Paul Foot

Submitted by AWL on 15 August, 2004 - 10:21 Author: Sean Matgamna

By Sean Matgamna

Paul Foot, who has died at the age of 66, was one of Britain's best known socialists.
A member of what is now the SWP for 43 years, he became widely known for "muckraking" books about miscarriages of justice such as Who Killed Hanratty (1971), for his association with Private Eye, and for his columns in the Daily Mirror and the Guardian.

In the film "Time Bandits" John Cleese plays a boyish upper class Robin Hood - Paul Foot in voice and manner. It cannot but have been a deliberate take-off of Foot and it is accurate to a T.

Born in Palestine in 1937, where his father was serving, he was of upper bourgeois background.

His father Sir Hugh Foot was Governor of Cyprus during the last phase of EOKA's war against Britain at the end of the 1950s. Later, as Lord Caradon, he was the British representative at the UN.

Foot's uncle was Michael Foot, courtier and protégé of the Tory press Lord, Beaverbrook, and at various times editor of his London Evening Standard, editor of the left Labour paper Tribune, MP and, in the 80s, Labour Party leader.

In the 1960s, many people of Paul Foot's sort of background came over to our camp for a while. Foot came very early and he stayed.

He retained and used his bourgeois "old school" connections and a highly bourgeois life-style. Yet Foot all his life was serious about his socialism and about the commitment to the working class which he made in his early 20s.

However, he tended, especially after the collapse of working class militancy in the late 70s and early 80s, to identify the cause of the working class and socialism with the SWP and its founder, the late Tony Cliff.

Foot was a personal follower of Tony Cliff, who founded the SWP; and he was very much a "party man", in the bad, football club, "my party right or wrong" sense. He concentrated on the "outside" world and accommodated himself to whatever twists and turns the Party made.

At the Respect conference earlier this year you could see him theatrically gesturing and applauding as his beloved party dug itself into the political swamp in which George Galloway and the Muslim Brotherhood live.

That's what he was doing the first time I encountered him at an IS (the earlier name of the SWP) conference in late 1968. Sitting in the row of seats behind me he kept up a running commentary, consisting of groans, cheers, clappings and barrackings - "We don't want to hear about that!" Schoolboy or football-fan stuff.

In those days, there was an often intense political life in the group. Not until the early 70s did it start to turn into a tightly controlled kitsch-Leninist sect. Yet in three years I saw Foot adopt a position independent of Cliff only once.

Like many others of the organisation's old guard, he responded in shock and horror to Cliff's sudden proposal in 1971 to change the organisation's line to one of outright hostility to the European Union. In the 1960s, anti-Europeanism had been the property of the "Commonwealth Firsters" Labour Party right wing, of the Tribuneite Labour left, and of the pseudo-patriots of the Communist Party. But it was also the line of working class militants, shop stewards, etc, influenced by them. That was why Cliff wanted IS to join the anti-EU bandwagon when it gathered pace in 1971.

Up to that point, IS had called the anti-EUers "little Britishers" and chauvinists, and insisted that the only socialist answer to the bourgeois unification of Europe was the unity of the European working class. Now Cliff proposed to join the anti-EU camp. At first, Foot said "no".

He had written a book about the Tory MP Enoch Powell, after he emerged in 1968 as the pied-piper of British racism. British nationalist opposition to the EU and British racism were organically entwined. This must have influenced Foot's initial responses to Cliff's proposal. But his opposition didn't last long.

Like most of the "Old Guard" minority on the IS National Committee who opposed the "turn", Foot decided not to fight to stop the lurch into chauvinism in the only way left - by organising people outside the NC to demand a special conference on the issue (see Workers' Liberty No.41, July 1997, "A funny tale agreed upon".) But he went one better.

Unlike the others, Foot quickly changed sides, allowing himself to be convinced by Cliff. He then put a jokily-titled article into the internal bulletin to announce his going over into Cliff's camp, entitled, "Confession". Some recent encounter had convinced him that Cliff was right… It really was a "confession", a "capitulation".

Over 40 years, beginning as a narrow middle-class "workerist", Foot survived, his party loyalties intact, through all the bewildering political shifts and turns of his organisation.

Foot was the founding editor of what is now Socialist Worker and was at first called Labour Worker.

Published in Glasgow, where Foot worked on a bourgeois paper, it was a very narrow "economistic" paper, concerned mainly with trade union and "bread and butter" working class affairs.

In the bourgeois press Foot made virulently anti-Israeli polemics, in support of the proposition that a solution to the Middle-East conflict must involve the destruction of Israel. Solidarity has commented on this aspect of Foot's work, most recently his advice in the Guardian to Tam Dalyell MP that he should have denounced "Zionists" and not, as he had, "Jews" around Tony Blair, and nobody could then call him an anti-semite. I won't repeat any of that here.

An interesting question for his biographer will be what part his Palestinian birth played in his association with the Palestinian Jew Cliff, who in Middle East politics was an Arab nationalist, indeed a chauvinist.

Foot's exposures of injustice, etc, have their own value. But in his most widely circulated writings Foot functioned not as a socialist but as a radical critic of aspects of bourgeois rule.

Such things are a valuable part of socialist education but only if they are complemented by broader socialist propaganda and education. As socialist propaganda they are only as good as the context which the work of the organisation of which the author is part gives them.

But all criticism of his work and of his party aside, Foot devoted much of his life to the cause of socialism, of the working class and of the victims of the bourgeois state. His death diminishes all of us.

P.S. In 1968 London dockers struck in support of Enoch Powell when he was sacked from the Tory front bench for making an inflammatory racist speech.

In Manchester, the tiny Trotskyist group Workers' Fight - a predecessor of Solidarity/AWL - had a quarter of our members, two of us, working on the docks there. We put out a four-page duplicated bulletin in response to Powell and the terrible racist strike of dockers in London.

Harold Youd and I stood at the main entrance to the dock and gave a copy of the leaflet to every docker who would take it. I like to think it did some good. The major part of that bulletin consisted of an imaginary "dialogue" with a working class supporter of Powell. It was written by Paul Foot.