Monday, February 21, 2005

Paul Foot 'The Vote'

The Guardian (Feb 21st 2005) is carrying two excerpts from Paul Foot's posthumous book on The Vote. It is a great read, carrying many of the inspiring features of Paul's politics and writing.
Sadly he doesn't mention his campaign to be Mayor of Hackney in 2002, in which, although he didn't win, he caertainly wasn't 'comprehensibly rebuffed'. Perhaps discussion of that will, if not I'll be assuming it has gone down the memory hole that the SWP seem to have for the Socialist Alliance nowadays.

"I have been surprised by the number of times I have been urged to "go into politics". When I protested that I was already in politics, I was told that what was meant was "real politics", meaning parliament. Then and since, I took the view that the main job of socialists must be outside parliament, making the case for socialism and for socialist organisation where it matters most, in the rank and file. On the few occasions I have stood for elected office, I did so chiefly for propaganda reasons, and was suitably and comprehensively rebuffed.

All my adult life has been spent as an active member of a revolutionary socialist party, the International Socialists, later the Socialist Workers party. I have experienced as widely as anyone else in the past 40 years the many obstacles against which such a party has constantly to struggle. The menace of sectarianism - the biblical assertion that our sect is right and all the others wrong - haunts anyone who has ever taken part in such activity. With it goes dogmatism, doctrinaire assertiveness, stale and meaningless language, constant repetition of allegedly incontrovertible texts, all of which leads not to leadership of the masses but to isolation from them. I have had my fill of all these horrors, but none of them is half as destructive as abstinence or apathy. The socialist who joins nothing and links with nobody is the most useless of all.

Yet its opposite, fanaticism, is just as much a threat. Many young people, when they first join a revolutionary socialist organisation, are astonished at popular indifference to their enthusiasms. In their new excitement in the struggle it is hard to credit that many people, if not most of them, do not want to devote their lives to politics. Patience is not a quality normally associated with revolutionary socialists, whose impatience and frantic determination to do in hours and weeks what may take many years, is often their worst enemy.

Yet that (usually youthful) impatience is an absolutely essential ingredient of any socialist organisation. It is the theme of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. He wrote it in 1820 in a mood of despair after reading a vicious review of his longest poem. He was worried that he was getting old, and that no one was listening to his revolutionary views. As he contemplates what seemed like his hopeless failure, he takes courage from the strength of the wind, the herald of the revolution. What mattered above all, he concluded, was to remain a threat to the rulers of society, to remain fierce and to remain impetuous. "Be thou, spirit fierce, my spirit. Be thou me, impetuous one!" Impatience and urgency are the watchwords of successful agitation, and to abandon either is to abandon the ideas that gave rise to them in the first place.

My own inspiration through four decades of campaigning, until he died aged 83 in 2000, was Ygael Gluckstein, who in Britain called himself Tony Cliff. Cliff was a Jew who was brought up in Palestine (ironically, he was imprisoned there by the British administration in which my father was a district officer). He gave up his entire life to building an anti-Stalinist, anti-Zionist socialist party founded in working-class militancy.

Cliff's intellect was immense, his knowledge of marxist literature breathtaking and his public speaking laced with tremendous anger, passion and above all humour. Every time we spoke together at meetings, I could not help observing how he subtly corrected me on what suddenly seemed an obvious error of judgment. "Paul, you are soft," was his constant jibe, followed usually by the entirely mistaken allegation that my father had put him in prison.

Ever since, I have been intrigued by the problem of socialists' parliamentary impotence. Why were elected politicians committed to socialist ideas so palpably incapable of putting them into practice? Their legitimacy came from the vote. They were important because they had been elected. The working class was in a majority, and from time to time the workers were likely to elect politicians committed to their interests. Why, when this happened, had elected socialists been so pathetic in office?

Many of my marxist friends told me that the question is "basically" irrelevant. "Bourgeois democracy" was a creature of bourgeois society and therefore could not possibly be expected to buck the market or anything else that was central to that society. This view seemed to me entirely unsatisfactory. It overlooked the fundamental principle of democracy: the consent of the people in whose name their representatives carry out policies. It occurred to me that this rejection of electoral democracy came mainly from people who in varying degrees of certainty supported the tyrannies in Russia, China and eastern Europe.

Yet surely, it seemed to me, democracy, the control of society from below, was the very essence of socialism, and capitalism, the control of industry and finance from above, the very opposite of it. How to resolve the conflict between a democracy that enfranchises the masses and an economic system that enslaves and exploits them?

That was the central dilemma I wanted to try to answer when, in 1990, I embarked on a book on the subject. It took very much longer than expected. At the start of 1999, I was still struggling through the long story of votes for women. On a miserable night in April that year, I was carted off to hospital semi-conscious, with a leaking aorta that was hurriedly repaired. After three weeks in a coma and six months in hospital, I was back at home, disabled with spinal damage, so that I could not walk without a stick, but with my brain mercifully intact. I started the chapter on women all over again and attempted to weave it in with the struggles of the still largely disenfranchised working class, male and female. The long haul through the twentieth century took me another four years.

I was lucky to have an uncle and aunt who knew all about the subject. My aunt Jill Craigie first fired my interest in the suffragette movement, in which she became one of the country's leading authorities. She died soon after I came out of hospital in 1999, and I deeply regret I was not able to show her what I had written on her subject. (I know she would have disagreed with me about the differing roles of the Pankhursts. She revered Emmeline and Christobel; I preferred Sylvia.)
My uncle Michael has put up for more than 30 years with my longstanding rejection of the parliamentary road to socialism. No one in British public life (except possibly his hero, Aneurin Bevan) walked that road more honourably. I felt all that time that he has never (quite) given me up and has continued to argue with me and feed me books in an attempt to persuade me.
In the summer of 2003, I showed him a draft. The result was a long harangue on two matters. The first was my treatment of Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst and their reaction to the first world war. "Jill would have been furious with you if she'd seen this!" he exploded. I have, out of deference to my aunt, expanded it and explained it a little. His second objection, not surprisingly, was to my account of the Labour government in which he played a major part, latterly as deputy prime minister. Well, since I lived through this period and was an active campaigner against the government, I could not in conscience change the thrust, but again I have modified it.

Again and again, as I grappled with this history, I was struck by the dramatic and sometimes very sudden changes in the political landscape. Sudden brightness can emerge from what seem like endless years of gloom. Encrusted reaction can turn almost overnight into great radical movements that can change the world. The changes are, I have argued, almost always associated with people's actions from below. That action, especially strikes, transforms not only popular moods but indi viduals as well. Standard biographies often assume that their subjects are consistent and can be analysed as though their characters were fixed and permanent. In reality, their only permanent feature is their susceptibility to change.

How to equate Ben Tillett, the fiery revolutionary strike-leader on the London docks in 1889, with the frightful TUC compromiser of 1927? Is Joseph Arch, the courageous strike-leader of 1874, really the same person as the drivelling Liberal MP a quarter of a century later? Nor is the drift always from left to right, from enthusiasm to despair. How can the deeply reactionary young Peter Porcupine turn into the angry old radical William Cobbett, so admired by Marx? And what exactly did happen to Tony Benn to change him from the keen young technocrat into the eloquent reformer of his old age?

Most of these changes reflect more general changes in the political landscape, almost all of which have been brought about by sudden and sporadic movements from below. All these movements, the revolutionary outburst of 1646 and 1647, the Paineite revolt of the 1790s, the massive wave of violence in 1831, the Chartists, the London dock strike of 1889, the Great Unrest from 1911 to 1914, the agitations of 1919 and early 1920, the General Strike, the "stupendous convulsion" during the second world war, the glorious summer of 1971, all these arose unpredictably, suddenly, out of the blue. This is the tug of war which will certainly, as Byron predicted, "come again", and is well worth organising for.

In 1972, I joined the staff of Socialist Worker and worked there full-time until 1978. It was, and is, sold as widely as possible by a small handful of agitators. The few full-time journalists on the paper were all my friends, all exceptionally able and engaging people.

The gentlest and most dedicated of them was a professional sub-editor called Geoff Ellen. He came from Chelmsford in Essex and was, among other things, an absurdly devoted West Ham supporter. He spent pretty well all his spare time organising for socialism. There was not a trade unionist in Essex he had not tried to push or pull into some form of revolt. On Tuesday nights we were kept late at work by the printing of the last few pages, and indulged ourselves in takeaway kebabs and long, heart-searching conversations.

As the great industrial climax of the early 1970s, to our astonishment, fell back, I began privately to worry that the entire revolutionary project, and the ideas that gave rise to it, were misconceived. One evening, as we waited for the proofs, I blurted out my apprehensions to Geoff. I had joined the staff in the autumn of 1972, at a time of huge convulsions and great hope for the future. If anyone had asked me, I would have said at once that I was hoping for, and confidently expecting, a revolution. By late 1975, however, I complained to Geoff, that change had not come. It was obviously not going to come from Harold Wilson or Dennis Healey, but we had always known that. In the decline of the movement, the issue seemed to have changed. Was the revolution going to come at all? And if not, what was to become of us if our grand aim in life was to be frustrated and even ridiculed?

To my enormous relief, Geoff cheered me up with his speciality: a huge all-enveloping grin. "If the revolution doesn't come," he said, "there is nothing much we can do about that. Whether it comes or not, there is nothing for us to do but what we are doing now: fight for it, fight for the workers and the poor."

Some years later, Geoff, still a young man, went to bed one night with a headache and died from a brain haemorrhage. All his adult life, he stuck firmly by his advice to me that dark winter evening in 1975. And so, I hope, have I. "
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Great stuff. I always like it when someone from the SWP criticises 'sectarianism' without it being obvious that what they actually mean is anyone who isn't in the SWP or criticises the SWP. I was extremely annoyed by an article Foot did for Socialist Worker in the early days of the current anti-war movement in which he said that the people he most despised weren't those in the Labour Party but those NANAs - the National Association of the Non-Aligned. In the context of the Socialist Alliance I took it as a bad piece of sectarianism from Footie and Socialist Worker.

8 Comments:

Blogger badmatthew said...

Distinguished political historian Kenneth O.Morgan has reviewed Paul Foot's book for The Independent (Feb 25th,'Foot soldiers for freedom' http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/reviews/story.jsp?story=614437
Morgan is generally appreciative, and some of his criticisms have force, especially about insularity, but reveals that he hasn't quite 'got' Foot's revolutionary politics and thus misses the point.

26 February 2005 at 19:36  
Blogger Daniel Miles said...

Three Wishes: Grace Mercy Peace.

Why focus on the silly sides war of them who "oppose themselves" in plural heavens, when above such ("higher than the heavens") is where Christ: "the end of the law" entered, and appeared in the presence of God, notably for "us".

The "grace" of our Lord Jesus Christ with you all. Amen.

Daniel Miles

26 February 2005 at 22:09  
Blogger badmatthew said...

Paul Foot's old colleague Francis Wheen has reviewed 'The Vote' for The Guardian (Feb 26th, http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1424560,00.html). I remember Foot being complimentary towards Wheen, depsite political differences, over western intervention into the Baalkans I think. The political diffferences conrtinue with Wheen regretting that he won't be able to argue out the current politics of support for the Iraqi 'resisitance': described by Wheen as Ba'athist neo-fascists and theocratic gangsters!

27 February 2005 at 13:35  
Blogger badmatthew said...

And Andy McSmith has a review in the Independent on Sunday, 'The road to revolution is always Shelley'(Feb 27th http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/reviews/story.jsp?story=615311), makes some acute points, but again misses the importance of the state capitalsit analysis that means that Foot didn't have to be apologetic or ashamed about the USSR. McSmith refers to the influence of Ralph Miliband's 'Parliamentary Socialism'and finishes with a reference to the careers of Miliband's sons... what is he trying to say?

27 February 2005 at 17:02  
Blogger badmatthew said...

And Vernon Bogdanor (a name inextricably linked to the most tedious of discussions of proportional representation) provides another attempt to damn (along with some faint praise) in the Financial Times (March 5th): see 'You May Say I'm a Dreamer' at http://news.ft.com/cms/s/56b63dae-8b96-11d9-89e5-00000e2511c8.html.

5 March 2005 at 18:57  
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