Reminiscences of Dick Levins – liberation and gladioli
by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose
We first saw Dick as we walked into the Hotel Reunification in Hanoi in December 1970 during a pause in the US’s massive bombing campaign of North Vietnam. He was sitting by himself in the hotel lobby, a big bear of a man, looking reflective. He looked up and smiled at us. There was something about the warmth of that smile that made us hope he was not like the three heavy duty CP scientists and doctors also flown in via Moscow as part of a solidarity delegation from the World Federation of Scientific Workers. Our flight, in one of Aeroflot’s finest prop-jets, had been grindingly slow, an interminable traverse across the bleak emptiness of the icy Russian steppes–enough to make one have some sympathy with Napoleon’s retreating armies. The plane was so noisy that although there was a Vietnamese group on board (we guessed a delegation) we could only smile at one another. Among them was the clinician Ton That Tung (see photo with Hilary) whom we and Dick were to see more of over our visit.
Sitting with Dick our exhaustion faded; our reading of his smile was right; from that moment we became friends, political and intellectual allies. The very busy schedules organised by our Vietnamese hosts took the group from meeting academic scientists – biology was a local strength- heavily bombed areas, rural herb gardens, hospitals with terribly wounded and napalm burned patients, huge underground tunnels with bright whitewashed walls and a restaurant. We were surprised by the well-kept city parks, bright with flowers. This was not how London had looked during those years of the Luftwaffe bombing, the grey broken only by the pink blitz flower spiking up through the debris. Like the striking American women millworkers, the Vietnamese demanded beauty as well as victory – bread and roses; here the roses were gladioli.
When in a following winter Hilary visited Dick and Rosario in their Chicago home there was a huge bowl of gladioli on the table. Of course. It was no surprise to see that more than half of the 13 strong Chicago Solidarity Group of which Dick was a member were women. The group produced a number of pamphlets on the US genocidic military technology; their London counterpart consisted solely of men. Dick’s gender and antiracist politics were ahead of most left white men’s – not restricted to his profound thinking and writing but part of everyday life. Given that Rosario Morales was his life partner, a poet and contributor to one of the pioneering books in the history of black feminist thought, This Bridge called My Back, she was central to his political formation and his nuanced politics.
We were envious of Dick’s facility both with language – he seemed to have acquired a working knowledge of Vietnamese by the time we left – and maths. There was a memorable exchange with Ta Quang Buu, Minister of Higher Education – also a distinguished mathematician– who had taken over translating for Chomsky’s lectures when the official translator couldn’t cope. Dick and he shared a sly joke that they were lucky, as maths was so arcane that politicians couldn’t interfere. Nothing was said, but the shadow of Lysenko was surely in the room.
A few years later, we asked Dick, along with Dick Lewontin, to write a chapter on Lysenko for our book, The Radicalisation of Science– later republished in their joint collection The Dialectical Biologist. Their refusal in that chapter to follow the orthodox view of Lysenko as merely a charlatan backed by Stalinist terror, but instead to focus on the inadequacies of a reductive genocentrism and the hazards of applying standard statistical procedures to agriculture in the climatic extremes of Russia was far ahead of conventional 1970s thinking.
Not only was Ta Quang Buu a powerful intellectual, he was also a distinguished military leader, having served as General Giap’s second in command when the Vietnamese army defeated the French at DienBienPhu, ending France’s imperial occupation. Political leaders in the West were overshadowed by the calibre of these men and women. Ho Chi Minh had died earlier in 1969, so while we saw the modest house he had lived in, we were privileged to meet Pham Van Dong, the new leader and Prime Minister (see the official photo), during which the traditional Vietnamese hospitality of endlessly refilling teacups became a little uncomfortable for those of us who didn’t know that it was imperative to take such tiny sips that refilling was impossible.
Other memories of Hanoi were the children who followed us everywhere (see photos) throwing firecrackers at our feet, roaring with laughter and shouting ‘May Bay My’ (American planes) as we jumped. More serious were the street bomb shelters (see photo) – large drain-pipes let into the ground. When the alarm sounded you were supposed to leap in and pull a cover over your head. Hilary joked that as they were not large enough for big westerners, so that Dick and Steven, being intellectuals, should go in head first, abandoning their legs to fate.
But perhaps the most bonding and comic moment for us came on the flight back through Moscow, for which Dick joined us (see photo). We checked in at a gloomy Stalin era hotel. Each floor had a large foyer, ours with a large woman supervisor immobile behind a desk under a sea of red banners, probably claiming she was a Stakhanovite hotel worker. Horror! – our room was devoid of toilet paper. The supervisor was unmoved. But just then Dick emerged from his own room. Told the problem, he smiled. Reaching into his breast pocket, he held out a sheaf of toilet paper. ‘Socialist readiness, comrades,’ he said.