In this feature, members of the World Socialist Party of the US share personal stories of how they became socialists. More stories will be added as they become available. Members and sympathizers are invited to contribute their stories.
Joe R. Hopkins
My adoptive father Norman, who was born on January 6, 1897, had spent his early life toiling in the mines of Missouri. Norman had fled north in the 1930s to what is commonly called ‘Chicago Land’ or the ‘Calumet Region.’ Even though Lake County, where we lived, was in Indiana and not Illinois, it was so dependent on industry with connections to Chicago and Lake Michigan that it – alone among the counties of Indiana – observed Daylight Saving Time in order that its workforce would be in synch with the financial center that supported its industrial production.
For over 30 years Norman was employed at a steel mill owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. When I was about 7 years old his union, the United Steel Workers Union (USWU), declared a strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The strike continued for about a year. I remember Norman talking at our dinner table to my adoptive mom, Lois, about the One Big Union (OBU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He said that those unions had tactics quite different and more effective than those of the USWU.
According to all of the TV programming that I seem to remember from this time, the USSR was trying to take over the world. It was not a popular position to hold that ‘socialism’ was acceptable in the United States. I knew nothing about ‘socialism’ at that time and thought that the Soviet Union was a socialist country. I did not realize that the unions Norman was praising were oriented toward socialism. It was all over the head of a seven-year-old kid.
When I was about sixteen my friend Larry and I were smoking some very potent Afghan hashish. Larry floated the suggestion that ‘if everybody worked for free, everything would be for free.’ It was so simple, yet so elegant. I was impressed by this brand-new bright and shiny idea! It resonated with me on a visceral level.
I went to a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky – the Ashland Federal Youth Center – for a couple of years for selling 55 grams of methamphetamine to an undercover FBI agent. I earned my way into their Study Release College Program, which allowed me to attend classes at Ashland Community College (ACC). It was there that I came across the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and published in London in 1848. I had heard in one of my history classes that 1848 was ‘a year of world revolutionary activity’! I then read Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, published in 1867. The language seemed turgid, but it had been written over a hundred years earlier and on my second reading I translated it in my mind into modern American English. It all made sense to me. I learned that the main principle of socialism was: ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need.’ I was becoming a firm socialist. Socialism was no longer, literally or practically, a ‘pipe dream’!
Marx’s words implied, to me at least, free access to all of life’s needs. I recalled what Larry had said through a cloud of euphoria-inducing smoke years before: ‘If everybody worked for free, everything would be for free.’ I was convinced that socialism would remove almost all incentives to war and bring about a society more homogeneous than the present economic system, based on wealth and the power of wealth.
In 2007 I came into contact with Karla Doris Rab, granddaughter of Isaac Rab, who had founded what evolved into the World Socialist Party of the United States – a party zany enough to think, as I did, that ‘free access’ was possible now that the systems of production had developed such fantastic productive capabilities. If production were redirected toward satisfying human needs rather than ‘spreadsheet profit criteria,’ free access would present no problem. ALL that needed to be done from here on out was to convince the world! I became a member of the WSPUS in 2009 and learned of my admission to the party on my birthday. Of all the mistakes I’ve made during my life, joining the party shines out especially brightly as not being one of them!
Socialism is NOT a pipe dream. It is perhaps the sole way to prevent the climate chaos produced by manufacturing that is in the service of profit-making and therefore uses the least expensive and most readily available sources of energy – carbon-based fossil fuels. ‘For profit’ production is poisoning the earth’s atmosphere.
The primary goal of socialism has always been to liberate the workers, the working class, the 99%, from their position of wage slavery. This remains the goal of socialism, but now socialism is also needed to save the planet and its inhabitants from certain destruction at the hands of the ‘master class,’ the capitalists, who buy your life from you one hour at a time for a paltry wage so that they can live lives of power and plenty while we strive with all our diligence to put supper on the table for ourselves and our families.
Yes, Socialism — We Have the Technology!
I didn’t become a genuine socialist until I’d started reading some of Karl Marx’s books in the last half of 2018, but my upbringing made me sympathetic to the idea of socialism from a young age. For the first two months of my life my parents, my twin brother, and I were living in my grandma’s garage. I haven’t had the guts to ask why yet, but I understand there was a big fight that ended in us leaving. From then on we were chronically homeless, living either in families’ garages when possible or in shelters or our car when not. I vividly remember my parents sleeping in the front seats of the car with two of my brothers sleeping in the backseats and me and my twin sleeping on the floor. I’d seen plenty of TV shows and movies where the characters had their own houses. I guess it was just childhood innocence, but it never occurred to me that my situation wasn’t normal until either preschool or kindergarten: I knew everybody didn’t have it like me, but I just assumed most people did since that’s what I was used to. After I started making friends I realized that all of them were living in houses, apartments, or projects. Whenever I dared ask my parents to buy something for me they replied: ‘We can’t afford it.’ I made the connection that the reason we hadn’t had our own place yet was that my parents couldn’t afford one, even though most of the kids I was meeting had parents who could. That was one of the first instances when I can vaguely remember thinking: ‘Why? Why can’t my parents afford a home, if apparently most parents can? Why should anyone have to pay for a necessity?’
I don’t vividly recall hearing the term ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ until 4th or 5th grade, when we started learning a little about the Cold War and some of the major figures in black history. I quickly idolized Huey Newton, because he was also from Oakland, as well as Malcolm X. Reading that Huey advocated for communism while also hearing communism practically demonized for its association with Russia confused me, but Huey’s takes on capitalism as unfair strongly resonated with me even then. He was probably the first person to give me a glimpse into why inequality existed.
When I was in ninth grade I was surfing Youtube and came across the 9/11 part of the documentary Zeitgeist that had come out the summer before. I decided to watch the rest. It completely blew my mind. I already identified as agnostic after I stopped going to church in seventh grade, but the first part of it hooked me because it gave me a more solid reason to be critical of religion rather than just not having proof. The last part of the documentary had a profound effect on me too because it was the first time I’d ever seen money be seriously criticized. The sequels also fascinated me because watching them introduced me to the idea of a world without money. I wondered before if that might solve many of the world’s problems, but that was the first time I’d seen the idea promoted as a practical solution, so I became completely enamored by the concept of a ‘resource-based economy.’
Fast forward to when I was in twelfth grade and in English class everybody was required to write a senior paper on whatever topic they wanted. I chose to write mine on social stratification. Doing research for that paper taught me about the lower degree of social mobility and higher degree of social problems America has when compared to other developed countries. I’d seen the Michael Moore documentary Sicko by then, so I knew that a lot of developed countries had healthcare that was free or dirt cheap, but I don’t think I realized until doing the research that a lot of them had free or dirt cheap college too. Realizing how backwards our system was led me to question why more people weren’t pressuring our government to do the same thing.
I graduated from Modoc High School in June 2011 and I moved back to Las Vegas the month after for vocational school, since there weren’t any colleges in Alturas, California. A couple of months later the Occupy Movement exploded, and the Las Vegas chapter had its first march in October. I think I went to two of them, but the whole time I felt like an idiot because I knew marching wasn’t getting our point across to anybody. A few times at meetings and while hanging out at the campsite I made the point that we might get better results if we gave speeches to persuade people, but all the older members dismissed me as young and naïve. One even told me: ‘Go start your own organization then.’ That experience led me to resent marching and leadership. A funny side note: I went through a sort of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ phase after watching Zeitgeist, but I was growing out of it by the time I graduated because I realized that there wasn’t any tangible proof to a lot of the stuff I’d read or watched. Some of the people who were apart of Occupy, though? Complete wackjobs. Don’t get me wrong, most of the people there had their heads on straight, but there were a handful of seasoned adults who still thought there was some ominous group of Zionists out there who ran everything from the shadows and ate babies. Apparently they had never heard of the Taxil Hoax.
After Occupy Las Vegas disbanded in early 2012, I spent a couple of years bouncing around and making music while I tried to get my life in order. My attention wasn’t anywhere near politics until Bernie Sanders started his presidential campaign in 2016. My homie Kyle showed me a video of him explaining his policies and I could barely believe what I was hearing. He was talking about so many progressive measures that I thought for a second that it was a joke. I asked myself: ‘Why would an old, probably rich white guy advocate for all this? Why is he calling himself a socialist? Doesn’t he know what happened in Russia?’ But after I’d done some digging and realized he was deadass serious I was sold. He wasn’t advocating for the ‘resource-based economy’ I had fallen in love with, but what he was proposing would obviously be a major improvement compared to how things were. I wasn’t as big of a Bernie supporter as Kyle, but I was moderately involved in supporting him. I posted about him on social media, talked to people about him when I was at events, and even voted for him in the primaries. As you can imagine, I was disappointed when he didn’t win the democratic nomination. Over the next couple of years I’d still advocate for him to people here and there, but whenever people brought up the fact that the Nazis, Russia, and Venezuela also called themselves socialist I got stuck. I’d try to say it wasn’t the same thing, but I didn’t really know if that was true because I’d never read anything from any socialists. I just really liked Bernie’s ideas and I couldn’t understand how they could possibly be associated with the horrors that the Nazis caused.
The last straw for me came in June 2018, when a local Vegas rapper named Teej threw a release show for his new album Spotlight at 11th Street Records. My homegirl Jerrika introduced me to a girl named Beth and somehow our conversation led to the subject of socialism. She brought up Venezuela and I had it, I was done. I tried to use the same ‘they’re not the same thing’ argument, but when she pressed me to explain the difference all I could do was speculate. I was doing research about immigration myths at this time, but I knew my defense of socialism didn’t hold up, so when I was thinking it over afterward I decided that I had to put the immigration research on hold in order to educate myself on socialist theory so that either that situation wouldn’t happen again or I would find out for myself that the entire idea of socialism was stupid.
I started by skimming through the Wikipedia page on socialism to decide where to start. Karl Marx immediately stuck out to me because in my experience he was always touted as the main influence on socialists, so I went to his page and skimmed through it, too. Capital, Volume 1 stuck out to me in his bibliography because I’d heard it mentioned before and the Wikipedia page about it confirmed that it was a pretty important book, so I decided to start by reading that. Big mistake! For the love of god don’t do that! I got like three pages into Chapter 1 and gave up: the language was just too sophisticated for me.
I tried not to think about it for a couple of months. I did my first tour as a musician that July and after I got back I just wanted to relax for a while. My conscience kept eating at me though, and eventually I decided I had no choice but to try again and start somewhere else. I skimmed through Karl Marx’s bibliography on Wikipedia again and noticed that The Communist Manifesto seemed important and was also short, so I decided to read that first. I read the PDF version that’s on marxists.org and a few things stuck out to me right away. A big one was that he mentioned that communism would abolish all private property and make it common property and that private property and personal property were different, because private property was used to generate profit and personal property wasn’t, so personal property wouldn’t be abolished in communist society. This obviously disproved the right-wing talking point that ‘Communists want to take your toothbrush!’ Other ideas that impressed me were that communism would abolish selling and buying, abolish classes, abolish the state, and abolish wages. In the principles of communism at the back of the PDF, it also said that money would be abolished, and that the revolution couldn’t possibly happen in one country, it would have to be worldwide. All these criteria instantly sounded alarms in my head. Russia had all these things and Bernie wasn’t talking about abolishing any of them – many of his proposals explicitly required that they all stay intact. After reading that I did some more skimming through Marx’s bibliography and decided to read Critique of the Gotha Program next. That reinforced some of the earlier criteria and gave more insight into how a socialist society would be established and some of the differences between its lower and higher phases.
Having recognized the differences between what Marx, Lenin, and Bernie were talking about, I naturally wondered why they all referred to their ideology as socialism. To get some insight on this, I skimmed through the Wikipedia page for socialism. Reading that led me to the page on Marxism, which led me to the page on orthodox Marxism, which has a section on impossibilism that led me to the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s website. There I read through each section on the ‘About Us’ dropdown menu and was amazed. I’d never heard anyone refer to the USSR as state capitalist before, and that instantly shocked me because it made perfect sense. They also defined the DSA, and Bernie Sanders by association, as reformist and that was another game changer for me. I spent a few days reading through some more articles on the website and the most recent issue of The Socialist Standard (October 2018) and was even more amazed to find out that they’d had the same message and goals since 1904. The fact that they’d stuck by the same principles while so many other people and groups faltered sold me. I knew their message was watertight, enough people just hadn’t considered their perspective yet. I applied for membership in the American counterpart to the SPGB, the WSPUS, a few days later and got to work reading more of Marx’s work to strengthen my knowledge of socialism from there.
Stephen D. Shenfield
I had a vague idea of socialism even as a young child. About the age of five or six I became aware of money. I remember thinking that it seemed a needlessly complicated and roundabout way to do things. I must have had some idea of a simpler and more direct alternative, but I can’t be specific. I can’t reliably distinguish the idea I had at that age from the conception that I found a decade later in the literature of the SPGB. What I can say is that when I read about socialism in that literature I had a feeling of déja vu.
As I grew a bit older I became aware also of the inequality arising from the different amounts of money that people had and how it harmed human relationships. My father, a GP (general practitioner) in the British National Health Service (NHS), was still the junior partner in a group practice. My mother especially felt that he was unfairly treated, as he did more work than the senior partners but received a considerably smaller share of the net income of the practice. I learned that some of the families we knew were better off than us while others were worse off. Both situations caused discomfort and resentment.
Two incidents stand out in this regard. Once we were invited to a wedding by distant cousins whom I shall call Sam and Rita. They were the wealthiest of our acquaintances. Afterward our gift to the newlyweds was returned to us. They drove up, left the gift on our garden wall, and drove off without a word. Evidently they felt insulted that our gift was not of greater value. No one, apparently, had ever told them that ‘it’s the thought that counts.’ My parents were upset. I asked my mother to explain what had happened. She replied that Sam was a ‘businessman.’ That was a new word for me. I did not know what it meant, though clearly it was something nasty. We stopped visiting them. Later, however, Rita started coming by to see my mother and cry on her shoulder because Sam was beating her. Clearly being a businessman was something very nasty indeed.
The other incident occurred when I was 10, on a school outing to see the ships at Portsmouth Harbor. We had brought sandwiches to eat on the train. My mother had made fantastic sandwiches for me. This embarrassed me more than anything, because the other kids had much worse sandwiches. When the other three boys in the train compartment saw my sandwiches they asked me to share them. I thought this was fair and we pooled our sandwiches. As we were eating them a teacher looked in on us and told off the other boys. He thought that I must have been intimidated into sharing my sandwiches, whereas in fact I had done so willingly.
The misery that goes with poverty was one of the themes in the family stories told to my sister and myself. There was, for instance, the tragic tale of our maternal grandfather Harry, who had been raised from an early age by his father to earn a living as a violinist. He was one of the musicians who played in cinemas as accompaniment to the old silent films. During the depression the ‘talkies’ replaced the silent films. Suddenly all these cinema musicians lost their livelihood. Some money could still be earned by playing at weddings and the like, but it wasn’t enough to support a family. My grandfather had been a sensitive and caring man, but he went to pieces and became abusive. My grandmother eventually had enough. She changed the keys and locked him out. He took to sleeping on underground trains. One morning, when all passengers were instructed to get out at the end of the line, he stayed behind. He was dead.
Then there were our mother’s evacuation stories. Like other kids from London’s East End, she was packed onto a train and sent off to the countryside when bombing began. She was just 11 at the time and had two younger brothers with her for whom their mother was holding her responsible. They were placed with families belonging to all the social classes of rural England, from the gentry, who set them to work as servants, to the very poor, who feared the ‘vacees’ as creatures from an alien world.
Our mother often drew a contrast between our father and his brother Alan. Their mother was determined to bring them up to be doctors and thereby overcome past poverty and gain respect. They both became GPs. But there the likeness ended. Alan transformed himself into a prosperous member of the upper middle class (to use the terminology of the notorious British class system). This was reflected not only in the outer suburb of London where he had his practice (Harrow) but also in his accent and in the background of the woman he chose to marry. Our father did not want to transform himself. His practice was in the inner working-class suburbs (one surgery in Islington and another in Finsbury Park, near where my maternal grandmother lived). He wanted to help the working class. No doubt was left in our minds concerning which brother had made the morally superior choice. Nevertheless, Alan had great personal charm and I still liked him.
But which class did we actually belong to? After all, helping the working class and belonging to the working class were not one and the same thing. When I was three we moved out of our cramped quarters over my father’s surgery to a new semi-detached home in the suburb of Muswell Hill. Didn’t that, taken together with my father’s profession, make us members of the middle class? It was very confusing.
I was proud of my father for his commitment to equality. He was a member of the Socialist Medical Association (SMA) and I recall his support for an SMA campaign for a more equal distribution of the funds allocated by the government for paying NHS staff. He wanted GPs and senior hospital physicians to get less so that nurses and junior doctors could get more. The British Medical Association made fun of the SMA: who had ever heard before of a trade union demanding that their members be paid less?
I developed a hostility to competition as well as to inequality. This hostility first arose at school in the context of football (soccer). Before a game the captains would take turns choosing members for their teams. I was always one of those chosen last – often, indeed, the last of all. The other boys who found themselves in this invidious position adopted a pose of not caring; after all, they said, sports were stupid. A case of sour grapes, perhaps? I, however, did care. Not that I wanted to play for a team. I wanted to kick a ball around, just for fun and without keeping score. Sometimes, when the other boys were playing football in the playground, I would join in their game uninvited; if I got hold of the ball I would kick it in whatever direction I fancied. For some inexplicable reason this annoyed them. One day they got so annoyed that I was physically ejected and ended up in tears and with my glasses broken. After that I gave up.
As I mentioned, I grew up deeply confused about my identity – class identity, gender identity, and also national or ethnic identity. I was born in London, but my forebears on both sides of the family had come from various parts of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the old Russian Empire. At school I was acquiring a love of English poetry; at the same time my paternal grandmother, whom my mother described as Russian, was teaching me to love Russian poetry too. We were also Jewish, whatever that meant. So was I English? Or British, with a connection to Wales and Scotland as well as England? Or Russian perhaps? Or Jewish, if that was an ethnic or national marker rather than just a religion? Or a combination of the above? It was extremely confusing.
Our parents, though themselves half-hearted about religion, decided that my sister and I should have a Jewish education. For some years I attended cheder (religious class) twice a week and went to the synagogue for Saturday morning service. I especially enjoyed the singing and the rabbi’s sermons. Curiously enough, the rabbi and the cheder teachers were adherents of a Jewish version of what later came to be known as ‘liberation theology’ and strengthened my rebellious inclinations. ‘You are not Jews,’ the rabbi would tell his congregation. ‘Jews worship God. You worship Mammon’ (but privately he assured our family that such accusations did not apply to us). We were taught to emulate the prophets in denouncing hypocrisy and injustice and defying those with wealth and authority. And no need for tact: were the prophets tactful?
My father had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for a few months in his youth. He left not as a result of any political disagreement but in order to concentrate fully on his profession. He remained loyal to the Soviet Union: I recall an unpleasant argument with him in 1968 over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. (Well, all arguments with my father were unpleasant; he didn’t know how to argue in a pleasant manner; did I?) Several of my parents’ close friends were members of the CPGB. They had special respect for Simon Temple, principal of a local school and Communist Party candidate in numerous elections. My mother always agreed to help out at the annual ‘jumble sale’ (bring-and-buy) for the CPGB newspaper The Daily Worker (later renamed The Morning Star). Once I asked her why she stayed on the fringe of the Communist Party but had never joined. She explained that she liked and respected her Communist Party friends but terrible things had happened in Russia and she could never join them in supporting the system that existed there.
When I was about ten our parents went by themselves on two ‘special’ trips, leaving me and my sister with an aunt. One of these trips was to Israel, the other to the Soviet Union. They were ‘special’ because taken for the purpose of considering emigration. In both cases the decision was negative and we stayed in England. My parents, and especially my mother, had managed to see through the official propaganda façade, at least to some extent, and perceive some of the unsavory reality concealed beyond it. When I asked her how she had liked Israel she flabbergasted me by calling it a fascist country (this, mind you, was before the Six Day War of 1967 and the occupation that followed it). Overcoming my initial shock, I asked her why. She had hated the militaristic atmosphere and observed a similarity between Nazi and Israeli youth movements. Having digested this, I asked why we still had the JNF box on the shelf (to collect coins for the Jewish National Fund). Her reply was to deposit the box where it belonged — in the rubbish bin. [I have told the story of our family’s rebellion against Zionism in more detail here.]
When I was about 14 I started a serious search for some political party or group to join. Taking my mother’s stance as my starting point, I looked for an organization that opposed both the unjust and irrational society around us and the system that existed in Russia. It seemed to me for a while that the Trotskyists might fit the bill. But it was hard to make sense of their literature, which consisted of two contrasting types: (1) ‘theoretical’ journals filled with almost impenetrable jargon; and (2) propaganda sheets that just repeated and expanded upon a few simple slogans and demands. Later I was to realize that the split in Trotskyist – and, more broadly, Leninist – literature reflects the new class division in their theory and practice between ‘vanguard’ and ‘masses.’
I was looking for something ‘in between’ these two types of literature – ‘middle-brow’ writing that I could understand but that did not insult my intelligence. One day, while I was browsing in a left-wing bookstore, an issue of The Socialist Standard, journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, happened to catch my eye. I quickly realized that this what the sort of stuff I had been looking for. I wrote away for more literature and when the package of journals and pamphlets arrived I stayed up until 3 am reading them. Almost everything rang true. I wrote back and was invited to meet the late Jack Bradley of the local SPGB branch, who was to become a sort of mentor for me. Before long I was interviewed at a branch meeting and admitted to the SPGB. I was 16.
Of course, it was not only the clear style of the SPGB’s literature that attracted me. There was much in the ideas themselves that strongly appealed to me. The descriptions of socialist society resonated with the vague notions of my early childhood. The ideas also helped resolve my confusion about identity – both ‘class’ identity, through the broadly inclusive definition of ‘working class,’ and ‘ethnic’ identity, through the consistent opposition to nationalism or so-called ‘national liberation’ and the emphasis on the unity of the human race.
It was only after joining the SPGB that I learned from my mother that an uncle of mine had also been in the SPGB. That was during the time when the famed orator Tony Turner was active. However, that was not a factor in my joining the SPGB. My uncle had never mentioned it to me.