From International Socialism (1st series), No.68, April 1974, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This New Season – Our Class, Our Schools, Our World
Calder and Boyars, £2.60 (hard cover)/85p (paperback).
ALL SORTS OF FRESH elements add their voices of protest as the working-class struggle rises. Their awakening pushes forward individuals who perform the double role of giving expression to the unrest which may be dormant or diverted, and helping it to find its own special identity and form of struggle.
Chris Searle helps East End children discover themselves as part of the East End working class community, and takes them on their first steps towards being people ‘sticking up for their rights’. And he does so in a unique way – through the children’s poetry.
The exciting aspect of the children’s poetry is the unity it forges of the material with the spiritual – of the sadness and bondage of East End life with the sensitive exposure of it, and of the hopes, yearnings and dreams of those who live it – which is the very stuff of poetry. It is the very same cry as waved from the banner of young textile strikers in Massachusetts in 1912: ‘We want bread – and roses too’.
Each page of the book breathes the extension of the child writer’s feelings beyond his own self, binding him to others. On opening the book at random, we find a first child stepping into the minds of others:
Looking at people
A second breaks the barrier of feeling towards old age:
I am old and frightened
Among Paki-bashing gangs of youngsters a 12-year-old white boy can be drawn to solidarity by putting himself in imagination into a Pakistani’s place:
I am just a Pakystani Boy
This book is the result of a couple of years of Chris Searle’s work as a teacher in an East End school – during which time he was suspended and victimised by the stuffy, alien bigwigs who impose the school ethos for publishing Stepney Words, a book of the children’s poetry. It is not easily laid aside. It raises deep and intimate questions as to what makes a working-class community tick. In the atmosphere of general oppression, why do some of its members sink to finding individual solutions up the social scale or down it, while others seek the socialist solution of a united working class struggle, how does racial prejudice fit in and so on.
Searle devotes his generous energies to helping children, by expressing themselves freely, to develop as fighters for a better world. His own outlook is unequivocal: ‘A working-class child can either become mindful of the hierarchy and start climbing, or accept his position and be endlessly exploited, endlessly consumed. The only other alternative is struggle.’ It is his exposure of the factors which enable them to become socialist fighters which gives the book its lasting value.
These factors for a youngster are first a feeling of pride in and respect for himself. For someone who has never suffered or has forgotten being humiliated and degraded for just being what he is, it is difficult to understand the confusion and self-hatred of a person who lacks pride in himself, unless one has a real and generous sympathy with and anger for the underdog. But many working-class children are just so insulted and degraded in the competitive hierarchical school situation The collapse of a dream, and an ego, is expressed starkly in these four lines:
I think I’ll be an executive,
The feeling of self-respect and self-confidence needs to be constantly nourished for the further factors already described to come into play – a sympathy with and compassion for others which bind together the community and enable it to struggle in solidarity for a better life.
Searle’s ideas on the importance of a unified community for giving a sense of identity, of belonging, of self-confidence and so moral strength to fight battles, extends the horizons of socialists’ thinking. It applies much beyond his East End community. In particular it has a strong bearing on black communities.
It seems useful to continue the discussion further than Chris Searle takes it, to round off the ideas on community inspired by his book.
In a predominantly white school community the working-class child may well feel insulted and degraded by an alien middle-class ethos and a competitive shake-out in which he drops down to the bottom of the pile. Black children suffer a double discrimination – as workers and blacks – as against the single attack on the white working-class child.
His only refuge, his haven, his source of spiritual nourishment in this unloving world is his own community, where all children are precious because they are the community’s future, and where a safe and organised framework provides the security every child needs for whole growth. The community gives him all the sense of identity, of self-respect and confidence Chris Searle seeks to nurture and strengthen in his East End community.
The search for identity leads West Indian youngsters to unite in gangs which have, in a sense, an added dimension of political protest about them missing from the equivalent white gangs. ‘Black power’ is a tangible ingredient in them. And this ingredient provides the adolescent gang members with that positive discrimination in favour of blackness which is so vital for the psychological development of those discriminated against everywhere else. It boosts their ego, and provides a sense of potency necessary for full emotional development.
It can, if nurtured by propitious forces, lead the youngster to grow beyond ‘black power’ and become a fighter for the working class. If not further stimulated it can lead to other solutions of an individualistic nature.
As the revolutionary movement grows to embrace much broader sections of workers, the community factor will demand greater attention from the movement The movement will need to come to terms with the particular dynamics of the different, mainly black, minority communities so that they may be won to revolutionary socialism in a way that has not yet been achieved, and add their solid voices to the shouts of protest.
Last updated: 6.3.2008