Tony Benn: a visionary whose time has come

tony_benn_2Alan Freeman explains why Pluto’s republishing of The Benn Heresy: a biography of the late, great Tony Benn, is so important.

‘I last saw Tony earlier this year, when I visited him with an Argentine friend to ask how we might deal with the British Establishment’s stubborn refusal even to discuss the Malvinas Islands with the democratically-elected government of Argentina. His mind was as sharp as ever; he could remember every detail of those thirty-year old events, and as always contributed many incisive and insightful suggestions on what we might do.

The encounter came back to me in the torrent of media coverage following his death, virtually all of which completely missed the point of his legacy: it is not done with. I knew at this point that the re-publication of The Benn Heresy was important precisely so that readers could hear the voice that was missing from these polite dismissals of the ‘impractical Benn’ as some kind of eccentric English treasure – Tony’s own voice.

History made Tony Benn the champion of ideas that can, and have, transformed our lives for the better by solving the problems he confronted in his time, precisely because these problems are unsolved. The legacy of his victories has been a substantial, but unacknowledged transformation of the field of British politics, the legacy of his defeats is that all the problems his policies were designed to address, are back to haunt us.

This is so because most of his solutions have yet to be adopted, due to the opposition of a privileged and wealthy minority whose obstruction he resolutely opposed, whose methods he ruthlessly dissected, and against whose resistance he developed and exhibited the only workable alternative: an egalitarian democracy in which wealth takes second place to justice.

Of course, this idea is not his alone. It is the common emancipatory heritage of the whole world. He however showed it could be done in Britain, that it needed to be done, and that no other solution would work. For all of these, but above all the first, he was loved by the public in the same measure that he was hated by the establishment. Precisely because that establishment frustrated him, and to the extent that they succeeded, future generations will have to solve these same problems: postponing their solution has only made them worse.

The quality of Benn’s thinking, which shines through, makes this text of more than historical interest. It is a vigorous rebuttal of his detractors, who have grown neither quieter nor less numerous with his passing. It provides a robust response to that peculiarly English dismissal of his ideas which labels as ‘impractical’ anything so popular and obviously right that it becomes a threat to vested interests.

This book is an antidote. If proper attention is paid to what Tony says in it, it is a resource which nails the distortions and misrepresentations that dominate a media-curated public perception which the establishment has assiduously cultivated. I encourage the many who still champion his views to use it; I think it will help them to have Tony Benn’s own version of his legacy in plain sight.

This claim may seem less than modest. I would defend it, however, because of Tony’s own role in the book’s production. It was written 33 years ago, on the heels of a major upheaval which has shaped English politics to this day – the bid to elect him as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981. It also includes an added an interview I conducted with Benn, which took several remarkable days to complete.

I set out to interrogate his ideas sympathetically but critically; I was and remain a revolutionary socialist. I detest wholeheartedly, and rigorously refrained from, the destructive sectarian discourse which displays the needless worst of the British revolutionary tradition such as it is, but I did ask questions that this tradition brought to my mind. These were questions which preoccupied the generation of activists I belonged to, born of the Algerian, Cuban and Vietnamese wars of Liberation, scarred by the coup in Chile and the dirty wars in Argentina and Uruguay, and scattered by the decades that followed.

The interviewee being Tony, this was not a passive process; his interrogation of my own ideas was if anything more challenging than mine of his, and profoundly shaped the final version of the book. He clarified my mind in the following way: if one lives in a society where corruption and lies are the principal instruments through which injustice is perpetuated, then the courage required to help move humanity move itself forward is neither the ability to carry a gun, which in America any fool can do, nor raise a mob, which has become a State Department specialism, but the intellectual tenacity to identify what is right and the moral capacity to stand up for it. This is an integral part of Tony Benn’s legacy.

What can ‘another book’ do which other writings cannot – especially one that has already been published? Tony left a huge personal record in the shape of his famous diaries, with no shortage of public speeches and writings. Countless obituaries and analyses are easily found on the web and elsewhere; does this book add anything not already there? You, the readers, will have the last word, but if publishing it achieves nothing more than encourage you to take his ideas seriously enough to study them further, this can only be good.

Before you judge, I invite you to consider one further point. To paraphrase John Donne, no thought is an island. Ideas, more than any other human activity, are social: like language, they exist because we work and live together. That’s why you can’t put a wall round an idea.

Yet it follows that ideas can only be understood by acknowledging what they owe to other ideas. This is the price of their freedom. The twin secrets of Tony Benn’s creativity were that he never gave in, and that he was one of the world’s great listeners. In the face of opposition, he drew on the ideas of everyone who shared his determination, the better to defeat it. He worked with tens of thousands who were struggling for a better live, and incorporated, in the solutions he developed and advocated and which constitute his own unique contribution, the things he thought they were trying to tell him.

His ability to understand others was not confined to those he agreed or even identified with. When battling his many opponents, his first step was always to find out what they had to say – not out of love for it, but all the better to counter it. This is one of the reasons for his largely forgotten but somewhat fearsome debating skills. He knew more about his enemies than they knew about themselves.

That approach communicated itself to me, and forced me to let the ideas in this book march out of the pages of history. They had been imposed on both of us by decades of selfless and anonymous struggles for a better world that happened to be expressed in the intellectual contribution of a single person. In seeking to explain their origin, I was driven to put on paper not just what Tony said, but what – and who – he was fighting for. This made the text more than a history of one person; as John Donne might have said, and as I hope you feel having brought Tony’s memory back to life by reading it: never send to know for whom he spoke: he spoke for us.’

The Benn Heresy is available as an ebook from a variety of e-retailers, including Kobo. The Benn Heresy ebook

Alan Freeman is a cultural economist, formerly a principal economist with the Greater London Authority. He is a visiting Professor at London Metropolitan University, and a Research Fellow of Queensland University of Technology, Australia, and of the University of Kent, England. With Radhika Desai, he is co-editor of the ‘Future of World Capitalism’ book series. With Andrew Kliman, he is co-editor of Critique of Political Economy (COPE), an online journal of critical economics. He is also a committee member of the Association for Heterodox Economics and a vice-chair of the World Association for Political Economy.



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