Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn on the radical and revolutionary tradition in Britain

Tony Benn 1925-2014 - an inspirational socialist and the finest orator I ever had the privilege of hearing

This book explores the radical and revolutionary tradition which we have inherited from those who went before us and established, here in our country, a set of values based on the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy to set against the prevailing political culture. This culture, which rests on the worship of authority and the elevation of personal privilege above the common good, is so strongly entrenched in the mass media and the educational system that the very fact that an alternative tradition has been in existence for centuries is simply not known to many people...

What is that rival tradition and that rival analysis? Where does it come from and on what does it depend for its authority and support? This reader sets out to provide some of the answers to those questions, and to do so through the minds, pens and voices of the people who created that tradition for themselves, and for us.

We are so used to the idea that Britain is an industrialized country and, overall, among the richest in the world, that it is easy to forget our past. For most of our history we were, like so many of the Third World countries today, a peasant society dominated by a feudal hierarchy which owned the land and lived off the people. Thus the roots of our radicalism lie in peasant resistance, and many of the demands for revolutionary change, recorded here, are the same as those that we hear and read about today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For example, the theme of 'liberation from the Norman yoke' shows us people opposing the invaders and the oppression they brought. That resistance was based on the denial of the legitimacy of a Crown, which derives its legal claim to the throne from the Conquest, when William I, having defeated Harold at Hastings, proclaimed his personal authority... Such feelings, together with a distrust of the power of the landowners, bishops and lawyers who sustained that Norman oppression, fuelled radical and revolutionary movements long before trade-unionism and socialism appeared on the scene to reinforce those emotions with a scientific analysis of the role of class.

At the very beginning it was religious belief that provided the basis of opposition to the oppressors, and there are many references to the revolutionary message of the Bible. This is why the authorities would not allow the Bible to be made available in English, so that the people could read it freely until 1535. The Establishment feared that the same liberation theology - which today brings peasants, industrial workers, trade-unionists and socialists together in Latin America as they struggle for justice - might have united resistance to its authority.

The most basic feeling of all, and the one that could never be suppressed, was the idea of inherent rights, which recurs throughout this book. It derives originally from the belief that God, as the creator of all humanity, had implanted those rights in each man and woman as His gift, and that no person, however rich or powerful, had any moral or legal right to take them away. This is why radicals and dissenters, and many in the Labour Movement today, have always put the claims of conscience above the law, and have been quite ready to pay a personal price for doing so.

As the years passed, religious belief was supplemented, or replaced, by a more secular view of history. These inherent rights were restated in terms of reason, a humanist view that in the transition lost none of its ethical force, although it had been stripped of its theological significance. The concept has come to be expressed in terms of the rights of a freeborn Englishman, or the rights of the Scots, Irish or Welsh, of Women and of Blacks, to enjoy equality of treatment under the law. Yet the political battles that have been fought over the centuries were for the most part fought under the banners of religion and religious freedom. So it is important that we should remember that many of the ideas of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, equality and socialism owe their origin to the Old Testament and the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth, as they were interpreted by those who were looking for some justification for their own struggles. Modern socialists should never forget that fact, lest we accidentally cut ourselves off from our own history and come to believe what our enemies say of us: that we are proponents of some foreign creed which has no roots in our own national history.

Indeed this is one reason why the Establishment historians ignore our real history. They fear that if it was made intelligible to the mass of the people we would quickly connect past with present, and draw great strength from that understanding. And so indeed we would, as we come to realize that we are engaged on a campaign for justice and freedom that has gone on, in varying forms, for nearly two thousand years. It is not, as the Establishment would have people believe, only a few trouble-makers, perhaps owing their allegiance to some foreign revolutionaries, who are pressing for change.

This, then, is the moral and historical basis for that alternative political tradition, and we only have to read a few of the passages to find ourselves immediately familiar with the arguments. For those who have not read them before, it is rather like meeting distant cousins for the first time, exploring the common relationship and exchanging family legends, so that, quite soon, total strangers begin to feel at ease with each other, and can almost imagine that they have known each other all along. But this personal selection also opens up direct communication between generations that will reawaken in us some of the anger experienced by those who have gone before and help fuel the present pressure for change, accelerating the process of reform here and now.
What is written here should not just be read as a collection of historical writings. It should allow us to use the past to serve the present; by making us familiar with the old battles to harden us for what may lie ahead, and to unite us with all people everywhere who are struggling for the same objectives and are using their own history to help them—a history that may turn out to be much like ours. In short this is a book for our times to give us knowledge that we can use, to provide hope and courage and, above all, the certainty that we are not alone in what we believe.

If we are to use this book, as it is intended to be used, we have to do a lot more than read it. For we are living at a time when the clock is being deliberately put back in order to cheat us of the gains that were won in earlier years. Unless we resist there is no guarantee that this skilful campaign of regression will not succeed. The attempt to restore Victorian values is only a beginning. It may help us to learn about the struggles that took place in Victorian times so that we can mobilize the forces for progress that achieved so much during that century, and laid the foundation for the advances that followed. We can call up Robert Owen, Charles Kingsley and Anna Wheeler, William Morris and H. M. Hyndman, Marx and Engels, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle martyrs together with all their progressive contemporaries, to reinforce us as we gird our loins to fight these old battles again. If they want to go back to the eighteenth century and resurrect the blind conservatism of Edmund Burke we have Tom Paine and his Rights of Man still at our disposal. Now that the divine right of Prime Ministers is being wheeled out, almost as Charles I would have argued it in the seventeenth century, we have John Lilburne and William Walwyn and the Levellers and Diggers in our camp.

In 1983 the Greenham Common women were gaoled under the Justices of the Peace Act of 1361, and if that is how they want to have it they should not forget that twenty years later Wat Tyler and John Ball marched across the bridge to occupy the City of London. Whichever century they choose to fight us in we have our champions too. Nor should we ever forget Pelagius—Britain's earliest and greatest heretic, who challenged St Augustine on the central question of original sin. He asserted the essential goodness of man, an idea that undermined the authority of the Papacy and anticipated by 1,800 years the socialists who argued the same case.

Some of the passages quoted here are explicitly revolutionary and we should not forget that the right to revolt is an ancient one that must always be held in reserve as a protection against the possibility that one day democracy and self-government might be removed, leaving us no alternative but to defend these rights by force. At this very moment in our history the other side should be reminded of this so that they do not miscalculate in what they may plan to do to us. For in the counter-revolution which they are trying to carry through it is already clear that they are prepared to attack our ancient freedoms, as with the attack on the rights of the people of London and of the other metropolitan boroughs who are to lose the power to elect their own councils. The trade unions are facing—in effect—the reintroduction of the Combination Acts which made it impossible for them to function. Women are under attack, both at work and in the home where they are expected to take on their shoulders the tasks that the Welfare State was set up to discharge.

We are losing the power to govern ourselves, and a foreign president may make war from our own country. The armed forces, the security services and the police, all heavily armed and trained in counter-insurgency operations, are now virtually unaccountable and work behind barriers of almost impenetrable secrecy. There is not a single democratic gain made by our people that is not now under some sort of threat, not a single major political issue that has not been discussed over the centuries that has not now been placed once more upon the agenda. The role of the crown, of the lords, and of the church are being discussed again. So is the question of Ireland, imperialism, our relations with America and Europe, and the rights of all working men and women.

It is not clear yet how far they want to go but we would be well advised to be ready for anything, since if they go too far it may be much harder, if not actually too late, to stop them. There is no law of God or Nature that exempts this nation from the fate that befell Germany and Italy, Spain and Portugal in the 1930s, and overtook Greece and Turkey more recently. The only guarantee of our freedom lies with here and now, and we had better wake up to that simple truth before it is too late. An ex-imperial power, as we are, with a decaying capitalist system of the kind we have, can be very dangerous to other countries and to its own people too. But even if we are spared the horrors of a domestic struggle to retain, or regain, our freedom, other countries will not be so fortunate.

Those who live now under corrupt military dictatorships, financed and supported by Washington, or London, to protect Western investments from the danger of a popular uprising, will almost certainly be forced to take to arms to liberate themselves. Herein lies one of the major risks of a global confrontation with nuclear weapons. For it is not the risk of a major invasion by one superpower across a European frontier that we have to fear so much as the danger of war by proxy or by accident, in the absence of any effective democratic control of the fearsome military machines that we have allowed to grow within our own societies. If humanity does survive the appalling dangers that now confront us, it will be, in part, because we have listened to these voices from the past, reproduced in these pages, and have taken seriously those who are warning us now.

Indeed hope must stem from the possibility that we might also allow these voices to reach the people in other countries, where the same calls for justice and peace are to be heard. Although the religious traditions, and the historical experiences of these peoples are different from ours, these writings on the wall are to be seen all over the globe, and have appeared in every generation to enrich the understanding of those to whom they were addressed. The only power strong enough to contain and control the unimaginable destructive force released by the splitting of the atom is the greater power that could be generated by the unification of all these voices into one great clamour for justice. Therein lies our greatest hope, and, however it is defined, it must mean radical, if not revolutionary, changes in all societies to make that possible...

It is when we contemplate the enormity of that task and the urgency with which it has to be attempted that we can appreciate the value of the very ancient traditions of liberty and democracy that emerge from these pages. Great as the task may seem to be to us, can it really be any greater or more difficult than the ones which faced our forebears when they made their demands? Those demands must have seemed as far-fetched to many of their contemporaries as they were unacceptable to those who stood to lose their privileges. But, as history teaches us, time and time again, it is not enough to speak or write, or compose poems or songs, about freedom if there are not people who are ready to devote to their lives to make it all come true. Some of those whose writings we are able to read worked, and others died, to uphold the principles that they proclaimed. It is only a matter of merest chance who is remembered and who lies forgotten in some graveyard known only to those friends and comrades who lived in the same town or village at the same time.

This book is therefore dedicated to the nameless thousands who  worked, where they lived, to advance our common cause. They can never have known that what they believed in, and worked for, would survive in legend and tradition to encourage us so many years after they were gone, nor realize that the gift they have passed on to us is the most priceless gift of all—hope. For our greatest enemy is the fear that our opponents seek to instill in our minds to force us to accept the unacceptable, and so to paralyse our will and render us incapable of thinking out the alternative or working to bring it about. If we were ever to allow that to happen, we would have conceded a final victory to the other side, but as this book shows we all have it in our power to deny them that victory; and to establish a better society by our own efforts, provided that we remember our own history and the lessons of unity and courage that it teaches us.

Extracts from the Introduction to Tony Benn (ed.) Writings on the Wall: A Radical and Socialist Anthology 1215-1984 (London, 1984)

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home