Left pessimism and Tony Benn
Tony Benn and the SWP find surprising common ground, their (mis)understanding of the working class, reports Mark Fischer
For me, the session on ‘The vote: how it was won and how it was undermined’ was a bit of a disappointment, despite being instructive in its way. The meeting was occasioned by the welcome re-issue of Paul Foot’s impressive and often inspiring book of the same name, so there was always going to be a degree of nostalgia and a bevy of warm anecdotes about the man himself - he clearly inspired personal affection, as well as political admiration.
However, I thought that an opportunity was missed. I do not know what the hundreds of other comrades who packed out the Cruciform lecture theatre expected, but I had hoped that the speakers, Tony Benn and the SWP’s Martin Smith, might spark a little more controversy - both between themselves and retrospectively in relation to the political legacy of Paul Foot.
To be fair to Benn, he did try. Both in his speech to this meeting and in his preface to the newly re-released book itself, he was clear that - whatever the merits of the first half of comrade Foot’s book on the vote (‘how it was won’), he had quite serious issues with the second (‘how it was undermined’), given the imperatives of what he calls in that preface the “real live struggle today”. Comrade Benn concedes that this notion of undermining has some “historical substance” - as exemplified in the very politically unsubstantial form of New Labour, for instance - but effectively it is “a form of left pessimism”. He told the meeting that this downbeat leftism - the dirge that leaders “always let you down”, as he put it - is of no use, as its only practical effect is to simply “undermine the next struggle”.
Now even the occasional reader of the Weekly Worker should furrow a brow at this point. If there is one thing that this paper does not castigate the SWP for, it is for talking down struggles and the opportunities for left advance - at least, not since the organisation’s perverse attachment to the gibberish theory of the ‘downturn’ ended. In fact, comrade Benn sounded like an SWP hack here, when they roundly tick off other sections of the left - mostly the Weekly Worker, which comrade Benn has specifically singled out for its ‘demobilising’ efforts in the past, it must be said - for any critical reflection on previous actions and interventions. These are effectively wrecking operations against the next march, the next rally, the next disastrously ill-conceived get-rich-quick piece of crass opportunism …
Martin Smith is not the most nimble-minded of comrades, but he did expend some considerable energy in refuting this ‘pessimistic’ tag. He and several of the (quite tightly choreographed, I thought) series of speakers from the floor, were at pains to emphasise their “optimism”, while stressing that, unlike Tony, they did not believe in a “parliamentary road to socialism” - a killer point rendered a little less lethal when comrade Benn gently reminded them that he didn’t either.
Perhaps some comrades thought that Smith further blurred the debate when he told us that he and the SWP agreed “99% with Tony Benn”. Actually, I thought it illustrated the problems of the contemporary left beautifully. I do not agree with comrade Benn “99%” or anywhere near it. As a Marxist, I have a totally different method that very often arrives at quite dramatically different political positions on struggles that I and comrade Benn may be jointly engaged in. For example, readers should look at the political platform offered by The Leninist - the factional journal that was the forerunner of the Weekly Worker - for the miners in the Great Strike of 1984-85 and contrast it with comrade Benn’s stance, for example. And, it must be said, with that of the SWP of the time.
But here we have the nub of the problem. As a left social democrat, Tony Benn ultimately believes that the role of the working class is to be gently cajoled into voting in the correct sort of Labour government that can then deliver them ‘socialism’ (in truth, welfare capitalism - a dismal perspective that is confirmed by the way comrade Benn continually ‘touches base’ with the 1945 Labour government of Attlee, including in the Marxism meeting). By contrast, comrade Smith holds to a punk version of the history of Bolshevism: one that imagines that a rigidly policed sect will somehow be catapulted into state power by some elemental, blind, almost nihilistic surge of the masses - and then, apparently, socialism ensues.
The commonality between these two views, their point of contact, is an unconscious contempt for the working class, whatever the subjective intentions of the political personalities that mouth them. There were guarded allusions to Paul Foot’s location on the right wing of the SWP in the meeting - for example, we had comrade Smith’s rather painful attempt to feebly defend Paul’s ‘softness’ on the aforementioned 1945 government as a means to “relate” to working class consciousness of the time. But the rather more brutal truth is that - in its day-to-day political activity, in the political physiognomy it adopted in the Stop the War Coalition, in the left liberal work it undertakes in its pop-front, anti-racist lash-ups or, horror of horrors, in the Respect debacle - the SWP acts like reformists; its revolutionism becomes purely formal.
Congratulations are due to Bookmarks for the re-release: it is a fine piece of work and to be recommended - in particular to comrades coming fresh to our movement. Also, huge thanks are due to the Hackney SWP comrade who chaired the meeting - and whose name my dulled and acuity-challenged ears failed to pick up - for her sterling work in negotiating with the original publishers to ensure this inspiring and accessible work is available to educate all of us, young and old alike.