Tony Benn (1925-2014): A great communicator of the socialist cause

By Phil Hearse

March 15, 2014 -- Socialist Resistance, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- It is a bitter irony that Tony Benn has died in the very same week as Bob Crow, two giants of the labour movement who will be cruelly missed.

Numerous instant obituaries and comments have concentrated on Benn’s determination, his speaking and writing talents, his humour and his personal kindness. Of course. But in celebrating his life the important thing for the left, especially the younger generation, is to make an assessment of Benn and Bennism as a political phenomenon, why it constituted such a threat to the existing powers that be (including in the trade unions and Labour Party) and why such an array of forces gathered together to attempt to put an end to it.

In the hours immediately after his death TV comments illustrated his importance and ideological challenge. Shirley Williams agreed that his intervention had made ordinary people suspicious and cynical about political leaders (surely not!) and Clare Short decried the fact that he had refused to face the facts about the new world order and accommodate himself to it, becoming an "impossibilist". But being cynical about those in power and refusing to accommodate himself to the outrageous present order of things was exactly what characterised Benn and enabled him to make the contribution he did.

Benn first made headlines in the early 1960s as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, Viscount Stansgate, the first person to renounce an hereditary peerage. Once elected to parliament he was appointed minister of technology in Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 government, fully signing up to Wilson’s idea that the "white hot heat" of the technological revolution would save Britain after 13 years of antique Conservative Party (Tory) stagnation: modernising British capitalism from its gentlemanly, quasi-aristocratic ways was the order of the day. In this period Benn did not question the Labour leadership, the Social Contract or indeed Barbara Castle’s first run at anti-union legislation, In Place of Strife.

During the period out of office 1970-74, Benn spent a year as Labour Chair(man, as they called it then). The national executive (NEC) under his chairpersonship, produced the manifesto for the 1974 election which promised “a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people and their families”, a declaration which immediate was despatched down the memory hole by incoming Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, who followed in 1976.

When Benn came back to office in 1974 as secretary of state for industry, a lot of things had changed. The Tories attempt to impose an Industrial Relations Act and an industrial relations court to impose it, was blown out of the water by mass industrial action, in particular the occupation of the UCS shipyard in Glasgow, the solidarity action that led to the freeing of the five imprisoned Pentonville dockers in 1972 and the two successful miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. These events undoubtedly radicalised Benn but he stayed in the cabinet: moreover they had posed the question of trade union power and its limits. It began a whole cycle of struggle that ended up with the decisive defeats of the miners and print workers in the 1980s.


Benn showed his radicalism as industry minister in the late 1970s by endorsing the workers plans for industrial reconversion at Lucan Aerospace in Coventry devised by Mike Cooley and local shop stewards: The vision of the plan was to replace weapons manufacture with the development of socially useful goods, like solar heating equipment, artificial kidneys, and systems for intermodal transportation. The goal was to not simply retain jobs, but to design the work so that the workers would be motivated by the social value of their activities. The press began to portray Benn as part of an emerging ‘loony left’.

After the 1979 election Tony Benn immediately announced that he would not stand for election to the cabinet: everyone knew why not – so as to be free from ‘collective responsibility’ of the Labour leadership under Callaghan (soon replaced by Michael Foot), to be able to organise a left opposition. His announcement resounded like a thunderbolt through the labour movement.

As he began his relentless series of mass meetings around the country and in the unions and their conferences in particular there was immense excitement on the left. Thousands of young radicals, many of them from the 1968 generation flocked into their local Labour Party branches with the aim of a root and branch transformation. Ex-members of far-left organisations also signed up in significant numbers. There was huge support on the left of the union movement. The prospect of transforming the Labour Party seemed on the surface a realistic proposition.

Benn and his supporters on the NEC (in alliance with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) went for the bureaucratic jugular, demanding constitutional change in the Labour Party, an electoral college for the leadership elections which would reduce MPs vote to 30%, with a similar proportion going to local branches and 40% to the unions. Not everyone liked this proportion, Eric Heffer for example being very annoyed at what he saw as too great a proportion effectively given to the union tops. Nonetheless the right wing were furious when this was passed. Radical policy motions were passed at the 1979 and 1980s conferences, which combined with the constitutional challenge caused an explosive mixture.

Bennism at this stage stood clearly for radical democracy and the rights of oppressed groups: the successful struggle to establish black sections and women’s sections in the Labour Party were indications of this. Benn forged firm links with a plethora of left campaigns like CND and fought against the despatch of the fleet to recapture the Falklands, an enterprise lamely supported by Labour leader Michael Foot. Benn also supported Irish unity and his sympathy for Sinn Fein was clear. And he readily took up the banner of LGBT struggles, what was then known as lesbian and gay liberation.

Foot, Healey, Benn

Benn’s decision to stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 also caused a sensation. Michael Foot as leader with Benn as deputy would be symbolic of Labour’s radicalism and consolidate left dominance; Michael Foot with Dennis Healy would mean something very different. The right wing of the labour movement, with the aid of the right wing press, made a huge mobilisation against Benn – and succeeded in defeating him by one half of one percent, because of the decision to abstain by a small group of mainly Tribunite ‘left’ MPs of whom the most ‘prominent was Neil Kinnock. Before it had really reached its high point Bennism had suffered its first major defeat.

Bennism was a broad church, with the left-wing union leaders like Arthur Scargill being close allies. But even at the beginning there were identifiable differences between the more radical and the less radical, with people like David Blunkett, leader of Sheffield City council mouthing what appeared to be the right words, but meaning something quite different. But this was a period when even someone as moderate today as Margaret Beckett would count themselves among Benn’s supporters.

The second act of the defeat of Bennism in the Labour Party was the 1983 election of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader on a "modernisation" ticket with Roy Hattersley as deputy. Like Harold Wilson, Kinnock came from the left, the better to impose the anti-left witch-hunt which started first against the Militant group in 1983. The fight to win Labour back from Bennism was in full swing. Tony Blair and New Labour were its eventual outcome.

And the third act of the Bennite defeat was of course the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, a defeat that could not have happened if Kinnock as Labour leader and the hapless Norman Willis, Trade Union Congress general secretary, had stood by the miners. The political defeat of Bennism in the Labour Party could not have taken place in the way it did if Thatcher had been defeated over the miners’ strike and the later print workers’ strike.

Part and parcel of left-wing defeats in this period of course was the throttling of the rate capping fight on which a range of left and apparently Bennite council leaders revealed their weakness.

In the early 1980s the line of some militant far-left groups was that Benn should "organise his base". In other words should organise in the party and the unions in some more-or-less formal organisation to mobilise more effectively. Whether this was "correct" or not is now rather beside the point: it was never going to happen and it is to mistake the nature of the beast to believe it would.

Tony Benn represented the most determined and extreme defence mounted of left social-democratic values and aspirations, and indeed personally went some way beyond them, radicalised by the struggle. But you could not have organised in a very coherent way the forces that made up Bennism because they were already organised in myriad ways, mainly through official structures and campaigns groups that were not amenable to further organisation, and because it would have meant Benn significantly splitting his supporters by stepping on too many left bureaucratic toes. The Communist Party would have been against, a lot of the left Bennite MPs would have been against and so would lots of then left trade unions leaders.

Social justice

But before, during and after the high point of the organised Bennite challenge Tony Benn represented something much more in the political, ideological and you could say "moral" life of the country. Mass leaders, especially working-class mass leaders, can only sustain their position by articulating deep-seated political emotions in significant sectors of the population, especially their gut feelings of democracy, of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited and their desire above all for justice.

Social justice and outrage at the multiple injustices and obscenities perpetrated by the rich and powerful were at the core of his oratorical appeal. Tony Benn had the capacity to articulate that in shedloads with wit and humour and always with an eye to increasing the self-confidence and combativity of his audience. One of his rhetorical tricks that leftists remember is his five questions to those with power, starting with how did you get it and in whose interests do you wield it, and ending with "How can we get rid of you?". In doing this Tony Benn dug deep into the radical democratic traditions of the labour movement and well before, among the Diggers and Levellers, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

But even with the rise of New Labour Benn remained obdurate about the Labour Party, repeating his rote phrase about being born in the Labour Party and dying in it. This of course is part of the political weakness of Tony Benn, even in his best period, an inability to say what Ralph Miliband found obvious in the 1960s, that Labour could not be used as the fundamental instrument of socialist change.

To repeat: a major part of the ideological power of Bennism was its capacity to rearticulate some of the best traditions of left social democracy and indeed go beyond it, and to build a wide coalition around this ‘programme’.

The real political fight in the last quarter of a century in Britain was between this Bennite program and Thatcherism, and the victory of the latter is centrally due to the betrayals of the Labour and trade union leaderships. If Thatcherism had been defeated then Bennism itself would have had to have deepened and transformed to outline a realistic socialist transformation in Britain.

Tony Benn always said it was all about policies and not individuals, and refused to directly criticise right-wing leaders by name, a compliment they declined to return. But even the most democratic movements need leaders who can motivate, inspire and mobilise; people who can set out a vision of what is wrong now and how it could be different. For that, the left and the labour movement owe him an immense debt.

Courageous and prophetic: Tony Benn in the early '80s

By Mike Marqusee

March 14, 2014 -- Red Pepper, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- It was inevitable that Tony Benn’s death would be met with tributes from the political establishment to the effect that they admired him even if they didn’t agree with him. But for those of us who did agree with him, his life and death mean so much more.

There’s one phase of Benn’s long career that liberal commentators still can’t stomach: his leadership of the Labour Party left in the early 1980s. The "Bennite" upsurge of that time is blamed for dividing the party, saddling it with “extreme” policies, and costing it the general election of 1983 (and in some accounts 1987 as well).

In fact, this was for me one of Benn’s most courageous and prophetic moments.

I was one of many in those years inspired by Benn to become active in the Labour Party and to this day I regard myself as an unrepentant Bennite, early 1980s vintage: what we tried to do, under Tony’s leadership, was to reshape the party from the bottom up, to make it an effective instrument of working-class representation. And while we failed to do that, we came close enough to scare the hell out of the British ruling class, who put huge resources into destroying Benn and the Bennite movement. His courage in those days, under ceaseless attack from the media and the leaders of his own party, was exemplary, and enabled many others to stand their ground under pressure.

Looking back, we can now see this moment as the dawn of the neoliberal age. The choice to be made was between resisting that development, insisting that there was an alternative, or accommodating to it and designing policy and strategy accordingly. Most Labour Party MPs and trade union leaders, not to mention leader writers, columnists and a significant section of the Communist Party, chose accommodation. Benn chose resistance, and in doing so placed himself at the head and heart of more than thirty years of often bitter struggle for the better world he insisted was possible.

Crucial to Benn’s appeal was his revival of the radical democratic agenda in a labour movement long dominated by economistic and bureaucratic habits. This challenge was central to the Bennite movement, and made it a very different prospect from earlier Labour left formations. Tony invoked the heritage of the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists and the Suffragettes because he saw democracy in Britain as unfinished business. Again and again, he stressed the importance of accountability, at every level of civic and economic life. He insisted that party leaders should be elected by party members, at a time when that was largely considered the prerogative of MPs, and that constituency members should have the power to remove ineffective MPs. As a whole Bennism was very much about a revival of popular democracy, expressed in particular through the activities of left-wing local councils.

It’s interesting to remember how Benn arrived at his brand of radically democratic socialism. Usually it takes only a mere taste of office to turn politicians into servants of the establishment; Benn, in contrast, was radicalised by his experience in government (in the 1960s and 1970s). Increasingly, he came to see the necessity of far-reaching, systemic change. Defying convention, he became more not less radical as he grew older. And in this he was, again, an example to us all.

Bennism briefly raised the prospect of a genuinely left-wing Labour government and that terrified the powers-that-be (and those who wanted to join them). They hit back with everything at their disposal. Just now the media will not want to recall how they treated Tony in those years: he was derided as a lunatic and cast as a deadly threat to British society, smeared and misrepresented at every turn.

Much of what happened afterwards to the Labour Party can be seen as a prolonged backlash against the Bennite insurgency; the changes in the party’s structures, the centralisation of power, the marginalisation of the membership, were designed to ensure it could never happen again. They aimed to make the Labour Party safe for capital, and in my view, over the long haul, they succeeded.

Benn warned early on that the acceptance of neoliberalism by all the main parties was creating, in his words, “a crisis of representation”. Today we live with the consequences of that crisis. That’s why, in recent years, Tony Benn’s message has come to seem, to large numbers, more pertinent, more forward looking, than anything on offer from the self-styled modernisers who cast him as a “dinosaur”.

Benn was one of the great modern communicators of the socialist cause. The tributes to his eloquence only hint at what he did. He aimed always to clarify what seemed obscure or puzzling, to make plain what was hidden. He could delineate an injustice with a single phrase and make an unconventional position appear the epitome of common sense. In making his case he was concrete, concise, and intelligible to all. He appealed to our shared experience and aspirations. And he refused to be deflected by media ruses.

Of course, it was all lit up with Benn’s warmth, humour and generosity of spirit. His was a socialism of the heart as well as the head, and no one who listened to him or worked with him could doubt that.

Benn and Bennism

By Dave Kellaway

March 14, 2014 -- Left Unity -- “The Labour Party used to be there to change society, but now it seems to organise working people to adapt to society”, said 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 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 James Callaghan Labour government led to the victory of Margaret 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 Denis 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 International Marxist Group (predecessors of Socialist Resistance) or the Militant Tendency (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 right-wing split from Labour. On the other hand you had the rise of New Labour, started under Neil Kinnock and consummated by Tony Blair. New Labour meant rule changes and direct expulsion of the Militant Tendency, 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 1930s, 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.