How Winston Churchill was denied a unanimous honor by the famous Oxford Union Debating Society!

Street fighting years

An autobiography of the Sixties-by Tariq Ali,PP 381,2006,Seagull,Kolkatta

This is by any account a great book. A book that is youth idealism personified. Tariq Ali, the author was a sort of hero to my own generation in England. He was just two years junior to me, if I can say so, in Oxford. In Oxford he took everyone by surprise by getting elected as the President of the famous Oxford Union (Oxford Debating Society, a great honor for any Youngman and young woman (Benazir Bhutto followed him as the first, I think, Pakistani woman student to get that honor). Yes, Benazir made it to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Tariq was equally capable, in fact might be more capable but he was cast in a very different mould, in a heroic mould. He came from well off family and could have followed the usual Oxbridge bourgeois tradition of kushy government job, could have been ended as the top man in Pakistan. But he didn’t.

The fact he didn’t makes him a real hero. It is not given to every Youngman in every generation. Tariq Ali, at that point of time dominated my imagination, the early Sixties when I was also young and was dreaming of heroic deeds.

Here is an account that is really gripping, page to page. Every page is original and audacious and Tariq’s exploits, that is the right word, in the real world, he was a constant presence in all the world spots where revolution was in the making. In Paris in 1968 student revolution, in Cuba when Castro toppled the dictator, when Che Guvera was shot dead, in Hanoi in Vietnam, in Tokyo and in  London itself where there were so many demonstrations, movements, when the Labor party was in its most ideological, idealist phase.

So, I am really captivated.

The second edition starts with a short introduction warning the readers about the libelous pages, he warns:” Readers you have been warned. Read at your peril”, Readers thus are invited for a literary feasts, as it were! The book starts with a poem, by the Italian poet, Pier Pasolani, who wrote it in 1970,”slightly unfair to my generation, says the author. But then looking at the poem now, in the new century when bourgeois values have firmly taken roots in their generation of globalization, migration and sudden wealth, an unprecedented wealth creating opportunities for the new generation, the poem might sound a bit out of context.

But it is a sort of  warning to any young generation out to search for a vision, for a way ahead for an age that one day might seek some such vision for  its own sake., Here it is, in some edited lines(just to give a flavor).

Oh unfortunate generation
You will weep, but lifeless tears
Because perhaps you won’t ever know how to return to
What not having had, you couldn’t even lose;
Poor Calvinist generation as at the bourgeoisie’s origins
Adolescently pragmatic, childishly active
You sought salvation in organization
And you’ve spent the days of your youth
Speaking the jargon of bureaucratic democracy
Never departing from the repetition of formulas
…………………………………………………………………………Unfortunate generation!
Growing old, I saw your heads filled with grief
Where a confused idea swirled, an absolute certainty,
An assumption of heroes destined not to die-
Oh unfortunately young people, who’ve seen within reach
A marvelous victory that didn’t exist!

May be every such heroic time presents itself to every generation. Is there any slight hint of the present life under the present times?

Anyway, here it is and Tariq Ali captures the spirit of the times when such momentous times were happening, unlike now, when so much blood is shed, so much destruction is wrought and so much the world is confused and divided into power camps.

One of the most interesting findings in the book is how Ali was elected as President of the Oxford Debating Society, how the Society stands out as a unique body for educating students as leaders and how this helped Ali to emerge as the most talked about student leader, youth leader and how he went on to establish his name in all the revolutions that swept the world in the Sixties and afterwards till the end of the Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. By any standard, this is a great achievement and that is how Tariq Ali will be remembered by the present and the future generations of youth.
The book gives an account and a rare insight into the functioning of the two century old Oxford institution, the famous Oxford Union Debating Society. I myself was a member of this august institution in my times, I myself got on the platform and delivered by  practicing first lecture  in that historic  auditorium.

Of course, Tariq Ali was elected against a stiff contest; he was opposed by a future Conservative leader, then a student leader with the Oxford Conservative Club. There are some strange parallels in what I did and Ali did in his time at Oxford. Ali joined the Oxford Labor Club in 1963.I joined it in 1959! Of course he has much to say about these Oxford student political clubs. The students start their political education in these clubs and then go on to the national poltiics. There is a rich tradition in England. In India too we do have student politics, but there are no well-established traditions. Here too much is made of the leftist student politics. But this is very peripheral to mainstream politics in India. We must have in all our major universities such political clubs, purely educative and then in each such major university, we must establish debating societies. This is a subject for the higher education policy makers to take note of.

Now, some of the Labor leaders who came to these clubs also were familiar with me, in fact I invited Sir John Stratechy to come and speak for the Indian students too. Here I see those famous names and faces, Wilson, later a Labor Prime Minister, who came to speak to us, Gaitskell, the Labor leader, Michael Foot, the dissident Labor leader and intellectual who was a regular at the Union debates and so on, too many names to mention here.

Oxford Union provided a great platform for the British politicians to meet and exchange wide ideological debates from all sections of the political spectrum. So, in the case narrated by Ali (p 96-97) when the occasion was to pay homage on the death of Winston Churchill, there was dissension! On the great Winston? Yes, such is the sharp ideologically inclined young men! The proposal was to” express condolence and rising to its collective feet and observing a minute’s silence in memory of the departed leader”.” In normal circumstances this would have been a formality, but to everyone’s surprise, the motion was opposed by Richard Kirkwood, an active member of the International Socialists and the Oxford Union”. He said Churchill was a great man but the Labor Movement would oppose such a motion for 1.Churchill was defeat5ed by the Labor in 1945, 2.”Churchill’s crimes”. Churchill was the vociferous proponent of armed intervention against the Russian Revolution in 1917…opposed Indian freedom etc”. So, in the midst of noise and arguments the motion was carried and when everyone stood up, 400 and odd members, about 25 sat all through!

There are so many such historic events, Ali was also debarred to move around in Oxford, he was strictly allowed to go out only to participate in the Oxford Union of which he was elected the President, with the record voting,” the turnout of voters was the largest recorded in the history of the Union”. At one time he was even threatened with expulsion from England. In 1968 student uprising, he was also debarred to travel to France. By then when De Gaulle was toppled in the 1968 rising, the student leaders, Regis Debray became adviser to French Socialist President Mitterrand and a close ally of Ali.Ali used to phone him at his Elysee Plalace office and get things done.Ali  himself was then allowed thanks to his friend to travel to France. There are other colorful figures that flip through the pages, who were all at one time, my heroes too. But alas, the world had changed beyond all our beliefs and Tairq Ali’s life too, it seem, had changed beyond his beliefs.

However in these pages there are certain moving chapters, chapter six: the last year in the life of Ernesto’Che’ Guevara: 1967, the last chapter: Heretic and Renegades (340 to 355).Some passages brought tears: the death of his long time friend, Clive Goodwin. Says Ali (page 349)”: For years afterwards I would lift the receiver and dial his number, quite unconsciously. The lost years when we had not met acquired an even greater poignancy”. In fact, Goodwin’s father, I learn now from the book, was an actor; he played Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a play I enjoyed seeing in London those days! Tariq Ali, in his non-revolutionary avatar, was a great writer for the TV channels and also a literary figure in the great literary city of the world and so I have met so many names that are familiar to me in these pages.

In fact, some of the pages, like the one on Bertrand Russell, gave me immense joy to read, here we get a first hand picture of the philosopher, even at 93,” he was to spend the last years of his life immersed in the battles, Vietnam, as he did in the two world wars,” the staggering fact was he was still total command, body frail, he spoke lucidly, the clarity of his thought was the most powerful, his position in British society was virtually unique. Unlike France, the country of Russell’s birth had studiously avoided encouraging the growth of an intelligentsia that was not dependent on the state, Russell stood out….”

After meeting Russell and talking ,Tariq Ali and his friend” made our farewells and as we came out into the cold we stood out on the pavement for a while marveling at the stamina of this remarkable old man”(page 135).This passage was a vintage Russell, his extreme aristocratic habits, receiving guests, making them sit and making  tea for guests and lighting his pipe and holding on all topics, topical as well as intellectual’s also learnt a lot about that remarkable American radical Jew ,Ralph Schoeman, who set up the Russell Peace Foundation and acted as Russell’s alter ego in Russell’s last years.

One thought lingers, however. What is revolutionary politics? Revolution for revolution sake? Had all the revolutions we read here had changed the world for the batter? Or, made things more difficult to find more peaceful and democratic solutions?

Questions men and activists like Tariq Ali only perhaps can answer!

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