Dave Kellaway pays tribute to Tony Benn, and looks at the current he led within the Labour Party
“The Labour Party used to be there to change society, but now it seems to organise working people to adapt to society.” Tony Benn in a recent Radio 4 interview.
It has been a cruel week, first Bob Crow and now Tony Benn (although Tony had been ill and was no doubt aware that the news media, even the left wing section, had been working on his obituary for some time). With his impish sense of humour he would have allowed himself a little laugh – indeed, he left a short message to be transmitted by Channel 4. At the end of the short clip he says gleefully that he would be checking it on transmission! He was one of the earliest politicians to understand how the media could distort and mislead your message and he was an avid recorder of himself, using all the different technology down the years.
Benn was one of the finest agitators for the general ideas of socialism. Even in failing health at the People’s Assembly national meeting he gave the most listened to and most applauded speech. He was able to use humour and pithy, memorable one liners to get the socialist message across – ‘If we can find money to kill people then we can find money to help people.’
His heroes, he said, were Gandhi, Mandela and Tutu. Great moral and ethical radicals. His socialism was very much within the Christian Socialist, co-operative British tradition. Although he knew and used some of Marx’s ideas he was never a Marxist. He was an agitator and educator rather than a theoretician or leader. While he increasingly championed the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle – particularly after leaving parliament, saying he was going to get more involved in politics – he never gave up his ideal of a new 1945-style Labour government that could bring about socialist change. Of course, such positions made him a dangerous threat to capitalist stability. This is why he was so vilified by the mainstream party leaderships and their media lackeys during that period in the 1980s when Bennism was a real threat within the Labour Party. Indeed in his most recent statements (see above) he criticised the inadequacy of the Labour Party and the lack of democracy within our parliamentary system in even more radical terms.
After the anti-working class policies of the Callaghan government led to the victory of Thatcher in 1979, Benn and his allies made a concerted effort to fight for socialist policies inside the Labour Party. The arena they chose was the deputy leadership election, where Benn put himself forward against the moderate Healey, who had been the Labour chancellor pushing through spending cuts. Policies put forward by the Benn team would have defended working people and been a direct challenge to British capitalism. Hundreds of meetings and debates were held around this election and it ended in a very close run thing – he lost by by 0.5%. It was no surprise that Kinnock’s final decision to back Healey was an important contribution to that defeat.
Some on the left at the time, such as the Socialist Workers Party, saw the rise of Bennism as an expression of the ‘downturn’, or the shift to the right in society and a turn to electoralism. Other political radical currents such as the IMG (predecessors of Socialist Resistance) or the Militant (now Socialist Party) joined in alongside the Bennite current – indeed many of us became Labour Party members for the first time. Massive conferences for socialism were organised in Benn’s new constituency in Chesterfield. You had an activism and debate inside the Labour party that is on another planet compared to today’s situation. A good read on this period is Alan Freeman’s book The Benn Heresy, which outlined the political basis for making a turn to this current.
Why didn’t the Benn current evolve into something more permanent either inside or outside (or both) the Labour party? On the one hand you had the continued defeats of working people under Thatcher’s offensive coupled with her election victories – made easier by the Falklands War and the rightwing split from labour. On the other hand you had the rise of New Labour, started under Kinnock and consummated by Blair. New Labour meant rule changes and direct expulsion of the Militant, so it became very difficult for the left to organise inside the party. Conference used to be a real opportunity to put forward some sort of socialist opposition and actually win significant support for it.
The other weakness in the Bennite current was the way it replicated the traditional division in the British labour movement between the industrial and political wings. Benn and his allies never really organised a class struggle current inside the unions, relying on alliances with ‘left’ leaders. For these reasons despite having the potential for developing into a mass class struggle current, Bennism died with a whimper rather than a bang. In the end there was a need for the leadership of the current to break with Labourism and start to build a political alternative to Kinnock/Blair. Benn’s strong commitment to Labour never really wavered so this was not going to happen. He always sort of hoped the right wing would leave, as it did in the 30s, and then you would have the road to a 1945 type Labour government. You can also argue that we on the outside Labour left could have been more flexible in our approach – what if the SWP had embraced the movement rather than kept it at arm’s length? More reasoned approaches to building a left alternative through projects like the Socialist Alliance and today’s Left Unity were not really tried at that time.
Nevertheless, Benn’s continuing and deepening radicalism through the end of the 20th century meant there was still an authoritative and well-loved voice of socialist values that could be relied on in every one of the major struggles – from the miners to the anti-war campaigns. Although he disagreed with Leninist ideas on the nature of the state and on the need for a party alternative to the Labour Party, he was an exemplary non-sectarian. As John Rees eloquently notes in his obituary on the Counterfire website, he was the first person who organisers of campaigns rang when they wanted to mobilise for a meeting, rally or demonstration. I myself remember when we were organising solidarity with the Argentinian people against the dictatorship that you could directly telephone and talk to him – he did not have a team of spin doctors or PR people. He would travel the length and breadth of the country to support workers in struggle or campaigns.
As a human being he always impressed me with his modesty, humour and resilience. You could not help but be moved as he spoke at the People’s Assembly even though you could tell he was not too well. Even then he brought the house down. Like Bob Crow he was often vilified by the press but people in the street would often greet him very warmly. As a model of somebody who lives by their socialist values rather than just talk about them he stands comparison with anyone and particularly with some leaders with so-called Marxist credentials who have sullied the movement with their personal behaviour.
An interesting discussion has been going on in Facebook on whether we should mourn or organise, or do both in a dialectical way. I think Benn’s final message on Channel 4, where he is smiling and thanks his family for being with him in his life’s journey, just cuts through such a false opposition. We need to take time to properly mourn anyone who has made a decent contribution to the advance of humanity. It also allows us to reflect on the political implications of his life’s work. Tony would have encouraged a good debate on that. We can all usefully follow the epitaph he himself wanted – ‘He encouraged us’. If we can all encourage others then we might just have a chance of building a better world.
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Great article and Tony’s ideas and inspiration live on after his demise, but the 80’s were massive times of defeats which we haven’t yet recovered from, be good to see another article in which you discuss how it all felt personally.
btw, interesting to see how the sects, SWP, etc have always messed up.
Anyone who ever heard Tony Ben speak for socialism, or experienced his tireless campaigning activity for progressive causes, will mourn his passing. But regardless of the undoubted attractiveness and rhetorical brilliance of Tony Benn as a person and socialist propagandist, as this , I think very fair, article correctly states, “Bennism” and the majority of the radical Left’s agglomeration around “Bennism” in the 1980’s was a resounding tactical failure.
It is undoubtedly true that those revolutionary socialists who stayed outside of the Labour Party, like the SWP , and of course the WRP, also signally failed to build an alternative mass movement of the radical Left to the ever rightward shift of both Labour or the bulk of the trades union movement, as the Thatcherite neoliberal counter attack gathered pace. It is difficult to see how a few thousand more Trots, trapped in the endless repetition of inappropriate Leninist dogma, entering the corrupt , increasingly “top-down” political cul de sac of the Labour Party would have made any difference to the neoliberal, sucking up to Big Business, route that Labour increasingly took under Kinnock and Blair/Brown though .
The problem for both the radical “Bennite” left in the Labour Party, and the tiny revolutionary Left outside of Labour was that each in their own way were trapped by a profound failure of tactical and political analysis, doomed ( to quote an old aphorism about the post 1945 fate of orthodox Trotskyism generally) to “try and navigate their way around the socio-political equivalent of the Paris Metro – using a map of the London Underground for guidance”. The radical social and ideological, legal, restructurings of the UK workforce , its conditions of work ,and working class generally represented by the last 30 years of neoliberalism, broke up the “big battalions” of the labour movement, miners, dockers, engineers, carworkers – and via “outsourcing of big company functions, turned millions of workers into “white van man” self employed with a view of themselves as “middle class” – often owning their own house for the first time via Thatchers socially corrosive “Right to Buy” ransacking of the public housing stock. The critical point we have to also accept is that for most of the 30 years of neoliberal hegemony in the UK , for most people the experience was one of rising living standards – admittedly personal debt and housing price bubble fuelled of course, but with a consequent mass rejection of all the traditional structures of collective working class resistance and collective bargaining – particularly trades unionism (with a collapse in union membership over that 30 year period from 12 million to around 6 million.
The now well recognised inability of Tony Benn, and many other sincere radical Labour Party socialists (eg, Dennis Skinner etc, etc) to conceive of a mass party politics outside of the, “struggle for the political soul of the Labour Party”, meant that , like the Peoples Assembly initiative today, all radical mass activity was doomed to lead back to simply getting genuine socialists to put in endless effort to secure yet another electoral victory for a party which by now was hopelessly corrupted, politically, organisationally, and often personally – and already incapable of radical redirection,as it ploughed firmly onwards, on a wave of election-winning voting support from an increasingly “ ideologically de-classed” working class, to its current status as a fully neoliberal capitalist party closer to the US Democratic Party than the social democratic Labour Party of 1945.
Today the collapse of the bogus promise of neoliberalism to provide ever greater personal prosperity for everyone, forever – exemplified by the 2008 Crash and its endless Austerity Offensive attack on every gain of the post 1945 Welfare State, and living standards generally, is increasingly dissolving the previously almost hegemonic grip of neoliberal ideology. Masses of ordinary working people are slowly starting to fight back, and look for organisational forms to harden and cohere the resistance effort – particularly an organisation means to fight the Austerity Offensive on the electoral front. At this critical time, when the likes of the Peoples Assembly initiative are blatantly attempting to seize the leadership of all the disparate resistance local activities across the UK – and , in the absence of the promotion of an alternative political party form to New Labour, direct this radical resistance activity towards yet more futile “steer Labour Leftwards” radical socialist entryism and electoral campaigning for yet another” Labour victory”, it is vital that whilst mourning the death of Tony Benn, and recognising his talents and commitment to the socialist cause, we also recognise that “Bennism” as a radical reforming current permanently locked into the Labour Party, was, and will always be, a complete dead end as a means to combat the ever fiercer intent of a capitalist system to make the working class pay for its systemic crisis.
We need to mourn Tony Benn as a man and socialist, but move well beyond the severe limitation of his Labour-centric organisational political vision – recognise that Labour as a vehicle for resistance and radical change is a dead duck. We need to build a completely new radical Left political party, free of the corruption and intrinsically collaborationist politics of orthodox social democracy. We need to build Left Unity. That , whilst rejecting the core political (Labour-centric) party perspective that governed Tony Benn’s entire parliamentary life, will I think, still remain true to his wider socialist vision , and tireless campaigning activity in the wider socialist and working class cause.
I don’t think that Tony Benn’s statement that “The Labour Party used to be there to change society, but now it seems to organise working people to adapt to society.” Tony Benn in a recent Radio 4 interview”, is really very helpful in pinning down the source of the rot in labourist politics.
A better way of framing the problem in my view is to pose the question :
“Does the economy exist to serve society, or does society exist to serve the (privately owned) economy?”
Clearly the Labour Party leadership supports the latter proposition.
Organising to champion the former proposition requires us to assist the working class in securing the full socialisation of the economy and the democratic control of all enterprises by the workers who work in them.