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.
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.