Organiser of aid to the Vietnamese people. Delegate to the YCL National Committee. Speaker at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Bulgaria, 1968.
Born in London – Made in the YCL
Congratulations to the Young Communist League – 100 years old this year. It’s a long time since I joined the YCL but I remember it well. I didn’t realise then that it would be a life changing experience.
I come from a small, working class family in North London. My dad was a baker; my mum was a school dinner lady. They always voted Tory. My older brother stood for the council as a Tory candidate.
I never fitted in. For one thing, I asked questions. My mother, who never had a satisfactory answer, often described me as ‘as awkward as she can hang together’ but I had a feeling that the world was terribly cruel, unjust and ought to be changed.
In my mid-teens I took the sheet off my bed to make into a banner for a CND demonstration which I subsequently ‘lost’ in Trafalgar Square. My mother was furious – but more furious that a policeman had ripped her sheet up!
I began going to demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam and on Aldermaston marches. I had a severe distrust of all politics which I saw as the means of maintaining the world power structure and exploiting everyone. It was on a march that I met a lively bunch of young people singing ‘protest’ songs and carrying a banner – YOUNG COMMUNIST LEAGUE …. Communists? YUK!
They’re probably as bad as all other politicians… which is what I told them. Unimpressed, they invited me to go to an educational meeting to find out more about them. I went, with some resistance and a lot of distrust, refusing to remove my duffle coat which I thought they might send to a Russian peasant.
I guess many people have a seminal experience in their youth. I was about to have mine. The tutor introduced himself as Sam Aaronovitch. With a felt pen he drew a large circle in segments on a sheet of paper and proceeded to explain Marx’s theory of surplus value. Talk about a ‘light bulb’ moment!
The pieces of the complicated jigsaw of society started to come together and Sam was providing all the missing bits. The following week I couldn’t get to the class quick enough.
When I got my first YCL card, a lump came to my throat when I read the inscription on the front:
Man’s dearest possession is life.
It is given but once and he must live
so as to feel no searing regrets for wasted years,
live, that dying he may say;
all my strength was given to the finest cause on Earth –
the Liberation of Mankind.
The YCL had over eight thousand members and was growing. After a few years’ activity, I was elected as a delegate to the YCL National Committee which met in the Party offices at 16 King Street in central London. This was a great privilege and a big learning curve.
On 22 February 1968, a worldwide campaign of support for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front Youth was announced to assist in their fight against the US war machine and to demand that the British Government cease its support for the US. I suppose the most similar mobilisation in recent years would be that against the war on Iraq.
The aim was to raise the profile of the action against the war of aggression by providing material aid to the young freedom fighters.
Whatever we could do felt infinitesimal compared to their sacrifices but I pledged to do what I could and threw itself into action alongside my YCL comrades. By early Summer, many bicycles (used for transporting essential equipment through the difficult Vietnamese terrain), cameras, radios, typewriters, a field operation kit – even motorcycles had been bought with money raised by YCL branches.
“We asked every one of our branch members to give a day’s income,” a branch secretary told me, “No one refused.” Other branches were carrying out successful door to door and street collections; sponsored walks, concerts and public meetings.
The items were collected in a massive lorry, painted in the colours of the Vietnamese flag which traversed Britain. They were officially presented to the Vietnamese youth at a press conference, at which I was honoured to speak, at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Bulgaria in August of that year.