My mum recently ran into an old drama tutor of mine and it came up during conversation that I had become an active socialist. Apparently my tutor laughed and said “Well, that was always on the cards for Ellie”.
It made me laugh thinking about the ill-informed 16 year-old my tutor had known. The one with more chip than shoulder, and an ego that would’ve made Kanye cringe. But it also made me think: was it really already on the cards back then?
True, the groundwork for my politics were laid a long time ago. I owe a lot of my worldview to my parents.
My dad was a brickie and fiercely proud of his trade. Not in any politically constructive way, rather in that kind of reactionary “workerist” way. He’s one of those “real men work on building sites”, “Uni is for nancy boys”, cavemen you think only exist in ‘Billy Elliot’ or ‘Our Friends in the North’. Nevertheless, he influenced the way I thought about class, and taught me to have pride in my class from a very young age.
My mum is a lot more political. She hates Margaret Thatcher with truly astonishing enthusiasm. She was also the only woman of colour growing up in a small northern town during the sixties. It is easy to imagine the horrors she went through. This made her passionate about the US civil rights movement. We still have a picture of Martin Luther King on our living room wall and I grew up hearing stories about bus boycotts, marches and riots.
By the time I was six my dad was completely lost to addiction. He wasn’t particularly missed — addicts make terrible parents — but it did leave my mum piss broke, depressed, and raising four kids on the dole.
I was born and raised on impoverished council estates in Camden, which made it hard to miss the screaming inequalities in London.
I grew up witnessing things like police racism, poor schooling and all the other depressing social side effects of poverty. I felt two things very strongly, very early. Firstly, that inequality is neither natural nor okay, poverty could end if we wanted it to. Secondly, I had no stake in this society in its current form. This didn’t naturally lead to communism, but I already felt cheated.
As I grew up my worldview got bigger. I started finding out more about war and world poverty. Every time I saw suffering people I felt connected to them. At about 14 I found out there was this thing called communism and I was perplexed by the fact we weren’t doing it yet. So I asked my mum about it and she told me about Russia, Cuba and China. I was horrified and filed communism away in the “never going to work” bit of my brain and left it there for years.
I began to develop a mostly false reputation for being radical in my teens. I once made my teacher apologise to me in front of the whole class for saying “working class kids don’t value education”. And during an assembly I asked a Holocaust survivor if it scared her when she heard today’s politicians scapegoating immigrants for society’s ills. But it never occurred to me to be active.
At drama school I met proper posh people for the first time. They were my friends but were also knobs. They were not completely bad, they were actually very liberal, but a lot of what they said was either stupid or bigoted. They also thought it was “totes bants” to take the piss out of the working class. If I pulled them up on it, the answer was always the same “We’re not talking about you, you’re not like them.”
Actually I thought I was nothing like my mates. They were right that the world was split into us and them, but they were wrong about which side I was on. I also had some lefty tutors who talked to me about political stuff. They would give us things like Bertholt Brecht and Jim Cartwright to read. Our head of drama used to call me “red Ellie”. So I started to adopt a radical working class persona without really understanding anything about class struggle. If I couldn’t change who I was I could at least make it my armour. However I was way more Russell Brand than Leon Trotsky at 16.
I went to University and like all art universities it was incredibly posh, but also politically vacuous. It was very influenced by post-modernism, and politics was confined to what could be called “identity politics”. At first I didn’t really care. It was inoffensive enough even if it did lack substance. Then it started to really get on my nerves.
People would say things like “you can only really know yourself, so everything has to be about yourself.” I couldn’t understand that. I was growing surer by the day that serious political action was needed. The Tories were in power now and the first things they came for were the universities. I couldn’t understand why other supposedly left wing people couldn’t see class as the main issue. I had no faith in any political party but I could also see that this inward-facing hipster politics was on a road to nowhere.
About this time I discovered a guy called Karl Marx. I read a beginner’s guide to Marxism one day and thought “yeah, dude makes a strong case”. Marxist ideas percolated in me for a while and the more I thought about them the more they made sense.
I wanted to hear what Marxists had to say so I decided to go to Workers’ Liberty’s summer festival — Ideas for Freedom. I’ve never credited the “identity politics” crowd with my decision to become a proper socialist until writing this article — how different it all could have been!
I’ve had plenty of chances to go in different directions but two things have always brought me back to socialism: the ideas of class and solidarity.