All Along the Watchtower
Michael Hyde’s All Along the Watchtower is a recent Australian example of the trend of memoirs by 60s activists, which has also seen the publication of Tariq Ali’s Street-fighting Years (1987, 2005), Luisa Passerini’s Autobiography of a Generation (translation published 2004) and Tom Hayden’s Rebel: A Personal History of the 1960s (2003). (See Radical Middle for 50 accounts written by US citizens alone.)
This trend is unsurprising, considering the mythology surrounding that era, as well as the impetus to set the record straight by those participants who, having reached the outskirts of old age, are finding that reflection now occupies their lives. It remains a tendency of all elites to write their lives; and in the 60s, radical youths in Europe, the Americas, Australia and Japan arose out of the (much enlarged) student elite.
Hyde’s memoir begins with an epigraph from Mao: ‘you young people … the world belongs to you.’ Indeed. The 60s saw a ‘juvenescence of western society’, as Hobsbawm said. For the first time, youth became a concept in history.
The author’s political journey begins in the California of Civil Rights and sit-ins. When, at 21, he returns to Australia with his family, one of his first actions is to join a vigil for the soon-to-hanged Ronald Ryan. He enrols at Monash University and plunges into that institution’s extracurricular life: ‘I was stepping out into a universe where everything was up for consideration and a multitude of experiences was just around the corner.’
From Watchtower’s first pages, the helter-skelter pace never falters. Emblematic cultural details sweep the reader back to that time – terms like capitalist roader and mass work, Dylan songs, Easy Rider and Z, the Draft Resisters Union, the fad for revolutionary baby names, the campaign to ‘fill in a falsie’. The reader experiences politicking and communal living, the protagonist’s debates, friendships and loves. ‘Fighting the system was a fabulous aphrodisiac,’ Hyde declares, capturing the times’ heady union of personal and political.
Narrative momentum increases as Hyde progresses from paste-ups and student debates in Monash to delivering money for the NLF to the Vietnamese consulate in Cambodia, and taking part in ‘commando raids’ and July 4th demonstrations outside the US embassy in Melbourne where the anti-war protest finally became violent. However, reprisals by the state against Hyde and other protesters were minimal. Australia was not Italy, or Mexico where, in 1968, 24 students were killed and hundreds injured. ‘We will tolerate dissent as long as it remains ineffective’: quoting Prime Minister Gorton’s words forty years later, the author doesn’t pause to consider their import for his anti-war actions.
An innocence – call it revolutionary romanticism – persists throughout the narrative. Inescapably, some of Hyde’s exploits carry a sense of ‘boys’ own adventure’; indeed ‘adventure’, along with ‘innocent’, is a word the author oft repeats. Consider the moment when the Monash People’s Militia ‘liberated weapons from the Armed Forces who are waging war against the Vietnamese people’, only to dump them a short while later in a local creek. A Maoist and, by then, a member of the secretive Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, Hyde believed in the ‘inevitability of armed struggle’. Yet no thought was given to cache these arms for future battles.
This in-the-moment feel of the narrative constitutes both Watchtower’s strength and its weakness: strength, because the author admirably recreates what it felt like to be young and radical then – ‘the one and only youth’, as former SDS leader Todd Gitlin puts it – part of a sparky world movement committed to justice and peace instead of profit and war; weakness, because the very act of becoming a memoirist necessitates a thoughtfulness and distance from one’s younger self.
It’s not that the author lacks self-criticality or honesty. He refuses to cast himself in the heroic mould by admitting to the anxiety that eventually crushes him: ‘all the uplifting experiences in the world couldn’t save me from my headaches and gut aches but what perturbed me most was a frequent sense of panic.’
Nevertheless, Watchtower lacks mature reflection. How seriously are we meant to take such a comment as: ‘Then and now, it remains a mystery [my emphasis] to me why rank competition and pitting people against each other were seen as the only valuable aspect of human nature’? So much for Marxist analyses of bourgeois society; so much for gained wisdom. Hyde’s concluding remarks proceed in the same vein: everything was ‘worth it. Every single bit of it.’
Regretting nothing is, perhaps, the only stance to adopt towards advocacy of a political vision that’s currently held not only to be unachievable, but contemptible. But it hardly advances understanding. Hyde sounds a consolatory note when he claims to discern ‘many aspects of our society that have their roots in what we fought for.’ I don’t wish to dispute this, but life-destroying capitalism persists, in global form. How does a former revolutionary find himself in this world? What are his beliefs and sadnesses? How does he hope? While I enjoyed re-experiencing a past I share with Michael Hyde through reading this memoir, the question remains: and now?