Dónal O’Driscoll, Undercover Research Group, 14 April 2018
2018 is the fiftieth anniversary of the events of 1968, a year of upheaval and revolutionary politics, of huge cultural shift and protest. It was also the year the notorious undercover policing unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was founded, and with it, political policing took a whole new turn. That the two go hand in hand is no coincidence, connected as they are by the anti-Vietnam War protests which dominated politics in the UK that year – both fed by and sparking an upsurge in radical politics, particularly among students.
While there is a significant amount of material available about 1968 and its long lasting effects, there are considerably fewer studies of the groups that channelled the energies of the time, and even less on how they interacted with the police. We are fortunate that some Special Branch material relating to the Vietnam War campaigns released to journalists in the past has now been made public through this website. And we can now combine that with information on undercover police deployed by the SDS slowly being released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry.
The original goal of the Undercover Research Group was to understand the policing side of things, to put the founding of the SDS into context and to round out how the police spied on the organisations behind protests. Yet, to understand what police were doing requires knowledge of the players campaigning around Vietnam, and why they were seen as such a threat to the status quo. This part of history has been unfortunately lacking for the most part, especially with so many groups now forgotten, despite being central at the time, such as the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation for example.
However, to go deeper and understand the routes through which the SDS infiltrated these groups also requires an understanding of the organising structures within the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Not least how it networked the broad left through ‘ad hoc committees’ which allowed political differences among the various Trotskyist, communist, Maoist and anarchist groups involved to be temporarily set aside. Only with this in place can the small details in the police files be built into a much larger picture.
To develop this depth of knowledge, we have delved into archives to find details from contemporary resources and reconstruct the necessary histories of groups. It has been an exquisite pleasure to hold original copies of planning documents and manifestos by groups of the time, which for all we may differ these days, are part of our political ancestry.
The protests of 1968 are a huge topic in itself. In this overview, we focus only on those matters that facilitate an understanding of how the groups were targeted by police. Thus, we have not examined the political differences between the groups, or those based outside London. Likewise, we do not spend much time on what happened on the day of the big protests themselves.
The value of this analysis does not end with the anti-Vietnam War protests. 1968 sets the stage, both for the political groups, but also the police targeting them. Many of the groups and people targeted by the SDS in the 1970s were active in or had their roots in the Vietnam protests. Thus we see the International Marxist Group and International Socialists / Socialist Workers Party being consistently targeted.
This overview of protest and Special Branch in 1968 is still a work in progress. It will expand as we learn more. While we have focused on the Trotskyist groups dominating the protests at the time, more needs to be done on profiling other leading players such as Manchanda’s Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League, the anarchists, Young Communist League, as well as the smaller factions.
Finally, we are aware we may not have got things entirely correct. Much of our understanding of the groups at the time is built on our reconstruction from written material and visits to archives. We are interested to hear more from people who were active at the time, especially in and around the London branches and ad hoc committees. Even if you don’t recall the undercover police themselves, knowing more about the milieu and the individual branches will help us build the picture and facilitate putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. Please do get in contact.
Table of Contents
- Part 1: Overview & political groups of 1966-1969
- Part 2: History of the VSC and the protests of 1968
- Part 3: Contemporary Special Branch files in context
- Part 4: Infiltration by Special Demonstration Squad
- Part 5: Additional material: Black Dwarf investigation and policing of some protests in 1969.
List of groups covered to date: Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, British-Vietnam Solidarity Front, International Marxist Group, International Socialists, Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation, New Left Review.
More background on the undercover police who targeted the anti-Vietnam War protests can be found at the Undercover Research Group portal on Powerbase.info: John Graham, Bill Lewis, Dick Epps, HN322, Don de Freitas, and Margaret White (all names are aliases).