The death of Tony Benn wasn’t unexpected, and it probably shouldn’t be cause for sadness. He was within striking distance of 90 in a world where millions of people are lucky to reach 30, relatively sprightly to the end, and went quickly, surrounded by his family.
You get the sense he was about ready to go, too. While his political faith kept him going through a heroic calendar of marches, meetings and speeches during his last ten years, it was clear that his life was never the same after the death of his wife Caroline, an American-born educationalist and life-long campaigner for state schools, in 2000. And it’s difficult to think of anyone else in the public eye whose life was so thoroughly, and inspirationally, lived to the full.
Amid all the intellectual discussions about his significance to British political history – and the tantalising what-might-have-beens if the collapse of post-war social democracy brought about a sharp jerk left under him rather than a sharp jerk right under Mrs Thatcher – it’s easy to ignore the fact that Benn was, by all available reports, a delightfully nice man.
As Primary School-sounding as it is to say it, being straightforwardly very nice – compassionate, altruistic, intolerant of injustice – is an essential characteristic of all the best socialists. At its simplest, but also at its very best, after all, socialism is just basic morality, consistently applied – in our rubbish opinion at least.
Benn was warm, generous and unerringly decent, something even a lot of his detractors would acknowledge – this anecdote about his kindness to a young reporter in the 1960s seems to have been typical of his essential civility.
He was open-minded, too. So indelible is the tabloid-made image of Benn the unbending ideologue that a lot of people will scoff at the very suggestion, but he was – for a man born in the 1920s, he was startlingly progressive when it came to gay rights, womens’ rights, and a host of other issues. Watch him feistily bite back when Ali G (played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) repeatedly refers to women as ‘bitches’ in this 2000 hoax interview.
We saw him once. It was 2011 or 2012, in one of those big silly buildings in Cambridge full of people doing that choral singing that all sounds the same. He was there to give a speech about the connection between Christianity and socialism which we couldn’t hear very well because the acoustics were dreadful.
He looked endearingly frail in his appropriately red pullover and had old man shoes on – those kind of Velcro-up ones primary school kids wear. On the way out, he was mobbed by well-wishers. We considered going over, but could think of absolutely nothing of substance to say, and decided that dealing with all those people was probably exhausting enough as it was for a man in his late eighties. We hovered nearby though, and will always remember how he took the time to speak to every single person in the mass of people who wanted to meet him.
But Tony Benn was completely, utterly wrong about almost everything. That’s the mainstream view. Accounts vary from the sympathetic to the vituperative, but the general consensus seems to be that he was a decent, well-meaning man, but one whose utopian naiveté helped consign Labour to the wilderness for nigh-on twenty years. As the figurehead of Labour’s boisterous Left during the ‘70s and ‘80s, he destroyed his party’s ‘sensible’ image, carefully cultivated over decades, supporting the Miners’ Strike and opposing the Falklands War.
In reality, it’s depressing to look back and see how resoundingly right he was – and how nice the political alternative he and the other Labour left-wingers were blueprinting from the ‘70s onward was, especially up against the dystopian mess we’ve ended up with.
Now he’s dead, it’s quite galling to see figures like Shirley Williams – who, as one of the Gang of Four that left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981, did more to ensure Mrs Thatcher’s decade-long hegemony than most of the Labour left put together – come out of the woodwork and criticise Benn for ‘making Labour unelectable’ and his supposed detachment from reality.
Benn was anything but naïve. He was remarkably far-sighted, in fact. He realised what dismayingly many of his contemporaries didn’t – not the vaguely interventionist ultra-pragmatists of the Labour right, who hated him, or the party’s well-meaning social democrats who often quite liked him personally, even while concluding his views were unconscionably extreme. Capitalism was changing, and middle-of-the-road social democracy just wasn’t viable anymore.
The old system required the co-operation of the grossly powerful economic elites that the post-war settlement had left intact – despite, excellently, giving a substantial helping hand to the demographic changes that had seen the gap between rich and poor steadily shrink since the ‘20s. But those elites would only stand for generous welfarism and what should really be the bare minimum of political decency – free health and social care, state-provided housing, affordable public transport, comfortably-paid work for all – if they went hand in hand with swelling profits at the same time.
And that, in turn, required ballooning economic growth – enough for the rich to get more, and everyone else to get more at the same time. And that was exactly what the stratospheric post-war boom had been able to provide.
But, crudely put, the bigger economies get, the harder and harder it becomes for them to grow more. By the 1970s, not only was that boom petering out, but after thirty years of the most rapid economic expansion in human history, it was highly likely that growth that fast and that colossal would never be seen again. The economic basis of the social democratic compromise was gone, possibly for good.
Benn realised that society was only going to go one of two ways – radically Right, as the elite seized back control of the political agenda and pushed for a more aggressive, red-blooded, authoritarian capitalism. Or radically left, resulting in a more democratic, participatory, egalitarian society.
He saw neoliberalism coming remarkable early. And he realised that just to preserve the gains made under social democracy, let alone to make society more fair, equal and humane, would require nothing less than a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’ (which remains our favourite definition of socialism).
Benn was a socialist in the empirical English tradition of Orwell, part of a lineage that he himself followed back as far as the Chartists, the Levellers and seventeenth century millenarian communists the Diggers. His was a pragmatic, non-dogmatic radical socialism, fuelled by all sorts of intellectual influences, dominated by none of them. ‘Bennism’, as it became known, was a radical left-wing position all about getting things done, rather than sitting around and sniping at people whose views varied ever so slightly from your own.
The Labour manifesto of 1974 that he helped write was the most radical and unambiguously socialist in the party’s history – it proposed stringent price controls on important services and goods, a huge expansion of social housing, giving back rent-capping powers to local councils, a yearly wealth tax on the richest, a tax on big transfers of money, and a prohibitively high tax on property speculation. A significant chunk of the economy was to be nationalised, including North Sea oil and gas production, shipbuilding, aerospace, ports, and parts of the construction and pharmaceutical industries – ‘to enable Government to control prices, stimulate investment, encourage exports, create employment, protect workers and consumers from irresponsible multi-national companies, and to plan the national economy in the national interest’.
The right-wing Labour leadership ignored it almost entirely once in power, of course. But it was a kind of first sketch of what the leftist alternative to neoliberalism would’ve looked like.
Aside from the small fact Britain hasn’t got much industry left to nationalise, it’s a programme that’s about as relevant today as it was in 1974, and, arguably, even more necessary.
In the forty years since Benn helped pen that manifesto, we’ve learned a lot more about the fairly horrific impact out maddeningly wasteful way of life is having on the eco-system. And, in our view at least, the environmental dimension provides the final piece of the socialist puzzle.
In the past, socialists were obviously convinced that radical redistribution and radical economic planning would be very nice and should be brought about as soon as possible. But even the most radical radicals tended to believe that it wasn’t vital – that capitalism, however bad it was, didn’t threaten the continued existence of life as they knew it. In fact, as far as practically everyone was concerned, there was nothing stopping the grotesquely unequal status quo trundling on as-was forever.
Actually, it turns out, they were catastrophically wrong. Our carbon-belching lifestyles have triggered a snowballing climate crisis that imperils the whole of human civilisation. And that’s just from providing Western lifestyles to the West. And now China, India, and billions of people outside the West very understandably want what we’ve got, while the rate at which we consume and pollute accelerates further. If they get it, we’re sunk. Without a sweepingly radical overhaul of our own societies, and theirs, we’re sunk. And drastically reduced inequality – along with non-essential material consumption – and rational economic planning is exactly what’s needed.
Obviously, in Benn’s day the state of the environment barely featured as even a fringe political issue, and the kind of things he was advocating in the ‘70s and ‘80s aren’t a perfect fit for the situation we find ourselves in now – a lot of old socialist politics were solidly productivist, believing that making more and exporting more all the time was a universal good. In actual fact, we don’t just have to abandon economic growth as an objective, but shrink our economy by doing away with the bits of it related to excessive consumerism or are otherwise socially damaging or socially useless. Trade needs to be greatly reduced, and we need to produce the vast majority of what we consume at home, as Filipino socialist activist and ‘deglobalisation’ pioneer Walden Bello argues – which, as an added bonus, would provide more than enough jobs to give everyone in the country decently paid, satisfying work.
But achieving all that requires just the kind of political framework Benn was trying to build – egalitarian, interventionist, socialist. An ‘irreversible’ shift of power and resources from a wealthy elite to the vast majority. Benn might have been castigated at the time for his apparent extremism, but his vision was far, far closer to the kind of system the species needs to survive than anything anyone else with during the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Tony Benn should be remembered as a delightfully nice human being. Bennism can be looked back on both as a bittersweet vision of the much better world we could’ve had, but also as an excellent foundation for the kind of society we need to be fighting for now.
One of the best, most humble Benn obituaries we’ve seen is by a man you rarely find in the same sentence as humility – Respect MP George Galloway. You can watch it here. And here’s a good written one by Bemolutionary favourite and one of the last surviving left-wing Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn.