This week marks the 3rd anniversary of the death of Tony Benn, one of the greatest parliamentary socialists Britain has ever seen. His celebrated diaries provide a compelling first-hand account of the second half of the Twentieth Century and reveal an interesting personal journey, in which he was vilified by the press as “the most dangerous man in Britain” before – in what seems to be a recurring rite-of-passage for left-wing leaders – being damned with faint, patronising praise in old age and death. But his life wasn’t all clichés. Where most people dabble in left-wing politics in their youth before becoming disillusioned by bitter experience, seeing the error of their ways and turning to the Right in later life, Benn traveled in the opposite direction; a technocrat on the right of the Labour Party, his experiences in government radicalised him and pushed him further to the Left as he got older. In this article I am going to describe that journey, his achievements and errors as well as the events that have unfolded since his death and how he may have thought of them.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn, to give him his full name, was born to a non-conformist Protestant family in London in 1925 to Liberal MP William Wedgwood Benn (later Viscount Stansgate, a fact whose importance will become clear later) and Christian theologian Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes). He led a rather privileged childhood – not socialist by any stretch of the imagination, but came from a long-standing dissenting tradition on both sides of the family that would plant the seeds for his later development. His atheist, liberal father instilled in him the values of the Enlightenment and, as one time Secretary of India, brought him into contact with Mahatma Gandhi. As a passionate advocate for Home Rule, he also instilled in his son a love of Irish freedom that would later translate into Benn’s controversial statements in support of Sinn Féin and the reunification of Ireland. His mother, that rare breed of radical feminist and Christian theologian, was a member of the League of the Church Militant and was rebuked by the Archbishop of Canterbury for advocating the ordination of women, leading her to eventually distance herself from the Church of England. Her religious beliefs had a deep and lasting influence on her son, as she taught him that the Bible was a story about the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness, and that he ought to support the prophets over the kings. This dissenting tradition dates far back in English history and even enjoyed a brief period of power under Oliver Cromwell; the debates about which direction England should take – known to history as the Putney debates – between Cromwell’s loyalists on the one hand and the Levellers on the other, etched themselves indelibly into the thinking of the young Benn. His religious upbringing never led him to embrace fundamentalism or superstition, however, and he embraced the teachings of Charles Darwin as well as those of Jesus, later adding Thomas Paine and Karl Marx to his personal canon.
The next logical step for this son of the radical bourgeoisie was to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. However, what had up to this point been a sheltered, bookish life collided with cold reality in the Second World War; while serving as an RAF pilot during that war his older brother Michael was killed. While he always maintained that the Second World War was a necessary war against an existential threat to the human race, he had seen enough of war’s unpleasant side effects to develop a deep aversion towards those who enter into such endeavours without good reason. After some delay, and with a little less naivete, he went to Oxford. There he met Caroline Middleton DeCamp, a fellow student from the United States who had voted for Henry Wallace in the 1948 Presidential election, who would later become his wife and – some say – the influence that slowly pulled him towards the Left.
Upon leaving Oxford he worked briefly as a producer for BBC radio before being selected to succeed Stafford Cripps as the Labour candidate for Bristol in 1950, winning the seat in a by-election. Given his posthumous reputation as a Labour radical it would be easy to assume that he was a Bevanite, but in fact held views quite antithetical to those of Aneurin Bevan and was probably closer to Hugh Gaitskell on the moderate wing of the party. Remember that he wasn’t a socialist at this point; his political philosophy was more akin to the paternalistic social democracy of the Fabian Society, the kind that sees the working class as an object of pity to be saved – while at the same time making sure they knew their place – rather than as a self-assertive revolutionary force. He believed that capitalism could be managed for the good of everyone and that this was what Labour’s role was meant to be. He advocated other policies that he later refuted, such as his early support for the nascent State of Israel as well as for greater European integration as possible bulwarks against the return of something similar to fascism and Nazism. That he was a moderate is not to say that he wasn’t prepared to defend the progressive causes of his day; in 1963 he helped organise the Bristol Bus Boycott in protest against racial segregation aimed against the city’s growing West Indian population.
What really started his journey from Anthony Wedgwood Benn to plain old Tony, however, was the death of his father in 1960. As I mentioned before his father had been made a peer, becoming Viscount Stansgate in 1942. Usually upon the death of a peer, the title automatically passes down to the eldest child. In this case however, since Michael had been killed in World War II Tony became the automatic heir to the peerage. At the time you couldn’t opt out of the peerage and, if you were an MP, you were automatically relieved of your duties and prevented from sitting in the House of Commons. This did not sit well with Tony. To him, it undermined democracy in favour of hereditary privilege. Over the next few years he fought tirelessly to renounce his succession, actually winning the ensuing Bristol by-election of 1961 before having his seat taken from him by an election court and given to the second placed candidate. He fought on for another two years and finally won the right to renounce his peerage, although the reasons behind the resulting Peerage Act were not exactly progressive; the Conservative government of the time had a few of its own MPs in a similar position to Benn and for this reason changed the law. Nevertheless, his ensuing by-election in 1963 felt like a real vindication of everything he had fought for and believed in. He declared:
“You have defeated the Tory cabinet. You have defeated the House of Lords. You have defeated the courts. You have changed the constitution of this country by your own power.”
For Benn it constituted a defeat for the idea of hereditary legislation, reasoning that he would be rather worried if one day his dentist were to say to him that in fact he had not studied dentistry, but was only in his job because of his father. The whole experience left him with a life-long distrust of the House of Lords, which is quite pertinent at a time when the current Left seem to be displaying a new-found love for an institution they once wanted to raise to the ground. As far as Tony was concerned the point was a simple one – borrowed from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man – and he later applied it to the EU: “I would much rather have a bad Parliament than a good King. At least you can unelect a MP when you see he isn’t fit to do his job. A King on the other hand acts off a whim and is totally unaccountable; even though he might do a few good things for you today, tomorrow he may have a change of heart or cede his throne to a cruel successor and by then there will be absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
Back in Parliament Tony Benn got his first taste of government, working as Postmaster General under Harold Wilson, where he showed another streak of his emerging radicalism – his republicanism. Aside from a short period under Oliver Cromwell, Britain has always had a monarchy of one sort or another. And save for a few exceptions – Thomas Paine and Christopher Hitchens come to mind, yet these always felt more at home in America – republicanism has never held much sway in this country. Given the current popularity of the monarchy, this is unlikely to change soon. However, this didn’t stop Benn from making his gesture; he proposed issuing stamps without the Queen’s head. When he was met with private opposition from the Queen herself, he decided to meet her halfway. The portrait was reduced in size and moved to the top right-hand corner of the stamp, a format still used on commemorative stamps to this day.
Shortly into his tenure as Prime Minister, Harold Wilson promoted Benn to Minister of Technology as part of his drive to promote bold scientific policies in keeping with the mood of the forward-thinking 1960s, “the white heat of the technological revolution” as he called it. With the Space Race in full flow it certainly was an exciting time. He oversaw the development of Concorde and the formation of International Computers Limited. He also spoke up against Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, a principled but quite unpopular move at the time. All interesting stuff, you’ll say, but didn’t he seem a bit too comfortable in a seat of government? Did he really fight tooth-and-nail for the right to become an elected pen-pusher? Because without realising it that is certainly what he was becoming. At least until the 1970s.
One event drove home to him that for all his whizkiddery and passion for latest gadgets – as Lord Hennessy put it (12:40) – that given the fragility of the post-war recovery in Europe, unless the State harnessed and controlled the application of technology, it could put people out of work. He found it out once Labour had been beaten by Ted Heath’s Conservatives in the 1970 General Election. This event was a work-in organised by the shipbuilders of the Upper Clyde in Scotland in response to a widespread fear of closures and redundancies. It could be said that in the drive to develop initiatives such Concorde, while laudable, the Labour government took its eye off the ball and failed to nationalise the shipbuilding industry when it had the chance and safeguard livelihoods. This laid the ground for the next Tory government to step in and carve the industry up. Benn knew that as a member of Wilson’s government he had to bear his share of the responsibility and he drew the following lesson: they had failed not as a result of sticking too closely to socialist values but for not embracing them enough and so, instead of moving to the centre as many in the Party were advocating, Benn advocated a bold move to the Left. “You can’t manage capitalism on behalf of the capitalists”, he seemed to be saying. And so when the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, led by Jimmy Reid, took over the shipyard themselves, Benn lent his support. It would set the tone for the rest of his life.
As Secretary of State for Industry in the second Wilson government, Benn set out to apply these lessons wherever he could, helping to set up worker cooperatives in struggling firms, passing the Health and Safety at Work Act and increasing nationalised industry pay. He also began to see how difficult it was to act progressively in government when powerful vested interests act against you every single day. He soon dropped his initial Europhilia and campaigned against Britain’s entry into the European Common Market, as evidenced by this debate with Roy Jenkins (in a respectful manner, totally unlike the ugliness that engulfed both sides of the 2016 vote), as what was being offered was not only increasingly bureaucratic, undemocratic and dominated by Germany, but with the eroding of national sovereignty would undermine a future elected socialist government’s ability to enact its own policies. Having seen how Syriza was backed into a corner in 2015 it’s hard to argue against the view that Benn was right. Benn also saw how the Wilson and Callaghan governments were crippled by the power of global capital, in particular the International Monetary Fund, whose loans to Britain to stem the adverse flow of sterling came with demands to cut spending on essential public services and infrastructure. “Vested interests” does not only refer to international bankers, however. An elected government can just as easily find itself undermined, frustrated or slowed down by ideologically opposed civil servants as well as the power of the capitalist media who make it their mission to make sure the events of the day are presented from the point of view of the powerful and wealthy. Benn’s political evolution did not pass unnoticed by his adversaries, however; the tabloid newspapers called him “the most dangerous man in Britain”, subjected him to a whole range of ad hominem attacks, with many of his enemies both inside and outside Parliament labeling him a “Bolshevik” and a “communist”.
Anti-Benn controversy reached its zenith after his last period in government. His support for Sinn Féin, his backing for the 1981 Hunger Strikes and sympathy with Gerry Adams led to inevitable charges of him supposedly being an IRA sympathiser. He advocated British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and the reunification of the country. This along with what his enemies perceived to be the influence of the Militant Tendency on the Left of the party led four right-wing Labour MPs – David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – to break away from the Labour Party and form the Social Democratic Party. It also caused consternation for leader Michael Foot when Benn announced his intention to run for Labour deputy leadership. Foot, whose influence and effectiveness had been on the wane for a few years and had retreated to Parliamentarism, saw Benn as a divisive influence. Benn dismissed the doubters and continued undeterred, throwing his support behind the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Needless to say, it was a stance that provoked the usual ire in the media and on the Labour Right. However it also revealed Benn’s role while in government in undermining the strike as the policies he helped implement led to wage differences from region to region later and thus to distrust between the miners from different regions. It made unity of action extremely difficult, especially in Nottinghamshire. In any case, the strike was defeated by the Thatcher government and the Left was defeated by the Kinnock leadership. This led to a general decline in Benn’s influence on the Labour Party, losing his seat in Bristol despite going on to win Chesterfield, but not before pushing on with the anti-Apartheid movement and launching a passionate defence of gay rights. A long-term supporter of gay liberation movements, he voted in favour of decriminalisation in 1967. This may not seem so controversial today, but at a time of rampant homophobia and (later) ignorance regarding HIV/AIDS, it was an extremely difficult position to defend at the time.
With the rise of New Labour in the 1990s, accompanied by Fukuyama’s “End of History” and the spread of neo-liberalism, Benn’s influence began to wane. The death of his wife Caroline – who had forged a brilliant career in her own right as a writer, academic and advocate for quality comprehensive education – led to a period of introspection, in which he also retired as an MP. Most outgoing MPs tend to go gently into the night, write their memoirs and enjoy their retirement. Except Benn wasn’t ‘most outgoing MPs’; instead he chose to rage against the dying of the light, vowing to “dedicate more time to politics” as he ironically put it. He threw himself into the movement against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, against nuclear weapons and, in a complete about-turn, declared his support for Palestinian self-determination. As with his ever-evolving views on Europe he had come to see Israel as increasingly authoritarian and militaristic, a Trojan horse for American power in the Middle East and a State whose “democracy” seemed to exclude a huge section of the population on ethnic and religious grounds. He vehemently defended the Cuban Revolution as well as the Bolivarian project in Venezuela. His retirement seemed to re-energise him and give him a fresh, proselytising zeal; he learned from the story of Daniel in the lions den to “dare to be Daniel”, in other words, to say true to himself regardless of the passing fashions of the day. This also led him to harbour a deep respect for his ideological enemies such as Thatcher who did not change their convictions with the weather; to him the only thing the Tories were guilty of was fighting for their class with the zeal and venom with which the now lobotomised Labour Party should be fighting for the working class. His real targets at this time were not so much the Tories as the Third Way Blairism that had taken over his party with the same managerialist approach that Benn had himself once advocated. He took his gospel far and wide, from the respectable – television debate shows and documentaries – to the outright bizarre – comedy sketches, music records and appearances at Glastonbury, and etched himself into the culture in such a Gramscian way that would never have been possible for him as an MP. One price he had to pay for his newfound sense of peace, however, was losing his place as a threat to the establishment. Far from being “the most dangerous man in Britain”, he came dangerously close to becoming a “national treasure”. He wouldn’t be the first radical to be vilified during his peak before being co-opted and rendered harmless in old age or death; such a fate also befell the likes of the Suffragettes, the martyrs of the Easter Rising, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and – increasingly – Noam Chomsky. If he were alive, he would probably respond to such a charge with a point he repeatedly made about such people; “First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”
Since his death in March 2014 at the age of 88 many seismic events have taken place about which Benn would have had strong opinions, and it is for this reason that he is still missed three years later. What would Tony Benn think of the world in 2017? He would have been delighted with Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victories in 2015 and 2016, yet unsurprised at repeated attempts by the mainstream media, the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as the Blairite element of the party to undermine his every move. He would also be disappointed to see the failure of Corbyn to effectively combat the threats against his leadership. He would have seen a similar pattern of events repeated several times; for example Syriza, whose election victory had been a source of hope for millions in Greece and Europe but who then reneged on the “Oxi” result of the referendum and ended up bending the knee to the Troika. There is also Podemos, whose meteoric rise in 2014 in Spain was undermined by their own infantile postmodernism and student-like posturing; by framing their arguments in terms of a cross-class civil society and presenting themselves as little more than a patriotic “anti-corruption” party they failed to make any inroads with their imagined constituency, the working class. Rather than coordinating their struggles alongside the people and learning from them Podemos, whose leadership is composed mainly of university academics, looked down from their intellectual ivory tower and saw the Spanish electorate as their plaything. It was a tactic that backfired badly, with the right-wing pro-Catholic Partido Popular (PP) firmly entrenched in government. Podemos must also take responsibility for its failure to stand its ground in the face of pro-PP right-wing hostility. At the time of writing there seems to be little that distinguishes them from that other pro-capitalist party of the Left, the PSOE. The Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party leadership would also have filled him with encouragement, not so much for the candidate himself but rather the mass movement that grew around his campaign. He would no doubt have been as disappointed with Sanders’ decision to completely surrender his independence and unconditionally offer himself to the pro-neoliberal Hillary Clinton campaign as with the Trump victory itself. That said, he will have recognised that Sanders is nowhere near as socialist as he claims to be; for all the good intentions behind his pro-welfare policies, his politics are in fact much closer to the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Benn may have also seen in the Trump campaign not merely the rabble of racist, uneducated louts that liberals often portray them as, but rather disenfranchised people whose frustrations were understandable albeit misguided. American history – the success of Eugene Debs and the IWW a century ago, the popularity of the Communist Party before McCarthyism, the movements of the 1960s and more recently the election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, for example – demonstrates that the United States is not the impenetrable final frontier for the Left it is often portrayed as, and that a sustained campaign to win the masses round to pro-socialist policies could have galvanised millions in rejection of both Clinton and Trump. If this sounds utopian then so is the notion that Hillary Clinton was the “safe”, surefire option who was supposedly certain to save America and the world from a unique evil. And finally, there is Brexit. As little as today’s “Left” like to admit it, their hero Tony Benn was staunchly in favour of British withdrawal from the European Union. Granted he would not have identified with the ugliness of a considerable section of the official Leave campaign, many of whom are die-hard reactionaries, but he was fully aware that a large section of the Right shared his opinion when making his statements and as Arthur Koestler once said, “You can’t help being right for the wrong reasons… This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.” Benn didn’t oppose the EU through knee-jerk anti-Europeanism or distrust of immigrants, but rather because the EU’s structures made it impossible for elected national governments to carry out progressive economic policies, a point acknowledged by Syriza’s pro-EU former Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis. The Left’s near uncritical support for the EU – a bureaucratic, neo-liberal project with a serious democratic deficit – is the very product of this lack of self-confidence. So scared are they of being lumped in the same category as UKIP, the euroskeptic wing of the Tory Party and even Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, that they are prepared to retreat from a seriously needed left-wing critique of the EU – whose actions and biggest supporters are also less than savoury from a left-wing perspective – in favour of lauding it as an internationalist, social-democratic panacea to Thatcherism and right-wing populism. Even the previously euroskeptic Jeremy Corbyn fell into this trap in an attempt to please everyone and has ended up pleasing no-one. As a result, instead of attempting a sincere analysis of why the Leave vote won, much of the pro-Remain Left have resorted to dismissing the English working class outside of London as racist and xenophobic. The result of all this emotional finger-pointing and virtue-signalling has been to rid themselves of all responsibility for their own failures and to shift the blame onto the know-nothing plebs who have supposedly fallen short of their enlightened standards, in a manner reminiscent of the Daily Mail Right. One thing that Tony Benn never did was to direct his anger downwards or revert to insult following a political defeat, and in this sense he would have been deeply disillusioned by the conduct of both sides of the Referendum despite getting his desired result. An area he could have improved upon was to distance himself from fellow Leavers on the political Right; after all the socialist position, unlike the national-chauvinism advocated by UKIP and the Tory hard Right, had always been that of rejecting both the British and the European ruling classes in equal measure. If there is to be European unity of any kind it must be unity of the European working classes, which can never be brought about by Brussels or Berlin. Any progressive case to Leave must be made on these grounds.
That said, I don’t intend for this article to be a hagiography as there are a number of things we should seek to avoid. This isn’t to gratuitously use Benn’s mistakes in order to sully his legacy – he openly admitted his mistakes, especially in government. I simply believe that Benn used his experiences to make a positive contribution to the debate about how to advance towards socialism and what not to do in the process and it is in that spirit that I make my criticisms. The main criticism I would like to concentrate on was that he was a romantic with no convincing, practical vision about how socialism actually would be brought about or how it would work. For example, in Arguments for Socialism Benn correctly identifies that the problems we face are extra-parliamentary – the power of the banks and multinational organisations, for example – but he seems to be stubbornly wedded to parliamentary methods and tactics as as the only possible road to change. For all his talk of change coming from below – and citing the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes as examples of organisations that started off with no political power to speak of – the remedies he proposes fall under the vague, catch-all umbrella of “a radical Labour government” despite the fact that every Labour government in history has been forced onto the defensive by vested interests sooner or later. It should have taught him the lesson that the ballot box and Parliament are not strong enough to achieve his stated objectives. As Ralph Miliband explained in Parliamentary Socialism the Labour Party, far from being a force for change, more often than not served the status quo by acting as a kind of shock absorber for popular discontent. Those idealistic Labour MPs who go to Parliament wanting to change it often end up being changed by it. Benn sometimes made mention of “workers’ control” but he never clarified exactly how workers’ control would be brought out: would the introduction of workplace democracy in Britain’s key industries be facilitated by a Labour government? If not, would he advocate the workers taking them over themselves? Would they be run for profit like private companies as was the case with the Mondragón experiment in the Basque Country? Or would they be socialised industries? Moreover, did he really expect that vested interests in Britain would just stand by and watch it happen? Having control of the government does not necessarily mean having the control of the state; Karl Marx wrote that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” The “state machinery”- or the “deep state” in more contemporary parlance – can refer to a whole myriad of institutions depending on the country in question; the churches, the law courts, the media, schools, civil servants, the most important banks, financiers and industrialists, large property owners, aristocrats, the intelligence community, the military, the police, the House of Lords, the Monarchy, etc. The State is a much broader term than people assume and does not simply refer to those with political power – they come and go – but rather to those with a long-standing vested interest in things remaining as they are. The State therefore is not a neutral arbiter between different but equal political factions, between Left and Right or between capital and labour. The odds are very much stacked in favour of capital. To give him his due Benn recognised this – and he experienced it more than most – but in his proposed solutions spoke as if he believed in a neutral State, and nowhere was this more evident than in his talk of introducing a “democratic tripartite element” into industrial relations. In practice this meant two parties – management and trade unions (and by this does Benn mean the trade union bureaucracy or the rank-and-file? He never made this clear) – sitting down to negotiate under the watchful eye of the third party, the government. And preferably a Labour government. This is pretty bland stuff coming from somebody who talked about workers’ control and “transferring power”, notions that contradict the very notion of a tripartite agreement. What’s more, to suggest that it is possible for management and workers to have common interests is rather odd coming from somebody who claims the heritage of Karl Marx. But even if Benn did have a coherent socialist programme, he never proposed how it should be defended when in government. What would happen if, for example, there were a military coup? Would a Benn government arm the workers to defend their democratic gains? Salvador Allende was opposed to Chilean workers taking over factories and running them themselves, and in 1973 refused to arm the Chilean people as he believed in the benign intentions of the military, and we all know what happened to him. Even if it doesn’t come to violence, how would the working class in Britain participate in Benn’s socialist project? Again, aside from a few vague references to “workers’ control” Benn never gives us a concrete plan; it is as if all the workers need to do is vote for a socialist government, sit back and passively watch that government wave the magic wand on their behalf. Fabian socialism all over again.
So far I have spoken about Benn’s tendency towards romanticism in domestic affairs, but my point also applies to his take on international affairs. Take Northern Ireland, for example. (To what extent this is an “international” or “domestic” issue I guess depends on one’s opinion on the Irish Question.) While advocating for a United Ireland is a perfectly feasible position, as this article points out Benn, although he was on strong ground when speaking about the legacy of partition and the negative influence of the British presence, never put much thought into what form that Ireland would take after Britain had left. Would this Ireland be socialist or capitalist? Would a capitalist united Ireland be acceptable to a socialist like Benn? Did Benn think that a united Ireland on a capitalist basis could even be possible? Would Northern Ireland be absorbed into the currently existing 26-county capitalist state, or should both entities be dissolved and something entirely new built in its place? Could a million pro-British working-class Protestants simply be legislated into a country they didn’t want to be part of, from above and at the stroke of a pen? How would Benn pitch the idea of a united Ireland to these working-class Protestants in a way that puts their fears of “Rome Rule” to rest? Can secularism finally take root? He never seemed able to answer these questions, nor was he very willing to recognise that despite Britain’s role in the conquest and sectarian carve-up of Ireland, Britain’s imperialist ambitions on the island have long since gone away; that Britain no longer wants Ireland, but that there remains a division among the Irish people. His view on Ireland never went far beyond the Home Rule liberalism in which he was raised; according to which the “Irish people” as an indivisible unit regardless of class or religion have a right to govern themselves. Any Protestant Irish person (unless he or she becomes Wolfe Tone) with a tincture of British identity who harbours fears of a united Ireland is little more than a privileged bigot who is just impeding the inevitable. I should make it clear that I am not a unionist or loyalist – and there is much about that tradition which is incompatible with my way of thinking – but I do recognise that even if Ireland were to become a united, socialist country tomorrow, the communal divisions would not simply disappear or be wished away. A lot of hard, complicated work would still need to be done. Tony Benn could have made a valuable contribution to the discussion about what a post-reunification Ireland would look like, but for whatever reason unfortunately didn’t do so. Maybe it was due to a sense of guilt at being an English aristocrat, that he felt ill-placed to comment on Irish internal affairs? We’ll never know. His take on the question of Palestine was equally frustrating at times; while no-one could doubt his courage in opposing Israeli actions toward the Palestinians – namely its constant bombings of the Gaza strip and building of illegal settlements in the West Bank – he was on somewhat weaker ground when it came to discussing how a lasting, democratic peace agreement could be reached and how such an agreement could encapsulate the rights of both the Jewish people and the Palestinian Arabs, without one dominating the other. Instead, Benn often limited himself to defending Hamas as the elected government of Gaza without challenging its Islamist ideology. His support for nuclear disarmament, in the context of the Cold War, was admirable. His support for unilateral disarmament, however, was naive. Who is to say that if one country alone disarms that it won’t leave itself to the mercy of other nuclear powers? And if hypothetically a nuclear state becomes socialist and then disarms, I very much doubt it would last five minutes in a sea of hostile nuclear capitalist states. Tony Benn’s weaknesses are symptomatic of a much larger postmodern phenomenon that has been taking place on the British Left for a long time now; our sense of collective guilt over the atrocities of the British empire, while justified and well founded, have caused us to retreat from humanism and universalism, preventing us from critiquing other cultures or political systems (in many cases repressive ones) lest we be accused of orientialism or colonialism. It’s a habit of thought that to this day many on the Left haven’t quite shaken off.
To conclude then, three years after his passing Tony Benn remains very much missed. He was not perfect by any means; his heart was in the right place but offered surprisingly little in theoretical or practical terms. In critiquing him I don’t wish to downplay the positive side of his legacy, because he was our best modern exponent of the radical liberal Protestant tradition in England. Many British socialists would do well to draw as much from this rich tradition as they can. He was also a son of the ruling class who effectively betrayed that class in favour of a reformist, parliamentary path that he genuinely thought would lead to socialism, and it was a path he walked honourably like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Clement Attlee, Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan before him. It is also a path that, with all due respect to these men, we shouldn’t pay too much reverence to. That said, his life offers a perfect example that people don’t just move to the Right as they get older; they can also move to the Left. Benn rejected cynicism and opted for the latter, and in so doing proved that it is not necessarily important where you started in life but where you end up. What side are you on? Not just in terms of Left-Right but also on the role of the Labour Party itself. Now is a better time than any to learn from Tony Benn.
Benn, Tony, Arguments for Socialism
Benn, Tony, Free at Last!
Benn, Tony, The Benn Diaries
Benn, Tony, The Best of Benn
Foot, Paul, The Labour Left’s Brightest Star
Foot, Paul, The Politics of Harold Wilson
Foot, Paul, The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined
Hill, Christopher, The World Turned Upside Down
Marx, Karl, The Civil War in France
Miliband, Ralph, Class War Conservatism
Miliband, Ralph, Parliamentary Socialism: A study in the politics of Labour
Morgan, Kenneth, Michael Foot: A Life
Paine, Thomas, The Rights of Man