions, but for a generation it signaled a final confirmation of failed method - a path that always pushed radicalism beyond the horizon for bigger election margins and conservativism by consensus. As a new immigrant Ali was none impressed with how many Labour MP's demanded and attempted to have him deported during the Enoch Powell period.

For trainspotters Ali drops some context on the origins of the revolutionary party crops of the seventies, who he eventually threw his lot in with, its hard to imagine now how the SWP could ever have been the cutting edge of youthful radicalism but squeezed between Stalinism, social democracy and whack job Maoism its no wonder they gained currency.

In a related sense where the book does shine is Ali's discussion of his involvement in movement publications such as the Black Dwarf, the New Left Review and later Red Mole. It carries an acerbic but good natured open letter to John Lennon published by the Red Mole and a startling riposte from the songwriter that eventually led a day long interview with the paper.

You do get a strong sense of the period covered through Ali's own whirlwind prose fueled by national liberation rhetoric in the south and student uprisings in the North. But mostly its a collection of anecdotes as our hero swans from one international crisis to another, from addressing college crowds as part of the Oxford Union alongside Malcolm X to dining with leftist actors like Brando and Redgrave and generally ingratiating himself across the board. So despite the title there is very little brawling with power.

Really it's hard to eye the book up as as anything other than Ali's astronomical rise to be a token thorn in the side of the British liberal media. Don't get me wrong, its a page turner to wile away work hours and even more perfect if you are new to sixties mythology.

Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (Verso, 2005)

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