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How I got to be a socialist

“I could hardly fail to notice that all was not well with the world of the mid-seventies”.

All of a sudden, it hits you. Overnight you go from saying “Yes, it all sounds very nice, but we’re all too greedy. What would happen if everybody wanted three televisions?” to realizing that there’s just no other way to sort out the world’s problems.

I don’t know how common it is to catch socialism from your father but that’s what happened in my case.

When younger my father had been a member of the British Communist Party. Generally, he seems to have kept his political activities low-key (the only controversy I know about is when, shortly after he had married a catholic girl from Italy, the local priest apparently created a bit of a fuss when, on a house visit, he found a CP newspaper lying around).

But he evidently became disillusioned with the CP.  Certainly while I was growing up I only remember him voting Labour. Then, in the 70s, he started buying the Socialist Standard and joined the Socialist Party not long after. He got a few other people interested and soon they had formed the West Yorkshire branch. I was back home temporarily after studying and working in London and he used to keep the latest Socialist Standard in prominent view somewhere around the house. I later discovered that this had been with the express intention of getting me interested. I did read it at times but I thought it was all rubbish. What particularly annoyed me was his parting shots at the end of seemingly every news bulletin, “It wouldn’t be like that if we had socialism”.

I wasn’t remotely interested in politics. In the late sixties, as a student, I had totally failed to understand what all the unrest was about. I couldn’t see that the students had the answer to anything. During the recession of the early seventies, some of my friends talked about an impending apocalypse – things were going to get much worse – so, I thought, if we’re all going to die then fine. I’ll take some tins of food and hide somewhere.

But I could hardly fail to notice that all was not well with the world of the mid-seventies. And what with hearing my father talking to his socialist friends, and running out of answers to the things they said to me, and surreptitiously reading more and more of the Standard, suddenly socialism all started to make sense and I was hooked.

This happened the same year I started to work for a large multinational company. Before, I would have dreaded the thought of this. I had read a book by Marcuse about technology and society, which contributed to my growing dread of the modern world, but socialism provided me with the perfect context for it all, a way of seeing through the madness. I now knew what these large organizations were about and they no longer scared me.

I joined the Socialist Party and started going to branch meetings; far from being a publication of the lunatic fringe, the Socialist Standard became my monthly dose of sanity.

I stayed with the same company, in IT, for 28 years, doing a more or less 9 to 5 job, and every few years surviving the inevitable re-organisation and accompanying job cuts. By the time I finished, the structure of the IT department was back more or less to what it had been like when I started, only with about a quarter of the people. I think it would all have been too horrifying without the large pinch of salt that my membership of the socialist movement provided. I actually enjoyed the job most of the time – but it was always with the constant thinking against the grain, the knowledge that the world could be so much better, that socialism provides.

Why don’t more people become socialists?

Unfortunately, thoughts of building a world that is radically different don’t feature much on people’s agenda. Capitalism always throws other imperatives at them and there’s always another day to get through. I think I was lucky in that at the time I started to think about socialism, I was “between jobs”, single and without any particular commitments. And for all that they may bewail their lot and want to see something done about the injustices in the world, people feel uncomfortable if anything threatens to disrupt their everyday routines and thought processes. It’s easier to complain than to be constructive. It’s also quite a jolt to be told that we can scrap money, employment and governments. People think they are going to “lose all they’ve worked for”, to go back to a more primitive, barter-like existence. And unless world leaders and celebrities get behind some cause or other, it’s not regarded as important.

But once you see that socialism is the only sensible way forward, no other view of the world makes sense. For all that socialists might despair from time to time of ever getting there – just ask – what’s the alternative?

ROD SHAW