Why I Joined the S.P.G.B.

Saying that one met members of the SPGB does not lead far — Winston Churchill was once chatted up by a member, but he never joined. The question is what made the Socialists’ words acceptable: what chord of consciousness awaited being touched by them?

I was raised in East London between the wars, where everyone was poor. I knew Jews, gentiles, black men, yellow men and the man in the sweetshop who loved Dickens, and they were all poor. There was a place in the town called “up the Labour” where everybody went, and when people met they didn’t say How do you do; they said “Working?”

We lived on a corner near the main road, and sometimes men knocked at the door and asked for a drink of water. They had walked to London to look for work. I heard my parents say that one man had walked from Middlesbrough, and I looked on the map and saw where it was. Jesus! Yet even in this land of misfortune people thought they were better than others: some were said to be “common”, and there were children one was not supposed to play with.

When I was I ten I was socially estranged myself. I got a scholarship to the grammar school, from my scruffy down-the-road school — I think it was the first one they had had since the 1870 Education Act. I had to fight nearly every boy in the neighbourhood. The scholarship was an opportunity, the grown-ups said. So it was: to find out that the paying pupils and the staff —M.A. Cantab., etc. — despised scholarship boys with Cockney vowels.

The effect on scholarship boys was interesting. Most became imitators, seeking to please and be accepted so that they could feel yes, they’d risen. But several joined the Young Communist League and the Fascists: having themselves been kicked, they wanted to kick someone else. I was in a thing called the Schoolboys’ United Front, where we passed ferocious resolutions about the Means Test and the dole.

The school gave us languages dead and alive, and literature, because it was conducted as if we were all going to universities. Whereas for four-fifths the labour market waited: they were going to be office boys. Even for that, you had to pass “Matric”. Some had several goes; their future—a life’s penal servitude in a shipping office—was held to depend on it.

Unfortunately for the school as well as me, I liked the lit. and language and didn’t want to be an office boy. The only alternative was manual labour. I humped heavy loads, scrubbed floors, became a packer, a builders’ labourer, a gravedigger. I learned a trade: drawing the innards out of chickens. I was a small-time professional boxer and won more fights than champions have now, most of them for twenty-five shillings a time.

And everywhere I saw people were exploited and to be born in the working class was to be damned. I met men from whom I learned more about books than a university could have taught me — as Henry Miller says, “men who were fit to rule the world”, only they weren’t in that way: they were working for wretched wages, being hired and fired and treated like dirt. And the ones who were truly degraded: who scraped to the boss and thought how generous he was to employ them for two or three pounds a week, and what heights of magnanimity were in giving three minutes on the clock before stopping a quarter.

I heard about the system. The Communist speakers preached to crowds on Saturday nights. Their sermon was the one attributed to William Jennings Bryan, “that every man who has a clean shirt is a thief and should be hanged”. They said, regularly, that the British Empire was at the crossroads. It had a thrilling, ominous ring, but what did it mean? They didn’t seem to know themselves. The Labour Party had clean shirts and were always promising: promises were what the working class lived on. Or one could read Bernard Shaw, all aphorisms like toys and mottoes coming out of crackers, and about as useful.

What engaged my attention most in the SPGB was that it made no offer to do benevolent things and did no urging to love one’s neighbour. It said the working class had got to see to its own salvation. The members were not even propitiatory. They found the working class and me both intolerably ignorant, and said so. When I showed my knowledge, they told me my brains were elsewhere than in my head; I voiced my opinions about society, and they told me to go and read my Marx.

I learned, in fact, that indignation and rebellion are only starting-points. Conscious that a great deal is wrong, you have to find — exactly — what it is; or confusion reigns. What is more, the truth can be unpalatable. Political parties and leaders achieve popularity by telling people what they want to hear, and the more passionate you are the more strongly you will insist on hearing it. “Something must be done” is the conviction: but what?

I approached the SPGB because I wanted the right answers. I joined it when they had knocked the impulse to the wrong ones out if me. The story does not have to be everyone’s, but it is characteristic for a good many of my generation. And, though times have changed in some respects, the capitalist system and the truth about it have not altered at all.

Robert Barltrop

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