Ruth Cashman, who is standing for election to the Momentum National Co-ordinating Group (London region), describes how early-life experiences and reading books made her a socialist, and what socialism means to her. The first of three articles. Part two discusses militant trade unionism in local government.
Because my parents were socialist trade unionists — they met on an anti-fascist demo — we always talked about politics at home. We’d talk about the anti-apartheid struggles or Section 28 and many other things. If someone had asked me if I was a socialist when I was six, I would have said, “yes”.
But I saw politics in moral terms. That capitalism was the source of child hunger and racism and bad things that happened in the world. I started thinking about socialism in class terms when I was still at primary school, and because of the Liverpool Dockers Strike [1995-98].
Lots of my family live in the area and my dad was heavily involved in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now Unite), trying to push them to do more for the dockers. I was particularly impressed when two of my favourite footballers, pulled off their shirts during a match to reveal T-shirts supporting the dockers. They were disciplined for that. It was a huge struggle that affected the whole area, and everyone had to have an opinion on it. At the same time, at the beginning, the dispute was never in the press.
I started asking more questions. I would go on demos and ask grown ups about what was going on. I stayed up past my bedtime, when all the adults were celebrating the election of a Labour government, only for it to become clear that Labour were never going to help the dockers and were not going to repeal the anti-union laws. I asked my mum and dad about the miners' strike, about what you might call class politics, and the role of the state in society, although I wouldn’t have put it in those terms.
It is clearly unusual for someone my age to be a socialist. Most people get “recruited” to socialism when they are at Uni. They may become socialists and then have to be oriented to class struggle and the labour movement. Because of my formative experiences, I was almost a budding trade unionist, who had to learn how to be a socialist.
I also remember being in crèches at TGWU delegate conferences. One year there was a debate on LGBT rights. My mum seconded a motion and I was sitting on my dad’s lap while she did it, watching. The speaker after my mum said, “It’s the children I feel sorry for.” I asked my mum, “Do they mean me?” She laughed and said “Yes, they mean you.” I remember thinking not only are my mum and dad on the right side by being in trade unions, they are on the right side in trade unions. I was staggered that there were people in trade unions who thought that, of all the things in the world that children have to be protected from, it is gay people.
This socialism was all a lot more complicated than it initially appeared.
As a young adult my most formative experience was the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the anti-war demonstrations. That was the first time that I was involved in political activity independent of my dad and mum. All my school friends were on the demo and we were organising school strikes.
I remember being on a demo and talking to an SWP organiser. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with what he was saying. But then we walked past Martin Thomas [of Workers’ Liberty] and the SWPer launched into an attack on Martin because he had a paper which said “No to war, no to Saddam.” I was flabbergasted that someone would scream at a stranger for being both against the war and a dictator. It made no sense.
I absorbed the more subtle revolutionary socialism of my parents, but in a very basic way. I didn’t think you could vote away capitalism. I did have an appreciation of how the ruling class had a monopoly on violence through the state and that pacifism wasn’t necessarily the answer. But I didn’t think about socialism in revolutionary terms, for example, the purpose of revolutionary parties, until I started reading Marxist books.
As I couldn’t afford to go to Uni straight away, I worked on the London Underground for a year after school. I was an RMT rep for some of that time, which was both very exciting, but also because I was very young and a woman I wasn’t very confident, and it was a little bit alienating. This wasn’t an environment where young people were encouraged; it was quite cliquey. But I did start to discuss politics more with people in Workers’ Liberty who are active in the RMT on London Underground. My political links with Workers’ Liberty date from that time.
The way I became a socialist was through a desire to read any books that taught me a bit more. I feel quite strongly about the need for a literary culture on the left and it is hugely lacking. I have a repulsion of university-educated people who do an impression of workerism, which is deliberately ignorant and snooty about books. Both my parents are from, not particularly poor, but working-class Irish families. My grandparents encouraged us to read the children’s “classics”. This is very common in Irish immigrant communities - it is very important that you read, it is part of your self-respect. I also felt it was important to talk to people who knew more than me, and asked them what to read.
Many people learn at University or at their “good schools” how to talk around their ignorance, in order to seem cleverer than other people. I was very intimidated by this at University. But then I learned that you can talk to people who know things, tell them other people you don’t know things, and ask questions. It is a much better way of learning, than pretending to know it all. It is part of opening yourself up to new ideas.
I had read the ‘Communist Manifesto’ when I was at school. Then tried to read ‘Capital’, which went spectacularly wrong; I didn’t understand it at all. At Uni I tried to read it again with the help of Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho’s guide. I read ‘State and Revolution’ and ‘What is to be Done’. One book that really changed my thinking was one of Sam Farber’s books on Cuba. It explained things I couldn’t understand.
Sam Farber made me realise that you don’t have to square oppression and the shrinking of life and the control over the economy of peoples’ lives into some idea of socialism. About how important, in a real-life way, working-class agency is.
Of course reading that book made me slicker in arguments about Cuba with other people on the left; more able to say, “How can Cuba be socialist if it has no trade unions”. It’s easier to make those “symptoms” arguments and able to meet counter-arguments on things like, “But Cuba has good medical care” if you read up. But the fundamental thing is to learn how to think; the book helped me understand that a socialist revolution is about working-class agency and that is a lesson you can carry through your entire political life.
One thing I have found most reprehensible in the Corbyn movement, is not just the Stalinism, the support for China, or soft admiration for Stalin, but the more widespread contempt for political culture. The people who say, meetings are boring, we don’t need them. I find this elitist. It shows an understanding of socialism where ordinary people, or people who you consider too ordinary to make decisions, don’t need to discuss out ideas and make plans and strategies and re-imagine the world.
Yes, meetings can be long and tiring, but they are necessary if working-class people are to be in the driving seat. If you don’t understand working-class agency, you’ll only ever be thinking about giving people things that are a bit better, things that people like you decide make sense in smaller meetings, somewhere out of sight.
Unfortunately my Uni was very apolitical – there wasn’t a Labour Club, the only political society was the Conservative society. I was never very involved in student politics. I had to wait until I came back to London, and moved in with my dad because he was sick, and got a job in local government to become more active.
In part two Ruth will discuss being a socialist trade union activist in local government.