The great British Labour leader, Michael Foot, died a month ago. Here I consider his relationship with the other great Labour leader and founder of the National Health Service, Nye Bevan.
It is tempting at first glance to see the relationship that existed between Michael Foot and Nye Bevan as a straightforward case of hero worship. The young Foot, fresh from non-conformist Plymouth and Oxford, discovers socialism. He is told by his father to read William Hazlitt to understand this new creed of radicalism that he has adopted to replace liberalism. He reads much more than that and discovers the politics of class, the theories of Marx, the hard edges of state ownership, redistribution, and the trade union movement. Once he has grasped the ideas he needs a person to bring them to life. Because when he became a socialist, he did not stop being a ?Foot?–a liberal, or the son of Isaac. Though the material interpretation of the world, the theory of power, had changed, the radical sensibilities and liberal instincts of the centrality of the individual in the determination of human events had not been erased. If Michael had been fitted with a default key to return him to his factory setting, the individual would have been at the center of his thinking.
But his new gods did not believe in individuals; they believed in classes. They believed in historical inevitability, something the great historian in Michael could never fully embrace. They believed in laws of history–which he pretended sometimes to go along with, but never really bought. Michael was a socialist, but a socialist of optimism not of fear. He was a revolutionary of the positive energy of the many being able in the end to destroy the negative force of the few, not of the ultimate triumph of one class annihilating another. That is what made the Sunday Times report that he was a KGB agent so feeble a lie. He hated the Soviet regime of Stalin almost more than he despised the inequities of capitalism.
When persuaded of the virtue of an idea, he embraced it with all the enthusiasm of the newly converted zealot. But once things had settled down, he became interested with the persons involved–the writers and politicians who had moved him towards the ideas–as much as the ideas themselves. It was this combination that made him such a uniquely attractive writer, thinker, and person: Everything was cut away until what was left was the humanity at the center. Collectivism was right because all would be provided for. Nuclear weapons were wrong because all would be killed. And so on.
So socialism was a great idea. It worked as a better explanation of the world and how it should change than other ideas. But Michael needed a person to make it real. Making politics into people sometimes gave Michael problems. For example, an independent India was a radical dream which came true in his life time. The Gandhi family had made it happen and so, the Gandhis, including Indira, could do no wrong. If she had been a writer, the model of enthusiasm which had been inherited by the son from the father might have worked. Dead writers cannot (usually) change the fate of nations. But when Indira Gandhi launched her state of emergency, she had to be defended or explained away, and sometimes Foot’s verbal gymnastics broke down. But what he was really defending was the idea of an independent India.
The stages he went through were not always the same, but we can assemble a rough model. First, he would fall in love with something. Please note the order. This is not uncontroversial. First, he would fall in love with something. Then he would embrace it intellectually. The embrace would make it into his own version of the original. At this stage he might or might not fully understand it. He would often then change it quite a lot, but it would be brought to life in his engagement with it. Then it could neither be contradicted nor could it fully let him down, no matter what occurred. Any attack would be repelled. Any new truth repudiated. His fidelity was beyond the confines of fraternity–it was love.
So socialism presented a problem. This was an ideology that was against the supremacy of the individual. A writer, a painter, a composer were merely the voices of the class struggle. What could the young Foot do but fall in love with an individual who personified the idea of socialism?
So he fell in love with Nye Bevan. Nye was collectivism, socialism, but he was also an individual, a writer not of books but of political programs, of political actions. He brought the abstract together with the human and thereby changed Michaels?s life forever. This was the socialism that made sense and could be believed in through the life story of Nye himself. Taken together the story of Michael and Nye contains all the elements that made Michael such an outstanding and inspirational figure. His own passionate and unashamed embrace of Bevan as a person and a politician was based on that positive embrace of life which Foot brought to every field and every book. Though they argued, and furniture was on occasion thrown, they shared values in common which bonded them tightly to each other?s fate. Foot was Bevan?s champion in life and after death. Future generations will come to know Bevan through Foot?s biography and come to know Foot through Bevan?s values. And through the two of them they will come to understand the nature of twentieth century British socialism.