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Be a socialist

By: 
John Bell

May 17, 2012

As a boy, my everyday walk to elementary school in suburban London, Ontario took me past a towering gray air raid siren. This was no obsolete cold war relic. I dimly recall occasional drills during which we were instructed –yes–to “duck and cover”.

I was born into what was billed as a “middle class” family, in what is still considered a thoroughly “middle class” city, smack in the middle of the 1950s. My father was a high school teacher and my mother, a registered nurse, stayed at home to raise four annoying children. Imagine a family of six living on one income today…

I remember my parents’ excitement returning from a summer holiday, looking forward to seeing the new sensation in downtown London: the nation’s first indoor shopping mall.

I’m not just an old fart waxing nostalgic here. I actually have a point: if ever there should have been a poster-child for capitalism triumphant it should have been me.

Communism was the enemy and the “Cuban Missile Crisis” reminded us that the enemy was at the gate. As for capitalism, I had won the cosmic jackpot, an Anglo male born into the richest place at the richest time in human history.

So how the hell did I slowly but surely become a socialist?

Maybe it was because, although I decided in my early teens I was an atheist, I really did love that golden rule business about treating your neighbour like you would want to be treated.

Maybe it was because I learned to read and somehow developed a nose for hypocrisy at an early age. I can’t remember the time I didn’t read a daily newspaper. The fact that what I read on one page sometimes contradicted what I read on the next only made the exercise more rewarding.

I clearly remember the day I asked my grade four teacher why, if the USSR was our mortal enemy, it was also the number one market for Canadian grain exports? Even then I knew her flustered attempt to answer was bullshit. I learned not to simply to take the word of so-called experts, but to try and figure it out for myself.

I also remember a dream from around the same time: a cowboy in a saloon (then as now I loved westerns) calmly explained to me that not everybody who wore a black hat was a bad guy, and not everybody in a white hat could be trusted. I still think this is a profound life lesson.

Maybe my journey toward Marxism was started by witnessing the fight for civil rights in the US, and seeing the unabashed and ugly racism at the heart of our white-hat-wearing society.

Maybe it was the day my best pal Stu came to school with the news that Alice Cooper had been playing golf with Richard Nixon. “I guess its true,” he said in a hushed voice, “things really aren’t what they seem.”

Maybe it was just Richard Nixon single-handedly demolishing the myth of western “democracy”. It was Vietnam. It was Paris 1968. It was the Kent State massacre.

Partly it was seeing my nuclear family crumble under the weight of unmet expectations, financial pressures, and alcoholism and abuse rooted in unaddressed post-traumatic shock from wartime experiences. In capitalism, if you get in trouble, you are on your own, sink or swim. My poor father sank, and any illusions I might still have had sank with him.

And finally it was reading Karl Marx. It wasn’t like I was instantly transformed by my first brush with Marx’s brilliance. In fact it was months later, working a summer job in a factory, that Marx’s descriptions of exploitation and oppression kept coming back to mind. One day, after a lengthy visit to the washroom during lunch break, I was set straight by a veteran: “Never shit on your own time. Always shit on the boss’s time.” That, in a nutshell, is Marx’s description of the struggle between wage labour and capital.

In 1980, Polish shipyard workers rose against their so-called socialist government to demand the right to free, democratic trade unions. Within weeks millions more workers had flocked to the “Solidarnosc” banner and challenged the ruling order from Warsaw to Moscow and beyond.

As someone who self-identified as a socialist and a trade unionist there was no hesitation: I supported the workers’ cause like any real socialist should have. But the only Canadian socialist organization that showed unconditional support for Solidarnosc was the International Socialists.

Using the tools of Marxism against the Stalinist tradition that laid bogus claim to Marx, the International Socialists insisted that what existed in Poland, the USSR and elsewhere was a variant of capitalism: state capitalism. The slogan of our newspaper was “Neither Washington nor Moscow”. Over 30 years later I am proud to say I was right to join a group that got the crucial question of the day right.

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. I challenge you to read Marx–the Communist Manifesto, The 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.

Meanwhile, always shit on the boss’s time.

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