Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist

Steve Platt

I was anti-establishment before I was socialist. Even at school I loathed its accretion of wealth without effort, privilege without merit, power without justice. Like many working class teenagers, I was kicking against the system before I had any idea of what the system was.

I have to be honest about it. A large part of that early rebelliousness was no more than the undirected aggression of adolescence too much testosterone swilling around without an outlet. Partly, though, it was defiance of genuine injustice. At any rate, I was expelled from school at 15 two hours before my O levels began.

The head teacher, a man named Heseltine who was a dead ringer for the public school principal who provoked armed revolt in the film If..., had been engaged in a battle of wills with a large part of his fifth form for most of the past year. The final straw for him (there had been far worse) was the refusal by four of us to stay behind after some school sports event and put away the equipment. We had, if you like, gone on strike.

We weren't just being stroppy and uncooperative. The four of us had been chosen deliberately in an attempt to assert the head's authority over his pupils. We all lived an hour's bus journey away. If we missed the bus that left shortly after school finished, we faced another hour's wait for the next one which was often full of people going home from work, so that we couldn't get on it anyway.

It was hardly one of life's great causes we demand the right to get home at a reasonable time! But the sense of liberation we got from standing up together against unfairness even if we were slapped down hard again the following morning has stayed with me ever since. One of my biggest regrets in the 25 years since then has been that many more people have not come to appreciate and act upon the strength to be obtained from collective action.

I spent most of my mid to late teens in and around Liverpool. Widnes, St Helens, Ormskirk, Southport the places where I lived, studied or worked circled the city in which I spent most of my free time and learnt most of my politics.

It was a heady period politically. A couple of years too young to have been affected directly by the events of 1968, my formative political experience came in its afterwash. I was hit over the head with a police truncheon at a protest in Whitehall after Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers in Derry. I got involved in the battle against Edward Heath's Industrial Relations Bill when we organised a pupils' union and a one day strike against the bill ('Anarchy In City Schools' barked the Liverpool Echo's banner headline). We set up a support group for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and enthused wildly over the fighting spirit of the Glasgow apprentices who came to tell us what was happening in their struggle to save jobs.

I learnt, above all, that people who were powerless individually could influence events and who knows, maybe even change society by organising together with others. I learnt that you didn't have to simply put up with injustice, or fume against the world's iniquities in private, but that you could do something.

You don't have to be a socialist to feel all of this. But it helps.

It helps to understand that even the most benign capitalism is rooted in the unequal and unfair distribution of the world's resources; that one person's wealth is many people's poverty and that the two go hand in hand as surely as those who have power and influence already will use it to obtain more.

I was asked to contribute a piece on 'Why I became a socialist'. I could have mentioned very much more: the wars waged by wealthy nations against weaker ones, unemployment, homelessness and poverty in the midst of plenty, starvation, exploitation and oppression, racism and prejudice, a kind of democracy that stops short of permitting serious challenge to the status quo, an approach to personal freedom founded upon what you can afford to buy, an attitude towards the earth based upon price rather than value, consumption rather than careful husbandry.

People say that socialism is fine in theory, but it doesn't work in practice. So what we've got is working?


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