It is interesting to consider what makes a person ‘choose sides’. Outside influences, parental input, peer pressure, all can be relevant. Then there is propaganda, appealing to the young and impressionable; as well as literature, historical precedent, and even the area where you are born and raised. Religion can be a factor, as well as race. In countries where such things still exist, tribal divisions can determine your choice, and in fiercely nationalist nations, loyalty to your country may be the path you take.
I have never really put my finger on what made me choose the side of The Left. It was certainly not anything to do with my parents. My father was a former soldier, a believer in Empire, and inherently racist. He voted Conservative, joined the Freemasons, and reviled all non-whites, as inferior to him. By contrast, my mother was a liberal person in ideas, and a member of the Labour Party for most of her life. I did not follow in any family footsteps, when I embraced the politics of the Extreme Left during my teens. It was certainly not peer pressure either. My school friends had no interest in politics, of any colour or persuasion, and considered it boring, and something that ‘other people’ did. We were never really subjected to any propaganda either, at least not from Communists, or other Leftist groups. Religion and race were not relevant in my decision, as neither were ever an issue when I was young.
So, how did a working-class teenager from South London decide that he would choose to support, often actively, what was very much ‘The Other Side’, in Cold-War Britain? When I think about it long enough, the answers do appear; they do not always seem strong enough to justify my later commitment, but they must have been, because it certainly existed.
During the late 1960’s, it seemed to many of us that the World was changing. All over the planet, revolutionary groups were emerging, resisting the governments backed by the Western Allies, of France, Britain, and America. Africa was in turmoil, with what seemed to be a new war every week. Former colonies, like Cyprus, Kenya, Angola, and many others, were rebelling against their European masters, and forming their own governments. Once they had done so, they would then normally fight internal wars, each side backed by one or other of the superpower factions. In the cities of America, black youngsters were fighting for their rights, and others were beginning to protest about the growing involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In Europe, demonstrators fought the police in Paris, West Germany, and even in London. They protested about almost everything and anything, making their voice heard, and telling the authorities that things had to change.
I actually believed that things were going to change. I wanted to be part of that change, and as far as I could see, it was only the Left that was going to do anything about it. I filled my head with reading, about the Russian Revolution, The Paris Commune, The Redshirts in Italy, and any other Communist groups that I could find out about. I joined the Young Communist League, and later transferred to the main party, but found that I had little in common with my intellectual ‘comrades’. They mainly followed the Trotskyist philosophy, and were notably anti-Soviet. I saw Russia as the bastion of world Communism, and the only hope of ever ending the Capitalist stranglehold on the West. I did not concern myself about the DDR, The Berlin Wall, the occupation of the Baltic States, or any Eastern Bloc countries. I accepted that the situation was far from ideal, but then there was Cuba, Yugoslavia, and other places where life under a Communist regime was far preferable to the alternative.
When you choose a side, you have to overlook those things that others point out as faults. Was life in China so much better under an emperor, and warlords? If so, then for who? Certainly not for most of the population, who lived life as little better than slaves. Russia under the Tzars was only a good place for the upper classes and the rich. Others just toiled relentlessly, exploited by landowners, the Church, and the Aristocracy. Once the Communists took control, education was provided, work and accommodation was guaranteed, and health care, and acceptable living standards introduced. These may have seemed basic from a Western point of view in the 1960’s, but only 40 years earlier, they were unknown in most countries that were now run by Communists. Of course there would be dissidents, and restriction of perceived ‘freedoms’. This was the price paid for a better life for all, instead of the few.
That was how I saw it then, and to some extent, still do. I was also captivated by the iconography of Communism. The heroic statues, the monolithic Art Deco architecture, the banners, badges, and flags. We did not have that here, at least not at the same level. There were no inspiring posters, or buildings adorned with 100 foot banners and red stars, lit at night. Of course my ‘side’ had its problems. Stalin was being discredited, China was isolationist, and the Berlin Wall was a visible sign of repression. Somehow, that all became attractive to me; the more it was criticised, the better I liked it. Being called a ‘Leftie’ in Britain, was a derogatory term, and being a ‘Commie’ was tantamount to treason. I lapped it up. If they wanted to think me a rebel, then that is what I would be. America, Germany, Britain, and many other nations, were all set against Communism, and prepared to fight it, if need be. That was all I needed to know, to make my choice permanent; if they were against it, then I would be for it.
Many years later, and I was no longer a party member. The new ‘Euro Commies’ were not to my taste. I had the chance to travel, and visited the Soviet Union, East Germany, and eventually, China.
It didn’t change my mind. I had picked my side, and I am still on it.