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Paul O’Flinn

Why I became a socialist

(November 1996)

From Socialist Review 202, November 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Writing this article isn’t easy. It’s bad enough to be given the same title that one of my heroes, William Morris, first used. But what’s worse is to be forced by that title to write about myself. I had a nice middle class education and so was taught never to use ‘I’ in an essay.

It didn’t take me long to realise that this was a device for stopping you reflecting on and learning from your own experience. It created a large space in your brain for teachers to fill by tipping in the assorted load of Tory prejudice, tepid religion and vacuous nationalism otherwise known as 1960s A-Level syllabuses. But that realisation didn’t altogether remove the inhibition about using ‘I’.

Indeed it was reinforced many years later when I was in a fiercely radical discussion group and ventured a remark about something that had happened to me. I was told off for mere anecdotalism and sternly directed to stick to class analysis.

But, as Marx put it, ‘all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and the comprehension of this practice.’ And so, in the belief that you can learn a lot by reflecting on what’s happened to you, your own practice, here goes.

When I left university I signed up for a year with VSO – Voluntary Service Overseas – an organisation that sends graduates to work in various underdeveloped or, more accurately, over-exploited parts of the world. I was a liberal – I’m afraid there were a lot of us about in the early 1960s – and I thought I would spend a year Doing Good. So it was that I wound up teaching English in a spectacularly sweaty corner of the tropical rainforest in eastern Nigeria a year before it became the breakaway state of Biafra (but that’s another story).

A few months there blew away most of my liberal illusions, and because the rainforest and I didn’t get on very well, replaced them with what looked like a fairly lurid tropical skin disease. I took myself off smartly to the local mission hospital where the symptoms disappeared in a couple of days.

But in those couple of days an eight year old boy arrived in the bed beside me.

The nurse told me that there wasn’t much they could do for him. A wound not properly treated for want of a few pence worth of medical supplies had gone gangrenous and, by the time his mother brought him in from the bush to the mission hospital, all they could do was give him a bed to die in. I never even found out his name. Next day I left to go back to my job and he left in a blanket to be buried.

As I was driven back to the school where I worked, we passed the Shell compound – the estate where the expatriate executives and professionals who worked for Shell lived and directed its massive oil operations in the Niger delta. At that moment it could only seem obscene. On the one hand, an eight year old life ended for want of some clean water and some elastoplast, and on the other what looked like a Surrey suburb was dumped in the middle of the bush. Behind the security fences lawns were mowed, sprinklers played and sun loungers were unfolded as all the wealth of the nation was literally and metaphorically sucked out of the very ground. I got back to my school, where incidentally we had no running water and no electricity, and I was just incoherently angry. Something, somehow, somewhere was wrong, and Doing Good wasn’t going to change it.

It is embarrassing to write about this now. I had, as I mentioned, a nice middle class education, so it took something as dramatic as a dead child to begin to blow up all the ramparts, barriers, trenches and minefields that they lay in your brain to deny entry to any real perceptions of the way the world actually works. For most people that happens on the first day in school or their first day at work; time, money and privilege were spent making me slower to catch on than most people.

So when I came back to England I screwed up my courage and decided to become a class traitor and vote Labour. But then the seamen went on strike and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, tore into them with the full backing of the Daily Mail.

Ideologically undeveloped as I was, I knew at least that it was a mark of common decency, never mind socialism, to support workers in struggle against their employers – it was how you signified that you were a normal human being rather than a small beast that lived under a stone. It seemed clear, then, that this socialism meant more than voting Labour once every five years and letting Harold get on with it.

Lots of things, good, bad and indifferent, have happened in the 30 years since then to change my sense of what socialism is about, but at the bottom of it all still lies a nameless child dying of poverty in a wealthy world. If that seems sentimental then perhaps we should turn to Robert Tressell. He put roughly the same idea in much starker terms in his wonderful novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. ‘Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery, and is therefore the enemy of his own children.’

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