Struggle, spies and ’68

Diane Langford recalls some of her most memorable experiences of feminist organising, union activism and solidarity campaigning

May 26, 2022 · 4 min read
Author photo by Marion Macalpine

I came to London from Aotearoa (New Zealand) after witnessing the racism, sexism and class system imposed by settler colonialism, at a time of global uprisings against imperialism and patriarchy. In London, I attended 1967’s ‘Dialectics of Liberation’ conference, where speakers included Stokely Carmichael, Alan Ginsburg and R D Laing. There, I picked up a recruitment leaflet from the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and became a volunteer.

I joined the 1968 anti-Vietnam war protest in London, marching to Grosvenor Square with Australians and New Zealanders Against the War, rather than to Hyde Park with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. This parting of ways reflected a dispute over the nature of different forms of nationalism. For example, some groups refused to support slogans such as ‘Victory to the National Liberation Front [of South Vietnam]’. As we reached the corner at Trafalgar Square, running protesters worked the crowd: ‘Don’t be diverted. Follow the red banner to the US embassy!’ I felt myself being lifted off the ground. All I could think about was staying alive in the crush. At the embassy, police were waiting, riot shields poised. The ‘battle of Grosvenor Square’ was enjoined.

I hooked up with the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League (RMLL) after the march when protesters gathered at the Union Tavern in Kings Cross, where Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl played upstairs. A small study group, we educated ourselves about current struggles such as those in Ireland and Palestine, while steering the Women’s Liberation Front (WLF), the Britain Vietnam Solidarity Front and Friends of China.

Anti-colonial and civil rights struggles were our inspiration, along with the women’s liberation movement and the emerging LGBT movement, influenced by Indian revolutionary Abhimanyu Manchanda and his former partner, Claudia Jones. Claudia founded the Notting Hill Carnival and the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

I feel most proud of a meeting organised by WLF, which brought together women speakers from Palestine, South Africa and Vietnam: Elizabeth Sibeko (Pan Africanist Congress of Azania), Lin Qui (Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam) and Leila Mantoura (Palestinian community). WLF also formulated one of the national women’s liberation movement’s four demands: women’s right to equal education.

Later, I became a trade union activist in SOGAT (Society of Graphical and Allied Trades), campaigning against Clause 28 [which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’], and worked with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against Israeli occupation.  Trade union attitudes were often stultifying. After leading a walk-out on Jubilee Day 1977, I was suspended from holding office. Our members refused to pay their subs until I was reinstated.

Being spied on was and still is a given. The entire women’s liberation movement was shockingly infiltrated by a woman reporting to Special Branch and MI5 using homophobic, sexist and racist language. We must find innovative ways of countering current, more sophisticated, state surveillance, while continuing our resistance.

After a short but intense period of activity, the RMLL split over men’s refusal to abandon patriarchal privilege in the organising space. The fate of the RMLL shows the importance of intersectionality and joining the dots between all forms of oppression.

Diane Langford was speaking to Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

This article first appeared in Issue 235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’, as our column The Spark, in which our interviewees describe their experiences of becoming involved with protest movements. Subscribe to read more!

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