Tony Benn and the radical socialist tradition

Tony Benn was a socialist, a radical, a democrat, and firmly rooted in the British tradition.

Jad Adams
19 March 2014

Flickr/Regent's University London

I was privileged to hear Tony Benn speak on Blackheath in 1981 to a gathering commemorating the anniversary of the Peasants' Revolt. The radical army of peasants opposing the unjust tax had encamped there in 1381 before advancing on London where they were briefly successful in terrorizing the nobility.

I also heard him speak in Trafalgar Square for the massive anti-Poll Tax rally on 31 March 1990. We witnessed how the spirit of radicalism had spread from Eastern Europe, where television nightly showed mass demonstrations and the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. A Romanian speaker underlined this message as Benn sat puffing his pipe between the Landseer lions. When Benn was invited to speak the organiser mentioned that he must leave early for his birthday celebration with his family. The crowd sang 'Happy Birthday', an affectionate tribute it would be difficult to imagine being given to any other Labour politician.

Benn stood firmly and defiantly in the tradition of 1381 when religious radicals, such as John Ball, spoke directly from scripture to say that as all men and women were derived from the original divinely created pair, where did the lords and ladies come from, unless it was a corruption of God's plan?

The appeal to scripture, and to reason, was a typical Benn formulation in the maintenance of a tradition of British socialism that owed little to foreign influences. It traces back through people like co-operative pioneer Robert Owen, women's suffrage activists Anna Wheeler and William Thompson and charismatic socialists Catherine and Goodwyn Barmby, to English Civil War polemical factions the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters, and back to John Ball and the 1381 rebellion. The things Benn said and the way he expressed them would have been instantly recognisable to these people.

There is another tradition, that of Marxism, but Karl Marx came to London in 1849 not as the prophet of a new philosophy, but because there was already a thriving socialist tradition. The Teutonic form of state socialism with its 'dictatorship of the proletariat' that Lenin and Mao found so attractive never took root in Britain.

The history of radicalism had not always been part of Benn's mental processes. His education at Westminster and Oxford had given him only a Kings and Queens or Whig interpretation of history. His need for a model to interpret the confused world of early 1970s politics led him to the seventeenth century. He read the debates of the English Revolution and the Civil War, which he felt found their parallels in the turmoil over the Industrial Relations Act - an attempt by the Conservative government of Edward Heath to control the unions. It was a subject tailormade for Benn. He saw unjust lawmakers with their political courts on one side, and courageous workers defying them, on the other. Ahead was the principle shining brightly: that individual conscience has supremacy over the law. The Agitators in the Revolution reflected the contemporary schismatic sects of the left; the right wing of the Labour Party had its counterpart in the rigid, doctrinaire Presbyterians.

Benn was so aware of his own ignorance that he sought the help of a fellow MP, former London University lecturer Jack Mendelson. So in the House of Commons tea room Benn's education was extended with an explanation of the Diggers and the Levellers and the nature of political debate in the Revolution. 'I had no idea', Benn wrote in his diary, 'that the Levellers had called for universal manhood suffrage, equality between the sexes, biennial Parliaments, the sovereignty of the people, recall of representatives and even an attack on property.' The spiritual values which informed many of the revolutionaries made them immediately attractive to Benn and led directly to his work on Christianity and socialism, published as Arguments for Socialism in 1979.

Under these influences Benn made the most dramatic speech of his career at Llandudno on 25 May 1968. The international backdrop was the assassination of Martin Luther King in the US, the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the Days of May in France.

In a speech which defined his radicalism for the next half century he said: 'It would be foolish to assume that people will be satisfied for much longer with a system which confines their national political role to the marking of a ballot paper with a single cross once every five years. People want a much greater say. .. Much of the industrial unrest - especially in unofficial strikes - stems from worker resentment and their sense of exclusion from the decision-making process, whether by their employers or, sometimes, by their union leaders.'

Benn was articulating a theory very different from anything said by a leading politician before. It was also, clearly, subversive. Benn gave six conditions which had to be met to ensure the redistribution of political power - to transfer power from institutions to the people.

First, freedom of information legislation. Second, the government should know more about the people it was elected to serve via statistical services and the publication of more data. Third, referendums should be held on major issues. Fourth, Benn urged an opening up of the mass media to those with minority views. Fifth, representative organisations should be encouraged and promoted so that they could be consulted by government. For example, trade unions should be funded to help them to perform their duties in regard to industries which had already been amply supplied with government money. Finally, there should be devolution of power to regions and localities.

Benn's six points were practical objectives and most were realised by the end of the twentieth century. Freedom of information came in 2000. There were referendums on the common market (1975) and on devolution for Scotland and Wales (both in 1979 and 1997). Minority access to the media was promoted by Channel Four television, which was launched in 1983. Data collection on individuals massively increased as a result of technological developments, although this was not seen as an advance for liberal thinking.Voluntary organisations increased their influence and trade unions were brought in under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1974. National devolution happened for Scotland and Wales in 1998 (although more regional devolution was rejected).

The many eulogies of Benn will talk of his unique contribution. He was a remarkable man with great gifts that he put at the service of his country. But just as importantly, and he would have emphasised this, he was in a tradition of radical socialists. He wanted his epitaph to be 'He encouraged us.' Anyone who cares about his legacy will act within that radical socialist tradition.


Co-published with History and Policy

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