Winning and losing

Issue: 108

August Nimtz

A review of Paul Foot, The Vote: How It was Won and How It was Undermined (Viking, 2005), £25

Let me suggest at the outset another sub-title for the late Paul Foot’s most informative book, The Vote: How It was Won and How It was Undermined. What Foot does, in fact, in this history of the modern class struggle in Britain, framed by electoral politics, is show, in convincing fashion, ‘How It was Won and How It was Used to Undermine the Democratic Struggle’. This admittedly wordier alternative captures best in my view the substance and real contribution of the book.

The first half of the almost 500-page tome describes in engaging detail ‘How It was Won’. Foot begins appropriately with the most radical democrats in the English Revolution, the Levellers, and the arguments they made for universal manhood suffrage. But unlike many accounts, especially in the hands of political theorists, he places the struggle over ideas in proper and ample political context. The very prescient Putney Debates between Henry Ireton and Thomas Rainsborough in 1647 about the incompatibility between the interests of property and political democracy are presented with a liveliness and sense of drama that is refreshing. This insight becomes the main axis around which the subsequent story of the book unfolds.

Foot then fast forwards to the first significant breakthrough for universal suffrage, the Reform Act of 1832, a product, he persuasively argues, of revolutionary developments abroad, in France and Belgium in 1830, and within Britain. The Chartists, the subject of the next chapter, were in turn a product of working class frustrations generated by the clearly limited democratic character of the act. Despite the many revolutionary initiatives from below over the course of a decade beginning in 1837, the Chartists, for want of adequate national leadership, were unable to achieve their main goal of universal manhood suffrage. By mid-century they were a spent force.

The next significant advance for universal suffrage came with the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 and the Redistribution Act of 1885. As a result about 58 percent of all men were now able to vote. All three bills, especially the first two, were ‘wrung out of Commons and Lords by mass agitation and mass action’. And it is exactly that story that makes this chapter an instructive and wonderful read.

The last chapter on the acquisition of the vote, the most innovative in the book in my opinion, focuses on women’s suffrage. Employing Engels’s thesis in his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, that ‘the emancipation of women becomes feasible only when women are enabled to take part extensively in social production’, Foot makes a convincing case that it was the mass influx of women into the workforce—the logic of capital—that was the decisive factor for women in their majority getting the right to vote in 1918. Also in the same year, owing mainly to the recruitment needs of the ruling class for the First World War, universal male suffrage was achieved for the first time.

The second part of the book, ‘How the Vote was Undermined’, is mainly about how the Labour Party, a product of the extension of the suffrage, came to betray the interests of the newly enfranchised and subsequent generations of the working class—a story that has been told on numerous occasions. The last three chapters, the 1950s until today, are in part autobiography and, therefore, ensure an original contribution. In many ways the account is an elaborate instantiation of the insights of Rainsborough and Gerard Winstanley, the most advanced of the Levellers, four centuries ago that as long as private property was in place political democracy would be impossible. At crucial moments when the Labour Party was in power, capital, Foot shows, intervened to undermine its professed programmes via the Bank of England or through Washington via the International Monetary Fund. The Parliamentary Road to Socialism Thesis that the Labour Party once officially subscribed to—before the Blair ascendancy—was, therefore, thwarted.

Most valuable about this history is that it gives the lie to the usual non-revolutionary portrait of the 20th century British working class. Aside from the better-known general strike of 1926, Foot’s account of the working class radicalisation before and after the First World War, the ‘Great Unrest’, the similar mobilisations that began during the Second World War—in spite of the patriotic drum rolls of the ruling class—and deepened afterwards, and finally the strike wave of 1972 is thoroughly heartening. Another gem is the detailed exposition of the major social democratic/Labour Party theorists—Ramsay MacDonald, for example, as the transmission belt for the ideas of Eduard Bernstein is enlightening—with adequate political context.

A tension pervades Foot’s presentation that is resolved to some degree in his conclusions. There is a tone of disappointment and betrayal with the Labour Party, which suggests lingering illusions in social democracy even after Foot broke with Labour and became eventually a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party of Britain. Though critical of the ‘parliamentary road’, he seems to think that it could have been realised had it not been for the obstacles of capital and/or cowardly behaviour of the Labour Party leadership. But in the ‘Conclusions: Their Democracy and Ours’, he defends non-parliamentary forms of representative democracy, be they in the form of workers’ councils or the soviets in pre-Stalinist Russia. If he had once placed his hope in the parliamentary road, Foot appears at the end to rule out any such option. The future, he ends, lies with these alternative forms of democracy.

Since Foot subscribes to what he understands the perspective and programme of Marx and Engels to be, it’s odd that he doesn’t employ them to critique the parliamentary road thesis and instead relies on the prescient but understandably insufficient views of Rainsborough and Winstanley. The revolutions of 1848 taught Marx and Engels about ‘parliamentary cretinism’, the mistaken belief that the bourgeois legislative arena is the be-all and end-all of politics. Two decades later the Paris Commune taught that the working class cannot utilise the bourgeois state to bring about socialist transformation. When the young Bernstein and others in the German party in 1879 tried to argue otherwise, Marx and Engels took them to task. Nevertheless, as Engels commented shortly before his death in 1895, the German ‘party is going bourgeois. That is the misfortune of all extreme parties when the time approaches for them to become “possible”,’ that is, the ruling party.

Only with Engels’s ashes safely in the sea was Bernstein able to successfully revive his nostrums. But the record of 20th century social democracy, with the Labour Party as exhibit A, is a profound and tragic confirmation of the lessons that Marx and Engels distilled many decades earlier. What isn’t clear, his conclusions notwithstanding, is whether Foot fully grasped these invaluable lessons. Other crucial lessons they drew that would also enhance his account, such as political democracy not as an end but a means to socialist transformation, elections as a tool to determine when to resort to armed struggle, and, most importantly, the proletariat as the decisive class for leading the process, are for want of space unable to be addressed here.

Finally, Foot’s story would benefit enormously from the insight that the young Marx and Engels reached quite early in their partnership. Their unit of analysis and, therefore, theatre of action was the world and it was from that perspective that they examined particular social formations such as the UK. Though international factors come into view on occasion in his treatment, they are not, unlike for Marx and Engels, integral to the analysis. If England had once, in their view, been in the vanguard of the revolutionary process, that was no longer true after 1858. They concluded then that political developments in this ‘little corner of the earth’ depended on the process elsewhere. If that was true in the second half of the 19th century, it is even more the case at the beginning of the 21st—with all the programmatic and organisational tasks that implies. Space, again, does not permit a detailed discussion of the matter. But during the time that Marx was intimately involved in British politics, specifically—most relevant to this discussion—the fight to extend the suffrage in 1866 and 1867 and the immediate years afterwards, two international issues figured significantly in his analysis and practice.

The two British trade union officials who represented the International Working Men’s Association on the Reform League, the organisation that spearheaded the suffrage fight—which the International, led by Marx, helped bring into existence—William Cremer and George Odger, ended up betraying the International’s directive by failing to support full universal manhood suffrage. That both later failed two tests of proletarian internationalism, specifically, support for self-determination for Ireland and the Paris Communards, was not lost upon Marx. By 1869 Marx had concluded that the ‘English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland’. Also instructive is that Cremer and Odger were in the vanguard of the labour officialdom that led the organised working class into the Liberal Party—foreshadowing the kind of class collaborationist politics of the Labour Party in the next century. As was true for the Irish question in the 19th century, such politics necessarily entailed a new form of liberal imperialism in the 20th, that is, social democratic imperialism.

From an international perspective Foot’s treatment of Thatcher’s victory over the miners in 1984—of enormous importance not just for his story—is, thus, in my view, incomplete. The patriotism she successfully generated and employed in the triumph over the Argentinian generals in the Malvinas/Falkland must figure in the explanation for her domestic triumph.

My reservations notwithstanding, Foot’s book is essential reading for those to whom history and social progress are living challenges and who seek to be protagonists in their making.