Introduction : Socialism and Democracy

Submitted by AWL on 24 August, 2004 - 2:55

The cry "For Parliamentary Democracy: the Trotskyists are the enemy of democracy" is - perhaps predictably - the political standard under which Labour's right and soft left are trying to rally forces for a counter-offensive against the serious left.

The direct target is the revolutionary left. But the main target is the much bigger serious reformist left. The slippery Neil Kinnock, eager to preserve a "left" appearance for himself, has focused on this issue. The obvious intention is to confuse and divide the left which, when united, secured the victories of Brighton and Blackpool and which, if it can restore its unity, can still stop and beat back the present right-wing offensive.

Here, as when he sabotaged Tony Benn's campaign for deputy leader, Kinnock does the direct work of the right. Today, the Labour right has the union leaderships and the help of the media, but it is very weak among the rank and file of the Labour Party. Eighty-three per cent of the Labour Party's individual membership vote went to Benn for deputy leader. So the possibility of carrying through a purge of the Labour Party which will not gut it and immobilise it as an electoral force for years ahead depends on splitting the left.

The right want to isolate and drive out the Marxists, selectively purge the fighting reformist left, and intimidate the rest of the left. The attitude to democracy and parliament is the wedge which (they hope) will not only separate off the Marxists, but also inhibit and intimidate all those who want to struggle now against the Tory government in industry and on the streets.

Michael Foot could talk just one year ago of raising an extraparliamentary "storm of opposition to the government", and now some of the union leaders are talking - only talking - of industrial resistance to Tebbit's anti-union laws. But, says Michael Foot, there are limits. Parliament must rule - even on the bones of the labour movement. That is what the right wing want to say and what they want to get the labour movement to accept!

This Tory government acts towards many millions of its own people like an alien and hostile occupying power, and does not scruple to devastate British society and inflict poverty, unemployment, want and deprivation on our own people. But this government, in Michael Foot's view, has impeccable democratic credentials.

Foot, in histrionic mood, might well express his politics now by shouting across the floor of the House of Commons to Prime Minister Thatcher: "I disagree with everything you are doing, but I'll defend to the death your democratic right to do it!" Thatcher has a big majority in parliament, won in an election that was as fair and democratic as any election in Britain. But is the Thatcher government a democratic government?

Yes, according to the standards and norms of democracy in Britain (which is typical of bourgeois democracies). No, if by democracy is meant the best possible approximation to direct self-rule, or a system even minimally responsive to the interests of the electorate (and we are here talking, remember, about the most vital interests of whole communities and of an entire generation of young people). Thatcher does not have a mandate - and Michael Foot should not say that she has - to do what she has done to the youth, to whole industries and communities. Nobody voted for that: Thatcher would - to go by the polls and by-elections - have been dismissed within a year of election if the electorate had any mechanism by which to dismiss her. No mechanism exists.

It is 150 years since the British labour movement emblazoned on its banner the demand for annual parliaments. With annual parliaments what has happened in Britain in the last two years could have been stopped in June 1980. Yet those on the right of the labour movement who insist (I think rightly) that a socialist government should be willing to accept its own dismissal by a majority of the electorate are content that Thatcher should be free to play tyrant for five years.

Foot and his friends have forgotten the whole working class notion of developing and deepening the existing democratic structure. A strong case can be made out that Thatcher's government is the opposite of a democratic government - according to the conception of democracy it claims to base itself on.

One could, as we shall see, justify even armed insurrection against this government according to the principles of classic bourgeois democracy!

In the Observer of Sunday 10 January 1982, Michael Foot published the first part of his reply to the entire current of opinion among the rank and file of the Labour Party and trade unions which wants to challenge the Tories now, using extra-parliamentary direct action where necessary. He addresses those who reject, downgrade or are impatient with legalism and parliamentarism.

The mask of the Inquisition master Torquemada raised like a visor above his face, Michael Foot mounts the rostrum of the Observer to preach a sermon on democracy to his loyal supporters, and to the heretics. It is more civilised than witch-burning: we will have to see whether it is instead of bonfires, or part of the preparation for them. Enough is said in part one of Foot's article to establish Foot's basic ideas and his alternative to what he defines as Marxism. He deserves a reply.

Read the full series of these articles:
Introduction
Chapter 1: Direct action and democracy
Chapter 2: The appeal to history
Chapter 3: The scarecrow of Stalinism
Chapter 4: Superstition or struggle?