Paul Foot

A hero of Labour

(1 May 1993)

From Socialist Worker, 1 May 1993.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000), pp. 51–52.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Good political biography is rare enough, and even rarer in the labour movement, so I gleefully report my enjoyment of Caroline Benn’s book on Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party.

This is not in any way a hagiography. Indeed, by constantly sizing up Hardie from the vantage point of the women he knew and loved – his wife and daughter whom he expected to live on a pittance of a pound a week, and his numerous lovers, including Sylvia Pankhurst – Caroline Benn draws a picture of a vain, self regarding and slightly unpleasant man.

This is most definitely not the saintly hero painted by so many sentimental socialists. Nor, however, is this Hardie the villain of conventional revolutionary historians, who indicate that he was politically indistinguishable from his notorious successor as leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald.

As the book proves beyond doubt, Hardie was at every twist and turn in the story preferable to MacDonald.

He was contemptuous of and uneasy in high society, which MacDonald loved. He was suspicious of Liberals, whom MacDonald constantly cuddled. Above all, Hardie kept his working class roots, while MacDonald was always trying to tear them up.

As so often emerges from biographies of the central figures of British labour history, Keir Hardie seems a mass of contradictions.

Olive branches

On the one hand, he is accommodating, seeking to make alliances, holding out olive branches to the other side. On the other, he is trumpeting his deep hostility to all things Liberal, insisting on the purest of pure Labour and denouncing Liberal ministers, especially Winston Churchill, whom he called a charlatan and a liar.

On the one hand he is telling his colleagues that parliament is all that matters. On the other hand, he is the consummate campaigner, never stopping his endless, lifelong stomp round the country, speaking at more meetings in a month than most of us active socialists would expect to address in a year.

How to resolve these contradictions? Caroline Benn has a go with this:

As so often happened in Hardie’s life when he found himself drifting towards Liberalism (as he had been since 1908) it was events in the industrial field which re-radicalised him.

The astonishing and quite unexpected strike wave of 1911, which awoke the railwaymen and the miners and the Irish countryside from which so many of them had come, brought Hardie quickly back to the politics of his youth.

He toured the mining areas, speaking with great passion about the hardship and courage of the strikers and their families. He denounced the bosses and Churchill with the most ferocious passion. He was all his life an internationalist, an anti-militarist, a supporter of women’s liberation and an opponent of British rule in Ireland.

Of course, it is easy over all these years to pick out juicy examples of Hardie’s reformism: his pettifogging parliamentarianism, his sentimentality, his endless appeals to higher values.

But he emerges from this marvellous biography as a proletarian socialist who believed in his class, who wanted to improve it through parliament. But he realised that, whatever the possibilities of parliament, little or nothing would be achieved unless the workers acted for themselves.

From young trade union organiser to veteran agitator, he was always aware that strikes make trade unions, not vice versa.

Last updated on 30 June 2014