Aleks Sierz interviews Tariq Ali, who recalls the student uprisings of 1968
May 1968 - a time of student uprisings and Utopian revolutionary ideals - was one of the great symbolic moments in postwar history. If you look at photos of the great anti-Vietnam War demonstrations held in London that year, there in the front row marches Tariq Ali, one of the leaders of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf.
To mark the 30th anniversary of that tumultuous year, Tariq Ali and his partner, Susan Watkins, have written 1968: Marching in the Streets, which, Ali says, is 'both a celebration of the people involved and an explanation of that momentous year's events'. Mercifully free of sectarian politics, the book tells 'the story of the millions of people worldwide who fought against war, dogma and repression of every sort'.
Drawing on eye-witness accounts, the book covers the May uprisings in Paris, the Prague Spring ('socialism with a human face'), the Tet offensive launched by Vietnamese guerrillas against US armies, the anti-war movement and Black Power in the USA, the beginnings of feminism, and revolts in Mexico and Pakistan. It was, says Ali, a 'time of hope and love, satire and anger, revolt and creativity.
'It's important to give people an idea of the global scale of 1968 - it was totally international: revolutionary movements appeared on every continent,' Ali says. Most previous books tend to limit themselves to one country - 'the ones on Britain focus on sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll' - and are 'really much too parochial'.
He says: 'Remember that the big success of 1968, the only uprising that didn't fail, was in Pakistan, where students and workers toppled a military dictator - Field Marshall Ayub Khan - after three months of struggle.' While Ali was a central figure in the events of 1968 in London, his own radicalisation happened in 1956, the year of Britain's invasion of Suez. Brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, Ali was sent to a school run by Irish Roman Catholic Brothers. 'My father didn't want to send me to the local feudal school - which was set up by the Brits on public school lines - because he said it was degenerate. But the Catholic priests were also awful. Teaching was totally unstimulating, everything was done by rote.' One of Ali's sharpest memories is of corporal punishment. 'The priests loved the thwack of the cane on a boy's buttocks,' he says. 'They used to give you a choice of six whacks with your trousers on or two with them off 'in my room after class'. Horror stories emerged about boys being forced to shake hands with the priest's penis.' In 1956, when Ali was 12 years old, 'all the university students came out in protest against the invasion of Suez. When they came to our school and saw the white priests, they started chanting 'Death to British imperialism'. At which point, the head - Brother Xavier Henderson - came out and showed them his bent fingers - the result of torture by British troops in Ireland during the 1920s.
Then he closed the school and let us join the march. It was my first demo.' Books also played a vital part in Ali's political education. 'In the 1960s, I became a Trotskyist mainly because I read Isaac Deutscher's great trilogy about Trotsky. It's beautifully written, a great work of literature.' Aptly enough, Ali's amusing and educative 1980 book, Trotsky for Beginners, has been reissued this year.
What are the differences between young people in the 1960s and today? 'The generation that reached adulthood then,' he says, 'had grown up in an era of full employment. We all knew we had jobs to go to, so we weren't afraid. This inspired a sense of confidence and hope that one could change the world.' But today, 'young people have no guarantees - unemployment has created feelings of fear and despair. This is a generation that empathises a great deal with one another, but which is frightened of politics.' Ali calls them Thatcher's Children, and, having two teenagers of his own (Chengiz, 15, and Aisha, 11), he worries about the future. 'People are nervous, everyone's obsessed with money.' But now his eldest, Natasha, who went to a comprehensive, is working for the BBC, he's confident his children will do well.
Ali's main irritation is with New Labour. 'You can't really blame the kids,' he says, 'when the main opposition party caved in to the Thatcherite steamroller.' On a panel at the Ninth Birmingham Theatre Conference last month, Ali told an anecdote: 'John Major meets Ken Livingstone at Westminster.
He says: 'I used to say no to tuition fees for years; you lot are in power for a few weeks and fees are already imposed. How do you do it?' ' As well as his book on 1968, Ali's third novel, Fear of Mirrors, is also out next month. Set in Moscow and Berlin, it tells the story of two families across eight decades.
At the book's centre is Ludwik, the Polish Communist who recruited Philby.
'Its message is that although it's fashionable to write-off the whole century, there were people in the 1920s and 1930s who were extremely idealistic and were fighting for a noble cause.' We need more like them today.
Fear of Mirrors by Tariq Ali, Arcadia pound;11.99; Trotsky for Beginners by Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Icon pound;8.99