Why I Joined the SPGB
Having found some of the previous contributions on this subject to be quite fascinating, I would like to join in. After a pretty normal childhood in a petty-bourgeois Jewish family in darkest Manchester with fairly strict religious ideas till around the age of seventeen, I entered the rebel period (to be told by father that I would soon grow out of it like all the others; at the age of 92 he still thinks I will). Then, as now, it was obvious to any teenager with the slightest pretence to thought of any kind, that society was an unpleasant mess and could surely be made a damn sight nicer. Which meant, of course, that one must latch on to one of the left-wing parties or groups (my! how times haven’t changed). It happened that at that time there was a new splinter group of the Labour Party coming into fashion led by a wealthy lawyer called Stafford Cripps — a sort of Wedgbenn of his day, though even more of a hypocrite but less of a clown (well, he had to be).
This mob had a branch of sorts in the town so there I went to see how we were going to change the nasty world of the ‘thirties into a place fit for humans to live in. I didn’t last very long (true, it didn’t either; but I went first). Although I was young and keen and no doubt starry-eyed, I simply couldn’t follow what they were on about. There was talk about nationalizing the Lancashire cotton mills and I seem to remember discussing a pamphlet on the subject by Zev Hutchinson (don’t ask me who he was; I haven’t the faintest idea — it is just that his name caught my fancy). But it was all terribly boring and seemed to have no relevance to anything as far as I could see. Also, young and foolish as I was, I soon got the feeling that the few people who were doing the talking were ambitious types on the make. Concerned with making a world fit for them to live in, and not really all that worried about the rest of the heap. One of them was a quite nice-looking, red-headed bird a couple of years older than myself and I remember thinking that here was someone who was going to make something out of all this political claptrap. Her name was Barbara Betts and in later years I sometimes thought how wrong I was in my prediction because after all she disappeared without trace. It was only quite recently that I got the message that a Barbara Betts who was then working as a trainee buyer in Lewis’s store in town was rather better known and in a better-paid job by her name of Castle.
After pottering around for a year or so, I had a lucky break. In the local library I came across, quite by accident, a journal I had never heard of, called (yes, you’ve got it; if only lots of others would get it. A few million circulation would be rather useful) the Socialist Standard. I know it sounds awfully corny to say this, but the very first reading was really a blinding light. I could understand it! I had really felt quite miserable with the pamphlets of the Socialist League (or with the Daily Worker or Daily Herald); apparently the others were quite happy reading and discussing them while I was out of step and found them boring and almost meaningless. So here was a party, whose existence I had never even heard of, talking the kind of language I could almost drink like nectar. (I remember immediately buying a bound volume of old Standards for fourteen bob and having an awful row with my father for wasting my money like that.)
So the next thing was to visit the branch which was listed in the paper. It met in the parlour of two great Socialist stalwarts, Bert and Edie Atkins and I think there were two—or it could have been three—other members in sight. And, remarkably enough, one of them was Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother. I used to see him quite often and when I asked him why he had never mentioned the SPGB to me he replied that he thought it would upset my family if their little lad was to get mixed up with revolutionary Socialists so he kept quiet about it. (As, with failing eyesight, he reads this article, I hope he realises that this mention is intended as a salute.) And I well remember, when expressing the wish to join the little throng, Bert giving me a long lecture to the effect that it was no use my joining if I was a young man in a hurry. The party was miniscule (looking round the room I did not find that hard to believe) and I must realise if I joined that the road to Socialism was going to be a long and stony one. So, in all my long years of membership, I never became disillusioned; Atkins had made sure I had no illusions in the first place. And sadly one must confess that the real Socialists in the great working-class city of Manchester, with some quite proud traditions from Peterloo onwards, could still meet in the Atkins’s parlour. And this despite the fact that one of the young comrades was the daughter of Tom King — a proud honour as he was a founder-member of the SPGB. A place in history.
I will not waste more space as there is nothing special about my story. But perhaps I did create some sort of record. The very first time I took the platform at an outdoor meeting (I was giving the party view on the Stalin Terror which was then at its height) the soap-box was literally smashed from under my feet by a rush of Communist Party thugs. It was their only answer to my criticism. It still is the only answer that they can think of, although they are more circumspect nowadays.
L. E. Weidberg