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Paul Foot 1937-2004

Paul Foot did not simply believe in socialism from below; he positively exuded the values that make it possible: anger against injustice, relentless exposure and mockery of the ruling class, a deep belief in the capacity of people to bring about change through their own collective action, warmth and generosity of spirit, and a detestation of both sectarianism and self-importance.

September 1, 2004
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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His writing, his speaking and his friendships were constant reassertions of a radical socialism based on cooperation, equality and genuine democracy. His life illustrated the way in which the culture of socialism from below is radically distinct from parliamentary socialism. As he never failed to insist, truly revolutionary socialism, in contrast to what he called “resolutionary socialism”, rejects the notion of delegating responsibility to others (be they MPs, party leaders or whoever else) to bring about change.

Paul revelled in the detailed process of strikes and campaigns – not only because of the demands to be won, but also because of the way that people gain through collective action “a new confidence in themselves and the people around them& Prejudices which had been grafted into them like barnacles [are] suddenly blasted away. The change in themselves is quickly translated into changes in the way they [behave] towards one another”. With these particular words he was referring to the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

His own self-confidence was unusual and infectious, in that it was not associated with any sense of superiority. Though he was proud of his books, his articles and his speeches, he never behaved as if he was in any way exceptional or apart. On the contrary, he assumed others were equally capable, and would encourage them to become so.

There are many lines from his beloved Shelley that express Paul’s approach to life and politics, lines that he constantly quoted so as to refresh and enliven the way we think about socialism. “We are many; they are few” was his regular reminder that even though the labour movement doesn’t have the funds or the police forces,

we do have our own sources of strength: we have each other, if only we could get organised, work together, and share information, ideas and skills for our common purpose. He was particularly fond of Shelley’s “Epipsychidion”. At first sight the poem appears to be about romantic relationships, but I think it had a wider relevance for him and was expressive of his love of comradeship and the openness and creativity that shaped his political vision:

“True Love in this differs from gold and clay,

That to divide is not to take away.

Love is like understanding, that grows bright,

Gazing on many truths, ’tis like thy light,

Imagination! which from earth and sky,

And from the depths of human fantasy,

As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills

The universe with glorious beams, and kills

Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow

Of its reverberated lightning. Narrow

The spirit that creates

One object, and one form, and builds thereby

A sepulchre for its eternity.”

For me these lines express Footie’s distinctive approach to political loyalty. He was completely loyal to the SWP. It was his way of being permanently connected to the struggle for socialism, and was vital to anchoring him as a socialist so that he didn’t drift towards the complacent right in the way of MPs and many a disengaged leftie. But he wasn’t loyal to the SWP as an exclusive sect. His vision of the ideal political party, and of political action generally, was broad and diverse: he hoped for something that was able to “gaze on many truths”. So, he despaired when the SWP went through phases of narrowness or showed signs of sectarianism. He did, however, idealise the SWP, in my opinion, and was too dismissive of the arguments of those critics who it expelled or who left it in disillusion.

His funeral brought together an amazing range of people in a way that would have pleased him: between them, those people believed in “many truths” and in constantly contesting them. If we could have the imagination, generosity of spirit and skill of strategic organisation to bring most of these people together in one effective force for socialism, we would do Paul justice. We will miss him. I’ve rarely felt an absence so palpably. But he will continue to be an inspiration.

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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