From precariat to proletariat

Submitted by Matthew on 30 April, 2014 - 11:32

These excerpts from autobiographical notes by Alice, who joined our movement in 1978 at the age of 23, tell something general about how people become committed to socialist activism, and also something about left politics in the 1970s.

Alice came from an unprosperous and conflict-ridden working-class family, and had attended school only patchily since the age of 14. In March 1973, aged 18, she took advantage of an offer of a lift to leave her home country and to come to London, unfluent in English, with no job or home to go to, and in her pocket the equivalent of £160 in today’s money.

She found odd jobs, lived in squats and shared houses, and after a while moved from London to Liverpool and Lancaster and then to Edinburgh: a member of the precariat before the word was invented.

She had become a rebel. In juvenile prison at the age of 17, she told the social worker and the priest who tried to “put her on the right path” that “it wasn’t me, but my environment, my father, and the world that were on the wrong path”.

Looking back on the situation today, Alice would say that in the situations she faced, her strongest points were to see human conditions in an interconnected way and not let herself be blamed for circumstances which she didn’t initially cause. She was determined not to let others stereotype her, as she was also determined not to stereotype others.

But she had come across left-wing politics only glancingly, shortly before leaving her home country, through a friend’s father who was a Maoist.

“That was when I first started getting into real political discussions. I didn’t understand everything, but it opened my eyes to a new world.

“I went to a demonstration for the first time... against the war in Vietnam. Seeing that, and feeling so many people coming together who wanted a change, who wanted to fight for something and to express their discontent, their anger and their indignation… that made a very big impression on me. It was good energy.

“Naturally, I didn’t know anything at all about the trench warfare between the different left-wing parties and groups…”

In Britain she was immersed in “counter-culture”; she was feminist and anti-racist; but she was outside political activity until she fell in with a group of young people in Edinburgh.

“They were all students, or had been students. Philosophy, politics, art, sociology… there were big debates over this and that, Marx, Sartre, Hegel, Trotsky — again, a new world to me. I wanted to know more, I read new books”.

She spent time with one activist in particular, G.

“G studied philosophy and could talk like a book. I think that we found each other quite hard work. I was a handful for him, because I had very intense emotions, and he grated on me because he was always talking about stuff that I couldn’t keep up with unless I went away and read up on it. I could read all sorts of stuff, understand it and pose smart questions, but I didn’t have the academic background, so some things still escaped me.”

But: “After many discussions and when the group realised that they could trust me, I was allowed in, so to speak. They were almost all members of a party which at that time was called the International-Communist League (ICL), a Trotskyist group [forerunner of the AWL].

“Naturally, there was a party programme, which I got to grips with. It fascinated me that there was a group of people who all actually wanted to find a way to overcome all the physical suffering in the world. The other thing that fascinated me was that there was a way of doing this, which could be put into practice. I found a structure and definition of social and political conditions that was very satisfying — and I became a member.

“All my activities of the preceding years, different groups, and efforts to change things, were still things I was very proud of — to me, they were all part of a greater whole. But now it seemed to me that my previous efforts had just been arbitrary and directionless, which were all linked, but fell short of being organised and purposeful action. The argument that humans needed a material basis that would allow them to liberate themselves from their wretched and enslaved condition was like a light turning on in my head.

“I took a job at British Rail, cleaning sleeper cars. In Edinburgh there was a British Rail depot, which became my workplace. We (we were all women on the job) worked in three shifts and were ‘proper workers’, proletarians. This was very well-received by the party, because we wanted to be implanted in all sections of society. And, to cap it all off, the final and obligatory act, like saying ‘amen’ in church, was to join the union.

“The work was hard, and the women, who were more ‘properly proletarian’ than I was, were very hearty and stuck together. They made sure no-one was left out. Mae, our forewoman, kept a watchful eye on our work, but also kept tabs on us. If anyone wasn’t doing too well, perhaps because of ‘women’s problems’, she would assign them less work to do, or might get someone else to cover for her.

“New workers were looked after as well. It was clear that they couldn’t finish up a carriage as quickly as the old hands could. We wanted to get all the cars cleaned as soon as possible, so that we could all meet up in the mess room before we went home. We would drink tea, and chat and joke about work and so on.

“These were very straightforward women, who would liberally sprinkle their sentences with ‘fuck’, ‘fucking shit’ and ‘cunt’ — but I felt a unique kind of solidarity with them, which drew them all into my heart and which I shall never forget.

“We elected workplace representatives. Because I would often talk with the women about political things and sometimes I got very heated about one thing or another, they elected me to be their rep.

“One thing that was very important to me was that women should be reps themselves, and not always just be represented by men.

“Later I would be elected as a delegate to the Edinburgh TUC. I found taking part in meetings of that body very difficult. I had already got some experience in speaking in front of small groups, but the TUC meetings were really big. I can still remember very clearly how at my first ‘appearance’ my knees were shaking.

“There were endless meetings. Labour Party, union, women’s group, Edinburgh ICL branch, national ICL meetings, and there were weekend schools on top of that. All that on top of the job. I was always busy with something. After the meetings we’d generally go to the pub.”

Alice withdrew from socialist activism after returning to her home country, where politics similar to ours were very weak. Her story still tells us a lot.

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