Michael Foot: My kind of democracy (part 1)

Submitted by sm on 25 March, 2007 - 9:18

Why parliament? Can those old arthritic limbs still move as the nation needs?

Why parliamentary democracy? Why should democratic socialists and, more especially, democratic socialists in Britain, continue to assert their faith in the supremacy of Parliament? Were those who framed the Labour Party constitution right in their sense of balance when they declared that their objective was to sustain a Labour Party in Parliament and in the country?

These questions touch some of the present discontents within the party, and it is right that the answers should be sought afresh. It is not possible or desirable that the socialist acceptance of parliamentary institutions should be automatic or uncritical or unqualified.

Aneurin Bevan was fond of insisting that the democratic case for the British parliament was of quite recent derivation; only since 1929, the first House of Commons in which he sat, had its authority been founded on universal suffrage. Moreover, some of the most astringent pages he ever wrote were directed to the question of what would happen if the democratic parliament failed to challenge capitalist power effectively.

However, he also showed, in practice, in deed even more colourfully than in word, how the institution could be used for truly socialist purposes, both here and now and in the fulfilment of longer, idealistic aims. At one period, in his youth, he had flirted with syndicalist ideas, as did many South Wales miners of that generation. But, increasingly, as the years passed, he placed his confidence in collectivist, socialist power, to be wielded by the central state, acting through parliament, with all the devices, chances and protections of open debate which he knew so well how to exploit on behalf of his people and his party.

So his authority can be invoked to dismiss any suggestion that parliament, the British parliament, can or should be reduced to a subordinate role. And one purpose of this essay will be to show, to prove, that there are paramount reasons, in the interests of socialism, why the Labour Party needs to use parliament more ambitiously and deliberately than ever before.

As I write these words, something else, the most agonising event of the time, the suppression of all free opinion and institutions in Poland, presses for attention, and it is by no reckoning irrelevant to our own argument about parliamentary institutions. The failures - and the accompanying horrors - of Soviet Communism both in Poland and the Soviet Union itself, are in part due to the apparent incapacity of the centralised Soviet state to develop or protect genuine, independent institutions of almost any kind. And the Communist answers to this charge are devoid of any content whatever. Their most persuasive apologists have never been able to explain how the enormities of Stalinism happened - or what guarantee there can be that they should never develop again.

Whenever these important theoretical fields are explored anew, one path must point to the necessity of establishing some truly independent parliamentary institutions. No doubt this is another course which the trade unions formed in Solidarity in Poland would have wished to have pursued, and why not? Trade union power, as we have frequently witnessed in our own history, needs the buttress of legislative protection. Trade union power alone cannot provide a sufficient substitute for a free, independent central state power.

As the British people, along with many others across our anxious planet, mark events in Poland, they are not likely, whatever their criticisms of the present Westminster parliament and its occupants, to extend their anger and frustration to a condemnation of parliament altogether. Indeed, an opposite development is much more probable. Whatever its other manifold deficiencies, parliament can still symbolise the attempt to settle disputes by better methods than brute force. Any democratic socialists who overlooked that connection would hardly deserve the name.

However, no topical and terrible illustration from Poland is needed to clinch the case. With or without it, there is plentiful proof on our own doorsteps of the proposition that for socialists - for those who accept that only by profound socialist change can the deeper disease of our society be cured - the dominant need is to turn the nation's mind to parliamentary action

Such an attitude is demanded, not by some ancient allegiance to musty constitutional theories, but in the name of common human decency - in the interests, for example, of the people of Ebbw Vale, Tredegar and Rhymney, my constituents, where the unemployment total has more than doubled in the past two and a half years to an horrific 22 per cent, and still rises, and where these growing congregations of unemployed families are having their means of livelihood cut and cut again. How are they, like the millions in our country who suffer the same afflictions, to be rescued?

Trade union power cannot save us, particularly since, at such a perilous time, the trade unions are compelled to conduct defensive, rearguard battles. During the last great slump of the 1930s trade union membership was more than cut in half; the total fell to less than 3 and a half million in the early 1930s, whereas in the late 1920s it had risen to more than eight million. No comparable calamity has befallen the trade union movement in this slump of the 1980s, but the fall in membership resulting from mass unemployment has forced one union after another to apply protective measures.

In consequence, some of the worst effects of the slump have been warded off by individual unions, or the terms of redundancy have been improved, or the unions themselves have been able to guard their capacity to resist another day. But the notion that the unions, in these threatened circumstances, can suddenly acquire a vastly augmented power, sufficient to shape the whole scene, is a delusion.

What they do have, if they husband their strength properly, is the power, quite legitimately and constitutionally, to exploit the mistakes of our opponents, and to be ready for the moment when political victory may be extracted from an industrial conflict.

This is what the miners did in 1974, when Edward Heath took the arrogant gamble of trying to use a General Election to win a constitutional battle against people engaged strictly in an industrial dispute. The experience is instructive: it is worth recalling that the miners, both in the 1972 strike and the 1974 strike, had massive public support behind them, arising partly from the way their comparative wage rates had been cut over the previous two decades. It is also worth recalling that their victory, for its full harvest to be garnered, required political and parliamentary action alongside the industrial victories.

The legislation carried through parliament in the wake of the 1945 victory was extensive both for the miners and the rest of the unions, and the labour movement as a whole, and the nation.

The miners secured a good pay settlement, an entirely new departure in government assistance to secure a settlement for pneumoconiosis victims and' above all, the acceptance of the 'Plan for Coal', the first real planning agreement between the government and the unions and the Coal Board, which has provided the cornerstone for the industry ever since, and on the continued fulfilment of which the union still adamantly insists.

All these achievements required parliamentary action. The unions generally secured advances hardly less considerable, even if some of them have proved more difficult to sustain in the new circumstances. But, again, it must be emphasised, parliamentary action was required to repeal the Tory Industrial Relations Act and to extend trade union rights and protection to many millions of people previously uncovered under the Health & Safety legislation, or the special legislation which sought to extend new rights and benefits to women - the biggest reforms ever secured in this field in any parliament since women first won the vote.

Tragically, many of these advances over a wide field have been deliberately turned back by the Tories in the past three years or, more insidiously, their effectiveness has been destroyed by mass unemployment. None the less, indeed all the more, the absolute necessity of parliamentary action to ensure and safeguard industrial advance is underlined.

What the parliamentary action of the 1974-79 period also accomplished, despite the setbacks, was to produce conditions in which trade union membership rose to a higher figure than ever before and trade union participation in the whole wide process of industrial decision-making was carried further than ever before. And that was good for the country, too.

Some of the worst effects of the 1973-75 slump were warded off, for the unions and the whole nation, just as, given similar common action between the government and the unions, the worst effects of the 1979-81 slump could have been warded off. The risk would have been a good deal more manageable had we used properly the inestimable advantage of Britain's acquisition of North Sea Oil between the two slump periods.

What should have happened in the late 1970s and what should happen in the middle 1980s, is the logical development of the intelligent government-union collective action of the 1974-76 period. We need a new major thrust forward across the whole of industry in the field of industrial democracy, with the authoritative engagement of trade unionists of all kinds and at all levels in the improvement of production and distribution of wealth for themselves, their industries and services and the community as a whole.

That will largely depend on the decisions of the unions themselves; but parliamentary action and a parliamentary majority will also be needed for the purpose. It was the prospective gains in industrial democracy which proved the most severe casualty of the loss of our real parliamentary majority in 1976. We still stayed in office after that date. quite rightly in my opinion, to try to protect the gains already secured, and to ward off the worst perils of the Tory counter-revolution, the likely horrors of which were already visible. But it is necessary to recall some of the next pressing items on our agenda which were blocked. They reappear on the present agenda of talks between the representatives of the Labour Party and the TUC, and they will surely occupy a prominent place in the party's next election manifesto.

We shall rightly resume the unfinished business of 1976 in the field of industrial democracy. and we shall need a full parliamentary majority for the purpose. It will have to be a Labour majority, for both in the field of industrial relations and of industrial democracy it is clear enough that the Social Democrats, like the Liberals. arc deeply hostile to trade union rights.

But, it may be insisted, am I not pushing at an open door or erecting an Aunt Sally of my own design? Who in the labour movement, who on the left, even the so-called hard left, opposes parliamentary action? Of course it is needed. The real question concerns extra parliamentary action which may be the necessary handmaiden, the indispensable ally, of parliamentary action. Is that not a more profitable field of scrutiny?

Should we not be seeking new and more effective methods of extraparliamentary action, drawing some lessons from the past maybe, from Wat Tyler, the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, all of whom did certainly engage in extra-parliamentary activity, and to some considerable effect?

Since Tony Benn in particular has cited these examples in recent months, presumably to point their appositeness to modern circumstances, it is worth pausing for a moment to mention that all such analogies are out of focus and therefore misleading.

Wat Tyler had no representative to whom he could put his case, not even a witenagemot where he could stage a mass lobby. The men of Cromwell's armies, including the Levellers, did represent a much larger total of the British people of that century than the parliament which Cromwell first saved with his sword and then shut down when it proved obstreperous: so there were good democratic grounds for his action in both instances.

As for the Chartists, they argued long and most instructively about the means by which they could establish parliamentary rights and, more especially, how extensive should be the franchise they wished to secure. Their declared aim was to establish a parliament which they could trust, not one they wished to bypass. Extra-parliamentary action was imperative since they had no effective voice inside; actually to win the voice inside was the aim. Of course, to achieve such results, it was necessary to take action outside parliament, and with every justice.

Even so, they argued passionately about the way they should proceed in the classic debate between the advocates of moral force and physical force. "Whatever is gained in England by force, by force must be sustained, but whatever springs from knowledge and justice will sustain itself" - such was the brave and famous statement of that case by William Lovett, and before the declaration is dismissed as too romantic or idealistic, let no one forget that his greatest "physical force" opponent, Julian Harney, came to describe William Lovett as "the first in honour among the Chartists".

And the Suffragettes, like the Chartists, resorted to legal or sometimes illegal action outside parliament precisely because they too were denied the right to speak and act inside parliament. It is an irony that they should now be paraded as the opponents of parliamentary methods.

There are such opponents, of course, real ones with a theory to sustain them, who hold it as an essential part of their creed that parliament is a fake and a fraud, a distraction from the real means whereby power in the state may be captured. This idea cannot properly and precisely be defined as Marxist, since Karl Marx never applied his full genius to the problem. He seems just to have assumed - and why not? - that in the democratic state which might mark a phase before the full achievement of his own brand of Communism, there would be an elected national assembly - in other words, a parliament.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also seemed to envisage that in England (partly in view of the existence of the still undemocratic parliament of those times) there might be a peaceful transition to socialism. Towards the end of his life Engels (so often presented as the foremost military expert by Marxists) became more and more convinced of the dangers and futility of the resort to force and not merely in semi-democratic England He began to glimpse the same hope in France and Germany: 'The parties of order, as they call themselves, perish because of the legal conditions set up by themselves. With Odilon Barrot they cry out in despair la legalité nous tue - Iegality is our death - while we with the same Iegality acquire swelling muscles and red cheeks and look the picture of health. And if we are not insane enough to favour them by letting them drive us into street battles..."

Engels's warning might well be studied by 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 storm troopers.

Both Lenin and Trotsky did apply their brilliant and ruthless intellects to the problems which Marx and Engels had at least side-stepped, and these two, together or apart, poured pitiless scorn on the parliamentary institutions they knew best. They thought perhaps that other parliaments might be as futile or obstructive for their purposes as the Russian Duma.. They, or some of their followers, made the mistake of imagining that the British parliament was fashioned in that same mould.

But it would be foolish to attribute the same mistake to Trotsky. He would never have been guilty of the infantile, querulous condemnations of parliament and parliamentary action which some of his self-styled followers adopt. Karl Marx once remarked playfully that he could hardly call himself a Marxist, and 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.

So far this is a small part of the case. A respectable Marxist or near Marxist doctrine, and one with an ever-recurrent relevance to modern conditions, one which offers some response to human nature itself, is that which describes the catastrophic or apocalyptic view of human development - the prophecy of a great, supreme crisis as the inexorable means of establishing the new society, as opposed to the steady, remorseless, Fabian method of human advancement.

National and international moods reflecting different attitudes to this great argument have tended to change (true to the Marxist theory) as economic conditions themselves have changed. For example, the full Marxist interpretation was highly approved in most socialist theoretical discussion in the 1930s, while the Fabian alternative of "the inevitability of gradualness'' was dismissed as little better than a form of treachery.

During the post-1945 period, however, when Fabian methods seemed to show some success in practice, the theoretical boot was transferred to the other foot, and the change-over was wondrously enshrined in the writings of John Strachey. His masterly expositions of the 1930s stated the apocalyptic case more conclusively than ever before, while his masterly expositions of the 1950s stated the Fabian or democratic socialist case more convincingly than any other writings in English in the same period.

However, with the collapse of the post-1945 economic order, in the Western world as a whole and in Britain in particular during the 1970s, it is not surprising that the Marxist arguments of the Thirties should have acquired a new vogue and validity, or, to interpolate one personal recollection that Tony Benn should have sought to enlighten the members of the 1976 Callaghan Cabinet with a circulation of the minutes of the Macdonald cabinet of 1930-31.

And for further measure, we may compare the disillusion which spread throughout the labour movement after 1931 - a deep doubt about the democratic process itself and, especially, the parliamentary process - with the form and scale of disillusion which spread after the 1979 defeat. There were, and remain, likenesses between the two although, as I shall hope to show, the dissimilarities are crucial.

Yet this recital of dates or authorities is not intended in any sense to reduce the gravity of the argument. Of course this particular Marxist claim has an abiding strength, and any socialist who spurned it would be a fool. Indeed, the classic application of the doctrine in the 1930s more telling than anything written by the orthodox Marxists themselves, was made by the most eminent and respected theoretician of the Labour Party - almost the last of the species - by R H Tawney.

He wrote (in 1934) his verdict on how the Labour government of 1929-31 "had crawled slowly to its doom", and almost every sentence retains his ferocious resonance: "What was tried, and found wanting was, in short, not merely two years of a Labour cabinet, but a decade of Labour politics...The fundamental question, as always, is: Who is to be master?

"Is the reality behind the decorous drapery of political democracy to continue to be the economic power wielded by a few thousand - or, if that be preferred, a few hundred thousand - bankers, industrialists, and land-owners? Or shall a serious effort be made - as serious, for example, as was made, for other purposes, during the war - to create organs through which the nation can control, in co-operation with other nations, its economic destinies; plan its business as it deems most conducive to the general well-being; override, for the sake of economic efficiency, the obstruction of vested interests; and distribute the product of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles or justice? Capitalist parties presumably accept the first alternative. A Socialist Party chooses the second. The nature of its business is determined by its choice."

Tawney (having soaked himself in Marxism) presented the challenge in near-Marxist terms, and he concentrated it all in an immortal phrase which Marx would have envied: "Onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw... If the Labour Party is to tackle its job with some hope of success, it must mobilise behind it a body of conviction as resolute and informed as the opposition in front of it." In other words, Tawney, the great social democrat, to apply the term properly instead of the modern defilement, recognised the existence of the class struggle and the mighty convulsions required to secure its exorcism.

How to attempt to answer - or even to seek a mitigation of - a case so indisputable? To do so may appear just foolhardy. For has not Tawney ranged himself on the side of those who damn not merely the Labour practitioners of parliamentarianism, but the process itself?

Yet the effort must be made, for there are in my judgement profound reasons why socialists in the 1980s, if they are to serve their cause truly (and, as important as the cause itself, the people who march with us), must show a deeper insight and wisdom than the socialists of the 1930s were able to prescribe. After all, we should have learnt something from half a century of such tumult and terror in human affairs.

And part of what we have learnt, or should have learnt, adds up to a direct refutation of apocalyptic Marxism, or, if you wish, a justification, in a quite different sense from the old one, of the inevitability of gradualness. Throughout these years, several different rivers of experience merge into the same torrent. I ask for the readers' patience as I explore a few of them.
Part 2