How I Became a Socialist
One of the questions that people ask me a lot is, "how did you become a socialist?"
First of all, it's important to understand that no one becomes a socialist because he or she reads the Communist Manifesto and says, "ah! Marx is right! Capitalism is the anti-Christ!" If it was the case, then there would a be a lot more socialists!
For the most part, people become socialists because of their experience of life under capitalism; they know friends who were laid off, a neighborhood hospital was shut down because it wasn't profitable, they don't have health care, or they see a monstrous contradiction between the prosperous few and the restless many.
I grew up living in Rochester during the boom of the 1990s. We got round after round of layoffs at Kodak, even though everyone was supposed to be doing great because the economy was booming.
My mom moved from NYC to escape my abusive father, and she tried to get a job. Eventually, she became a machinist, a job she had a lot of experience at, at a place called Peko Precision making $6.25 an hour. My mom worked hard to provide for my brother and myself, and we were only barely keeping our heads above water, it made me skeptical of the notion that "if you work hard, you can move up and your kids will do better than you". Although I did not know it at the time, my life experience as the kid of a blue-collar single mom was the soil for my future socialist ideas.
I don't remember the specific moment when I became "political" or when I realized how bad the world was. Why? Because there was no such moment; my ideas evolved (and are still evolving), trying to make sense of a changing reality. But there were a series of experiences that pushed me further and further towards politics, and towards a socialist understanding of the world.
A big factor in my political development was the fact that every night the entire family would watch the news, and my mom and her husband Jack would argue about stuff, from Israel to Bosnia, from layoffs at Kodak to the presidential elections. So I grew up with politics and the news; it was as familiar to me as the dinner table at which I sat.
Another event helped politicize me at age 16 was when a Vietnamese small video store owner in California put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh in his store. The Vietnamese community became extremely polarized between anti-communist die-hards (most of them exiles or refugees who fled when Saigon fell to Stalinist control in 1975) and free speech advocates, and I began to post on an internet discussion board about the subject. The questions and debates that I got involved in compelled me to read more about the history of the Viet Nam war.
My father bought me a copy of Marilyn B. Young's "The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990" when I was 14 or maybe when I was younger. It sat on my shelf for years, collecting dust. Once people started referring to the Viet Nam war in debates about the video shop owner, I ran up against my own ignorance of the subject. This was doubly ironic because my mom met my father because he fled the South Vietnamese government's draft in 1971 and came to the U.S.
Through reading Young's book, I learned about how the U.S. cancelled the elections which were supposed to unify Viet Nam under one government because the "wrong side" (Ho Chi Minh's) would win. Instead, the U.S. installed successive military dictators to rule the South. I learned about how the C.I.A. set up interrogation centers for children. CHILDREN. I learned about how the U.S. developed and used weapons such as napalm and white phosphorous -- weapons whose only purpose was to terrorize the rural population into submission. I learned about how the U.S. murdered about 4 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians in its quest to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into the hands of the "natives" who wanted to try something other than free-market capitalism. I also learned about how the media went along and sponsored the slaughter; how the politicians of both parties demanded more blood, more war, and higher body counts.
In 1999, NATO started its "humanitarian bombing" of Serbia; I thought to myself, "humanitarian bombing? Bullshit! Kind of like the 'humanitarian' trench coat mafia." The Columbine shooting happened either right after the beginning of the bombing and Bill Clinton got on television to say how "we have to teach our children to solve their problems with words and not weapons" while he bombed and killed thousands of civilians overseas. The media played its role, supporting any and everything that the government did; the "debate" between the two parties was a debate between bombing or bombing and ground troops.
I opposed the war from the outset because I knew that the U.S. government could not be trusted, that it has always resorted to phrases about "democracy," "freedom," and has always pointed to the atrocities of its enemies in order to distract attention from its own atrocities. I read Z Magazine online and began to subscribe. But the only group that I ever actually met on the ground who opposed the war was the International Socialist Organization (ISO).
I met the ISO while they were selling Socialist Worker, and I talked to them and started to coming to meetings.
Before my first ISO meeting, my close friend and I began going to local Food Not Bombs meetings every Sunday morning to cook and distribute vegan food to the local homeless population. Basically we were both sick and tired of complaining about how awful things were and not doing anything about. We saw flyers for Food Not Bombs, we liked the political message and the fact that they were at least trying to do something to actually help people, so we showed up at 7am to a local church run by the Catholic Worker organization (a left-wing religious group).
Most of the people in Food Not Bombs were anarchists. Some were revolutionaries, some were not. Some of them agreed to debate the ISO at an ISO-sponsored meeting. The topic was "Anarchism or Socialism?" When the anarchists failed to even show up to defend their views, I lost interest in anarchism.
My friend and I joined the ISO, creating a branch of three. He and I made a pact upon joining to leave the organization if we found out it supported the tyrannical "socialist" dictatorships in Russia, China, N. Korea, Viet Nam, Albania, etc. Fortunately, the ISO didn't.
I finally realized that the layoffs amidst the 90s boom, the war on Serbia, the poverty in the world's richest country, all boiled down to one thing: CAPITALISM. The system is organized around corporate greed instead of human needs, and the capitalists will do any and everything to maintain and increase their wealth and power no matter what the human cost, whether that means ruined families destroyed by layoffs or dead children in Belgrade, Baghdad, or Beirut.
So I became a socialist because of the hypocrisy and contradictions built into the system. The only way out is if the working class, the ones who do all the work and create their profits, take power and run society according to human need.
Over the course of seven years, I became disillusioned with the ISO and left the organization in order to work two jobs, seven days a week, for three years straight. I couldn't afford to put myself through grad school and support myself at the same time and never imagined I'd be working harder and longer out of college than during. After I found a better-paying job, I considered rejoining but balked after coming to the realization that the ISO's practice differed radically and fundamentally with that of the Bolsheviks in a way that made accomplishing the organization's stated goal -- the creation of a revolutionary socialist party with a mass membership of working-class activists -- impossible.
Although I remain true to the convictions I developed as a 16-year-old kid, my understanding of how we get there (if we ever do) has changed radically. It has become deeper and more nuanced as a result of my own experience organizing a variety of campaigns and through my own study. Nothing is more difficult than re-examining everything you took for granted as the truth.
I hope to elaborate on these ideas as I develop them and will post them here on this website, planetanarchy.net.