There are two things you need to know about Tony Benn. The first is that he always saw his primary role, as a politician, as that of an educator who was engaged in developing popular democratic ambitions and capacities. The second is that, again unlike most politicians, he actually took democracy seriously in terms of its potential for changing the world. These two rare qualities explain why he was among very few political leaders of the 20th century who became more rather than less radical over the course of their careers.
"Socialism is not just a question of material progress," Benn told the Bristol South-East constituency party meeting that selected him as a parliamentary candidate in 1950. It was "a way of thinking that can find its expression in every city and every community and every home". His goal was to "inspire people afresh." His job would be to "make, teach and keep socialists."
While his commitment to the Labour party was unshakable, Benn never fitted quite comfortably into the left, centre or right camps within it. What mainly concerned him as a young MP was neither revising nor clinging to the commitment to public ownership in the party's constitution, but rather supporting decolonisation in Africa and challenging the claptrap that passes for "tradition" in British constitutional discourse.
This, together with his facility for using new media such as television to "inspire people afresh," was why he was regarded back then as Labour's leading moderniser.
Benn often said it was his experience in government in the 1960s that drove him further to the left. He saw how utterly dependent he was as minister of technology on what unelected private corporations would reveal about their knowledge and their plans. Socialising the "commanding heights" of the economy was basically a question, therefore, of realising the promise of democracy.
By the time Labour was defeated in 1970, Benn was already warning against the basically undemocratic market alternative to this that was "now emerging everywhere on the right." The "greater freedom from government" it promoted would mainly be "enjoyed by big business," by allowing it to '"control the new citizen at the very same time as government reduces its protections."
Against this, Benn hopefully saw the student uprisings, worker militancy and radical community politics of the time as the fuel that the Labour party needed to harness in order to effectively realise democracy in Britain. Dismayed by the utter disdain with which they were treated by most of the parliamentary Labour party, he became the most prominent voice making the case that "our long campaign to democratise power in Britain has, first, to begin in our own movement".
It was all summed up in a stirring Fabian Society lecture he delivered on democratic politics in 1971.
Some people argue that what people want now is a responsible and humane administration, distributing the fruits of the economy more fairly, rather than radical change, to win back public confidence in our capacity to run a modified capitalism. It is certainly true we must be responsible and humane and practical. But my impression is that the people, when they are confronted by the problems thrown up by modern society, demand more radical collective action, not less, and what we lack is not the means but the will to face the powerful forces in society that would be threatened if that change were carried through.
The main case for "positively stimulating democratic pressures" was that this would "act as a countervailing power" to the powers that be. "A real leader will actually welcome the chance to give way to the forces that he has encouraged and mobilised by a process of education and persuasion." It was "the role of a political leader as an adviser or teacher that we must see to be the most important."
Nor did Benn shrink from making the same case at union conferences, telling the TUC in 1972 that "the unions have hardly made any serious effort to explain their work to those who are not union members, even to the wives and families of those who are. You have allowed yourselves to be presented to the public as if you actively favoured the conservative philosophy of acquisitiveness … neither the party nor the TUC has given sufficient support to other movements of legitimate protest and reform."
Benn would often end his speeches by reminding people that those who had previously challenged the powers that be, from the early Christians to the suffragettes, had been treated as wild-eyed dreamers or dangerous extremists.
By the early 1970s he was already being treated that way himself. "Bennism" was adopted in the media as a metaphor not only for a mendacious ultra-leftism, but for a "loony" brand of it. Many of Benn's parliamentary colleagues exploited the media's willingness to portray Benn as "the most dangerous man in Britain" as a weapon in the intense struggle over the very meaning of democracy that shook the Labour party over the following decade.
That this eventually worked to marginalise Benn's influence in the Labour party greatly contributed to the great diminishment of the British left since the 1980s. Of course, this did not silence Tony Benn, who famously spoke to many hundreds of ever more diverse audiences each year, and drew renewed energy from their positive responses to his restating, in one way or another, of the central point of his 1971 lecture on the radical potential of democracy:
The people must be helped to understand that they will make little progress unless they are more politically self-reliant and are prepared to organise with others, nearest to them where they work and where they live, to achieve what they want. An individualist philosophy tenuously linked to an aristocratic political leadership will get them nowhere.
Tony Benn on socialism – audio interview from 2006 Link to this audio
This article originally appeared on The Guardian and is reprinted with permission.
Photo: wikimedia commons
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