Paul Foot

The Labour Left’s Brightest Star

(March 1980)

First published in Books and Bookmen.
Reprinted in Socialist Review, 1980 : 3, 22 March–18 April 1980, pp. 18&ndash:19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As this issue of Socialist Review is being printed, the contradicting claims of revolutionary socialism and left reformist socialism are due to be argued out in London at what its organisers have called The Debate of the Decade. Leading off for the reformists will be Tony Benn and for the revolutionaries, Paul Foot, of the SWP. As a prelude to the debate Paul has looked at Benn’s latest book, Arguments for Socialism (edited by Chris Mullin. Cape £5.95).

Rich and powerful people have always cherished their bogeymen. They like to reduce what Marx and Engels called “the spectre of communism” to human shape: to a personality who can be pilloried in their Press and patronised at their table. For the unfortunates who get singled out for this honour, life is hard. The assailants are well-practised in the art of character assassination and blackmail. Every public statement of their prey, however harmless, can rapidly be translated into the language of someone who rapes nuns on Fridays and nationalises a bank every day before breakfast.

Tony Benn has played the role of chief bogeyman for the rich men of Britain for a good time now. He has been treated perhaps more shamefully even then his predecessors in the Parliamentary Labour Left, men like John Wheatley. George Lansbury and Aneurin Bevan. In the past year, the abuse has risen to a crescendo, deafening even his most tenacious attempts to argue back. Yet its effect is not all as intended. For as the society splits wider apart, so the abuse from the halls of the powerful boosts their bogeyman’s radical and socialist credentials.

The more the Press yelp at Tony Benn. the more sympathy he gets from shop stewards and workers. This support can be seen not so much in the votes at Labour Party conferences as in the enthusiastic receptions which Tony Benn gets at shop stewards and combine committee meetings. Arthur Scargill, for instance, is very quickly prepared to forget his war of words with Benn over the productivity dealings in the pits in 1977. and has called on all his considerable support to throw their weight behind Benn as the next leader of the Labour Party.

This support will grow still further as the Tories continue their victory march through working class Britain, slashing and stabbing as though they were an invading army. As people get more angry they will turn to the man the Tories hate the most – Tony Benn. The very fury which is vented on Tony Benn in the Press throws him higher and higher up the political spiral.

It is worth saying at once that Tony Benn’s credentials for Chief Bogeyman of the Tories are a little difficult to understand. For eleven out of the last fifteen years he has been a loyal and for the most part silent member of a Labour government which has systematically torn up the pledges on which it was elected.

In the first Wilson administration from 1964 to 1970. Benn was counted as a force for the Right in the government. When he was promoted to the Cabinet in a senior post in charge of Technology, he was celebrated chiefly for his observations about the advances of science which were based on the 1963 visions of his leader Wilson (“the white heat of the technological revolution”).

In two areas in which Benn later became known as a hysterical Leftie, he behaved in a way which can only have brought a smile of approval to the Tory benches. In 1967 he set up the Swallow Committee to preside over the shipbuilding industry, and personally insisted on carving up the shipyards in the Clyde between the old shipbuilding families. When even extreme Labour right-wingers such as Andrew Cunningham begged him to take full notice of an experiment at Fairfields yard in worker participation. Benn had nothing to do with it. Instead, he capitulated entirely to shipbuilding’s “old gang”.

When, without telling the Cabinet, the Atomic Energy Authority signed a deal for the manufacture of uranium under South African control at Rossing. South West Africa. Benn meekly gave the deal his approval. At that time, no one thought he would do otherwise.

Nor is the record of his time in office from 1974 to 1979 much more impressive. In the summer of 1975, with the Common Market ‘Yes’ vote safely in the bag. Prime Minister Wilson bowed to demands in the city to move Benn from the Industry Ministry and push him off to some more harmless area (in this case the Department of Energy). If Benn ever meant a word about the need to fight in the country for what was Labour Party policy, that was the time for him to resign – as, to his credit, his colleague Eric Heffer did – and try to raise rank and file Labour opposition to the Wilson drift (as Heffer, by the way, did not do). Instead, Benn accepted the move and, as far as the ordinary Labour Party member was concerned, shut up.

Still, this is all in the past, and, as Tony Benn himself is always saying, he has learnt from his mistakes. If so, there could not have been a better time than the present to publish a clear account of his ideas and his programme. Some people are asking the question: ‘What went wrong with Labour?’ Many more are asking, what is the argument for socialist advance and how can we best ensure that things don’t go so wrong next time? These are the questions which tony Benn is better placed to answer to more people than anyone else in the country.

And it is here that this little book is such a terrible disappointment. I did not expect to agree with Tony Benn’s conclusions, but I did expect to get a clear and coherent account of where he stands.

But the book is not clear or coherent in anything. It is not even intended to be. Chris Mullin, a journalist for Tribune who edited the book explains in his note at the beginning:

‘The first five sections of this book, are based on speeches, lectures and articles by Tony Benn taken mainly, but not exclusively, from the last five years.’

Goodbye, then, to the hope that this might be a new account, forged perhaps in the white heat of experience of the last Labour Government. The vast majority of the book is made up of extracts from Tony Benn while still a Minister. And most of these are awful Olympian pronouncements at Ministerial functions. On page 83 (just to let the reader off with one example), while explaining his belief in the future of nuclear power, Benn the Minister says:

‘In my view the most powerful argument is the argument about proliferation of nuclear weapons as an accidental by-product of the uncontrolled spread of sensitive nuclear technology intended solely for civil purposes. We are doing everything possible to prevent this by international agreement, supervision and control.’

Now, who is this “we”? It cannot be anyone now connected with Tony Benn. He is doing nothing whatever to prevent anything in the nuclear field. He is a politician in Opposition. No doubt he means, when he was in office, he did what he could. But that is useless now.

The fact is that for most of the last five years from which these extracts were taken. Tony Benn was a cautious Minister making cautious pronouncements. These pronouncements can help us in no way to any understanding or action for the future. There were once occasions when Tony Benn could make an excursion, for instance, to a conference of the Institute for Workers Control: or to a church at Burford where Cromwell’s soldiers murdered Leveller mutineers. Then he could argue about radical forms of change.

He could not, of course, say that the miners or engineers today should act according to the principles of the Levellers. To do so would be to court disaster, and run the risk of being sacked from the Callaghan Government. He could talk about the wonders of workers’ control, provided only that they were envisaged in the distant and Utopian future.

So the most striking characteristic of this book is the gap between the airy assertions of socialist aims and the dry and half-hearted programmes of a failed Minister. For instance, on page 60, he writes:

‘We should be talking about the transfer of power within industry ...’

In the same mood, on p. 162

‘We should be moving from a situation where capital hires labour to a situation where labour hires capital.’

But when it comes down to the programme which is going to achieve all this transferring of power and hiring of capital we find (on p.72)

‘The whole purpose of the planning agreement is to introduce that democratic tripartite element into industrial policy.’

The troika which is to make up this tripartite element is of course “government, trade union movement and management”. And so we are staring at the familiar pictures of the “two sides of industry” sitting down and making plans under the watchful eye of the benign Labour Minister.

That may or may not have any effect – almost certainly not but it is a very far cry from the visions of “transferring power” with which Mr Benn excites his supporters at the Institute of Workers Control.

Then there is another contradiction of the same type which is even more serious. Of all Tony Benn’s views, none has been more consistently slated than his belief in a widening democracy, and in more initiatives and control from below.

‘I think we will have to be sure’ he says (p.73) ‘that the impetus for change comes continually from the movement itself.’

And the book ends with a quotation from a Chinese philosopher who says:

‘When the best leader’s work is done, the people say: “We did it ourselves”.’

Other sections of Tony Benn’s book are full of praise for the workers at the Upper Clyde in 1971 and in take-overs and sit-ins since.

All this does represent, it seems, a huge conversion from the Tony Benn perched on his peak at the Technology Ministry planning and ordering the workers into position. And the suspense for the reader of almost unbearable. Will he now tell us what sort of “action from below” is needed, how best to “inspire” the “impetus of change” from the “movement itself”? Will he even tell us, however briefly, what sort of organisation is required to further that impetus and that change?

No, he will not. I have scanned his book with a lot of care for any ideas as to new forms of organisation to fit Tony Benn’s new commitment to workers’ democracy. But I am afraid (apart from cliches such as “progress must be made towards workers’ control” – p. 39) that we are back with some old simplicities. There is nothing for it but the Labour Party. Tony Benn doesn’t mind how many Marxists are in the Labour Party provided only that “they commit themselves to advancing socialism through Parliamentary democracy”.

Here at once is another paradox. In one part of the book. Tony Benn states his faith in the “power of the vote”. The very welfare state itself, he says, came “directly from the power of the ballot box”. And it is that power, he suggests, which is to take us on to the “fully democratic and socialist system” of which he dreams.

And then there are other passages more sceptical. For Tony Benn knows as well as anyone that the power of the ballot box is open to the most terrible subversion by the rich.

As early as page 17 he is writing:

‘I discovered how the immense power of the bankers and the industrialists in Britain and world-wide could be used to bring direct and indirect pressure again backed by the media, first to halt and then to reverse the policy of a Labour government that both the electors and the House of Commons had accepted ...’

He knows that from bitter experience. He saw Wilson’s pledge for ‘no incomes policy’ overturned by a run on the pound in the summer of 1975, with Benn’s job going into the bargain. He watched helplessly as the bankers moved again, in 1976, through the IMF, to force Labour to cut the welfare state which (according to Benn) the power of the ballot box had first created. He fought a desperate battle with the nuclear industry and the oil companies, without winning either. All in all, his own experience, even as it is set down in this badly-conceived and woodenly-presented book, shows clear as day that the ballot box and parliamentary democracy are not strong enough to reach even the miserable objectives of the British Labour Party let alone the dreams of Tony Benn.

The problem is extra-Parliamentary – the “power of the bankers”. Benn’s remedies, however, are parliamentary: a planning agreement here and there, a new hunk of something or other taken into public ownership: a tighter exchange control or Treasury regulation.

The gap yawns on almost every page. And properly so. For it is this gap between aspiration and practical achievement which marks the career and politics of Tony Benn. It is nothing especially new. Two weeks before the general election of 1970, for instance, Press and television headlined a fantastic speech by Tony Benn about Enoch Powell.

‘The flag which fluttered over Dachau,’ he intoned to a handful of surprised constituents ‘is now fluttering over sections of the Tory Party ...’

This was the first statement about Powell made by Tony Benn, though Powell’s infamous race speech at Birmingham had taken place two years earlier. Moreover. Tony Benn had sat without a second’s objection while his Government banned from British Kenyan Asians who had been promised free entry. Once again, the. language of the extremist had come from the mouth of the moderate.

As I read this book for the second time, in February 1980. I pondered the effect of Benn’s interventions in the past few weeks. There have been scores of speeches, many of them peppered with images as florid as that of the flag which fluttered over Dachau. But in defence of the “impetus from below” which has started to shake “the movement” once again: the steel strike; the sacking of the convenor in Britain’s largest plant; the desperate action of men and women threatened with a future which throws them fifty years into the past, where has Tony Benn been speaking or agitating?

More importantly, what of the future? For all (he comments here. Benn in person, especially on the television is a convincing figure to many workers. He is so obviously more sensible and more humane than the monster he is made out to be that people come easily round to his point of view. It is by no means certain that he will always be doomed to defeat in Labour leadership election.

The actual proposals will not,. I believe, be very much more dramatic than they were in 1974. But the effect of Benn’s use of rhetoric will be to make them seem more radical by far. But if a Labour government ever is returned committed to such policies, it will be able, since the crisis will be deeper, to deliver less.

Then the gap between Tony Benn’s language and what he can achieve by his methods will loom not simply as a logical lacuna in a second-rate book, but as a threat to very parliamentary institutions and trade unions which remain Tony Benn’s only instruments of change.

Last updated on 21 September 2019