Tony Benn: The moderate extremist
Paul Demarty examines the legacy of a tireless champion of the Labour left
The death of Tony Benn, after a long illness, was announced on March 14, to cap off a cruel week for the British left: Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union had died earlier last week, and we had lost two of the most prominent avowed socialists in the country within three days.
If Crow was remarkable, in a period where trade union organisation was getting weaker everywhere, for substantially growing the RMT and winning battle after battle, Benn’s claim to fame rests on his peculiar journey through that other mass contingent of the workers’ movement: the Labour Party. Both men were castigated or patronised as ‘relics’; Crow (in this view) was the last of the 1970s union militants, as it were, and Benn was a leftover from the 1980s, the Labour Party’s wilderness decade.
But turn it around and it is a compliment. Leaving aside the micro-historical forces which allowed success, the RMT under Crow was not cowed, when most of his brothers and sisters were. In the Labour Party, the picture is even more stark: all manner of capitulated lefts are represented in the serried ranks of New Labour, and Ed Miliband’s zombie version of the same. Benn was, up to his death, an irritating reminder that it was not only the hated Trotskyist groups who were capable of resisting the pull (although only up to a point); indeed, it was possible for serious people to travel in the opposite direction.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born in 1925, the son of a Liberal MP and a radical theologian. His father, William Wedgwood Benn, renounced the Liberals in 1928, joining the Labour Party, where he served as secretary of state for India in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 government. Benn was thus a product of the establishment; both his grandfathers, also, had been Liberal MPs, and he was sent to that training ground for the offspring of establishment well-to-dos, Westminster School.
He enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1943, where he met, among others, the rightwing Conservative, Enoch Powell, with whom he formed a lasting, if somewhat politically implausible, friendship; and after the war, continued an unremarkable journey in the footsteps of his father, completing a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. He was elected to parliament in 1950, replacing Stafford Cripps in Bristol South East with the help of Anthony Crosland. Cripps was a peculiar individual - a quasi-Marxist Christian, traditionally on the left of the Labour Party, and no doubt Crosland (Benn’s former Oxford tutor and a figure on the Labour right) saw his replacement, a bright and very young careerist, as a vast improvement.
So it initially proved: Benn supported Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour right’s chosen champion, throughout his years as party leader, against the powerful Bevanite left. It was at the end of the Gaitskell era that Benn faced his first serious political battle. During the war, his father had been ennobled as the first Viscount of Stansgate. It was an act of grubby Realpolitik on the part of Winston Churchill; but, after Benn’s older brother died in a wartime accident, it presented a problem. He would inherit the title - which he did not want at all - and find himself, under the law of the day, disqualified from the Commons.
After years of frustration, his time was up - William Wedgwood Benn died, and his thus ennobled son was booted from parliament. He stood in - and won - the resulting by-election, and his seat was given to Malcolm St Clair, who agreed to make way if Benn succeeded in overturning the law.
With help from all quarters - including a token donation from Churchill, who had gotten him into this mess - Benn succeeded. By the time he returned to Bristol South East, though, things were changing. Gaitskell was dead, replaced by Harold Wilson; and Labour’s long years in the wilderness were about to end, as Harold Macmillan’s government descended into chaos over the Profumo affair.
In Wilson’s government - as postmaster general and minister for technology - Benn was emblematic of the technocratic post-war consensus. He oversaw the Post Office Tower, the Concorde project, and looked forward, in keeping with the spirit of the times, to rising prosperity driven by technological progress.
After Wilson’s government fell in 1970, the rising tide of industrial militancy dominated British politics. It seems to have carried Benn along with it. In 1971, he spoke at a rally for the Upper Clyde work-in in Glasgow, which was organised principally by communist militants. In 1973, he symbolically truncated his name from Anthony Wedgwood to Tony; he became the foremost Labour spokesperson in opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community during the 1975 referendum campaign, which roughly divided the Labour Party on left-right lines.
While, as industry minister, he was complicit in incomes policies and other anti-working class measures, his technocratic outlook was gone. He supported the formation of workers’ cooperatives, and in 1976 stood as a leftwing candidate in the snap leadership election. By the end of the decade, he was the de facto leader of Labour’s left, putting his name to its flagship Alternative Economic Strategy (AES), and winning the support of forces ranging from Trotskyists to Eurocommunists. Bennism had become the reincarnation of the Bevanism he had spurned in his youth.
Bennism reached its apogee in the first years of the 80s, when a small mass movement within Labour propelled him to within a whisker of the deputy leadership. It collapsed almost immediately after, with the departure of the Gang of Four to form the Social Democratic Party and the disastrous 1983 election. Benn was heavily implicated in the Labour manifesto, the supposed ‘longest suicide note in history’, and lost his seat largely as a result of boundary changes. Neil Kinnock rapidly turned to the right, clamping down on the entrist groups with whom Benn had maintained cordial relations.
His largest external support base, the ‘official’ Communist Party, was well into its fratricidal death spiral; the Eurocommunist factions switched allegiance to Kinnock and even, in many cases, to the treacherous SDP (today part of the Liberal Democrats). This dynamic continued, spurred on considerably by the collapse of Stalinism and the liquidation of the ‘official’ CPGB … until Tony Blair got the leadership. Benn’s influence increasingly waned within Labour and, by the time he retired from parliament “to spend more time on politics”, he had been rendered effectively harmless.
Democracy and autarky
Bennism itself was a curious hybrid - a leftwing populism that was not overtly nationalist, but incontrovertibly national. It relied on the idea that Britain could reach autarky, laying the basis for greater general prosperity and thus strengthening the position of the masses in relation to the powerful. This exhibits less any particular philosophical originality on Benn’s part than the very considerable influence of the CPGB on the Labour and trade union left in the 1970s.
But that did not distinguish Benn from any run-of-the-mill Labour Party reformist or CPGB fellow-traveller of his era. What did was the other element of his later leftwing existence - a passionate, if somewhat contradictory, belief in democracy, and in the correct proposition that only by the struggle of the masses can any measure of democracy be won. His leftward shift was animated by the glimpse he had of the enormous power arrayed against the working class during Wilson’s first government: the entrenched privilege of the establishment, the economic power of big capital, the bureaucratic structures of Labour itself and the distortions of the capitalist media conspired against popular power.
“Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule,” he wrote in 1988. “If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system, they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.” He called for the abolition of the Lords and the monarchy, and “a democratic, federal and secular commonwealth [of Britain]”.1
The left-libertarian science-fiction writer, Cory Doctorow, reminds us of a mischievous habit of Benn’s - illegally placing memorial plaques to popular agitators and democratic heroes around the House of Commons. The most famous - in the broom cupboard, dedicated to suffragette Emily Wilding Davison - recounts the story of her activism and death under the king’s horse, and concludes: “By such means was democracy won for the people of Britain”.2
The contradictory character of his view of democracy comes in here - surely, in the light of the political and economic obstructions enumerated above, democracy has not, in fact, been “won for the people of Britain”. Benn would not have argued that there was not some way yet to go, of course; but in other respects he was peculiarly conservative.
Like many Labour lefts, he fiercely defended the first-past-the-post electoral system, arguing that proportional representation favoured those who drew up the lists; but also because, in his view, a cardinal aspect of democracy was to have a representative at whatever level of government who was accountable to the voter. I have heard one particular anecdote from Benn several times over the years. In 1957, a constituent wrote to him along these lines: “Mr Benn, I have just heard that the Russians have sent a satellite into space. Is there any chance of a decent bus service in Bristol?” To whom should such a constituent address a complaint under a list system?
These arguments, though not unfounded, are ultimately false, and both for the same reason - the tacit assumption is that the mass of the population can never take control of the Labour Party, or indeed form a democratically organised socialist party of their own. Otherwise, the answer is not to defend first-past-the-post, but transform the Labour Party: so that those on its slates will be accountable to members. Benn and the Bennites fought for a more democratic Labour Party, but the flipside of the conservative attitude to electoral arrangements is inevitably that, at some level, they were resigned to defeat.
Furthermore, we must accept - though from the opposite side - the criticism, made widely in the slightly condescending obituaries that clog up the bourgeois press, that the Bennite advocacy of national autarky is a fantasy. It is particularly fantastical in the British context, given our reliance on imported food to eat, and tax takings on financial services to pay the state’s bills; but it is also obviously absurd on Benn’s own account, given the power of corporations with global reach, of the International Monetary Fund, of the United States ...
There is a grain of truth in the rightwing myth that Thatcherism and the events of 1989-91 have taken socialism off the agenda for good - but what they have actually taken off the agenda is socialism in a single country. It is the socialism of the ‘official communist’ movement, but also the socialism of Benn. In this context, the AES - and its successors - equally appear as a kind of rearguard action, a defensive measure against a rapacious and powerful foe.
Something of broader world history makes its way into every biography. In Benn’s case, the biography serves as a kind of counterpoint. This paper’s previous incarnation, The Leninist, decried the Bennite movement as a threat to the Communist Party - not because Benn was some Machiavelli, a malicious agent of capital, but because of Bennism’s attraction to a wider constituency, most especially the Straight Leftists, Eurocommunists and Chaterites in the ‘official’ Communist Party.
While Benn moved to the left, the far left drifted to the right. They met and crossed paths in the 1980s. As Benn’s age advanced, so did the left become more disoriented, until the point was reached where, in substantive practical politics, Benn and - say - the Socialist Workers Party were in more or less complete agreement, save for the Sunday-school revolutionism of the latter and disagreement over the matter of the Labour Party. (It is arguable that many members of Left Unity are some way to Benn’s right.) Of Benn, as AJP Taylor quipped of himself, we might say that he held extreme views, but held them moderately. Of the SWP, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the larger part of LU, we must say the exact opposite.
There is much to admire in Tony Benn: he was a powerful speaker and advocate of the left, however flawed; his view of political change was in a certain sense broader and more inspiring, thanks to its democratic aspect, than the stodgy syndicalism of the Trotskyist groups to his left. He tried to think, which is a dying habit in our faddish, philistine era. But, above all, it is the most bitter-sweet virtue of all that will be remembered: the tenacity with which he held to his principles, as the crosswinds of history scattered his allies and plunged the British left into a generation of continuous defeats.
We can forget neither that moral and political courage nor the total and inevitable failure of Bennite politics (and its contemporary ‘far-left’ variants) to reverse that defeat.
1. T Benn Out of the wilderness: diaries 1963-67 London 1988.