Another fine communist journalist. Paul Foot 1937-2004

I was reminded of Paul Foot again today. It happens from time to time. So it seemed appropriate to remember visiting his memorial site in Highgrove cemetery in north London. I was there in October 2008 for  a brief visit.

Of course it was a treat to stand next to Karl Marx memorial headstone and have my picture taken. What i wasn’t quite prepared for was the mixed company in which the brilliant socialist theorist and agitator is resting [his remains were moved to the current spot many years ago].

He is now in the growing series of EM posts covering the lives of communist journalists.

Just across the path from Karl’s impressive memorial is a small, black headstone that marks the last resting place of journalist Paul Foot. The epitaph on Foot’s headstone is from Percy Shelley’s epic poem, The Mask of Anarchy. The poem was written as a lyric response to the Peterloo massacre and it’s a stirring call to revolution. On 16 August 1819 a cavalry charge into a crowd at Peterloo near Manchester was ordered by magistrates, to break up a protest of 50,000 demonstrating for parliamentary reform . 18 people were killed and over 500 injured.

[Account of the Peterloo events from Spartacus]

Paul Foot memorial headstone in Highgate cemetery, London

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

I have always admired Paul Foot, he was a much-lauded investigative reporter and he was a lifelong socialist revolutionary. This is a rare combination and one that can cause grief for those who publicly adhere to their beliefs and attempt to have a career in the mainstream.

Tam Dalyell wrote a fantastic obituary in the Independent when Foot died at the age of 66 in July 2004. He was a respected reporter and editor in newspapers and magazines, but he also contributed and edited the Socialist Worker-a far cry from the mainstream.

Paul Foot was the finest polemical writer of his day. He was the staunch friend of lost causes, and so staunch and sustained that his timescale for crusades was measured not in years – let alone months, weeks or days – but in decades. The names of James Hanratty, Helen Smith, Carl Bridgewater, Hilda Morrell and Colin Wallace reverberate down the years and bear testimony to Foot’s persistence.

[Tam Dalyell’s obituary in The Independent]

Foot joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1960s while working as a cadet journalist in Glasgow. He was committed to the socialist cause for 40 years. When I joined the International Socialists in 1977, one of the first books I read about socialist politics was Foot’s little pamphlet, Why you should be a socialist.

“Only the working masses can change society; but they will not do that spontaneously, on their own. They can rock capitalism back onto its heels but they will only knock it out if they have the organisation, the socialist party, which can show the way to a new, socialist order of society. Such a party does not just emerge. It can only be built out of the day-to-day struggles of working people.” –Why you should be a socialist (1977).

You can read a collection of his journalism in two books,  Words are Weapons, or Articles of Resistance. Foot was a contemporary grey collar intellectual. Even though he was Oxford-educated, and liked the poetry of Shelley, he was dedicated to the cause of workers’ liberation. Paul Foot was respected too by his colleagues and contemporaries. Writing in British Journalism Review, Bryan Rostron called him a “star of England”.

Re-reading Paul Foot, only days after his death, what instantly struck me was how his words roar off the page, energising and fresh but above all as ferociously passionate and spot on as the day he wrote them. In that wonderfully direct style, full of wit and brio, one can hear Paul’s own spirited voice. It never wavered. It was not a specially tailored public performance; the man, his life, his work, his titanic integrity and generosity were one. This probably explains how Paul Foot sustained, often against the odds, such an epic and courageous journalistic output. It also explains, I think, why so many fellow journalists and readers loved him.

[Bryan Rostron’s obituary in British Journalism Review]

Socialist, journalist, writer Paul FootPaul Foot, 1937-2004

One Foot’s last articles was probably this piece in the Guardian arguing against Tony Blair’s foreign policy positions on Iraq and the “useful” but horrible dictators that the British and other governments have adopted as their own in the war on terror. [Paul Foot ‘Our kind of dictators‘, The Guardian, 9 June 2004]

After his death The Guardian and Private Eye established the Paul Foot Awards for Campaigning Journalism; a fitting memorial. There’s no doubt that Paul Foot deserves his place in the shade at Highate cemetery. If I believed in God or ghosts, I’d be sure that Foot and Marx were having great discussions in whatever place old Communists go when they die.


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