Thursday, 17 April 2014

Democracy and capitalism - an unstable compound

Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote’ is rightly regarded as the summation of its author’s life and work. Foot was a journalist, writer and campaigner with an unwavering commitment to revolutionary socialist politics for over four decades, who wrote about ‘The Vote’s key themes – democracy, the Labour Party, socialism, capitalist power – recurrently throughout his adult life.

I first read the book when it was published in 2005 (posthumously, as Foot had died the previous year, aged 66), but recently re-read large chunks of it. I thought I’d share some observations on the book and its key ideas.
‘The Vote’ is divided, as the subtitle ‘How it was won and how it was undermined’ suggests, into two parts. The first half is an inspiring account of the mass struggles of (predominantly) lower classes to win democratic rights, from the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 1640s to the suffragettes.

The second half is the less glorious (though complex) history of the Labour Party in the 20th century, and how it has failed in office to deliver on socialist - or in the eras of Wilson, Callaghan and Blair, even mildly social democratic - aspirations.
Democracy and capitalism
For many writers the Chartists would have been the obvious place to start, but Foot was astute in seeing that the story stretches back further than that. In fact the Putney Debates in 1647 marked the commencement of the long, on-going debate about democracy and its relationship to wealth. The notion that everyone – or at least every man – should have a say in political decisions, through the power of the vote, was profoundly revolutionary.
In the seventeenth century power belonged to those with money and property. Politics was a matter of discussion among that layer of society, while everyone else was firmly shut out. The bourgeois revolution of the 1640s secured the power and privileges of a rising capitalist class, but this did not extend to the great mass of people.  
And so it would continue until the 19th century, when movements for reform – above all Chartism – would win the vote for growing layers of society. The vote was seen, on all sides of the debate, as inextricably linked to all sorts of possible social, economic and political changes. Obtaining the vote would empower the masses – a prospect that inspired revolt while terrifying the ruling elites, who used ferocious violence when challenged. But this meant there was a glaring lack of legitimacy in the power of those who ruled: the rulers had no mandate, the ruled had little stake in the system.
The vote was not an end in itself, but a means to social change; the struggle for it was not, in the peaks of struggle at least, a single-issue campaign but part of a broader effort to transform society. This is seen most powerfully in Chartism, with a clear list of democratic demands but animated by the hope that they could be used to redress inequality and alleviate poverty and suffering. It was a movement of an emerging working class, increasingly forged in factories and other workplaces, congregating in the growing industrial cities. 
The struggle between democracy and the power of those with money and property – or, from the mid-19th century onwards, the struggle between democracy and capitalism – is the great theme of Foot’s book. It connects everything and provides a thread running through the numerous disparate tales of resistance and reform and, later, the series of Labour’s disappointments and betrayals.

The book’s first half reminds us that people taking collective political action can - against tremendous obstacles – achieve real social reforms. The power to achieve change lies in the actions of ordinary people.
The book’s second half is full of illustrations of how the vote alone has not proved sufficient. Labour politicians so often proved to be in office but not in power, impotent against ‘market forces’ and capitalism’s subordination of everything to the pursuit of profit.

Parliamentary democracy and the Labour Party, as the vehicle for the working class to make use of suffrage, have failed to challenge the power of capital. Consequently the vote, while a great leap forward, has turned out not be a guarantee of any sort of democracy worthy of the name.
Distinctive features
There are, I think, a number of particularly significant things about Foot’s book when it is placed in the context of other socialist literature about these issues. Three things stand out for me.
Firstly, the history of the Labour Party is illuminated in a special way by following 250 pages about the struggle for democracy.  It provides a specific context for Labour Party history that elevates it above parliamentary intrigue and trivia, while simultaneously making it more interesting than a straightforward tale of decline and betrayal.
We are reminded of the aspirations that have prompted people to look to the Labour Party, or indeed to devote an enormous amount of time to it, as a vehicle for social change. Its history – rooted in working people’s desire for political representation, and for that to lead to social reform - is located as part of a long, historic struggle for democracy as a means to social transformation. Foot captures the tensions between aspiration and reality, between progressive policies and the ways they are undermined in office.  
Secondly, Foot’s history of the Labour Party is richer and more nunaced than might be expected from a dedicated revolutionary. He traces the ups and downs, the debates, and the genuinely meaningful reforms – notably in 1945-51 – with a sort of critical sympathy. It doesn’t feel remotely like he is out to damn the Labour Party. Instead he is scrupulously fair.
It is the accumulation of evidence, and the trajectory of the Party’s development (especially with Blair’s ascendancy), that makes it so abundantly clear that it is, ultimately, a hopeless enterprise for socialists. But, along the way, there are many Labour figures who Foot praises, many moments which illustrate why some socialists might keep faith with Labour, and a solid grasp of Labour’s role in creating the post-war settlement which has been systematically under attack since the late 1970s. Foot concluded that the rot was so deep that Labour could not return to being a genuine social democratic party – never mind a socialist party, which it never had been – and that socialists must look instead to extra-parliamentary and trade union struggles.  
Thirdly, Foot gives the suffragettes – especially the more radical and socialist elements – the credit they deserve. Ian Birchall, in his excellent biography of Tony Cliff, commented in a footnote that the whole chapter called ‘Women’ in Foot’s book was a sustained polemic against Cliff’s dismissive approach to the suffragettes. Cliff’s own book, 'Class Struggle and Women's Liberation', has many merits, but on this particular topic Foot was certainly right. Kate Connelly’s marvellous book on Sylvia Pankhurst, published last year, extends Foot’s interpretation and I recommend it for its account of the left-wing elements in the suffragette movement (and for so much else).
Foot, in this chapter, articulates the complexity of the suffragettes’ politics, alert to the differences within the movement, and also how elements of the movement articulated – as the Chartists had done – a political vision that envisaged suffrage as interconnected with economic and social demands. It is the longest chapter, affirming the hugely important place the suffragettes have, or certainly should have, in the history of struggles for democracy in this country.
Finally, a brief word of recommendation. If you haven’t read ‘The Vote’, search it out and read it. It is an unashamedly 'grand narrative' history with lots of fascinating detail, a broad-sweep history of British politics over 350 years that somehow manages to be subtle and nuanced. It is a great document of radical and inspiring ‘history from below’ that also has some hard-hitting truths about modern politics, all in an immensely readable style.


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