Tony Benn (1925-2014) (托尼·本恩) was the most popular and articulate socialist in the history of the British labor movement.
Early life and family
Benn was born in London on April 3, 1925. He came from a radical establishment background: his mother was a feminist and his father a Liberal MP, who joined the Labor Party, and was later given the hereditary title of Viscount Stansgate and entered the House of Lords.
Tony Benn joined the Royal Air Force in 1943. After the war he studied politics, economics and philosophy at Oxford University, and was elected president of the Oxford Union -- a traditional pathway to power for senior establishment politicians.
Member of Parliament
He was elected as a Labor MP in 1950 and stood on the right wing of the party. When his father died, Tony acquired his hereditary title. This barred him from being an MP. But he eventually won the right to renounce his title and was then re-elected to parliament in 1963.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the social-democratic ideology of gradual improvements within the framework of capitalism dominated the European labor movement. Benn became Minister of Technology when the so-called "white heat of the technological revolution" was expected to herald radical improvements to people's lives. The Soviet Union and America had sent men into space; in Britain, Benn championed computers and the production of a supersonic passenger jet called Concorde. But more importantly, he acquired an intimate awareness, from inside the very pinnacles of government, of how economic, state and political power operate. He gradually came to realize that structural and systemic obstacles stood in the way of radical social change, to improve the lives of the masses.
When the long post-war boom drew to a close at the end of the 1960s, class conflict in workplaces and wider society grew. Europe and America experienced a period of sharp radicalization, reflected first in student unrest. Then strikes and occupations of factories followed. At its peak, in May 1968, 10 million French workers went on strike and many occupied their factories.
Move to the Left
In Britain, a Conservative Government under Ted Heath was elected in 1970. In response to its policies, workers became increasingly militant. Tony Benn embarked on a personal journey to the left. He supported workers' occupations and workers' cooperatives, and advocated nationalisation and planning as the means to shift the balance of power in society decisively in favour of the working class. This wave of workers' unrest culminated in a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which brought down Ted Heath’s Conservative Government in 1974. Heath called an election asking "Who runs the country?" His Conservative Party lost.
In 1974 the newly elected Labor government was under pressure from the workers and the left of the party. Even the right-wing Labor Chancellor, Dennis Healy, promised to "squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak" and introduced a 75 percent tax on top earners. However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded that the government change its policies and impose cuts in workers’ living standards. This opened up a split in the Labor Party and a battle for its soul began. Benn rose to the challenge advocating an "Alternative Economic Strategy" based on public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. Unfortunately, the Labor leadership capitulated to the IMF and fought the trade unions. As a consequence, Labor lost the election in 1979 and the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, was elected. Class war against the working class and the trade unions was now official government policy.
Rather than capitulating to the logic of capitalism Tony Benn took up the cause of the workers and the poor. He led a struggle inside the Labor Party to democratize it. He fought for control by the membership, through the party conference over policy. Furthermore, he sought to replace the long established practice that the leadership manipulated the membership and used them only as an election machine. Benn came within a hair's breadth of winning the election for Deputy Leader of the Labor Party in 1981.
A general right wing offensive in Britain was emboldened by Thatcher's war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Having defeated the Argentine military, she turned the forces of the British state against the NUM, the miners' union. Tony Benn stood full-square behind the miners' struggle. They fought a bitter, but ultimately unsuccessful year-long strike to defend the industry and the trade union movement. Benn wrote, "I never understood until now -- and it has been an eye-opener -- the true nature of class legislation, class law, class judges, class magistrates, class use of the police, class use of the media. It has completely shaken me."
Having come from an upper-class background, in the course of his political life, he came to adopt the struggle of the working class as his own and the ideas of socialism as his ideology. His socialism was a Christian socialism; Benn believed that Jesus Christ was an early socialist thinker who stood up for the poor.
Benn advocated radical democratic reforms of existing state structures. He knew the establishment intimately and his agile brain was constantly devising ideas for radical legislative and organizational reforms. He hoped that decisive democratic reforms backed by millions of awakened and conscious souls would one day herald a socialist Britain and a world of peace, freedom and plenty.
Benn saw the new Labor leader Tony Blair as a Thatcherite imposter inside the party. He stood down from parliament in 2001 in order, as he said, "to spend more time on politics!" He spent the last 13 years of his life speaking at meeting after meeting fighting against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He even tried to singlehandedly stop the Iraq war by traveling to meet Saddam Hussein just days before the United States attacked.
Tony Benn was a man who fought against the stream inside the Labor Party and against tide of world politics. He did so at a time when socialism appeared to be discredited after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. But since the Great Recession began in 2007, Tony Benn's ideas have acquired more relevance to the fate of the Labor Party than ever.
Tony Benn died peacefully with his family on March 14, 2014, aged at 88.
Millions of people are mourning his death. They recall his energetic and optimistic words, encouraging the people to organize, to unite their struggles, and to bring about socialist change.
He mastered the rhetorical arts, with a classical English voice expounding socialist ideas in clear and simple terms. He could capture the collective mood of huge crowds, unify their consciousness and offer them simple and truthful explanations that would also be a call to action. His voice will echo down the ages in British history.