Democracy: Revolution Alone Can Save the Earth

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Paul Foot's final book The Vote: How It was Won and How It was Undermined is a splendid piece of historical writing, says Ian Birchall.

Paul Foot's death last year was a terrible personal loss to all who knew him. But as the months have gone by the extent of our political loss has become clear. We have watched the charade of the US presidential election, Labour's assault on civil liberties and the attempt to foist 'democracy' on Iraq by force of arms. How we needed Paul's majestic contempt for the rich, the powerful and the stupid (often the same people), and his unquenchable enthusiasm for the victims of oppression and injustice.

Now there are two pieces of good news for all who love Paul's writing. Firstly, thanks to the efforts of Einde O'Callaghan, there is already a selection of around 100 pamphlets and articles by Paul, from 1966 to 2004, available at Secondly, Paul's last book and political testament is now published.

Paul's aim was to write the history of the vote in British politics - how it was won and how it was undermined. Both sides of the equation are vital. The struggle for the vote was not something to be dismissed as 'mere bourgeois democracy'; it was a wholly legitimate aim pursued with courage and determination. Yet universal suffrage has failed to deliver the results which even Karl Marx once thought it might.

Paul was peculiarly well placed to write this story, as a member of a privileged family who threw in his lot with the working class movement. (Imagine how much more 'successful' he might have been if he had remained a floating leftie like Christopher Hitchens rather than a committed revolutionary socialist.) For most of us, MPs are people we occasionally heckle as they perform on a platform. Paul came from an established parliamentary family. In 1945 his grandfather Isaac failed to be elected as a Liberal and shut himself up in his room for five days. Paul, aged seven, was staying in his house at the time. He must have been mystified - what was this 'parliamentary power', that grown men could sulk so at losing it? This book attempts to unravel the mystery.

The first half is devoted to a very simple truth, generally ignored by those who insist everything must go through parliamentary channels: the right to vote was not won by people voting for it. The history of the vote cannot be separated from the massive social struggles which accompanied every extension. The various reforms all came after massive waves of strikes, riots, etc - but they were only granted when it was clear that those campaigning for them would confine themselves to electoral matters and not pose any threat to property.

The story begins during the English Civil War, with the Putney Debates of 1647, when a few individuals, widely dismissed as irrelevant (know the feeling?), began to argue that all people - or at least the males among them - should have the vote. Oliver Cromwell had no time for such nonsense - many who had started out as Royalists soon saw Cromwell as their best defence against the threat from below. Often Levellers were hesitant; as Paul points out, they 'were very much for liberty and fraternity. But they were not at all sure about equality.' Nonetheless, Thomas Rainsborough declared, 'The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he... every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.' The idea could not be eradicated from human heads.

The next great upsurge came with the Chartists in the early 19th century. For the Chartists the vote and associated parliamentary reforms were important, but only as part of a broader struggle for the emancipation of the working class. To those involved, the 'knife and fork question' was equally important. Paul details the sheer size of the Chartist movement, and the methods of mass involvement it used - enormous rallies and huge torchlight meetings, newspapers and petitions, strikes and uprisings - all with the potential to unleash a popular democracy that would go far beyond the act of putting a cross on a piece of paper.

The longest - and most controversial - chapter in the book is devoted to the suffragettes. Paul had the greatest admiration for the late Tony Cliff, but as he records, Cliff frequently reprimanded him, 'Paul, you are soft!' If today the two of them are in Red Heaven, Cliff is undoubtedly brandishing this book and shouting, 'Paul, you are soft!' Cliff, in his book Class Struggle and Women's Liberation, fearing that feminism would challenge the centrality of class struggle, disparaged the achievements of the suffragettes, arguing that the attainment of votes for women was 'not at all' the outcome of suffragette activity. Paul makes no attempt to conceal his enthusiasm for the courage and determination of the women who fought for the vote. His greatest admiration goes to those like Sylvia Pankhurst, who linked the struggle for women's rights to the fight for socialism, and refused to capitulate in the difficult period of the First World War.

Perhaps I am a born conciliator, but I think there is truth on both sides. In the long term, Cliff had a valid point. Women in France, where there was virtually no suffrage movement, got the right to vote just a quarter of a century later than their British sisters - and moreover got it from the right wing, pro-Nazi Vichy government. But Paul is also right - a quarter of a century is half a human lifetime, and history itself does nothing; it must be constantly pushed along by human struggle. And if Paul's account provokes a furious argument, nothing would have given him greater pleasure.

The second half tells a grimmer story. It is a history of the Labour Party, especially of Labour in government. Again it illustrates a simple proposition: achieving political power is futile unless economic power is held as well. Paul shows how successive Labour governments, despite their electoral mandate and popular support, had to confront those who held the real power in society. In 1947 the Labour cabinet was 'brought to its knees' by currency speculators. In 1964 Harold Wilson faced the unelected Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cromer, who demanded he drop the reforms Labour had promised. Wilson also made secret deals with the US, getting economic assistance in return for backing the Vietnam War. In the 1970s Labour chancellor Denis Healey was impotent in face of the International Monetary Fund. The problem was finally solved by Blair, who didn't risk losing the battle with capital because he never confronted it in the first place.

Labour has always had its share of traitors and self-seekers, from Jimmy Thomas, whose treachery helped defeat the 1926 General Strike, to Brown and Blair. It has also had its contingent of genuine reformers, seeking to win real change on behalf of those they represented. Paul is generous in recognising the achievements of past Labour governments, especially that of 1945, which gave us gains still worth defending - above all the NHS. Perhaps he is too generous in commending Labour's nationalisation of the railways and coalmining. Both industries were catastrophically incompetent; a government of any party would have resorted to state intervention. Paul even finds praiseworthy achievements by the Wilson-Callaghan government of the 1970s.

All this highlights the way in which Blairism betrays all that Labour ever stood for. Formerly even Labour right wingers - those most strongly opposed to nationalisation - took it for granted that Labour's job was to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. Paul suggests that Gaitskell lost the 1959 election by promising not to increase income tax - since many potential voters would have seen that as a reasonable thing to do. Under Blair nothing is surer than that the rich will get rich and the poor poorer.

Alongside this comes corruption. It is significant that Paul, who as a campaigning journalist did so much to expose sleaze, stresses that corruption is not the product of a few greedy 'bad apples', but something that 'has always been a consistent companion of class rule'.

If I have one criticism of Paul's account, it is that it occasionally seems too narrowly British. Paul shows the enormous impact on the development of the British working class movement of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. It would have been interesting to have had more information on alternative forms of democracy, especially the Russian soviets.

Paul has provided us with a splendid piece of historical writing. The growing estrangement of ordinary people from politics has produced not only a rapidly declining level of electoral participation but also a lack of any awareness of history, even the most recent. (A contestant on The Weakest Link, asked which Labour prime minister wore a Gannex raincoat, responded 'John Major'.) But as one of Paul's heroes, George Orwell, pointed out, 'who controls the past controls the future'. History books like this, which make the subject exciting by focusing on both the follies of our rulers and the courage of the oppressed, can be an enormous asset in the struggle for socialist ideas. It deserves a huge readership.

No summary can do justice to the wealth of information in this book. Every page has details that are weapons in the fight for human liberation. Even those like myself, who had the misfortune to live through most of the events described in the second part, will learn much. Paul is always aware of the minor absurdities accompanying the great events of history. We sense his glee as he recounts that, surrounded by an insurgent mob, the 'pompous ass' Sir Charles Wetherell MP 'had to flee over the rooftops in his underclothes in the middle of the night'.

Paul tells how the spectre of democracy aroused fear and hatred from the privileged who cringed at the thought of the 'swarming millions'. He shows the ineffectiveness of thinkers like Tony Crosland, who genuinely wanted reform, but thought it could be achieved under capitalism. He dismisses such fantasists as WIARDS ('well-intentioned amiable rootless drifting social reformers'). He also shows the other side of the coin - the enormous potential for true democracy contained in workers' struggle; he recalls his own 'sense of wonder and admiration at the way in which the transport drivers of Hull took control of their industry and ran it safely and properly in the best interests of the community'.

The book is a treasure house of quotations. Paul records Blair's denunciation of the privatisation of electricity: 'Born out of dogma, reared on deceit, this privatisation is now exposed for what it is and always has been, private prejudice masquerading as public policy. Let us send this message to the government. We do not want it postponed, we do not want it delayed, we do not want it put off - we want it abandoned here, now and for ever.'

Elsewhere he relishes the opportunity to rediscover the rhetoric of long-dead radicals like George Julian Harney: 'Our country may be compared to a bedstead full of nasty, filthy, crawling aristocratic and shopocratic bugs. In answer to our calumniators who say we wish to destroy property, I answer that we will not destroy the bedstead, but we will annihilate the bugs!'

The book is beautifully written. Paul never accepted the view, common on the left, that if a piece had the 'correct line', then it didn't matter if it was written in dull, repetitious jargon. Paul's gift was to entertain while informing, to engage our emotions as well as our minds, to make us laugh and cry and above all think. Each chapter is prefaced with a quotation, often from the poets Paul loved so much - Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley. The final section opens with lines from Byron that would look splendid on an SWP banner: 'Revolution alone can save the earth from hell's pollution.'

This book has many lessons, both about the nature of power in society and about our own tactics - the need to avoid co-option by our enemies, the importance of patience and timing. Yet the most fundamental point is simple. Socialism without democracy is a fraud, not socialism at all, but a monstrous justification for tyranny. But real democracy without socialism is a liberal dream, something that never has been seen, and never will be.

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  • "When, early in 1841, a Mrs King of Manchester brought her son to be christened Feargus O'Connor King [after a Chartist leader], the registrar scolded her, and advised her to take the child away and come back with a better name. When the woman furiously refused, he asked her: 'Is your husband a Chartist?' 'I don't know,' was the instant reply, 'but his wife is.'"
    From Chapter Three: 'Revolt of the Chartists'

  • "There was never any major concession on franchise reform without some sign that people would fight for it. The concessions were not voluntary. They were not inspired by the ingenuity, generosity or democratic spirit of the politicians. Each one of them in 1867 and 1884 was wrung out of Commons and Lords by mass agitation and mass action."
    From Chapter Four: 'The Leap in the Dark'

  • "The hallmarks of the [Paris] Commune were responsibility and revocability. The representatives were closely controlled by the represented. They were paid average wages, and if they reneged on commitments given when elected, they could be instantly removed and replaced. In every respect, this democracy differed decisively from anything even contemplated by the wealthy and irresponsible MPs in the British House of Commons."
    From Chapter Four: 'The Leap in the Dark'

  • "The rich have learned to live with parliamentary democracy because they have so easily been able to undermine the slightest tendency of parliaments to represent the interests of the masses. If anyone could have taken General Ireton to one side in 1647 and explained to him how the organised power of the rich could easily patronise or suppress even a sign of the economic egalitarianism he feared, perhaps he would have been less distressed at the notion of universal suffrage."
    From Chapter Twelve: 'Their Democracy and Ours'

  • "A peculiarly contemptible notion introduced by the rich in an attempt to explain or excuse their wealth is that of 'trickling down'. Minority wealth is good, so runs the theory, because it provides the only way for wealth to grow and because it eventually will trickle down to the poor. All the evidence points to the reverse. When wealth increases, it stays obstinately with the wealthy. Rather than trickle down, it gushes up."
    From Chapter Twelve: 'Their Democracy and Ours'