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Celia Hughes
Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
Sixties activism and the liberation of the self
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Young Lives on the Left is a unique social history of the individual lives of men and women who came of age in radical left circles in the 1960s. Based on a rich collection of oral history interviews, the book follows in-depth approximately twenty individuals, tracing the experience of activist self-making from child to adulthood. Their voices tell a particular story about the shaping of the English post-war self. Championing the oppressed in struggle, the young activists who developed the personal politics of the early 1970s grew up in a post-war society which offered an ever-increasing range of possibilities for constructing and experiencing the self. Yet, for many of these men and women the inadequacy of the social, political and cultural constructions available for social identity propelled their journeys on the left. The creation of new left spaces represented the quest for a construction of self that could accommodate the range of contradictions concerning class, gender, religion, race and sexuality that young activists experienced growing up in the post-war landscape.

An important contribution to the global histories of 1968, the book explores untold stories of English activist life, examining how political experiences, social attitudes and behaviour of this group of social actors (as teenagers, apprentices and undergraduates) were shaped in the changing social, educational and cultural landscape of post-war English society. The final chapters include attention to the social and emotional impact of Women’s Liberation on the left, as told from the perspective of women and men inside the early movement.

Abstract only
Celia Hughes

This introductory chapter outlines the main themes of the book, situating the study of modern radical subjectivities against the historiography of post-1945 English society, culture and politics. It explains the book’s biographical approach and subjective focus in the context of histories of twentieth-century selfhood. It also explains its relationship to global histories of 1968 and discusses the oral history methodology underlying the study. The chronological structure of the book is explained.

in Young lives on the Left
Celia Hughes

This chapter presents stories of childhood and early adolescence to consider the beginnings of radical subjectivity and journeys towards left enclaves. It situates the protagonists’ stories against existing studies of post-war family life in order to show how they fit into prevalent patterns of social continuity and change, and to emphasise their role as agents challenging the post-war social and domestic consensus. Through attention to early structures of feeling or underlying feeling, it shows how encounters and experiences in the family home, school, and local community intersected with the wider national and international world, to forge often uneasy and disputatious relationships with the post-war landscape.

in Young lives on the Left
Abstract only
Celia Hughes

This chapter explores the political, social, and gendered dynamics of the activist left cultures that preceded the extra-parliamentary scene surrounding the VSC. It shows how young activists’ initial steps into these cultures invariably began with encounters with late fifties and early sixties sub-cultures, including ‘Angry Young Men’ and French existential movements, and CND. The chapter encompasses individuals’ radical reading, dramatic, musical, and other cultural and political experiences, to consider the meaning these held for youngsters in the context of their childhood histories. It addresses the gendered dimension of radical sub-cultural experiences in the early-to-mid 1960s, including young women and men’s experiences inside the YS and the Trotskyist groups, the IS and the International group (later known as the IMG). The argument is that masculine radical cultures added to the contradictory discourses constituting ‘woman’ and ‘man’ that visibly prevailed throughout the post-war society in which interviewees were shaping identities.

in Young lives on the Left
Celia Hughes

This chapter examines the political, cultural and socio-psychological experiences students underwent within the left milieux (encompassing Labour clubs, socialist societies, Marxist societies, and Trotskyist groups) at metropolitan and provincial universities, across England in the mid-to-late 1960s. It explores the relationship between the student movement and the growth of the late 1960s activist scene around the VSC. Attention is given to the relationship between memory, identity and cultural representations of 1968 to explore what the composition of remembered narratives reveals about the key factors shaping activism as a liberating subjective condition. Discussion includes students’ interactions with left groups on university campuses, radical reading experiences, and activism in docks, strikes and student protests, which opened up new possibilities of being.

The chapter uncovers an ambiguous gendered landscape, where alongside opportunities for social and sexual agency, female students sometimes also experienced emotional tensions, as perceptions of gendered social difference lay hidden beneath other more prominent registers of selfhood that prevailed during these years – class, intellectual identity, and international solidarity.

in Young lives on the Left
Celia Hughes

This chapter sets out the political transition on the left following the disintegration of the VSC in 1969, and explores the cultural and emotional changes accompanying this. Introducing the ‘new left’ politics of Women’s Liberation and non-aligned left groups, it presents a case study of a north London VSC branch, based in Camden Town, which in 1969 reformed away from the VSC to become a new left collective, the Camden Movement for People’s Power (CMPP). The story of CMPP and the Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation group presents a rarely told account of women and men’s political and personal experiences of the ‘new left’ women’s politics in its very early days. The chapter argues that the arrival of Women’s Liberation was more socially and emotionally complex than existing histories often suggest with far-reaching implications for every-day family life and friendships as well as political life.

in Young lives on the Left
Celia Hughes

The first part of two chapters that examine adulthood in the activist milieux in the first half of the 1970s, this chapter considers the subjective experience of the new liberation politics in the north London non-aligned left. It addresses key markers of early adult life, including friendship, work, love and family life to explore the impact of the new liberation politics on these experiences. The chapter shows the social and psychic pressures of trying to negotiate prevailing mainstream social norms to conceive radical ways of living and being every day.

in Young lives on the Left
Celia Hughes

This chapter follows the themes of the previous chapter to explore the specific social and psychological demands young Trotskyists faced in adapting their political language and social behaviour to the landscape of militant labour politics at a high-point of 1970s trade union struggles. Discussing the gendered dimension of revolutionary identity, it shows the challenges and contradictions of trying to reconcile everyday social and emotional life to a fraternal political culture that denied space for the personal. As men and women who were not directly committed to the sexual politics of the non-aligned left, but who were close enough to the movement to be aware of its politics, it argues that the stories of this far left cohort provide insight into the impact of Women’s Liberation on the everyday private life and subjectivity of individuals beyond the immediate vicinity of socialist feminist circles.

in Young lives on the Left