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Courageous and prophetic: Tony Benn in the early 80s

Mike Marqusee remembers one of the great modern communicators of the socialist cause

It was inevitable that Tony Benn’s death would be met with tributes from
the political establishment to the effect that they admired him even if
they didn’t agree with him. But for those of us who did agree with him,
his life and death mean so much more.

There’s one phase of Benn’s long career that liberal commentators still
can’t stomach: his leadership of the Labour left in the early eighties.
The Bennite upsurge of that time is blamed for dividing the party,
saddling it with “extreme” policies, and costing it the general election
of 1983 (and in some accounts 1987 as well).

In fact, this was for me one of Benn’s most courageous and prophetic

I was one of many in those years inspired by Benn to become active in
the Labour party and to this day I regard myself as an unrepentant
Bennite, early 80s vintage: what we tried to do, under Tony’s
leadership, was to reshape the party from the bottom up, to make it an
effective instrument of working class representation. And while we
failed to do that, we came close enough to scare the hell out of the
British ruling class, who put huge resources into destroying Benn and
the Bennite movement. His courage in those days, under ceaseless attack
from the media and the leaders of his own party, was exemplary, and
enabled many others to stand their ground under pressure.

Looking back, we can now see this moment as the dawn of the neo-liberal
age. The choice to be made was between resisting that development,
insisting that there was an alternative, or accommodating to it and
designing policy and strategy accordingly. Most Labour MPs and trade
union leaders, not to mention leader writers, columnists and a
significant section of the Communist Party, chose accommodation. Benn
chose resistance, and in doing so placed himself at the head and heart
of more than thirty years of often bitter struggle for the better world
he insisted was possible.

Crucial to Benn’s appeal was his revival of the radical democratic
agenda in a labour movement long dominated by economistic and
bureaucratic habits. This challenge was central to the Bennite movement,
and made it a very different prospect from earlier Labour left
formations. Tony invoked the heritage of the Levellers, Tom Paine, the
Chartists and the Suffragettes because he saw democracy in Britain as
unfinished business. Again and again, he stressed the importance of
accountability, at every level of civic and economic life. He insisted
that party leaders should be elected by party members, at a time when
that was largely considered the prerogative of MPs, and that
constituency members should have the power to remove ineffective MPs. As
a whole Bennism was very much about a revival of popular democracy,
expressed in particular through the activities of left-wing local councils.

It’s interesting to remember how Benn arrived at his brand of radically
democratic socialism. Usually it takes only a mere taste of office to
turn politicians into servants of the establishment; Benn, in contrast,
was radicalised by his experience in government (in the 60s and 70s).
Increasingly, he came to see the necessity of far-reaching, systemic
change. Defying convention, he became more not less radical as he grew
older. And in this he was, again, an example to us all.

Bennism briefly raised the prospect of a genuinely left wing Labour
government and that terrified the powers-that-be (and those who wanted
to join them). They hit back with everything at their disposal. Just now
the media will not want to recall how they treated Tony in those years:
he was derided as a lunatic and cast as a deadly threat to British
society, smeared and misrepresented at every turn.

Much of what happened afterwards to the Labour party can be seen as a
prolonged backlash against the Bennite insurgency; the changes in the
party’s structures, the centralisation of power, the marginalisation of
the membership, were designed to ensure it could never happen again.
They aimed to make the Labour party safe for capital, and in my view,
over the long haul, they succeeded.

Benn warned early on that the acceptance of neo-liberalism by all the
main parties was creating, in his words, “a crisis of representation”.
Today we live with the consequences of that crisis. That’s why, in
recent years, Tony’s message has come to seem, to large numbers, more
pertinent, more forward-looking, than anything on offer from the
self-styled modernisers who cast him as a “dinosaur”.

Benn was one of the great modern communicators of the socialist cause.
The tributes to his eloquence only hint at what he did. He aimed always
to clarify what seemed obscure or puzzling, to make plain what was
hidden. He could delineate an injustice with a single phrase and make an
unconventional position appear the epitome of common sense. In making
his case he was concrete, concise, and intelligible to all. He appealed
to our shared experience and aspirations. And he refused to be deflected
by media ruses.

Of course, it was all lit up with Benn’s warmth, humour and generosity
of spirit. His was a socialism of the heart as well as the head, and no
one who listened to him or worked with him could doubt that.