Why I am an unrepentant Bennite

Mike Marqusee remembers one of the great modern communicators of the socialist cause

March 14, 2014
5 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.

benn-rp-bw

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.

A democratic agenda

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.

Crisis of representation

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.


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

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


899