Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist

Michael Rosen

My parents were both in the Communist Party from a Jewish East End background. One grandfather was a union organiser in the US Boot and Shoe Workers' Union and stood for the Socialist Party of America in the 1920s in Pennsylvania. My great grandfather was in the Bund, which was a Jewish socialist movement set up 100 years ago. So I didn't come across socialist politics in a sense it was born into me through these generations.

I was born in 1946 and was brought up with a mixture of Marxist and Stalinist politics. For my first ten years I was going on May Day marches, to Daily Worker rallies the Daily Worker and all sorts of pro-Soviet literature were in the house.

To be in a Communist family at that time was like being part of a culture. There are all sorts of names that have a resonance like Stalingrad; Mosley in Cable Street; the Sydney dockers supporting the dockers' strike in London. One thing that had an impact on me was the 1956 Suez War and the Russian invasion of Hungary. I was in Trafalgar Square aged ten hearing the voice of Nye Bevan berating the Americans, British, Israelis and French, and I was trying to understand this. Suddenly up comes one of my parents' CP friends and says, `the tanks have gone in, the tanks have gone in.' I was looking at my parents with ashen faces and they turned to me and said `Khrushchev has sent tanks in to Budapest.' I remember thinking, what has this got to do with the Suez crisis? It was a wonderful moment the final crisis with British imperialism coinciding with really the beginning of the end of Stalinism. The fault lines are exposed and there's me as a ten year old standing there between all these CP people trying to figure it all out. I see this now as a seminal moment in my life.

My parents left the CP in 1957. I was always close to my parents but I never probed them that closely about this. As far as I know their main criticism was that they were fed up with domestic Stalinism. I think at the time they may have thought that the Russians were right to go into Hungary. It was very difficult for anyone who was in the CP through the 1930s, and the war to cope with criticism of the Soviets (particularly in some senses if you were Jewish). We look at Stalin and we see the Gulag, 13 million peasants wiped out in the Ukraine that Stalinism was a counter-revolution but my parents saw it as a good kind of nationalism because `it saved them'.

The first organisation I joined was the Labour Party when I was 14. When I was 13 I ran away to join the Aldermaston march. That was when I first met the various socialist alternatives to Stalinism. I was only in the Labour Party for a couple of years. I was around CND. When I was 18 I went to college. When the Vietnam protests started I remember writing to Merlyn Rees because he had taught me at school, and then became a Labour MP. I had campaigned for him in the 1959 election as a school kid in Harrow East. When the Wilson regime gave tacit support for the Vietnam War I wrote this five page letter saying that the honourable thing now, Merlyn, is to resign. He didn't even reply. I was later arrested on a demonstration against the war in London.

At Oxford, where I was, the student thing blew up there were grassroots questions about authority, what colleges were for and so on at the time of the growing movement against the Vietnam War.

Two big campaigns were happening. The International Socialists were leafleting the Cowley car workers and the university `police' proctors said that this was bringing the university into disrepute, therefore those people would be fined.

This caused an outrage because it was a question of democracy what right did these two guys have to impose fines? So a group of us organised what was in effect Oxford's first sit-in in the governing building. And the university authorities climbed down.

The immediate thing that followed was to be the first sit-in against what Trevor Munro who later led the Jamaican CP said was the `British colour bar'. As it happened Annette's hairdressers in Oxford was refusing to cut black women's hair. So we staged a sit-in there. Around 200 to 300 turned up opposite the hairdressers trying to look very inconspicuous. A black women went in and if she reappeared immediately we were to go in. About 20 people got into the shop and the rest of us sat outside. The owner went berserk, threatening us with a pair of scissors. The cops turned up, arrested a lot of us and charged us. On the day we came up in court another 200 students did exactly the same thing. We were all fined 2.

I was brought up in a very anti- authoritarian family. At university there were all these people sitting in positions of incredible power and control over other people they decided what you studied, who you were allowed to sleep with, what sort of uniform you were meant to wear. I asked how they justified this and they said tradition I just thought it was bollocks. This really crystallised for me at Oxford there were a lot of people maintaining their positions of power and privilege.

One of the things that kids do is to go to single issues such as I did with CND. You cannot take on the whole of capitalism it's too much. My favourite route is by literature or music. If a kid reads The Diary of Anne Frank for example they become more aware of a different view of the world various forms of injustice can become very clear through books. The problem becomes organisation literature and music are very good for expressing feelings and human outrage, but the question is, what kind of organisation can people get in to?

A lot of people are pinning an enormous amount of hope on a Labour government, although not enthusiastically. In the area where I work a lot education it is like a symbol of what the Labour Party is doing overall. You see a Labour Party surrendering the basic human thing of equality of opportunity. I can't believe that two years into a Labour government they are going to be able to sustain that position there are going to be so many people horrified and disappointed.


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