There was nothing grand about Tony Benn’s house in Holland Park Avenue, Notting Hill, West London, but it was a big house in an expensive area, and with the sort of high-quality shabbiness which, so I learn from literature, is typical of “old wealth”.
John Bloxam and I were visiting, around 1981, to interview Benn for Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity. We asked him questions about the battles against Thatcher, and Labour Party affairs, and got answers which gave ideas close to our own added weight and audibility as coming from one of Labour’s best-known figures.
As on public platforms and in other interviews — and even in short interviews we’d do with him over the phone — he spoke in clear, well-shaped sentences, with none of the hesitation, searching-for-words, or repetition which most people can’t avoid.
Then we asked him a question about the Polish workers’ movement Solidarnosc, which had erupted from strikes in 1980, wounded the Stalinist regime (fatally, as it would turn out in 1988: even martial law in 1981 could only force Solidarnosc underground, not crush it).
Benn asked us to switch off the taperecorder. Only then would he reply. Wasn’t Solidarnosc really a catspaw of the CIA, he asked?
There were pro-capitalist influences in Solidarnosc — it projected the aim of a “selfmanaging society” at that time, but later, in the years underground, it would succumb to pro-capitalist and Catholic ideologies. Presumably there were a few CIA agents here and there.
But a ten-million-strong workers’ movement bubbling up from below could not be dismissed as a creation of secret agents, or on the basis of its formal ideologies. Its right to life as a workers’ movement, and the right a for workers could organise freely and independently, was paramount.
We did not convince Benn.
This wealthy aristocrat, who by the early 1980s had been an MP for 30-odd years, and an orthodox minister over 11 years in two governments, had genuinely, in his mid-50s, gone over to the cause of the workers, and would stay that way until he died in 2014 at the age of 88.
There was no question of him becoming a rank-and-filer. One of the steps in the eventual foundering of the Labour Party democracy upsurge of the early 1980s was the pushing-aside, in 1981, of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee — an open alliance of activist groups — by the Benn deputy leadership campaign, run by a behind-the-scenes “kitchen cabinet”.
But from 1979, Benn always backed the British workers in struggle. He was one of the foremost tribunes of the miners’ cause in their great strike of 1984-5. He allied with and worked with the left, including the Marxist left. He supported democracy in the labour movement and in society. He insisted that: “It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx as it would to be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud”.
He knew then that the “Marxists” whose rights he defended were mostly Trotskyists of one sort or another. His diaries from the time when he was a middle-of-the-road Labour MP reveal that back then he thought of Russian Embassy officials as representing “Marxism”, which he took as too severe and demanding for Britain but compelling respect. When he became a left-winger, he made his ideology from old-fashioned British liberal radicalism — his speeches were increasingly filled with references to the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, the Chartists, and the suffragettes — with bits and pieces from the Stalinist “Marxism” he had feared but respected in his middle-of-the-road days.
In 1982 he got his CLP to write a friendly open letter to the Russian despot Leonid Brezhnev. In 2003 he did an interview with Saddam Hussein designed to let the Iraqi tyrant “make his case” to the people of Britain.
In 1999 he sided with Serbia over Kosova. He argued his position on the basis of the old-fashioned anti-German prejudice pervasive in Britain in the 1950s, and that was the tone of his anti-EU line from the early 1970s. (He had supported the then Labour government’s unsuccessful attempt to join the EU in 1966). In his picture of “Britain as a colony” (title of an essay in his 1979 book Arguments for Socialism) the USA also figured as a power supposed to exert some “colonial” rule over Britain.
“Warm” Bennism in the early 1980s was the name for an elemental rank-and-file revolt in the labour movement, for a Labour Party that would stand up for and be accountable to working-class people. The strands of old-fashioned liberalism and of complaisance towards despots seen to be “socialistic”, or at least anti-German or anti-US, were not unique to Benn, but they were strands in a movement with real debate. “Cold” Bennism today — “Bennism” as an ideology distilled after his death from Benn’s writings and his post-1979 political record — is something else.
We should indeed be “Bennite” in the sense of Benn’s support for workers’ struggles and for democracy in the labour movement and in society.
But not in the sense of copying the Stalinoid and nationalist strands which he inherited and then re-popularised.
Benn might have been relatively wealthy, but I wouldn't describe him as an aristocrat. He came rather from the upper middle class - I think his family owned a small publishing firm - and was descended from radical Liberal MPs and Nonconformist ministers (a similar background in fact to Michael Foot). His father was the first to hold the title he later succeeded to, having been appointed as an emergency wartime Labour peer.