Fighting back with true democracy

The Independent Archive: 31 May 1988; Tony Benn responds to an attack on his socialist credentials. Labour will have little chance with the electors if the party gives up its heritage, he argues
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PETER KELLNER'S review of my book Fighting Back: speaking out for socialism in the Eighties revealed in a flash all the weaknesses of the revolutionist case which he has espoused so vigorously over the years.

Forced to admit that the socialism which I have long been advocating cannot be used to justify my position as a "totalitarian devil", he has to fall back on the arguments that it is not socialist at all, thus missing the whole point: socialism is about democracy against the abuses inseparable from market forces, and the use of the state apparatus to protect those forces.

Any serious student of the arguments that have been raging inside the Labour Party over the years should, by now, have realised that the Left has always been against the centralisation of unaccountable power, whether it was exercised by multinational companies, the bosses of the state corporations, world bankers, the Brussels bureaucrats, the press lords, the barons of the TUC or the grandees of the Parliamentary Labour Party who expect total obedience and blind loyalty from the party in the country.

It should also be apparent to anyone familiar with the history of the Labour movement that it deliberately chose democracy as the instrument for advance, and that is why the early trade union pioneers, the Chartists and the suffragettes, saw the union membership card and the ballot box as the best routes to political and economic power for those who did not own sufficient resources to meet their own needs.

After the last world war when our economy had been nearly ruined, the Labour government was compelled to use the mechanisms of central planning to rebuild our industrial base and to set up the machinery necessary to make the Welfare State work, but the resulting statism bore more than a little resemblance to Stalinism, not least in the imposition of wage controls from the top, all of which have long outlived their usefulness and acceptability.

Similarly, the abandonment of the rights of self-government by the House of Commons - to the United States in the military field, the Common Market Commission in the legislative field and the IMF in the economic field - have entrenched centralised bureaucracy, and official secrecy, still more firmly. In the process, they have destroyed many of the democratic gains made by earlier generations.

All these new layers of bureaucracy and secrecy have been built upon the unreconstructed feudal basis of the British constitution, which is riddled with privilege and corrupted by patronage on a scale unrivalled by any other democratic country in the world.

Instead of recognising these issues, and coming forward with the remedies that might help to restore the balance in favour of the ordinary people of this country, the new Labour revisionists have decided that the best way to gain political power is to adopt the main outlines of the present right-wing consensus, and boast that they are better able to administer it.

This is both an improbable assertion - given the opinions of most members of the party who reject the values of capitalism - and is unlikely to be very persuasive among an electorate that will vote for a change only if it can see what the alternative would be. It should now be clear that Labour's new policy statements do not really offer any serious alternative at all, committing the party to Nato, to the federalised EC and to market forces as the best method for distributing resources.

I do not believe that Labour has much of a chance of winning the majority it needs by giving up its democratic, internationalist and socialist heritage, and relying on a stream of abuse of the ministers now in charge combined with a continuous repudiation of the Left.

Fighting Back is a record of speeches and articles written during the Eighties at a time when democracy, more even that socialism, has been under attack. If the Labour movement is to recover the high ground in the Nineties, it had better base itself on the advocacy of democracy and give up the illusion that would-be Labour ministers are uniquely qualified to administer the rotten and unjust system they will inherit from the present government.

From `The Independent', Tuesday 31 May 1988. The Law Report returns, with the Law Term, on Tuesday 8 June