1980s >> 1980 >> no-905-january-1980

Socialists Confront Mr Tony Benn

Tony Benn may be the next Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain. Almost alone among the Labour leaders, sunk in a gloom as they are after their party’s defeat last May, he offers a plan for Labour’s future, with an optimism that they will one day once again get power over British capitalism.

So we were surprised when he agreed to be interviewed by the Socialist Standard about his policies and attitudes as he expresses them in his recent book Arguments for Socialism. Defenders of capitalism are notoriously difficult to persuade to match their case against ours. The interview (which Tony Benn preferred to call a debate) lasted an hour and our published account of it has needed to be abridged.

In truth, Benn’s plan for Labour’s revival is little more than a paper thin assumption that, with a few constitutional changes, his party will be able basically to alter its nature. It will, he hopes, be able to throw off its past as a party which has run capitalism firmly in the interests of the capitalist class and begin to run society in the interests of the majority. There is no evidence to support this assumption; indeed after every electoral failure Labour tries to bolster its confidence by telling itself, and us, that it can and will change.

Benn’s political ideas are basically that if there are enough small reforms imposed upon capitalism the system will, in a way which has yet to be explained, suddenly stop being capitalism and become socialism. In the case of Benn, even this shaky argument might have been a little stronger if he had been able to give any idea of what socialism is or even to know whether the Labour Party stood for socialism.

He claims that reforming capitalism is “doing something”, as opposed to socialists who are “pure” and “impotent”. This is a familiar, not to say exhausted, argument – one which continues to exist only because those. like Benn, who put it forward do so by ignoring reality and experience.

The working class have had plenty of time to become familiar with Labour governments and with Labour politicians who – no matter what the effect of their anti-working class policies, no matter how obvious their failures to eliminate capitalism ‘s problems tirelessly assure us that a vote for Labour is a vote for a better society. This, again, flies in the face of reality.

One final point. Benn, as we have said, is a leading politician. But his justifications for capitalism, and his objections to the principles of revolutionary socialism which are uncompromisingly put forward by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, were exactly the same as those we confront all the time, wherever we are and whenever we state the case for the new society of common ownership.

Socialist Standard: You claim to be a socialist and to stand for something which you describe in your book Arguments for Socialism as democratic socialism. Now the Socialist Party of Great Britain also claims to stand for socialism and because of this we are hostile to the Labour Party. So it is clear that we and the Labour Party differ about socialism and what it is. Could you tell us how you define socialism?

Tony Benn: I suppose there are many schools of socialism in this country. There is the Labour Party, which is not particularly ideologically united; there is the Communist Party, there is the New Communist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the International Marxist Group. There are an enormous number of schools of socialist thought and I suppose that discussing socialism is like discussing religion. I think that if you look at British socialism you have to see it in two ways: first of all you have to see those sects of socialist thought, all of which are very valuable, as a means of illuminating what is happening. Then you have to ask yourself a second question: how does the working class movement in Britain mobilise itself for social change by defending its interests against those hostile to it, and how does it secure advances on limited fronts or major fronts? The Labour Party comes in the second category. It is the instrument of the British working class movement but there is no ideological test in the Labour Party. There are people in the Labour Party who in other countries would be Christian Democrats and there are others who in other countries might be communists I suppose — or anything in between and beyond. So the Labour Party has never purported to stand for a particular school of thought and to that extent it lacks the purity the SPGB would like to see. It’s an instrument.

Socialist Standard: That doesn’t answer our question of how you define socialism: you don’t define socialism in terms of a basic change in society.

Tony Benn: In the preface to the book I identify some of the influences in my life that brought me to a view that I describe as socialist and only I can decide how I’m to be classified. But the influences that were present in my life have driven me to conclusions that the structure of society needs to be changed in such a way as to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families. If you want to put it in the classic language: “To secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof as may be obtainable on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Socialist Standard: Could we move on from there and ask you about a specific feature about society which is drawn from your book. The actual statement is: “Investors there will always be.” You follow this up by saying ” . . . but there is no valid reason why the investors’ money should give them first claim to control over those who invest their lives.” Now socialists would argue about the detail of that statement at some length but for the moment we would like to ask you how you would reconcile the existence of investors — which necessarily means other people who work to produce the yield on the investments, in other words exploitation, profit producing — with a system of society which, in any rate in part, is defined in Clause Four as “common ownership”?

Tony Benn: Well, if you have savings in the Post Office Savings Bank are you an investor? If you have money put aside in a pension fund are you an investor? If you are a borrower for the purpose of buying your own house, is there anything wrong in borrowing money that you may yourself have invested in a Building Society? I don’t think that raises the question of socialism at all: the right of people to put aside from their current earnings money that they wish to invest. What really matters is whether that gives them command over the livelihood of others and that is the key difference, as I understand it. I’ve never heard the argument put forward by socialists that it’s wrong for somebody to put aside money from their earnings to provide for their holiday or their retirement. It seems to me to be perfectly compatible with socialism.

Socialist Standard: We don’t think, when you were talking about “investors”, you mean people with small amounts of savings in something like the Post Office. You have to draw a distinction between people in pension funds and the sort of people you’re referring to in your book when you say you came to the realisation that banks and the big financial institutions actually controlled what you did, rather than the other way round. Does your answer mean that you do envisage a socialist society as having investors?

Tony Benn: I think the question really would entirely depend, in this context, upon whether the financial institutions were publicly owned, which I think they ought to be, or not. If you have the pension funds in public ownership and those pension funds then put their money into a publicly owned industry like Leyland for the purpose of expanding motor car production they are investors. What I am saying is that neither the state investor, nor the private investor should have the power to determine matters of industrial policy that are properly the concern of those who work in those firms. I’ve never heard the argument used that socialism would abolish the concept of investment, because investment is the transfer of surplus into future production or into some other socially desirable purpose. The question is, who does it and what are the consequences of it?

Socialist Standard: Socialists—members of the SPGB—would say that your vision, which you call socialism, looks very much like capitalism. In your book you indicate that you think that governments, including Labour governments, failed to affect problems like poverty; in fact you mention something like “we aim to eliminate poverty” and you say a couple of lines later “This is a very old aim.” So if you’re arguing that Labour governments have failed to eliminate poverty and other problems like unemployment which you draw attention to in your book, do you not think this is a basic failure, something to do with the capitalist system of society rather than with personalities in the Labour Party?

Tony Benn: Oh, yes. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with personalities in the Labour Party. In 1959 the Labour Party was persuaded to abandon socialism on the basis that capitalism would always give you growth and welfare, full employment and so on. That was one of the features which explained the failure. Other features you could go into in greater detail, but the main one was that we abandoned the attempt to make fundamental changes. But that no more shakes my confidence in the Labour movement, as the instrument of social change, than a defeat in a general election shakes my confidence in the validity of the ballot as means of determining who should be in power.

Socialist Standard: The argument, surely, is that the Labour Party has been in government roughly half the time since World War II and by your own arguments this “fundamental and irreversible shift in power” has not happened. We can try and put it a bit further; it won’t with a Labour government, whichever Labour government, whether it’s your brand or Callaghan’s brand or whatever. You’re not actually trying to affect the fundamental basis on which society works. For example, nationalisation is one of the things the Labour Party has always taken Clause Four to mean — it was intended to shift the balance of power and it hasn’t done so in the industries which have so far been nationalised. You’ve got to be responsible for the Labour Party; your record since 1945 is one of, on your own definition, somewhat large failures.

Tony Benn: If we are asked to justify our record, as we are, then I must ask the SPGB what it has got to show for its record of great purity and but little influence and political impotence. However we make changes it will take time and we have to be both impatient and patient at the same time. These changes cannot be carried through overnight.

Socialist Standard: Could we take you up on the point of unemployment? In your book the conclusion you come to, having outlined the problem pretty adequately, is to say that we should not lay the blame for what has happened at the door of any individual or any group of individuals. A couple of sentences later you say “These contradictions are fundamental to the economic system under which we operate.” Now that’s what socialists are talking about. We are saying that problems like unemployment are not susceptible to being reformed out of existence. We argue that a basic change in society is needed.

Tony Benn: It’s not due to personalities but it is due to something being fundamentally wrong. If you say that reform had never secured change, how do you explain, for example, the very substantial change that did occur when the Combination Acts were repealed vis-à-vis the role of the trade unions—or the impact upon society, which has been very profound, through the extension of the franchise? I think that to say that reform is always wrong because what is needed is fundamental change entirely misses the point that, to be effective, reform has to be fundamental and this becomes a semantic argument.

Socialist Standard: First of all we don’t think that your reforms are actually doing what you claim they are doing. To put it another way, if the Labour Party got all that you claim it would like to do, that would not be fundamental change. Things are changing every day — there’s been fantastic changes, some of which the Labour Party has helped, some of which it’s held back. You talk about unemployment, say you have got to do something about it but you can’t; ultimately unemployment is one of those inevitable problems which keep cycling up and down in this society. This is what’s happening now, it happened last winter and the Labour Party, even at its best, is not going to stop that.

Tony Benn: That is a view, which  is very common on the ultra-left, based upon pessimism — that doing anything is a waste of time because you’re bound to fail. In some circumstances, as now, we are in a mainly defensive posture, to prevent the destruction of the Welfare State and the rise of unemployment to two or three million. It would be a remarkable achievement for the Labour movement. Our first function, as a representative of the British working class movement, is defensive. At the same time we have then to organise and explain and analyse and mobilise and then win a majority for a change.. Now you can say “If you do all that it’s simply not worth doing. It won’t do anything you describe.” Well that form of pessimism feeds sectarianism because having dismissed the entire Labour movement in which the hopes of the British working class have been put, in one shape or form, for a century, it justifies the view that you should like in a little world of purity and impotence. I’m driven to say that although I don’t think you are either pure or impotent.

Socialist Standard: You accuse of being pessimistic; we would say that what you are doing is confusing, creating a fog, because you’re building up hopes of all sorts of people who are desperate for a change yet you can’t put them in a situation where they can bring about that change.

Tony Benn: What I’m saying is that while the present structure of economic and industrial power remains the problems of our society are inevitable and until we open our minds to a different concept of society we can have Labour governments in office but never Labour governments in power. And we can have Labour governments in power and never have socialism in practise.

Socialist Standard: We urge the working class to learn from their experiences and one thing which is signally clear is that at the moment they are not learning from their experiences. In particular, they don’t learn from their experiences of government. You mention the 1945 Labour government; well you know the sort of policy that government carried out. For example they took the working class of this country into the Korean war, they immediately imposed an attack upon working class living standards, they behaved in the accepted way of any capitalist government. And that has been the history of all Labour governments up to now. Now the socialist attitude is that the working class should learn from their mistakes. Could we tie that up with a point about fundamental change needing consent; we argue that in order to change society there has to be a socialist consciousness. Now do you think that when a Labour government does this sort of thing — when it attacks trade unions, for example, when it attacks working class living standards, when it prosecutes the wars of capitalism, when, in other words, it behaves pretty well like any Conservative government — do you not think that to call that socialism, or to say it has something to offer the working class, does anything but raise consciousness? It causes confusion.

Tony Benn: I draw the same distinction as between the organisation of the church and the christian message, which has survived, despite the organisation of the church over a long period. I don’t regard any human organisation as being capable by its nature of reflecting in a pure form the socialism the Labour Party professes. What I’m saying is that the Labour Party is the only instrument by which socialism can be introduced. Socialist governments have had some successes and some failures. I’ve never argued that Labour governments are socialist in themselves but they are the instrument through which socialist ideas can be introduced.

Socialist Standard: It looks to us just the opposite. If you didn’t know the names, didn’t know who was who, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. If you dropped from Mars at the time of the last Labour government and heard Callaghan last winter, how would you tell that that was supposed to be the instrument for introducing socialism? You are asserting what you want to believe; you’ve got your eyes closed to what is really going on in the Labour Party.

Tony Benn: Well that’s perfectly fair comment and criticism. If I’m asked to justify the Labour Party I will look at the resolutions that have been passed by the party Conferences. Those of them that have been implemented embrace real and fundamental socialist concepts. Nobody is going to persuade me that the National Health Service was not a fundamental change in the opportunity and access the people have to good health. The comprehensive schools do represent a fundamental change in the concept of education. Legislation designed to advance trade unionism has fundamentally altered power relationships at work. Now those are only three examples. But to say that the whole thing is a fraud and has been intended to confuse and divert people is to do less than justice to the common sense of the people who support the Labour Party.

Socialist Standard: Do you think, then, that whatever comes out of the current enquiry into the organisation of the Labour Party, a Labour government would ever respond to a decision by your conference which it saw as being against the interests of British capitalism? For example, if the Conference passed another resolution to abandon unilaterally British nuclear weapons, weapons which a Labour government thought, as all Labour governments have thought up to now, are very necessary to British capitalism — do you really think they would scrap the weapons?

Tony Benn: Well if you’re saying that democracy is impotent in the Labour Party, and is destined to be impotent in the Labour Party, you’re saying that democracy is impotent everywhere. If the Labour Party, by changing its Constitution so that its leader is accountable, its policy is determined by its members, its MPs can be reselected — if you are saying that all those things are destined to fail, you are saying that there is something inherently wrong about the Labour Party, that even if it adopted your policy en bloc it could never be capable of implementing it. And this again is a form of institutional pessimism which I simply can’t accept.

Socialist Standard: If the Labour Party adopted our policy en bloc it wouldn’t then be the Labour Party — it would be a different party, that would stand for socialism. You see, the SPGB says — we want socialism. We define it very clearly, we talk about a world common ownership society with free access, voluntary co-operation. That’s the society we are after. We are not a “broad church”, we are not a broad movement, we are after socialism and nothing else. Now you say you want fundamental change but on the other hand you also say you want what the Labour Party wants. Now a lot of members of the Labour Party, as you know, are not for fundamental change at all. They are for very small reforms because that is the way they see the Labour Party making progress. But we would like you to be specific about what fundamental changes you want.

Tony Benn: Well I’ll do the best I can, but I will be referring to policies that have been adopted by the Annual Conference which are: that the crisis of investment has got to be resolved by diverting the nation’s savings to re-equip the nation’s industry in circumstances that are accompanied by, and indeed promoted by, expansion of public services. We want a society where all those who exercise power are accountable to those over whom they exercise it. Now you might say that’s a very generalised phrase but it’s no more generalised than saying we want a world full of good people to work with each other because that’s the “second coming”. In any circumstances I can foresee for the next century or more, any little bits of socialism you create will be operating within a hostile sea of capitalism or fascism or international control of some kind or another. To reject the idea of piecemeal changes because there has not been a total change can become an excuse for not even trying. I’m arguing that socialism is always going to be piecemeal advance towards a change because you do not have it within your capacity to make the big change at once, which could not in any case be made without winning people’s hearts and minds to the benefits of little changes, and that has got to be done in other countries as well. I will accept that your dream world is broader than my dream world but my dream world is perfectly capable of encompassing yours. I don’t quite understand how your dream world would help me in trying to deal with the day to day problems of the people I try to represent.

Socialist Standard: The case for socialism is not a matter of pessimism or a dream; at the matter it is a matter of diagnosis. In answering the question about fundamental change you promptly started to talk about piecemeal change and that really is the whole kernel of it. There have been centuries of attempts at piecemeal changes — some of them you discuss in your book — and yet capitalism today is as terrible a system to live under as it ever was. The working class still have tremendous problems and there are still people like yourself who are putting forward policies to deal with them. Now our diagnosis of that situation is that capitalism has outlived its usefulness and all organisations — and we include them all in this — are going to fail if they don’t recognise that basic fact. So we say, as part of our diagnosis, the remedy comes next: a fundamental change in society, a social revolution, and that is something the Labour Party has never stood for.

Tony Benn: All I’m saying is quite simply that if you are going to make an advance you have got to be prepared to tackle problems on a piecemeal basis, by which I mean discrete areas that you change.

Socialist Standard: I’m glad you’re not a doctor. I wouldn’t go to a doctor who said that, when I had a problem, tackle that problem just as it comes up. We are saying that the logic of your argument leads, not to socialism but to different forms of capitalism. By establishing socialist society we will not be chasing after all these little problems one after another, which is what you advocate. We will be actually changing the society which causes the problems.

Tony Benn: But you skip the whole problem of how you create a socialist society. You simply say — “If things were different, you would have a better life.” It is no good me going to somebody and saying “If things were different you wouldn’t be out of work, your mother wouldn’t have to wait two years for an operation”. They want to know, how do we make it different? And frankly, if I as a minister approached the problems that way, there would have been no interest at all. If people simply went to ministers and heard this interesting lecture about how under socialism it would be different and then were sent away with our problems round our necks, it would be a disaster.

Socialist Standard: You are saying that a socialist can’t exist in a Labour government, which is absolutely correct. Or in the Labour Party.

Tony Benn: Well, anyway I’ve enjoyed it very much. A stern cross-examination.

Ralph Critchfield

Ronnie Warrington