Tony Benn Talks Socialism to Mark Hayes
MH: Can you identify what you believe to be the core values of socialism?
TB: Partly of course it is about fairness and justice. Take for example a strike. You start off thinking about why the managing director has the right to cut wages or lay people off and then you begin examining the power structures. Remember it was only when trade unionism came along that the ‘mob’ became ‘the movement’. For hundreds of years the working classes were referred to as the mob, but demands became expressed through the movement, the right to vote, representation through a political party and so on. So it is about justice, and it leads to a very basic question: are we a jungle or are we a community? Until you get that straight you can’t make sense of anything. Socialism corresponds to peoples’ real interests and has an international appeal. Socialism has a moral basis, an analytical base and a practical contribution to make. It is about bringing private capital under democratic control.
MH: Given the fact that the New Right has dominated the political agenda for the last two decades, taking into account the context of global capitalist development, the collapse of Communism in the east and so on, do you not think that this has invalidated socialist ideas?
TB: No. There have been two experiments in socialism if you look at the twentieth century. The Soviet Union, because of historical circumstances, never had a democratic base, no basis of consent. On the other hand the Social Democrats have abandoned socialism and have adopted capitalism. But look at the NHS for instance, it is the most socialist and most popular policy that Labour ever introduced, to take health care away from market forces and provide on the basis of need and not wealth. People love it. You can’t just wash socialism away, and you cannot repress an idea.
MH: There has been a tendency to conflate Marxism with Soviet style Communism, but do you believe that Marxism still has anything to offer in terms of analysis?
TB: Of course. Marx identified a conflict of economic interest between those who slog their guts out creating the wealth, and those who own it. Like Galileo or Freud or Darwin, Marx was one of the great teachers. And interestingly, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is now becoming fashionable for some academics to discuss Marxism.
MH: Do you think there was anything of value in the Soviet experience?
TB: Yes but I feel the collapse of Stalinism liberated socialist ideas, it separated socialism from the gulag and the KGB. However, although I never supported Joe Stalin, the existence of an anti-capitalist super-power changed history. Without it the western states would never have given up their colonies, and the Establishment would never have conceded the welfare state. The fear of precipitating Communism was a powerful factor here, and the Communist experience developed a range of ideas of permanent value. Now the Soviet Union has gone, capitalism and imperialism are back again.
MH: You mentioned Social Democracy earlier, can I ask you what you make of the New Labour project?
TB: In 1997 the people wanted change but the Establishment didn’t want change so they saw in Blair the continuation of the Thatcher project. Major was weak and the Tories were divided, but Blair could carry forward the dismantling of the welfare state. Blair wanted to eliminate Clause IV in order to get the support of the City of London and it was of immense symbolic significance. Blair is the most passionate advocate of global capitalism, and the project is to administer capitalism under American supervision. Blair would like to break the link with the unions and eliminate the socialist tradition.
MH: What about the ideas which apparently animate New Labour, Anthony Giddens, the ‘Third Way’, market socialism and so on?
TB: Well Giddens is like the Millenium Dome, a vast space covering nothing! The ‘Third Way’ is just a phrase to cover a vacuum. There is nothing there to argue with. As far as ‘market socialism’ is concerned, well no-one is in favour of nationalising every corner shop but the so-called ‘commanding heights’ of the economy should be publicly owned. The democratic process should control the vast companies, bankers and speculators. What’s wrong with securing for workers the full fruits of their industry? And common ownership is not necessarily about top-down nationalisation, it’s about municipal co-operatives, trade union veto on the excesses of the free market and so on.
MH: But if the New Labour has rejected socialism and introduced an ideological change which may well prove to be irreversible, why stay?
TB: Yes, but look at Scargill. I love him dearly, and he is one of the very finest trade unionists. But he is absolutely on his own, in a tiny party. The trouble is that there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists! It’s like religious sectarianism, engaging in disputes over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. That is not the way forward, and I am in the Labour movement – I am not New Labour. New Labour took over after an entryist coup.
MH: There is no doubt that New Labour has disappointed its core constituency, and may well not be able to sustain its electoral success. In this context there is always the threat from the extreme right posing as the ‘radical’ alternative. How do you see this situation developing?
TB: That is the real danger if people get despondent, despairing and cynical. That’s when the Hitler, Mussolini or Haider come along and offer to solve the problems. I can remember Mosely and the Fascists marching through East London and it was very frightening. I read Mein Kampf again recently and you can see the appeal of blaming it all on the Jews, and how attractive it was to unemployed German workers. At the back of my mind I can’t help thinking that this ‘Third Way’ spin-doctor politics might pave the way for something like that. Were that to happen, of course, the only force able to stop it would be the labour and trade union movement, which is itself being dismantled. That worries me. New Labour could be the mid-wife of a sort of hard-right government by destroying the very movement that could prevent it happening.
MH: One of the key principles of your political perspective has always been your internationalism. Can you comment on how that corresponds to your persistent opposition to the European Union?
TB: I am a European, and I am not a nationalist, but I’m not going to be governed by bureaucrats and bankers. I’m not a Euro-sceptic in the same sense as Hague, who believes that money should run the world and sees the Commission as an interference. Mine is a democratic argument. There should be no over-riding political power by unelected bureaucrats.
MH: Your arguments might be very powerful, and may even resonate amongst large sections of the working class, but in the absence of any political vehicle to articulate your objectives, you are facing an uphill struggle.
TB: Yes, but I am not a pessimist. We have to start at the bottom again and build things up from below. Underneath things are moving, and the audience for common sense socialist ideas is enormous. Political parties make all sorts of promises but we should make demands. Trade Union rights, decent wages, full employment and so on. We need to give electoral politics some substance. Nothing is inevitable, but look at apartheid fifty years ago, the whole thing crumbled. When the demand is strong enough Parliament will come into line. So we need to be optimistic, if I wasn’t I would jump off the top of Big Ben, if I had the energy to climb it.