|Tony Benn 3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014|
Some personal reflections on a comrade I knew
by Stephen Morgan:
The death of the renowned British left-wing politician, Tony Benn, is a sad loss to the Labour movement in the UK and internationally. Tony represented the heritage of the great left-wing movements of the 1970's and 1980's and was a symbol of socialism for a generation of working class fighters. His absence will leave a vacuum on the left which will be nigh on impossible to fill. However, Tony wouldn't have wanted his death to be a time of mourning. He would prefer his passing to be a moment to celebrate the ideas of socialism and re-empower ourselves in the battle against the ruling class.
Well-known for having renounced his peerage as a Viscount in the British nobility, Tony went on to be a resolute advocate of the abolition of the British monarchy. He was also a merciless critic of Imperialism in its role in Northern Ireland, in the invasion of Iraq and in all the other crimes it committed around the world. As one commentator remarked, he was the epitome of the “often-treasured English archetype: the radical dissenter.” And it may surprise those outside Britain to know that this bright burning torch of socialism was four times voted Britain's favourite politician.
Tony devoted his entire political life (some 64 years) to fighting for the interests of the working class, to campaigning against capitalism and to popularizing the ideas of socialism. He was a person of incredible integrity and honesty, as well as humility, and he was a figure whose bitterest enemies could only treat with respect. It is not an overstatement to describe him as an icon, who was loved by the majority of the British people, regardless of whether they agreed with his politics.
I had the privilege of working closely with Tony during the 1980's when he and I were members of the (NEC) National Executive Committee of the British Labour Party. I was a representative of Labour's youth wing, which at the time was controlled by the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group which was part of the CWI and of which I was once a leading member. The NEC was the policy-making body of the Labour Party made up of the party leaders, trade union barons and those elected by the popular vote of the party membership like myself and Tony. He and I used to caucus before NEC meetings to discuss our strategy in combating the right-wing and in getting left-wing resolutions passed, which we succeeded to do on many occasions.
It was a period of the terrible onslaught of Margaret Thatcher against the working class and I remember in particular how we managed to commit the Labour Party to supporting the great miners' strike by proposing a resolution which called on all party members to make a weekly donation to the strike fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the fight.
Tony never shied away from controversy or the persistent hounding and slanders made against him by the ruling class and its media. As a senior figure in British politics, he terrified the bourgeoisie. In every interview he gave, he would relentlessly and unapologetically insist on the need for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a democratic socialist society.
In this sense, Tony differentiated himself from virtually all others on the left of the Labour Party. In the 1970's and 80's there were many leading figures in the party who opportunistically espoused left-wing views as a means to further their personal careers. I remember debating with Gordon Brown in Glasgow. He argued at the time that if Labour came to power it should nationalize the banks and the top 25 monopolies and then gradually introduce socialism over a number of years. Gordon Brown later became Chancellor of the Exchequer (the Minister of Finances and n° 2 in the government) under Tony Blair and eventually succeeded him as Prime Minister. Brown jettisoned all his socialist ideas and introduced neo-liberal economic policies, but Tony Benn never betrayed his principles in this way.
During the period of ferocious class struggle in the 1970's and 1980's, when the left was strong in the British trade unions and Labour party, Tony's popularity was such that he only narrowly failed to become leader or deputy leader of the Labour party on a number of occasions. Tony could have moved to the right and won the party leadership, but he refused to bow to pressure for him to relinquish his socialist ideals.
In terms of aims, I shared a common goal and belief with Tony that socialism was the only answer to the horrors of capitalism and the pain and suffering it inflicted on the working class. However, I differed with him on strategy about how this could be achieved. In my opinion, Tony was wrong to believe that socialism could be brought about through the election of a socialist Labour government in Parliament, which could then use the legality of its electoral majority to gradually transform capitalism into socialism.
Instead, while not ruling out the theoretical possibility of a socialist government, I felt that it would be necessary to immediately expropriate all of the major 200 monopolies and financial institutions which controlled the economy and then mobilize the masses onto the streets in order to repulse an almost certain attempt at counter-revolution by the ruling class.
This perspective was later confirmed by a BBC documentary which revealed that there had been a plot (sometimes called the British Watergate) involving right-wing Conservative politicians, the secret services, army chiefs and the monarchy to carry out a coup in Britain in the event of a left-wing government coming to power, and which aimed to replace it with a military dictatorship led by the Queen's cousin Earl Mountbatten. The plan's documents included written instructions about the need to assassinate a certain “leading left-winger”, who was no doubt meant to be Tony Benn.
In fact, a similar plan was carried out in Chile during this period by the CIA together with the fascist forces of General Pinochet against the majority socialist government of Allende. However, I am sure that, despite his mistaken perspectives on how to achieve socialism, in a situation like that, Tony Benn, like Allende, would not have caved in, but would have gone to his death refusing to renounce his socialist ideals. Tony may have misguidedly believed in a reformist road to socialism, rather than a revolutionary one, but there is no doubt that he was a giant on the left and a progressive force for socialism, whose positive influence on the Labour movement will continue for a long time to come.