Tony Benn – a giant of peace and socialism
Tony Benn, who died last night at the age of 88, was by some distance the dominant figure on the British left over the last fifty years.
Two things sharply distinguished Tony Benn from the typical career Labour politician, and especially from the motley crew who run the Labour Party in Ireland. The first is that instead of starting from more or less humble origins and then acquiring as much privilege as possible, Benn came from a privileged background but renounced it.
He was born Anthony Wedgwood Benn and both his grandfather and father had been members of the House of Lords. He first became an MP, aged only 25, in 1950. When in 1960 his father, Viscount Stansgate, died Benn automatically inherited the title and was this, according to British law at the time, disqualified him from being an MP. He then led a successful campaign to change the law and in 1963 renounced his title and was re-elected to the House of Commons. Subsequently he changed his name to the ‘ordinary’ Tony Benn.
The second is that instead of moving from left to right, like Harold Wilson, Neil Kinnock or Eamon Gilmore, he moved from centre to left. Harold Wilson complained that Benn ‘immatured with age’ reflecting the traditional view that growing up means accepting the system. Benn, to his immense credit, rejected that trajectory.
In the 1960s and 70s Benn served as a minister in the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments. Both these governments turned against the working people who elected them and bitterly disappointed those who hoped for radical change. As a member of the Cabinet Benn was inevitably compromised by this process and did a number of things that he probably later regretted , including introducing a productivity deal in the mining industry which split the miners and weakened their national unity in a way that was exploited by Thatcher during the Miners’ Strike.
Remarkably however, and it is hard to think of any parallel, he learned from this experience and dramatically radicalised. It was this decision that saved his political soul and turned him into the historical figure he became who inspired millions, and was loved by millions, rather than just another run-of-the mill careerist politician like Neil Kinnock.
After the election of Thatcher in 1979 Benn became the undisputed leader of the resurgent Labour Left. In 1980 he addressed the Labour conference and outlined, to wild applause, his vision for a future Labour Government:
‘Within days a Labour Government would gain powers to nationalise industries, control capital and implement industrial democracy; "within weeks", all powers from Brussels would be returned to Westminster, and abolish the House of Lords by creating one thousand peers and then abolishing the peerage.’
For awhile it looked as if the Bennite left, which had mass support in the constituencies, would carry all before it in the Labour Party but when Benn stood for the party deputy leadership in 1983 he was narrowly defeated by the right wing and clearly pro-capitalist Denis Healey. It was sections of the trade union bureaucracy that held the line for the Labour right.
This was a turning point for Labour and for Benn. From that point on Labour, via Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair, moved steadily to the right till it became almost indistinguishable from the Tories. But Benn was freed up to become a parliamentary and extra-parliamentary campaigner of immense talent and vigour – a role he continued right until his final illness. When he retired from Parliament in 2001 he joked that he was leaving Westminster ‘to spend more time on politics’. He kept his word.
In addition to working tirelessly Benn bought some particular qualities to his campaigning. He was an outstanding speaker who attracted and enthralled large audiences round the country, with a special talent for summing up a situation in a superb phrase. ‘Council workers on strike, we have sewage on the streets; Fleet St on strike wehave sewage off the streets’, was his brilliant rebuke to Rupert Murdoch and The Sun. He was deeply democratic and egalitarian, interested as he always insisted in issues not personalities, and he brought to all his work a strong sense of history invoking the legacy of the Peasants Revolt, the Levellers and Diggers, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes as well as the struggle for colonial freedom. He was completely non-sectarian: he was a committed left wing reformist and member of the Labour Party but he always willing to co-operate with and speak on platforms with the revolutionary left for the good of the movement; he spoke regularly at the British SWP annual Marxism conference.
As a campaigner Tony Benn backed innumerable struggles and causes – the Miners Strike of 1984-5, a multitude of industrial disputes and picket lines, student sit-ins, the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, women’s liberation, anti-racism and fascism and so on. However his most important contribution in his later years was in the struggle against war and with the Stop the War Coalition. He record on this question was long and honourable; he opposed, when few others did, the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982, the first Gulf War in 1990 and the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. he then became a leading figure in the movement against the Iraq war in 2003 and served as president of the Stop the War Coalition from 2005 until his death.
As with Nelson Mandela much of the media coverage of Benn’s death will be filled with hypocritical ‘tributes’ from people completely opposed to everything he stood for. At one point the BBC website carried the nauseating headline ‘David Cameron leads (!) tributes to “magnificent” Tony Benn’. Those of us of a certain age will well remember thevlie contempt with which the establishment and the media treated Benn in the days when they thought he was a threat, describing him as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and a ‘loony left’ in need of psychiatric analysis. Even now when he is regarded as a so-called ‘national treasure’ there is an almost involuntary patronizing tone to much of the coverage – after he wasn’t a ‘successful’ politician like Tony Blair.
Precisely because of all this hypocrisy those of us who admired Tony Benn and stood side by side with him in numerous battles but who also disagreed with on a number of questions should not, in the hour of his death, pretend those differences did not exist.
As revolutionaries in the International Socialist tradition we disagreed with Benn on two crucial questions. First on whether socialism could come through parliament. Benn was critical of parliament and always supported extra-parliamentary struggles but, at the end of the day, believed in the possibility of parliamentary transformation of society rather than revolution. Second, he remained committed to the Labour Party, often saying, ‘I was born in the Labour Party, I’ll die in the Labour Party’.
We do not believe that the Labour Party can serve as a vehicle for the socialist transformation of society and think it is necessary to win the British working class, like the Irish working class, and its organizations away from the hold of Labour which has so consistently held them back and sold them out. If Tony Benn had been prepared to break from Labour, especially at the time of the Iraq War, he could have led thousands with him and transformed the political situation in Britain and to some extent internationally. Sadly this was one struggle to which, through traditional loyalty, he didn’t contribute.
Nevertheless, honestly stating these differences in no way takes away from the fact that Tony Benn devoted his whole life to the struggle for a better world and, especially in the second half of it, to inspiring people with a vision of socialism and of a world that would put human need before the power and profit of the few.