Do official Labour politics offer any real hope today? Or must serious socialists, and even serious democrats, look instead to the revolutionary left?
Such was the question in debate before a packed audience at London's Conway Hall last Wednesday, 9 March, when John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna], editor of Socialist Organiser, a paper banned by the Labour Party leaders in 1990 for our Trotskyist politics, confronted Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.
John O'Mahony accused the Labour Party leadership of paving the way for Thatcherism and then succumbing to it.
In 1974 a wave of industrial action brought down the Tory Government, and we got a Labour governlent. "That Labour govrnment did not act even as a serious reformist government. It carried through some superficial reforms, but fundamentally it prepared the way for Thatcherism by demobilising the working class and beginning the process of cuts.
"But even in 1979-81 our movement was still very strong. We could have driven Thatcher from office as we drove Heath from office.
"Why didn't we? There was a tiredness in the movement, after what the Labour government had done, at the same time as a terrible slump and mass unemployment. But crucialIy the leaders of the labour movement surrendered. They surrendered in the most shameful way.
"The Labour and trade-union leaders accepted that the Tories had to rule, that we could not resist Parliament. They allowed the Tories to ride roughshod over our class".
John O'Mahony quoted the anarchist Enrico Malatesta, warning of what would happen in Italy after 1919-20, when workers occupied the factories and the bosses held on to power only "by the skin of their teeth". "If we let this auspicious moment escape us, we shall have to pay one day in tears of blood for the fear which we now inspire in the middle class".
The British working class, said O'Mahony, has been "paying for the last 15 years for the fear which we inspired in the ruling class in the 1970s, because the Labour and trade union leaders have failed to fight - again and again.
"They did not defend even their own Welfare State. They were driven down a whole decade running before the Tories, until:today the Labour leaders are not at all easy to distinguish from the Tories.
"They accept much of what the Tories have done to the National Health Service. Over the last 15 years the Tories have passed antiunion laws which have left Britain with the least free trade-union movement in Europe. Have the Labour leaders said they will reverse those laws, and restore freedom of action to the working class? No, they have not. They have said that they will leave on the statute book substantial parts of what the Tories have done.
"I never felt for the old right-wing Labour leaders like Hugh Gaitskell, such hatred and contempt as I feel for the Labour leaders now. They are not honest reformists. They are people who kow-tow to the Tories, gutless and shameless. They have forgotten everything except power - no, not power, office!"
In the early 1980s, O'Mahony recalled, Socialist Organiser had argued for the labour movement to mobilise direct action to stop the Tories, right across the country, in every area possible. People like Michael Foot argued that such action was "not democratic".
"Their conception of democracy", argued O'Mahony, "is far too limited.. Even the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in America and France proclaimed the right of revolt against tyrannical governments. And the Thatcher government was a tyrannical government, despite its majority in Parliament.
"Democracy is real self-rule. In Britain we do not have real self-rule. One of the great achievements of the bourgeoisie over the last 150 years has been to take the idea of democracy, which people had understood to mean not just political :democracy but als<3 sociai democracy, and empty it out.
"Dernocracy to~y is accepted to be mere}y shallow political democracy. At work, decisions that affect our lives radically and fundamentally are made not democratically but by the capitalists.
"We need a struggle to extend democracy. We should start now with a fight for free trade unions"
Michael Foot explained that he had aecepted the invitation to debate "because of the name of Leon Trotsky - one of the great socialist figures of this century, a man of action and a writer. No other socialist of this century has combined those two things so well".
Foot "deeply regretted" that in the late1930s, when he first worked on Tribune, "we did not report openly and faithfully what was happening in the Moscow Trials - which was a grave departure from the original ideals of the Russian Revolution".
To O'Mahony, Foot responded by defending both the record of the 1974-9 Labour government and the politics of the present Labour Party leadership.
"The 1974-9 Labour government, even with the tiny majority we had, was a very much better government than the one we had in the previous decade. We were committed to do lots of socialist things, and many of them we did carry out.
"Some of what we did you could reckon in figures. The numbers cf people in trade unions in this country in 1979, when that last Labour government left otfice, were higher than they had ever been before.
"Or take the numbers of people in employment. I was at the Department of Employment when the number of people unemployed in this country went up over one million. I was ashamed of the situation. We tried to reverse it.
"We used a whole scries of measures to do it, some short-term and some longer-terrn with at least this result, that when we left office in 1979 rnore people in Britain were in work than ever before. And more women were in jobs, and better jobs.
"We introduced the best new Factory Act that had ever been produced for protecting workers. We extended the field of protection to some five or six million people who had never been covered by health and safety provisions before.
"For the first time in British history, we wrote into the legislation that trade unions on the spot must have the legal right to raise health and safety issues ip their workplace.
"Those gains are not safe with a Tory government, and we've got to extend them much further - but they are part of industrial democracy. Extending rights to safety at work is a central part of democracy.
"We wanted to do more, but were not able to because when we lost our majority the Liberals were not prepared to vote for measures to give workers in the workshop and workplace a greatly increased influence and say. But I trust that is one of the things a new Labour government is going to do.
"Of course it was a terrible tragedy when the Tories won in 1979 and again in 1983. Some of us were trying to say to the trade unions, and everyone else: we really must stop this Thatcher lot from ever getting in. If they do get in, they are going to destroy what we have succeeded in l~uilding over the years.
"Tragically, it has happened. That does not alter the fact that warnings were given~
"Part of what we are ~guing about is the methods by which democratic movements and labour movements can achieve their objectives. I am not saying, and anyone would be a fool who said, that it is only through Parliament that it can be done. But it's equally foolish to say that you don't have to worry about what happens in Parliament.
"There would not have been a Parliament with the rights we have today if it had not been for the struggles of the labour movement. It is true that one or two of the demands of the Chartist movement [of the 1830s-5Os] have not been carried out - though whether I annual parliaments are a good idea I'm not sure - but the others have, and it shows what can be done by democratic action over a period.
"In the Chartist movement they had lots of arguments between people who said on the one side that they must only act under the law, and on the other side the so-called physical-force people, Julian Harney and the rest. At the end, Julian Harney said that William Lovett, who put the case on the other side, was the best of them all. Harney was not giving up his own case, but he was respecting and understanding the argument between them.
"And that was when we did not have the vote, and the case of those who argued for direct action was much stronger than now, when we do have the vote. We've got to use the vote - and use it much more skilfully and aggressively. We've got to use both weapons - industrial power and political power.
"It's not true that the Labout Party is giving up the fight to defend the National Health Service. Not at all. As soon as we get a new Labour government I have not the slightest doubt that one of the very first things it will be carrying into effect will be the fullest possible re-establishment of a proper Health Service on the same socialist principles on which it was started by the 1945 Labour government."
Despite repeated criticism from the floor, Michael Foot returned to the samc assertions in his summing-up. "I'm not saying that all the last Labour governrnent did was right. But we carried through every manifesto commitment that we could carry out.
"The Labour Party are going to restore the NHS as a major part of what they do in the next government. It may not be in exactly the same form, because after all Aneurin Bevan himself wanted to make the machinery of the Health Service much more democratically controlled. I'm sure that is included in the propositions put forward by the Labour Party".
John O'Mahony declared flatly that he did not believe Michael Foot on Labour and the lealth Service.
"That does not affect our support for Labour in elections. The Labour Party does not belong to the scoundrels who lead it, it belongs to the trade-union and working-class movement.
"For ourselves, Socialist Organiser was banned in 1990, and we've had people expelled, but we haven't left the Labour Party. We organise ourselves in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, both outside the Labour Party and inside the Labour Party.
"The general lesson of the last 15 years is that you do not get stable reforms under capitalism. You cannot win stable improvements without destroying the roots of capitalism.
"The class struggle goes on. Our side has suffered defeats. But capitalism generates class struggle. There is a tremendous build-up of explosive discontent in this country. The labour movement will revive. But we must learn the lessons of the past.
"Central to our socialism is the struggle for democracy. We do not live in anything but the travesty of a democracy. We do not have democracy which is self-rule in our own lives.
"A campaign for democracy, if taken seriously, is a campaign to revive the ideas of socialism. I do not believe we can have a peaceful transition from democracy as we have it now to socialism, but nevertheless it is true that consistent democracy, applied through the whole of society, would be socialism. The democracy we have now is a hollow democracy."
Concluding, O'Mahony pointed to the central and immediate question of workers' democratic rights which, he said, Michael Foot had evaded. "We no longer have a free trade union movement. The law bans working-class solidarity. We can carnpaign against this, and for free trade unions, and in doing so we should revive the struggle for socialism.
"We will fight back; and then we will make the ruling class pay in tears of blood for what they have done to our class over the last 15 years".
Socialist Organiser 593, 17-3-94