Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paul Foot Speaks (1980)

In March 1980, after the recent election victory of Margaret Thatcher's Tories over a Labour Government led by James Callaghan - a Labour Government which had fundamentally betrayed the interests of the working class whilst in office - a debate was organised between the Labour Left and the revolutionary Left in Britain. Heralded modestly as 'The Debate of the Decade', Tony Benn MP, Stuart Holland MP and Audrey Wise put the case for socialists joining the Labour Party whilst Hilary Wainwright (now editor of Red Pepper), Tariq Ali (then of the International Marxist Group) and Paul Foot (Socialist Workers Party) put the case for building a socialist alternative based on the power of the movements and struggles outside Parliament. Chairing the debate was one Peter Hain, who later edited the speeches into a book - entitled 'The Crisis and Future of the Left' but it is extracts from Paul Foot's speech that I want to put online, as they may still be of some relevance to socialists experiencing another Labour Government pursuing Tory policies with a vengeance. Foot goes through some of the history of the Labour Party and Labourism, the rise and fall in membership and so on, and stresses throughout a vision of socialism from below, coming through agitation, education and organisation. It is interesting in particular to note Foot's reference to Peter Hain mid-way through his speech...

Comrades...we have a Tory government rampaging through the country, slashing and stabbing whereever they can as though they were an invading army and we have a rotten opposition to it. Look at the places that people look to for opposition to the Tory government; its not coming from there. Whenever you see a Labour minister in Parliament attacking the Tory government they get the same reply; the reply is: 'You did it too.'

...Everywhere you look the parliamentary opposition is frustrated by these replies and the industrial opposition is frustrated too. The industrial opposition...we can see that being split. Why? Because for five years under a Labour Government they were treated by their leaders as a stage army, told they couldn't go for more than the particular amount of money that was laid down by trade union leaders operating with the Labour government. And the stage armies, when called upon to fight for the very basic liberties that keep the whole trade union movement together, the stage armies aren't prepared to come out any longer...

And therefore the question comes out clear. It screams from all of this experience of the last five years, screams at us, that it is the foundations of the movement that are rotting and it's no good, when the foundations of the movement are rotting, mucking about with the superstructure. We've got to get back to where the power is, not where it isn't, not in parliament, not in trade union offices but where it is - on the shop floor, in the rank and file...and we need socialist agitation at the rank and file more than we ever did before, because in the fifties and sixties militancy was enough, it was enough to say that we must be militant to gain more from a boss. Now that isn't enough. Now if you ask why...the answer is that there is a fear in the movement now, a fear of the whole prop of existence, the job, the whole security of existence being knocked out from under you and the argument that comes and is so cleverly used in all the Tory media is - 'what's the point of making steel when nobody buys steel, what's the point in that?' There's only one reply to it - the reply being: 'why is there a steel recession in the first place, why is nobody buying steel? Is it because nobody needs steel; is it because the whole of India, South East Asia, Africa is so stuffed with steel products that they don't need any more? Is that the explanation?' No, obviously it's not the explanation. Running side by side you have on the one hand the tremendous capacity to produce, the capacity to feed the world not once but twice over, the capacity to produce everything that people need and yes, everything that they want, that's there, available to us now. But on the other hand there is this increasing poverty and desperation all the time matching the ability to produce and the increasing poverty running side by side. Why? Because the society is divided up, controlled by people only interested in their property and privileges and splitting the society and exploiting the society and stumbling from boom to slump. The socialist argument is only powerful in the rank and file where it can give force and power to the people who've got the power to change the society - that's where we have to do the agitation and that's where we have to do the organising...

[But] there is a very powerful and attractive argument, the argument goes like this: 'Yes we need rank and rile agitation, we need more socialists in the rank and file, we need more extra-parliamentary activity...we need more of that today and we need to forge it into a powerful Labour Party which will go alongside radical socialist politics and which will protect the next Labour government from the ravages of bankers, industrialists judges and all the rest of them.'

Now that's what the argument is and it's a very attractive one and I reply to it like this. That we see the two traditions of activity, the extra-parliamentary rank and file organisation if you like on the one hand, and the parliamentary organisation on the other. We see them as two different roads running in different directions...when it comes to the crunch again and again running into one another. That is something that you can't fudge, that you have to choose between them...and to demonstrate what I mean I want to talk a little bit about the Labour Party itself. You see, it's true that when Labour had to win the workers' vote, when it had to win the vote from the Tories and from the Liberals, to win people's minds away from all that old obsequiousness to the boss which they had then and their obsession with the Liberal Party - to do all of those things they required agitation - mass agitation.

One of the first jobs I did was to be a reporter in the by-election at Bridgetown in the East End of Glasgow in 1961. I read up on the history of that period, I read about the history of when they first elected an I[ndependent] L[abour] P[arty] candidate in Bridgetown in 1922. In that area of Glasgow then, the whole place ran with agitation. In every close mouth there was an ILP representative, in every street an ILP bulletin and that was reflected all over the country. All the way through the period of winning the vote for Labour through the twenties, thirties, forties yes, right up until 1950. There were newspapers for instance, national newspapers with massive circulation. The Daily Herald for most of it's life was owned or controlled by the Labour Party or the TUC. The Cooperative Party, which was part of the Labour Party, owned or controlled the News which was read by hundreds of thousands of workers on Sundays, and there were libraries created, all the way through Britain especially South Wales, massive working class libraries, books lovingly collected out of the pennies of workers in which people were taught to read about their own literature, literature that came out of their class, not the crap that they got in school or on the radio. And there's a whole history there of agitation in order to win the vote.

But the point about this history of agitation is that all of it was linked to the parliamentary process, all of it was linked to the business of winning the vote and it followed then as night followed day that as soon as the vote was won, as soon as it became clear that millions of people, almost by automatic reaction, were going to vote Labour, then the agitation collapsed and since 1951 or 1952 you have an absolutely irretrievable pattern of the collapse of agitation, and the collapse of involvement in the Labour Party. The newspapers that I've mentioned were either sold or closed. The libraries have all been sold off to dealers. The whole business of local activity and local discussion has collapsed. Individual membership in the Labour Party has declined by something quite extraordinary and all of it is a process that is inevitable because the thing was attached only to that little slender little bit of democracy which was voting MPs into Parliament.

Then there was another process and we've seen a bit of that process today, that every time a Labour government faltered or every time it was beaten you had another process of agitation coming into the fore. You had the Labour left in one form or another coming and saying: 'Now comrades we've lost or we've faltered. Now we need a bit of agitation. Come on out all you extra-parliamentarians, let's debate with you in the Central Hall, let's have a discussion, let's get you working again because that's the only way we'll ever get into office again. Come on let's get moving.' They may mean it sincerely. Let's bind together as I've described earlier. This goes way back. In 1925, the Lansbury Clubs; in the 1930s the Socialist League - Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan; in the 1940s, the Keep Left group organised by that well known revolutionary and fellow columnist of mine on Daily Mirror newspapers, Woodrow Wyatt; in the 1950s, Victory for Socialism; in the 1960s, Appeal for Unity - all different attempts in opposition or when the government was faltering to bring together extra-parliamentary agitation; to try and raise again socialist consciousness in the rank and file, to try and lift what Shelley called the 'spirit that lifts the slave before his Lord', trying to do that again through the Labour Party and in the Labour Party. But because that was where they operated, first of all each group was weaker than the last - the Labour Coordinating Committee is at the end of this line - I don't mean in terms of winning votes on the Labour Party National Executive but weaker in mass terms; and the other thing about it is that as it got weaker so it was less and less able to have any effect. And, secondly, on each occasion the agitation was neatly packed away in time for an election, and everyone was called on to make 'a united heave' to get Labour back into office. All this was quite logical. Why? Because it was all happening apart from the things that are going on in the outside world, always going on separate to all the activities and struggles that are happening in the strikes, the agitation and all the things that I was talking about earlier, those things are separate to how the Labour Party conducts its agitation and that's why we say, we say that the Labour Party process in linked inextricably to the passivity of the masses, that the masses have to be passive in those circumstances and all the people who join the Labour Party as agitators to change the world, all of them become not changers of the world but changed themselves in the process. Lansbury, Cripps, Nye Bevan, Wyatt, Sidney Silverman, Lord Greenwood, Peter Hain - where is he going to be - will he join this list or will he help us build an alternative?

That's the question we want to put tonight. What I am saying is this. What is the alternative?

Let me talk a little about the alternative. And how I see the alternative...because of the way society is constituted, a socialist society is not going to be just won by 'decent' processes; that those people who have property will not surrender that property, they will not surrender it even in events where parliamentary legislation threatens their power. If parliamentary legislation threatens their property then, and we have the example of Chile staring at us down the barrel of a gun, they will shoot the opposition rather than give power to it...

...What sort of socialism are we interested in? Is it just a question of more state control, dictatorial, tyrannical, what about Russia, is it like the sort of society that we have in Czechoslovakia and Russia today? And I believe that if you say to people 'look, we'll do it for you, you keep quiet and we'll do the job for you' then the suspicion, the suspicion that exists in people's minds that socialism is something dictated from above, the suspicion increases, it becomes more rigid. Now if you say we have to get it from below, we have to organise from below that there's more socialism in a strike committee at Stocksbridge working out the hardship fund, there's more socialism there than in all the plans of the Labour Party, then you begin to see a new and different form of organisation, an organisation which is tied to people's activities.

First of all the important units are not geographical, the important units are industrial, where people spend most of their active lives - the industrial unit being the important one where people spend most of their working lives, where they co-operate most together, where they contribute most together and where, because they produce there, they have the power. The important units of organisation being there and the activity of the organisation corresponding to the aspirations of where people are fighting, where they are battling. It is not just a question of where they're on strike but where they're fighting, all the thousands of little agitations that take place, I don't know, housing, the no-disconnections campaign, yes, the Irish campaign to get the troops out of Ireland, to free the Irish political prisoners, all those hundreds of agitations that go on day by day. The Party has to be organised around those agitations...not in parliament, not in trade union offices but where people are beginning to fight.

That's really a form of organisation which is not something that is a corollary to parliamentary organisation but something which constantly runs against it, constantly clashes with it. You constantly find the parliamentarians trying to put down that organisation, that's the history of our movement. There are always such clashes, you have to realise that. Rosa Luxemburg was shot not by a Tory government but by a Labour government and by the orders of a Labour government. What happened in Portugal in 1974? The great bursting, enthusiasm of workers in Portugal in 1974 was held back and sucked dry by this parliamentary process and we say therefore that there are two different traditions, two different forms of organisation...

Now what I do when I speak up and down the country is end up by calling on people to join the Socialist Workers Party and I mean that. I do that again tonight. But I don't want to end just by calling on people to join the Socialist Workers Party because I like the spirit in which this meeting has been called. I think it has been called in a fraternal spirit and a spirit which really is worried, as we're worried, as everyone else is worried, about the state of opposition to the Tories and what happens in the future. I also recognise that, and it would be stupid for anyone not to recognise, that we in the Socialist Workers Party and more so the other organisations in my view are still haunted by the spectre of sectarianism that hangs over us, this awful bigoted, certainty and arrogance that we have all the answers conducted in a sort of language which other people don't understand. Now we've been trying for years and years to get away from that, and we're still trying, and we are interested in coming together with other people in the fight against the Tories. But we're interested in coming together not in words, not even just in debates, but in activity. We're interested in united activity, united activity against the union bill, against the cuts, yes, united activity to get those troops out of Ireland and those political prisoners out of the prisons there.

If each of you tonight were to think where it is that they could do something to change the world we live in and to roll back the priorities of the Tory government and no doubt of the next Labour government, no doubt of the next Labour government, then I believe the meeting will have achieved something and I believe that if you do those things then I'm quite confident that we will win the argument in the end in that activity...

I'll leave you with a quotation from the famous black freedom fighter, Frederick Douglas, in America. When they told him: 'Fred, come on we've found a new way of winning freedom for black people - we can go into the nice houses of nice educated Americans and they will win nice educated freedom for the blacks by nice educated legislation', Frederick Douglas had a very, very simple answer to that: 'Without struggle there is no progress, and those who profess to favour freedom yet deprecate agitation - Why? They want the crops without digging up the ground; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.'

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