Michael Foot: My kind of democracy (part 2)

Submitted by sm on 25 March, 2007 - 9:09

Part 1.
Off and on during these past two and a half years since Labour's electoral defeat of May 1979, Goldsmith's famous lines have floated incongruously through my mind:

When lovely woman stoops to folly
And finds too late that men betray
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

And political parties subjected to such outrages are even more difficult to soothe. It may be a slight comfort to recall that the condition is not unprecedented.

The same RH Tawney, quoted last week, was the leading expert on Labour's post-1931 condition: "British socialists," he wrote, "frequently conduct themselves as though the most certain method of persuading the public to feel complete confidence in their cause were to convince it that they feel no confidence in each other. They draw their controversial knives at the first cross-roads they can encounter which, if suicide is the object of their demonstrations - it is often the effect - is undoubtedly the right place to choose for the purpose."

And again, even more directly: "After the collapse of 1931, an epidemic of the 'infantile disease of leftism' was obviously overdue. It raged for some months like measles in Polynesia, and set thousands gibbering. Private Socialisms flourished. There were absurd exhibitions of self-righteous sectarianism by cliques thanking God - or the latest improvement of him - that they were not as their benighted neighbours."

But stop. Tawney can be quoted for ever, and there is one more, of even greater appositeness, to come, and to guide us in answer to his own apparently inescapable challenge, cited last week.

In 1934, in that matchless philippic against the 1931 Labour Cabinet, he was writing before he and most others had examined the full nature of Soviet totalitarianism. It is certainly doubtful whether he would have moderated the ferocity of his invective on that account; indeed, it might have been reinforced by the fear that a fresh democratic Socialist failure would help open the gates to totalitarianism.

But certainly too he would not - and did not - condone those horrors in any sense whatever or attempt to burke the necessity to put the case for democracy. On the contrary, he wrote (in 1953): "The fact remains that the prizes, however glittering, won by way of totalitarianism, are rarely those which they sought. The means destroy the end... The truth is that a conception of Socialism which views it as a power, on which all else depends, is not, to speak with moderation, according to light. The question is not merely whether the State owns and controls the means of production. It is also who owns and controls the State. It is not certain, though it is probable, that Socialism can in England be achieved by the methods proper to democracy. It is certain that it cannot be achieved by any other." The italics are mine; but Tawney writing today would certainly have accepted the emphasis.

The argument about ends and means has persisted ever since the idea of establishing a Socialist Commonwealth, or anything to be remotely dignified by such a term, was first mooted, or rather it was a lively topic of debate long before Socialism was ever heard of. However, it did mount, and quite unavoidably, to a new point of intensity, once the world began to recognise the nature and accompaniments of the Soviet dictatorship.

Of course, the old pre-Soviet institutions sustained by force opposed and denounced the methods of force by which they in turn were overthrown and their interested exposures were discounted. Much more serious and persistent and devastating were the Socialist criticisms directed to the same end, for example, in the writings of George Orwell or Arthur Koestler, or, more subtly still, anticipating both of them, in the works of Ignazio Silone, who knew more about the actual subject than either.

"Every means tends to become an end," Silone had one of his characters write, and the physical and mental torture of both Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism were known to him as he wrote: "To understand the tragedy of human history it is necessary to grasp that fact. Machines which ought to be men's instrument, enslave him, the state enslaves society, the bureaucracy enslaves the state, the church enslaves religion, parliament enslaves democracy, institutions enslave justice, academies enslave art, the army enslaves the nation, the party enslaves the cause, the dictatorship of the proletariat enslaves Socialism. The choice and the control of the instruments of political action are thus at least as important as the choice of the ends themselves, and as time goes on the instruments must be expected to become an end for those who use them. Hence the saying that the end justifies the means is not only immoral; it is stupid. An inhuman means remains inhuman even if it is employed for the purpose of assuring human felicity. A lie is always a lie, murder is always murder. A lie always ends by enslaving those who use it, just as violence always enslaves those who use it as well as their victims."

Silone wrote those words in 1939; they make even sharper maxims in 1982, and let us not suppose that they apply only to the greatest questions of peace and war, of totalitarian victory or defeat in the contest for state power, they apply also to the lesser but still inescapable question about the means whereby Socialists should seek and carry through industrial change. Human beings and human communities cannot, by those who call themselves democratic Socialists, be viewed and used as guinea-pigs or ant-heaps, or, to use a more accurately horrifying metaphor, vivisected dogs. They must be moulded, consulted, and made the true masters of their fate.

For one thing, this means that the pace of industrial change must be suited to men and women, and not vice versa. The whole process of industrial change must itself be made subject to persuasion, to industrial democracy, to the democratic will of the communities involved.

I write as one who has witnessed and sought to guide the process of change in the great steel town of Ebbw Vale. It was once the foremost technically-proficient steel works in Britain or Western Europe, and its skilled steel makers retained that degree of proficiency long after industrial advance elsewhere had changed the prospect.

Whole neighbouring communities had been made dependent on steel: how could they ever imagine, how could some economists calculate, that so precious a commodity would lose its value? How could anyone guess that the settled prospects of the 1960s would be transformed by the 1980s, or that the whips of a steel recession would be followed by the scorpions of world slump? Or who can suppose that such uncontrolled lacerations can be an intelligent way to execute industrial advance, to enlarge the skills of the future, to entrench among our people a faith in democratic methods?

For some years in Ebbw Vale we did seek to execute such a planned transformation from one form of industry to another, albeit with imperfect weapons and powers and no majority in parliament. After May 1979, the exertion was cast aside and all in the interests of the godlike, dominant providential free market.

It will take a generation to repair the damage, and years more to establish what I believe should become a true, unbreakable Socialist objective to make the pace of change one which human beings and their communities can tolerate.

Or are we just content to let the juggernauts loose: to drive ruthlessly ahead to build the industrial equivalent of the skyscrapers which have been allowed to deface our cities: huge unwanted, monstrous emblems of how events may move too fast for people, for democracy.

I was taught this lesson by my wife, Jill, who has eyes to see with, a rare part of the anatomy not always possessed by Socialists, despite the longstanding example which they had all been set long since by one of the greatest of them, William Morris. Right from the first glimpse of those skyscrapers (and at the risk of a fierce quarrel with our friends on the Camden Council), she denounced those ghastly concrete ghettoes as an insult to the working-class. Would that I and others had heeded her better. William Morris, for sure, would have approved her bitter warnings.

And another of Marx's own contemporaries would have approved even more lustily. Alexander Herzen yielded to none in revolutionary fervour, but he would not abate for anyone, Marx included, his democratic allegiance. In his old age, some nihilist rivals from his Russian homeland told him to stop flagging his beloved stick-in-the-mud democracy. Herzen rebuked this "syphilis of revolutionary lusts", lamenting the ease with which his opponents despaired of everything, "the ferocious joy of their denial and their terrible ruthlessness. Despite their excellent spirits and noble intentions our bilious ones can, by their tone, drive an angel to blows and a saint to curses."

Indeed, he saw the fallacy in the Marxist method even while he recognised the glory of the Socialist ideal. He came to believe - as his most perceptive exponent has put it - "that remote ends were a dream, that faith in them was a fatal illusion; that to sacrifice the present, or the immediate and foreseeable future, to these distant ends must always lead to cruel and futile forms of human sacrifice" - a considerable prophecy for a democratic Socialist to make nearly 100 years before the Stalin show trials, the Stalin famines or the Polish Gethsemane of Christmas l981.

To many (and to me), the Herzen doctrine may still appear too adamantly stated; some faith in those remote ends is required if the future is to be defined at all. But the Herzen doctrine certainly is required to rectify the moral balance between ends and means, to give the chance to breathe to those who must live from week to week, from day to day, to let them estimate for themselves what may be the nature and scale of the sacrifice.

Each generation, which can only live once, has the right to make its own choices. Socialists must insist on that principle no less resolutely than they seek to enlist enthusiasm for the creation of a new society. Of course, I am well aware that these cautionary admonitions and invocations, the whole caboodle together, will be cited as evidence of how my own Socialist convictions have become soft or mellow or something worse; how I have become shackled or suborned by events or pressures or, heaven help us, the corruption of power. Heaven help me, and my constituents and the labour movement!

It is the absence of power - the signs that the prospect might move from us - which enrages me. And if that tragic event were to occur - tragic for our party, tragic for our country - a part of the responsibility would rest with those who will not apply their minds to the enemy across our path, the next immediate battles; those who dismiss parliament as at best a mere platform; those who prefer the attractions of every sectarian side-turning, the new breed of Herzen's bilious ones; those who even dare contemplate the notion of postponing the exertion for electoral victory to the time after next. It is a measure of what injury our internal wrangling has done that such a treacherous notion should even dare to be hinted. But perspectives of this character on the so-called "hard" - an intellectual misnomer if ever there was one - left are not entirely novel.

William Hazlitt often directed his incomparable scorn against them. He wanted to return to the truly revolutionary questions of what could be and what should be done next. "Of all people", he insisted, "the most tormenting are those who by never caring about anything but their own sanguine, hair-brained Utopian schemes, have at no time any particular cause for embarrassment and despondency because they have never the least chance of success, and who by including whatever does not hit their idle fancy in the same sweeping clause of ban and anathema, do all they can to combine all parties in a common cause against them, and to prevent every one else from advancing one step farther in the career of practical improvement."

But against whom are these ancient invectives directed? Against Tony Benn and his associates? He could make the immediate retort that his own stock-in-trade was never of such an airy, philosophical, Utopian substance. Has he not concentrated his critical attack on immediate matters quite capable of resolution, such as the Labour Party's constitution, or the commonly accepted ideas about the deficiencies of parliamentary democracy? Has not Ignazio Silone himself, in the passage quoted above, delivered his own assault on the same target. He says: "Parliament enslaves democracy", and he had the good excuse of writing in the 1930s in an Italy where a pathetic imitation of a real parliament had opened the road to Fascism.

The Bennite accusations against our parliament or rather against the operation of the Parliamentary Labour Party, do not go so far, but they are central to the argument. They embrace a double accusation; first, the Parliamentary Labour Party over a period of years has allowed itself to become, thanks largely to Prime Ministerial and other forms of patronage, the plaything of the leader of the party, the obedient executor of the leadership in one form or another, while, second, the same Parliamentary Labour Party refuses to accept its proper subordinate position as the servant of the supreme Party Conference.

It was to remedy these deficiencies that the three constitutional changes were embarked upon and in some measure executed after the electoral defeat of May 1979 - the mandatory reselection of MPs, the establishment of an electoral college to elect the leader, and the proposal to remove the final control over the party manifesto from joint control of the party and the Parliamentary leadership where it is placed by the Constitution to the sole control of the Executive.

The two arguments have constantly been merged with each other in the public debate, thanks largely to Tony Benn's own presentation of the case, but they are in reality of a quite different calibre and significance, and the beginning of intelligence is to separate them properly.

So little is it true that Prime Ministerial or leadership patronage and influence have tightened their hold, that the history of the party in recent years might be much more faithfully described in exactly the opposite sense. The ineradicable fact is that compared with 15 or 20 years ago the power and independence of the individual Labour MP are vastly enhanced; he is much less at the beck and call of the whips and Party authority than ever he was.

Twenty and 30 years ago - at the height of the Bevanite disputes of the 1950s, for example - the fight of the Labour backbenchers, mostly leftwingers, was to establish their right to exercise their judgement and conscience as Socialist MPs against the detailed instructions of the party leadership in Parliament or the National Executive outside. Over the past two decades the practice - and the theory even - has been transformed. Partly the change was due to the deliberate relaxation of Party discipline introduced by the so-called Crossman-Silkin combination in the late 1960s; partly it was due to the experience of the 1974-79 Parliament when the precise registration of votes was more than ever required but when rigid discipline would never have secured it; partly it was due to the Labour Party coming of age as a Parliamentary Party.

After the May 1979 defeat, the new liberal method of working was reviewed by the Parliamentary Party itself, some improvements were examined and introduced, and the new liberal system was formally adopted by almost the entire Parliamentary Party in June 1981. Not much notice of this event was taken by the outside world then or thereafter; but the settlement reached then is unlikely to be upset and may have a significance greater than some other more sensationalised events.

Right, Left and Centre of the party gave their approval. Only a tiny handful demurred, and ironically its spokesmen came from the so-called hard-left minority. Their proposals for parliamentary operation would have re-instituted from a self-anointed left the rigid dictation of the party meeting which was once the chief instrument of the right. Fortunately for the future health of the party and parliament itself, the overwhelming majority of MPs remembered their history and applied its lessons.

Throughout the 80 years of the Labour Party's existence, the left within it has waged a consistent series of campaigns against what was condemned as the rigid application of the Standing Orders of the Parliamentary Party. It was this controversy of principle which led to the Independent Labour Party leaving the party in the 1930s, to some of the fiercest Bevanite rows of the 1950s, or to the infamous "dog licence" speech of Harold Wilson in the 1960s. Now with the declaration of June 1981 the old debate subsides. The charge that the Parliamentary Labour Party has in this field forfeited its rights to the leadership is the exact opposite of the truth.

No such conclusive verdict is conceivable or even desirable on the other major matter of contention concerning the respective authority of the Parliamentary Party and the Party Conference. Theoretically, the problem is insoluble; for the Constitution itself and, what is even more significant, the precedents applied over decades, have established two sovereign bodies, and neither will bow the knee to the other.

If the attempt is made to enforce such a final act of submission not merely the Constitution but the Labour Party itself would be disrupted. For it is inconceivable that the Party Conference would yield it legitimate policy-making powers to the party in parliament, and no less inconceivable that the Parliamentary Party would finally concede control over what it must do and pledge itself to do in parliament to a body outside. And it is inconceivable further that such a castrated body should still be potent enough to win a majority of British people in a free election.

As so often happens in constitutional arguments, at least in this country, a constitutional theory is found to possess a sound basis in common sense. No Party Conference, even if it contained the wisdom of a Solomon and the foresight of an Isaiah, can discern all the circumstances, and sometimes the most critical, in which a Labour Cabinet and a Parliamentary Party will have to act. To pretend so is just puerile. And, of course, it is a combination of such considerations which has preserved the balance over the years; for both the Party Conference and the parliamentary party have the supreme common enemy with their common strength mobilised for that purpose. Marxists should understand, even if Utopians may have other ideas.

However, the argument on those questions is rarely concerned with actual constitution-making, with the theoretical, or even the practical issues involved. Passions dig deeper, and the reason is that the issue is most frequently posed as a challenge to the good faith of the leaders involved and, by inference, of the bulk of the Parliamentary Party itself.

Were not the Labour Cabinets of the past - and most appositely the Labour Cabinet over which James Callaghan presided, from 1976 to 1979 - guilty of a deliberate and persistent abandonment of the Party Manifesto? Is not this the true cause of the rift between the leaders and the led, between the party inside parliament and the party outside? Is not this the reason why measures had to be taken by the rank and file, by the Party Conference, to bind the leaders and the Labour Party of the future?

The charge of bad faith or betrayal does, alas, figure quite prominently in the disputations of the left, as Tawney noted; it is one of the disagreeable aspects of the legacy left by Karl Marx. And, Marx or no Marx, Tawney or no Tawney, there is doubtless a psychological explanation why such excuses have an appeal. Anyhow the myth is widely accepted.

To answer the charge as it deserves would require a lengthy historical treatise, I content myself with a brief explosive outburst about why the application of the charge to the Callaghan Administration, of which I was a member, is a monstrous perversion. It is, first of all, somewhat galling to recall the first batch of measures which that Callaghan Administration set about carrying through, albeit with a majority of three or two or one or even less, which was all we had at our disposal. Five of those measures for a start had to be carried through on a guillotine motion, since there was no other way (moved, incidentally, by myself).

But they were all worth it. One brought the aircraft and shipbuilding industries into public ownership (where they still remain and where precious jobs are still retained, thanks to that Act passed in 1976); a second fulfilled a long-standing party commitment to abolish the tied cottage (and that Act still operates effectively too); a third Act provided the means of carrying comprehensive education much further (but much of that, alas, has been revoked); and the same reversal has been applied to the two other measures, one which abolished pay beds in hospitals and a second which extended industrial democracy on the docks. All those measures, be it noted, were Party Manifesto commitments, and all were carried out against more awkward parliamentary odds than any previous Labour Government had had to confront.

Time and again, throughout the period of the Callaghan Administration right from the beginning in April 1976 until the end of May 1979 we (and by "we" I mean both the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Party, although clearly the responsibility rests most directly with the members of the Cabinet) were faced with painful choices. We never had the majority we would have wished to carry all we wanted, and we always had to calculate whether it was wise or expedient or defensible to stay in office securing so much less than we desired. Yet we also had to weigh in the balance what an incoming Tory government would mean for our people and whether that threat could be warded off temporarily and even permanently.

I always thought we had a chance to secure those objectives; I always thought we should work with all our strength to secure them. I always thought it would be defeatist and against the interests of Socialism itself, not to do everything in our power to that end, and meantime to carry through as much of the remaining parts of our Party Manifesto as we could. I thought any lesser effort - to have run away, to have thrown in our hands, to have opened the gates ourselves to a Thatcher government - would be, yes I repeat and underline the word, defeatist.

I thought that, and so, according to their actions, did the rest of the Cabinet and the overwhelming bulk of the party in parliament and out of it. Confronted with the choice at the time, this was always the verdict of all those concerned in the Cabinet itself. Now, years later, for all these vital tactical choices to be brushed aside as if they never existed - and for the accusation to be substituted that the Callaghan Cabinet was guilty of a great betrayal of the party and the manifesto - is to bowdlerise the historical process, to use no harsher term. And here it is pertinent to recall that when our attention was drawn, as I mentioned before, to the precedent of the MacDonald Cabinet, the answer was given on the spot, and not merely by words but by deeds.

The MacDonald Cabinet of 1931, facing a considerable economic crisis, proposed cuts in the livelihood of some of the poorest in the community, the unemployed, pensioners, the lowest paid. The Callaghan Cabinet, confronted with an economic crisis of at least equal proportions, sustained and improved the living standards of many of the poorest people in the country, the very groups now being hit by the Thatcher choices - the unemployed, the disabled, the pensioners, the lowest paid, those dependent on child benefit. That last was indeed a great reform, perhaps the greatest yet in the field of women's liberation, introduced at the very moment when the government faced the most severe economic test.

Those who do not trouble to note the difference are guilty of the crime against which Herzen inveighed so furiously. They seem ready to sacrifice one generation - and how many more? ~ to serve some distant goal, and they do not even stop to notice, as socialists should, that in this grisly process, it is the weakest who get hurt most. And if Socialist dialecticians fail to recognise that fact, the general public do not, they at least live in the present not in some theoretical and theatrical future.

But the times are too serious for all such reckonings and diversions. If the Labour Party were to lose the next parliamentary election, it would be the most fateful loss since the party was founded in 1900. More peremptorily than ever before, if in a new form, RH Tawney's fundamental question is presented to us: who is to be master? If democratic Socialists cannot secure the right answer at the next parliamentary opportunity, we may not be asked again, or rather this old famous Socialist stream could perish in sectarian bogs and sands.

If the Labour Party were to lose, to whatever combination of Tories,
Liberals and Social Democrats, the first item on the agenda of two sections of the alliance, according to their own most pressing patriotic declarations, would be the introduction of a new electoral system designed to safeguard their own peculiar position for the future. It must be the first time in recent British history in which public men have come together on the basis of such a limited pre-eminent priority and recalls rather the spirit in which factions and sects might combine in the age of George III.

However the pronouncement must be taken seriously. One of the few public measures on which this same group of public men have found agreement in the past was in their readiness to transfer essential controlling power over the British economy from Westminster to Brussels. They would certainly not balk at the next step; to introduce some form of proportional representation both designed and equipped to ensure that all future British governments until the end of the century and beyond would take the character of some form of coalition. One road only would be barred: the road to democratic Socialism.

Such would be the result if the so-called Social-Democrats and their Liberal allies and their coalitionist hangers-on are allowed to make their much-heralded breakthrough at the next general election. Such seemed the direction in which the political scene was shifting at Warrington, Croydon and Crosby. Such has been the wretched news from many local government polls in recent months. Such could have been the calamitous result in a by-election at Bermondsey - and far beyond Bermondsey - if we had been compelled to fight on the declarations issued by the recently selected candidate there.

And those declarations, let me underline, did not assert the equality and inter-dependence of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activities as the labour movement has practised them and the people of Britain understand and support them. Those declarations professed the superiority of extra-parliamentary activities as a means of securing change and progress in the Britain of the 1980s. They were anti-parliamentary and gave ruinous advantage and opportunities to our enemies - and to our Social Democrat enemies in particular.

Sooner or later, if the Labour Party was to prove afresh its allegiance to parliamentary democracy - and I mean the widely-held belief more than the actual institution - those declarations had to be repudiated. And, in my judgement as leader of the party, the sooner the better.

And here once again I am entitled to quote Tawney. He can bring us all back to reality: Exponents of our brand of socialism must face the fact that, if the public, and particularly the working class public, is confronted with the choice between capitalist democracy, with all its nauseous insincerities, and undemocratic socialism, it will choose the former all the time. We must make it clear beyond the possibility of doubt that the Socialist Commonwealth which we preach will be built on democratic foundations. "

Then he added, maybe with some premonition of our own disputes, that one "practical conclusion" involved in the acceptance of democracy as "the first premise of Socialism", was that "in the absence of an attempt to overthrow democracy, all nods, hints, winks and other innuendoes to the effect that violence is a card which Socialists keep up their sleeves, to be played when they think fit, are ruled out for good and all. All of them are fatuous, with the nauseous fatuity sometimes encountered during war in the ferocious babble of bellicose non-combatants."

For the men and women who made the Labour Party Constitution, and who insisted on seeking to establish a Labour Party inside parliament as well as outside in the country, were not mistaken. They understood the place parliament occupied in the history of the British people and the importance which our people attach to what Tawney called "the elementary decencies" of parliamentary government.

They understood that parliament was where disputes could be settled by consent instead of force. They understood that the left in politics, so much more than the right, with its traditional resort to actual fighting, had a vested interest in settling arguments peaceably. They understood maybe - William Lovett had an inkling of it - that what was achieved without resort to force would last much longer and better, that the Socialism won by such means might be the only kind worth having; that the words democratic Socialism should never be separated, that one was impossible without the other.

And those framers of the Constitution, as they wrote it in 1918, while the world was just emerging from what they dared to speak of as a war to end war, would have understood too the greater task still which awaits us, greater even than the constitution of the democratic Socialist state - the chance for Labour to help guide the nuclear weapon ridden world towards sanity and safety.