We recall an encounter with Tony Benn, a leading figure on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, who died aged 88 on 14 March 2014 – Editors
In 1992, we organised a speaking tour for Peter Hudis in England and Scotland. Our comrade Patrick Cooper-Duffy (now deceased) had the idea of writing to Tony Benn. To our surprise, Benn sponsored a meeting in the Houses of Parliament. An unlikely setting for a Marxist-Humanist meeting – we all had to pass through a police security check to attend. I recall a very large and lively meeting, whether people had come to hear about Marxist-Humanism, or to see Tony Benn, or to see inside Parliament.
I remember two things Tony Benn said that evening. Firstly, that his friend and colleague Eric Heffer (who had died the previous year) should have been there. Heffer had worked with Harry McShane and been influenced by Raya Dunayevskaya in the 1950s, before becoming a left Labour MP. (The Heffer connection may have been what got us the meeting). At the conclusion of the meeting, Benn said it was rare to hear such serious ideas “in this place”.
It is rare for an elected politician to move to the left over the course of his career, but that is what happened with Tony Benn. By the 1980s, the Thatcher era, he emerged as leader of the left of the Labour Party, an advocate of withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament. He was a real social-democrat, although many of his supporters were Trotskyists or new leftists who were working in the Labour Party either openly or under cover. He took left social-democracy about as far as it would go.
In the 1980s many of the “children of 1968”, former student activists including many Trotskyists entered the Labour Party hoping to capture it for the left. Most of these people either genuinely looked to Tony Benn as leader, or were willing to use him as a figurehead. We were always critical of this perspective as the kind of “shortcut” that turns out to be a very long detour. We saw this as an attempt to take over party, local government and ultimately national government structures with a relatively small body of activists. We believed instead in the need to combine mass movement with philosophy of revolution.
We would disagree with Tony Benn about many things but his invitation to Peter to speak in the Parliament building showed great openness and intellectual curiosity.