Confessions of a teenage Trotskyist

Issue 

Reasons to Be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour through the Eyes of a Dedicated Troublemaker
By Mark Steel
Scribner, 2002
277 pages, $18.95 (pb)
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REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

"It's hard enough being a nineteen-year-old boy as it is, spun through a whirlwind of love, lust and emotional confusion, without the added anxiety of being a novice Trotskyist under a newly elected Margaret Thatcher."

But Mark Steel survived the "Iron Lady", became a celebrated stand-up comic, Guardian columnist and radio sports host, and all the while remained a revolutionary socialist activist.

Steel's exceptionally funny biography, Reasons to Be Cheerful, will ring familiar bells with anyone who is, or has been, a left-wing political activist.

Stultifying small town tedium (Steel was born in Swanley on the outskirts of London) was his lot as a teenager in the 1970s. Looking for a target for his discontent,"one day in 1975 I saw in the newsagents a copy of the Morning Star, the paper of the Communist Party". Everybody abused communists for plunging the country into the toilet through strikes yet here were people proudly admitting to being communists. "I was fascinated, and hovered over it, eventually taking it to the counter while trying to look casual, burning with anxiety as if I was buying my first packet of condoms", Steel confesses.

One taste of forbidden political fruit and Steel was hooked. While unemployed, Marxist politics raised his consciousness about the workings, or more exactly the failure to work, of the capitalist labour market. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL), distilled from the "amorphous blend of musical rebellion and political activism" of the punk era, was the first mass movement in which Steel cut his activist teeth.

A second helping of the socialist press, this time the Socialist Worker, soon had him in the arms of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and like all first political loves, the exhilaration was intense.

"I doubt whether any of the other seven" of his fellow SWP branch members, who met in a freezing pub function room, "had the faintest idea, as we periodically whacked the heater to get it working again, that I was discovering a whole new world as if I'd wandered through the wardrobe door into the land of Narnia. Where I was thinking 'Wow, posters!', they were probably thinking 'What the bloody hell are we going to do with this lot?'".

Fresh experiences flowed freely. Steel's first experience of unprovoked police violence against demonstrators was "like losing your virginity, or having your first curry — no matter how much you thought you understood the process, nothing prepares you for the actual experience".

Campaign badges were worn with pride: "The badge culture was an example of how people can be proud of standing up for a cause, whereas no-one is proud of being 'realistic'. Who would wear a badge saying 'Support the Right to Work Without Jeopardising the Target Inflation Rate'?"

Activism swung between the highs of mass demonstrations and the lesser triumphs of the small action. When the local, elderly anti-immigrant supporters of the fascist National Front set up a lucky numbers stall to raise funds at the 1979 Dartford Carnival, Steel and his ANL comrades picketed it "in probably one of the only protests in history to have taken place about a lucky numbers stall". Although they prevented the ANL from raising funds, the general reaction of carnival-goers was bewilderment.

Socialists are not born from immaculate ideological conception. Steel had to work through the contradictions of his new ways of thinking and his old prejudices from the past. His particular hurdles were sexism and homophobic stereotypes but the path was smoother when it came to "race relations".

Visiting black friends in Brixton, he innocently picked up a pair of shoes left by looters after the police-provoked riots in 1981 and was promptly arrested for the Great Shoe Robbery. The colour of his skin, however, saved him from the "frenzied avalanche of unthinking abuse" and the vicious beatings meted out to black arrestees.

It was, however, another variety (religious) of divide-and-rule politics and state violence, which placed Steel at real risk as 75-millimetre-long, rock-hard "plastic" bullets ricocheted around him in Belfast as part of a Troops Out movement delegation.

Meanwhile, back at the party, the familiar rhythms of socialist group life continued on their often amusing ways, such as the educational talk by the eager novice who erred on the side of over-comprehensiveness: "They'd set off on their epic account of the military coup in Chile in 1973. Thirty-five minutes later, the chair would be frantically thrusting in front of them a sheet of paper on which was scrawled a two-inch thick 'WIND UP NOW!', and the poor speaker would gaze forlornly at the eight remaining pages of notes and lament that they were only up to 1965."

Left sectarians are a worthy butt for Steel's hilarious mockery, such as the (name your favourite sect), whose interventions at public meetings "would start calmly, but by the third sentence would be warming up like an old valve television until ... they'd be yelping like a Baptist preacher".

Keeping a sense of perspective entitles Steel, as a socialist activist, to both turn a satirical laugh on the ludicrous fringes of the left and to promote the abundant virtues of the left — the importance of small victories, the importance of taking a principled stance for losing causes (opposing the Falklands/Malvinas War and the Gulf War), taking credit for successful campaigns such as the defeat of the Tories' poll tax which brought Thatcher to her deserved end.

Steel ably assesses the victories-in-defeat like the British miners' strike of 1985. A mass movement of support groups against the Tories' pit closures brought solidarity to a pitch sufficient to have Thatcher's inner-councils despairing of defeat, whilst the miners learnt that police weren't neutral, the press wasn't fair and that sexist attitudes in the working class needed to be, and could be, overcome.

Miners' wives sustained the strike for the last nine of its 12 months. Like the miner's wife who had never spoken in public in her life but went to speak to workers in Europe, "they were humble and endearing enough to be terrified of speaking to a thousand Belgian car workers, but determined and unerringly tough enough to rattle the hearts of every one of them when they did".

The next test for Steel was to survive the dreaded "three zero" and disprove the old saw that "if you're not a socialist by the time you're 30 you have no heart, if you're still a socialist after 30 you have no head". The naked rage of the 18 year old is gone but he did not wake up a conservative the morning he turned 30, nor did he succumb to the lesser but more common risk of "active radicalism giving way to the safer practice of just thinking radical thoughts". He stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate for Croydon in the London council elections.

While Steel avoided the fate of becoming "sensible" and "practical", he cannot say the same for Tony Blair's "New Labour" Party. Steel's seriously funny book ends with a rebel's jibe against political "realism".

"One of the most popular films of all times is Spartacus", writes Steel, who then wonders "whether that film would have been as successful if the Romans had come into the field, asked 'Which one is Spartacus?', and received the answer, 'It's him over there, mate. He's nothing to do with us. You see, we're New Spartacus'".

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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