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At the Onset of the ‘Sixties’ Radicalization: A Youthful Year In Europe 1961–62

June 9, 2024

By John Riddell

1. A Quest for Personal Autonomy
2. My Background in Activism
3. Setting Sail for Europe
4. Arrival in Germany
5. Work Camp and Language School
6. Dissident Socialists in Divided Berlin
7. Student Life in Freiburg
8. A Brush with Germany’s Rightists
9. Socialist Discord over Cuba
10. An Instructive Stay in France
11. A Spectrum of Paris Socialists
12. Frankfurt Interlude
13. Vacation School in La Charité
14. World Youth Festival in Helsinki
15. Through Russia and Ukraine
16. Homeward Bound
17. Assessing My Year in Europe

1. A Quest for Personal Autonomy

In June 1961, with the aid of a modest bequest and encouragement from a number of European student friends, I left my home in Toronto and set out for a year of study in Germany.

Nineteen years old, I saw my journey as a step toward personal autonomy as well as a small contribution to the global movement for peace and socialism. I aimed to broaden my understanding of socialism while gaining fluency in German and French and an understanding of these two cultures in continental Europe.

In leaving Canada, I sought to go beyond the limitations of family life. The death of my father ten years earlier had left an emptiness that my family circle – mother and younger sister – could not fill. I hoped the voyage would bring a wealth of new personal connections and experiences.

As a young social justice activist in Toronto, I had become convinced that the cold-war crisis in world affairs needed to be countered by a massive international movement for peace and socialism. I was a strong supporter of freedom struggles in the colonies and semi-colonies, above all in Cuba, where the revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro was now in its second year. I wanted to get a feel for the workers’ movement in the region where Cold War tensions were then highest and the socialist movement was most deeply rooted: in central Europe.

In 1961, when I left for Germany, it was rare for a university undergrad to leave Canada for a lengthy stay in Europe. My trip was all the more unusual because I ventured on it quite alone. I had no institutional support, travelling companions, or links with host organizations at the European end. During my year-long stay in Europe, for the most part, I would be alone. I would receive an allowance of C$100 a month, which I hoped would cover living costs, student fees, and travel.

I made the acquaintance of hundreds of students, from Germany, France, and many other countries. During my year in Europe, I encountered only one student from the USA and none from Canada. I wrote many letters home, but there were considerable periods of time in which I spoke only rarely in English.

I never had direct access to a telephone. Making a trans-Atlantic call involved a trip across town, a wait until a phone came free, and then a complex dialing process with no assurance of success. I made such a call only once, to convey Christmas greetings to my family in Toronto. Otherwise, I kept in touch with the world through the output of my Smith-Corona portable typewriter, which churned out scores of letters during my European travels.

My European journey was in the spirit of my father, R. Gerald Riddell, a historian and Canadian career diplomat, who had died ten years previously. I received encouragement for my trip from international students at the University of Toronto. I had met many of them through the work of my mother, Kay Riddell, who headed services at the university for overseas students.

I planned for a one-year stay. I researched travel options, language schools, and universities. I located a handful of contacts in Germany. Many of my European friends in Toronto had recommended Germany as offering the most promising array of study options and suitable universities. I kept France in mind as a logical secondary destination. My goal was to gain a working knowledge of German and French, languages where my high-school education had given me a head start. During my trip, I made a start at learning Russian, but fell short of a workable knowledge at that time.

From discussions with family friends and from history books in my father’s personal library, I had a general grasp of European and German history. I was familiar with the Cold War that then divided Germany into two separate and mutually hostile political blocs, East and West.

As an advocate of nuclear disarmament, I was skeptical regarding the prospects of achieving Germany’s reunification through what was termed a policy of strength (“Politik der Stärke”). That approach, I believed, could only perpetuate Germany’s division. Moreover, in terms of Cold War tensions, the “policy of strength” was extremely risky. The peace movement in Germany, I learned, sought a peaceful negotiated reunification to create a neutral, non-nuclear Germany – an approach similar to that of the peace movement I supported in Canada. Peaceful negotiated reunification, I believed, would also promote the longer-range struggle for socialism in Germany and beyond.

2. My Background in Activism

When I left for Europe, I had been attending occasional Marxist public meetings in Toronto for two years. In 1957, aged fifteen, I had organized an anti-government protest that made headlines and left its mark on a Canadian federal election (see “My Search for Socialism”). A year before my departure, I had helped form a small socialist youth group in Toronto – the Young Socialists – which had ties to a Marxist group in Canada.

In Europe there was no group like the Young Socialists to which I could transfer membership. Once arrived, I would be on my own. In compensation, my initial knowledge of French and German, while limited, went well beyond the norm for North American students in western Europe. I made diligent preparations for my venture, brushing up my language skills and gathering information on schools and universities in Germany where I might study.

In May 1961, a month before my planned departure, the Toronto Young Socialists hosted a visit by James Robertson, the lanky and voluble head of my group’s New York-based sister organization, the Young Socialist Alliance – a sympathizing group of the Socialist Workers Party. During his Toronto visit, Robertson urged me to visit him and his comrades in New York City. I made that trip the following month, visiting Robertson and his partner, Rose Jersawitz.

In New York, I met Shane Mage, one of Robertson’s close collaborators, who had spent the previous year in Europe. Mage provided me with a short list of socialist contacts in Europe, which turned out to be extremely useful. During my New York visit, I encountered a vigorous debate among my socialist comrades regarding the character of the Cuban revolution. Just a month earlier, on 17 April 1961, the Cuban people had defeated an armed counter-revolutionary invasion sponsored by the U.S. government. Unimpressed by this turn of events, Robertson and his cothinkers denied that the Cuban government represented in any sense an expression of workers’ power. The Socialist Workers Party in the United States, by contrast, contended that Cuba, although “lacking as yet the forms of proletarian democracy”, was a workers’ state. The debate on Cuba that I encountered in New York had not yet spread to my organization in Canada.

I listened carefully to the New York debate but held back from expressing an opinion. Still, as my trip to Europe approached, my international connections beyond Canada were with Robertson and his supporters, a fact that was to complicate my activity in Europe.

3. Setting Sail for Europe

A month after my New York trip, I took a train to Montreal and climbed aboard the Arkadia, a Greek ship with a German crew bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. Ocean liners were then still standard for cross-Atlantic travel, although they lost their primacy before my return trip to Canada.The sea voyage was a moment of unique excitement. The five-day journey was enlivened by a storm, which tossed about belongings in my cabin and drenched everything with seawater from a porthole carelessly left ajar. But I paid little attention to the dramatic weather. I focused on German language study, as if cramming for a final examination. My goal was to function fully in German during my stay and develop fluency in the language, and indeed I largely achieved that goal. I carried my pocket dictionary always with me and made an effort, before every social interaction, to look up a couple of key words likely to cause problems.

During my stay in Europe, I encountered very few travellers from North America or Britain. When I made friends, they were almost always German or French – and usually male. Only later in the 1960s did the influx of women students and students of colour change the social atmosphere in university institutions.

As my ship approached Europe, I first sighted land at the southwest tip of Ireland. The Arkadia then made brief stops in Cork, the London docklands, and the French port of Le Havre, before delivering me together with its remaining passengers to Bremerhaven.

4. Arrival in Germany

After stepping ashore, somewhat bewildered, I bought a street map and set out on foot to the local youth hostel. The notion of taking a taxi did not occur to me; that would have been a wild extravagance. Suitcase in hand, I quickly lost my way. I took refuge in a pay telephone booth and called a shipboard acquaintance, who soon arrived and gave me a lift to the Bremerhaven youth hostel. As we drove through the quiet streets, I noticed the absence of scars from the wartime bombing that had devastated the city only 15 years earlier. This impressive reconstruction – here and elsewhere in Germany, East and West – testified to diligent labour by the local population, boosted in West Germany by funds from the U.S.-led Marshall Plan for capitalist economic recovery.

After a restful night at the Bremerhaven youth hostel, I walked to the train station and examined its displays of information: a large white panel for arriving trains; a yellow-orange panel for departures. I spotted a train listed as going south with a stop in Schwerte. That rang a bell. Schwerte, a small city on the edge of the industrial Ruhr district, was only a dozen kilometres from my destination, a locality known as Villigst. I would be staying at Haus Villigst, a residence run by the Lutheran Church for students preparing to enter university. About sixty students in residence worked at industrial jobs during weekdays, followed by discussion and academic study during evenings and weekends. I too would be working for my keep, in the role of assistant to the gardener who tended the grounds.

When I reached Villigst, I bade farewell to spoken English. Haus Villigst provided the first major test of my conversational German, and I was pleased with my progress. There was a bonus: Haus Villigst alumni were organized across West Germany, with groups in many university cities that could, if need be, provide timely assistance. My decision to spend time at Haus Villigst, a relig7iously- oriented residence, was consistent with my family background. As the grandson of two pastors, I had been raised in the Methodist-oriented United Church of Canada. As I entered my teens, I had been drawn to the Quakers, whom I respected for their pacifism and socially progressive outlook. While at Villigst, I attended nearby Lutheran church services. I was greatly impressed by their hymns, sung in authentic 16th-century musical style. After I left Villigst, however, I did not maintain a link with religious organizations and practices, which did not seem to fit into the new context of my life in Germany.

The Role of Religion during My Youth

In retrospect, it seems odd that my break with religion left very little mark in my letters and discussions at that time. My family was strongly committed to a left-wing Protestantism that found expression in parts of the United Church of Canada. Both my grandparents were Protestant educators, directors of United Church colleges in Winnipeg and St. Thomas. I embraced these traditions and took up membership in the United Church. I also linked up with the Quaker congregation in Toronto. When I joined in forming the Young Socialists in Toronto, I inserted in the minutes of the founding meeting a reference to seeking support among the Quakers.

My initial months in Germany were consistent with this background. I spent my first months at Haus Villigst, an educational wing of German Lutheranism, attending Sunday services on my own initiative at a nearby church. It was my Haus Villigst connections that enabled me to rent a room in Freiburg for the first six months of my stay. Yet once established in Freiburg, I paid no further attention to religious institutions. My letters home in that period show no evidence of concern with religion. My religious beliefs seemed to melt away like snow in spring.

In retrospect, it seems that the intellectual power of German Marxism, as reflected in the Socialist German Students League (SDS), sapped my religious faith. Another factor was the deepening of my understanding of Marxism resulting from my encounter with the Frankfurt School of Social Science. I took lecture courses there given by the School’s renowned leaders Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973). This influence was further deepened by my encounter that year with History and Class Consciousness, a classic interpretation of Leninism by Georg Lukács, which I read in French translation.

5. Work Camp and Language School

After two months at Villigst, I made my way to Heidelberg, the home of Ellen and Günter Hoffmann, family friends who had offered to provide a point of support for my German venture. Once arrived in Heidelberg, I took a streetcar to the city’s historic core, where the Hoffmanns lived just a few doors from the Neckar River. Receiving me warmly, Ellen and Günter helped me with many practical tasks: setting up a personal bank account and permanent postal address for me, providing storage for my cumbersome suitcase, and enrolling me in Europe’s network of youth hostels. Ellen and Günter also led me on a ramble across the 180-year-old Alte Brücke (old bridge) across the Neckar and up the “Snake Trail” (Schlangenweg) that wound its way up the hill on the other side of the river.

After a couple of busy days in Heidelberg, I set off for Bavaria, where I was to take part in a two-week-long work camp. Such projects were then common in Western Europe as a method of promoting ties of friendship among peoples that only a few years earlier had been locked in fratricidal war. In the work camp, I joined two dozen other young people 18 to 20 years old in building a children’s playground in Treuchtlingen, a small town in central Bavaria.

Work camp participants stayed in a rudimentary hikers’ shelter at 72 Grüntäleinstrasse, perched at the edge of a great forest. On working days we performed light construction work; we also took time for visits to nearby sites of cultural and historical interest. I vividly recall walking a nearby circular wall around Rothenburg on the Tauber, a mediaeval city nearby that had suffered major wartime damage and had then been painstakingly recreated.

The work camp participants, from a dozen European countries, were a congenial lot, and some work-camp friendships lasted throughout my stay in Europe and beyond. Although the project leader was from Britain, the camp functioned in German. We also listened to some 78 rpm recordings of the sardonic French chansonnier Georges Brassens, whose songs decades later played a role in historical presentations by my wife, Suzanne Berliner Weiss (see her memoir Holocaust to Resistance: My Journey).

I found common ground politically at the youth camp with Inge Lescow, a left-wing activist from Hamburg. Inge was a member of the Falken, a Social-Democratic youth group that was suffering harassment from the Social-Democratic party top brass. Inge lived in Hamburg, only an hour by bicycle from Lüneburg, where I would be attending a language school later that summer.

On leaving the work camp, I got surprising news from home. My mother, Kay Riddell, was headed for Germany, where she was to take part in an academic conference on services to welcome international students at German universities. Kay was the head of such a service for international students at the University of Toronto. Kay’s plans included a visit with Olav Brennhovd, a well-known figure in German student life, who lived in Göttingen. Kay and Brennhovd would both be attending a conference on welcoming international students to be held that month in Munich.

I met Kay in Munich, accompanied her to Heidelberg, and – after a brief visit with the Hoffmanns – rented a car for the trip north to meet the Brennhovd family in Göttingen. It was an unusual break from my usual routine of travelling in Europe by rail. Following our visit with the Brennhovds, Kay and I spent a week visiting historical monuments in Germany. We made our way northward to Lüneburg, where I had enrolled for two months of study at the Lüneburg branch of the Goethe Institute – a network of schools teaching the German language.

I said goodbye to Kay at the Lüneburg railway station as she began her return trip to Toronto. I rented a room close the station, taking my meals there every day and walking to the Goethe Institute school. Instruction was useful and not arduous. I won praise for a short essay in German on the 1953 uprising of workers in East Germany and also for another German text discussing the celebrated Communist writer Bertolt Brecht.

Meanwhile, I bought a bicycle, which greatly facilitated my travel in the Lüneburg region. During my subsequent jaunts around Germany, I would wheel my bicycle into the station, buy a “bicycle ticket” for two German marks (the equivalent of 50 cents), carry my bike onto the railway platform, park it in the baggage car, and retrieve it at my destination. I had to be quick about retrieval, for German trains were known for punctual departure. Fortunately, every time I stepped off a train, my bicycle and I were happily reunited.

My friend Inge Lescow and her family lived quite close to Lüneburg, and I was thus able to visit them several times by train or bicycle. Inge and the Lescow family were supporters of the German Peace Union (DFU), a newly formed left-wing party running in the West German elections on a program of initiatives for peace and negotiated German reunification. The DFU’s striking election poster declared it to be “in the spirit of Albert Schweitzer,” displaying a handsome photo of the renowned pacifist humanitarian. The DFU prefigured in many ways the Left Party (“Die Linke”) that was founded in Germany a half-century later. I was critical of the DFU’s failure to affirm an orientation to socialism. Nonetheless, I accompanied the Lescows to a DFU rally close to Hamburg and also met with DFU members in Lüneburg.

A politically sophisticated family, the Lescows gave me an intense workout in conversational German, in which I was now increasingly confident. I also discussed at length with Axel Lüders, proprietor of a Hamburg left-wing bookstore. I made friends in Lüneburg with a DFU stalwart, Wolfgang Hein, who was a published poet. At his request, I declaimed for him from memory a couple of short poems by Goethe, which he considered a signal accomplishment for someone from far-off America.

While in Lüneburg, I got in touch with Monika Mitscherlich and her partner Jürgen Seifert, who lived in Frankfurt. They were well known leaders of the Socialist Student League of Germany (SDS), which was then affiliated to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The student league was locked in a programmatic dispute with the SPD, a quarrel that had already resulted in a significant breakaway from the SDS ranks.

The heart of this dispute was the opposition of SDS to the “cold war” waged by the West German government and its NATO allies against the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. Rejecting the cold-war framework, the SDS advocated a path toward socialism through mass action. When I moved to Freiburg in October, I became an active and vocal member of SDS.

6. Dissident Socialists in Divided Berlin

Only a few days after my arrival in Lüneburg, the authorities in East Germany closed the internal border bisecting the city of Berlin. Henceforth, German citizens could no longer freely cross the East-West demarcation line in Berlin. Political tension flared up across the country. As a Canadian, I was exempt from the closing of the border in Berlin. I therefore set out on a quick trip that was now beyond the reach of German citizens. Taking a break from the language school, I paid a short visit to friends in both West and East Berlin. In East Berlin, I attended a performance by Bertolt Brecht’s renowned “Berliner Ensemble“ at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. I also bought volumes of Das Kapital in East Berlin that still serve as my reference copies of this work.

In West Berlin, I got in touch with Wolfgang Hohmann, a student activist mentioned on Shane Mage’s list. Wolfgang’s apartment building near the city centre had a battered look, having suffered a damaging hit during wartime bombing. About five years my senior, Wolfgang welcomed me warmly and showed me around the city, while explaining the political makeup of the German student milieu. Wolfgang headed a small group of dissident socialists in West Berlin. One member of Wolfgang’s circle, Oskar Hippe, was a heroic figure from a previous generation. Then in his sixties, Hippe was a veteran of the early days of German communism – the era of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A victim of repression first by the Nazis, then by the Stalinist authorities in East Germany, and now by the West German government, Hippe radiated courageous stubbornness and determination. His memoirs were later published under the title “And Our Banner Is Red” (Und unsere Fahn’ ist rot).

Wolfgang and Oskar shared a political outlook close to my own, known as “Trotskyism”. This label was applied to followers of Leon Trotsky, a central leader of the Russian revolution and a revolutionary opponent of the rule of Joseph Stalin.
At that time, the Trotskyist world movement, known as the Fourth International, included groups in half a dozen cities in Germany. I already belonged to the Fourth International through my membership in the League for Socialist Action in Canada. Wolfgang, it turned out, shared the concern of many students in SDS regarding the hesitancy of many Trotskyist groups in Germany to public avow their Trotskyist allegiance.

Wolfgang’s group in Berlin was independent; its members believed that left-wing socialists must find a way to express their revolutionary perspective openly. Like myself, Wolfgang thought that socialist students should support the German Socialist Student League (SDS). He sought to combine this orientation with efforts to build an independent group seeking not merely to reform the capitalist order but rather to initiate mass action for a transition to socialism.

The underlying issue before us was how a small group with revolutionary goals should relate to the SPD, the mass political party of the German working class. The Fourth International’s forces in Germany were guided by a long-term orientation, adopted by the International in 1953, of working within the SPD. They paid a price for this course of action: they could not carry out effective public educational work in their own name without prompting their expulsion from the SPD. In the Fourth International’s jargon of the time, the German Trotskyists were carrying out a “deep entry”, within which the revolutionary group had no independent public “face”. My organization in Canada, the League for Socialist Action (LSA), faced a similar problem with regard to its members’ activity in Canada’s labour-based social democratic party, which in 1961 took the name New Democratic Party (NDP). However, in one key respect our “entry” in Canada was quite different from that practised in Germany. While joining the NDP and working within it, LSA members also published a newspaper that circulated widely across Canada and maintained public headquarters in Vancouver and Toronto.

7. Student Life in Freiburg

A few weeks after my Berlin visit, I attended the SDS national convention in Frankfurt. I presented greetings there to about two hundred convention participants, who welcomed my remarks warmly. I explained the approach of my current in Canada to the newly-formed NDP, pointing out similarities of our Canadian policy to that of the SDS toward the German SPD. In both cases, socialists within reformist-led mass parties were seeking to counterpose a revolutionary strategy to the pro-capitalist outlook of social-democratic leaderships.

In October 1961, I made arrangements to move to Freiburg, in the south-west corner of Germany and enrolled for study at the University of Freiburg. When I set out for Freiburg, however, a train mishap delayed me for several hours. On arrival, I hiked to the address where I had arranged to stay, but no one was home. It was now nearly midnight, far too late to stay at a youth hostel. Uncertain as to my next move, I walked to a nearby park and bedded down behind a hedge. After a few hours of fitful sleep, I brushed the twigs and pine needles off my clothes, made my way into town, found a restaurant, and hiked to the address where the Haus Villigst network had offered to help me rent a room.

I succeeded in renting a third-floor room on the southern edge of the town. The room was spacious, with a grand view across the roofs of the picturesque city, but it lacked access to a shower – for that I trekked across town to the public baths.

Relations with my landlady were delicate. Prior to the German revolution of 1918, she had been the reigning duchess of a small principality in Saxony; she had then been ousted by the popular upheaval. Still resentful against the Social Democrats who led that uprising, my hostess disapproved of the volumes by Marx and Engels visible on a bookshelf in my room. Reluctantly, I removed them from view. I recall my landlady as proud and conservative in outlook, but generous and warm-hearted. Wikipedia has an entry for Grand Duchess Feodora von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach that omits her later years in Freiburg. She died ten years after I left Freiburg.

Life in Freiburg quickly settled into a rewarding routine. Apart from weekends, I rode my bicycle to the university every morning, attending lectures and seminars. I participated in group discussions and took meals at the campus canteen. The university library was surprisingly inadequate, so I studied and prepared assignments at home. I met often with my SDS comrades and, less often, with the Haus Villigst group. I maintained links with my family, comrades, and friends in Toronto by mail, not always with success. To my dismay, ties to my sweetheart back home in Toronto did not stand the strain.

My isolation was eased by my friendship with the mother of Siegfried Neukirch, a close friend of my family in Toronto then working with Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa. Frau Neukirch invited me to a heart-warming celebration of a German Christmas. Curiously, years later I learned from Siegfried that his mother had courageously hidden a Jewish person from Nazi persecution. I did not hear any similar narratives from Germans having lived through the Nazi years.

8. A Brush with Germany’s Rightists

In November 1961, I received an unexpected letter from Bill Hatton, who had been my close ally and friend during my years as a high-school rebel in Toronto. (See “Pipeline Wars of the 1950s.”) Hatton told me that he had arranged for a year’s study in Germany and was living in Marburg, close by the border of East Germany. Hatton’s arrival in Germany took me by surprise. His family milieu was conventional, far removed from my Toronto world of politically alert international students. Hatton had stood together with me and other dissidents against our high school’s compulsory military instruction and heavy-handed discipline. Yet ideologically his outlook was conservative, and that side of his character came to the fore during his stay in Germany.

Hatton invited me for a visit. I grabbed at the chance and took the train north to Marburg, a picturesque university town close to the East German border. When I arrived, I was startled to learn that Hatton had joined up with one of the duelling fraternities at the university that were a traditional stronghold of arch-conservative rightists in Germany. Duels were fought with sharp and dangerous rapiers. In this milieu, facial scars were a traditional mark of courage and strength of character. Hatton steered clear of the sword-fighting, but otherwise he seemed well integrated into the culture of his fraternity. Hatton took me on a beer-drinking outing with his fraternity mates, in which we crowded into a horse-drawn cart plodding through fields close to Marburg. I heard no talk of politics on this boozy excursion, but I nonetheless sensed in Hatton’s fraternity the ominous presence of German right-wing reaction. After my disquieting visit to Marburg, I dropped my link with Hatton. A few years later, however, he surfaced in Canadian politics as a prominent aide to John Diefenbaker, assisting the former Conservative prime minister’s unsuccessful attempt at a comeback. Diefenbaker died in 1979; Hatton then dropped out of sight.

9. Socialist Discord over Cuba

In October 1961, I made an effort to get expert help with my historical studies. Taking up a suggestion of Ross Dowson, a prominent leader of the League for Socialist Action back home in Toronto, I contacted Gerry Healy, head of the LSA’s sister organization in Britain, the Socialist Labour League (SLL). Many SLL members were well known as historians. Moreover, the group was our ally in the “International Committee,” one of the two major internal alignments in the international Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International. The movement’s other wing, led by Ernest Mandel and Pierre Frank, was linked with the “International Secretariat.” I wrote Healy asking if an SLL comrade could advise me on my Marxist historical studies.

When I sent that letter, I was unaware that Healy had grown hostile to Cuba’s revolution. In contrast to the strong support for Cuba expressed by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party and by my own organization, the LSA, Healy’s group opposed any notion that Cuba’s government, led by Fidel Castro, represented an expression of workers’ power.

I soon heard more about this disagreement from Healy’s most prominent co-thinker in the United States, James Robertson. He copied me on a circular letter that claimed the SWP’s position on Cuba to have “revealed its complete political degeneration”. Robertson’s assertion looked to me like a step toward a political split. I brought my LSA comrades in Toronto up to date on this threatening development.

Some weeks later, I received another circular letter from Robertson in New York, this time stating that his co-thinkers should not be guided by loyalty to the “rotten hulk” of the SWP. This confirmed my suspicions. Robertson’s ill-advised initiatives were increasing the danger of a damaging split in the Fourth International. I wrote back to Robertson, expressing disagreement with this aspect of his letter.About three weeks later my letter to Robertson received another reply – from Gerry Healy in Britain. Healy denounced me for having, through my supposedly provocative remark, put the unity of the Fourth International at risk, and cut me off from communication with any of his supporters. I replied immediately, pointing out to Healy that my comments had, in fact, affirmed the need to defend the International’s unity. Healy quickly backed down, promising to assign a colleague to write me on historical issues. One of his collaborators followed up with a helpful letter. I expressed thanks, and that ended the matter. Still, the incident struck me as utterly bizarre. Healy had met me earlier that year in Toronto and knew I was a teenager and very young and quite new to the socialist movement. His actions toward me were strangely erratic. Despite his many decades of political experience, Healy was decidedly short on diplomatic finesse.

10. An Instructive Stay in France

In March 1962, at the close of my semester in Freiburg, I utilized an end-of-semester vacation from my university studies by taking a vacation in France. I joined up with a group of two dozen Freiburg students on a guided study tour of great French mediaeval cathedrals. The tour touched down on Laon, Reims, Amiens, Jemappes, and Rouen before its final stop on the Rue Saint-André des Arts in the Latin Quarter of Paris. During this trip, as part of a group where everyone spoke in German, it was assumed by many of those we met that I too was German. None of us encountered any visible hostility. On arrival in Paris, I enrolled for language classes with the Paris wing of the Alliance Française. Through this affiliation, I obtained access to a wide range of rooms offered for rental. I chose a room in residential house in Meudon, a short train ride from Paris.

11. A Spectrum of Paris Socialists

I spent about four months in France during my year in Europe, during which I had three different experiences there. The first was a guided tour of German students visiting the great monuments of high-Gothic architecture in France. I then spent a week in a small left-bank hotel on the Seine, followed by two months in the Paris suburb of Meudon, reinforced by classes at the Paris branch of the Alliance Française. It was a good moment to arrive in France. On March 18, the government approved the “Evian Accords,” formally ending its resistance against the independence struggle of the French colony of Algeria. A bombing campaign waged in France by the extreme rightist Secret Army Organization (OAS) was now fizzling out, and conditions were now more favourable for radical activity. I arrived in Paris the morning after a government-launched referendum that rallied 91% support for the Evian Accords. My socialist friends in Paris were sceptical of this maneuver and advised supporters to spoil their ballots with the words, “Oui à la paix, non à De Gaulle.” The overwhelming approval of the Evian accords marked the effective end of the war by the French government and army against Algerian independence.

On arrival in Paris, I got in touch with the Parisian socialists on my contact list. I first reached out to Jean-Marie Vincent, a prominent figure in the PSU (United Socialist Party), a left-wing social-democratic party. Jean-Marie introduced me to the PSU’s local branch in Meudon, and I attended several of its activities. The PSU was one of several “new left” currents in Europe functioning to the left of pro-Moscow and social-democratic parties, among which the forces around New Left Review in Britain were the best-known example.

I then contacted Pierre Frank, who for two decades had been prominent in the “International Secretariat” wing of our divided world movement. Over lunch in a bar on the Rue Vieille du Temple, Frank outlined to me the exemplary role played by young members of his group in rallying solidarity with the national liberation movement in Algeria. Frank’s group had recruited many young activists linked to the Communist Party, he said. My cordial chat with Pierre Frank did not lead, however, to ongoing contact with his group.

My third contact, Jean-Jacques Marie, was prominent in a wing of the French Trotskyist movement known then and now as the OCRFI, which was headed by veteran Marxist Pierre Lambert. My own group in Canada, the League for Socialist Action, was aligned with Lambert’s current in the “International Committee” of the Fourth International. Jean-Jacques, about five years older than me, briefed me on the Lambert group’s political outlook and activity. I also got acquainted with François de Massot and Jacqueline Bois, OCRFI activists of an older generation, who invited me to take part in the OCRFI’s summer cadre school in south-central France. On another front, I attended an open-air educational event (“foire”) organized by l’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party. There I picked up a French-language edition of Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which I studied assiduously during the rest of my stay on Paris. It was during these months that I attained enough fluency to function politically in French.

12. Frankfurt Interlude

When I returned to Freiburg from France, in May 1962, I packed up my belongings, bade a cordial goodbye to my esteemed landlady, and moved to Frankfurt. I rented a room in a student residence at Beethovenplatz 4 that was convenient to both the Frankfurt university and to the national office of the SDS student league. My primary goal was to learn how the SDS, now excluded from the massive Social Democratic Party, was handling its relations with the broad student and worker movement. Once again, I saw a clear parallel between the challenge facing left socialists in the German Social Democratic Party and that experienced by my comrades in Canada in countering the pro-capitalist policies of the New Democratic Party leadership.

My shift to Frankfurt enabled me to get to know prominent figures in the German Trotskyist movement, including Bertolt Scheller, Jakob Moneta, Rudolf Segall, and Georg Jungclas, all veterans of the socialist resistance under Nazi rule. Despite my skepticism regarding their “deep entry” in the SPD, I admired the German Trotskyists’ record of courageous struggle and their firm stand for the unity of our international movement.

It happened that my home in Frankfurt was only a few paces from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, widely known as a centre of “Western” non-Stalinist Marxist thought. I attended lectures there given by the internationally renowned leaders of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Their presentations were major events: standing-room-only assemblies of more than 200 students crammed into a university lecture room. At that time, the work of the Frankfurt School was not widely known in North America. More recently, it has received much critical attention in North America through the work of John Bellamy Foster and the late Paul Burkett in publications of Monthly Review Press such as Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature.

During my stay in Frankfurt, I presented a discussion paper in German to the local socialist student group (SDS) taking up a section of Marx’s Capital (“Use Value and Value”). I also began to study Russian and Spanish, languages that later became vital to my socialist activity. On another front, I applied to join the Canadian delegation that would attend the World Youth Festival scheduled to be held in July in Helsinki, Finland.

In June 1962, a year after my arrival in Europe, I shut down my operations in Germany, took my leave from my Beethovenplatz residence, shipped home my most valued belongings and materials, took a train to Paris, and checked in with my Paris contacts.

13. Vacation School in La Charité

On arriving in Paris, I was invited by my friends in the Lambert group (OCRFI) to attend their two-week educational seminar that month in La Charité, near Nevers in the French countryside. On my way to the OCRFI vacation school, I fell ill with a severe skin ailment that forced me to seek emergency medical care in Nevers. This was the most frightening moment of my stay in Europe. I had no health insurance in either Canada or Europe. There was no way for me to contact my friends in the vacation school, and I had no connections in the region. I had to throw myself at the mercy of the local hospital. Fortunately, the hospital admitted me and carried out the very next day an operation that removed the malignant growth.

Two days later I paid a modest fee and was discharged, good as new. I boarded a bus for the half-hour ride from Nevers to La Charité and hiked from there to the OCRFI encampment. I was warmly welcomed and had a fruitful stay. Particularly memorable was Pierre Lambert’s presentation on the role of Trotskyists in France during the Nazi occupation. Lambert also noted the destructive and sometimes traitorous role played at that time by members of the Stalinist movement.

The Lambert group’s vacation school presented the most intensive challenge I had yet encountered in the French language. I was pleased to note that my capacity in spoken French had developed much more quickly than had been the case a year earlier when I switched from English to German.

14. World Youth Festival in Helsinki

Earlier in 1962, I had written the Canadian organizing committee of the Youth Festival and signed up for the Canadian delegation, which was to include several dozen participants. My trip to Finland – with stopovers in Belgium, Hamburg, Denmark, and Sweden – took me several days by train, boat, and airplane. For the first time in Europe, I travelled without my typewriter.

The Youth Festival’s theme, “For Peace and Friendship”, struck me as overly cautious in tone, evading the question of socialism and other pointed issues. Yet the mood of the Festival was militant, thanks above all to the large and spirited delegation from revolutionary Cuba, backed up by delegates from the Algerian liberation movement that was now achieving a decisive triumph. The Festival represented a big change in my cultural framework. After a year of immersion in the languages of Germany and France, I was now conversing again in English and in a Canadian context. Among the several dozen delegates from back home were colleagues from my radical organizing prior to my Europe trip. A number of other participants from Canada later joined the League for Socialist Action.

The Helsinki conference was also attended by an array of Fourth Internationalists from several continents and from diverse political currents. During the event, they gathered for an informal chat, an optimistic encounter offering a foretaste of the Fourth International’s reunification that took place the following year. Among the many new friends I met in Helsinki, I talked extensively with András, who was from Budapest. A few years older than me, András had taken part in the 1956 anti-Stalinist uprising in Hungary and had experienced its defeat when confronted with Soviet tanks forcibly occupying the city centre. András had then joined in the exodus of activists who crossed into Austria and sought refuge there. He went on to Britain, where he spent several years in exile and then – like many other Hungarian exiles – returned back to his home country. András invited me to meet him in Budapest during my return journey from eastern Europe.

15. Through Russia and Ukraine

At the end of the World Youth Festival, I joined a group of about two dozen delegates from Canada in a two-week guided tour of historic and artistic sites in Russia and Ukraine. Our journey, in a most uncomfortable school bus, offered few opportunities for probing discussions of Soviet reality. I noted the unavailability of non-Communist publications on Soviet international newsstands. Nonetheless, in encounters with Russians and Ukrainians, there was no mistaking their prevailing mood of pride and optimism. They spoke freely of negative experiences in the Stalin years and of the gains they were experiencing after the government’s turn to “destalinization.”

My bus journey across Eastern Europe proceeded at a halting pace. The tour included stopovers in Novgorod, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Moscow, Orel, Kharkov, Kyiv, and Lvov, before winding up in Budapest. András and I met as planned in the Hungarian capital. As we toured Budapest together, András described some of the positive changes for Hungarians since the 1956 uprising had been defeated by Soviet military intervention. András stressed that the wound of repression in those days had not healed. He pointed out that the authorities had plastered over all the visible effects of the armed conflict of 1956 while demonstratively leaving intact the damage from World War Two. I left Hungary alone by train, making my way through Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland. I arrived in Paris on the morning after the French national holiday, Bastille Day (14 July 1962). I was just in time to see workers clearing away debris from the previous evening’s festivities.

16. Homeward Bound

I paid brief visits to friends in Paris before setting out on my homeward journey. I had decided to cross the Atlantic on the new and relatively inexpensive Loftleiðir (now Icelandair) service via Reykjavík, which was soon to attract a flood of North American students seeking a low-cost method of visiting Europe. Loftleiðir flights to America took off from Luxembourg, which was not served by a direct train from Paris. My best option was a late-evening train to Longwy, a mining town close by the Luxembourg border. A couple more hops by train took me to a suburb of the city of Luxembourg. In the characteristic style of my European travels, I hiked into town. Rounding the top of a hill, I saw spread before me a vista of the historic city in the early morning light. As the sun rose, I was just in time to see, across a green valley, about a hundred workers filing into a mine shaft for the day shift. I made my way into town and bought a ticket on the next Loftleiðir flight. As it happened, the flight left later that same day for Reykjavík and New York.

17. Assessing My Year in Europe

When my plane landed in Idlewild – now JFK International Airport – I made my way by bus and subway to the Socialist Workers Party at its 116 University Place headquarters in lower Manhattan. There I met Barry Sheppard, Chair of the Young Socialist Alliance at the time, the SWP’s youth wing. We talked at length.

I shared with Barry Sheppard my reservations about the Fourth International’s forces in Germany and their reluctance to explain their political outlook fully and openly. I also reported on my clash with Gerry Healy of the SLL. Barry maintained that the weaknesses I had encountered in our world movement could best be addressed in a reunified world organization. I found common ground with Barry and the SWP in support of the Cuban revolution and its government. I also agreed with Barry on the need to pursue possibilities for reunification of the International. (Barry’s activity at that time is described in his two-volume memoir, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960–1988). Barry assessed my European experience as a positive step in terms of promoting the International’s reunification. We both viewed the defence of Cuba and of newly independent Algeria as an urgent priority for a reunified Fourth International. Politically speaking, I was home again. And for the first time in a year, I was having an extended political conversation in English.

Soon after my return, the Socialist Workers Party, aided by my organization in Canada, initiated a mimeographed international news bulletin published in Paris by Joseph and Reba Hansen and mailed around the world. The main task of this publication was to promote the goal of reunification of the world movement. The following year (1963) a fusion did indeed take place that embraced most of the Fourth International’s active forces. The forces led by Gerry Healy in England and Pierre Lambert in France stood aside from this process. That cut short my promising collaboration with the Lambert group.

On my arrival in Toronto in August 1962, I had a happy reunion with my friends, the Canadian Fourth Internationalists, and plunged into our work. My top priority was to engage with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee – a promising vehicle for building Cuba solidarity across North America, whose Toronto-area rallies and banquets drew hundreds of participants.

During the years that followed, my familiarity with European languages led to several subsequent assignments in Europe, some brief and one lasting a year. In Canada, my knowledge of French enabled me to help my organization expand its operations to Quebec. In 1965 I was chosen to head the Young Socialists in Canada; in 1972 I became Executive Secretary of the League for Socialist Action. My knowledge of German and my other language skills qualified me, in 1983, to take the helm of the Comintern Publishing Project, a multi-volume effort that has, over several decades, published about ten thousand pages of documents from the first four years of the Communist International, translated from German, French, Russian, Italian, and other languages. Sponsored in its early years by Pathfinder Press, this effort is now directed by Mike Taber, and its volumes are published by Brill Publishers and Haymarket Books.

The Comintern Publishing Project remains today a major focus of my socialist activism. Through this effort, more than sixty years after my initial trans-Atlantic voyages, I continue to give expression to the vision and impact of my youthful year in Europe.

With thanks to Jeff White for copy editing.
©John Riddell 2024

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