Workers Hammer No. 226
In lieu of an obituary
Tony Benn, left reformist, 1925-2014
The Labour left that Tony Benn exemplified for much of his parliamentary career passed away long before he did. The Labour Party has been moribund as a reformist workers party for some years, and its traditional left wing for even longer. To be sure, Benn was a cut above the rest, as demonstrated by his role in enacting legislation that allowed him to renounce his hereditary peerage. But at bottom he was a classic Labour left, rhetorically and often eloquently espousing the cause of (parliamentary) “socialism” while kowtowing to and covering for the right-wing leadership of the party, including as a Cabinet member in the anti-union Wilson-Callaghan government in the 1970s.
However, when Benn challenged the NATO-loyal Denis Healey in the 1981 contest for deputy leadership, his “little England” “socialist” stance threatened to tear the party apart at the seams. We noted: “A distorted and uneven class line is being cleaved in the Labour Party under the impact of renewed anti-Soviet Cold War, between Little England reformists and NATO/CIA-loving ‘internationalists’” (“Labour’s Cold War”, Spartacist Britain no 41, April 1982). In 1981, a year after the imperialists launched a furore over the Soviet military intervention against CIA-backed mujahedin in Afghanistan, prominent Labour right wingers such as David (now Lord) Owen and Shirley (now Baroness) Williams had split to form the bourgeois Social Democratic Party (SDP), which later merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats. Had Benn won the deputy leadership contest, it is likely that Healey & Co would have decamped as well, placing the Bennite left in a position of responsibility where their left pretensions could have been more easily exposed before Labour’s working-class base. On that basis, the Spartacist League extended critical support to Benn against Healey.
When Benn stood for the safe Labour seat of Chesterfield in early 1984, having lost his seat in the 1983 general election, we again offered to extend him critical support. But Benn refused, making clear, as we stated at the time in a leaflet reprinted below, that unity with the pro-NATO, pro-austerity right wing stood higher for him than the causes he espoused. In doing so, Benn made common cause with the likes of Roy Hattersley, who was then denouncing the National Graphical Association (NGA) strikers as they challenged the Tories’ union-bashing Tebbit Act. Benn also endorsed Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who would soon achieve notoriety in the coal fields for his violence-baiting of the heroic miners during the pivotal 1984-85 strike. With the defeat of that crucial class battle, Kinnock in turn paved the way for Blair, who embarked on the project of smashing Labour’s historic ties to the trade unions and turning it into a thoroughly bourgeois party. While Benn would spend many more years appearing at anti-war and anti-Tory protests, in its own way his role at Chesterfield heralded the demise of the Bennite left.
The following leaflet, issued under the title “Why is Benn bowing to Labour’s Cold War right?”, and the accompanying exchange with Benn, is reprinted from Spartacist Britain (no 55, March 1984).
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We reprint below a letter from the Spartacist League (SL) to Tony Benn, offering him our critical support in the Chesterfield by-election. Many workers see in Benn the representative of their Socialist aspirations within the Labour Party; he has been the most articulate spokesman of that wing of the party out of step with the Cold War austerity right wing exemplified by Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley, whose rightful place is in the SDP. Benn’s voice should be heard in Parliament. We offered to mobilise our supporters for a Benn victory, under our own communist banner. After considering our proposal for five days, Benn replied to an SL spokesman at a public meeting in Chesterfield on Wednesday, 15 February with the following sharply worded rejection:
“I think I ought to explain that our friend is a member of a small society, the Spartacist society [sic], which has a few members and his desire is to damage the Labour Party by encouraging it first of all to repudiate itself and its members. And I’m very much opposed to that. And I don’t want help from people who are not honestly and seriously in support of the labour movement, which is a broadly based movement and is the instrument of the British working class and always has been. And I don’t think people who go around and spread gloom and despondency about the role of the labour movement are helping. I think they’re harming and I wonder where their support comes from and why they should come here to this by-election to try and make people think that the labour movement is not an instrument capable of achieving its objectives.”
Tony Benn rejected the support of the communist Soviet-defencist Spartacist League with the reason that we oppose unity with the SDP fifth column inside the Labour Party. Benn places unity with open advocates of anti-working-class Cold War austerity above even his own reformist “little England” notion of socialism. The deep division cleaved within the Labour Party under the impact of Cold War has not gone away, but at least for the moment Benn has chosen to be the dupe of the “nightmare ticket”, to bow before the Cold War right wing in the name of unity. Is Tony Benn making his peace, like Nye Bevan did, with the Cold War Gaitskellites? The Labour Party was founded and rests on the trade unions, but it is not equal to the labour movement. History has shown it polices for the bosses when in power.
Benn says, “I don’t want help from people who are not honestly and seriously in support of the labour movement”. Who are the people he thinks are? Roy Hattersley, who made it clear at the opening press conference that it was he and not Benn speaking for the Labour Party in this campaign, denounced NGA strikers as “violent lawbreakers” and wants to loosen Labour’s ties to the trade unions, the better to accommodate the ruling-class union-bashers. Neil Kinnock, the other half of what Benn now calls a “balanced ticket”, prostrated himself before the world’s foremost imperialist warmonger, Ronald Reagan, as a “defender of freedom” and “a man with whom I have a great deal in common”. And then there is Denis Healey, for decades the arch NATO/ CIA loving Atlanticist of the Labour Party leadership who a half dozen years ago was overseeing strikebreaking and IMF austerity as part of the Callaghan cabinet and who now, riding high once more, vows to be the Labour Party’s “Gromyko” for the next thirty years. Unity with the likes of these acts against the interests of the labour movement and oppressed minorities. Yet this is what Benn is propounding. In this context we cannot call for support to Benn as we would have liked.
And what about Benn’s “I wonder where their support comes from” jibe, in the tradition of the worst McCarthyite red-baiting? Is it any accident he was sharing the platform at the time with Sheffield Council leader David Blunkett, who CIA-baits left-wing opponents like the Spartacist League and most recently linked arms with the Tories to ban Irish solidarity marches? Anthony Wedgwood Benn: you were at least supposed to be an honourable element in the Labour Party if nothing else. Will you now roll in the gutter because you cannot make a break with the CIA-lovers in your party? “Left” verbiage notwithstanding, are Benn’s smarmy “Big Lie” innuendoes another way of signalling his willingness to bow before the Cold War consensus demanded by NATO, the CIA and the ruling class? Such unity is a unity of treachery which can only spread gloom and despondency within the working class. True unity of workers and oppressed requires the forging of a mass revolutionary party through winning Labour’s working-class base to a programme for the overthrow of capitalism. It is to this task that the Spartacist League is dedicated.
19 February 1984
Exchange with Benn
9 February 1984
Dear Tony Benn,
I am writing to ask if you will accept the critical support of the Spartacist League in the Chesterfield by-election. The past few years have seen some hard fights inside the Labour Party against the SDP traitors, and you have been the target of witchhunting attacks from the Tories, their press and the Labour right wing. In the 1981 deputy leadership election we supported you and the wing of the party you represent against the right wing, because we want to see the hard NATO/CIA/IMF lovers, Denis Healey & Co, driven out of the Labour Party. The renewed predominance of the Healeys and Hattersleys under the Kinnock leadership makes us fearful of present developments inside the party. Much of the leadership is clearly unenthusiastic (at best) that you are the candidate for Chesterfield, and some elements like Sid Weighell say openly they’ll oppose you. (We also hear that the US ambassador of the Cold War Reagan regime was upset on hearing you had won the nomination.) Under these circumstances, and without minimising the political differences we have with you, we would like to support your campaign, calling for a class vote against the Tories and the Alliance.
The SL’s positions on certain key issues of the day include the following. We oppose the NATO alliance and its economic adjunct, the EEC, and say No Cruise, no Trident! US bases out of Britain — For unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism and internal counterrevolution! We give no political support to CND, which is anti-Soviet and peddles the dangerous “little-England” illusion that there can be peace and “disarmament” without the overthrow of capitalism. In Poland we say that Solidarność became a counterrevolutionary movement seeking to restore capitalism which had to be stopped. We demand the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. We oppose all bourgeois immigration laws and demand full citizenship rights for all workers and their families in Britain. Against racist and fascist attacks we call not for bans or more “democratically accountable” police but for mass trade-union/minority mobilisations to sweep the race terrorists off the streets. We are against the exclusion of all working-class tendencies from the Labour Party, and in particular oppose the witchhunt of Militant supporters. We oppose the Alternative Economic Strategy/ National Economic Assessment for their nationalist protectionism and as a new wage-cutting social contract in all but name. We are for worksharing on full pay and jobs for all. We call for mass strike action to smash the attacks of the Tory government and to bring it down.
As well, four small steps which would help make Britain a decent place to live would be the abolition of the House of Lords, monarchy, established church and licensing laws.
We believe that to undertake the necessary renewal of British economic life and to vastly increase the present pathetic quality of life for British working people is to pose point blank the need for a workers state, part of a socialist federation of the British Isles, within a Socialist United States of Europe.
If you accept our endorsement, we are ready to give practical support to your election campaign. Would you inform us as soon as possible whether you are willing to accept our critical support.
for the Spartacist League
16th February 1984
Dear Mr Carlyle,
Mr Benn has asked me to acknowledge your letters.
As he made clear to your [sic] personally on Monday and at his public meeting on Wednesday, he is not prepared to accept support from organisations which do not support the Labour Party and is hoping that those who come to help in the campaign will be fully committed to the success of the Labour Party, its policy and leadership.