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Young People and Politics

John Simkin

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Paul Foot died last July. Here is an extract from his final book, The Vote: How it Was Won, and How it was Undermined (2005)

Many young people, when they first join a revolutionary socialist organisation, are astonished at popular indifference to their enthusiasms. In their new excitement in the struggle it is hard to credit that many people, if not most of them, do not want to devote their lives to politics. Patience is not a quality normally associated with revolutionary socialists, whose impatience and frantic determination to do in hours and weeks what may take many years, is often their worst enemy.

Yet that (usually youthful) impatience is an absolutely essential ingredient of any socialist organisation. It is the theme of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. He wrote it in 1820 in a mood of despair after reading a vicious review of his longest poem. He was worried that he was getting old, and that no one was listening to his revolutionary views. As he contemplates what seemed like his hopeless failure, he takes courage from the strength of the wind, the herald of the revolution. What mattered above all, he concluded, was to remain a threat to the rulers of society, to remain fierce and to remain impetuous. "Be thou, spirit fierce, my spirit. Be thou me, impetuous one!" Impatience and urgency are the watchwords of successful agitation, and to abandon either is to abandon the ideas that gave rise to them in the first place.

My own inspiration through four decades of campaigning, until he died aged 83 in 2000, was Ygael Gluckstein, who in Britain called himself Tony Cliff. Cliff was a Jew who was brought up in Palestine (ironically, he was imprisoned there by the British administration in which my father was a district officer). He gave up his entire life to building an anti-Stalinist, anti-Zionist socialist party founded in working-class militancy.

Cliff's intellect was immense, his knowledge of marxist literature breathtaking and his public speaking laced with tremendous anger, passion and above all humour. Every time we spoke together at meetings, I could not help observing how he subtly corrected me on what suddenly seemed an obvious error of judgment. "Paul, you are soft," was his constant jibe, followed usually by the entirely mistaken allegation that my father had put him in prison.

Ever since, I have been intrigued by the problem of socialists' parliamentary impotence. Why were elected politicians committed to socialist ideas so palpably incapable of putting them into practice? Their legitimacy came from the vote. They were important because they had been elected. The working class was in a majority, and from time to time the workers were likely to elect politicians committed to their interests. Why, when this happened, had elected socialists been so pathetic in office?

Many of my marxist friends told me that the question is "basically" irrelevant. "Bourgeois democracy" was a creature of bourgeois society and therefore could not possibly be expected to buck the market or anything else that was central to that society. This view seemed to me entirely unsatisfactory. It overlooked the fundamental principle of democracy: the consent of the people in whose name their representatives carry out policies. It occurred to me that this rejection of electoral democracy came mainly from people who in varying degrees of certainty supported the tyrannies in Russia, China and eastern Europe.

Yet surely, it seemed to me, democracy, the control of society from below, was the very essence of socialism, and capitalism, the control of industry and finance from above, the very opposite of it. How to resolve the conflict between a democracy that enfranchises the masses and an economic system that enslaves and exploits them?

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