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International Socialism, Spring 1991


Donny Gluckstein

The last of the reformists?

A review of Tony Benn’s Diaries 1963–1980


From International Socialism 2 : 50, Spring 1991, pp. 105–123.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The four volumes of Benn’s diaries are a fascinating record of two decades of British political history. Benn had access to the highest levels of the political and industrial establishment and was witness to the death of the consensus built around the post-war boom and its replacement by endemic crisis and the collapse of mainstream reformist ideas in the Labour Party. He is also a figure of prime importance in the development of the Labour movement, and his diaries reveal with amazing frankness both the politics of Labour in general and his own role.

Discovering the reality of politics under capitalism

In 1963, after a prolonged constitutional wrangle, Lord Stansgate, the ‘reluctant peer’, won the right to shed his title and be just ordinary Tony Benn, MP. A year later a Labour government was elected: ‘There is all the excitement of a revolutionary movement, with plans for this and that already afoot – just as if we were partisans poised for a victorious assault upon the capital.’ [1] With hindsight Benn’s gushing enthusiasm seems ridiculous, but this emotion was widespread. Indeed he had contributed to it both in his adulation of Wilson and as his speech writer. [2]

When Wilson made Benn Postmaster General he felt he had ‘been told by the insurgent general that when we capture London I am to take over the Post Office.’ [3] His first move was to present his top civil servant, the Director General, with the Labour manifesto. He was as yet unaware of Charles Dickens’s warning that ‘“How not to do it” was the great study and object of all public departments ...’ [4] But the lesson would soon be learnt: ‘I handed him a copy of our manifesto. He picked it up with a look of infinite disgust and carried it out of the office with two fingers.’ [5]

Benn immediately faced impenetrable resistance to anything he wanted to do, even though his aims were painfully modest. It is unlikely that capitalism would disintegrate if the Queen’s head were not a compulsory component of every postage stamp. But when, on the fateful 5 November 1964, Benn made this Fawkesian proposal, his Parliamentary Private Secretary declared ‘it was dynamite’. [6] A furious battle was joined and after no less than 61 separate diary entries, 260 pages and two years of valiant struggle Benn emerged bloodied ... and defeated.

If Benn was consistently blocked by civil servants, he did at least have the power to influence the living standards of the 390,000 Post Office employees through negotiating their pay. He discovered how it was done previously. Ronald Smith, Post Office Workers’ General Secretary, would be secretly told in advance that X percent was the offer:

we would then by agreement start at about half that figure and he would press and we would yield, and he would press and we would yield and finally it would be settled at X percent which he had known about all along ... if Ron Smith’s executive knew what was happening they’d murder him. [7]

But Benn’s negotiations were different. As Smith declared, he was tougher on the union than his Tory predecessor, which Benn ‘took to be a compliment’. [8]

Meanwhile he had attended his first cabinet meeting where Labour ratted on its promise to immediately raise old age pensions. This he found ‘an interesting experience’. [9] His attitude should perhaps be no surprise because, as Benn says today, he was still a ‘socialist-in-the-making’ with politics that were ‘almost anti-socialist, corporatist in character ...’ [10] Still, his political education was taking shape. In July 1966 Benn enthusiastically took over Frank Cousins’ Ministry of Technology after Cousins resigned in disgust at Wilson’s pay freeze. Here Benn met a force other than the civil service helping ensure that the state was a tool of ruling class policy: the secret service. Benn was a government minister for 11 years, in the cabinet for nine, and the inner cabinet for several of these. During that time telephone callers accidentally heard his taped conversations played back to them. At home his children picked up his phone calls on their radios. Someone in a smart car kept driving off with the domestic refuse. And yet try as he might he could never obtain confirmation that he was under surveillance. After a barrage of letters, Merlyn Rees, Home Secretary, informed him:

I could not be told whether or not my telephone was being intercepted. That had been the practice and he was not prepared to vary it in respect of a Member of Parliament. The fact that I am a Privy Councillor, a cabinet colleague and a senior member of the government made no difference to him. [11]

If this applies to the inner cabinet, what chance does anyone else have?

As Minister of Technology and later Minister of Power, Benn came face to face with the concentrated power of national and multinational capital ranging from Fords to the oil magnates. In 1977, for example, Shell earned $55 billion, while the top 50 British companies accounted for half of national turnover, capital, and 56 percent of profits. [12] The concept of democratically controlling such power via the ballot every five years was a farce. Benn began to talk darkly of a ‘new feudalism’. [13]

The danger did not have to take the form of direct subversion of the elected government, although it frequently did. In 1968 Cecil King, Chairman of IPC, Mirror newspapers and Governor of the Bank of England, headed an influential City group who thought that in the approaching crisis ‘the [Wilson] government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the street, the armed forces would be involved, the people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten’, whom King would duly anoint. [14] In 1975, according to Benn, Sir Val Duncan, head of Rio Tinto Zinc, organised another grouping, including staff officers with links to Field Marshal Montgomery, ‘to head off the revolution’. [15] There was no secret service interference here. Indeed, if Peter Wright is to be believed, the secret service was closely involved in its own sordid plots. In the end Wilson served his masters’ purposes well enough and remained in post until his mysterious departure in 1976.

A combination of ruling class power, exercised directly and indirectly through private capital and the organs of the state, such as civil servants and the intelligence network, has a profound effect on the government decision making process. The ordinary person feels alienated enough from official politics, but in 1968 Benn and his colleagues’ ‘great gripe was about the absolute exclusion of cabinet ministers from important decisions.’ [16] Thus throughout the diaries we read comments like this:

Because I am using my authority, I am being stopped at every point ... All my industrial and regional policy in respect of Europe is being taken away and put under the Foreign Secretary’s control. My Green Paper is being blocked by the Treasury, by the Chancellor’s minute. My day-to-day business is now being watched by Harold Lever [Duchy of Lancaster] and Joel Barnett [Treasury]. All my speeches are controlled, and indeed I have been told by the Prime Minister not to speak or broadcast. And as regard appointments, the Prime Minister has said I am not to proceed even by letting it be known there are vacancies. [17]

Such a straitjacket applies not just to the troublesome minister, but to the government as a whole. By November 1968 Benn reached the bitter and inescapable conclusion that the government was the prisoner of forces beyond its control. He made this remarkable diary entry:

In defence matters we are wholly tied to the Americans. Denis Healey is always making out that we are completely dependent upon the Americans for the supply of our nuclear fuel for the Polaris submarines and indeed for the know-how for the Polaris missiles, which is true. On financial matters, because we’re in deficit, we’re in the hands of the bankers. And on monetary matters we’re in the hands of the world community.

... it was clear that on industrial matters things were decided in Detroit and not in London. It was interesting – I won’t say sad because you’ve got to be realistic – to think that the British Parliament, the House of Commons, meant nothing. The Cabinet means nothing. The Prime Minister was just at the other end of a phone, receiving dictation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was himself being dictated to by the world monetary conference. This is the reality of life. [18]

This discovery was not new. It had poisoned the souls of generations of idealistic Labour politicians, and driven them into the camp of right wing ‘political realism’. MacDonald, Snowden and Cripps, for example, had followed this path. However, Benn came upon this truth at a peculiar time – 1968. This may explain why he took a path of resistance, actually moving from the centre to the left, instead of the usual direction.

The desire for radical change: from revisionism to Bennism

To understand the source of Bennism we must briefly trace previous currents of Labour thought. Early Labour politicians believed it was possible to combine the state’s duty to assist national capital with the satisfaction of working class needs. They proposed what amounted to partial state capitalism – limited nationalisation and a welfare state within the capitalist framework. In 1945, with the first majority Labour government, the plan seemed to work successfully for both business and Labour supporters.

This success was rooted in the structure of capitalism. The ground rules for all governments up to then had been laid down in the 19th century. At that time a mass of tiny competing enterprises opposed state economic intervention, fearing that if it assisted one section it would be at the expense of another. The size and potential influence of the state as an economic competitor in profitable areas was another concern, while welfare was seen as costly and unnecessary. The chosen policy was an uninvolved neutrality, laissez faire. The state’s function was largely limited to physical defence of the system from the class enemy within and competitors without.

By 1945 capital concentration had reached the point where giant firms dominated the economy. They did not fear, but welcomed, state intervention, for they had the power to ensure mat it would be to their direct benefit. Their view was voiced by the non-socialist Keynes.

Advanced capitalism now required a moderately healthy and moderately educated workforce. After the Second World War the system experienced the longest boom in its history and so there was room for such reforms without cutting profits. Beveridge, a liberal, led the way. Attlee’s government intervened accordingly. Unprofitable industries that were vital parts of the capitalist infrastructure, such as mining and rail transport, were nationalised. Once this had been done, the capitalists said ‘Thus far and no further’. The same approach was applied to health and education reforms.

Further nationalisation or public spending did not suit British capital. By the 1960s its continuing decline internationally demanded a more dynamic lead from the government. This was the source of Labour’s new revisionism which said that science, technology, efficient streamlined organisation and enthusiasm, could both revive the flagging fortunes of British capital and generate funding for further reforms.

Tony Benn was an enthusiastic disciple of revisionism. In July 1965, for example, he advised Wilson to ‘draw a distinction between the Tory Party as the champion of those who own industry and the Labour Party as the natural ally of the managers and the people who run it.’ [19] Wilson writes that Benn inspired the Queen’s Award for Industry, ‘an award to industrialists for export achievement or advances in technology.’ [20] Benn’s view of his role was ‘to help British industry to be competitive-giving a commercial tilt to the whole affair ...’ [21] His Technology Ministry would be ‘the spearhead of an industrial Britain in opposition to the old concept of imperial Britain.’ [22]

In the revisionist universe, class did not exist, only forces which were dynamic or impeded dynamism, such as slow moving industrialists and trade unions. In a rare excursion into ‘philosophical discussion’, Benn told advisers to the ‘likeable’ Nikolai Ceaucescu that their respective social systems were like ‘a piece of cheese and a piece of butter both going round in a soup which technology was making hotter and hotter ... They laughed a lot about this and it became quite a joke – our technological soup.’ [23]

It was this attitude that led Benn to support In Place of Strife, the anti-union proposals which the Tories were later to adopt for themselves. His role in this sorry affair was crucial. In November 1968 he sent a memorandum to Barbara Castle proposing ‘strike ballots and a cooling-off period, and in this way we would say we were going to control the trade unions by democratising them.’ [24] Jim Callaghan, who led the successful resistance to In Place of Strife in cabinet, suggests that Benn was part of Castle’s group of four which drafted the proposals. [25] Certainly Benn was furious with Callaghan’s opposition, ‘not for thinking what he thought about it, which he was entitled to do, but for saying it publicly ...’ [26] It was exactly this charge that both Wilson and Callaghan would later hurl against Benn. Union resistance eventually convinced him In Place of Strife was not feasible on the grounds that, ‘We are in advance of the times.’ [27]

Labour’s revisionist strategy fell apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A sign of this was the rise of a new right wing policy called monetarism. This aimed (though it rarely succeeded) at relegating the state to the economic sidelines in order to give free play to market forces. Government intervention should be limited to managing the money supply. Although often identified as pure Thatcherism, Benn notes that monetarism dominated the Labour cabinet ‘even before 1970 ... thus also marking the end of the predominance of Keynesian economics in Britain’s two leading political parties.’ [28] Monetarism meant abandoning independent state action in favour of abject capitulation to the spontaneous pressures of national and international capital. Even the promise of reforms was ditched. Kinnockism has been portrayed as an effort to mimic Thatcher’s ‘winning ways’. In fact its roots pre-date Thatcher, will long outlive her, and follow a brutal political logic of its own.

While the majority of Labour leaders edged towards monetarism, Benn and a large section of the Labour rank and file swung to the left under the impact of rising militancy. A number of factors contributed to Benn’s new direction. Firstly, six years of Wilson’s ‘white heat of technological revolution’ had entirely failed to unclog the sclerotic arteries of the system. The Labour Party had lost the election, its working class supporters dismayed by the paucity of reforms and the direct attack of In Place of Strife.

Secondly, economic crisis was threatening to undermine the foundations of bourgeois democracy from both the left and the right. As the second miners’ strike under Heath began to turn out the lights, Benn made this entry in December 1974, detailing yet another expression of terror by members of the ruling class at the crisis and the advance of the workers’ movement:

Dinner with Wilfred Brown who also believes we were heading for a slump and food riots and there must a national government. If that is what the businessmen are saying, it is significant. [29]

Thirdly, there was the mounting level of class struggle, as the working class organised to resist the impact of the crisis. As Minister of Technology Benn was responsible for shipbuilding, and thus became intimately involved in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders fight and later in the famous ‘work-in’ under Heath. The impact of the mass Labour movement can clearly be sensed in this entry from March 1971:

As a result of the Tories’ Industrial Relations Bill, the trade union movement, and the working class even more, have become proud of being the working class. legislation has succeeded in shutting off the idea that somehow you can escape from your class and come up in a Davis Escape Apparatus, one by one, to join the ruling class, because the ruling class has let you down and is trying to suppress you. There is a tremendous self-confidence in being yourself and what you are. It is ‘black is beautiful’ applied to the working class, which is marvellous. [30]

From being an architect of In Place of Strife Benn now moved to voicing support for UCS, the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 and the Pentonville dockers.

Finally, Benn was affected by the decline of the government’s function as ‘the Executive Committee of the bourgeoisie.’ The state rarely reflects capitalist interests directly, but as they are mediated through the interplay of different political parties and politicians. Nevertheless, when Marx described the state as the executive of the ruling class it reflected the close connections and real congruence between capital (as a national unit) and the national state. By the 1970s the situation had changed.

The state was still a capitalist institution and served the same master, but its relationship with that master was altered. The management boards of multinational companies and finance houses had an autonomy and influence which began to rival decisions by individual national governments. Neither the partial state capitalism of the Attlee variety nor the revisionist ‘managed capitalism’ of the 1960s fitted any more. Multinational capital had outgrown the confines of the national state. Its new monetarist consensus demanded what superficially seemed a reversion to the laissez faire philosophy of early capitalism. Some powerful capitalists resented state interference in their economic affairs, but this time it was not because they were so small but because they had outgrown its geographical boundaries. The apparent overlap of capitalist and workers’ interests, that had made Attlee’s governments a seeming success for both sides, had disappeared.

This confronted reformists with an intractable problem. The traditional goal of managing capitalism through the national state and also delivering reforms was ever more problematic. If the state was becoming less of an ‘executive of the bourgeoisie’, the whole reformist project would fall apart. In this situation some were ready to abandon their old reformist ideas. But others clung to them. This is what lay behind the row over entry into the European Community (EC). It is the issue that attracts by far the most attention in the whole of the diaries. In March 1975 Benn discussed a paper on the EC in cabinet:

The Community will destroy the whole basis on which the Labour movement was founded, and its commitment to democratic change. That’s one of the reasons we have a small Communist Party, why the ultra-left is so unimportant, because we can say to people ‘Change your MP and you can change the law’. That’s where the attack on democracy is coming from. If we accept this paper, we’d be betraying, in a very special sense, our whole history. [31]

Today the battle over the EC takes place on ground defined by the right: Thatcherite ‘little Englandism’ versus supporters of unfettered multinational capitalism in the Tory and Labour Parties. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, apart from the maverick Enoch Powell, the issue was fought on a more left wing basis, between genuine reformists who opposed the EC and those like Heath, Roy Jenkins and Callaghan who supported it.

So the argument against entry, for renegotiation of terms and a referendum on withdrawal were all couched in left wing terms and led by Benn. ‘loss of sovereignty’ was not feared because of its threat to the Queen or similar chauvinistic nonsense, but because hard won democratic rights such as the vote, limited as they were in controlling the national state, would be replaced by unaccountable bureaucrats of a capitalist super state. This argument makes sense so long as it is not taken to imply that we live in a wonderfully democratic society or mat real sovereignty does not lie with King Capital. Alas, the Labour left frequently overstepped this line. Even crass nationalism sometimes entered into the left’s approach. In all of the diaries Benn’s strongest language is reserved for the threat to Britain’s passport. He wrote in December 1975:

this made my stomach turn – we have agreed to abandon the navy blue British passport in favour of a European passport which will say ‘European Community’ with the words United Kingdom passport underneath. I had an absolute gut reaction that this was selling our birthright for a mess of unemployment ... I’m so bloody angry about it. [32]

Revolutionaries find no difficulty over the question of the EC. It has nothing to do with real internationalism between workers, nor does it threaten to end some idyllic life on ‘this sceptred isle’. It is a simple variation on the way capitalism is run. Exploitation does not carry a passport. Therefore our attitude to the EC is tactical. In the 1970s the SWP campaigned for a no vote in the referendum because this position was articulated in left wing terms, against the Labour right and the Tories. A majority would have given the workers’ movement a boost of confidence. Today a campaign for withdrawal from the EC would be fought on right wing chauvinistic grounds and could only act as a diversion from more important issues.

In the early 1970s the balancing act that is reformism was becoming ever more contradictory. On the one hand Labour politicians had to cure capitalism in its new international form as expressed in the doctrine of monetarism. But in so doing the party risked losing control of the militant working class movement. That this was avoided is to a great extent due to Bennism.

What did he stand for? Class struggle had shown Benn that ‘power has now passed from parliamentarians to people outside, and that what is said by major industrialists or major trade unionists is now much more significant than what is said by parliamentarians ... unless we get hold of this and understand it properly we shall miss a great deal by thinking of power purely in electoral terms.’ [33] It was his aim to recapture the mass movement for Labour reformism. As he told the Managing Director of the Financial Times in the midst of Heath’s final crisis, ‘There’ll just have to be reforms ... The reason I am most bitterly attacked by the ultra-left is because they know that I am really the only guy who might save the parliamentary system by making the necessary reforms.’ [34]

Although no doubt better intentioned than the Labour right’s programme, Benn’s policy of ‘necessary reforms’ amounted to a sugar-coating of democracy over a bitter pill of austerity and siege economy.

Britain faces a grave economic crisis. Everybody knows we are going to have some years of real austerity, shortage and difficulty ... It is absolutely essential that during this crisis Britain re-equips itself with new plant and equipment to make it competitive. It is also essential that we end completely the confrontation between the unions and the community; therefore they must have much more democratic control and we must have more equality than we have had. If we get these three things right, we can emerge from this period of difficulty with our factories and our nation re-industrialised and re-equipped and Britain will be a major industrial power once more, with its own oil reserves. [35]

The first part of this programme came to be called the Alternative Economic Strategy. Britain would be sealed off from competition by import controls. Industry would be revived through ‘planning agreements’ with a National Enterprise Board taking controlling stakes in 25 major companies. This was a desperate attempt at a reformist way out by turning back to Keynes and partial state capitalism. To give the impression that the strategy was serious the Enterprise Board was set up when Labour got in and Benn was allowed to tinker around with planning agreements as Industry Minister. However in real terms the Alternative Economic Strategy was never accepted by the bosses. It remained a scrap of paper which did, however, pacify the left at this critical time. As soon as the tide of militancy began to recede in 1975, Benn was unceremoniously shunted out of his Industry post to the marginal position at the Ministry of Energy. The Enterprise Board and planning agreements came to nothing.

Furthermore, although it was made to sound radical, the Alternative Economic Strategy was no socialist panacea. It would have meant a fall in living standards. Benn asked, ‘If we are not able to give people more money, how else do we cope with the situation?’ and answered, ‘Indeed, if we can’t give people money, we can give them power ...’ [36] The pill of the Alternative Economic Strategy was not to the liking of the monetarists, but they seized upon the attractive packaging Benn offered – the Social Contract – co-operation between unions and a Labour government.

Benn’s backing for the Social Contract delivered the support of the Labour left, and belief in the good intentions of the new government was bolstered by a short period of minor reforms, such as a change in employment law, and concessions on wages. But reformism walks on two legs, political and industrial. The key trade union leaders, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, provided this second element. Jones’s autobiography makes clear that he worked closely with Benn at this time, and claims credit for averting ‘“a winter of discontent” just as severe as that of 1978–79, but we fought it successfully with the weapon of the Social Contract.’ [37] Even today, in introducing the chapter entitled Sounding the Retreat, March–October 1974, Benn describes the Social Contract as ‘a workable voluntary agreement ... with the trade union movement, securing trade union co-operation while Labour was pushing through a programme of reforms advantageous to the mass of workers.’ [38]

However, the right to paternity of the Social Contract is disputed. In his memoirs, Wilson claims joint authorship with Benn. [39] It is no coincidence that both right and left leaders of the party should almost simultaneously reach the same policy. Both knew that under Heath the militancy of the workers was such that no direct offensive could break it. Wilson consciously wanted to incorporate the unions to save British capitalism, while Benn believed he was bringing capitalism under the control of the unions: ‘This concept of a working class power structure, democratic and organised in parallel with the government structure – in effect joint government of the country by the Labour Party and the trade unions – makes an awful lot of sense.’ [40] Only by ignoring the nature of the state, and me entire structure of the capitalist system on a national and international scale, could anyone believe this. Tragically Benn and the many thousands of his supporters did precisely this. The result was the following ludicrous situation in the ‘Winter of Discontent’, January 1979. Key union leaders were co-operating directly with the government scabbing organisation, the Civil Contingency Unit, to smash a road haulage strike. Benn wrote: ‘So we have reached the point I always wanted – the TUC is now involved in the Contingencies Unit itself; a tremendous advance.’ [41]

His capacity for self-deception was incredible. Alas its consequences went beyond the personal. For whoever deserves the dubious privilege of inventing the Social Contract is ultimately irrelevant. What future historians will note is that the election of a Labour government in 1974 turned the most powerful upsurge of working class struggle since the 1920s into a ‘Sounding [of] the Retreat.’ This was achieved by a combination of forces. The Labour right and the trade union bureaucracy were important, but the contribution of the Bennites in covering the left flank of this operation should not be underestimated; neither should the damage they inflicted. We are still paying the price today.

’Industrial democracy’ was another element in Benn’s strategy. It was part and parcel of the need to ‘handle the increased power of the trade unions’, as Benn told the Cabinet Committee on Pay and Prices in 1977. He rejected driving the unions back through unemployment, or indulging in ‘a sort of public relations window-dressing’ exercise in which token trade unionists sat on company boards. His chosen solution was this: ‘The third way to deal with trade union power was to institutionalise it, and through it, create democracy, which meant real control, shifting the balance of power and responsibility in favour of Labour.’ [42] The ambiguity of the word ‘institutionalise’ is evident.

What happened in practice? Benn backed plans of the Lucas Combine Committee to save jobs and reorient their production. [43] The result was six years of talking which culminated in the victimisation of the leadership and mass redundancy. On his direct initiative workers’ co-operatives were established. However the notion of tiny islands of socialism surviving in an ocean of capitalism soon turned sour. Benn proudly rebutted cabinet critics of his Meriden motorcycle co-operative with these words: ‘Well, you tell me how you are going to get people to take a £20 a week wage cut as is happening in Coventry now to work for the co-operative.’ [44] Benn’s ‘democracy’ had turned into its opposite, undermining rank and file influence in the face of capital. Shop stewards became accomplices to management efforts and as we have written elsewhere: ‘Participation weakened shop-floor organisation, increased sectionalism, and, finally, made scabbing an official tactic.’ [45]

This did not mean Benn’s radicalisation was unreal. It earned him the unmitigated hostility of the entire bourgeois media, the Tory Party and most of the Labour leadership. To the Daily Mail he was a Nazi stormtrooper, to Heath a Commissar. For others he was variously a supporter of Soviets, a Maoist, the same as Goebbels and finally an ‘Old Testament Prophet’. [46] However Bennism remained trapped by reformism. It channelled the activities and aspirations of militants away from self-reliance and into the dead end of parliamentary and internal Labour Party politics. This made it immensely damaging, reining in a workers’ movement which had defeated Heath’s state, and which Labour’s right could not control. This is not to deny Benn’s sincerity. On the contrary, it was this evident sincerity that made it so much more potent than the tired hypocrisy of the old right wing – people like Wilson and Healey – who rediscovered socialism only at election times.

In assessing such left reformism Marxists must avoid two dangers. One was epitomised by the ‘Third Period’ line of Stalin, when it was argued that reformist politicians were more dangerous than explicit pro-capitalists because they objectively upheld the system, and did so all the more effectively by talking left. But this ignored the vital subjective significance of left reformists, that they speak for progressive change even if they lack the means of achieving it. The Third Period policy was disastrous, preventing a united front against the Nazis, thus assisting Hitler’s seizure of power.

But there is an opposite danger, to which most of the British revolutionary left fell prey in the late 1970s – that of hearing only the radical phrases and ignoring the objective role. This trap had once ensnared no less a revolutionary than Trotsky, who before 1917 accused Lenin of wasting his time by attacking left reformists and centrists. As he later wrote: ‘It is in this ... that the basic error of what is called “historical Trotskyism” lay. In order to become a Bolshevik ... it is necessary to understand fully the meaning and significance of Lenin’s irreconcilability toward centrism, without which there is not and cannot be a road to proletarian revolution.’ [47]

The victory of political reality over radical thought: Benn as minister 1974–9

Labour politicians who make very radical statements when in opposition often change their tone in office. But Benn was different. He continued to talk left after 1974. To see how he was affected by office we must match his left statements with his practice. Fortunately he was a minister after his radicalisation, and the diaries record his actions superbly well.

Benn was certainly a vociferous critic of the 1974–9 governments within the cabinet and often outside it. There was no lack of targets, as the diaries show. For example, the manifesto was immediately ignored: ‘You can’t write a Manifesto for the Party in opposition and expect it to have any relationship to what the Party does in Government. We’re now entirely free to do what we like,’ said Callaghan in July 1974. [48] From then on it was downhill. Some of the cabinet discussions were simply appalling. In December 1976 the cabinet discussed taxing benefits during one of the series of cuts in public spending that led to an incredible 9.5 percent drop in real terms. One minister said there was a strong case for this: ‘We were already hitting the weakest – nursery schools and geriatric hospitals – and this wasn’t much more.’ [49] Discussing unemployment, which Labour had tripled, another said this was OK: ‘We have taken the heartache out of unemployment. Male unemployment in Northern Ireland is almost 30 percent, and there is no trouble there.’ [50] At the same cabinet meeting Callaghan openly proposed Thatcher’s idea of freezing public spending: ‘Many people think they should pay for public services, and cuts in their tax bill would give them the choice.’ [51] The catalogue of horrors went on and on.

Benn was quite clear what this amounted to. He knew that ‘if these discussions were broadcast, people would leave the Labour Party in droves. There is such cynicism and hostility from Labour leaders about the needs of working people.’ [52] The Labour Party was far better for capitalism than the Tories: ‘They couldn’t possibly – with Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister – do to the British economy in terms of wages and the trade unions what the Labour Government can get away with because of its close links with the unions.’ [53] The conclusion was obvious: ‘The present cabinet was the best Tory Government they had ever had.’ [54]

But Benn was in that ‘best of Tory Governments’! What should he do? Again and again he argued for left policies – for the manifesto, against sackings, against cuts, against the growing poverty and inequality his government was creating. But it was all to no avail. Many times the diaries recount experiences like this, ‘the whole world is whirling and it’s having a physical effect on me’. [55] He would stumble out of meetings ‘sick with anxiety and disgrace to hear people who were elected with the support of Labour people talking that way.’ [56] Again and again resignation was considered and then put aside in the interests of maintaining the government in office. The excuse was that this was serving ‘the movement’:

The movement wants three things. It wants the government sustained; it wants loyalty to the prime minister and ministers; and it wants a different policy to be pursued. If you resign, you’d get the blame for undermining the government. [57]

This argument conveniently ignores the fact that the movement also wanted jobs, decent education and health, and Benn’s continued refusal to fight in practice meant that these were being destroyed. The real alternative, breaking with the reformist road and fighting to build a party committed to overthrowing capitalism rather than working within it, was dismissed in these terms:

If you come out of the Government, it may mean coming out of the Labour Party as well and trying to push ideas from the fringe. But then you are dismissed as a fringe politician without a platform ... I am sure the thing to do is to stay in, to argue the case inside … [58]

let us see how his strategy worked. Benn developed a devastating series of tactics which must have struck terror into capitalists everywhere. An entry in July 1975 reads: ‘The papers this morning were full of yesterday’s cabinet discussions. There were one or two pictures of me entering Number 10 with the manifesto under my arm, which was intended as a tremendous message to the movement, done without any breach of cabinet loyalty.’ [59] March 1976 saw Benn on TV:

I said, ‘This is what I am campaigning for and this is what I believe.’

McKenzie said, ‘Surely what you believe is contrary to the Chancellor’s policy.’

‘I am collectively responsible for everything, but the public is entitled to know my view.’ I jumped through the burning hoop and I came out the other side. I am a free man and I don’t know what the cabinet will say tomorrow but this is a completely new development. [60]

Sometimes Benn did not feel up to such extraordinary feats of daring. When told that as a cabinet member he must vote for cuts at Labour’s NEC or face the sack he simply stayed home, clutching this consolation: ‘If you are to go on living with yourself, you can’t go round feeling guilty all the time.’ [61] In October 1977 the perfect solution turned up:

I have found a new way of living with the problems that face me as a member of the cabinet. So long as I don’t criticise the cabinet or government policy, I am free to argue the socialist case – as if socialism were a hobby like ballet or cricket. So now I just put the government entirely on one side and analyse the situation and argue for socialism. [62]

Benn’s determination to stay in the government, alas, meant more than this comedy. He was throughout this time Secretary of State for Energy, during which time his actions bore no relation to what he actually said. This led Michael Foot to say, ‘He’s a very odd chap.’ [63] Judge for yourself whether this was true. In 1977 he wrote: ‘For my sins I have been a nuclear Minister for eleven years.’ [64] This was in the full knowledge that: ‘The real anxiety about nuclear power, of course, is the bomb – civil power is only a cover for that. Windscale [Sellafield] is a military as well as civil establishment ...’ [65] Yet his diary tells us that ‘my mind told me that it was not right to retain’ nuclear weapons. [66] Nonetheless he had previously helped develop new methods of processing weapons-grade material [67], and as the SAS was not readily available he decided to ‘arm the Atomic Energy Authority police with sidearms and automatic weapons ...’ [68]

The case of the Namibian uranium was particularly murky. In 1968 Namibia was under South African occupation and subject to worldwide sanctions, yet Britain imported its uranium. Benn was the minister responsible, but claimed he had been deceived by his civil servants and knew nothing of it until 1970. Maybe so – but in 1977 when asked why the party’s commitment to cancel the contract had still not been carried out, this was his shameful response:

With Canadian uranium very hard to get, American uranium being used as a political weapon, Australian uranium being at the centre of a tremendous controversy between the Labour movement and the government ... we were in serious difficulties and more or less forced to depend on the Rossing mine in Namibia. Indeed, as Hill has said this morning, if we didn’t use it, it would be snapped up by someone else. [69]

In 1978 he went on the Friends of the Earth demonstration against the Windscale reprocessing plant. [70] Yet just a year earlier he was, as ‘owner of the company’, threatening striking workers there with the use of troops [71] and expressing concern in his diary that this is ‘what the whole thing is about – what I call the nuclear police state’ [72] – a very, very ‘odd chap’.

There are countless other skeletons in the cupboard, such as discussions with businessmen to supply nuclear reactors to the Shah of Iran. Benn’s comment was ‘I loathe having to do this and of course it will inevitably leak, though I did ask them to keep it to the chairmen of the individual companies in the consortia.’ [73] In 1965 an embargo was placed on oil supplies to the racist rebel regime in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). In September 1978 Benn made this entry:

The BP sanctions-busting scandal has exploded and it’s going to be a massive issue; someone is bound to get around to publicising the fact that I was Minister of Power in 1969–70 and that the Ministry of Power was deeply implicated in nodding and winking as the oil companies continued to supply oil to Rhodesia. [74]

The ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978–9 saw Benn once again preparing to use troops to smash strikes, this time by oil tanker and then lorry drivers. We have seen he thought Labour’s ability to involve trade union leaders scabbing on their own members a ‘tremendous advance’. On 18 December he agreed with the TGWU’s Moss Evans to ‘discuss how we would handle the emergency arrangements in the event of a strike. It is very exciting because, if you call in the trade unions to help you allocate oil, then you are getting to a situation of joint government.’ [75] In the end the troops were not needed. Once more Benn had proved his own argument: ‘somehow we have got ourselves into a position…based on making working people pay the price for resuscitating the capitalist system.’ [76]

It is clear from the above that despite the mutual hostility of Labour’s Bennite left and monetarist right, both were absolutely essential to the party’s survival, and in this sense complementary. The right soothed the nerves of businessmen. The left paralysed the movement that had overthrown Heath. By 1977 Benn saw this too – ‘the trade union leaders were demoralised. The truth is, when we came to power it was the CBI that was demoralised, the Civil Service, Fleet Street, the City: we were powerful. Now that’s been reversed.’ [77]


The diaries published so far only reach 1980, the run up to the Bennites’ greatest triumph – the Wembley constitutional reforms. We must await further volumes covering the later period. Still the question arises as to how such a movement could happen, for in many ways it was surprising that it did. Benn lacked the working class credentials of people like Keir Hardie or Aneurin Bevan, their history of struggle, and their oratorical talents. He had taken no heroic stand such as that of Hardie against war or Bevan’s resignation over health charges. He was the great non-resigner, the ‘nuclear minister,’ who threatened to use troops against strikers. His programme was a mishmash of liberal democracy, desperate Keynesianism, and vague leftism with a dash of little Englandism thrown in. His platform in the 1976 leadership election campaign was hardly inspiring:

I believe in the manifesto. I believe in the links with the TUC. I believe in the Party constitution. I believe we must sustain the [Labour] government. I believe we are a coalition. I believe in free speech. I believe in Party democracy. like all members of the government, I accept collective responsibility for everything that has been done but I feel it right to put my views forward. [78]

That mass Bennism could occur at all in the early 1980s was all the more remarkable considering that he was openly ‘proud to have participated in’ the previous Labour Government [79], a government that was undoubtedly worse than any before. Just how bad it was is clear if we set it beside the 1929–31 government, a favourite comparison of Benn’s. In 1931 international finance called for cuts in benefits and the Labour cabinet split. The majority, under trade union pressure and believing a reformist alternative possible, refused to carry them out, thus ending the life of the administration. Ramsay MacDonald won only a tiny rump for his National Government. During 1974–9 the government not only carried through the cuts, but Benn, the leader of the left, stayed in the cabinet.

In spite of this at the 1981 Wembley Conference he won major changes – reselection of MPs and an electoral college to choose the party leader. That same year he missed becoming deputy leader by a whisker, 0.5 percent of the vote. Clearly, the roots of Bennism had little to do with the man himself. One factor was sheer revulsion against what had happened on the part of large numbers of the rank and file. They looked for a socialist alternative to the Labour right. But why did they not seek it outside that party, instead of turning to a member of the discredited government (even if he was its leading left winger)? Although many Bennites were not aware of it, the real impact of the Social Contract and workers’ participation, as opposed to their apparent radicalism, had combined with wage controls and government-backed scabbing to demoralise the militants, causing them to turn to internal Labour Party debates to bring social progress.

Clearly, Benn and the Bennites were not identical. As an ex-minister he saw the changes made at Wembley as an end in themselves – they harnessed the extra-parliamentary movement to the machinery of bourgeois democracy. The Bennites, many of them ex-revolutionaries or militant shop stewards, saw these changes as the means to an end, the major social changes they no longer felt capable of winning for themselves. A multitude of activists in movements for women’s liberation, black rights, gay rights, unilateral disarmament, and so on, were drawn into what was felt to be a new and exciting method of transforming society. But although they approached from different directions, after a few years for many the end point was the same. Leading Bennites could be found on the benches at Westminster, at City Hall heading the movement for municipal socialism, or in the Women’s Committees. In such positions they soon confronted the same nightmare choice as Benn: to stick to their principles or to remain in office with the noose of reformism about their necks. Many of the rank and file simply became demoralised and dropped out of active politics. The logic of reformism is as brutal at lower levels as at the top. Today many of the ex-Bennites are the most sycophantic supporters of Kinnock or busy imposing the poll tax.

In the 1990s a major left reformist current in the Labour Party would seem, from a superficial viewpoint, even less likely than was Bennism in the early 1980s. The processes that undermined the policies of partial state capitalism and revisionism continue. The Labour leadership, if not the rank and file, has abandoned the hope that the bourgeois state can control or tame the capitalist beast. The deepening contradiction between capital and labour that the Communist Manifesto predicted 150 years ago is an objective fact. [80] Reformist leaders who try to satisfy the interests of the working class within the imperatives of the system do so with less and less conviction. Thus Labour’s attitude to socialism is worse, not only than that of 1931, but also that of 1974–9. And this is when Labour is in opposition! For this reason Bennism appears to have been the last reformist movement in the Labour Party, and its death the death of reformism itself. But this conclusion would be quite wrong.

True, no coherent reformist strategy is possible under a crisis ridden British capitalism. But reformism is incoherent by definition, because it tries to combine the incompatible elements of capitalism and workers’ interests. True, future Labour governments may not deliver many reforms; but neither did the governments of 1924, 1929–31 or 1974–9. Only 1945–51 and perhaps 1964–70 saw any advance here. There may be no obvious left labour movement in existence at present, but this is no insurmountable obstacle to a future revival either.

Despite his weaknesses Benn was the idol of a movement which attracted many of the very best working class activists. In the future, as the workers’ movement is rebuilt, few will rush straight from demoralisation to revolutionary socialism. So the ideas of left reformism could thrive when masses of workers want to seriously resist capitalism, but have not yet rejected operating within its framework.

We cannot know when, or if, the next upsurge of reformism will take place. But if there is such an upsurge Benn, or someone like him, will undoubtedly come forward. That is why these diaries are an indispensable guide to the character and contradictions of that future movement.


1. T. Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1964–67, London 1987, p. 53.

2. Ibid., pp. 5, 90.

3. Ibid., p. 533.

4. C. Dickens, Little Dorrit, quoted in C. Porting, Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce, London 1986, p. 50.

5. T. Benn, op. cit., p. 563.

6. Ibid., p. 579.

7. Ibid., p. 245.

8. Ibid., p. 249.

9. Ibid., p. 592.

10. Benn’s 1987 Foreword to ibid., p. xi, and T. Benn, Against the Tide, Diaries 1973–6 London 1989, p. 692.

11. T. Benn, Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977–80, London 1990, p. 364.

12. Ibid., p. 3, and J. Scott, Corporations, Classes and Capitalism, London 1979, p. 55.

13. T. Benn, Out of the Wilderness, p. 533.

14. T. Benn, Against the Tide, p. 627.

15. Ibid., p. 531.

16. T. Benn, Office Without Power: Diaries 1968–72, London 1988, p. 2.

17. This entry is dated June 1974. Against the Tide, pp. 575–6.

18. Office Without Power, p. 526.

19. Out of the Wilderness, p. 324.

20. H. Wilson, Final Term, The Labour Government, 1974–1976, London 1979, p. 221.

21. Out of the Wilderness, p. 477.

22. See T. Benn, ibid., p. 464.

23. Office Without Power, p. 78.

24. My emphasis. Ibid., pp. 522–3.

25. J. Callaghan, Time and Chance, London 1987, p. 273.

26. Office Without Power, p. 586.

27. Benn quoted in R. Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Volume 2, London 1977, p. 563.

28. Office Without Power, p. xi.

29. Against the Tide, p. 76.

30 Office Without Power, p. 337.

31. Against the Tide, p. 343.

32. Ibid., p. 473.

33. Ibid., p. 54.

34. Ibid., p. 96.

35. Ibid., p. 216.

36. Ibid., pp. 291–292.

37. J. Jones, Union Man London 1986, p. 288.

38. Against the Tide, p. 113.

39. The term was, of course, borrowed from Rousseau. H. Wilson, Final Term. The Labour Government, 1974–1976, London 1979, p. 43n.

40. My emphasis. Against the Tide, p. 548.

41. My emphasis. Conflicts of Interest, p. 440.

42. My emphasis. Ibid., p. 542.

43. See H. Wainwright and D. Elliott: The Lucas Plan. A New Trade Unionism in the Making? London 1982, pp. 82–87.

44. Against the Tide, p. 223.

45. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party – A Marxist History, London 1988, p. 329.

46. Office Without Power, p. 458, and Against the Tide, pp. 85, 173, 331, 383, 385.

47. L. Trotsky, Writings 1929, New York 1973, p. 586.

48. Against the Tide, p. 594

49. Ibid., p. 683.

50. Conflicts of Interest, p. 321.

51. Ibid., p. 320.

52. Against the Tide, p. 203.

53. Ibid., p. 487.

54. Conflicts of Interest, p. 69.

55. Against the Tide, p. 630.

56. Ibid., p. 638.

57. Ibid., p. 521

58. Ibid., p. 365.

59. Ibid., p. 416.

60. Ibid., p. 539.

61. Ibid., p. 604

62. Conflicts of Interest, p. 230.

63. Quoted in B. Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1974–76, London 1980, p. 205.

64. Conflicts of Interest, p. 260.

65. Ibid., p. 491.

66. Against the Tide, p. 268.

67. Out of the Wilderness, p. 506.

68. Against the Tide, p. 406.

69. Conflicts of Interest, p. 214.

70. Ibid., pp. 295–6.

71. Ibid., p. 52.

72. Ibid., p. 33.

73. Ibid., p. 540.

74. Ibid., p. 333.

75. My emphasis, ibid., p. 418.

76. Against the Tide, p. 430.

77. Conflicts of Interest, p. 592.

78. Against the Tide, p. 540.

79. Foreword to ibid., p. xiv.

80. ‘... in proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed.’ K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in K. Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 73.

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