Tributes to Two Titans of the British Left
The Recusant pays tribute to Tony Benn and Bob Crow
Comrade Crow: Giant of the RMT
The week of 10th to 14th of March has indeed caused shockwaves to shudder through the British Left, book-ended as it has been with the deaths of two Titans of the British Left: the great Tony Benn (aged 88) and, at its beginning, the untimely and numbingly sudden loss of union stalwart and committed socialist Bob Crow, at only 52, from a suspected heart attack.
There is something very poignant in the contrasting combination of these two stalwarts of the Labour Movement, each being from almost opposite ends of the social scale; showing how socialism can encompass the convictions and aspirations of people from all classes –a great leveller of hearts and minds.
Robert ‘Bob’ Crow hailed from a solid working-class background in Shadwell, East London, left school at sixteen to work as a tree-feller for London Transport, and through the years became involved in union politics, eventually becoming a local representative for the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) in 1983 (aged just 22), and almost twenty years later, in 2002, at the age of 41, he was elected General Secretary for the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), a position in which became the indefatigable face of defiant trade unionism and the constant scourge of the Tories.
Crow, in many ways the archetypal ‘shop steward’-style, ‘finger-jabbing’, lip-licking, paragraph-pointing union leader, was a giant of industrial relations, a formidable foil for right-wing infringements on workers’ rights and conditions, a true champion of the working man of which he was such a palpable example himself, the bête noire of the Tories, the absolute antithesis to the blimpish blond-mopped Boris Johnson with whom he locked antlers during the very recent London Underground dispute.
There is also inescapably a something seemingly symbolic that Bob Crow should die so suddenly and unexpectedly at a pivotal point in the RMT's dispute with London Mayor Boris Johnson over the closing of station ticket offices, as well as only a week or so after 'One Nation' Labour's incomprehensible move to weaken its union links -and this has, of course, been noted and relished by an effortlessly disrespectful and vulture-like right-wing press.
As will he be, most importantly, in the hearts and minds of his union members and the workers he represented. The thoughtfulness of the inscription calligraphically handwritten and put up by workers Covent Garden tube station in tribute to Bob Crow pays testament to this (as well as to closeness to poetic language still felt today by many working people, compared to the general philistinism of the pop lyric-quoting political elites):
‘Fear of death follows fear of life. A man who lives life fully is prepared to die at any time' -Mark Twain: R.I.P. Robert Crow RMT.
In terms of what is at stake at this moment in industrial relations, we couldn’t have lost such a David-in-Goliath-guise at more critical a time; it can only be hoped that his Titan-like presence as General Secretary to the RMT will be replaced with someone of similarly determined mettle, although the sheer finger-pointing chutzpah and imposing ‘no nonsense’ approach of Crow will not be easy to replace.
In political terms, Crow’s most lasting contribution to the ongoing march of dialectical materialism was the need for the formation of a New Workers’ Party, which he first argued for at the National Shop Stewards Network in 2007; essentially a reformation of the Labour Movement replete with its original socialist values, given the official party’s lapse into neoliberalism under Tony Blair, and its only partial angling into a new gradualism as distilled in the rather bourgeois and blueish ‘One Nation’ Labour.
Socialism is more than sum of its individual parts, no matter how charismatic, it is an immanent politics, arguably the most akin to a faith of any other political ideologies (Conservatism, for instance, is really just materialistic pragmatism); socialism is also about fellowship –the term most often used by practising socialists– which encompasses anyone willing and open to its auspices.
But in any case, for those of the Left who do still hanker after figureheads or totems, we still have the eloquent and flintily determined Mark Serwotka, and the equally compassionate and charismatic Caroline Lucas –albeit both understandably allegiant to the Green Party, it being the only party with a foot in parliament which stands for the common people and socialist principles (bar the ginger group of the Labour Representation Committee).
But any ‘rumours’ as to the untimely passing of two of the nation’s most stalwart socialists somehow signifying a symbolic ‘death’ of the socialist ideology in Britain is simply the risible wish-fulfilment of a 98% right-wing British press hopelessly in thrall to a catastrophically failed anarcho-capitalist apparatus: why wouldn’t the likes of the Mail, Express, Sun, Star, Telegraph, Times, Evening Standard and all the other excuses for ‘news’-papers of our plutocratic society want to think that the augurs of this week bode ill for the future of British socialism, when any signs of its resurgence –which The Recusant predicts will intensify through the next few years, especially if the Tories cling onto power next year (so if people don’t want a return to a more active citizen socialism, then they’d be better off voting the Tories out and getting Labour in)– only serves to remind them of the twilight of their own unsustainable hegemonies?
But socialism is as much about the spirit as it is about material considerations: it is a secular faith, a faith in a fundamental goodness in humanity which can, if encouraged enough, resurface and flourish, in spite of the best efforts of misanthropic capitalism to suppress it. It is up to those of us who still believe in the living spirit of socialism to pay our respects to the giants fallen, then pick up their banners and continue the fight, reinforced in our convictions by the legacies of their lifelong examples, and more determined than ever to triumph over the ongoing struggle. Let us be pallbearers at this point, but with placards strapped to our backs. Or, in the famously paraphrased words of Swedish-American labour activist and songwriter Joseph Hillström (‘Joe Hill’): “Don't mourn, organize!” That's exactly what Bob Crow would have said.
18 March 2014
Citizen Benn: Gandalf of the Left
Owen Jones is right to say in his Guardian column marking the deaths within days of each other this week of Bob Crow (aged 52) and Tony Benn (aged 88), that socialism is not ultimately about personalities or figureheads, no matter how charismatic. It is about an essential form of human spirit, feeling and perception, a sensibility, a ‘way of being’, almost like a faith –and something often described in such terms by its Damascene-struck adherents. Jones was also right to pick up on the usual hypocrisy of the capitalist press, praising Benn after his passing, having for much of his political career oppositely demonised him as “the most dangerous man in Britain” (which would more aptly have been appended to the likes of Enoch Powell or, today, Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage, George Osborne, even Boris Johnson).
My fondest memories of Tony Benn were when he occasionally appeared on Question Time during the late Eighties and early Nineties, tirelessly and infectiously declaiming against the by-then universally accepted narrative of Thatcherism in his distinctive chalky locution –possibly partly brought on by a lifetime of talking with a pipe propped in his mouth?– and with a natural air of sage-like charisma, always making me think of him as a kind of age-gnarled Gandalf of the Left, or, in the context of the Thatcherite consensus, a veritable Jedi Knight of an ideologue, a Marxist Obi Wan Kenobi (to Michael Foot’s Yoda…? Please excuse the mixed J.R.R. Tolkien-George Lucas metaphors!). I vividly remember my family and I, in the late Eighties, a time during which we were abjectly impoverished, frantically clapping and cheering Benn’s unfashionable socialist ripostes to the visceral anti-values of those dark days –his firm, focused and erudite oratorical dissent sounding like a gust of fresh air to our ears back then.
Benn was certainly one of the most charismatic, fascinating and inspiring of late 20th century orators of the British Left, and his lifelong championing of the Labour stalwarts Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson, as well as his later scholarly talks on the legacy of the 17th century Levellers and Diggers of the likes of John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley, all combined to demonstrate just how steeped he was not only in a very active form of demonstrational socialism and protest, but also in the history of British and international socialism, and of the British Labour movement of which he was and will remain a Titan.
An inveterate tea-drinker and pipe-smoker –caffeine and tobacco seeming often to be ‘vices’ conducive to the more intellectually inclined socialists– there was something very much of the sober imbiber about Benn, not only literally but also intellectually: his was a disciplined, focused, rational and unapologetically logical strain of socialism, but yet one which was also coloured with great passion and emotion, as ever-evident in the often rather formidable, almost evangelical charge in his sharp glinting eyes.
But his long and prolific political career aside (ministerial posts under Harold Wilson, and very nearly Deputy Leader to Michael Foot in 1981), undoubtedly the biggest testament to Benn’s unwonted commitment to the cause of British socialism, was his relinquishing of his hereditary peerage (inherited from his father, William Wedgwood Benn, originally a Liberal MP, then later Labour Secretary of State for India under Ramsay MacDonald, and made Viscount Stansgate in 1941) through the Peerage Act of 1963 –a reform which he was chief in pushing through Parliament, and which he was the first to personally exercise, in order to become an MP.
Though certainly from a well-heeled, upper-middle-class dynasty of Liberal politicians, and educated at Westminster and Oxford, contrary to some long-held assumptions, Benn did not hail from an aristocratic background: as stated, he was only –and very briefly– a second generation ‘hereditary peer’, and not descended from some long line of landed gentry; as are, for instance, our current ruling Tory triumvirate, prime minister David Cameron (direct descendent of William IV and fifth cousin of the Queen), Chancellor Gideon ‘George’ Osborne (next in line to be 18th baronet of Ballentaylor, part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy called the Ascendancy), and Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (great grandson of the Interior Minister to the government of the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and a descendent, through Prince Paul of Württemberg, of James I, George II, and all previous British royal dynasties, as well as being eighth cousin of Tory rival David Cameron).
There has also over the past few days been a detectable rewriting of political history by many commentators, to the effect that Benn was somehow personally responsible for the decline of Labour in the 80s. From such glib judgements anyone would think he had been the Leader of Labour for the first few years of that decade, and not his politically close senior statesman, Michael Foot. Benn had run for the deputy leadership of Labour in 1981, but had lost by a hair’s breadth to the centre-right Denis Healey.
In spite of common misconceptions of popular contemporary myth, Benn never quite achieved sufficient empowerment by position in his party to significantly influence it towards the Left; Labour’s last move in this direction came through its famously left-wing stance in the 1983 General Election, which led to a catastrophic defeat by the incumbent Tories, Thatcher have been buoyed on her ‘victory’ in the Falklands conflict.
It’s open to speculation just how much input Benn, who actually lost his seat in that election (due to Tory gerrymandering) had in Labour’s 1983 manifesto, which was risibly described at the time by centre-right Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history” –a sobriquet which unfortunately stuck, and pushed Labour rightwards subsequently, but which in itself serves as arguably the ‘shortest testament to British conservatism in history’.
To any socialist, the New Hope for Britain (I note a serendipity with the first phrase of that manifesto title and my previous ‘Jedi’ allusion to Benn), albeit possibly a bit overly ambitious in the materialistic climate of Thatcher’s Britain, if not quixotically radical, was on paper a pretty reasonable and rudimentary statement of basic democratic socialist values, proposing a re-nationalisation of industries, abolition of the House of Lords and unilateral nuclear disarmament (though it was perhaps the latter policy which had the least public appeal at the time, it then being the height of the Cold War).
But added to this unfashionable left-wing radicalism was the rather ‘eccentric’ image of Labour Leader Michael Foot, all glasses, professorially slapdash hair and duffel coats (donning one most famously for his public appearance with the political elites at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day 1981, which the Mail deliberately misdescribed as a 'donkey jacket'), a great socialist scholar, writer and thinker, but perhaps not the most suitable candidate for party front-man. (In terms of natural charisma and commanding oratory, Benn was by far the best candidate for Labour Leader at that time).
But Labour’s disastrous defeat in 1983 was also to a large part due to the incursions made by the newly formed SDP-Liberal Alliance, headed by the ‘two Davids’ (Steel and Owen), a resurgent centre-ground force of Liberals and Labour defectors Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, the famous “Gang of Four”; this move, in response to what was perceived at the time by some Labour right-wingers as the entryism into the movement of the ‘Trotskyite’ Militant Tendency (who were finally purged from Labour during a turbulent party conference in 1987, under Neil Kinnock’s reforming leadership).
Inevitably, the formation of the SDP (from whose dubious ranks the current hard-right Tory Justice Minister Chris Grayling originally sprang), and its alliance with the Liberals, split the progressive/centre-left vote of 1983, all of which ensured that Thatcherism could sink its jaws into the political, social, economic and cultural fabric of our nation for the long-term, and complete its scabrous job of conclusively corroding the centre-left post-war consensus, ‘destroying socialism’, emasculating the unions, dismantling the mining and manufacturing industries, privatising the rest of our services and industries (“selling off the family silver”), depleting council housing stock through Right-to-Buy, eviscerating the mental health care sector (‘Care in the Community’), driving up unemployment and street homelessness to unprecedented levels, abolishing private rent controls (for me, the single most heinous and pernicious policy up to practically all of those of the current Tory-led Government), and generally, atomising British society to a point almost beyond repair.
The 1983 electoral debacle, then, essentially ensured the long-lasting (and still lasting) narrative of Thatcherism, the most socially and morally destructive ideology ever to be allowed to shape the British political landscape (up until today’s ‘social fascism’ of the Tories, which is in many respects the final and even more brutal consolidation of Thatcherite anti-values).
On the Channel 4 News on the evening of Benn’s passing, left-wing Labour MP Diane Abbott and ex-SDP member and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee were asked to contribute their verdicts on the great socialist parliamentarian’s legacy. I was particularly struck by just how sour Toynbee’s words were towards Benn, referring to his influence on Labour in the early Eighties as having been “disastrous”, and almost implying that his socialist radicalism of the time had played into the hands of Militant Tendency, to whom she referred, with the kind of cod-biblical phraseology more usually supplied by the kind of Tory right-wingers she spends most of her time polemicising against, as an “evil movement”!
Perfectly entitled to express her perception of the political climate and her significant difference in opinion to Benn’s on how the Labour Party should have been ideologically choreographed at that febrile time, I felt Toynbee’s tone and choice of phrases with regards to Benn were inappropriately over-emphatic, if not hyperbolic, given the sad occasion.
Clearly Diane Abbott felt the same, as was obvious from her icy manner towards Toynbee following the latter’s anti-Bennite diatribe. But, for me, the fact remains, radically out-of-kilter with the narratives of his time though Benn might have been, he stood for a fundamental “fairness” (in the days when it actually tallied with its dictionary definition, and wasn’t used as a euphemism for twisted ‘Toryisation of morality’, as it is today), social and economic fairness, which once, in political nomenclature, used to be called “socialism”, long before that term went into a Jedi-like obsolescence as some kind of, at best, old-world curiosity sobriquet, or worst, a near taboo.
No one more than Tony Benn did more in the public eye to fight for the term and the substance of the term of socialism to withstand the full force of capitalist/ monetarist/ market/ neoliberal ideological and rhetorical siege of the past thirty-odd years; and it is heartening to know that at least he lived to see and actively participate in an incipient tide of public opinion turning away from anarcho-capitalism towards more common-held values of rudimentary solidarity and social cooperation (re Occupy, UK Uncut, Left Unity, and the Peoples’ Assembly he patroned) in response to the brutalisation of ‘austerity capitalism’.
One particular clip repeated throughout recent media coverage of Benn’s death and legacy is particularly apposite in emphasizing his passionate position in opposition to capitalism, where he is seen asserting at a platform that –to paraphrase– Labour has tried to reform capitalism but it hasn’t work because capitalism is based on fundamental injustices. Let this be the rallying cry for the young rising “anti-capitalist” movement today.
And a good place to start in terms of active involvement in building a mass movement against capitalist austerity is to sign up to the newly proposed People’s Budget, agreed on by the 700-strong members assembled at Saturday’s People’s Assembly, on the day after the untimely death of Tony Benn, its patron:
Sign the Petition: For a People’s Budget
The Government should reverse damaging austerity, and replace it with a new set of policies providing us with a fair, sustainable and secure future. We will no longer tolerate politicians looking out for themselves and for the rich and powerful. Our political representatives must start governing in the interests of the majority. We, the undersigned, demand:
Re-nationalise our services & remove private profit from health, education and social services
A statutory living wage, abolish zero hour contracts, end the wage freeze
Invest in building social housing, abolish the bedroom tax & place a cap on private rents
A higher tax on the rich & a clamp down on tax avoidance
Reverse all spending cuts
Invest in creating green jobs
Increases to welfare and pensions should be tied to inflation
A stop to scapegoating of immigrants or those on welfare
A publically owned, democratic banking system
End the cost of war in blood and money: no military interventions, no Trident replacement
[Or via the People’s Assembly logo on the front page of the website].
Though this editor was unable to attend the Assembly in person, he did send 14 Lincoln-green delegates in the guise of The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity to the event, any revenue from sales there to be kept by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity as donation to the cause.
May Tony Benn rest in peace, may the great legacy of his lifelong campaigning for the socialist cause do anything but.
18 March 2014
Anthony Wedgwood Benn
(3 April 1925–
14 March 2014)