In photographs and news footage of political demonstrations of the 1960s, Tariq Ali is unmistakeable: the thick black hair and thatchy moustache; the clenched fist and characteristic surge to the foreground amid a sea of fair faces. Almost immediately on coming down from Oxford in 1966, Ali began to agitate for a workers’ uprising—not just in Britain but across the world. His book 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) stressed “the key importance of the working class as the only agency of social change”. His hero was Che Guevara. Meeting Malcolm X at an Oxford Union debate in 1964, he was pleased to discover that Malcolm was “a great admirer of Cuba and Vietnam”. Ali was Britain’s own “other”, a role he took up with zeal and played with dash and style. He didn’t get his revolution, but he did get a Rolling Stones anthem in his honour. Mick Jagger is said to have written “Street Fighting Man” for him. Ali returned the compliment by calling his autobiography Street Fighting Years.
Ali had a strong personal presence then, and he has it still. Now 66, he lives in a roomy neogothic house in Highgate, north London—friends have been heard to call it “Chateau Tariq”—with his partner of 35 years, Susan Watkins. She edits New Left Review, to which Ali has been a longstanding contributor. They have two children (Ali has another, with a former partner). In 1974, he ran for parliament as the International Marxist candidate, but the sloganeering public persona is tempered by an erudite domestic man.
He has not forsaken his opposition to “neoliberal economic policies” (capitalism, in a word) but is resigned to the fact that the predicted disintegration of the system has not occurred. “It’s a problem people have had to come to terms with at different times in history: what do you do in a period of defeat?” In his case, the realignment took an unexpected form: he turned to writing fiction. The second act of the drama of Tariq Ali opened after the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989. read more