Heroes of the Left - but not ours

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All the obituaries of Tony Benn and Bob Crow have tried to play up their credentials as socialists or, in the case of Bob Crow, with a bust of Lenin in his office, as a communist. The truth lies elsewhere.

Tony Benn is remembered as a courteous, pipe-smoking gentleman, a great parliamentarian and a rousing orator who would fill any hall for the meetings he held after leaving parliament to, as he said, spend more time on politics. He first came to notice for renouncing his hereditary title so that he could pursue a career in the House of Commons. In the 1960s he was in the mainstream of the Labour Party and as a minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments was an enthusiast for the “white heat of the technological revolution”. In the 1980s he turned to the left and this above all is where his critics want to credit him with socialist policies. He certainly continued to stand for nationalisation when it fell out of favour, but that is not socialism. A business taken over by the state still belongs to the ruling capitalist class and the workers it employs are still exploited. In fact the state itself belongs to the bourgeoisie, and not, as Tony Benn would have us believe, to the ‘people’. Economically he stood for a sort of siege economy with strict import controls – his little England, anti-EU views are close to those of UKIP. He stood for nuclear disarmament, one of the policies that only ever thrives in opposition. However many ministers claim such a position, it has no effect on government policy, as the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrate. But it does give the illusion that the state can choose not to be imperialist under the impact of public opinion.

If Benn was a national treasure, as so many of his obituaries have claimed, he couldn’t be a socialist, since socialism (which for us is precisely the same thing when it goes under the less respectable name of international communism) is the sworn enemy of the nation state and of its ‘treasure’ – capital. Tony Benn on the other hand devoted his life to serving the national capitalist state under the false brand of socialism. It is precisely that state that the working class needs to destroy. The radical opposition between serving the capitalist state and fighting for the working class was demonstrated by Benn himself during his spell as energy minister in the 70s, when he directly confronted the unofficial power workers’ strike against Labour’s Social Contract (i.e. government imposed wage cuts). This included a plan to use troops to carry out the power workers’ jobs (i.e., strikebreaking).

Bob Crow, a man who worked on the railways from the age of 16 and lived in a council house despite his £133,000 a year as RMT chief executive, has the reputation of old style radical trade unionist and is credited with the fact that his members have above average pay. He led the union away from the Labour Party in 2004 and the Labour transport secretary, Alistair Darling refused to meet him for 18 months. Aside from that piece of theatre he had the reputation of a very good negotiator with great attention to detail. He described himself as always ready to call a strike, but these were limited token strikes, always secondary to negotiation while enough to keep up his militant reputation. As the Economist states “he did not pick fights he could not win: many of his ‘victories’ were in reality careful compromises” (15-21 March 2014) and despite his reputation he was also “all in favour of co-operating with management” (Bob Crow interview December 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/dec/13/bob-crow-strikes-rmt-union). So was it his militancy that led to rail and tube workers getting above average pay? Here both Crow and the Economist are in agreement that the nature of the industry was key. “Few workers are in the position that RMT members are. Becoming a train driver means hurdling remarkable barriers to entry, which helps keep wages high. And transport, unlike car manufacturing or coal mining, cannot be exported overseas” (Economist) and “It’s not the same playing field, I will accept. Working on the railway compared to working in a call centre” (Bob Crow interview December 2010). It is not that workers with a militant union get better pay, but that the bourgeoisie need an apparently militant union leader to keep a militant section of the working class in line.

Like Benn, Bob Crow also comes across as a pleasant and reasonable man in all the obituaries, and like Benn gets fulsome praise from those who opposed him politically. Like Benn, that does not make him a communist or a socialist, nor even a fighter for the interests of the working class. In fact, the ruling class is highly adept at using the personal qualities of this or that figure as a means of strengthening ideas which are crucial to maintaining the present order: in Benn’s case, the identification of socialism with the capitalist state, and in Crow’s, the illusion that the working class can really defend itself through a more militant form of trade unionism, when in reality the unions everywhere are the capitalist state’s last line of defence.

Alex 15.3.14