The malaise of bourgeois democracy in Britain is now a subject of much discussion and concern. The discussion on democracy, early in 1982, between Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party, and Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of AWL, may help readers form a clearer picture of the issues beyond small-scale financial corruption.
When Foot wrote articles in the Observer on democracy, revolution, socialism, and Stalinism, his immediate point was to insist that Trade Union direct action to resist the attacks of the Thatcher Government on the working class and the labour movement, would be a violation of democratic principle. John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna] wrote a reply, in a series of articles in Socialist Organiser. This introduction to a collection of the 1982 articles of Foot and O'Mahony, published in the early 1990s, summed up the issues as they were posed then.
Introduction: democracy, direct action and class struggle, by John O'Mahony
[Note, March 2007: Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party, wrote the articles reproduced here on democracy, revolution, socialism, and Stalinism in the Observer. John O'Mahony wrote the reply in Socialist Organiser.
Much was different in British politics then. The leaders of the Labour Party still promised to advance us towards socialism, saying only that their cautious parliamentary method was better than the militancy of the "extra-parliamentary left".
They still felt an obligation to debate politically with the activist left, instead of relying on Tory anti-union laws and authoritarian reworkings of Labour Party structures to repress us, as Blair does. Foot himself some years later, after he had retired from the Labour Party leadership, would debate the issues face-to-face with John O'Mahony in an AWL-organised public meeting at Conway Hall, London, in 1993.
In 1982 there was an active Marxist-influenced left inside the Labour Party, only just starting to recede from its high tide in 1981. The Labour Party's debates and structures have shrivelled drastically since then, and most of those leftists, the AWL among them, now devote most of their efforts to activity outside those structures.
But the essentials of the debate are still relevant. Some of it - the reply to Foot's attempt to damn revolutionary socialism by equating it with Stalinism - is even more relevant now, in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and its radical discrediting - than it was in 1982.]
INTRODUCTION TO THE 1993 PAMPHLET
SOCIALISM IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT democracy. You can not have collective ownership of the means of production without collective control, and collective control has by its nature to be democratic control. Collective ownership without democracy inevitably turns into the real ownership of the collectivised economy by those whose political power gives them control of it. This is an old, basic, socialist truth, reinforced by the experience of Stalin's counterfeit socialism in the USSR. Where there is no democracy, there will never be socialism. Socialists are democrats — or they are not socialists.
And because this is so — what follows?
Therefore, socialists should not advocate or promote direct action and illegal resistance against class legislation such as the Tory class law that hamstrings our trade unions because, by definition, such legislation has a parliamentary majority behind it?
Therefore, workers lose the right to resist injustice — like the poll tax, for example — when it is inflicted by a democratic parliament?
Therefore, the labour movement must repudiate the class struggle within democracy such as we have it in Britain, bourgeois democracy, by way of which the bourgeoisie rule in society and continue to exploit the working class?
Therefore, workers must always bow down low — as low as John Smith and his predecessors as Labour leader, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, before the parliamentary majority?
Or, on the contrary, is it possible for workers to reject this reasoning and fight back against a democratically elected parliamentary majority, and still remain democrats?
Is it possible without repudiating democracy for a labour movement to resist capitalist attack and class legislation, using direct action, and where necessary, illegal action, against an elected parliamentary majority?
For example, millions of people refused to pay the poll tax; they defied the law, that is, they defied Parliament. It was their resistance that broke the poll tax and Mrs Thatcher. Yet that resistance, according to the Labour leaders, was nothing less than a crime against "democracy".
No matter how iniquitous a piece of class legislation may be, said Neil Kinnock and his friends - and they never denied that the poll tax was a piece of vicious class legislation, parliament must govern. No-one had the right to resist an anointed parliament!
These questions, in major and minor keys, were posed to the labour movement again and again throughout the 1980s.
IN THE EARLY 1980s they were posed with great sharpness, and very great consequence. Having won the 1979 general election on a minority of the vote cast, the Tories launched a relentless many-pronged attack on the working class and the Labour Movement. Not since 1926 had there been in Britain so open a class-war government, or a government so willing to use every weapon necessary to beat workers down.
The Tories deliberately worsened the conditions of slump which began in 1980, the better to cut down the labour movement. Whole swathes of industry, and the militant labour organisations erected within them, were wiped out. Whole communities were devastated. A big part of a generation of young people was thrown out of industry and on to the scrap heap before they had had a real chance to begin to live.
The first of a long series of anti-union laws was put on the statute book, laws which by now add up to the most illiberal labour legislation in Western Europe. Under those laws, the British trade union movement can today be described at best as a semi-free labour movement.
The welfare state was undercut, the demolition of the National Health Service started. The Tories were sloughing off what was left of the post-war Tory-Labour-Liberal consensus and setting out on a radical bourgeois programme to reshape British society.
This minority-vote government used the state power ruthlessly.
Despite their cant about freeing people from state controls, the brutal use of state power was central to their entire project. Without it they could not have won.
To physically beat down striking workers during the 1984-5 miners' strike, they would organise the police as a semi-militarised force under the control of a national centre. Arbitrarily and illegally controlling the movements of miners, they sometimes acted quite outside the law. In l986, they sent the police to strong-arm printworkers at Wapping on behalf of Rupert Murdoch.
When Thatcher started her drive against the working class, before mass unemployment had cut into the sinews of the labour movement, before so much of industry was destroyed, the labour movement still had the strength to challenge Thatcher and win. Before the 1982 Falklands war Thatcher was as unpopular as she would again become by 1990, when the panicky Tory MPs dismissed her. Resistance by direct action was possible then, as in the 1970s, when Tory prime minister Heath was driven from office.
But was it democratically permissible? Did the labour movement have the democratic right to organise extraparliamentary resistance? Did it have the right to try to dislodge the Thatcher government by extra-parliamentary action?
Serious socialists — Socialist Organiser, for example — said: "Yes!" We advocated resistance and confrontation on every front possible, from industry to local government (where nominal left-wingers were strong) to parliament. We invoked the right of revolt and resistance to oppression and tyranny proclaimed by the serious bourgeois democrats who led the English revolution in the 17th century and the American and French revolutions in the 18th century. We argued for a fight by the labour movement to defend democracy against Thatcher's abuse of parliamentary power, and for a simultaneous fight, in the spirit of the old Chartists, to deepen and develop democracy.
The Labour establishment, its left and ex-left segment indistinguishable from the right, said: "No!". It is, they said, undemocratic to resist parliament. The Labour Party "hard left" — people like Ken Livingstone — said: "Yes! Resist!" but most of them soon thought better of it. In any case, as we will see, they did not resist.
IT WAS THE TIME OF THE GREAT LEFT-WING upsurge in the Labour Party, triggered by the comprehensive failure of Labour in government between 1974 and 1979. After the General Election defeat in mid-1979 the labour movement set out to draw the conclusions from over a decade of serious class struggle.
The left won a succession of victories at Labour Party conferences in Blackpool, Brighton, and Wembley. Such was the mood that Tony Benn was able to secure 83 per cent of the Constituency Labour Party votes when he stood against Denis Healey for deputy leader of the Labour Party. Our great weakness lay in our lack of organised forces in the trade unions.
It was possible, had the Labour Party and the trade unions challenged the Tories head on, to reforge the British working-class movement into a radical anti-capitalist force in the heat of the class struggle.
It was possible for the labour movement, defending the post-war welfare state, to have rallied the lower middle classes around itself. An eventual parliamentary majority for Labour policies is the least that might have been won.
That did not happen. The trade union leaders did not fight. Soon undercut by the slump. neither did the rank and file, to whom it had fallen in the 1960s and '70s to set the pace — not on the necessary scale, anyway.
The radicalisation was mainly a Labour Party affair — and a heavily lower-middle-class affair at that, often on "minority" and sectional issues. Symptomatically, the manifestos of even "very left wing" Labour Parties — Islington, for example — scarcely mentioned, or did not at all mention, the working class.
Nor did the local government left fight, in the early 1980s, when it mattered, when the Thatcher tide might still have been turned. Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council bottled out of a confrontation with the Tories, though that did not save the GLC. Lambeth stumbled into a sort of conflict in the mid-1980s; Liverpool, under Militant leadership, made some mobilisation in 1984, then did a deal with the Tories, leaving the miners in the lurch, and eventually stumbled into collapse.
The miners' battle of 1984-5 came very late. Yet it could have ignited the labour movement. With help from other workers at crucial turning points, the miners could have beaten Thatcher. If the dockers had struck for longer; if Liverpool council had gone for confrontation... Yet, in retrospect, it is not at all surprising that it did not go like that. It was too late. The Tories had become too strong. Thatcher looked unbeatable to a labour movement that had become seriously demoralised.
The Tories, seeing their enemy in unexpected disarray, gleefully improved on their early victories. Round after round of anti-union legislation was rammed through. The Thatcherites pushed the entire axis of British politics — and, slowly, the Labour Party too — to the right. Ultimately they hegemonised the Labour Party.
By the later 1980s, the Tories were like victorious cavalry riding around in command of a battlefield, looking for still-twitching targets. In 1989 hey casually picked off and destroyed the National Dock Labour Scheme, something that no government would have risked contemplating a decade earlier. Now, the Labour Party scarcely dared even to protest.
The early 1980s was the decisive time. Large-scale resistance was possible then which later, for logistic, political and psychological reasons, became very difficult. Because of the slump, resistance to the Tories then would probably have had to be spurred and organised by a political campaign, developing a growing industrial dimension. That, for a while, seemed possible. When he defeated Denis Healey for Labour leader in 1980, Michael Foot promised to whip up such a "storm of indignation" against what the Tories were doing that they would again be driven from office as they had been driven out seven years before. It was what we needed.
But Foot never did it. He did not even try seriously. Instead, this long time Labour left winger who unexpectedly found himself leader of the Labour Party turned his fire on the serious Labour left, and thereby condemned himself to safe, in-house parliamentary posturing against the Tories.
His Labour Party left friends did the same. It was the onset of that frozen impotence so characteristic of the Labour Party leaders today — so strange and unnatural that even mainstream journalists, no, even the Liberals! can now sneer at Labour for its lack of fire against the Tories.
THE FUTURE HISTORIANS OF THE LABOUR movement and of British politics will have to record the astonishing fact that when the Tories, using parliament as a base for the operations of a one-party minority dictatorship, were radically reshaping and diminishing British democracy — when they were curbing local government; destroying civil liberties; clawing back the hard-won rights of the labour movement, and many of the reforms it had achieved in 100 years of work; ruthlessly pushing through cranky bits of social engineering; wiping out much of Britain's industry and many millions of jobs — just at that time the leaders of the Labour Party, Michael Foot and his lame-brained understudy Neil Kinnock, were crusading in defence of democracy, not against the Tories, but against the Labour left! At exactly this point in Britain's political history the Labour leaders chose to crusade in defence of "democracy"... against their own left wing!
In parliament and in the big business newspaper, The Observer, Labour leader Michael Foot, concurring with the violent campaign of denunciation in the mainstream press, indicted the left as the main enemy of democracy, and branded it as an immediate threat! Those who threaten British democracy, said the political leaders of the labour movement while Thatcher was mercilessly grinding us down and destroying our rights, are those who want to use direct action to stop her!
The cry "democracy first" became the main ideological weapon in the drive by the Labour right and soft left, that is, the Labour establishment, to disarm the labour movement in face of the Tory onslaught.
Democracy" was used to discredit the idea of direct action and banish it from consideration by the official labour movement. It was, inevitably, the issue on which the "soft left" separated itself finally from the more serious left. Later it was the blade of the knife the Labour establishment plunged into the back of the miners during their great strike. It has been the ultimate justification for craven inactivity all through the 1980s and well into the '90s. It was their "good", respect-worthy, public "reason" for a needless surrender to the Tories.
In the name of democracy they refused to defend democracy — the democratic rights of the labour movement, and of all British citizens! Without a struggle worthy of the name they surrendered British society to the rule of the rampant barbarians of new Toryism!
The history of reformist labour movements like the Labour Party includes many similar episodes, grim and obscene —- such, for example, as the day in 1933 when the German Social Democratic leader Otto Wels, who had played a big part in the bloody suppression of the left in 1919, during which Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed, got up in the Reichstag and offered his party's loyal collaboration to the new, legally appointed and "democratic", Chancellor, Herr Hitler. It is their nature. When they kow tow to the bourgeois establishment, they obey their deepest instincts!
They fear action against the bourgeoisie and they fear the rank and file. Yet there is more to it. The behaviour of the British Labour leaders in face of Thatcherism demands more explanation than is found in Marxist truisms about the general nature of reformism: reformist Labour leaders also come under the pressure of their members, and when their organisations are threatened, they sometimes try to defend them. Even the most wretched creatures defend themselves when driven into a corner, when they can no longer fool themselves into thinking that things will turn out all right. The great mystery of Britain's labour and trade union leaders in 1980 and after is that they did not do that. They did not even try to do it.
Trade union organisations which had seemed as powerful as the Labour government itself in the mid'70s sank away into political nothingness before the first attacks of an enemy they could probably have beaten had they fought. Why?
To look for one simple explanation for that behaviour is probably misleading. Yet I want to highlight one part of the explanation, which Michael Foot's ruminations bring out pretty clearly in the articles reprinted in this pamphlet.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the Labour and trade union leaders were terrified of a campaign of direct action to resist Thatcher because — to use the phrase Michael Foot used in his Observer article — they feared "the stormtroopers".
They feared to resist Thatcher because they feared a military coup in Britain.
They were far from confident that democracy in Britain was stable. Despite what they said in their demagogic denunciations of the left, they knew that the ruling class which Thatcher led was prepared to try to smash British democracy if that was the only way they could win against the working class movement which they were determined to beat down.
They knew, having been in government, how close British democracy had come to a breakdown in the mid-1970s. They drew lessons from the military coup which the armed forces in Chile had made against a socialist government, in September 1973.
Behind all their confident assertions about British democracy lived the fear and terror of men and women who felt that they had looked into the abyss in the mid-1970s. This comes through plainly in Michael Foot's Observer pieces, reprinted here. To understand what happened in the early '80s you need to look at what happened in 1973.
NINETEEN SEVENTY-THREE was a year of great class struggle in Britain. It came to a climax with the miners' strike and an unscheduled General Election in February 1974, called by Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath to answer the question: "who runs Britain — the Government or the unions?". The Tories lost.
A tremendously militant labour movement had taken on the Tories and driven them from office. But the right-wing-led Labour Party was the political beneficiary. It formed a government, backed by the trade unions and the whole working-class movement.
It was heavily dependent on that movement and it made various concessions to it. They scrapped the anti-union laws the Tories had put on the statute book.
But, over time, the Labour government — actively backed by the 'left-wing" union leaders, without whose support it could not have governed, turned on its supporters, using as its weapon a "social contract" which undercut militancy and worked ultimately to serve the interests of the employers.
The Labour Party had fought the election on a programme of "bringing about a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power in the interests of working people". Even the colourful right-winger Denis Healey had talked about squeezing the rich "until the pips squeak". People had voted Labour on that basis.
Now, Labour in government slowly put the squeeze on the working class, beginning a process of undermining the self-confidence of the workers: it would have catastrophic consequences after 1979, when the Tories came back to power and used the slump to beat down and half-crush the labour movement.
What happened in the mid-1970s could not have happened in that way if the leaders of the trade union movement — some of them left-wingers with reasonable credentials, like Jack Jones of the TGWU, had not, because they feared an all-out clash with the ruling class, decided to scale down their demands and deliver the labour movement up to collaboration with the Government and the capitalists.
It was, on a much bigger scale and with Labour in government, curiously like an incident in 1919, which Aneurin Bevan tells of in his book, In Place of Fear. The story was told to him by Robert Smillie.
"Lloyd George sent for the labour leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, 'truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman'. At this Bob's eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. 'He was quite frank with us from the outset,' Bob went on. 'He said to us: "Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us.
"But if you do so," went on Mr Lloyd George, "have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen", asked the Prime Minister quietly, "have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?" From that moment on, said Robert Smillie, 'we were beaten and we knew we were'." [Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, London, 1952, pp.20-21]
WAS THE THREAT OF A MILITARY TAKEOVER serious? Very serious, it seems. Lord Carver, the army's Chief of Staff at the time, later publicly admitted that there had been talk of a military coup in Britain among "fairly senior" officers.
"Fairly senior officers were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it..."
The left union leaders, Hugh Scanlon of the AEU and former Spanish Civil War volunteer Jack Jones, like their MP equivalents and fellow-travellers such as Michael Fool, had long insisted in labour movement debates that, yes, you could have a peaceful socialist revolution in Britain ; yes, of course, parliament was stable and democracy safe in the hands of Britain's generals and admirals.
Now they looked at recent events in Chile where, in September 1973, a military coup had destroyed one of the oldest democracies in the world. Facing the realities of class power and class struggle in Britain, knowing that if the working-class movement pushed ahead then it risked a savage Chile-style backlash, what did they do? Did they admit that they had been wrong all those years about the reliability of parliamentary democracy? Did they warn the labour movement? Did they tell workers to prepare to fight?
No. Terrified by their own industrial and political victory over the Tories, they turned and ran, demobilising the labour movement and disarming it before the Tories. The ultimate price we paid for this was Thatcherism.
The Labour and trade union leaders confronted the new Thatcher government in a blue funk at the possible consequences of a new round of 1970s level class struggle. So, over time, cumulatively, they surrendered.
The ruling class in Britain did not need to resort to a coup. Yet the working class in Britain, missing the tide in 1974-79, has suffered a terrible series of defeats.
It has been pinioned and disabled by hostile Tory laws. We lost the recent strike at Timex because Tory law cripples solidarity action.
The British labour movement experienced no mass bloodletting. But it has experienced an awful debilitation in the Thatcher years and after. The French used to call the tropical prison on Devil's Island, "the dry guillotine": Thatcherism was to Pinochet's coup what the dry guillotine was to the one which chops off your head.
The astonishing failure of the Labour and trade union establishment, powerful politicians, so recently in government, and powerful leaders of great trade unions, recently in strong partnership with government, even to defend their own immediate interests in the early 1980s, thus was a late by-product of the bitter class struggles of the first half of the 1970s.
The consequences are still with them — and with us. They gutted themselves even as reformists. Part of the Labour leaders' mid-'70s scuttling was the Labour government's decision to initiate cuts in the social services, in 1976, at the dictat of the IMF. They thereby opened the epoch of cuts, paving the way for Tory victory in the 1979 election, and for the savage cuts the Tories then embarked upon, and for Labour's own collapse before them. Labour in office set the Tory bandwagon rolling, and then fel1 under its wheels!
The central failure of the Labour leaders in the '80s and '90S has been a profound failure of reformist nerve, a moral buckling and bowing down before the capitalists' right to rule and the dog eat dog philosophy according to which they rule. Today of official Labour does not even dare proclaim, let alone fight for, the democratic principle embodied in the Health Service Nye Bevan created in 1948: the democratic right to equality in health care, the inalienable right to life for everyone, and not only for the rich.
When the Tories say — and it is now one of their central arguments — that modern state-of-the-art health care is too expensive to give to everyone, that is, to the poor, and so can only be made available to those who have the money to pay for it, they deny that principle.
Even the reformist leaders of the 1940S would have responded to such Tory ideas as people stung to action in defence of their most basic beliefs in human equality and social solidarity. But they were convinced reformists. The present leaders are not even reformists. They accept the gruesome Tory argument that "we" cannot afford proper health care for the poor in a society which spends vast millions on arms, makes tax cuts to benefit the wealthy, and devotes immense amounts of wealth to sustain the upper classes! They only ask the Tories to go about things with a little less savagery. The Tories have not obliged them.
It is only momentarily surprising that those who in the '80s sacrificed the labour movement on the altar of "democracy" should fail so utterly to react even as democrats to the Tories' open denial of human equality in one of its most basic terms — the right to life. For the Health Service now as for all the issues of the '80s, serious commitment to democracy is either a commitment to fight for democracy, or else, in class society, it is just time-serving waffle.
ONE WAY TO PUT THE ISSUES DISCUSSED in this pamphlet into perspective is to examine two events in the industrial struggle of the 1980s. Remember, according to the Labour leaders as we faced the Thatcherite onslaught, that direct action against a parliamentary majority, against its government, or against its police, is the greatest crime against democracy; it is the crime characteristic above all else of revolutionary socialists. Legality at all costs is better. So say the reformists. Look at the experience.
In 1989 dockers struck in defence of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which had regulated labour in the ports for the previous 40 years. When the workers were already out, nineteen shop stewards, the leaders of the strike at Tilbury, were sacked.
Circumstances were very unfavourable to the dockers; their strike soon crumbled: the National Dock Labour Scheme, one of the great achievements of the post-war Labour government, was abolished.
The sacking of the nineteen Tilbury stewards was a great blow, maybe a shattering blow, against the 1989 dockers' strike.
Two years later, an industrial tribunal said it was "unfair dismissal". Twelve of the nineteen have got their jobs back; the seven chief "troublemakers" are not likely to get back theirs. But even if all nineteen were to be reinstated, the effects of these ruthless, "unfair" dismissal — blows struck by the employers and the government to defeat the striking dockers — can never be undone: the debilitating dismissals worked their effects on the dockers' movement in 1989, and that is irrevocable.
Or take the "Battle of Orgreave", a turning point in the great miners' strike.
At Orgreave coke works near Sheffield, in the summer of 1984, Mrs Thatcher's police — semi-militarised and organised for strikebreaking from a special national police centre — fought miners' pickets in one of the major battles of the strike. If the miners had won Orgreave, they would probably have won the strike.
The police, specially trained and equipped, and operating like an army, won. They won by sheer brute, ruthless force, and more than they needed of it.
As has already been said, much that the police did during the miners' strike was widely criticised at the time, even by liberals, for example, illegally stopping people moving freely about the country, or "occupying" pit villages. Still, they did it.
They did everything they needed to do to win. So did the vast employer-government machine for making dirty propaganda against the miners, whose main stock-in-trade was denunciation of "violence" — miners' violence.
And they won. If Orgreave was one of the turning points in the miners' strike, the miners' strike was a turning point for the working class and the labour movement. After the miners, strike, stone-age employers all over Britain were greatly strengthened.
Even so, say the philosophic people who lead the Labour Party and the TUC, it was a victory for law and order and parliamentary government against a semi-insurrectionary working-class movement. Democracy and the rule of law must prevail.
Move on seven years after the miners' strike.
In June 1991, 35 miners were paid a total of £500,000 in compensation for damage and injuries they received during the battles at Orgreave.
Earlier - in 1985 — the cases against some 95 miners charged with offences at Orgreave collapsed, when police notes were found to be forged.
But no, the courts cannot order a replay of the Battle of Orgreave. They can not, even if they would, order the Coal Board to go back seven years and act as if the miners had won at Orgreave; they can not turn Britain's industrial and political life back seven years, wiping out the still continuing effects of the miners' defeat, and substituting for it the effects of a miners' victory. If that were likely to follow from the ruling, the court would have reached a different verdict, or delayed giving one for another seven years.
Force decided that battle, which itself decided so much for the labour movement. The crying pity of it is that we did not manage to mobilise enough force to beat Thatcher's cossacks off the field at Orgreave!
The class struggle is not conducted, least of all by the employers, who always have enormous advantages, according to the Queensbury rules for boxing or by the Parliamentary Rules of Debate!
There are no replays in the class struggle! The winners keep the spoils. They will keep the spoils until we, having learned these lessons, beat them in the inevitable next round of the struggle of the classes, the ceaseless struggle which will never end until the working class, the great mass of the people, win the battle of political and social democracy.
IN FACE OF THATCHER, SOCIALIST ORGANISER advocated direct action and defiance of the Tories all across the fronts of the class struggle: industrial direct action, local government resistance, parliamentary withdrawal of co-operation. We said to the labour movement: fight the Tories by every means possible, or face a historic defeat. Our comrades were active in the trade unions, and in the Labour Party, advocating such policies.
We initiated the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy, which united most of the left in the drive that, for a while before the labour movement and especially the unions were ground down by the Thatcherites, took the Labour Party sharply to the left.
We argued that the labour movement should fight to kick out the Tories and replace them with a "workers' government", a Labour government radically different from all previous Labour governments, doing for the working class the sort of things Thatcher spent the 1980s doing for the bourgeoisie.
We fought the passivity of the right and the soft left; we criticised the empty radicalism of the local government left who surrendered to the Tories by pursuing a policy of Labour council business-as-usual, disguised with left-wing verbal trimmings and grants for good "minority" causes. The class struggle was not on their "agenda".
A central part of that work was to oppose the craven mystifications about democracy with which the soft left rationalised their surrender to the Tories and the Labour right, and began their own slide to the right. Sharing in our own way, and from a pre-Stalin Marxist point of view, the broad labour movement's commitment to democracy as an irreplaceable element of socialism, to which Foot, Kinnock and their friends demagogically and dishonestly appealed, we challenged the ideas put out by Foot and Kinnock and Tribune from within the democratic tradition that they falsely claimed and misrepresented. We insisted that commitment to democracy does not rule out direct action and direct, immediate resistance to oppression.
We explained the genuine tradition of working-class democracy and the real history of the struggle for democracy, first by "the people" led by the bourgeoisie, and then by the labour movement.
We contrasted the unrealised goals of that struggle for democracy with both the ideas of the anti-democrats posing as socialists, the Stalinists and various Stalinoid "Trotskyists", and the anti-socialists (like Foot and Kinnock) posing, in essence falsely, as serious democrats. We insisted that Britain does not have "democracy", but bourgeois democracy. Real democracy — self-rule in our lives, including economic self-rule — is yet to be won and must be fought for.
Faced with Thatcher, the only real democrats, we argued, were those who were willing to fight for democracy, even against a parliamentary majority! But those of us who advocated the class struggle were increasingly marginalised as the decade wore on.
In the broad labour movement, the Kinnockites won the argument. The Tories, the trade union bureaucrats, and the local government left who messed around instead of mobilising workers for a necessary fight, won it for them.
These craven "democrats", who took their stand against the direct-action left as defenders of democracy, have run before the Tories down through a whole decade and a half during which they never dared stand and fight the Government which has attacked and undermined democracy.
Knowing exactly what was going on in the miners' strike, not only did they fail to defend the miners against Thatcher and her (often illegal) police, they joined in the hypocritical howling against the "violence" of miners struggling against savage capitalist economic, social, political and police violence.
They arrived at the April I992 general election spiritually so battered that they did not even dare to promise to restore the democratic rights the Tories have cut out of our trade unionism.
THE LABOUR MOVEMENT AFTER 1979 was faced with a choice of either prevailing over the Tories or of accepting savage defeat. Foot and his friends did not, and could not, choose the status quo ante. Defeat following surrender in the interests of "preserving democracy" brought the destruction of a wide array of our democratic rights, and brought deep demoralisation and self doubt to the Labour Movement.
Not to fight brought many of the worst consequences that defeat, even a defeat involving the army, would have brought. We have learned that, in a decade and a half of Tories lording it brutally over a weak and intimidated opposition and over a working class more powerless than it had been since the 1930s.
The class struggle is a fact of life: you can not evade its consequences by running from it. Running from it is only another way of losing it. To prattle, as Labour's leaders did and do, about classless "democracy", is to fight on behalf of the ruling class in the battle of ideas which is so central a part of the class struggle.
The material in this pamphlet in reply to Michael Foot first appeared in Socialist Organiser at the beginning of 1982. It has been reorganised and expanded; the political line has not been altered in any way - for instance, what is said about how a Marxist Workers' Government should respond to losing an election, is as it was in the January 1982 text; so is the description and characterisation of the USSR.
We believe that the labour movement must again take up the fight for democracy, not only to regain what Thatcher and her friends took from us in the form of trade union rights, local democracy and civil liberties, but to extend democracy in the direction the pioneers of the labour movement — the Chartists—wanted to go.
I hope the discussions in this collection will stimulate thought on this question and maybe help convince the labour movement militants that they should join us in the fight against the Tories and their right-wing Labour spawns and understudies, and fight for democracy as it was understood by its pioneers — social democracy, which in modern conditions can only be socialism.