Tony Benn, 1925-2014

Submitted by dalcassian on 17 March, 2014 - 1:37
Tony Benn

(The author worked with Benn and others to set up the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which for a while united most of the Labour Party left, at the start of the 1980s.)

The first thing that should be said and remembered about Tony Benn, who died on Friday 14 March, is that for over four decades he backed, defended, and championed workers in conflict with their bosses or with the "boss of bosses", the government.

That put him decidedly in our camp. The political ideas which he too often linked with those bedrock working-class battles detract from the great merit of Tony Benn, but do not cancel it out or render it irrelevant.

Politically, Benn's story was a strange one. An editorial in the Times neatly summed up the shape of Benn's long career. His was "A Life Lived Backwards". For the first half of his long life he belonged to the Establishment, socially and in his politics. To the dissenting old radical-Liberal and right-wing Labour part of the Establishment, but the Establishment nevertheless.

Both his parents had MPs for fathers. Four generations of Benns have been MPs. Benn's son, Hilary, has been the third generation of cabinet-minister Benns. His father was Ramsey MacDonald's Secretary of State for India in the 1929 government.

Benn went to one of the leading "public" schools and then to Oxford University, where he climbed up onto that milestone in the careers of so many Establishment politicians, the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society. He became a pilot in the hierarchical Royal Air Force, in which pilots came from the upper classes, and in 1950, at 25, a Labour MP in a safe seat. His wife, Caroline, was rich, as was Benn himself. This sincere champion of the working class was a millionaire.

Benn became a minister in Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1964-70, and was a minister again in the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.

Out of office after 1970, he turned left, at the age of 45. Publicly, he shifted during the great occupation and work-in at giant the Upper Clyde Shipyards, in 1971. The decision by Edward Heath's Tory government to end subsidies to ailing industries meant shut down for UCS.

In office Benn had subsidised UCS, so there was logic and continuity in this. He marched alongside the Stalinist UCS leaders, Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, at giant working-class demonstrations in Glasgow.

Interviewed in the Observer at that time, he said of himself that in office one was a pragmatist, and in opposition one's idealism held sway. That might have been a summing up of the Parliamentary Labour Party side of what socialist critics called the old "fake left" culture of the labour movement: left talk combined with right-wing and conventional bourgeois actions at all the crucial turning points. (These days, there is something more like a "fake right" culture!)

Benn's "pragmatism" had kept him in the government that brought in the first statutory wage controls (1966) and tried in 1969 to bring in laws to shackle the unions - an attempt to pioneer what the Heath Tories would ineffectively make law in 1971, and which Thatcher would succeed in shackling on to the labour movement in the early 1980s. He had supported the Wilson government's unsuccessful attempt to join the Common Market (now called the European Union).

After UCS the second Tony Benn started to emerge. He opposed the Heath version of the union-restricting laws he had supported in their pioneering Wilson government form in 1969. He sided routinely with striking workers. He came out against the Common Market (EU), opposition to which had by then become an article of faith with the conventional left (Communist Party, Tribune, some trade union officials, and most of the revolutionary left). He came out against nuclear weapons. He championed nationalisation of industries in difficulty.

None of that went far enough to stop him serving as a minister all through the 1974-9 Wilson-Callaghan government, which demobilised the militant working class which had brought it to power. It would be only after Labour's general election defeat of 1979 that Benn shifted fully and decisively.

But after UCS he often spoke for the conventional left at meetings and conferences. He came to reflect the conventional left in his attitude to the Stalinist states.

The modification in his preferred name summed up the shift. "The Right Honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn" said he now wanted to be known as plain "Tony Benn", and he was.

In 1960 he had refused to inherit his father's title, Lord Stansgate, because that would have made him ineligible for the House of Commons. He fought and won two by-elections in his seat, Bristol South East, in a campaign to be allowed to renounce his title and sit in the Commons.

That episode had produced the first "left" and "anti-Establishment" Benn. In its politics, it was a piece of old 19th century radicalism revisited. It even had precedents. The atheist Charles Bradlaugh had stood in a series of by-elections in Northampton to win the right to take his seat without first swearing a Christian oath; and in the late 18th century, John Wilkes had fought a similar series of by-elections in the Middlesex seat.

Benn moved left, seeing himself more and more as the modern embodiment of the old radicalism. He took to making frequent historical references in his speeches, and commemorated calendar-occasions - the Levellers of the 1640s, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the suffragettes, the Chartists (whose call for annual parliaments he, however, rejected).

Ostentatiously, he played his chosen part, visibly relishing it. To say that is not necessarily to question his sincerity, and sincerity does not rule out calculated self-positioning. His enemies said of him that in 1979 Benn calculated that Labour would lose the election, and started to position himself as the instrument of a break with the Labour government's record, in the expectation that he would become party leader.

In any case, he played the role he assumed in 1979 for the remainder of his life.

In 1918 the Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote about Trotsky that he "treasures his historical role and would probably be ready to make any personal sacrifice, not excluding the greatest sacrifice of all - that of his life - in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader".

Benn also treasured his role, but the differences between Trotsky and Benn, and their respective traditions, are defining. Trotsky, from the age of 18, was a Marxist, marinated in the doctrines, the politics, the history that made up the Marxist tradition. He could be and was consistent in aims, goals, and in the tradition he sought to personify and continue. Trotsky was both politically and personally an integrated, organic whole. The doctrine he upheld was coherent.

Benn? He shifted radically halfway through his life - back to the Radical seam in British political history, but by about 1980 it was a very thin seam. Its old unwon causes - abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy, for instance - were now of only marginal importance. Even the right-wing Blair government could essay to abolish the House of Lords.

Benn's posture translated in the real political world of the 1980s into a comprehensive accommodation with the extant conventional left; and, except for points of historical continuity, that left had very little in common with the old democratic Radicalism he wanted conjure back into life. (Moreover, that old Radicalism itself had bred antagonistic political currents - Joseph Chamberlain, the Radical imperialist, as well as Liberal anti-imperialism).

The labour movement left of the early 1980s was a chaos trying to make sense of itself. Shaped by Stalinism in varying dilution, its dominant model of "socialism" was cross-bred from Britain's wartime state-regulated economy on one side and on the other from the USSR and its East European satellites.

Most of the left believed in the goodwill of Russia's rulers and their peaceful intentions and priorities, even while Russian Stalinism was expanding its areas of control and semi-control, as it did all through the 70s and early 80s. In 1982 Benn's constituency Labour Party, Chesterfield, with Benn's evident agreement, wrote an open letter to the Russian dictator Brezhnev, accepting the good intentions and desire for peace of the government that had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and triggered the “second cold war”.

Playing the demagogue to the existing left and its causes and assumptions, Benn won tremendous popularity among people eager for a prominent and capable tribune who, moreover, knew how to play the media's game.

Benn walked from his position of upper-class privilege into leadership of a wide coalition of leftists like a man casually walking into his own living room. Visibly glorying in the applause and approbation which it brought to him, he became the central leader of a loosely defined left.

And in Benn's role there was much of the old "Dancing Elephant Act". The elephant trainer moves his hands and the elephant dances to the gestures. But in fact the reality is the opposite of what it appears to be. The trainer's skill is to move in time with the elephant.

Benn appeared to "conduct" the left orchestra, but in fact he accommodated to what he found already there. He did that as a calculated role.

For instance, he talked much of the radical Christian tradition and of the affinity of the Christian tradition with the socialist attitudes to which Benn appealed. He presented himself as in that Christian tradition. He was widely accepted as a Christian. In fact he was an atheist!

The late John Mortimer, in a published interview, had to ask Benn, repeatedly, insistently, again and again, if he believed in God. Finally, after dodging the question many times, Benn admitted that he didn't.

A political event, a picture, an image that summarises his political trajectory, stands at each end of Benn's career as a radical.

The first is Benn marching with the leading stewards from UCS through Glasgow. The second is the aged Benn, no longer an MP, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq conducting a fawning interview with Saddam Hussein - producing in effect a "party political television broadcast" from Saddam to the people of Britain. There was no "speaking truth to power" there! Benn would have seen what he did then as part of the “fight for peace”.

Accepting all the problematic causes of a confused and disintegrating left, Benn joined in the pro-Milosevic, pro-Serbia "Stop The War Coalition" in 1999, making an outcry to "stop the war" against Serbia which in the event succeeded in stopping the genocidal Serbian war against the Albanian population of Serbia's colony, Kosova. (It was not necessary to back NATO, or to give the Western powers any political credence or support, to understand what was going on).

Benn and the Catholic ex-Monsignor, Bruce Kent, spoke to a big meeting at the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road, London, at which Benn delivered a blimpish denunciation of Germany, and Kent spoke of the proletarian-background Labour Minister of Defence, George Robertson, like a dowager duchess describing an incompetent milk-delivery man - "that little man".

Yet, in this bitter political chronicle, it is necessary to return to where we began: Benn stood with the workers in all the clashes after 1979.

With a critical edge to his old-style radicalism, he might have fruitfully interacted with the extant left in the ideologically battered condition it was in by the time he joined it. But that would not have been popular with the conventional left. Benn chose to seek popularity, to be the chief demagogue, to ingratiate himself with what existed.

From the (politically speaking) rotten timbers, decaying carcases, bits of broken stone, and crumbling dusty cinders that he found to hand, nothing worthwhile could be made.

Benn's relationship with the left and labour movement after 1979 - that of speaker, orator, articulator, political chameleon to the coloration of his audience - is most reminiscent of the role which freelancing radical leaders of 200 years ago played with the nascent labour movement and the broader plebeian anti-Establishment stirrings they found to hand - manipulation, demagogy. Such people as, for example, "Orator Hunt", one of the speakers at the meeting in St Peter's Square, Manchester, that became the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

At that time, the labour movement was only coming into being and taking shape, as the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain. Benn's career was part of the decline and decay of the old left, the old trade unions, and the old working class.

In old age Benn found himself widely popular even with people who disagreed with his political ideas or knew little or nothing about them. He appeared to be a man of principle who stuck to his guns against the Establishment.

There was some justice in that, too. And symbolism. Benn did play, personify, and project himself as a rebel and anti-establishment nay-sayer - irrespective of the politics involved - and, for us, despite his politics.


Submitted by david kirk on Tue, 18/03/2014 - 13:55

I am disappointed with Sean's obituary of Tony Benn.

It isn't what Sean says is untrue, no doubt it all is but i think it misses key aspects and episodes of his political life that are significant. The general tone and vision of the left in the 80s that Sean conjures could mislead comrades on Socialist Organisers work at the time and its relation with Tony Benn.

Firstly I think two key periods of his life are glossed over. The first is his experience in cabinet in the 1974-79 government. As Secretary of State for industry in 1974-75 he talked about supporting workers control and proposed the workers co-ops as a model to stop closures. This was influenced by events at Lucas Aerospace and the factory occupations at the time. His version of workers control was not about seizing the means of production across the board but a method of saving ailing companies under capitalism. The frustrations of government in this period radicalised Benn a long with many in the Labour Party. This period warrants analysis even if to show the problem with Tony Benn's approach.

Secondly is the period from Labours defeat in 1983 to the Kosovo War in 1999. During the period he began to published his Diaries and doing his tireless speaking duties on any platform that would have him. I don't think I am alone in hearing him as a teenager making a clear and eloquent case for socialism and criticising in witty terms the direction of the Labour Party. For all his faults he inspired and convinced many mainly young people to be socialists and republicans and that socialism flowed out of the battle for democracy . This was the period when "New Realism" dominated the union leadership and figure after figure on the left capitulated to Blairism, liberalism etc. He also in this period, despite his age and background often argued for liberation issues as a key democratic concern not on the basis of post structuralism, identity politics or relativism. Maybe for older comrades it wasn't quite so clear how important that work was. His Diaries also for good or ill were widely read and influential amongst young people interested in politics.

There is also a problem with how Sean talks about the left in the 80s. Firstly many of the left orthodoxies Benn adopted in the 70s were also held by us at the time. Pretty uncritical support for the Provos. Seeing something progressive in the Soviet Bloc as opposed to the West. Anti Imperialist support for dictators in the developing world. We moved away from that Benn didn't. That needs to be said.

Secondly Sean's description of a rotten decomposing left of the 1980s maybe with hindsight accurate but would suggest that we stood aloof from it struggles like say the RCP. Whereas the Socialist Organiser actually was a major actor on the Labour Left in the 80s and influenced much of the leftward tide in the Party that Benn was the figurehead of and sometimes collaborated with. Its my understanding that we were key movers behind his deputy leadership campaign. If the miners strike had been won, if the Militant in Liverpool had not capitulated and if the anti union laws had been resisted (all if which were possibilities) the left would not have been doomed to impotent decline. The remaking of the left and cleansing it of Stalinism would have been easier in a lively movement on the advance rather then in disorderly retreat.

The universal adulation of Tony Benn needs to be punctured but if we publish such a narrow and pessimistic account it will not convince those readers of our papers we seek to reach.

Submitted by dalcassian on Wed, 19/03/2014 - 00:10

David, I “glossed over” nothing. I chose what I thought essential and dealt with that. Evidently you have a different opinion on what is essential. I don't buy into Benn's romancing accounts of himself and how he became radicalised. What is significant to me about his period in office after '74 is the role he played in helping the Labour government demobilise the working class, and the blind alley into which he led the left in the chauvinist Popular Front campaign against the Common Market (now the EU). These prepared all the defeats that followed. I confess: I'm seriously deficient in feelings of hero worship for Benn.

Suppose your idea is correct that at one time, three decades ago, we had ideas similar to Benn's latter-day positions on Ireland and the IRA. There is no shortage of A W L self-criticism of our history on this question. Quite a few articles doing that are on the internet. You think every article in which the IRA or their supporters or apologists are criticised is obliged to repeat that self-reassessment? Why?

But in fact, your account of our political history on Ireland is seriously mistaken. You are wrong that we ever had anything like Benn's later politics on Ireland. We never gave “pretty uncritical” support to the IRA. We never gave them political support. Far from it.

We did publicly defend the IRA through the 70s, and, more selectively, in the 1980s. We proclaimed ourselves to be “in solidarity with the revolutionary nationalists fighting imperialism”. We campaigned for “troops out”. We campaigned against the Prevention of Terrorism Act that quickly followed the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 (in the atmosphere of heavy intimidation and uncertainty after the passing of the the Prevention of Terrorism Act, together with the London branch of the People's Democracy we organised the first public demonstration against it). We did some necessary Marxist housecleaning by refuting idiotic kitsch-Marxist attempts to classify what the IRA was doing as mere “individual terrorism”.

You could say that thereby we supported the I R A. Provided you didn't take that to mean that we gave them political support, I'd have no quarrel with it. Certainly that is how we were perceived on the left, in the Labour movement and by the cops, who raided our office.

But we combined that with publishing independent analyses of what was what socially and politically in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole. In the “small print” texts underneath the headlines and the sloganising we made conscientious efforts to give a true picture of the Northern Ireland reality at every turning point. We never had any time for the fantasies of so much of the left that northern Ireland was in a phase of “Permanent Revolution” and that the IRA war would lead to a socialist revolution, or, anyway, something like Castro's Cuba.

We criticised the Republicans and differentiated politically from them. (Not enough, in my opinion.) In the early 70s when there were socialist critics of the IRA on the left in Ireland we republished some of their comments, for example those of P D in the North and the League For A Workers Republic in the South. We thought criticism of their activities came better from people living in Ireland than from people like ourselves in Britain.

The earliest controversy on Ireland in and around our independent organisation after we were expelled from IS in 1971 concerned the public criticism – all too mild criticism, agreed – we made of the provisional IRA's no-warning bombs in Belfast on “Bloody Friday”. That was as far back as mid-1972. We denounced the Birmingham pub bombings of late 1974. etc, etc, etc

Yes, Socialist Organiser played a central role in organising the left in the early 80s (as the introductory blurb at the top of the obituary tells readers who might not know that), but at every point you will find in the pages of our paper clear statements of our own politics and where necessary criticism of Benn and others of our allies.

To the point, we criticised Tony Benn on everything from the Common Market to the preposterous friendly open letter which, with his support, his Constituency Party sent to the Stalinist dictator Leonid Brezhnev. We were in that broad Bennite movement but politically not of it. We never pretended to be. We were in a sort of United Front in which we kept our own politics clean and clearly distinct.

You will find debates with Benn in SO in the form of interviews on such questions as the Common Market. Politically were relating to the broader left by drawing them into dialogue and debate. Have a look at the files of Socialist Organiser.

Of course things would have gone differently for the Labour movement and for the left if the miners had won! Our political conflicts with people like Benn would still have been in place, even in the best conditions – as they were at the height of the left upsurge after '79.

But many years have passed since then. The left rotted and decayed. And Tony Benn has played the role in that terrible process which I portrayed him as playing.

David, there really is nothing for socialists of our persuasion to romanticise in Tony Benn! The public adulation of the dead Tony Benn was as ridiculous as it was insincere. We should not join in such farces!

Have a look at the record of the interview-debate which Mark Osborn and I did with him in 1994 on Ireland, where you will find as accurate a portrait of Benn's mind and politics as the tape recorder could provide.

In preparing that article for the paper in fact I did “gloss over”, tone down, some of what Benn had said – the nonsense about the Maharajah he met in 1931 being as British as the Northern Ireland Protestants, and his emotional “this is my side” reflex defence of Gerry Adams and the IRA (followed by the catching-himself-on politician's proclamation that of course he believed in non-violence).

Sean Matgamna

Submitted by dalcassian on Wed, 19/03/2014 - 17:48

PS David, you are wrong also when you write this and identify us with Tony Benn's attitude to Stalinism in power:

“Many of the left orthodoxies Benn adopted in the 70s were also held by us at the time. …. Seeing something progressive in the Soviet Bloc as opposed to the West. ….. We moved away from that Benn didn't.”

Yes we saw something comparatively progressive in the Stalinist states. We adhered to the “Orthodox Trotskyist” idea that the Stalinist states were historically ahead of capitalism, that they were “degenerated and deformed workers states”. (I'm pretty sure that Benn did not think they were any sort of “workers states”.) But what did we made of that in our day-to-day politics? .

Accepting our “inherited” “Trotskyist” theories, we read-off very little from the mere designation “degenerated workers state”. In practice we pushed the theorising into the background and related to events by way of case by case concrete analysis of the world around us.

The workers states schema implied that we were “defencist” for Russia against the USA, etc. In practice we saw the USSR as one of the two pillars of world reaction. As early as 1968 we said that Russian “defenceism” was for us of “10th rate importance”. We were for the defence of the Third World Stalinist states, but in the same way as we were for the defence of all colonies and ex-colonies, irrespective of what “class designation” we made of them.

We were comprehensively hostile to the Stalinist states. We sided with the workers and oppressed nations within the Stalinist states. We were for a workers revolution in all of them. In our tradition we called these looked-for revolutions “political revolutions”, but we understood and said that these revolutions would be immense social revolutions.

There was never an exception to this basic attitude at any point in the history of the tendency.

We considered ourselves to be “1953 Orthodox Trotskyist”, that is, supporters of the politics of James P Cannon and his friends in 1953, who split from the Mandel-Pablo Fourth International: we saw opposition to Stalinism and support for workers and oppressed peoples against ruling Stalinists as a central pillar of our politics.

Benn and his constituency party, Chesterfield, could write a friendly letter to the Russian neo-Stalinist dictator Leonid Brezhnev, accepting that he was on our side. When he died soon afterwards we published the obituary that can be found on this website (Requiem for Comrade Brezhnev). The very first publication of our group, the magazine An Solas/Workers Republic, which we put out together with the Irish Workers Group, carried an editorial commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which I wrote, expressing our vehement hostility to Stalinism. It set the tone for the whole history of the tendency. (That too can be found on this site).

Of course, there was a major contradiction in the politics of the tendency on Stalinism. As well as our hostility to Stalinists in power, our no less vehement “anti-imperialism” led us to support anti-imperialist movements led by Stalinists. Others, the Cliff group for instance, who held to a “state capitalist” analysis of the Stalinist states, had exactly the same contradiction when they let “anti-imperialism” overrule every other consideration in their support for “anti-imperialist” Stalinist forces.

We did respond, immediately, in our paper, to the Stalinist victory in Indochina which we had wanted , by affirming the need for a workers revolution there again Stalinism. Theoretically coherent, we were not; but we were many hundreds of political miles away from the politics of those, like Tony Benn, who where politically soft on Stalinism.

Submitted by david kirk on Sat, 22/03/2014 - 07:34

I think between your comments and the other archive stories you point to that does clarify and explain the differences with Benn and fills in much of the detail. I like many others of my age on the left hove warm memories of Tony Benn because he was one of the few people arguing for socialism who had a public platform and used it. I feel that coloured some of my response to your obit. Now looking back I think what you said is fair and right. There is more to be said but I don't think you can say it all in one obit.
I think he was a tireless, charismatic and eloquent tribune of the "mainstream" left in decline. However what the left needed was not a tribune but a transformative struggle and hard truths .
The kind of left of the Peoples Assembly the Labour Left, the Unions or a left unity, much like liberalism before it, is expressed as a series of causes or stock ideas whose roots or purpose is not interrogated or analysed. George Dangerfield described 19th century liberalism as an "easy burden to bear" as it was a assemblage of attitudes and assumptions transmitted from the past. The assemblage of causes Greek Independence, Free Trade, temperance, the strange mixture of pacifism, interventionism and isolationism would sit unquestioned as part of the complacent liberals world view.
Today on the left support for Cuba, the morning star or Sinn Fein is almost the same thing. In Unite we keep being told Len McClusky is a "left" General Secretary. In the NUT Christine Blower is argued to be the same. If you ask why its often to do with support for the Miami 5 or UAF. Whether McClusky or Blower actually think much of the Cuban Regime or Love Music Hate Racism (and the evidence to suggest both are not that keen personally) that is what you do to be "left".
Benn's great gift was to encourage people to join the left, however he was never going to tell them the true state of the movement they are joining and the task needed to change it.

Submitted by Mark on Tue, 25/03/2014 - 21:58

"He didn't accept your particular world view and therefore, what?"

Then we polemicise, and put our case, surely?

"Benn touched the thinking of millions which is more than you ... will ever manage to achieve."

Well, let's hope not. But the measure of who (from a socialist standpoint) is right and wrong is not "touching the thinking of millions." Lots of people with very diverse views "touch the thinking of millions".

If there is any point to this posting you need to say what Benn was right about, and attempt to justify it.

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