Eric Chester (RCN) goes beyond the glowing tributes made to Tony Benn after he died earlier this year and takes a critical look his politics.
Tony Benn was one of the most popular and respected figures on the Left in Scotland and throughout the UK. His recent death has been followed by many notices that have lavishly praised him and yet virtually no effort has been made to seriously examine the politics he represented.
Benn held a unique place in British politics. He served in Parliament for fifty years and held a cabinet post under two prime ministers for more than a decade in the period from 1964 to 1979. A fervent believer in the ‘parliamentary road to socialism,’ he became increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party as he grew older. Benn became the public face of a series of broadly based protest movements, most of them in opposition to the UK government’s willingness to provide support and assistance to the U.S. government’s imperial adventures around the globe.
In a time characterized by a pervasive cynicism toward politicians as corrupt opportunists, Benn stood out as a counter example. A person of integrity, he steadfastly held to his beliefs even when they ran against the prevailing sentiment. When New Labour abandoned the welfare state, Benn continued to defend the public sector and advocate the provision of essential social services to all. He consistently attacked capitalism as a system in which the very wealthy commanded enormous power while the great majority scrambled to survive.
It says a great deal about lowered expectations that a person with Benn’s record could become an iconic figure on the Left. Although a committed critic of its leadership, he remained a dedicated advocate of the Labour Party to the end, dismissing every effort to establish an alternative party on the Left. His unwavering loyalty to the Labour Party became the sole focus of criticism in the multitude of laudatory articles written after his death. Still, Benn’s underlying political perspective was left untouched by critical assessment, perhaps because so much of the British left shares the same viewpoint.
The bedrock of Benn’s politics was a belief that capitalism as a social system can be reformed through a series of incremental measures, most of them embodied in parliamentary legislation. This has always been the core assumption of labourism. From its formation more than a century ago, the Labour Party has put forward a program of social reforms in the belief that a better society can be reached step by step. Yet decades later, and despite the success of the Labour Party as an electoral formation that has led to it frequently holding state power, we are in the midst of a relentless assault on the working class, as the social safety net is shredded and wages and working conditions continue to spiral downward.
Tony Benn remained a committed reformist throughout his entire career. His avuncular charisma legitimized a labourist reformism that has stifled for decades the class consciousness of the working class in Scotland and the UK. At the heart of Benn’s politics was the central importance of the welfare state measures implemented by Labour Party government during the immediate post-war period. These gains, Benn believed, had to be defended and built upon to establish a society that provided high quality social services for all, maintained a basic level of support for the poorest, and significantly reduced the gap in incomes between the wealthy few and the vast majority who had to work for a living. In other words, Benn sought to create a society that replicated the Scandinavian social democratic model in the United Kingdom.
Of course, Benn understood that the welfare state was, in fact, being dismantled, and that the Labour Party had participated in this dismantling. Still, his explanation for this remained superficial, and thus misleading. Benn blamed the right-wing of the Labour Party, Tony Blair and his ilk, for betraying the reformist tradition of the Party. They had surrendered principles for acceptance by the media moguls. In addition, Benn believed that neo-conservative ideologues, with their dogma that the market cured all ills, had undercut popular support for the public sector.
In holding these views, Benn was in line with the predominant viewpoint on the Scottish Left, and yet the argument merely skims the surface. The rollback in social services is a global phenomenon, affecting virtually every one of the industrialized capitalist countries. Thus, focusing on the manoeuvring of Labour Party politicians can only serve to mystify rather than explain. Furthermore, the ideologically committed believers in the market economy have been around for more than a century. Why all of a sudden have they gained in influence?
The attacks on social services and the welfare state reflect the underlying change in the balance of class forces. The global integration of the economy has greatly strengthened the power of the capitalist class. Workers in the industrial countries are forced to compete not only with workers in similar countries but also with the working class in the currently industrializing countries, where living standards are far lower. The result has been a relentless fall in wages and working conditions that has severely impacted the British working class. As workers in the private sector reel from the corporate assault, those in the public sector become increasingly vulnerable. The tabloids intensify the divisions within the working class by emphasizing that public sector workers enjoy benefits long since lost to those working in the private sector. Thus the corporate attack on the working class spreads as those in the public sector are coerced into accepting cuts in their wages, benefits, and working conditions as the quality of public services rapidly deteriorates.
Benn also remained a fervent believer that social change takes place primarily through the electoral arena by electing the right people to Parliament. This position ignores the extent to which the electoral system is stacked in favour of those with money and power. Control of the mass media give mainstream politicians a significant advantage. Campaign funds flow to those who are willing to advance the interests of the large corporations. Election laws can be manipulated to give a sizable advantage to incumbents. If those on the Left do succeed in being elected, they find themselves immersed in a procedural web designed to ensure that little changes. Furthermore, elected representatives hobnob with the insiders and receive an income far greater than those who elected them. If all of these barriers are surmounted, the rules can be changed to limit the franchise or exclude parties from presenting candidates. Ballots can be miscounted or lost.
In a society marked by enormous disparities in income, wealth and power, the electoral process will, of necessity, reflect this. Fundamental change can only occur when a strong, dynamic grass-roots emerges that can connect workplace militants and community activists. Yet even such a militant movement will soon have to overcome the sharply limited possibilities for reform within a globally integrated capitalist economy by advocating a revolutionary program for a total change in social relations, that is the creation of a socialist society.
A Revolutionary Alternative
Benn continued to cling to a political perspective premised on a series of illusions. There was the illusion that the Labour Party could be a party of the working class and not just another centrist party led by cynical politicians. Most of the Left has seen through this illusion but Benn held to it to the end. There was the illusion that capitalism as a system can be reformed, along with the illusion that in a globally integrated capitalist economy it was possible to return to the welfare state of the post-war period. The reality is that the working class confronts a stark choice, either capitulate to the corporate behemoths or move rapidly to a socialist transformation of society.
Benn’s political perspective was based on wishful thinking but the problem runs even deeper. To his credit, Benn never wavered in arguing the necessity for a socialist alternative to capitalism. Unlike most Labour Party politicians, he did not abandon the socialist tradition. Yet Benn’s vision of a socialist alternative never moved beyond an expanded version of the Scandinavian welfare state. Benn was never willing to directly challenge the vast power held by a few obscenely wealthy families.
We need to reject the hope that capitalism can be reformed, but we also need to project a vision of an entirely different social system. Instead of a society based on individualistic greed and inequality, we need to create a society based on cooperation and equality. This can only occur when the means of production are socially owned and controlled by workers through workplace councils and where the output of society is produced according to a democratic, decentralized process of planning, rather than as the outcome of the market mechanism. This libertarian socialist society will only move forward to a truly classless society when every form of oppression and hierarchy are challenged and overcome, whether based on gender, ethnicity, sexual preference or skill set.
Needless to say, such a society can only be constructed through a revolutionary transformation, and not through incremental reforms that chip at the existing system. This vision of a libertarian socialist society is directly connected to the belief in the necessity of a revolutionary break, just as the commitment to a restored social democratic welfare state is directly linked to a belief in a strategy tied to incremental reforms.
We can respect Tony Benn’s integrity, and his refusal to trim his views to the immediately popular while at the same time making it clear that we totally reject the labourist reformism that he represented.
The biggest problem with this article is that is sees politics as being similar to a consumer choice. If politics was as simple as choosing a brand of washing powder from a supermarket shelf, paying the required money and then it expecting it to do what it says on the packet, then life would be very straightforward. But politics requires other people’s concerns to be respected and to achieve a specified goal often requires a lot of circuitous routes and directions.
Eric is wrong on both the points he makes when he states, “A fervent believer in the ‘parliamentary road to socialism,’ he became increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party as he grew older.” Firstly, at no time even in later life, was he ever disillusioned by the Labour Party, because he believed it was the best the working class could achieve. He was committed to a parliamentary road to socialism as all socialists should be. The working class will not support mindless insurrectionism or vacuous posturing about revolutionary change that says and achieves next to nothing. That has to be the starting point for any discussion on socialist change. Benn understood that fact.
“The bedrock of Benn’s politics was a belief that capitalism as a social system can be reformed through a series of incremental measures, most of them embodied in parliamentary legislation. This has always been the core assumption of labourism.”
Benn was also conscious that the Labour never was and certainly is not a socialist party. It has never had a policy programme of reforming capitalism out of existence. Its reforms have always been designed for what it sees as the efficient administration of capitalism. It is a vehicle for the projection of bourgeois rule using liberal-left language. This is why Benn could claim that “reformism” has never really been attempted. This is why this kind of criticism of Benn or the Labour Party is entirely meaningless.
Benn’s “reformism” was reasonably consistent insofar as it was an attempt to benefit working and oppressed people. His approach was not simply an expression of the wishes of powerful capitalist interests. It would have given a massive degree of independent political space from those powerful interests had they been implemented.
Tony Benn was a very powerful reflection of moods within the UK and the working class in particular. He reflected the changing moods towards post war tripartite corporatism and workers’ disillusion with its stagnation. At his highest point in the early eighties when he almost became Deputy Leader, he expressed both hope for change and the impossibility of Labour ever carrying worthwhile reforms again. When Michael Foot fell, its subsequent leader Neil Kinnock’s purpose was to crush all hopes of socialist transformation within the rank-and-file of the Party. This has been achieved, but not within the affiliated or non-affiliated unions, or in many other campaigning organisations.
Benn stopped reflecting the aspirations of Labour’s rank-and-file and instead became respected for holding to his views regardless of his ever dwindling base inside the Party. His pragmatic aspirations should be admired but his adjustment to Westminster practices was his weak point, especially his commitment to the absurd electoral system. He did campaign for the abolition of the House of Lords and Monarchy. This was not supported by his parliamentary comrades.
Benn’s deficiencies should be understood as someone reflecting the limited consciousness of the working class, but nevertheless expressing many of its best aspirations. His personal integrity was an example that stood in dramatic contrast to most of his self-serving, self-interested colleagues who put their own interests at the front. That is why he will be missed.