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 moments.
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 neoliberal 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 neoliberalism 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.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History