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How I became a socialist

john Bell

August 5, 2020

An old friend, now deceased, once asked: “How did a golf loving white boy from London Ontario ever turn out to be a communist?” 

The answer starts with reading. I was blessed to have an aunt who was a children’s librarian. I adored her and she taught me to read and to love books and learning. 

Reading was both entertainment and escape from often abusive family circumstances. And it included reading the local newspaper every day. 

My formative years were the 1960s. I grew up reading about the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam war. Although the worst of the McCarty era was over, the Cold War raged. My walk to and from school passed a massive grey tower, the air-raid siren, and there were occasional duck-and-cover drills.

But the attempt to divide the world into Commie aggressors and peace-loving Westerners didn’t make sense. I remember a particularly vivid dream from childhood: a cowboy walks into a saloon and explains to me that not everybody who wears a black hat is a bad guy. Bad guys can wear white hats too–good to know.

It might have been in third or fourth grade, I read in the paper about sales of Canadian Wheat to the Soviet Union. In the civics lesson I remember asking my teacher: “If Russians are our enemies, why are we selling them food?” 

The teacher reacted with confusion and I recognized momentary fear in their eyes, and then gave an explanation that didn’t convince me. It was a pivotal moment. The information I was being given was, at least in this instance, wrong, and the supposed expert didn’t know what they were talking about. This was the beginning of a world view that saw that despite different style and trappings, both East and West were essentially the same. And that essence was business.

So I grew up skeptical about both sides of the “Cold War”. A tip of the hat is due to Elwy Yost, who presented movies from all over the world on Ontario educational TV. The very first time I watched, he played the Seven Samurai. It is no exaggeration to say it changed my life, opened me up to a big wide world beyond the confines of London, and was a first step to becoming an internationalist.

But more than anything I wanted to have a good time in life, and organized politics seemed dull, strident and contaminated by either Western-style capitalism or Eastern Bloc Stalinism. So I became a smartass, taking the piss out of both sides.

Top of my agenda was getting the hell out of conservative, consumerist, bible-belt London. My escape route was to university in Toronto. And that required money–my family gave some support but didn’t have the means. I was lucky enough to score a succession of good-paying summer jobs in unionized workplaces. One incident sticks out: I used part of my lunch break to go to the toilet. When I returned a veteran took me aside: “Look kid, never shit on your own time. Always shit on the boss’s time.” That lesson was clearer than a dozen university seminars.

Being in unions was important. I read my contracts, went to union meetings, and got involved in solidarity for other workers in the area striking for their rights. In 1978 women auto parts workers in a small town called Centralia walked out to gain union recognition; the Fleck Strike was a great example of the fierce determination of the women workers, the outpouring of solidarity backing them up, and a massive deployment of OPP riot cops determined to bust the picket line and the union.

A bus load from my workplace went, and any questions I had about the police and their role in society were settled. Factory owner James Fleck was joined at the hip to the Ontario Tories. It was a battle, one that went on day after day. And those women stood firm and they won.

Back at university I encountered Karl Marx. I borrowed an anthology of Marx’s writing, and read with enthusiasm. Marx led to Lenin. Yes, Marxism is a gateway philosophy.

I also encountered “Marxist” groups, most of them adherents of Maoism. Their attempts to twist Marx and Lenin into champions of Beijing or worse, Albania, horrified me and ran counter to the clear internationalism found in those original writings. So I reconciled myself to being a lone Marxist, with ideas but no organization.

Along the way I encountered one group of young socialists who had a different approach. At the core of International Socialist Tendency politics was the idea of “state capitalism”: that workers in the Soviet Bloc and China were just as exploited and oppressed as those in the West. Capitalism was a world system, and the Cold War was basically inter-capitalist competition writ large. It was like a gong going off. Half formed ideas and suspicions that I had had for years came into sharp focus. 

As much as I was attracted to the ideas of the IS, I kept my distance for several years, suspicious of organizations. But I kept running into IS members on picket lines, at demonstrations, in a union organizing drive, and they were always cheerful and contributing, not standing on the sidelines hectoring like some other left groups. I considered joining.

The final straw was the uprising of Polish shipyard workers in 1980/81 that became Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Their basic demand was for a free trade union, not the state-controlled union imposed on them. Their factory occupation sparked a wave of rebellion which shook the foundations of the state, and inspired workers’ struggles around the world.

For me the choice was clear: either you backed the workers or you backed the generals and their tanks trying to smash the strike. Shamefully, most of the left backed the tanks, characterizing rebellious Polish workers as agents of the CIA or the Vatican–similar to arguments against supporting freedom fighters in Hong Kong today.

History poses a test for ideas and for organization. The only socialist organization in Canada that passed the test of Solidarnosc was the International Socialists. I joined convinced that it was an organization that walked its talk.

I write all this not to pat myself–or the IS–on the back. It is as a challenge to you readers. I made the decision to become a socialist when the cracks in the capitalist edifice were barely showing. Today we see not cracks but chasms. All capitalism offers is war and austerity, illness and environmental catastrophe. I challenge you to read Marx–the Communist ManifestoThe Civil War in France, the first volume of Capital–and let it sink in for a while as you observe the world around you. Don’t be satisfied with how others, including me, interpret Marx. Go to the source and evaluate it for yourself.

And finally, if you agree with socialist ideas I challenge you to put them into action the only way possible, by joining together with other socialists to debate, strategize and act to build the better world we know is possible. I think that organization is the IS. 

Meanwhile, always shit on the boss’s time.


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