I had been interested in politics from a young age, but I thought being political meant watching the news and paying attention in history lessons. It wasn’t until the Tories were elected in summer 2010 that I began to think about politics in a serious way. I was horrified by the cuts.
When I heard that a few people were setting up an anti-cuts group at my university, I was hesitant about going along, but I did, and and really enjoyed meeting like-minded people. It started small — having debates, writing articles for our blog and the college paper, leafleting for meetings. But these are the building blocks for an activist group, and many of us grew in political confidence, and got a good number of people around us. We were soon attending big demos in London, and we organised an occupation on campus, the first of several. (One of which, in 2012, actually saved some jobs). Doing something about the cuts was incredibly exciting and empowering.
The struggle was transformative in so many way. Lectures became places to do shout-outs about the next demo and to leaflet. It became usual to go out leafleting, not just for demos, but organising meetings and political debates. I was hungry for ideas, and would pore over articles shared on social media, blogs, books from the library, books borrowed from friends, newspapers, journals, anything. I think I read more in the months of November and December 2010 and January 2011 than I did for the rest of my time at university.
But I still held lots of reactionary ideas, in contradiction to these exciting new ones. Throughout university I had remained a member of the sea cadets, and ultimately I planned to join the Navy. I held lots of sexist and moralistic ideas. And I retained lots of Cold War propaganda I got at school — Leninism was Stalinism etc.
My experience at the big tuition fees demo in December 2010 ironed these ideas out somewhat. On that demo, I was charged by horses, I was hit with batons, I saw people battered to the floor, had to treat cuts and broken fingers with my first aid kit, and saw the most appalling police brutality. That was the demo when Alfie Meadows nearly died, and required emergency brain surgery.
Any lingering respect I had for the police was thoroughly undone. I started to square up the ideas I had about society, with what I had understood from the last few months. Suddenly it made sense. The police weren’t there to help, they would put people in hospital just to protect the windows of the Ministry of Justice, to block big societal change, like stopping the trebling of tuition fees. It was painful to think how the bosses and the politicians and the landlords were laughing as they enriched themselves through our collective immiseration. Within a week or two I had quit the cadets, and thought of myself as an anti-capitalist. New terms started to swirl in my head: class, capitalist, proletarian, production. I started reading Marx and Proudhon and others.
I knew what I was against. I knew what the root cause of society’s ills were, if in a raw way. I knew this was a fight I wanted to be a part of. But what was I actually for? What kind of future society did I want?
The big 26 March 2011 TUC demo was another thought-provoking day for me. Seeing half a million people was pretty inspiring.
That excitement soon wore off when I saw the passivity of labour movement bureaucrats (who would in due course sell out the pensions dispute), and, the more exciting, but very limited in scope, direct action affinity groups. Where I had been leaning towards the latter over the last few months, inspired by our anti-cuts group’s self-activity, March 26 revealed the political limitations of both approaches.
By this time I had met members of Workers’ Liberty. I was struck that they had no time for the sell-outs of the trade union leadership, but had a long term plan beyond smashing windows. They spoke openly about workers’ control of production, about democracy permeating every aspect of society, about socialism.
I bought Solidarity, went to the odd day school, and met up with members to discuss big ideas.
In our anti-cuts group there was a good Socialist Party trade union activist who impressed me enough to meet up with him, but the SP’s ideas were terrible. Whether it was the big stuff (I remember laughing at a pamphlet which was apologetic for the CCP), or the bread and butter activity (I attended an NSSN conference where the SP decided to set up its own front anti-cuts organisation and decry the pre-existing organisations as sectarian), they were just wrong.
Workers’ Liberty had the right approach to the student movement, I thought. The two biggest strategies on the student left were to dominate or destroy the campaigns they were involved in through bureaucratic manoeuvring (e.g. the SWP), or else to swing the opposite way, and refuse to talk about big ideas. AWL members were hard-working members of the NCAFC, but openly sold Solidarity. They would propose initiatives, but were also interested in what you had to say. They tried to win support, not by hiding their ideas, or trying to smash up a group, but by arguing for their politics.
This, combined with the group’s distinctive third camp socialist ideas, meant I soon joined the AWL. Perhaps it was a little premature, I could have done more reading and discussing of ideas. But I agreed with what they thought, I agreed with the collective projects the group was involved in – why in those circumstances should I not join?
The biggest thing I learnt from my own “journey” to socialist politics is that you can hold some wildly contradictory ideas in your head! But I see this as a positive —it means socialists can convince millions of people, if we can just work through the contradictions.
Every paper sale, every demo, every union branch, campaign meeting, or picket line, is an opportunity to do just that.