Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn and Bob Crow

Apparently, the Ancient Greeks didn't write obituaries. They simply asked one question of the dead man: 'Did he have passion?' Both Tony Benn and Bob Crow, who both tragically passed away this week, had passion. But they both had much more than this - they had principles.

I didn't know either of these two leading figures of the trade union and socialist movement personally - and so firstly, my condolences to those friends, family and comrades who were close to them. The RMT leader Bob Crow I will not say so much about, I only saw speak a few times at a distance at rallies - his sudden passing at the shockingly young age of 52 is in a sense more shocking than that of Tony Benn. The loss of both, and in the same week is a devastatingly sad blow for the British working class movement. Crow was one of the most militant and political trade union leaders of his time, while Benn had long established his credentials as the best loved, best known and most widely respected socialist in Britain over the last few decades - and one of the twentieth century British labour movement's greatest orators. On that last point, I have to be a bit careful - I didn't hear figures like James Maxton and Aneurin Bevan of course - but I was fortunate enough to first hear Benn speak at Marxism in the late 1990s, when he could still leave one spellbound with his eloquence and the logical way he built up his argument. Inevitably his powers as an orator faded in recent years with age, but I count myself fortunate to have seen him speak when I did (as I am grateful for example to have heard Paul Foot speak, though I think sadly I was a bit too young to see him at his best).

Rather than try and write a formal political obituary myself - which would have to track Benn's long march to the Left, from technocratic spin doctor to the very best kind of parliamentary socialist, his internationalism from the Movement for Colonial Freedom to Stop the War Coalition onwards, his sense of the importance of history and the hidden radical and revolutionary history of Britain in particular, the question mark about whether if he had been ten years younger at the time of Respect's rise in 2004/5 when the anti-war movement was still going strong he might have left the Labour Party and helped form a socialist alternative to it, etc etc - I will link to some political obituaries of Benn and Crow at the end, and instead here just share some personal memories of Tony Benn.*

Coming into political activism as a student in the late 1990s, Tony Benn had almost a kind of 'rock star' legendary status among left-wing students. Before one had even seen him or heard him speak in person, one knew about him. I remember as a teenager for example watching a video of Spitting Image at a house party (quite why it was on in a room upstairs at a houseparty full of teenagers trying to get drunk and get off with each other I don't know), but I still recall a satirical sketch 'News at Benn', where there was a weather report where I think the Tony Benn puppet would be declaring 'the rising sun of socialism...' every morning. I think I first saw him up close after a NUS student demo for free education (Blair's New Labour had just imposed tuition fees) around this time, where after speaking at the student rally he came onto our bus briefly before it set off back to Leeds because one of the students on it was a distant relative or something. Even I as a relatively hardened Marxist and member of the SWP found it hard not to get caught up a little bit in the excitement of it all.

Hearing Benn speak at the end of countless national demonstrations became a regular feature - almost to be taken for granted. He was the person one surged forward among the crowd to hear - almost like it was your favourite band coming on at a festival - and one strained to catch every line. After several demonstrations - and after attending his meeting at Marxism festival every year it was possible to do so - the novelty wore off slightly, but the memorable often repeated and often witty quotes and anecdotes stuck with you long after much else about the demo or meeting had been forgotten. Some examples:

 'In 1930, as a five year old, I met Ramsay MacDonald, when he still was the Labour Prime Minister, and he gave me a chocolate biscuit, so I have been a bit suspicious of all Labour leaders with chocolate biscuits ever since'

 'I met Gandhi in 1931...When Gandhi was in London, somebody asked him, "What do you think of civilisation in Britain?" and Gandhi said: "I think it would be a very good idea!"'

 'The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it - a bit like Christians in the Church of England'.

 'The people set up parliament as a democratic tool to manage capitalism - now capitalism is using parliament as a tool to to manage the people' (or something like this)

 'I, as a three-year-old, met a Labour MP in 1928. I didn't see him again for seven years. He was in a black shirt, in Parliament Square, as leader of the British Union of Fascists. His name was Oswald Mosley. It is always tempting for the hard right to gain power by focusing on a scapegoat and frightening people; of focusing on a supposed threat as Hitler did and building support on the basis that only a strong man can deal with it.'

 'In Mein Kampf Hitler said, "democracy inevitably leads to Marxism." Now you work that one out.'

Living in Leeds, where his son Hilary became a MP, one sadly didn't see Tony Benn very much during the Stop the War movement - as he didn't want to come to to speak at a mass rally in Leeds against the war because it would risk embarrassing his son who was making a political career in New Labour ('I'm a Benn, but not a Bennite' was Hilary's 'catchphrase'). However, on occasion, in recent years he would pop up to Leeds to speak - I remember him a few years ago at Leeds Civic Hall for a Stop the War event, where I got the chance to speak to him very briefly beforehand and one time outside the Grand, where he was speaking at his 'An evening with Tony Benn tour'.

This last occasion sticks in my mind. I got there very early in order to sell Socialist Worker outside, as SWP members tend to do (when we are organised enough, at least). Now, I am aware that selling revolutionary socialist papers is deeply old-fashioned - and the future of socialism is supposed to be on twitter and facebook or something - but there are sometimes moments when being an unreconstructed Trotskyist paper seller has its own reward. Not that many times, it has to be said - but they do happen. This was to be one of them. For who should come up the street but the Grand Old Man of British socialism himself, and then rather than just go into the venue, which might not even have been formally open then, he set up his little fold up chair on the street, sat down next to me, took out his pipe and proceeded to light up. Imagine this - just me and Tony Benn - outside the then deserted venue on a warm and sunny summers evening - waiting for his fans and supporters to arrive.

It must have been a time when the Nazis in Britain were still on the rise so probably late 2000s - I remember I had some Unite Against Fascism stickers and leaflets with me, and so anti-fascism is what I talked to Tony Benn about. I felt a little bit like the young student who in the revolutionary year of 1917 approached Trotsky (I think Trotsky describes this in his autobiography My Life) and offered to become his personal bodyguard. It wasn't quite the same, and I made no such offer to Tony Benn, but I remember thinking - 'shit, should some fascists come around the corner and try to attack Tony Benn - the only thing that would be in their way would be me - and it was my revolutionary duty to defend Benn should the need arise'. But fortunately - especially for Benn, given my poor streetfighting abilities - no gang of fascist thugs came around the corner - but instead just a steady stream of Tony Benn supporters began turning up - and they were as equally delighted as I was to see their hero just sitting outside the venue in the sun, willing to talk to anyone and everyone who came up.

Anyway, that seems to be a nice memory on which to end this - on what has otherwise been a very sad day, and with Crow's passing, a very sad week for the Left. I will add obituaries, etc below as and when I get time. RIP Tony Benn and Bob Crow - two great and inspirational socialists.  

Tony Benn obituaries / tributes
 Charlie Kimber, in Socialist Worker
 John Molyneux
Ian Taylor on 'The Politics of Tony Benn'
 Ian Birchall
Gary Younge
Lindsey German, for the Stop the War Coalition
George Galloway
Alex Callinicos  
Leo Panitch
Mark Steel
Mike Marqusee

See also Tony Benn and Duncan Hallas discussing the 1926 General Strike at Marxism
and Chris Harman and Donny Gluckstein on Tony Benn's Diaries

Bob Crow obituaries / tributes 
Charlie Kimber, for Socialist Worker
Christian Wolmar
George Galloway
Kevin Crane
Mark Steel

*Another important and inspiring socialist who passed away recently was Phil Evans - a cartoonist for Socialist Worker in the 1970s - I plan to write something separate about him at some point.

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