Before entering Parliament in 1964, Eric Heffer had been a socialist and trade-union activist for almost 30 years. He discussed his experiences and ideas with John Bloxam and John O'Mahony. Click here to download pdf; and an excerpt is online below.
Do you think there is a lack of ethical firmness in the labour movement now? I'm thinking, for example, about leaders who talk publicly about what is good for their careers, even when what is good for them is not what is good for the labour movement - open, obviously unashamed careerists, who scarcely bother even to fake.
If you look at the early stages of the labour movement you'll see that even people we might consider to be on the right were generally much more principled. They had ethical concepts which meant something to them. They weren't necessarily looking for careers. They were in the movement because they believed that the movement was essential to building a better society. But now, increasingly, you get naked and shameless careerists.
To come down to concrete things, the House of Commons pays an enormous wage now.
When I came to the House of Commons in 1964 got £1,250 per year. Out of that you paid your London lodgings, you had to supply your own secretary and every stamp you put on an envelope. You paid for every phone call outside of London, and so on. The fact is, you didn't really live much better than you lived in your own area as a worker. You did it mainly because you thought it right to fight for the ideas you believed in.
Of course, Tories - and some others - earned money outside politics and the money from the House of Commons was just a useful additional income. But to us it didn't really mean that much. We struggled, but we didn't really complain about it. That's the interesting thing, we didn't really complain much.
It's like in the old days when I became a councillor, all you got was loss of pay. If I had a full day off I'd lose £2-£3, a lot of money in those days. You didn't complain about it because you were in the movement and you were doing it because you thought it was right to do it. You weren't looking out for yourself.
Now people in the movement seem to accept capitalist concepts. They believe in looking after yourself and making money out of it. That inevitably leads to a measure of corruption – I don't mean corruption in the sense of people going after money and nothing else. I mean the corruption that is burnt into people seeing what they do and say in politics in terms of a career structure, of what it will mean for their own careers, instead of being in politics to change society. Such people – when the chips are down – turn out to be in politics to bring about beneficial changes in their own lives, or to avert the unpleasant changes that sometimes goes with standing by your principles. That is very bad; it has a bad effect on the movement and it is very dangerous for it.
It's like the bureaucratised trade unions. I remember that when I became a shop steward of a huge construction site, the firm gave me an office and somebody to do the typing, and a spare room where the shop stewards could meet. Well, it was very nice for me. It rained out there but I wasn't out there. One day a chap came over to me from about half a mile away to get me to go to a meeting to talk about a strike they felt they needed. It was pouring with rain. I looked out the door and I said to him: “Do you want me now?"
And as I said it I thought, "hang on, this is disgraceful! I am now at one remove from these workers that I represent, and used to be working with. And if I'm at one remove, the District Office is twice removed, the Regional Office is three times removed, and the National Office is so far away from what goes on amongst the workers on a construction site or in a factory that they begin to regard those workers out there as a nuisance."
Next day I said to the management, "I want to go back. I'm still senior steward, but I'm back on the line at work, and working in a gang and that's it. I'm working outside with everybody else." And that's what I did. I could see that otherwise I'd become as much a bureaucrat as the others.
It's very important. You should never allow yourself to get into that position. In the House of Commons you do tend to get more and more remote. That's why it is important to go home to your family at weekends, important that you live in a council flat and that you go to the local Labour Club and to the pub and to the lads on the football terraces. You must remain part and parcel of them. You're never going to be quite the same again, of course, because you do spend most of your time in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, you've got to watch that. Do your best. It's so easy to move away from your roots, almost without noticing it. To go back to Jesus, he didn't move away, he remained with them all the time, and he ended up on the cross because he clearly was identifying himself with the ordinary people and they didn't want that.
Why has there been this growth of corruption? Is it just to do with the greatly increased perks of local government? Or is it to do with the role played by MPs and local government councillors? There is now a great wave of the type of careerist corruption you describe, isn’t there?
I think there is. There was always corruption, of course. Some people became corrupt because there weren't any perks! They made deals, planning deals, and so on. The old corruption was clear and straightforward and it could be dealt with for what it was. But in this case...
When I was a councillor in Liverpool we used to have two interviews or "surgeries" a week. You sat in the Labour Party rooms and people came about their housing and so on, masses of people. You didn't even think of claiming for that. Nowadays, they tell you you actually have money for that!
Corruption took many forms in the past. I do say that in the last few years it has got far worse. We've become increasingly integrated into the capitalist system. The leadership of the movement now say openly that capitalism is acceptable. In the old days even the right wingers didn't say openly that they thought capitalism an acceptable system.
What you might call the process of rot and disintegration that began almost at the commencement of the labour movement has just got worse as time has gone on.
Another thing that strikes me is that recently certain key people (I won't name names) have buckled under pressure and then explained their behaviour in terms of the needs of their careers! Done it openly and publicly, taking it for granted that nobody would hold it against them. And not a lot of people seem to have, either! The notion that you're in it for what you get rather than for what you can give seems increasingly to dominate even on the so-called Left. You know John F Kennedy's speech wrlter's dictum - ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country? Well, that used to be the old socialist approach - and in any case it is the irreplaceable and necessary approach within any fighting movement of the exploited and oppressed. Now there seems to be a general acceptance of the approach of "me, me, me", "me and my career within the established political structures”.
Yes. For example, a lot of people supported the fight for the leadership around Tony Benn without accepting what Tony was saying or the socialist ideas Tony had moved towards. It was a bandwagon. They thought the left was going to win and thought they ought to have a share of it. When Tony didn't win, the same people very rapidly switched their allegiance to the new leadership. Now you find people who were so-called Bennites have become staunch Kinnockites, mouthing the Kinnockites' arguments, talking about the need to drop unilateralism, learn from Thatcher, and so on.
They've backtracked on just about every issue. Yes, because they put their career in front of everything else. Their career is what they're in it for. It saddens, but it doesn't totally surprise, me. People I would have thought a few years ago were really staunch, now won't even talk to me about it, about the Party. I'm an embarrassment.
Is there any connection between this careerism and the question of financial self-interest and the nature of the parliamentary and even local government systems? I mean that system as compared with the workers' council ("soviet") system Lenin advocated - "every cook shall govern", the easy recallability of representatives at every level, every representative getting a worker's wage, and thus no possible structure of protected career building. Isn't the whole careerist blight a necessary part of the parliamentary system?
I suppose we're so used to the parliamentary system as it has developed, and the local government system as it has developed, that it is quite difficult for us to think in terms of new concepts. You get involved, become part of something for such a long time. But we have got to think differently, and work for something different. The present parliamentary system is not necessarily the way that society will be governed in the future.
The American Marxist Hal Draper wrote a pamphlet redeveloping the concept of the two souls of socialism. Look at the early days of the movement and you'll find that there was always a big argument between those who believed in what we called state socialism and those who believed in non-state socialism, or socialism from above as against socialism from below.
In Britain, during the early development of socialism, people like William Paul and the Socialist Labour Party used to argue for non-state socialism as against the state socialist Social Democratic Federation. Even the best Labour Party socialists have been state-socialists. There has always been a fundamental conflict between the two approaches.
I think we've got to re-examine this dispute, and go over it again, thinking about it and updating it. Society is now in a state where the ideas of socialism from below equate best with what we require if we are to refine, renew and move forward our socialist concepts. This is the thing which is important. We must get away from the concept of socialism as a great vast bureaucratic centralisation of both the economy and society. We have to get away from that.
The non-state concepts have to be allowed to grow. Probably non-state socialism has always been the only real type of socialism. It cannot lead to bureaucratic distortions. Stalinism has put back socialism for decades and lent credibility to those who argue that socialism is not possible after what happened in the Soviet Union. This is why I think education is so important. Because Marx was right: “the emancipation of the working class must be self-emancipation". Workers have to learn from books as well as experience that they can actually do it, that they have the ability to build a new society.
One thing impressed me when I first went to an Israeli socialist kibbutz. I met a bloke who was sweeping up the canteen. I enquired about him because he looked as if he was getting on a bit for the job.
They said, "He's last year's manager. We don't allow people more than a year in different jobs. He's got the ability to be the manager, a great manager, but we
take different jobs each year, so that you'r'e never tied totally into one thing. You don't become the one who runs everything. Next year you'll be sweeping up, and the next year you might be helping them cook." That to me was socialism.
I also witnessed great arguments about whether they should build factories linked to the kibbutzes. And should the factories have non-kibbutz workers, say Arab workers? The old socialists said: "No, we mustn’t do that. If the state, or the Arabs, want to build factories, that's for them. But we can't exploit these people."
I don't suggest we can do exactly the same, but we can do something very similar. This is how we have got to look at it, and why I think that public own rship could take many forms. You could have local authority, public ownership, individual companies publicly owned, cop operative public ownership. The essential thing is that in each of them the workers have got to have not just the final say, but the say right through, involved in running and controlling the enterprise from beginning to end.