Discovering what socialism should really mean

Submitted by AWL on 29 July, 2014 - 6:13 Author: Omar Raii

Socialism has always been a bit of an odd word for me. Growing up, reading about history I could never really understand what it meant. The Labour Party called itself a “democratic socialist party”, the totalitarian dictatorship that ruled Russia was known as the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” and Saddam Hussein’s thuggish ruling party in Iraq was known as the “Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party”. So in what sense could it mean anything?

At the same time it was becoming clearer and clearer to me, the older I got, that society was laid out in a certain way and that socialism was an alternative and more humane system for the world.

Growing up on a council estate in Birmingham wasn’t at all a harrowing experience. I quite enjoyed school, I was fairly spoilt (if I wanted some toy or a book for my birthday, more often than not I would get it), it didn’t even occur to me that my family was poor until I went to secondary school. There I discovered, in a grammar school located in a leafy suburb, that most people were in fact much wealthier than me, and had certain expectations of themselves and their place in society.

Come election time, my parents would always vote Labour. As immigrants that were fairly new to the country, they had clearly found out the typical attitude of many working-class communities in this country; “we’re poor, so we vote Labour”. But most of my new school friends’ parents did not automatically vote Labour; some voted Tory, others Lib Dem. I wondered why this was the case. This was a crude exposure to what I would learn later is a hallmark of class society. I realised that where you grew up and where you went to school would have a profound effect on the rest of your life, on how you thought, on how well you could expect some things to turn out for you.

And then in 2010, the Tories effectively won the General Election and we were faced with a government that would be relentless in driving its right-wing agenda, leading me to somewhat reluctantly join the Labour Party. But being in the Labour Party was not enough for me; I still hadn’t worked out what kind of socialist I was.

Like most people my age, my political thought was heavily influenced by the post 9/11 milieu in which I grew up.

I saw on my television screens what the British and the American governments were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “War on Terror” was such a significant thing and it seemed important to try and understand it.

Most of the left seemed to have an odd view of the conflicts. Sure, it was as obvious as anything that the United States didn’t invade Afghanistan in order to free the people of the country. But when I saw the euphemistic tone with which much of the British left talked about say the Taliban, I was very much put off. My family and I had fled Afghanistan because they knew what the rule of theocrats looked like, and here was the left in an affluent first-world country, effectively supporting the same kind of people we tried to escape from — in the name of anti-imperialism.

And then there was the problem of Israel and Palestine. It seemed shocking beyond belief that during the war in Lebanon in 2006, as stupid as the actions of the Israeli government were, I saw self-professed socialists in the streets of London carrying placards saying “We are all Hezbollah”. Did these people understand what Hezbollah was? Did they think any resistance to the US, to Israel, to the West was positive? If this was what being a socialist was, then I was not a socialist. But then what was I? I certainly wanted there to be a Labour government, but why?

Had I not found Workers’ Liberty, I have no idea where I could have ended up. Meeting up with them I was taught properly about class politics, and how the class struggle was the important division in the world, not the division between “the west and the rest”. They showed me about the primacy of the working-class in the world. The realisation came that if there was any hope to solving the problems in the Middle East, to changing the world in general, the hope lay with the international working class.

Henceforth I knew that, despite the disagreements I had with all the people who in the 20th (and indeed the 21st) century would call themselves “socialists”, it was time to make the word mean something again. To support the working-class in its struggle to assert itself, in the struggle for a better world, that was what it was to be a socialist and I knew that I was one.

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