Paul Foot

Learning from experience?

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 10 June 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I spent a lively hour or so the other morning at Tony Benn’s house.

The official subject for discussion was rather boring (I don’t remember what it was).

What we talked about was a very interesting question indeed: why is it that the parliamentary politician I most detested 20 years ago is the parliamentary politician I most admire today.

Anyone leafing through the pages of Socialist Worker in the months after it first became a weekly paper in 1968 would come across a great many references to The Hon. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, the ‘supremo’ Minister for Technology.


Among the subjects dealt with were the same minister’s vacuous enthusiasm for the European Common Market, his creating of a specially nasty private monopoly in ship-building, his sponsoring of a uranium mine in racist South West Africa to the delight of the mines owners, Rio Tinto Zinc, his support for In Place of Strife, an openly anti-union bill, his pretending all the time that he was a socialist and a democrat.

When Labour went into opposition, and Tony Benn (as he now insisted he was called) went into opposition, he became, as far as I was concerned, even more detestable. When he called at a Labour Party conference for a standing ovation for the Upper Clyde Shipyard workers, who were fighting the very employers Benn had created, I was almost literally sick.

As he assumed the mantle of Supreme Socialist in the Labour Party, I (and Socialist Worker) attacked him with ever increasing vigour as a monstrous hypocrite who could not be trusted an inch.

When Labour resumed office in the mid-1970s, it soon turned out that all our attacked on Benn were utterly justified.

After a year fiddling about with a couple of co-ops, he allowed himself to be sacked as industry minister, and moved over to energy where he made some pathetic speeches about the wonders of North Sea oil. If he was fighting against the Labour government, not many people in the movement knew it.

What they got was rising unemployment and cuts in services, and Benn (who never resigned) took his share of the responsibility.

Soon after Labour lost in 1979, we had The Debate of the Decade in the Central Hall, in which we argued the toss on reform or revolution (Benn and others for reform; myself and others for revolution).

During that debate I recall Tony passionately supporting many of the measures of the Labour government. He also declared that he was not in favour of troops coming out of Ireland.

He then entered what I can only describe as a Crippsian stage. Sir Stafford Cripps suddenly became a very left wing socialist in the 1930s, and called for the next Labour government to take the most drastic steps to curtail capitalism, including the creation of enough peers to outvote the entire House of Lords.

This was the theme of Tony Benn’s speeches in 1981 and 1982.

During the miners’ strike he had a long flirtation with a shameless Stalinism. He talked a lot about the war and how wonderful Russia was.

Through all this time there was no doubt in my mind that at some stage or other the ‘true’ Tony Benn would revert to his old reformist and careerist self, throw away – as Cripps did – the baggage of revolutionary rhetoric, shed his momentary Stalinism and prepare once more for parliamentary power.


None of these things happened. Instead, as the ‘downturn’ continued, as defeat led to defeat, as more and more socialists became demoralised to the point of declaring that the working class of the world had vanished, Tony Benn moved relentlessly to the left.

His attacks on Kinnock over the latest policy reviews (sell outs) were savage, witty and implacable. His speech on the first big China demonstration called unequivocally for action from below.

Tony Benn is, I think, the only Labour politician this century who has moved so sharply in that direction, so that he is now, at his ripe age, a socialist who is quite unrecognisable from the fatuous, trend setting babbler of his youth.

Unlike Cripps, Tony Benn does not have a career in front of him. He will not be a minister in Kinnock’s government. He would not want to be.

It is, I suppose, wise in the view of all that past to be sceptical, but I prefer to see in the steady progression of Tony Benn the most unpredictable proof that some people, however few, can and do move to the left according to what they find out in their experience, and according to what they read and learn.

It is not inevitable that people slide to the right as they get older. People do not always remain fixed in a reformist (or for that matter revolutionary) mould. Tony Benn has proved both. And he has not stopped moving.

Last updated on 25 April 2015