Paul Foot

101 years of not thinking

(May 1986)

From Socialist Worker, 17 May 1986.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.96-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FOR A FEW days last week the air was thick with the plummy noises of important people welcoming another lifelong rebel safely home to rest.

Everyone loved Manny Shinwell. In the House of Lords, Lord Whitelaw; at his funeral, the Thatcher knight and editor of the Sunday Express, Sir John Junor; in the House of Commons, Margaret Thatcher herself – all rushed to honour Manny. I pause for a moment here because my mentor, Harry McShane, always said that there were only two of the Red Clydesiders for whom he ever had any time: John Wheatley and Emmanuel Shinwell.

When I confronted him with the hideous reality of Emmanuel Shinwell in the early 1960s, Harry would shake his head and say, ‘Yes, that’s all very well, but you should have heard his speeches in the famous 40-hour strike in Glasgow in 1919’.

Shinwell was magnificent during that strike and the vast agitation which accompanied it, Harry always insisted. Since he was there and his judgement on such matters was almost always impeccable, I accept it. But consider. Even by that time, most socialists had a healthy suspicion of Shinwell. He had not joined the strong anti-war movement in the West of Scotland working class at that time.

After he came out of prison in 1919, he moved quickly to the right. He went to parliament in 1922 and was in government in 1924.

He supported Ramsay MacDonald against Cook, Maxton and Wheatley in 1928; but was quick to turn on MacDonald when there was a chance of winning his seat from him In every single major argument in the Labour Party since, Shinwell has been on the right, if not on the extreme right.

His former commitment to class war changed very quickly to a commitment to patriotic wars, almost every one of which he supported. He backed Eden and the Tories in their invasion of Suez in 1956. He backed Thatcher in the Falklands in 1982 and I dare say he would have backed her in Libya too. He loved wars and Britain fighting them. No doubt that is why everyone calls him a ‘fighter’.

He was a mean, spiteful, pompous, bullying man. He was always sneering at ‘middle class intellectuals’. He sneered, too, at political theory, especially Marxist theory, which, he boasted, he never read.

This bluff common-man, give it-to-em-straight approach was good for an ovation at Labour Party conferences but Shinwell’s own life spells out the awful lesson of what happens to working class agitators when they stop thinking and reading. It is true that middle class socialist intellectuals are less reliable than working class socialist intellectuals. What the latter thinks cuts with the grain and their life experience, while for the former socialist theory cuts against that grain.

But when working class socialists abandon intellect altogether, when they sneer at books and reading and places of learning and join in the jokes about how nobody can ever understand a word of Marx – then the road for them is Shinwell’s road, the same dreary march from youthful rebellion and enthusiasm to reactionary and platitudinous middle age and chauvinist, ennobled senility.

People like Shinwell insult and corrupt the ideas which inspired them in their youth. And when they die, they allow those ideas to be neutered and patronised by Tory prime ministers and editors of the Sunday Express.


Last updated on 17.1.2005