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Tony Benn Saw Socialism as the Culmination of Democratization

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Leo Panitch on the death of Tony Benn: He conceived the need to democratize the state as the precondition for democratizing the economy.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On March 14, Tony Benn passed away. He was not only one of the most prominent leaders of the antiwar movement in the United Kingdom and globally; he was a member of Parliament for more than 50 years, serving in various Labour governments, including as a cabinet minister.

Now joining us was a personal friend of his and someone who has studied his life and talked to him often, is Leo Panitch, joining us now from Toronto. Leo is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He’s the author of many books, the most recent of which include the U.K. Deutscher book prize winner, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, and, as I said, a close friend of Tony Benn.

Thanks for joining us, Leo.


JAY: So first of all, for those who don’t know, give us a little sketch of Tony Benn and why he mattered.

PANITCH: Tony Benn was the most prominent voice of the very important attempt in the 1970s and early ’80s to turn the Labour Party—and, in a more exemplary way, social democratic parties generally—into being agencies once again for socialist change. He conceived that in the most creative way, in terms of the need to democratize those parties in order to democratize the state, which was the precondition for democratizing the economy. He saw socialism as the culmination, in that sense, of democratization.

And his challenge—and it was a challenge he posed to not only the British Constitution, with all its claptrap of tradition, but also to the trade union movement, with its bureaucracy and heavy-handedness, and to social democracy, with all of the careerist representatives who have embraced the establishment parliamentarianism—the challenge he posed to all of them was the challenge of democratization. He did this in the name of socialism. As he said to—when he was first nominated as a member of Parliament in Bristol in 1950, he said at his nomination meeting that he saw his goal as that of inspiring people afresh, and he saw his job as that of making, teaching, and keeping socialists.

Now, this was a remarkable career. He didn’t begin as someone on the left of the Labour Party. He never fit well into its left, right, or center camps. He didn’t think the debates about whether you needed to revise or get rid of the commitment to public ownership was the key issue. He initially was committed to decolonization in Africa, and above all to getting rid of the claptrap around the Constitution. He was seen as the leading modernizer because he was very adept at television, was very on top of it in the 1950s, and he kind of pulled the Labour Party into being adept at television type of interventions, including advertising for political purposes.

But he got radicalized as a minister in the 1960s government, the Wilson government. He was minister of technology there. Previously he’d been minister of the post office, and he tried to get the queen’s head off postage stamps—was defeated in that. But as minister of technology he realized that he could do nothing, insofar as the private corporations that one needed knowledge from—the information on their plans, on their research and development—would not give that information to government, which they didn’t. And he drew the conclusion that if you were going to realize democracy in Britain, this involved, then, taking over the commanding heights of the economy.

But most important, he was sensitive to and receptive of the student uprisings, the radical community politics of the late ’60s, and of the trade union militancy of the ’60s. And he thought one needed to enervate the Labour Party and social democracy generally, that that needed to be the fuel for making it relevant again in terms of social change. And that’s what the fight in the 1970s was all about.

JAY: Well, and that fight in the 1970s, Tony Benn’s been accused of splitting the Labour Party, and in that way creating the conditions for the rise of Thatcher. Here’s what was written in The Telegraph. Iain Martin writes in The Telegraph the following:

“[I]t is when Labour found itself out of power in 1979 that Benn the socialist preacher applied his considerable talents—his gift for public speaking and the denunciation of rivals—to trying to turn Labour, one of Britain’s two great parties that dominated the 20th century, from being a broad church into a party that stood only for his, by then, very dangerous brand of Left-wing extremism. In the wars of that period against Labour’s Right-wing and soft centre he did not operate alone, but he was the figurehead of a Bennite movement that created the conditions in which the SDP breakaway became necessary, splitting the Left and giving Margaret Thatcher an enormous advantage to the joy of Tories. When Labour crashed to defeat in 1983, Benn even said that the result was a good start because millions of voters had voted for an authentically socialist manifesto, which would have taken Britain back to the stone age if implemented.”

If you—I mean, I assume we’re not going to have a big discussion whether a socialist manifesto would have taken Britain back to the Stone Age, but do you think there’s some merit to what he says in the sense that in the long run, if you look back, what Tony Benn did did help split Labour and help Margaret Thatcher come to power?

PANITCH: Well, what you note is that Tony Benn didn’t split the Labour Party; those social democrats who left the Labour Party split the Labour Party. Tony Benn’s commitment to the Labour Party was absolute—in my view, to some extent too absolute. He would never have left the Labour Party. What was predictable was that those people whose main concern was to become part of the establishment were prepared to fight tooth-and-nail against the attempt to democratize the Labour Party and to take seriously its early socialist commitments.

Now, they had every right to say, of course, as social democrats everywhere do today, that they as much represent social democracy as do socialists inside those parties, as does the left inside those parties. Maybe they represent social democracy more, given what has happened to its history, given that they dominate its political representation.

That said, you see the deep antidemocratic, pro-establishment strain. And I must tell you, this isn’t simply some right-winger in The Daily Telegraph who says those kinds of things. Of course, there’s enormous hypocrisy going on now all over the British press, speaking of Tony as a national treasure, as a politician of commitment, one of the rare politicians of commitment in the 20th century, etc., but what they essentially say is the same thing: they blame him for splitting the Labour Party.

In what sense did he split the Labour Party? No. What one saw instead was that those who are committed to the Labour Party and social democracy not being vehicles of change, not being vehicles of socialist education, are prepared to do anything, including losing elections, ’cause they knew very well what they were doing was setting the grounds for Thatcher’s election when they were prepared to split it rather than allow the left, which had democratically won all kinds of reforms and that party platform in the party’s democratic process—but they weren’t going to accept that.

Now, you hear in that kind of statement as well, of course, the notion that even a democratic socialism involves taking people back to the Stone Age, and you see the deeply undemocratic strain that is part of not only political life in Britain, but political life in every capitalist liberal democracy.

Now, I have myself written a book called The End of Parliamentary Socialism with Colin Leys. There’s a chapter on Tony Benn that in fact argues that what this experience shows is that you can’t change these kinds of parties without dividing them. Now, that’s not to say that those who are trying to change them are responsible, but what it is to say is that one needs to be very sober about the attempt of going into these parties, or for that matter the Democratic Party in the United States or the New Democratic Party in Canada, with the goal of transforming them into effective oppositions to neoliberalism, because the people who control them now will do anything, including losing elections, rather than allow them to offer that kind of a challenge to the establishment.

JAY: So your point here is in the long run Tony Benn was too loyal to Labour. There’s that—there was a point there that there needed to be a split, and his loyalty with Labour, I guess you could say, you know, actually becomes an obstacle in some ways to developing a more independent politics.

PANITCH: That’s true, although one has to say that he was prepared to carry through the struggle in the Labour Party to the point that it needed to be taken. The soft left, as it came to be known, the left of Michael Foot, the Tribune Group, and so on, when they saw that the Labour right was prepared to do anything to defeat the attempt to democratize the party, they then allied themselves with the right of the party and against Benn. And that had the effect of marginalizing this very creative attempt—not simply Benn, but the whole generation of people who had come out of the community politics, out of the student movement, out of the worker militancy, and had come into the party and provided it as its fuel, they were marginalized. They were—a lot of them were identified as crazy Trotskyists or militants the vast majority of them had nothing to do with and were marginalized in the party.

And the result of that, of course, was that one eventually ended up with Blair, who brought Labour back to government by channeling Thatcherism, by channeling neoliberalism. And he picked that up from Clinton explicitly in what was called the Third Way. It was no third way at all. It was social democracy’s embrace, through the emulation of the American Democratic Party, of neoliberalism.

Now, Tony once said to me in the 1990s, when it was clear that Blair was channeling Thatcherism, how long I thought it would take before a viable socialist alternative to neoliberalism would emerge again, and I said rather soberly that I thought we were living in a period something like the time that separated the defeat of the Chartists in the 1830s and the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe up until the emergence of mass trade unionism and mass socialist parties in the last decade of the 19th century, that we were in, in that sense, for a very long haul. And he responded, with that infectious twinkle in his eye, then I’ll need to live to 120, calculating the time involved.

Now, of course, he had no illusions about living till 120. But what we need to see is that he will live on in the sense of the inevitable emergence in this century of alternatives of the type he was looking for. It will happen. There’s no question they will happen, given the inequalities and class oppressions in our societies. They will happen. And his legacy will be that he will have contributed—despite the defeats that we suffered for so many decades, he will have contributed enormously to the kind of vision and the kind of strategy we need for building those alternatives.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Leo.

PANITCH: Glad to talk to you, Paul, especially about this.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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