1990s >> 1997 >> no-1119-november-1997

Why I am a Socialist

I was not born a socialist. Although I was born social. We all are. As members of the human species, we are uniquely interdependent social animals, dependent for our survival upon co-operation. Born into that species, there was no option but to be a social being.

Years of conditioning tear to pieces the social part of most of us. We learn to translate We Are into I Am and then I Have: the insidious language of an anti-social system drains us of our humanity. We become alienated from our social selves.

The response we adopt towards this alienation and dehumanisation depends upon many factors. Who are our parents? What kind of teachers do we have? What economic opportunities exist in the time and district in which we grow up? How do friends influence us? What do we read or see in the cinema or on TV?

A million other factors come into play. Luck, whatever that is. (Luck is simply a term to describe those factors which scientific reason has not yet explained in terms of objective causation.)

The details of my biography are of no particular importance. Loving parents. Lousy schools which I learned to fear, hate and finally resist against. Freedom from dire poverty, but freedom from security too. Some interesting friends, mainly comprising the kids who didn’t like kicking balls but preferred to talk. A passion for books (my father read them to me aloud from an age when A. L. Morton and Noddy were both appealing) and an equal passion for radio and television, for which I was in the first generation of addicts. The Socialist Standard was always around my home. My father would buy it religiously from elderly men who wore macs all year round. They stood at the gates of Hyde Park and seemed to represent a statue of integrity in a political junk yard.

At a very young age I became fascinated by the simple fact that history was not Back Then or Out There but part of us. We were actors within the unfolding epic of history. Actors before us had lived and died never quite knowing their role in the plot. To know what one was doing in history and, better still, to know that history is ever-changing, transient and replete with the seeds of the future was a highly exhilarating recognition. It made me want to think about making history rather than being made by it. But how to make it?

A close friend when I was a teenager was obsessed by the belief that great men who understand history are those who mould it into the future. He was, quite perversely given the century in which he lived, an Italian nationalist who worshipped the memory of Mazzini. I found this obsession with Great Men faintly ridiculous and not in line with the way history had actually unfolded. People made history out of the circumstances of their material environment, and in so acting upon society changed it. The plasticity of history and the force of the many as a means of changing it became a fascination.

I read Marx because I wanted to know more about democratic change. Marx was not always the greatest democrat (although his objective was realisable only by democratic action), but it was hard to read him without concluding that the problems to be addressed by the many were essentially interlinked. The problem was The System. Capitalism was historically outdated. It would hang around for decades or even centuries, but only by causing harm to the majority in whose hands the capacity to overthrow it lay. The obvious political conclusion was that the majority needed to overthrow the system which enslaved them.

I had listened to those who tried to persuade the majority to overthrow capitalism and was largely unimpressed. The left-wing orators of anti-capitalism were mainly terrible windbags who either believed that capitalism should be patched up or that it had been overthrown in the manifestly state-capitalist “Communist” police states. These views were so stupid that it occurred to me that the greatest opponents of overthrowing capitalism were the so-called socialists.

I had encountered the speakers whose party published the Socialist Standard. Some were terrifically good and as I listened I entered, unknowingly, into the greatest university I would attend. Others were bores, loudmouths or egotists and I was convinced that they did their cause little good. Rightly or wrongly, I allowed this latter thought to nourish a mild hostility towards the Socialist Party which was only overcome when I concluded, as others had before, that the movement for socialism mattered more than its parts or parties, and in the end the only right course is to join with those whose principles are uncompromisingly for the overthrow of an oppressive system and for the democratic establishment of a co-operative alternative. There was only one such party. There still is.

There were many lessons to learn along the way. Joining the cause is not to know all the answers but recognise the questions. Reading William Morris’s vision of socialism was to have a profound affect. So, in other ways, did numerous other writers—and also the voices and actions of men and women who seemed to embody the very essence of what it is to be a socialist.

But there has never been a substitute for that desire for socialism, and that understanding of its necessity, which is born of experience. It is the lived history of capitalism—the frustration of lives wasted, humanity stunted, democracy denied and history both pregnant with the future and stillborn by the fear and political ignorance of the many, which makes it unthinkable to respond to life by being anything but a socialist.

Steve Coleman

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