How I got to be a socialist
“… I came to know about ‘mine’ and ‘thine’
but always preferred ‘our’.”
At the age of 5 I had never heard the word “socialist”, but something happened on my first day at school that suggested I was one. My mother sent me off with a packed lunch. “How was your lunch?” she asked. “I liked the sandwich but I have the banana to Greta.” “Why on earth did you do that? It was your banana.” Puzzled, I said that she had asked for it, so her need must have been greater than mine. After that episode I came to know about ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, but always preferred ‘our’.
I first met the Socialist Party at its platform at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park. The socialist message was powerful stuff, erudite but put across in a controversial way. It was 1945, the year the war ended and Labour won the election. It did so on a programme of reforms, and because of a widespread feeling that it was time for a change, of administration but not of the system.
I remember questioning a Labour candidate at the 1950 election about his attitude to socialism. Anticipating Sir Humphrey waffle by a couple of decades, the candidate said something like: “Socialism? Yes, in the fullness of time, when conditions are ripe, at the appropriate moment, all things considered—but first we must elect a Labour government.”
There were two main things that attracted me to what the Socialist Party—or the SPGB as it was then widely known—was saying. One was that it presented incontrovertible evidence that the Labour Party, in or out of power, supported capitalism in more or less the same way that the Conservative Party did. The other was that capitalism, with all its problems of inequality, boom and bust, war, the priority of profit over need is not inevitable. It can be replaced by a better system—socialism—when a majority of people decide to do so.
Revolution isn’t just a matter of destroying capitalism—the new system has to be put in its place. This poses a problem for the Socialist Party. Socialism isn’t something that can be promised to be introduced after the next election. All the other parties don’t want electors to understand and want revolutionary change—they offer only minor revisions of the same basic system and insist that if you don’t choose one of them you are wasting your vote. You are not. You don’t have to choose the least of two or more evils. You can take the long view and choose to help build the kind of world you really want.
My introduction to socialist ideas included trying to get to grips with the writings of classic socialists. Frankly, I found much of Marx hard going, though I liked his inspirational “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (despite its sexist language).
For me the outstanding socialist book was and is William Morris’s News from Nowhere. I don’t agree with everything in it. I’m no fan of 14th-century costume, and I certainly don’t think his forecast of “How the change came” is remotely likely (a Trafalgar Square massacre, a Committee of Public Safety, general strike, etc.).
However, Nowhere is of great value in painting a picture of what the future can be in terms of how people treat and relate to each other. Today there is giving and taking, but only within our economic and political system based on buying and selling. Morris shows how changing that system to socialism will extend the scope of giving and taking from family and small-group life to society as a whole.