Tony Benn: still taking it from the top?

In this interview from April 1990, Gemma Forest asked Labour MP Tony Benn about the crisis of state socialism, East and West.

Tony Benn talked to Nicolae Ceaucescu for two and a half hours in 1968. ‘I think their prime minister of the time said “You come back to Romania in 10 years and you’ll find a multi-party system”.’ More than 20 years later, as the Ceaucescu figures finally fall and pluralism starts to arrive across Eastern Europe, how does Benn react to changes there?

Sitting in his basement study in Holland Park, he launched into a long and – as he later admitted rather disarmingly – boring history of the Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary. So I reminded him that he, and many other people in the Labour Party, had long referred to the Stalinist states of the Eastern Bloc as ‘the socialist countries’. Now that their tradition of bureaucratic, top-down planning had been so discredited, didn’t it reflect badly on his own idea of what socialism means?

‘The word “socialist” is very general’, Benn responded. ‘It covers everything from a mild democracy in Sweden to what is loosely known as the socialist camp. It may be that socialism, like capitalism or imperialism or religious domination goes through various phases. Later, it’s renewing itself. From a historical perspective, one may very well see a renewal of socialism based on consent.’

Although Benn insisted that he has ‘never defended these regimes’, his identification of them as socialist seemed to me more significant than he suggested. It hinted at the baleful influence which Stalinist command economics have exercised over the Labour left’s own tradition of state socialism. According to Benn, however, repeating the foreword to the latest volume of his diaries, Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-76, only the Morrisonian right wing of the Labour Party had been bureaucratic in its economic policy.

‘The only command economy I’ve experienced first-hand was the incomes policy. In the winter of discontent, in 1978-79, there was a committee chaired by Hattersley that fixed everybody’s wages. I do think – and this is an ingredient very, very rarely allowed to come out – that the Webbs, with their Fabian ideas, were very much in line with Stalinist ideas.’ The Labour left to which he belonged, said Benn, had always believed in ‘the bottom-up type of planning’, while ‘the state corporation is a product of right-wing Fabian planning’.

Left in

It was hard to be satisfied by this. Benn might truthfully say that he has only experienced command economics at the hands of the right-wing; after all, only the right has run a Labour government (although he himself sat in the cabinet alongside Roy Hattersley). However, the left’s Alternative Economic Strategy for increased state planning was a key part of the manifesto with which the last Labour government sold workers the idea of ‘planned’ wage controls. And while the Fabians were certainly admirers of the Stalinist system from the Thirties, the nationalisation policies which they subsequently promoted became totems of the state socialist left far more than of the Labour right.

The theme of creating or renewing socialism from the top down seemed to crop up time and again in our conversation. As we discussed the events in Eastern Europe, Benn suggested that the popular protests there were directed against ‘the nature of a top-down dictatorship of the proletariat’. Yet his remarks often revealed his own sustained belief that, nonetheless, the real impetus for transforming society can come from above.

For example, he described ‘the three main sparks for reform in the Soviet Union today’ thus: ‘The intellectuals wanted the right to publish work of a kind that was available in the West. The media wanted the same sort of freedom that’s available to CBS, the BBC, Panorama and so on. The managers wanted the right to manage without control.’ Among the references to highly placed intellectuals, editors and enterprise managers, he made no suggestion that the Kremlin reformers might be motivated by any fear of working-class revolt from below against their stagnating system.

And what of Mikhail Gorbachev, the most prominent exponent of ‘revolution from above’ in the world today? ‘He’s doing what’s absolutely necessary’, said Benn. ‘Of course there is a top-down element in the Gorbachev reforms, which is quite interesting. It is triggered by these three elite groups. The extent to which this is really echoed and picked up and becomes a bottom-up thing is something we will still have to see. But of course I’m a supporter of Gorbachev, because I think that what he’s doing reflects the necessities, at this stage, of socialist development.’ Which is an interesting way to describe such Gorbachev policies as market-oriented economic reforms, military repression in Baku, and the abandonment of liberation movements in the Third World.

‘Power corrupts’

Benn’s sympathy for Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Soviet society from above contrasted sharply with his hostile remarks about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – this century’s outstanding example of social transformation from below. Although Benn frankly admitted that he had gained his understanding of Marxism from reading somebody called Emile Burns rather than Marx, he seemed certain enough about its flaws.

‘If you take the Bolsheviks, where did all that lead? The crisis of Stalinism was not because of Stalin, but an inherent weakness in that view of society – that somehow you have a few people who do understand and they take over. The dictatorship of the proletariat very quickly becomes the corruption of power. I don’t want to see that happen in Britain… That is one of the justifications for thinking that it will not be done by a few people who understand, but in a rather different way – for mobilising people whose thrust is toward socialism whether they realise it or not.’

Such talk of ‘the corruption of power’ under the dictatorship of the proletariat seemed a little rich coming from a confirmed believer in the British parliamentary system – under which, as even Benn conceded later, ‘Labour’s MPs are really part of the civil service, with their allowances, and now state aid for the opposition parties’. Instead of dwelling on this institutionalised corruption, however, Benn preferred to speculate about the possibility of a tightly knit group of politically motivated men (to use Labour premier Harold Wilson’s notorious anti-communist salvo against the seamen’s strike of 1966) being corrupted in the post-revolutionary future.

So how would Benn justify his belief in the power of a Labour-controlled parliament to implement progressive change from above? It sounded like another form of outdated state socialism. ‘Actually’, he said when I pressed him on this, ‘all social progress comes from underneath – by pressure. So if the left groups were pressure groups, in the way that capital is a pressure group, I think we’d be more likely to make progress.’

Scratch the surface of these remarks, and Benn’s ideas become far more modest that they might at first appear. All that he was really talking about was putting pressure on parliament to enact progressive legislation. The ‘from below’ part of the process would thus be limited to grassroots pressure for reform, backed by ‘left groups’, which, by exerting more pressure than capital, could ensure that the Labour MPs inside were able to support social progress. The problem with this scenario is that capital is something slightly more substantial than a ‘pressure group’; it is a social relation between the exploiter and the exploited, and exercises power over society regardless of what Benn or anybody else might say or pass in parliament.

East or West, Benn was reluctant to face up to the crisis of old-fashioned state socialism, or to concede that his ideas are out of step with the fast-changing times. At his most evasive he verged on the bizarre. ‘My objective’, he told me, ‘is that every party in Britain should be socialist – Tory socialist, Liberal socialist. I think that’s what the socialist movement’s all about’.

This may seem somewhat unrealistic, given that the Labour Party is not arguing for those ideas, never mind the Tories or Liberals. Benn, however, believes that nothing fundamental has changed among the rank and file of Neil Kinnock’s new-look Labour Party. The left may keep their heads down between now and the election, ‘but when we win, the left will reassert itself, because it represents a clear economic interest in society. At the moment, it’s so worried about the impact of Thatcherism, it’s going along with things it doesn’t really believe in’.

Of the past

This is the same argument we heard from Benn and his allies before the 1987 election; presumably, if Thatcher were win in 1991-92, it would be the same argument that we would hear in the run-up to the election of 1996-97. Meanwhile, the international crisis of state socialism can only accelerate the real movement of the Labour Party away from any notion of representing a ‘clear economic interest’ and towards the middle ground. Far from being ‘socialist renewal’ which Benn is convinced will come to Labour in time, his party looks set to transform itself into an explicitly anti-socialist organisation.

Tony Benn is a likeable man, whose deep suspicions of the establishment and support for the underdog set him apart from the fools and sycophants whom he sits alongside in the Commons. Yet the overwhelming impression left by the morning’s discussion was of a man out of his time, happier with the certainties of the past than the uncertain future. ‘If you don’t understand where you’ve come from’, he says in his defence, ‘you don’t understand where you’re going. I want to feel free to range over human history, to make the past serve the present. You can reach a larger audience that way than you can with the language of socialism, which is so recent, not many of people have heard of it.

‘If you take for example religion and politics, they’re the same thing! If you’re brothers and sisters, solidarity comes out. An injury to one is an injury to all, united we stand divided we fall, you do not cross picket lines… That comes from the Book of Genesis. People say “I never thought of that”. All of a sudden people start to feel confident with ideas that were alien to them.’

Gemma Forest was a contributor to Living Marxism. This interview first appeared in Living Marxism in April 1990 and was previously unavailable online.

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