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Submitted by david kirk on Tue, 18/03/2014 - 13:55

I am disappointed with Sean's obituary of Tony Benn.

It isn't what Sean says is untrue, no doubt it all is but i think it misses key aspects and episodes of his political life that are significant. The general tone and vision of the left in the 80s that Sean conjures could mislead comrades on Socialist Organisers work at the time and its relation with Tony Benn.

Firstly I think two key periods of his life are glossed over. The first is his experience in cabinet in the 1974-79 government. As Secretary of State for industry in 1974-75 he talked about supporting workers control and proposed the workers co-ops as a model to stop closures. This was influenced by events at Lucas Aerospace and the factory occupations at the time. His version of workers control was not about seizing the means of production across the board but a method of saving ailing companies under capitalism. The frustrations of government in this period radicalised Benn a long with many in the Labour Party. This period warrants analysis even if to show the problem with Tony Benn's approach.

Secondly is the period from Labours defeat in 1983 to the Kosovo War in 1999. During the period he began to published his Diaries and doing his tireless speaking duties on any platform that would have him. I don't think I am alone in hearing him as a teenager making a clear and eloquent case for socialism and criticising in witty terms the direction of the Labour Party. For all his faults he inspired and convinced many mainly young people to be socialists and republicans and that socialism flowed out of the battle for democracy . This was the period when "New Realism" dominated the union leadership and figure after figure on the left capitulated to Blairism, liberalism etc. He also in this period, despite his age and background often argued for liberation issues as a key democratic concern not on the basis of post structuralism, identity politics or relativism. Maybe for older comrades it wasn't quite so clear how important that work was. His Diaries also for good or ill were widely read and influential amongst young people interested in politics.

There is also a problem with how Sean talks about the left in the 80s. Firstly many of the left orthodoxies Benn adopted in the 70s were also held by us at the time. Pretty uncritical support for the Provos. Seeing something progressive in the Soviet Bloc as opposed to the West. Anti Imperialist support for dictators in the developing world. We moved away from that Benn didn't. That needs to be said.

Secondly Sean's description of a rotten decomposing left of the 1980s maybe with hindsight accurate but would suggest that we stood aloof from it struggles like say the RCP. Whereas the Socialist Organiser actually was a major actor on the Labour Left in the 80s and influenced much of the leftward tide in the Party that Benn was the figurehead of and sometimes collaborated with. Its my understanding that we were key movers behind his deputy leadership campaign. If the miners strike had been won, if the Militant in Liverpool had not capitulated and if the anti union laws had been resisted (all if which were possibilities) the left would not have been doomed to impotent decline. The remaking of the left and cleansing it of Stalinism would have been easier in a lively movement on the advance rather then in disorderly retreat.

The universal adulation of Tony Benn needs to be punctured but if we publish such a narrow and pessimistic account it will not convince those readers of our papers we seek to reach.

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