Did I “become” a socialist? I suppose I must have done. Even those of us who in a different time and place might have been dubbed “red diaper babies,” born to socialist parents, must at some point make a conscious series of decisions, which lead us to join the world’s greatest, and most consistently defeated, political movement.
Like many people of my age, Palestine and Iraq were the motivating factors in my early political involvement. I remember marches in solidarity with the Second Intifada in Sheffield. I even remember when there were local Stop the War groups. I had imbibed somehow from my environment that all this killing was deeply wrong, that America was bad, that Blair was a sell-out, and that something must be done. I went to two meetings, Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), and found the SP one more interesting. There but for fortune, and all that.
Work in the SP was worthy if a bit plodding. We did a lot of good stuff; campaigning to keep post offices open, supporting the big bus strikes at South Yorkshire First, and against the BNP when, in its heyday, it was building a presence on the housing estates of south Sheffield. I got a basic education in Marxism, the idea that the working class is the fundamental agent to bring about socialism, and the importance of actually being active in working-class communities. I’m still grateful for this.
As a teenage Bolshevik I must have been insufferable. My righteous know-it-all anger knew no bounds. People who were into “Make Poverty History” (remember that?) really got on my wick. I was a buzzkill around all worthy causes, except for socialism.
I didn’t encounter much of the left outside the SP. I was from the wrong side of the city to have had much contact with the rather peculiar Independent Socialist Youth Forum, a laudable school student-led left-wing body which emerged from the anti-war movement. So my political education was rather confined to the SP’s own Millie tradition. I was real working class and proud, like.
But before I beat the do-gooder middle-class kids of mid-Noughties west Sheffield over the head with the chip on my shoulder, I’ll confess that I can hardly lay claim to the mantle of the autodidact. Yes, I am another one of those Russell Group lefties (Cambridge, no less, old chap). But I didn’t learn my leftism at university, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.
Student politics never sat easily with me, partly because of the chip on the shoulder, and partly because, in the pre-Millbank days at least, so much of it was inconsequential chatter. I was always happier doing the (usually derisory) weekly party paper sale at the local shopping centre than facilitating one of those jazz hands meetings in an occupied lecture hall. I grew apart from the SP while at university, over their approach to student work, democracy, and, ultimately, trade unionism as well, and eventually left without much fuss.
Millbank and the ensuing demonstrations happened just after I left university. That movement, and the state’s violent response to it, was at once exhilarating and harrowing. I think many of us saw it as potentially an opening salvo in five years of bitter struggle against the Tory government. In retrospect of course, nothing of the sort materialised on a general sense. The failure of the public sector unions to even land a glancing blow on the government over pensions in 2011, coupled with my own nascent experiences in the trade union movement, have pushed me to the belief that we need to rebuild from the bottom up. I no longer have the faith I did as a kid that “the unions” will swing into action if only they’re led by better people. I don’t think it is the unions’ relationship with Labour that is the primary problem holding them back; rather it is the unions’ relationship to their own members.
There are times when, for whatever reasons, the burning desire for a better world which drew me to socialism as a teenager has been dulled. The Tory victory in this month’s general election is stoking that fire up to a bit of a roar again. As of recently, I’m a somewhat reluctant member of the Labour Party, recognising that it remains — just about — the political wing of the labour movement. As Tony Blair might say, I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.
I’ve no idea how long that historical relationship will last. But I am still convinced that, whatever recomposition of the class, of parties, and of unions takes place, the ideas of working-class socialism remain the great hope for the liberation of humanity.