I typed up an early version of this history of my political beliefs to add to my Libcom profile. Deciding it was too long and too personal, I decided to make it even longer and even more personal and post it here instead.
At age 12 I liked four kinds of books:
- Books about animals
- Books about the paranormal/Forteana
- Books about World War II
- Books about Star Trek
I still like these kinds of books. But it was the last two that had the greatest impact on me.
Star Trek books made me a communist without realizing I was one. I credit Star Trek's vision of the future with making me believe that we really can live in a world without poverty, exploitation, classes, war, irrationality (religion), and the state. That a future where human wants and needs come before profit (which in fact doesn't exist) isn't some Utopian dream but a real possibility.
But war is pretty neat when you can keep it abstract, so I read (and still read) World War II books. It wasn't long before I began reasoning that if Hitler was bad, and the Soviet Union was the primary reason why he was defeated, then maybe the Soviet Union wasn't so bad after all. (As a side note, this is how many leftists still defend the Soviet Union; I would respond, like Shachtman, that if having a powerful army and beating foreign invaders was a sign of socialism, then Tsar Alexander was "the best disciple of Lenin.")
At age 14 I found a group that shared my dislike of Bad Things and my positive feelings for the Soviet Union. Drawn in by a website that already looked out of date by the late-90s, but which said all the right things about ending homelessness, poverty, racism, and war, I didn't waste a second before joining the Young Communist League, the Communist Party USA's youth wing.
I never got much out of my affiliation, just an invitation to participate in a sort of webconference (which, as I recall, was done in what we used to call an HTML chatroom). What I remember most is my mother's reaction upon my telling her of my decision to join. She was upset. Not because of how I was developing politically (her father was a staunch liberal, union man, and once even mentioned the CPUSA in conversation). She was upset because she felt that I might be blacklisted. Not a realistic concern in the 1990s -- not because radicals were treated better, but because the CPUSA was already an inconsequential relic.
By age 15 exposure to other "socialist" literature had convinced me that the Soviet Union under Stalin sucked. During this period I was a regular reader of the Socialist Labor Party's paper, The People. Like the YCL, the SLP said all the right things about ending Bad Things, but they also were clear that socialism was something a lot better than what the Soviet Union had. The best thing I can say about the SLP now is that their press used clear, simple language. This was part of their appeal.
At 16 I fell in with Trotskyism. I don't know how or why, just that newyouth.com was probably the gateway. Maybe it was the frequency of updates that put newyouth.com and sister site marxist.com ahead of the SLP in my eyes. Or maybe it was that they seemed to be involved in everything. At a certain stage in one's political development, "doing lots of things" matters more than "doing the right things." Trotskyism appeals to these people. Also, it didn't hurt that one of these sites had a FAQ that answered all kinds of questions about socialism.
I had lots of dumb ideas at this time. For instance, even though I styled myself as a marxist, I saw a big difference between Bush and Gore. When Bush won, I cried -- and ordered a copy of Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare.
My break with trotskyism came at age 17, when I read Antony Beevor's history of the Spanish Civil War. The contrast between what happened in Spain, and what the Trotskyists thought happened, was too extreme. It was pretty clear that the Trotskyists thought everything would be okay so long as there was a "revolutionary party" leading the workers by the nose onto the imperialist battlefield. But that was the least of the problems faced by the Spanish proletariat.
Genuinely impressed, almost feverishly so, by what the anarchist workers had accomplished in 1936 (but failed to maintain), I quickly decided anarchism was a good thing. Now here were people who really knew how to fight the fascists! Like most anarchists, I celebrated anything that moved. Bakunin was good. Che was good. Subcomandante Marcos was good. The Red Brigades were good. Dipshit sites like Raise the Fist were good. Basically, anything active and to the left of Stalin was good.
I don't blame anarchism for my confused leftism. I suffered that before I came to anarchism. If anything, being a confused anarchist was a step forward from being a confused Trot. Anarchism helped me internalize a few ideas that I should've acquired in my earlier "marxist" phase. First, I came to see that the state is not something that has any place in just, free society. Second, reading Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread made me a thoroughgoing communist. None of these ideas is exclusive to anarchism -- you can find both, very explicitly, in Lenin's State and Revolution. It's very telling that I never came across these ideas in a clear way in two years of reading Trotskyist websites.
At age 18-19 I read two works that drove me away from anarchism forever. The first was Pannekoek's Workers' Councils. Shortly thereafter I read Lenin's State and Revolution. Both of these works shared some of the best features of anarchism, but both had a much more rigorous analysis of history, class struggle, and the state that I had seen in anarchist works. Pannekoek in particular was important, since this led me to the German/Dutch communist left -- and then beyond, to the caricature of the German/Dutch communist left known as council communism. I was an ardent councilist for a while.
By about age 20, I was pretty active in posting on the Livejournal marxism community (don't laugh -- it was marginally better than it sounds). Mostly I posted council communist literature. My ideas still weren't that different from when I was an anarchist. Russian Revolution bad. Organization bad. "Dictatorship of the proletariat" very bad (and, I was convinced, a contradiction in terms; socialism meant the immediate abolition of classes, and therefore the state.) I argued about this with maoists, stalinists, trotskyists, FARC supporters, and so on. But a few comrades, who I will love and honor forever even though I can't remember their names, criticized my ideas from another angle. They knew about the real heritage of the German/Dutch communist left, and they knew about the Italian communist left, and about groups that synthesized the lessons handed down by these different tendencies. I overcame the anti-organizational, anti-authority biases instilled in me by council communism. I saw that that what the Bolsheviks began in 1917 was both humanity's greatest achievement and its most tragic failure. I became a left communist.
From then on, the enthusiasm and energy I have for politics (and life in general) fluctuates, but not my fundamental orientation.