Chapter 2: The appeal to history

Submitted by AWL on 24 August, 2004 - 3:00

Chapter 2: The appeal to history

Foot's safe good causes

Foot invokes the saints of British radicalism (even the suffragettes - who were, technically, small-scale terrorists and mostly not at all radical except on votes for women). He justifies their extraparliamentary actions and claims their tradition for himself.

But today it is different, he says - because then, either parliament was not available to the people at all, or the radicals were fighting for a sectional interest shut out from parliament's all-transforming portals.

Wat Tyler (who led the Peasants' Revolt 600 years ago) "had no representative to whom he could put his case". Did Oliver Cromwell knock parliament about a bit? By Cromwell parliament was "first saved...and then shut down when it proved obstreperous". Foot considers that there were good democratic grounds for Cromwell's action because "the men of Cromwell's armies... did represent a much larger total of the British people of their century than the parliament" which Cromwell shut down.

So Foot can set it all to democratic rights in his head by an arithmetical computation three and a quarter centuries later; and Cromwell was a good democrat even against parliament!

As to the first mass workers' party, the Chartists of the 1830s and '40s: "Their declared aim was to establish a parliament which they could trust, not one they wished to bypass. Extra-parliamentary action was important since they had no voice inside; actually to win the voice inside was the aim.', So Foot approves of their extra-parliamentary activities too.

In fact, the Chartists wanted a lot more than a voice. They wanted power to subordinate society to their own interests. Then the vote was power, parliament really did have the power; that is why the ruling class would have had civil war rather than working class suffrage. If the Chartists' formal demands now seem moderate, it is because something seemingly like some of them has been realised - without the radical purpose the Chartists pursued by way of these demands being realised. But in their time the Chartists were like the "moderates" in James Connolly's song - "We only want the earth".

Foot is wrong - factually and politically - to imply that the Chartists won even the formal goals for which "they were right" to fight outside parliament. They demanded annual parliaments. Where would Mrs Thatcher be now if that elementary precondition of a healthy democracy had been won then? Logically, if he thinks the Chartists were right to fight for annual parliaments, Foot should favour struggle now to bring down the Tory government!

The suffragettes wrecked property, attacked parliament, raised fires and planted small bombs. But Foot argues that they were justified "precisely because they too were denied the right to speak and act inside parliament. "

"It is an irony," says Foot, "that they should now be paraded as the opponents of parliamentary methods."

But surely not as big an irony as that they should be presented - because their aim was to get the parliamentary vote - as exponents of parliamentary methods!

In fact they were characterised above all by rejection of parliamentary methods: they hive off from the numerous mere suffragists who favoured parliamentary methods, and from a large lobby of MPs which fought for women's suffrage year in and year out around Private Members' Bills (like the almost perennial anti-abortion lobby private members' bills now).

Far from "lacking a voice" in parliament, in fact they got a majority in the House of Commons at least once, only to be frustrated by the House of Lords veto. But that veto had been curbed by the time of the wildest suffragette activities. Still, Foot says, it was permissible to the suffragettes to act as they did from impatience with parliament, and, before 1911, because of frustration with the House of Lords' entrenched power.

Then what about the working class now? Thatcher's Tories are destroying jobs and communities; they will not be restored quickly, if ever. The trade unions are being put in a legal straitjacket. Why do we not have the same right of impatience with parliament and the parliamentary processes? Why, in addition, do we not have the right of extra-parliamentary activity for self-defence?

After the ruling against London Transport, do we not have as good grounds for impatience with the House of Lords as the suffragettes did? If and when the undemocratic legal reserve powers of the British state are used, why should we not treat legality as the suffragettes (with Foot's approval) did?

There is no reason why we should not. Foot's invocation of the now safe (because past) causes celebres of his radical tradition implies, justifies and recommends not his politics, but ours!

Of all his historical examples, Foot says, in effect: "Of course, to achieve such results [a voice in parliament] it was necessary to take action outside parliament, and with every justice". The message is necessarily that those were bad days, and now we have a perfect democratic machine (even if not quite what the Chartists fought for).

But this is simply not true: the depredations of the minority Thatcher government are the glaring, painful proof of it!

When Michael Foot talked last year of raising a storm of protest against the government, and led a great march through Liverpool, he was rather feebly carrying on the real traditions of those struggles; when he cants against extra-parliamentary action he is betraying them. He invokes limited, ancient, and now respectable radical causes, all the better to attack those who actually stand now in the living continuity of those causes. Foot invokes all these old radical causes, but in fact his attitude to parliament now resembles nothing so strongly as the attitude of the Anglican Tories in the reign of James 11! Committed to the idea of the divine right of kings and the sinfulness of resistance to a legitimate king, they confronted the Catholic king's machinations to destroy their church and restore Catholicism. They found it impossible to agree with James, naturally, but also impossible to resist him; to resist would have been a very great sin. Their policy, too, might have been shouted across the House of Lords by some purple-clad ancestor of Foot's: "I disagree bitterly with what you are doing, but I'll defend to the death your right to do it!" When others kicked James off the throne and made the 'Glorious Revolution' in 1688, these people still stood by King James and his divine Stuart right to rule! Passively, it is true: they would not do anything for James. But they never did anything against him. Consistent in their boneheaded dogmatism, they retained their sterile loyalty to James even when he was gone, and faced persecution, in the fashion of those days, at the hands of James' conquerors.

They, Michael Foot - useless alike to James and his enemies - are your political ancestors; Cromwell and the others you claim as your own are really ours! They believed in the people's right of resistance to tyrants, social or political; they were fighters, not canting priests paralysed by superstition and a doctrine that the entrenched powers had a divine right even to be tyrannical.

For Foot now it is not the divine right of kings but the divine right of parliament and the compelling legitimacy it confers even on a naked class war government like Thatcher's.

Foot claims Marx and Trotsky

Foot is ambitious: he wants to decorate the right-wing Labour float in the democratic carnival with the heads of Marx, Engels and Trotsky.

Marx and Engels envisaged, says Foot, that in England there might be a peaceful transition to socialism. He quotes Engels (selectively) to this effect. This is less than serious. Marx and Engels did talk about the possibility of peaceful socialist transformation in Britain, the USA and perhaps (Marx said he didn't know enough about its institutions to be sure) Holland. Why? Because in those states the bureaucratic/military system was not a major force. And is that still true in Britain today? Read Tony Benn's account of the realities of rule in Britain today!

Trotsky and Lenin, says Foot, only "thought perhaps that other parliaments might be as futile or obstructive for their purposes as the Russian Dumb". They made the mistake of thinking the British parliament was "fashioned in the same mould" as the Dumb! This assertion means only that Foot has not read, for example, Trotsky's detailed analysis of British politics, Where is Britain Going?.

Trotsky, says Foot, "would never have been guilty of the infantile, querulous condemnations of parliament and parliamentary action which some of his self-styled followers adopt...Trotsky, the foremost literary genius brought forth by the Soviet Revolution, would surely have disowned with one sweep of his pen the whole breed of modern Trotskyists" (because of our sins of literary style?).

It is quite true that some of those calling themselves Trotskyists have many of the traits of anarchism, and sometimes come close to rejecting parliamentary action. The attitude of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) to the Labour Party, for example, is a necessary by-product of its attitude to parliamentary action - one of dismissal, and the pretence that it is irrelevant. (But they do believe in democracy - workers' democracy, through workers' councils).

Effectively the SWP rejects political action - except for general socialist propaganda, work to "build the party", and promises of what they may do sometime in the future, counterposed to the realities of the labour movement now. Marx polemicised against the sort of "political indifferentism" the SWP represents when he encountered it in its brave and open early anarchist form. So did Trotsky. But there aren't any SWP-ers in the Labour Party!

Foot is trying to tar Labour Party activists with this brush, not because they share the SWP's anti-political traits, but on the contrary because, unlike the SWP, they are politically active within the broad labour movement, and have shaken up the political structures of the labour movement.

He drags this in to cover his own tracks, and as a means to separate himself from the present-day radicals and revolutionaries whose traditions he invokes, tries to appropriate, and seems to genuinely respect.

He concedes that "it is not possible or desirable that the socialist acceptance of parliamentary institutions should be automatic or uncritical or unqualified". But Foot himself does accept these institutions without other than historical qualification, and accepts confinement to them not just automatically but by deep reflex and ingrained dogmatic conviction.

Here Foot's radical conscience pays historical tribute to his current vices: "the Labour Party needs to use parliament more ambitiously and more deliberately than ever before". Yes! Even the quasi-syndicalists of the SWP would agree with that. So why does Labour Party leader Foot continue to collaborate with Thatcher? Why not take up Tony Benn's call for "disengagement", i.e. boycott of the Tory structures? That would not be enough, but it would be something.

But in fact Foot raised this idea because he needs to have an apparent alternative to offer to the indicated use of trade union power now to stop Thatcher: "the dominant need is to turn the nation's mind to parliamentary action". He insists that "trade union power cannot save us, particularly since at such a perilous time the trade unions are compelled to conduct defensive, rearguard battles."

Trade unions as trade unions cannot offer an overall framework for socialist transformation, unless they become a great deal more than trade unions. But they can resist, fight back, make it impossible for the government to govern. They could even bring down the government.

What does Foot think of the events in 1972 - one of the great, historic victories of the labour movement - when a wave of spontaneous political strikes forced the TUC to call a one-day general strike for a political purpose and, before the strike date set, forced the government to release the five dockers who had quite legally been jailed according to an Act of Parliament democratically passed, stamped and signed in accordance with the best of all possible parliamentary democratic constitutions?

A petition to parliament should have been organised? Good democrats, socialists as well as others, should have denounced the workers whose actions forced open the gates of Pentonville jail for the five dockers? Direct action against the democratically elected government's democratically decided law released those dockers: the lack of direct action (partly because people relied on the Labour government) was probably decisive in keeping the three Shrewsbury building pickets in jail (in Des Warren's case, for three years).

Foot's fear of the stormtroopers

Why does the once socialist Michael Foot need this rigmarole? Because he is afraid of the alternative - all-out struggle against Thatcher. He knows that Britain's democracy is skin deep. He knows what might have happened in Britain in the mid-'70s, when army officers plotted a military coup.

Jack Jones, Michael Foot's trade union alter ego during the last Labour government, has publicly explained the right turn of the trade union leaders and the government in July 1975 in terms of the terrible dangers facing Britain - including the danger of a military coup.

Michael Foot knows that the danger of the ruling class using its reserve powers or the armed forces, or both, against a properly elected democratic government is a very real one when they feel threatened. His solution to this problem is to say: don't threaten them!

Rhetorically, he offers the following advice to "those self-styled revolutionaries who speak today too readily of the resort to illegal methods or to street battles"; "those who think socialism is to be won there should at least train to become soldiers or policemen - to face the stormtroopers". And what if the coming of the storm-troopers does not flow from working class direct action on the streets, but from a left wing victory in a general election? What if the storm-troopers are likely to be sent as the result of a radical electoral victory like that of Salvador Allende in Chile, who was overthrown and murdered by the army in September 1973? Perhaps the same conclusion would follow, and not only rhetorically.

Serious socialists who try to function as the memory of the working class, learning from history, have long known that these conclusions do follow. A serious working class leader, faced with the facts of history and with the personal experience of the British armed forces' reaction to labour militancy and the election of a Labour government in 1974, would reach Foot's conclusion above not rhetorically but in deadly earnest. He or she would campaign for the disbandment of the armed forces and the creation of a workers' militia.

But, like all the right and the soft left, Foot prefers to lie to himself and to the labour movement about the present condition of British democracy. Why? Because Foot is mesmerised by the democratic forms and facades of parliamentary democracy. He forgets that democracy is democracy only if it allows the people to actually govern themselves in their own interests. So mesmerised that he does not notice that we do not have such a democratic system. So mesmerised that, even though he knows that if the working class were to try to use parliament against the interests of the ruling class then the "storm-troopers" would be unleashed, all he can do with that knowledge is turn it into rhetoric against working class action now, trying to convince us of his own belief that democracy is most secure when the ruling class and its storm-troopers are armed to the teeth, and the labour movement disarmed.

The right to rule

This is the crux of it: for Foot, radical direct action is now superseded by parliament. The labour movement must bow down to parliament. A government which can command a parliamentary majority may do anything it likes to the labour movement - and Foot will be the first to shout his denunciations at those who resist and tell the labour movement it should rebel; and that in reality it will be acting when it rebels according to the great traditions of British radicalism, which created our now half-moribund democratic parliamentary system.

With this attitude Foot betrays even the pre-socialist radical tradition which he does - as far as I can judge - sincerely revere.

The great bourgeois revolutions, born of struggle against oppressive systems and tyrants, wrote into their constitutions the right of revolt. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776, for example, states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness...

"...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security".

According to this, it could be argued that it is such sustained tyranny and oppression for Thatcher to do what is being done now - and cannot be undone easily - that it justifies even an armed revolt against the Tory government!

The labour movement has every right to struggle outside of parliament against this government - according to the idea of democracy in which in the last analysis parliament has power and authority. If the constitution does not oblige Thatcher to let the electorate throw her out, why should the electorate be bound by such a manifestly inadequate constitution? Why should the labour movement listen to Foot telling us that we must submit and that it is a crime against democracy to resist7

The classic bourgeois theory of parliamentary democracy not only recognised this right of resistance, but proclaimed it as itself one of the basic principles of democratic government. The truth is that the Labour right and Foot do not stand for either the spirit or letter of parliamentary democracy as understood by those like the American revolutionaries; for them it was a real, practical, living set of principles to govern the behaviour of their class in its time of vigour and progress.

By parliamentary democracy Foot and his friends mean the shell and the forms. Theirs is the conservative and timid constitutionalism that would have sustained the status quo of Charles 1, the unreformed parliament before 1832, or the exclusively middle class House of Commons before 1867, which excluded the mass of men and women from the suffrage.

It happens that theirs is the constitutionalism of a formally advanced bourgeois democracy. Their political ancestors did not win it: ours did!

They do not stand in the true line of those who cranked that parliamentary democracy forward by way of revolution (the 1640s, 1688-9) and successive reforms. They counterpose the partly ossified, reshaped and neutralised, and now inadequate, results of past revolutions and mass struggles to the present living labour movement with its needs and struggles - the struggles to deepen democracy, to defend the labour movement: the struggle for a different, socialist system.

Michael Foot and all his political brothers and sisters worship not the once-radiant face of bourgeois democracy, but its historic backside. Its face belongs to us.