It was four years ago this week that Tony Benn died. He was one of Labour’s greatest ever MPs, socialist thinkers and socialist activists.
That’s why he was demonised in the right-wing press and why The Sun referred to him as “the most dangerous man in Britain.”
Benn encouraged me and countless others. I will never forget when, as a young Labour activist, I received a Christmas card from him, which simply said “Keep on Going!” I and many thousands more did just that.
As someone who put the principles of solidarity into practice, Benn supported the miners during their strike in 1984/5.
As a committed internationalist, he was president of the Stop the War Coalition, tried to prevent the invasion of Iraq and argued for justice for the Palestinian people.
His championing of anti-imperialist causes was a life-long commitment. He was a leading figure in the Movement for Colonial Freedom that campaigned energetically for an end to British colonial rule in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
As a radical democratic socialist, Benn believed that our job wasn’t just to manage capitalism but to change society.
Announcing that he would be standing down as an MP he said: “I have planted quite a number of little acorns. They have grown into oak trees.” It’s no coincidence that he also said that Corbyn was one of his favourite MPs.
Like the anti-war movement before it, this socialist movement we are part of now, with Corbyn as Labour leader, is one of those oak trees grown from acorns planted by Benn and his ideas.
Tony’s ideas were shared at public meetings, in Parliament, on demonstrations, in the priceless historical record that are his Diaries and, of course, in his regular Morning Star column.
Indeed, his Morning Star columns were brought together in book form in 2003 in the excellent Free Radical — New Century Essays.
Flicking through that book after a number of years, the breadth of his interests, activities and thoughts is striking — the importance of the role of the trade unions in society and in our Labour Party, PFI and disastrous privatisation, animal rights, inequality nationally and globally, the true nature of the free market fundamentalism of neoliberal economics, the still unfinished historical journey towards a democracy that truly puts people and communities in the driving seat, the ongoing struggle against racism and discrimination and for civil liberties, along with war and peace in the Middle East and around the world are just some of the key issues he gets to grips with.
The book is perhaps the best thing to hand to someone who wants to quickly cut to the chase of the ideas of Benn and the socialist political current in the Labour Party that was led to Corbyn becoming party leader.
Benn’s long and productive life didn’t extend to him being around to see — and be part of — the rebirth of social democracy and socialism as popular mainstream political forces here in Britain since Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015.
Benn never gave up hope that this kind of movement could happen here and he never gave up working to make it happen. It’s a shame that he can’t be here with us to take it all in and to help to further shape it in the years ahead.
However, his speeches, articles and interviews remain a great source of political education for us all, both longstanding activists and people who are relatively new to our movement.
The political current of which Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the fighting trade union movement are all a part of didn’t spring up overnight.
The socialist and internationalist ideas of Benn and the campaigns and groups in which he was a leading light were a key part in the journey that has led us to where we are today as a labour and trade union movement.
Nothing that Corbyn and the labour movement face now would have surprised Benn, but, thanks to his and others decades-long labours, we are now in a moment in history where socialists and the mass movement in support of socialist policies are in a better position to fundamentally change our society for the better than has been the case since 1945.
Of course, it won’t be easy but they call it a “struggle” for a reason.
The best tribute we can pay to Benn is to continue to fight for socialism and peace just as he did.
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