Friday, June 5, 2015

Racist myths (1988)

From the June 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rather like Arctic explorers throwing chunks of meat off the sledge to distract the pursuing wolf pack, British governments during the 1960s and 1970s enacted a series of immigration laws designed to assuage a racist appetite which was threatening to devour quite a few parliamentary seats. Whatever else was said about them, it was black immigration the Acts were intended to reduce. It was argued that for the government to be seen to be doing this would take the sting out of the racist propaganda that Britain was about to be engulfed in a human flood from Africa, Asia and and the West Indies. Another way of putting this would have been to argue that passing racist laws would actually reduce racism. All three big parties were clear at the last election that there is no going back to the days of free immigration for anyone from the old colonies. The Tories, as might be expected, promised tougher curbs on entry; the Alliance said they accepted the need for immigration controls; and the Labour Party dressed up their betrayal of their supposed principle of international solidarity in a promise to run a system of "firm and fair" controls. As a sop to any anxieties caused by the Immigration Acts and the human cost of this attempt to appease racism, Race Relations Acts were introduced, supposedly to ensure that those immigrants who were allowed to come here should be free of discrimination. 

Racist violence
The first immigration Act was passed in 1962 and the first Race Relations Act in 1965. But just as laws cannot eliminate poverty or slums or disease so they fail to abolish prejudice. It is no longer legal, for example, to end an advertisement for accommodation with the phrase "Sorry, no Irish or coloureds" as was once common - but that should deceive nobody. A recent series of TV programmes exposed the different treatment received by two journalists in Bristol, obviously related to the fact that one was white and one black. Anyone with an interest in the subject does not need such programmes to inform them that prejudice still festers; they do not need to witness the sickening bigotry of the man in the Bristol pub who intoned "There's a nig-nog on the fireplace" when the black journalist came quietly into the bar. The anger and disgust which this kind of behaviour provokes could persuade many people that they should be out "smashing" racism, breaking up demonstrations, driving racists off the streets and outlawing their organisations. It is not that simple; for just as racist ideas cannot be blanked out by legislation neither can they be affected by attempts to outdo the racists in repressive tactics. Anyone who relies for their kicks on regular punch-ups with National Front skinheads may find this boring but if we are able to tackle racism effectively it must be through understanding its dimensions, its background and its place in this society.

In the days when racism meant the Nazis trying to wipe out the Jews, or the Ku Klux Klan's grisly madness in the Deep South, or the white minorities in countries like South Africa and Rhodesia holding down the black majority, British politicians often took comfort in the assumption that it was not happening here, not through any special enlightenment among British people but because their tolerance was not being out to the test. In any case the omens were not promising, in view of the prejudice against Jews which had long operated in this country. When the Commonwealth immigrants began to arrive here, starting with the West Indians in the early 1950s, working class racism proved to be easily stimulated, with the additional factor that these victims of discrimination were so easily identifiable. It is not possible, in 1988, to argue that the situation is any easier; apart from the prejudice there is also a lot of persistent racial violence in large towns with a large black population. 

Violence often springs from panic - a frantic, impulsive, incoherent response to difficulties which are imperfectly understood. For example, the slogan "Britain for the British" is easy and punchy - good for demonstrations and carrying a clear implication of violence and repression. It expresses the theory that life in Britain would be a lot better - less poverty, better housing, more accessible medical care, full employment - if only British people were allowed to live here, But who are the "British"? How are they defined? What would be the practical effects of keeping out everyone who did not fall into the definition and even if that were possible, when we had a country inhabited only "British" people would they in fact own it? The slogan, trumpeted so confidently on many a racist march, betrays a deep misunderstanding of society, of how it works and why.

Political opportunism
Working class panic in this matter has been mirrored by that among their political leaders. Perhaps the most notable example was the reaction to Enoch Powell's infamous speech in April 1968. This ex-professor of Greek, with his supposedly ice-cold logical mind, spouted fanciful images of dear old ladies cowering receiving parcels of excrement through their letter boxes and of the River Tiber foaming with blood. Powell's speech received a reception among some workers which bordered on the rapturous. This man who prided himself on his uncommon aloofness was suddenly in touch with the common people; gangs of dockers and market porters marched through the streets to testify to the fact. Less glamourously, the speech touched an unhappy chord in the Labour Party's memory, of the loss in 1964 of the parliamentary seats at Smethwick and Leyton, apparently because of their reputation for being soft on immigration. Their reaction was to rush through another Immigration Act, clearly aimed at hampering the influx of Asians from Kenya and Uganda , which could be done only through the redefinition of British nationality. The Labour Party had come a long way, since the days when Hugh Gaitskell so vehemently denounced the Tory 1962 Immigration Act, comforting his members with the implication that their party would never stoop to any similar denial of international solidarity.

Racist lies
It says a great deal about the "values" of this allegedly civilised society that an idea as widespread and destructive as racism exists without any strong theoretical support. To begin with, if the theory of race -  that human beings are divided into distinct groups with varying abilities and behaviour - is at all valid it should be possible to say what constitutes a race, what are the limits and what decides which race a person belongs to. In fact there has never been any agreement on this, which is why the "experts" have differed so widely in their estimates of the number of races in existence. Are the "British" a race on their own, which would indicate that there are an enormous number of races in the world, or are they part of a larger, more widespread race? People who do not profess to any expertise on the subject, but are sure of the validity of racism, operate on a rather cruder level. Some complain that black people are lazy while other resent what they see as blacks taking over "white" jobs. Jews were once sneered at for a supposed deficiency in martial eagerness; the recent activities of the Israel armed forces has caused that particular myth to be replaced with another, about their innate belligerence.

Among those who have tried to legalise racial boundaries confusion has reigned; at the beginning of the century in the Southern states of America the legal definition of a negro varied from state to state, so that a person could change their skin colour by crossing a state boundary. More recently, the attempts of the South African government at race definition end, somewhat despairingly, in the formula that a white person is someone who in appearance is obviously white or generally accepted as white but excludes any person who, although in appearance obviously white, is generally accepted as coloured. Perhaps this is a clear, workable definition to the lawyers and politicians of Pretoria but other people may well find it an impenetrable muddle.

All this makes the entire concept of racial purity, that favourite object of all racists, look decidedly shaky. Racial purity could come about only through a group keeping themselves genetically exclusive, which would mean living in rigid isolation and breeding only within the group. To achieve that would mean a separation from the mainstream of human activity - which is, after all, so much a matter of migration. It is true to say that humans have always been migratory. In primitive times they spread over the earth in search of sources of food; later there was the enforced migration of slavery; and later yet the movement from one country to another to meet a demand for labour. Today, under modern capitalism, rapid travel and communications answer the needs of developed industry and commerce. So human migration, with its consequent cross-breeding, is a fact of life; to stand aprt from it means to stagnate - which is another way of saying that genetic mixing has been, and is, beneficial to human society. In Britain, whatever the National Front may think, the situation is beyond recall for this is a country with a long history of exporting and importing people. It is nonsense to talk about the "British race" in the sense of a group with an exclusive, unmixed genetic background. The "culture" which racists are so ardent to defend is the outcome of centuries of cross-fertilising among humans, in response to their material situation; it has nothing to do with our genetic construction.

Modern prejudice
Why then is racism so potent a political force? Why, to give a most recent example, did Le Pen win such support among French workers in the last presidential election? To answer these questions we must begin with the fact that the present social system is responsible for a world disfigured with impoverishment and insecurity. For the majority of people getting a living means submitting to exploitation through employment - holding down a job. Their poverty compels them to compete for work, for housing, for social services. They are frustrated and angry about the difficulties in the business of survival, which they sense would be simpler and happier and in the same way they know that most of our current problems are avoidable. Not unreasonably, they think in terms of simple solutions, such as alleviating poverty with extra resources. But the knowledge that there are obstacles to this provokes their frustration, which can be most easily worked off by passing their own responsibility for what happens in society onto some scapegoat or other. Thus modern capitalism seethes with prejudice - against women, children, the disabled, the old, the unemployed - and most prominent among these is the bigotry of racism.

The man in the Bristol pub would probably die rather than agree to it, but his crude racism was really an expression of his need to understand why he has to live as he does. In that sense, he inherits the centuries-old problem of how to justify racism. The slavers amassed enormous wealth from their pitiless human trade (which did so much to make Bristol the thriving port it once was) and the slaves suffered so terribly on the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas and then on the plantations, that there had to be theories about the inborn inferiority to excuse it all. Religion was not reluctant to help out in this, giving divine solace to any consciences which could not be settled through a perusal of the balance sheets. It was the same for the white minorities in Africa, who protected their sumptuous privileges and disproportionate political power by reasoning that the blacks were simply not fit to rule and therefore benefited from having white people on their backs. Slave labour was also at the root of the ruthless persecution of negroes in the Deep South, which continued on its savage way a long, long time after the slaves had been theoretically set free. The imperial expansion of British capitalism (another of history's examples of migration) depended on the annexation of territory backed by an overwhelming military force. Huge fortunes were made a few people from this repression of millions. Little wonder that they excused it all as an historic example of an advanced, cultured people selflessly carrying enlightenment and progress to a primitive rabble.

Class divisions
So racism is not the ordered theoretical structure which its proponents would have us believe. It has no sound basis and its concepts are laughably inconsistent. It is not rooted in genetic inheritance but springs from material surroundings, a part of social history. It should be enough to leave the matter there, except that racism flourishes as a malign obstacle to human progress. It can be more than a matter of, say, a British worker getting angry at what is seen as immigrants taking over "our" towns, "our" shops, "our" dole offices . . . The memory of Nazi Germany's meticulous rounding up, transportation and murdering of millions of people is too clear for that. This is what racism at its extremities is capable of but at all levels it is a denial of the reality that there is only one useful division to draw among the human race and that, in this society, is based on class. Capitalism's social structure has a minority owning the means of life and maintaining their position through exploiting the majority. Exploitation - working for the owning class -  is the majority's only real means of living; they depend on paid employment and that is the source of their poverty which, if they cannot be employed, can attain a desperately low level. On each side of the class divide there is a unity of interests, even though it is not always realised or operated. Capitalists of all "races" or nationalities have the same interests and this goes for the workers as well. The interests of each class however are antagonistic to those of the other; the division is not then between black and white or Jew and gentile or whatever, but between capitalist and worker.

Workers who don't understand why capitalism condemns them to impoverished lives are all too ready to blame their problems onto other workers, from other towns or from other countries or of other "races". This is an exercise of blind futility for after all the misconceptions, after all the efforts to reform capitalism into a problem-free system, it is clear that the need is for a radical change; nothing less than the abolition of class society will do. This is perfectly possible but it requires a united resolve among the world's working class, reflecting the fact that their interests are as one, to establish a society based on common ownership of the means of life. Socialism will be  world of freedom and co-operation, in contrast to capitalism's repression and conflict.

Nothing should be allowed to obscure working class unity nor to hamper its struggle to set up the new social order. We know enough of racism, and of what it does to human beings, to reject it as a destructive, anti-social force. There is a better way; we have a world to win and little time to lose.

Not so futile (1997)

Book Review from the April 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

September Commando-Gestures of Futility and Frustration by John Yates (AK Press £7.95.)

While the psychological pummeling the working class receives in capitalism is both sinister and fatiguing at the best of times, during election campaigns it seems to plumb depths previously unimaginable. John Yates, an American visual artist and satirist, aims counter the insidious lies and distortions of the ruling class with a counter-culture propaganda of his own. While this is not immediately apparent from the baffling title of this work, the casual reader who perseveres may be rewarded.

Though better known for his CD, book cover and film poster designs, Yates has collected together in this volume his second edition of "politically charged satire", generally posters which use the propaganda techniques of the ruling class against the ruling class itself and their belief systems.

Yates describes his posters as "Token tantrums against the inert status quo. Desperate shots at seemingly bulletproof targets", but in this he is too modest. Seemingly more accurate is his other claim that "these protest images, these choruses of disapproval, are the skinny kid on the beach rubbing the sand out of his eyes".

His own eye for contradiction and hypocrisy is sharp indeed, especially when targeted on the horrors of war or the rantings of the US bible belt. The latter is illustrated no better than in his poster featuring a church with a statue of Jesus in the foreground, the Saviour's arms outstretched to embrace the multitude. The caption above reads "All Are Welcome", then below . . . "With Exceptions".

Some of the posters and captions do not hit home nearly as well, but given the difficulty of this art, it is not surprising. Even such skilled practitioners as the British Conservative Party can get it wrong sometimes. The main problem with this work though is its occasional lack of focus or clear political perspective, explained at least in part by Yates's for the sometime American anarchist (and sometimes reformist) Noam Chomsky.

After the visual battering of a British General Election campaign this book is worth more than a cursory glance, though revolutionary socialists will be keenest of all to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Leaders of the Blind (1960)

From the October 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard
This is the first of a series of articles reappraising books which were part of almost every socialist's library in the early part of this century.
Ten Blind Leaders of the Blind, by Arthur M. Lewis: published in Chicago by Charles H. Kerr and Company in 1908.

This is a volume of ten lectures delivered by Mr. Lewis in America before the first world war. Mr. Lewis claims to be a Socialist, but is really, like so many others who make the same claim, only a Social Democrat (in British terms, a Labourite). Nevertheless, this book is full of interest to any Socialist.

It deals with ten politicians, writers, and philosophers. Some of them are now forgotten; a few people these days have heard of Benjamin Kidd and Professor Richard Ely. Yet it is instructive to be reminded of some of these erstwhile worthies. Bishop Spalding, for example, speaking of the contrast between rich and poor, the bishop had this to say:
That the cause of this disparity of condition is moral rather than economic whoever observes may see; and this fact gives emphasis to the great truth that all real amelioration in the lot of human beings depends on religious, moral and intellectual conditions. Money does not make a miser rich nor its lack a true man poor . . . For the most fortunate men life is full of difficulties and troubles: for the poorest it may be filled with light, peace and blessedness.
In a Socialist State, in which the universal ideal is that of physical well-being and comfort, the sublimer moods which make saints, heroes, and men of genius possible would no longer be called forth.
So it is not only ourselves who have had to listen to bishops telling us that we are poor because of "moral conditions," and that the poorest may be "filled with blessedness," whatever that means: our forefathers had to put up with this cant as well. On the other hand, the spectacle of bishops, who are notoriously well-provided in point of "physical well-being and comfort" even to non-bishops, must have been as entertaining then as it is now.

Other of Mr. Lewis's subjects are remembered now only as historical curiosities. One such is Henry George, who proposed that landlords should be made to turn all their rent over to the state. This would give the state a sufficient income, and no one else would then have to pay any taxes. Henry George's Land Tax movement, to which reformers flocked in the last part of the nineteenth century, was of course the outcome of the reluctance of the capitalists to pay for the running of the countries which they ruled. As Marx said of earlier proposals of the same kind: "This is the frank expression of hatred which the industrial capitalist entertains for the landowner, who seems to him a useless or superfluous entity in the scheme of bourgeois or capitalist production." But the only people who can pay for the running of a capitalist country are the capitalists: and Henry George's land tax schemes have been exploded for many years.

Another curiosity is Cesare Lombroso. It is astounding now to recall that he became famous for his theories that the causes of crime were in physical build: that men became murderers and thieves because of the shape of their skulls or the colour of their hair. He wrote books purporting, for example, to show that "prostitutes have smaller skulls, lighter hair, darker eyes, heavier bodies, and shorter feet than normal women."

Thomas Carlyle
It is not now necessary to argue against Lombroso. But other controversies touched on by Mr. Lewis are still raging with undiminished fury. The chapter on Thomas Carlyle is largely concerned with the "Great Man Theory," which still has its devotees. This theory, in Carlyle's words, holds that "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here." It is the leaders, the politicians, the inventors (say the apologists of this school) who go ahead of mankind, who mould history according to their ideas, who change the entire course of a nation's progress by their sudden, brilliant decisions. For example, in Carlyle's view the whole Reformation depended on Luther. If he had recanted when the Roman Catholic authorities summoned him to appear before them, the entire Reformation (in his view) would never have occurred. But to believe this one has to ignore the fact that the ruling class of much of Europe was on the verge of revolt over the revenues that the Catholic Church drained away from their no subjects: no ruling class is content with half the surplus value of its subjects, if it thinks there is the faintest chance of getting it all. The atmosphere was that of a powder magazine. When a powerful class is ready for revolt, any spark will set it off: if Luther had not provided the spark in this case, then somebody else would. 

Mr. Lewis also deals with the case of invention and discovery. The "Great Man Theory" says that inventors and discoverers are men who independently strike out in front of the rest of mankind, and by the sheer force of intellect or character mark out the road which the human race is to follow. But this is to go sadly wide of the facts. When the material conditions, and the productive processes, of a certain country have reached a stage where a new step is both desirable and possible, then inventors will do the rest. If one fails, another will succeed. Very often an invention or discovery is made independently by two or more people. For example, the telescope was invented independently by Jansen, by Lippershey, and by Galileo in the space of two years. Oxygen was discovered independently by Priestley and by a Swedish village apothecary. The nebular theory of the universe was discovered both by Kant and by Laplace. The planet Neptune was discovered by Adams and by Leverrier. The principle of evolution by natural selection was discovered by Darwin, and also, at the same time, by Alfred Russell Wallace. The materialist conception of history was discovered by both Marx and by Engels. These famous examples, along with other evidence, are marshalled skilfully by Mr. Lewis in this chapter.

Immanuel Kant
Another chapter which is worth careful reading is that on Kant. Kant was one of those philosophers who devoted themselves to endeavours to bolster up religion. Religious belief cannot be supported by reason, as religious apologists are often ready to admit. Why, then, should one believe what is not rational? A common theological answer is—Faith: you cannot reason out the existence of a God, but you must have Faith that he is there all the same. Which is much the same as saying, you cannot believe, but still you must believe.

This was the problem that Kant tackled. He started off by maintaining, in his Critique of Pure Reason, that we cannot see things as they really are, only as they appear to be. The two tools by which men understand the world, experience and reason, were thus written off. One suspects that this was because neither experience nor reason can support religious belief. Having cleared the ground, Kant then passed on to the question of how we can come to know the "eternal verities"—a phrase which usually includes religious belief. He had to find a source of knowledge independent of experience and reason. In his Critique of Practical Reason, he brings forward his answer: we must dive down inside our own consciousness, and there we will find the great necessary and universal truths. And what are these great and universal truths? Kant scrabbled around in his own consciousness, and came up with his own list. No prizes are offered for guessing what they were: a personal God, free will, and a future life were all there—all the usual rag-bag of religious beliefs.  One can imagine the howl of derision that would go up if a Socialist attempted to justify his beliefs with such transparent taradiddle: but because Kant supported the political and religious beliefs of the owning class, he was honoured as a great philosopher, and still is.

The beliefs of Kant, and the beliefs of Carlyle, are still held by many who support the present system of society. If only to read these two chapters it is worthwhile getting hold of this book.
Alwyn Edgar

Zero tolerance (1997)

Editorial from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Not content with exploiting us for profit, the capitalist class and their political representatives appear to be stepping up their campaign to rub our noses in the mess their system has made. Once again, some of the most vulnerable members of our class (in this particular case the homeless) have been singled out for attack by Conservatives and Labour politicians alike. This should come as no surprise to anyone with a even a rudimentary knowledge of how the market economy works.

Capitalism is a social system based upon production for profit rather than human need and if needs cannot be backed up by ability to pay, then they will go unmet. The hungry will starve, the ill will die of preventable diseases—and yes—the homeless will go without housing. In order to stop the useful majority who produce all the wealth in capitalism, the working class of wage and salary earners, from uniting in common cause to put and end to this crazy situation, divide-and-rule tactics are used.

Racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia are the most obvious expressions of the division of the working class resulting from the enforced economic scarcity and competition of the market economy, combined with the insidious propaganda of the ruling class. But whenever these divisions won't suffice there is always the unemployed, the single parents or the homeless to blame for the mess we have to live in.

And this is precisely the point. In an obsolete and inequitable system like capitalism workers are constantly looking for someone to blame for their plight. They can blame the politicians who oversee the running of the market, or they can blame the capitalist system itself, but these are for obvious reasons options that are not encouraged. Instead workers are invited to blame other members of our class for their own predicament. Lacking class consciousness, many fall for it.

When they do it plays right into the hands of the ruling class, making their task of dividing groups of workers from one another even easier. It is up to class conscious workers to combat this tactic, pointing out the real cause of working-class problem and why politicians have to resort to such specious tactics to stave off any threat to their system.

We say there is only way forward for the working class—zero tolerance for capitalism and all capitalist politicians!

Let Us Reflect (1950)

From the January 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Party was formed by a small group of workers nearly 46 years ago. At the time the members who formed it were referred to as "impossibilists". Two years later another Party was formed, the Labour Party, which was alleged to include within its proclamations all that it was possible for the workers to achieve, and its highest and ultimate ambition was the accomplishment of State ownership of industry.

Our Party was held up as an object of scorn, at that time, as a group of "young men in a hurry"; the "possibilists", on the other hand, were eulogised as the salt of the earth; the steady, plodding, reasonable people who were going to redress wrong after wrong and creep forward until the workers would find themselves landed, to their astonishment, into a paradise upon earth.

Well 44 years have passed by since the Labour Party started out upon its uplifting career and what have they accomplished? They have been creeping alright—but backwards. The working-class enthusiasm they gathered behind them has been shepherded into two of the most devastating wars the world has ever known and is now being acclimatised to the coming of an even greater war; the one-time opponents of conscription are now its fervent supporters. The Party that crept furtively from fiery denouncers of long hours, imperialism, the subjection of native races, slum housing, the use of the military in strikes and the rest of the inevitable evils of capitalism, into the government of the country bound up with the problem of trying to keep capitalism running smoothly. They have proceeded little by little and bit by bit in truth, but it has been the shedding of old attitudes and old enthusiasms little by little and bit by bit.

Outside of ourselves who, in 1906, would have imagined that the Party built up on those early ideals of redressing injustice would become the stern denouncers of strikes and the breakers of them by the use of troops to run the industries affected? Who would have imagined this Labour Party building up the bureaucratic services to pry into the private lives of workers to ensure that they delivered to the capitalist his proper pound of flesh? Who would have imagined that millionaires would flourish under Labour government or that native workers, like the Nigerians, would be forced at the point of the gun to submit to conditions that only permitted them a very low standard of living? That thousands of workers would be forced to live in overcrowded flats or prefabricated houses under a Labour government? Yet all these things have come to pass, and the conditions of the workers are to-day more insecure than ever with atomic energy being built up to let loose upon the world a horror that beggars description. Even the highest hopes of the founders of the Labour Party—state ownership—has been revealed as, at best, a better organisation of capitalism under which the workers are more completely fleeced of the surplus labour above what it costs to keep them fit to work and reproduce their kind. They are still slaves of the wheel of labour.

This, then, is the paradise into which the "possibilists" have led their blind followers. Yet the founders of the Labour Party had no evil intentions; their motives were good in intention. What was wrong with them was ignorance of the foundations of capitalism, the fatal illusions that capitalism could be modified to serve the interests of the workers and, eventually, modified out of existence.

The result of the reformist policy, the little by little programme, is now that the heirs to it, the present advocates of its policy, have completely lost touch with the genuine aspirations and enthusiasm of the founders and pursue a policy that is openly capitalist and even consists largely of avowed capitalists. This is made apparent by the reports that appear now and again of staunch supporters of Labour passing over into the Tory Party. One recent example is that of the novelist Naomi Jacob

Reflecting upon those long dreary years of labour apostasy surely the workers must soon realize that there is no hope for them outside of opposition to capitalism and to all who support it, no matter what flag flies over them; that their only hope of salvation from a world of hard work, want and insecurity is to abolish the system from which these evils spring and replace it by a system in which all will have an equal opportunity of enjoying the fruits of the labours of all. Not Labour government nor nationalisation is the answer to the evils that afflict the world; only Socialism is the solution, and this is the sole object for which it is worth working.

The Last Word: Why I am a Socialist (1997)

From the November 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

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