Paul Foot

No time to make up

(December 1998)

From Socialist Review, No.225, December 1998, p.9.
Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The call to forget the past may seem attractive, argues Paul Foot, but it means accepting that tyrants escape their crimes.

From two parts of the world whose people have suffered horribly under recent tyrannies comes a plea for reconciliation, for ‘letting bygones be bygones’. In Chile, some workers protest about the arrest in London of the former dictator Pinochet. ‘We were just getting used to freedom and democracy after the long night of tyranny,’ runs their argument. ‘We don’t want to go back to confrontation in the streets. Pinochet is an old, sick man now. He can’t do any harm. Why can’t you let him go, and leave us in our new found social peace?’

Similarly, there are black people in South Africa who plead to be allowed to forget the nightmare of apartheid and to bask in the new atmosphere of racial tolerance. This was the spirit behind Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose basic theme is that although the apartheid regime constantly resorted to the most ruthless racist oppression of the majority, it has been deposed; and now is the time to forgive, forget and build a new society founded on multiracialism and democracy.

This approach appeals to many working class people, who have little or no property, are accustomed to combination and cooperation, and detest harassment. It seems both humane and sensible not to copy the oppressors by hounding and prosecuting them. The argument, however, is founded on a flaw. Essential to it is the notion that oppression is an ugly accident of history, a vile carbuncle on the smooth skin of democratic progress. The norm, runs the argument, is liberal democracy and human progress. Fascism or apartheid occur only occasionally, almost by mistake. It follows that to pick away at the ruins of such an unlikely sore is obsessive and sectarian behaviour which can only revive the sore and make it worse.

The history of these tyrannies, however, tells us something very different. There is a pattern to them which reflects the central characteristic of the world we live in: that it is run by a small class for profit; and the source of that profit is the workers who produce the wealth. The class on top much prefers to make its profits without any nastiness from the masses it exploits. The rulers prefer to operate where the people choose their governments, and where everyone in society is subject to the rule of law. If people vote for their government, and are protected by the rule of law, they are much less likely to complain about their exploitation. Hence the ‘norm’ which seems to emerge from the history of the western democracies – a norm of elected governments and a set of laws which at any rate pretend to apply equally to everyone.

The problem with this exploitative system, however, is that it does not proceed smoothly. It is subject to crises and slumps, which invariably lead to protests, riots and strikes from the workers. Much of this can be absorbed and tolerated, but every now and then, with surprising frequency, the class which runs the system decides it can no longer tolerate the freedoms it previously sponsored. The crisis grows too intense, the workers grow too strong, sometimes even the entire system is threatened with revolution. In such circumstances, the ruling class reaches for rulers ruthless enough to crush the democracy, and in doing so shatter to smithereens the very rule of law of which they boasted. Such rulers include Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany – and Pinochet in Chile.

We now know that Pinochet’s 1973 coup, which overthrew an elected government, rounded up 70,000 of its supporters, burnt their books, raped the women, tortured and murdered at least 10,000 people, was planned in the dear old democratic US by an intelligence agency which was set up ostensibly to protect democracy. The reason for the coup was that investors in Chile had become sick and tired of laws which tried, usually unsuccessfully, to keep prices down. Low prices meant low profits, and low profits for any length of time were intolerable. In South Africa there never was a democracy. The only people who ever voted there were white. Black people had no vote and no civil rights, and could therefore be exploited in an atmosphere of the most revolting oppression.

Such a pattern to the oppression exposes the absurdity of the ‘forgive and forget’ brigade. For if the savages who are called up to preside over the destruction of democracy, the mockery of the rule of law, and racist terror can get away with it, if they are never made to answer for their barbarism, let alone be punished for it, then the consequence is absolutely plain. They will do so again, and again and again, confident in the knowledge that if and when their tyrannies run out of steam or are overthrown, their successors will cover them in the milk of kindness, make them senators, put them up in the London Clinic and even allow them to delete their names from the catalogue of their atrocities.

The mildest conciliators get trapped in their own argument. In Shelley’s Revolt of Islam the revolutionary forces finally corner the hated tyrant Othman. ‘Blood for blood!’ shout the angry crowd as they prepare to do him in. Laon, the beautiful young revolutionary leader (as Shelley imagined himself), eloquently persuades them, in the interests of human decency and fair play, to let the tyrant go. Off he goes, rallies new forces and returns to wipe out the revolution and burn Laon at the stake.

Even more dramatically, the best scene in Bertolt Brecht’s play about the Paris Commune is an argument about whether the revolutionary Communards should march on Versailles and smash the remnants of the reactionary government there. No, no, say the idealist Communards. Why should we spill blood as the tyrants do? Yes, yes, says Brecht’s hero, for we are faced with a simple alternative – the bloody hand now or the severed hand later. In the counter-revolution led from Versailles 20,000 Communards were murdered.


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