Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist: Norah Rushton

I was born in 1929 in Merseyside. My father worked for Prices which was part of Lever Brothers and they had their own maternity home which is where I was born. Ours was a working class family. These days as a Marxist I understand class to be defined by a person's relationship to production. But back then I knew we were working class because my parents worked and we were poor.

My dad was a factory worker and mum had worked and was a union organiser on the docks during the First World War. Mother would rage about the inequalities women had to suffer, and people always seemed to come to her for help and advice. I remember many times during the 1930s when mum would be out organising people on the estate to stop bailiffs evicting someone. Dad would be at home looking after me because the working week had been cut back to two or three days.

Mum was a very strong character, typically left wing. She would often quote Shakespeare, insisting that 'Shakespeare's not just for them, you know.' We had books by Shelley, Byron and a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. Dad was much quieter though he was a good trade unionist who taught me what 'scab' meant at an early age. He had been a stretcher bearer in the First World War wounded and captured before Passchendaele.

I won a scholarship to go to West Kirkby Grammar School for Girls, then after leaving college went to teacher training college in Leeds. In 1946 this was still quite an unusual profession for a working class woman, as a grammar school education was required and only a minority of working class people received a scholarship.

I hated teacher training college. When I left I didn't want to teach anywhere. I really wanted to be an actress, but this felt like wishing for the moon. I got a small part at the Playhouse Theatre which paid very little money. You needed hefty financial support from parents to subsidise acting, and mine couldn't afford it. So in 1948 I got a job at the Stork margarine factory, another subsidiary of Lever Brothers.

It was at this time that I got involved in the peace movement. It also led me to get sacked from my job. At the time the peace movement was accused of being a front for the Communist Party, and I was sacked because of this. I wasn't a member of the party at the time. But I became one soon after. There had been trouble on the factory floor, discontent about working conditions. Top management wanted to know what was going on, so the local manager decided to get rid of the agitators. But we weren't really agitators, not until they sacked us, then we became 'agitators'.

We fought the dismissals, got letters of support from Australia, Canada and around Britain. We caused a lot of fuss and we won. We were reinstated and the local managers got moved. They can be quite ruthless with their own kind too.

In 1949 I joined the Merseyside Unity Theatre, one of a number of Unity Theatres set up around the country in the late 1930s. They performed in trade union branches and in street theatre to raise money for medical aid during the Spanish Civil War. The ideology behind the Unity Theatre was that of the Communist Party, but not all were party members for some it was a leg up into professional theatre.

It was left wing working class theatre. We had our own playwrights and our work was anti-war and about working class struggle. We used songs to tell working class history, like old merchant navy songs. We also did the classics, but from different angles and viewpoints. Every Sunday educational people like

EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and John Saville came to talk about working class history. There were debates on politics, art, philosophy all sorts of things. All sorts of local people came along for me it came close to my idea of socialism. Everybody had a common aim, but there were always terrific discussions and arguments.

The Playhouse Theatre was very middle class. The roles for women in mainstream theatre were very much supporting those of male actors. Women at the Unity Theatre were feisty women who in practice stood against the Communist Party line of first revolution and then women's liberation. The plays we performed had strong female characters and women took part in running the theatre as well as acting in the plays.

I married Stan Rushton in 1953 and had two sons in 1959 and 1963. Stan was also a member of the Communist Party and we were both heavily involved and engaged in things. We used to have to make dates to see each other. We left the Communist Party in 1956 after the Hungarian Revolution. Workers being shot in the street wasn't my idea of socialism. After Steve, my first son, was born I stopped working but continued with the Unity Theatre. Stan and I had an agreement that we would share leisure time and he did do more than most men. He was considered remarkable by my friends and neighbours, but a lot still fell on me.

Stan died suddenly when the children were still very young and I never remarried, so my sons are important to me.

I went back to college as a mature student in 1981, studying sociology, drama and English. It was there that I (re)discovered socialism from below. Books by Tony Cliff, Chris Harman etc were on our reading list. I left the Labour Party after the betrayal of the miners' strike. I got a job as a part time further education lecturer and abortion counsellor, and in 1989 became a full time student counsellor, retiring when I was 64 in 1995.

The Unity Theatre was central in many ways to my life. I was considered a good actress and was very serious about my work. Also the theatre was very close to my political views. I'd love to get involved in acting again but there isn't the kind of theatre around that I would like to work in. I want to travel with the money that's available and keep fighting for something better.


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