Power To The People
By John Hoyland, Guardian 15 March
The year was 1968 and, worldwide, there was revolution in the air. But when John Hoyland attacked John Lennon's politics in a radical paper, he didn't expect the fiery Beatle to rise to the bait
Towards the end of 1968 I discovered that John Lennon, who I had never met, really didn't like me very much. Back in the beginning of that year, on March 17, I took part in the demonstration against the Vietnam war in Grosvenor Square, London. The scale and the violence of that demonstration took the country by surprise. Yet near the beginning of Leo Burley's South Bank Show documentary Revolution 68, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the riot and the extraordinary year that followed it, there are some iconic images that make the passion in Grosvenor Square understandable. They show a naked Vietnamese girl, aged about six, running along a dirt road, the skin of her back burned off by napalm dropped on her village by American planes. Seeing those images again made me shudder with horror, just as I did when I first saw them 40 years ago. This was the world's first televised war. The people in Grosvenor Square were very angry.
That anger fuelled a political radicalism that grew wider and deeper in its scope as the year went on, leading to a series of dramatic confrontations with the authorities around the world. There were major riots in Germany, Paris, Mexico City, Brazil, Tokyo and Chicago. And in Czechoslovakia, Russian tanks rolled into the country to silence the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubcek.
What had started as protests against the Vietnam war expanded to something far wider. The talk was of revolution. Everything about modern capitalist society was suddenly called into question.
"Be realistic - demand the impossible," said the Paris students during May's showdown. For a few days, as they fought nightly pitched battles with the police while the communist trade unions called a national strike, there really was the feeling that a revolution might happen there.
My personal contribution to this upsurge was to set up a cultural organisation called Agitprop with a group of friends. Working from my home, we built up a list of people with skills such as graphic design that might be useful to the left, leading to the Daily Mail describing us as a "rentamob" agency. We also formed a street theatre group (later known as Red Ladder), set up a poster workshop, started a bookshop and - in the summer of 1968 - staged an arts festival in Trafalgar Square called Thang Loi, Vietnamese for "victory". This featured a giant polystyrene hamburger with the effigy of a GI as the filling, plus music from Mick Farren & the Deviants. We also took part as individuals in guerrilla publicity strikes, including unfurling a banner in front of TV cameras at the boat race that read: "Oxbridge paddles while Vietnam burns."
In June, I was invited to join the board of a revolutionary newspaper, the Black Dwarf. Named after a radical 19th-century publication, the Black Dwarf asserted continuity with its predecessor by numbering its first issue "Vol 13 Number 1".
It quickly established itself as the house journal of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the wider New Left politics that was developing around it. Edited by Tariq Ali, then a prominent member of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and a fiery orator, the broadsheet paper pulled no punches. The in-your-face front page of the first issue showed a photo of triumphant students in the Paris May events with the slogan: "WE SHALL FIGHT WE SHALL WIN PARIS LONDON ROME BERLIN". The next issue's cover announced: "STUDENTS - THE NEW REVOLUTIONARY VANGUARD", a sentiment that caused apoplexy among old-guard Marxists. Then came: "DON'T DEMAND - OCCUPY". Earlier in the year, Hornsey College of Art had been occupied by its students - led, incidentally, by current Labour minister Kim Howells - demanding participation and a more relevant curriculum. With the Black Dwarf's enthusiastic encouragement, occupations followed at Colchester, Hull, Brighton, Coventry and the London School of Economics.
The paper was supposed to appear weekly, but seldom achieved this, partly because printers kept refusing to print it. Banned by many retailers like WHSmith, it depended on voluntary street vendors for sales, and frequently ran out of money. Even so, for a while, it was a brilliant and effective mouthpiece for the rebellious youth of the day.
Shortly after the Black Dwarf hit the streets, John Lennon wrote Revolution and recorded it with the Beatles. I admired Lennon hugely, and had adored the Beatles ever since their first exuberant shouts of joy in 1963. Their development over the following five years had been extraordinary and each new record they produced seemed somehow to capture the spirit of the times. Mick Jagger had been on the Grosvenor Square demo and had gone on to write Street Fighting Man, a song that reflected the 1968 mood of rebellion. How would Lennon respond?
Musically, Revolution was superb - Lennon at his best - but the lyrics were a bitter disappointment. Instead of identifying with the rebellious ferment among the young, he was hostile to it. He complained about "minds that hate". He said "When you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out." Above all, he said: "You tell me it's the institution/You better free your mind instead." Those sentiments might have fitted the previous year and the dreamy mind expansions of the "summer of love", but things had moved on and they now seemed entirely off the mark.
When Lennon was arrested for a dope offence in October 1968 I felt the inadequacy of this philosophy was even more evident. So I wrote "An Open Letter to John Lennon" which was published in the October 27 issue of the Black Dwarf. The same issue featured the handwritten lyrics of Street Fighting Man, donated by Mick Jagger. In my letter I pompously pronounced: "Perhaps now you'll see what it is you're (we're) up against. Not nasty people. Not even neurosis, or spiritual under-nourishment. What we're confronted with is a repressive, vicious, authoritarian system."
I went on to say that this system had to be "ruthlessly destroyed" and added: "Now do you see what was wrong with Revolution? That record was no more revolutionary than Mrs Dale's Diary." Finally, in a passage that seems to have galled him more than anything else, I hinted that his music was losing its bite, unlike that of the Stones. I concluded: "Look at the society we live in and ask yourself: why? And then - come and join us."
To our utter amazement at the Black Dwarf, Lennon wrote back. We printed his letter in the January 10 1969 issue of the mag.
He was absolutely furious. "Dear John," he began. "Your letter didn't sound patronising - it was. Who do you think you are? What do you think you know?... I know what I'm up against - narrow minds - rich/poor... I don't remember saying that Revolution was revolutionary - f*** Mrs Dale... You say: 'In order to change the world we've got to understand what's wrong with the world. And then - destroy it. Ruthlessly.' You're obviously on a destruction kick I'll tell you what's wrong with the world - people - so do you want to destroy them?"
He also asked, pertinently: "What kind of system do you propose and who would run it?" and finished: "Look man, I was/am not against you. Instead of splitting hairs about the Beatles and the Stones - think a little bigger - look at the world we're living in, John, and ask yourself: why? And then - come and join us. Love, John Lennon. PS - You smash it - and I'll build round it."
I had the last word in a reply that we printed below his letter. "What makes you so sure that a lot of us haven't changed our heads in something like the way you recommend - and then found
it wasn't enough, because we simply cannot be turned on and happy when you know that kids are being roasted to death in Vietnam, when all around you, you see people's individuality being stunted by the system."
These letters were syndicated round the world and were described by Richard Neville, the editor of the hippy magazine Oz, as "a classic New Left/psychedelic left dialogue". They summed up a tension between two tendencies in the counterculture - the hippy strand that had come to the fore in the mid-60s and embraced self-expression, spirituality and "love", and the leftwing radicalism that was sweeping the world in 1968 and was concerned with changing structures. These weren't necessarily exclusive positions; they were more a question of emphasis and a lot of people had a foot in both camps. But there was still a tension between them, and the "Dear John" letters epitomised that tension.
In the years that followed, Lennon shifted his position. He invited Tariq Ali to his house to talk things over with him and subsequently gave his support to a number of leftwing causes.
He returned his OBE, partly in protest against the Vietnam war, and wrote Power To The People, seemingly in order to correct the impression of non alignment he had given in Revolution.
Meanwhile, I like to think I shifted my position as well to one that was a little less naively and narrowly political. At the very least, I valued the emotional honesty of Lennon's post-Beatles music much more than I might have done earlier.
A few years later I wrote to him to ask if we could discuss a new socialist paper I was involved with. I was delighted to find he held no grudges. He sent back a letter from a plane on the way to New York ("Altitude: light hearted. Location: here") agreeing to talk to us as soon as he came back to England. But, of course, he never did come back. Despite our tiff, I loved and admired him and I'm very glad we closed our earlier disagreement so amicably.