Book Cover

Alan Freeman’s classic analysis of Tony Benn and his role in the labour movement is sympathetic but critical, and remains highly relevant, argues James Doran

The Benn Heresy

Alan Freeman, The Benn Heresy, foreword by Owen Jones (Pluto 2014, ebook, new edition), 209pp.

Alan Freeman’s book on the rise of Bennism and its heretical demands for greater democracy is a sympathetic account of Tony Benn’s political evolution, and it was originally published in 1982. The republication of The Benn Heresy comes with new material written after Benn’s death last year; a foreword by Owen Jones and a preface and substantial postscript by the author.

Freeman is not concerned with a typical political biography, though the book does detail Benn’s career as a politician. Rather, the book aims to situate him and his ideas in the context of class struggle; what matters to Freeman is the material interests at play, and his exposition of Benn’s thinking is both critical and partisan.

The historical context

Jones notes the media portrayal of Benn in his latter years – a kindly old man committed to peace and social justice, but without the realism necessary to succeed – and, like Freeman, he is keen to challenge this depiction of Benn as an impractical idealist, to be tolerated but ignored. At the height of his career, he was thought of by the British elite as a threatening figure capable of leading a movement which could overturn the establishment. Bennism echoed the concerns of an earlier tendency within the Labour Party, Bevanism, which also mobilised the support of radicals at the party’s grassroots.

Bennism, like Bevanism, was centred on a leading member of the parliamentary Labour Party and was eventually blamed for Labour’s electoral woes by the moderate leaders of the party. Neither insurgency succeeded in changing the orientation of the parliamentary party’s leaders from managing the capitalist state to using parliament to energise and empower extra-parliamentary forces capable of democratising the major institutions in society.

Freeman starts the book with the end of Bevanism – the speech given by Bevan to the Labour Party conference of 1957 in which he sided with the leadership on the question of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the years which followed, Bevan died and those around him like Harold Wilson became the new leadership of the party.

Unlike Bevan, Benn did not flinch at the prospect of a difficult struggle. It is perhaps why, unlike Bevan, his legacy within the Labour Party is much more contentious.

From moderate to radical

Benn’s first heresy was his fight to reject a hereditary peerage when his father died in 1960. He wanted to remain as an elected politician, as long as his constituents allowed, in the House of Commons, rather than serve permanently as unelected peer in the House of Lords. This belief in democratic accountability led him to be radicalised by his experiences as a minister in government. It was a reversal of the traditional route from radical MP to moderate minister. Benn was alarmed by the unelected power of senior civil servants within the state and the top bosses of banks and big businesses, who had more power than elected officials.

The criticisms that Freeman makes of Benn’s intellectual development are tempered by support for Benn’s project of democratising the Labour Party and championing struggles from below.

From minister to militant

Labour won office in 1974 at a time of significant industrial unrest: the strength of the trade union movement had effectively ensured the defeat of the Tories. However, the post-war boom was at an end and the global economy entered a recession.

Those in the Labour Party like Tony Crosland, who had argued in the 1950s and 1960s that the political settlement of the post-war consensus represented a kind of post-capitalist era, were proven wrong. Crosland suggested that because a welfare state has been created and nationalised industries existed, capitalism had become something else – he suggested ‘statism’ as a more apt description.

Yet, the capitalist class had not been abolished, it remained the ruling class. And at a time of crisis, forces were unleashed to overturn the model of a mixed-managed economy with a cross-party commitment to full employment and controls on the credit-creating power of the financial sector. The government of Ted Heath tried and failed to take on the unions, but the belief was growing amongst Conservative politicians that the problem was the power of organised labour, and that the post-war consensus had to be broken.

From Benn’s perspective, the end of the post-war boom demonstrated the power of the capitalist sector to determine investment decisions without regard to the development of society or the growing demands from below for economic democracy. He had moved from being a moderate to join the Labour left in calls for anti-capitalist policies.

An alternative economic strategy?

Labour’s programme for government was resisted by the state and by big business. The party’s parliamentary leadership became divided between a majority who wanted to cave in and a minority, led by Benn, who wanted to move in and tame the City, and empower workers who were resisting de-industrialisation by taking over workplaces. Proposals for a system of industrial democracy and greater public ownership were both successfully resisted.

Hit by a severe economic crisis, the Labour leadership found a solution that did not involve the minority being expelled from the cabinet and an open assault on the labour movement being declared. The British state secured a loan from the International Monetary Fund which was conditional upon the abandonment of Labour’s programme. Thus a change of political direction was presented as mere economic necessity.

An upsurge in radicalism within the Labour Party followed the electoral defeat of 1979. In the 1980s, a number of revolutionary socialist groups worked alongside reformist socialists within the Labour Party – the most famous of which was Militant, now the Socialist Party; Freeman was a member of the IMG.

Labourism and the death of DIY reformism

Unlike today, when a Labour government implementing austerity is likely to lead to radicals permanently exiting the party, the crisis of the 70s saw a renewed attempt to get Labour to change from within. If an alternative economic strategy could not be delivered by changing the policies the party was committed to, then the people implementing the policy had to change.

Benn allied himself with Marxists in the Labour Party, defending their right to participate against calls for the expulsion of militants. This was another of Benn’s heretical beliefs – that revolutionary socialists were welcome in the party, and could provide the insights necessary to win Labour to an alternative political strategy which would allow the alternative economic strategy.

For sympathetic critics like Tony Cliff, who believed socialists should organise outside of Labour, Bennism represented an attempt to remedy the demise of ‘DIY reformism’. If workers could no longer win reforms outside of parliament at the point of production, due to the offensive by employers, then reforms would be sought through electoral means.

Efforts to ditch MPs who had not respected the party’s manifesto eventually resulted in a split by ‘moderates’ and the creation of the Social Democratic Party – heavily funded and supported by capital, but ultimately unsuccessful in its own right. The split made it harder for Labour to defeat the Tory governments of the 1980s, and that was its purpose.

The end of parliamentary socialism?

Freeman’s book was written before the full implications of Bennism became apparent, but his postscript in this new edition does address events during the intervening years. Though Benn did not shrink from socialist politics, the electoral defeat of 1983 allowed Labour’s moderates to rewrite history.

By the time Benn left parliament – to devote more time to politics, as he said – the Labour Party was no longer constitutionally committed to common ownership and popular management of the economy. The mandatory re-selection of sitting Labour MPs was no more and the party’s annual conference no longer debated and determined policy.

During the 2010 leadership campaign, Ed Miliband was accused by Blairites of being the Bennite candidate – which was strongly denied. The comparisons are limited, in any case: Miliband reneged on a pledge to democratise policymaking as party leader, and if he becomes Prime Minister it is certain Labour will pursue continued austerity in government.

Whilst his leadership has been dogged by criticisms of his appearance and rumours of coup-plots from within his cabinet, the times in which his personal polling have been highest are when he has taken populist positions which threaten vested interests – such as his call for an energy price freeze for consumers. Were he inclined to go further, his leadership would be challenged.

‘Join our ropes together’

Freeman’s postscript reminds us of the social movements which Benn embraced – the women’s movement, the movement for LGBT rights, and the peace movement – at a time when moderation would have meant standing at a distance from those struggling for justice.

What now for ‘digital Bennites’ like Owen Jones? We have grown up in an era in which Labour’s members and voters have declined under a record period of Labour government and where, despite his association with the unpopular wars, Blair is held up by the establishment as the ideal Labour leader. Some have remained members because at worst, it has appeared to be an insurance policy against permanent Tory rule; at best, since the party has links with workplaces through the trades unions and a historical commitment to socialist transformation, this might allow significant reforms to be won.

After five years of an austerity programme, affiliated unions like Unite are giving continued support to the party as an insurance policy against continued Tory and Liberal Democrat rule. This is not because they believe that a majority in the parliamentary Labour Party are staunch defenders of the working class, but because it is the only game in town.

Freeman observes that if ‘Labour is prevented from becoming the Party of the People, we will only have to make another, confronting all the same issues but starting from nothing. Benn identified a historical opportunity to avoid this giant detour. Even if the detour is taken, his legacy will be as necessary as ever.’