2020s >> 2021 >> no-1398-february-2021

How I became a socialist

Up until Brexit politics didn’t really feature much in my life except for a brief time at university. Brexit changed all that, it made me look deeper into current affairs, which made me realise that the system was broken and socialism could be just the thing to fix it.

I was originally from a small mining village in the North East of England. My mum was of Irish extraction, a pious catholic and salt-of-the-earth working-class woman. She married my dad, an émigré from Portuguese India. The house was a 2-up-2-down terrace with an outside toilet that always froze up in winter. I remember the backyard had cobbled stones with an open drain for the sink waste. Dad had knocked it up with old tin cans and it would block up, he never was any good at DIY. Working for the National Coal Board (NCB) Dad received the free allocation of coal. I guess that would be described as a company perk these days but in fact just helped keep wages down for the NCB. The coal truck would dump a ton of coal out the front and mum would wheel-barrow it around into the backyard, where it was stacked. In the 60s when the pit closed and Dad lost his job, he managed to find a storekeeper’s job with Wimpey, the house builder, in Birmingham. So we upped sticks, dad, mum and six kids to join the exodus of many other families from the Durham coalfields. I was 8 years old.

As a child and adolescent I didn’t have any great political awareness, I was more interested in playing football and cricket with my mates. However, I do remember the Aberfan disaster in 1966; principally because of my mum’s reaction to the horrendous deaths of all those innocent children. The political significance of that disaster was lost on me at the time but would come to influence my views of government in later life. Any political awareness I had was probably socialist coming from my mother who described Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as: ‘the best book she had ever read’. My dad had come to the UK in the 1950s and, after a short time as a clerk in the civil service, joined the British army, the first six years in the regulars during the Suez crisis and a further 27 with the part-time territorials. He would often take me along to the territorial pay corps offices on the back of his Vespa 90 scooter, hoping I would join up when I grew up, but I only went along for the ride. I couldn’t stand all the uniforms and tipping your forelock to the officers. I remember dad always complaining that I was always asking ‘why’ when he would assert some Catholic religious dogma; mystified as to why I didn’t share ‘the faith’.

I never shared my parents’ religious views as I found them impossible to reconcile with science and reason. I was always keen on physics at school and left home to study electronics at Salford University in Manchester. Whilst at university I became involved with student politics and joined the Anti-Nazi League, an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party. I participated in many demos protesting against the National Front. After graduation I dropped out of active politics and concentrated on my engineering career. In the 80s and 90s my involvement in politics was restricted to just casting a vote.

In the early 80s the company I worked for at the time sent me to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales to install some electronics in the main telephone exchange. When I arrived I was shocked to find the whole town shrouded in the dark shadow of huge coal slag heaps. It was then I realised that this was just four miles from where the tragedy took place at Aberfan some 20 years previously. I can remember being moved to tears visiting the cemetery seeing so many gravestones for the children that died. I was incredulous that governments could have allowed that to happen and not even bothered to restore the landscape after the horrendous mess the industry had made to the environment. The scruffy terraced housing, run-down shops and impoverished locals left an impression that this place had been forgotten by the powers that be.

Thatcher’s assault on the miners, the unions and her profuse use of police violence to break up strikes was shocking to witness. The charade of the Falklands war to bolster her re-election in 1983 just reinforced my opinions of the Conservative Party. The imposition of the Poll Tax in 1989 seemed the last straw, and even I considered joining one of many demonstrations against that unfair tax against the working class. Her fall from grace and replacement by centrist John Major did seem like a change for the better. I didn’t have any great understanding of politics, believing Labour to be a socialist party that cared more about the working class; therefore, deserving of my vote.

When New Labour finally regained power with the Blair/Brown regime in the 90s there was great expectation in the country, which was reflected in the sweeping victory in 1997. However, with the tragedy of the Iraq war, the selling of public utilities, the Private Finance Initiatives, etc it became almost impossible to differentiate between New Labour and the old Tories, so there didn’t seem any point in voting.

Brexit
In 2016 I retired, providing lots of free time and which happened to coincide with Brexit. The propaganda from the Tory Vote Leave side and UKIP had such a ring of xenophobia it was reminiscent of the National Front back in the 1970s. Alarmingly, fuelled by the media this polemic seemed to resonate and rekindled latent nationalistic fervour in a large section of the public. This level of public support seemed perplexing as the arguments didn’t seem to stand up to any scrutiny, particularly from an economic perspective. In the media, many commentators were citing neoliberal economics as one of the main causes of this rise in right-wing populism. Not having any idea of what that actually meant I started reading some of the popular political commentators: Robert Peston’s WTF; Finton OToole on Heroic Failure; and Ian Dunt’s What the Hell Happens Now? I discovered Yanis Varoufakis’s, Adults in the Room, which was a great eye-opener for the workings of the European Union.

Austerity
The first time I saw the 2015 movie The Big Short I found it somewhat confusing with all the references to financial derivatives such as Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). It was only after reading Robert Peston’s How Do We Fix This Mess? that the shocking reality of what happened in 2008 became clear. The financial system was built on debt and required the subsequent bail out of the banks. Labour chancellor Gordon Brown then embarked on his ‘balancing the budget’ austerity programme, which continued under subsequent Tory administrations. This has been the main factor in the effective decline in living standards (real earnings) in recent times, particularly for those on low incomes. Brown had constantly claimed that, with his policy of sticking to tight inflation targets, the age of boom-to-bust economics was over – so much for that prediction.

New Hope
I joined the Labour Party in 2018, attracted by their new manifesto which promised to reverse some of the Tory and previous Labour sell-offs of public utilities. Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell promised a more cooperative and democratic economy starting with a limited programme of renationalisation, a National Bank, increased spending on the welfare state, increasing corporation tax, reducing student tuition fees and scrapping Trident. These seemed at the time to be a great reason to sign up to Labour.

However, as a leader Corbyn came over as indecisive and easily undermined by many on the rightwing of the parliamentary party. This indecision, exemplified with his position on Brexit and accusations of antisemitism, established him as weak in the eyes of the public and an easy target for the media.

The election result in December 2019 and the collapse of the Labour vote in Labour’s key heartlands of the North gave the green light for a centrist takeover and the marginalisation of the Left.

I started reading economic theorists such as Stiglitz, Krugman, Piketty and Ha Joon Chang, authors of several texts on the crisis facing neoliberal, free-market capitalism. They all suggest state interventionist methods to reform the system to prevent this recurrent boom-to-bust cycle and rise in inequality. What they don’t seem to want to admit is that these Keynesian reformist methods have been tried many times in the past and as yet haven’t managed to prevent the boom-to-bust cycles which repeat every few years.

A social-democratic Labour Party can’t achieve its expressed aim of liberty, equality and fraternity by reforming capitalism. The capitalist ethic of dog-eat-dog, grow-or-die is diametrically opposed to a truly democratic, mutual, caring, equal and ecological society.

Discovering socialism
My awareness of socialism started when an old friend suggested I read some Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, an American theorist from New York, has written copiously on everything Left and has certainly shaped my ideas since reading his books and essays. The material on YouTube from Richard Wolff, Double Down News and alternative media like Counter Punch and Byline Times have also helped shape my views.

Having previously been a member of the Anti-Nazi League as a student I had some knowledge of the SWP and so thought they might be worth having a look at. I attended a few online discussions to get an idea of where the party stood against my view of socialism. It soon came apparent that they have a strict ideological commitment to a Leninist/Trotskyist interpretation of Marx. I didn’t feel comfortable with this, being aware that this revolutionary approach of overthrowing the state has always led to state capitalism, not socialism.

On Google using the search string ‘list of socialist parties in the UK’, then following the most popular result, Wikipedia; a huge list of parties is revealed. Browsing through the list you come across around 20 allegedly socialist (non-capitalist) organisations. I checked out those and found most were in the same mould as the Trotskyist SWP or supporters of the Labour Party.

But the SPGB welcome page is clearly laid out with a straightforward statement of Party goals. The Party’s declaration of key socialist principles is clear: common ownership, democratic control and free access to goods and services. This contrasts markedly with other so-called socialist parties where a lot of policy is hidden. The website also had a wealth of well-researched articles and literature; all this encouraged me to join one of the online meetings to find out more.

After attending a few meetings and reading the literature I decided to join. What particularly struck me was the requirement to complete a questionnaire. A little bit intimidating at first compared to entering your address and credit card details to join the Labour Party. However, as an option you can just answer the questions over a call should you so wish.

Having been in the Party for just a few months, I was quite surprised when some of the experienced hands asked me to write about myself and what motivated me to join the Party. However, support and helpful advice was at hand. Just a word too on the informal online group meetings through Discord which are run twice a week. They give you a chance to learn new stuff and discuss current issues with like-minded people in a friendly environment.

The party is democratically organised in small groups and branches rather than being focused on direct action, public demonstrations and confrontation with the state, and I would heartily recommend anyone with like-minded views to join.
NICK SAMPAYS

 

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