Tariq Ali


“I used to be banned from rather a lot of countries, yes,” reflects Tariq Ali, his suave tone seemingly pondering a leisurely pursuit more like an afternoon at Lords or a Devon cream tea. 

“Bolivia, Turkey, Hong Kong, the United States of America, France, the Philippines… There were one or two others. I still need a State Department waiver to go to America. I am still not allowed to enter Pakistan, which is getting irritating…”

A cold menace becomes noticeable in his slow, deliberate speech.
“It’s ten years since I’ve been there. I’ve written a number of books attacking the military – the last one, Can Pakistan Survive? was publicly denounced by General Zia. They’ve made it clear they don’t wish me to enter, but I think I will try to get in, later this year.”

Once again he resembles an old English gentleman puffing his pipe.
“They would find out I was there very rapidly and I want to travel, so I would need a passport. I’m not sure whether they’ve lifted the phone-tap here or not. Once they’ve started, why stop ? But I think they’d only keep it if I was building a small terrorist group.”

And are you ?
“No I’m not,” he says matter of factly.

As one of the figureheads of political unrest in the second half of the Sixties, Tariq Ali met the likes of Malcolm X, Stokely Charmichael, Marlon Brando, Jean-Paul Sartre, Enoch Powell, David Hockney and John Lennon, whilst his work for Bertrand Russell’s Peace Foundation and Michael Heseltine’s Town magazine took him to Moscow, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bolivia, Jordan, Syria and Berlin. 

At the height of his activities, Ali’s notoriety incited calls for his deportation from both Tory and Labour MPs alike, as well as, inevitably, the national press. 

He regularly received death threats and the Director of Public Prosecutions ordered an enquiry into his activities. He was followed by Special Branch, his speeches were studied, his mail was opened and his phone was tapped. 

Away from England he was shadowed by the CIA in Hanoi and in Turkey described as “a political and mental degenerate”. A Bolivian general, who had threatened to execute him, later expressed regret, upon hearing who he was, at not having done so. 

All of this and more has now become material for Ali’s new book Street Fighting Years, a trenchant, coolly perceptive observation and assessment of the Sixties.

Tariq Ali was born in 1943 in Lahore, Pakistan, a state without history. 

Now elegantly greying with powerful, hooded eyes, his calm elegance and noble comportment signal that his was “an aristocratic family going back centuries.” 

His mother’s father was Prime Minister and his father’s father similarly held high positions during the British days. 

Although the rest of the family were, he says, “deeply reactionary”, his parents were “quite radical.” His father edited the left-wing daily paper The Pakistan Times (later taken over by the Military), whilst his mother joined the Communist Party the year Tariq was born. He remembers her weeping the day Stalin died.

Ali went to his first political rally when he was just five and his first demonstration a year later. 

By the time he was nine he was “obsessed with politics.” At fourteen, he met the leaders of the Chinese Revolution and also organized his first protest march when a black American, Jimmy Wilson, was sentenced to death for stealing a dollar. He writes that he learned his “first lesson in the limitations of American democracy” when the Consul General promptly reported him to his headmaster. 

As a student at Government College in Lahore his disruptive activities brought him to the attention of the Head of Military Intelligence (who, happily, happened to be his uncle) and it was decided he should be sent to Oxford.

At 20 he arrived in England, where the Profumo scandal and the sentencing of Nelson Mandela were making the news. At Oxford he shone at debating, soon making a reputation for himself.

“Coming from the Third World, I was not at all scared of directly attacking the ruling classes. I was very upfront.”

Two pivotal events occurred here. Laid up with mumps, he read Issac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, “a superb piece of literature as well as biography. Now it seems they’re about to rehabilitate him in the Soviet Union, so history does move.”

Secondly, he met Malcolm X, ex-gangster, pimp, drug peddler and black separatist, who told him: “Blacks are a powder keg. Martin Luther King wants to spray the keg with water, I think we have to light the fuse.”

“He told me, without a trace of emotion, ‘By this time next year, I’ll be dead,’” recalls Ali. Months later, having always refused to have his audience searched, Malcolm X was gunned down by three black men in the front row of a political meeting.

“I was shaken. He made a deep impact on me, yes. No one who saw his speech at Oxford will ever forget it.”

Street Fighting Years is dedicated to the Belgian Marxist intellectual Ernest Mandel, “who always believed that the real meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history”, which best sums up what it is Ali has done, the way he has lived.

Yet his prominent participation in what he calls “a momentous period of history – the Third World in revolution, crisis in capitalist Europe, black consciousness, the women’s movement, revolt on the campuses and in the factories” began with a mere letter to The Observer condemning Washington’s Vietnam policy and Harold Wilson’s support for it. The letter brought him to the attention of Bertrand Russell and his Peace Foundation and began a spiral of events that lasted ten years: “It was amazing. A sign of the times, really.”

The book is an immensely readable and illuminating account of the period from 1965 to 1975, setting out to be informative rather than indulgent and neatly balancing anecdote with analysis, steering clear of revolutionary rhetoric, didacticism, and hippy nostalgia. An unusual personal memoir, the publishers have labeled it ‘an autobiography of the Sixties’. 

Having already written Inside The Revolution on the anniversary of ’68, he was initially reluctant when Collins approached him. “But I have a 14-year-old daughter and there is a whole generation who wants to know what happened.”

He says he is waiting to forget the Sixties but feels the importance of the failures of the Sorbonne revolt and the 1975 Portuguese revolution (the official obituary of the Sixties ferment) remains “until we have a Socialist Democracy established in every European country.”

The book’s underlying message is “One shouldn’t write off the past. I know mocking the Sixties has become a European pastime in the Seventies and Eighties, but it’s impossible to understand the present without a historical dimension. I decided not to write much about the sexual aspect. If you write theoretically it sounds pompous, if you use personal experience it’s a bit corny, like showing off. There’s the petty side too. I was subjected to personal attacks every day, but it didn’t really seem relevant, so that’s not there.”

Instead, the book covers such events as his effort to contact Che Guevara in Bolivia just months before he was killed there; the LSE occupation; the invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Kennedy and Martin Luther King murders; and the ’68 Paris revolt, which he missed after an anonymous phone call warned him that if he left the country he’d be refused re-entry. 

Personal stories include forging Michael Heseltine’s signature after Bolivian passport officers had never heard of Pakistan (“I wonder what he’d say about that. I think he’d have a little chuckle”), his mobbed return to Pakistan, John Lennon singing a version of Power To The People down the telephone having written it for Ali and his associates, and, most memorably of all, his trip to Vietnam, where he met the Vietnamese leader, Pham Von Dong, and saw schools and hospitals in Vietnamese villages being bombed.

“Vietnam changed me, yes. Of all the people I met in that period it was the Vietnamese who made the biggest impression on me, a people who fought badly and won. It was a real experience I will never forget.”

Reporting on the war for Town, the New Statesman and Tribune, he visited co-operative farms and makeshift schools where five-year-olds complained about not being allowed to join the militia. “Impossible to visualize this agony,” he wrote in his diary and asked to join the militia himself.

Back in London, the Vietnam Congress demonstrations attracted 100,000 marchers, were shown live on television and produced fierce confrontations with the police. Death threats and calls for his expulsion increased daily. 

“I’d like to have put more in about Central America,” he mentions, “but a book like this is never really finished. Apparently on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years recently I was shown speaking to a meting in Nottingham and saying, “One reason why we’re fighting for the Vietnamese today is so that the same thing doesn’t happen in Latin America tomorrow. Some twenty years ago. That’s how we felt, though – it was one world and it was our fight.”

Unlike nostalgia-bound apologists like the former Oz editor David Widgery, but very much like Germaine Greer, Ali’s lucid intelligence, perception and passion combine in a way that firmly acknowledges the failings of the period as well as reiterating the importance and relevance of the successes. He accepts that “the Internationalism has gone”, that Sexual Liberation didn’t affect the Third World, and that Women’s Liberation hasn’t been total.

“But look, as Germaine has said, the Fifties were still entrenched in Victorian morality. Culturally and sexually all the old conventions were broken. Now there is a big attempt globally to reinforce the old morality, and AIDS has provided a massive fillip to the Born-Again Christians and Victorian Value people here, but they can’t roll history back. AIDS does not mean sexual pleasure’s gone forever. Or that homosexuality is evil.”

He accepts, rather reluctantly, that no 12-year-old will listen to the Beatles when they can have the Beastie Boys, and that Livingstone’s GLC was the last example of Sixties thinking in modern politics, but he stresses the relevance without seeming either dogmatic or nostalgic.

“A lot was shrouded in mysticism and fantasy,” he writes in Street Fighting Years, “but the dominant theme was that we needed a new world. How can one possibly believe anything different today ?” He cites the women’s movement as probably the only lasting achievement of the time and sensibly maintains that, “An ‘up’ is all you can hope to achieve, never a permanent change. This is a rather bad ‘down’. It’s happened in the past and it will happen again. I never believed that the British ruling classes crumbled when they heard our slogans, though we did come very close in Portugal. The slogan of today is ‘Everything’s Shit’. It’s no wonder there’s no collective solidarity. I think that will change, though I don’t know when.”

He expresses contempt for his contemporaries now working for the Thatcher or Reagan governments, viewing their participation as “obviously shallow”, and reserves his sympathy for “the wrecks whose whole lives have been shaken by that experience so that they can’t relate to today at all.”

“After Portugal and Paris there were people committing suicide. But I believe Spinoza put it very appositely when he said, ‘Neither to laugh nor to cry but to understand.’ I’m always meeting people who tell me they’re waiting for better times and say, ‘If the barricades go up, we’ll be with you again, with our grandchildren if necessary.’ And in our demonstrations there were people in their seventies who had demonstrated in the Thirties against the Spanish War or against Fascism. So it continues. You know, when the hippy convoys were being beaten by the cops, they were like the ghosts of the Sixties. I really felt like just giving them a hug and saying, ‘If this had happened in the Sixties we’d have had 60,000 people demonstrating but we can’t now.’ I was very moved.”

He foresaw the force of Thatcherism, he says, after the ’74 miners’ strike “shook the ruling classes to their core. I mean, the head of the Civil Service, Sir William Armstrong, had a nervous breakdown. Now that’s very symbolic. After that, the Right obviously resolved – never again.”

Is there any consolation that perhaps the harder people are pushed, the harder they react ?
“It’s a tempting idea but it’s not realistic. All that happens is, after Thatcher, Kinnock and Bryan Gould seem like saviours. Now, there’s no real difference between the Labour front bench and the SDP. I had thought the party might move to the Left. I remember in 1979 I wrote a diary in the New Statesman saying that Shirley Williams would leave the labour party. She complained and the editor published an apology. And within nine months she’d left, hahaha. I felt they owed me an apology.”

Now Ali seems more of a maverick than ever. The Labour Party’s refusal to accept him as a member makes electoral participation quite impossible and, tired of endless factional struggles, he left the Fourth International in 1981.
“I would describe myself as a Marxist, a free-floating, unaligned Marxist.”

Although he accepted Malcolm X’s point about Martin Luther King, he says, “I never went as far as he did. I am not a pacifist, though I do not believe in terrorism.”

Why not ?
“I do not think that is the way you convince the majority of working people about your ideas. Assassination never works, it’s the politics of complete futility – you have no faith in the ability of the people to do anything collectively. If you bumped off Reagan you’d get someone in his place who was further to the Right. Lenin described a terrorist as ‘a liberal with a bomb’. Pressure politics, you see. That’s true. There is, of course, highly effective state terrorism all over the world.”

He admits that the idea of singing ‘The Internationale’ on TV shows, even marching and painting placards, is a deeply romantic notion.
“I used to be a lot more romantic about it. But we saw demonstrations as rehearsals for the revolution. Che Guevara was a deeply romantic figure… In the best sense of the word, haha, not a flowers-and-serenade man, no, not really, hahaha.”

His time is taken up now as producer of Channel 4’s Bandung File, on the editorial board of the New Left Review, writing plays and film scripts, and books like Who’s Afraid Of Margaret Thatcher ?, Trotsky For Beginners and The Nehrus and The Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty. Still, I say to him, this is Hampstead, this is BLITZ. Hasn’t he become slightly beige ?

“Well, I can’t pretend that I’m a depressed individual. I never have been. I’m totally self-supporting, yes. Clearly, though, I am not playing the same role, because the political situation is totally different. I used to speak to thousands at my meetings. At TVam last time, one of them came up to me and said, ‘You changed my life. I heard you speak and it changed my life.’ That happens quite a lot.

“My profile has changed, but certainly I’ve done more in Pakistan from here than I could have there – my books are circulated clandestinely and widely read. The New Left Review has been going 25 years and is read all over the world. Obviously books are read by a minority, whatever the colour, but a million people watch Bandung. It gets good vibes whenever our crew goes into the ghettoes that other programmes can’t go into, in Leicester, Birmingham or Liverpool. They feel we are a voice, they can trust us. That gives me a great deal of pleasure. But if I felt that speaking in Wolverhampton would be more effective, I’d do it. I think what I’m doing now is more effective. That is the criterion, yes, absolutely. I have to tell you it’s very satisfying.”

The main message of the book is “Never give up hope.” He takes heart from the Green Party in Germany, students in China, Spain and France, and above all from Gorbachev, whose ideas, he says, are leading the world at the moment. 

He regrets nothing except perhaps that Enoch Powell always refused to debate with him, and admits: “I don’t have any right-wing friends, no. The worst possible thing for me to imagine is that I could ever become apolitical, die happily tending my roses. That fills me with dread and fear. I don’t think it will ever happen.”

Tariq Ali shows me around the late Victorian Hampstead home where he lives with his companion Susan Watkins in a healthy mess of toys, trains, books and building blocks, evidence of new baby Aisha and four-year-old Chengiz. Street Fighting Years includes the story of how his other daughter Natasha (then also four), on hearing a railway guard remark, ‘Chilly, isn’t it ?’ respond with the chant of the time, ‘NO CHILE IN PORTUGAL!’

“I’m very careful to let them develop,” he tells me, “although my four-year-old son does worry me a bit, I must admit. He got really worked up about the General Election, followed it very closely, asking lots of questions: ‘Why will you vote Labour if you don’t like Kinnock ?’
‘Because he’ll get rid of Thatcher.’
‘Who would you prefer ?’
‘Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone.’
‘Are they left-wingers ?’

Then he went through a phase of pretending to be Mikhail Gorbachev – when you spoke to him, he’d only answer to the name ‘Gorbachev’. Now he’s always playing in the garden at being a Sandinista, shooting down American planes…”

We meet Chengiz and the bright intelligence in his eyes is unmistakable.
The Ali dynasty lives on.
Time to start bugging the four-year-old’s phone calls.