RIP Tony Benn: A Dangerous Man, Right to the End

Pipe-smoking, tea-drinking: the man was all British. Flickr / Rollingstone64 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’m really, really going to miss Tony Benn. A delightfully devoted politician, a man of a deep and profound conviction, a proud socialist — one of the few of his kind left in the British Labour Party — even though he came to being a far leftist late, only after being an MP for 20 years and having served in the Cabinet.

Today, he is remembered as one of the few remaining great leftist politicians in Great Britain at all. In the wake of New Labour’s dispiriting race for the centre, he was one of the few members of the old guard trying to pull back the other way, to reinvent and reinvigorate socialism.

Benn, after he retired from an extraordinarily long career, was widely regarded as a sort of cheery old man saying nice things about human nature and generosity and sharing. But I think we should remember him as exactly what he kept reminding us throughout his autumn years that he was: dangerous, radical to the core, a man who wanted to change the most basic functions of society. I mean “dangerous” here as the greatest compliment I can pay. That was probably not how The Sun meant it when they asked the question if he was “the most dangerous man in Britain”.

He had incredibly conviction and stamina. He served in Parliament for fifty years and when he left, he described it as “leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics”.

What I think I like about Benn the most is this revolutionary character which you always understood to grow out of a profoundly empathic and caring mind. He always recognized the deep connection between socialism and democracy that the communists never understood. The ultimate socialist idea, as he says in this beautiful, short little video at the Guardian, is democracy. Democracy, done proper, inverts the traditional hierarchies, upsets the rigid power structures of wealth and force, and lets people decide their fates together.

I also subscribe very much to the idea he mentions here that the great struggles are never ended. They keep going and going and going and going until the thing they are fighting over is transformed so fundamentally that the fight ceases to make sense. In a sense, we are still fighting much the same battles as the Chartists, the Sufragettes, the abolitionists. The fights of early capitalist society are still our fights. And Benn was on the right side, always. Humanism and democracy is socialism.

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Edit: The Guardian, obviously, is the place to go to read about this. They have a great obituary and a whole barrage of tributes and videos to watch if you want to know more about him.

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4 comments
  1. Thanks for this – on this side of the pond, this sort of news gets little attention (if any) . So your insights are much appreciated. Anyone who served his country by being an MP for fifty years leaves a great legacy

    • Release said:

      It’s a remarkable kind of dedication. Especially since he was so clearly a “conviction” politician, as everyone is saying in the obituaries (which makes me annoyed that we even have to have a word from that to distinguish it from the other kind).

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