Monday, October 11, 2004

Paul Foot

Most of the obituaries of Paul Foot emphasised his near saintliness. Even Auberon Waugh saw him in that light.

So I am grateful for the drop of acid in this article by Oliver Kamm, which appeared in The Times on Saturday. And not only because his views mirror some Lord Bonkers once expressed (see the entry for Thursday here).

Kamm writes:
Foot's Marxism was strikingly uncritical. In Why You Should be a Socialist (1977) he declared: "Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, is usually painted as a tyrant. In fact he was the opposite." In The Case for Socialism (1990), this preposterous judgement became: "The thousands of intellectuals then and since who abused Lenin as a 'tyrant' and a 'dictator' cannot have read The State and Revolution, which again and again repeats that socialism and democracy are indivisible. " 
This is like citing the 1936 Soviet constitution as proof of Stalin's libertarianism. The State and Revolution depicts a democratic post-revolutionary order, all right, but that was not what Lenin created. It never could have been, because Lenin envisaged a social unity in which "all take part in the administration of the state". He had no concept of opposition; when popular opposition did arise, he annihilated it.
No Liberal should believe for a moment that the Soviet Union was doing fine until Lenin died. It was a tyranny from the start.

But I am less convinced by:
In 1999, Foot claimed in Private Eye that DNA evidence in the Hanratty case was unreliable owing to possible contamination. Yet he later conceded in a BBC interview: "I'm a complete illiterate in relation to the science of DNA, physics and so on. I know nothing about it at all. My doubts stem solely from " a very, very clear belief that this man did not commit this murder, so if the science is saying he did commit the murder I say, well, that clashes with my belief that he didn't commit the murder and there must be something wrong with the science." 
This is the credo of the biblical creationist confronted with geological evidence of the age of the Earth. Whatever it was initially, Foot's campaign became an idée fixe, impervious to reason and indifferent to the sensibilities of Hanratty's surviving victim.
Of course, there comes a point after which it is irrational to deny the findings of science. But it is common for new technologies to be oversold, and it is only over time that we discover the true picture of their strengths and weaknesses. And the most reliable technologies can yield false results through human error. So we cannot do without gut feelings altogether.

No doubt Foot would have claimed victory if tests had shown no traces of Hanratty's DNA on the evidence. But the idea that he should have abandoned his campaign because of "the sensibilities of Hanratty's surviving victim" is to commit much the same sin that Kamm accuses Foot of: putting sentiment above the search for truth.

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