Stumbling to the left

Submitted by Matthew on 10 November, 2016 - 12:32 Author: Martin Thomas

I was broken from the instinctive middle-class Toryism handed down from my parents by reading Marx — Capital, and two paperback books of selections — when I was 14.

My family was well-off — dad a GP, mum a dentist. There were few books in the house other than my dad’s medical textbooks, but I became a bookish child (my sister and my brother, not so much). My favourites were Kasner and Newman’s four-volume The World of Mathematics and the collected works of Dickens, both given to me by the only even quarter-bookish person in my parents’ social circle, the head teacher of a secondary modern school.

In my scattershot reading I stumbled across Marx, and was shocked. I damped down thought a little with the idea that since Marx’s day class conflicts had softened, and a huge middle class developed. This was 1963: capitalism was stable and affluent. More social reform was needed, I now thought, but it seemed on track.

I’d grown up in the steel town of Port Talbot, where wages were relatively good, employment full, council housing good-quality, and the labour movement un-militant. The next shock to my middle-class complacency came when, aged 16, I left school and went to work for a while in Montreal.

There the class difference translated into a bitter community divide — the impoverished working-class French-speakers on one side of the Boulevard St-Laurent, the smug, well-off, contemptuous English-speakers on the other. I still knew no active left-wingers. Quebecois nationalism was on the rise, but predominantly Catholic and right-wing.

I went to university in 1966 with a decision to get involved with the left. I discovered that there are social and cultural gulfs within the middle and upper classes, too. Snootiness and intellectual showing-off were (presumably still are) pervasive at Cambridge University. For students of working-class background, it must have been miserable. I was middle-class, but socially awkward, shy, an auto-didact except in maths, and, from being pushed forward in school, two years younger than my contemporaries.

I avoided feeling crushed, I think, because I concluded that in maths I was the equal of any of those infinitely older, infinitely more cultured, and infinitely more confident students. But I found the Labour Club, where what got theories reckoned most revolutionary seemed to be that their texts were not yet available in English, overwhelming; and ended up active mostly in the United Nations Student Association, of all things.

Oddly, UNSA was being colonised by leftists who had no interest in the UN but wanted refuge from the acrimonies of the Labour Club. The largest organised group on the campus (though the CP would soon overtake it) was the SWP, then called IS and much looser than today. Their first proposal to me, when I asked about activity, was to join them canvassing for Labour in an upcoming council by-election.

I did occasional factory leafleting, tenant canvassing, and paper-selling with IS, but I was put off partly by snootiness which I had acquired from the milieu, and partly by the tokenism and intellectual vacuity of the activity. Eventually, on my last day in Cambridge, an IS member told me briskly to stop messing round: either join IS, or, if I could, start a better group, but in no case just drift around. (That IS member became a neoliberal professor of economics at Oxford. Another then-left-wing student with whom I attended maths tutorials weekly, and whom I thought rather a dullard, has just won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Such events help destroy the awe in which we might hold bourgeois expertise).

I moved on to Manchester with a decision to join IS. There, I found two IS branches covering the same geographical area, one “official”, the other a pariah branch, against which I’d already been warned, containing members of the reviled Trotskyist Tendency, a forerunner of the AWL. And so another chapter started.

I regret my stumblings. I also conclude that awkward, shy, “know-all”, wrong-headed, stubborn, unprepossessing young people can, despite everything, sometimes be made into useful socialists