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In Memory of a Free Festival

Forty years ago, on 25th August 1973, a free festival was held at Windsor Great Park. It was considered illegal by the authorities on the grounds that the property on which the festival was to take place was owned by the Crown. Nevertheless, despite warnings of impending State violence, this writer, along with several thousands of others, attended the event.

The festival was planned from a series of squats in London, though the administrative work was carried out at the old LCC Whitefriars fire station in Carmelite Street, adjacent to the City of London. As an impressionable 16 year old, this writer helped with the work of advertising the festival through mail shots. One of the other allocated tasks was to hand-out flyers advertising the festival to the myriad of “radical” and “revolutionary” political parties and groups active in the London area at the time.

In the early 1970’s London was littered with left wing bookshops from the Anarchists and Maoists to the Trotskyists and Soviet government subsidised outlets of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while empty houses in Ladbroke Grove, Elgin Avenue and Cornwall Terrace controlled by the Crown Estate Commissioners in Regents Park, were quickly turned into communes.

So armed with a bundle of posters whose illustration depicted a floating hippie and an acid sun sinking over Windsor Castle (the occupants were invited to the Festival but declined to attend) along with a copy of Nicholas Saunders’s “ALTERNATIVE LONDON” with its useful index of political parties and where they were located, off this writer went into the political underground with Saunders’s advice for the politically uninitiated in mind:

Having joined any of these traditional left groups, your main task will be street and pub selling the party’s newspaper, trying to recruit new members, going on demonstrations and engaging in political discussions. The most immediate and practical way to get to know these groups and their ideas is to buy their newspapers, most of which are available in left bookshops

By chance, one of the political organisations visited one Saturday afternoon was the Socialist Party of Great Britain whose offices were located at 52 Clapham High Street. The flyer advertising the free festival was delivered but this writer also left the SPGB’s offices clutching an August edition of the SOCIALIST STANDARD with articles on “The Floating Pound”, “The Futility of Labour’s Housing Policy” “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “Education”.

Interestingly the entry in ALTERNATIVE LONDON (1982 edition) for the Socialist Party of Great Britain states:

Formed in 1904, with origins in H.M. Hyndman’s Democratic Federation and William Morris’s Socialist League; has always been anti- Russian and now comprises some indefatigable, if old-fashioned teachers of a Socialist Future. Aim to change society through argument so their main activity is public speaking (p. 253).

On the Saturday of the festival, Hawkwind were playing an early evening concert with both the poet, Robert Calvert and the science-fiction writer, Michael Moorcock in attendance, performing Warriors at the Edge of Time and other selections of their poetry. The two-hour set was fortuitously recorded on a cassette as a bootleg recording and can now be heard on the web site hosted by YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gB9O0bJC2w ; the last waves of the counter culture breaking against the shores of conformity, obedience and cultural homogeneity.

On the recording, somewhere in the audience, there is a young Socialist thumbing through the SOCIALIST STANDARD and beginning a journey away from the “alternative culture” and “direct action” which had so dominated political thinking in the previous decade. A tentative step had been made towards an awakening Socialist consciousness and the understanding of the need for political action to establish Socialism through the capture of the machinery of government by a Socialist majority.

The failure of trying to establish utopian islands of co-operation and decency within capitalism in order to live co-operative and creative lives free from the corrosive monetary relations of the profit system were becoming self-evident. By 1975, the graffiti on the walls proclaiming “permanent challenge”, “the permanent education” and “The great Refusal” had become sterile and clichéd slogans of childish rage as suits and professorships replaced musk-oil soaked Afghans and MASH style military combat jackets. Left Wing book shops morphed into either charity shops or outlets selling coffee and shoes while “alternative London” became “commercial London” with the underground, particularly Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, leading to The City, The Banks and “The Big Bang”.

In order to replace capitalism with a social system of free men and women required the establishment of an open and democratic society enacted by a Socialist majority not the menu of “opposition” groups found in the back section of INTERNATIONAL TIMES and the pages of Marcuse’s AN ESSAY ON LIBERATION, then still regarded as the bible of radical dissent. Only in Socialism could society democratically and directly produce goods and services in common with the objective of just meeting human need.

The following year, in an early morning raid against “trespassers of the Queen’s private property”, the police, using truncheons and brute force tore down tents and made numerous arrests as they systematically broke up the third Windsor Free Festival.

An analogy was later drawn by the film directors Kevin Barlow and Andrew Mollo between those attending the Windsor Free Festival and the 17th century Diggers in their 1975 film Winstanley, when Cromwell’s soldiers broke up a Digger’s settlement on Common land at St George’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey. Ironically one of the “Ranters” in the film, part financed by John Lennon, was a principal organiser of the Festival, the late Sid Rawles.

However, a year earlier the political lessons of the use of violence by governments against attacks on private property, the fact that you could not opt out of capitalism without first consciously and politically abolishing the wagers system and the futility of direct action in both its anarchic and Leninist forms had already been understood and learnt from a chance meeting with Socialists on a summer’s afternoon in Clapham High Street.

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