New Internationalist

Interview With Tony Benn

July 1996

Alan Hughes talks to the inspirational voice of the radical left.

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'Democracy is what we do, it’s not what they do to us' Vimeo.com/Gresham College under a Creative Commons Licence

Tony Benn has been an inspirational voice of the radical left in Britain since the end of
the last Labour Government – in which he was a cabinet minister – in 1979, and is currently MP for Chesterfield. He talked to Alan Hughes about his own history and the class system.

AH: There’s this notion that the class system doesn’t exist anymore.

TB: Well I think if you analyse it historically, until Marx came along class was natural: ‘God bless the squire and his relations and keep us in our proper station.’ People talked about it. There was the aristocracy, I don’t know if they talked much about the middle class. There was the working class. Everybody just accepted that. That was life.

Now funnily enough class is coming back, but [with] a redefinition of class, that everyone is middle class. And it is a dominant thing. In the Third World a huge, new, low-paid, non-union working class is being built up in the Tiger economies. The export of production to low-wage countries has taken the industrial working class to some extent out of this country.

So until you understand class you don’t know what’s going on. I mean it’s a map. Before the labour and trade-union movement was organized the working class were the ‘mob’. Then when it was organized it became the ‘movement’. And now they’ve destroyed working-class organizations by legislation and unemployment it’s the ‘mob’ again. Groups of people going around, teenagers stabbing people. Because if you don’t organize the working class then they can easily be represented as mob-rule with their protest and violence. It is potentially extremely dangerous, because if this develops then you end up with fascism. Only fascism is strong enough to deal with the mob in the interests of wealth.

AH: What of this claim, that came out of Thatcherism, that we’ve evened out?

TB: There is a common culture developing to some extent. But of course deprivation is getting worse. I sit in my surgery every week in Chesterfield and whereas when I was first elected it was a matter of clearing up a few little bureaucratic hiccups in the welfare state, now people come and burst into tears; they can’t manage, they can’t live on the money, they’re homeless, they’re single-parent mums. It’s like being a stretcher bearer at the bloody battle of the Somme.

What we need is more confidence and organization among people to improve their own conditions by their own efforts and not wait for some kind, liberal-minded politician to do it for you. Do it yourself, and if you do the whole establishment crumbles. They can’t survive against pressure. The more you press, the more they retreat. The more you capitulate, the more they advance.

And that is the thing that we have forgotten in the spectator politics of a modern democracy, where it’s all the sound bite of the spin doctor on the telly and you sit at home and watch it and that is what’s called democracy. Democracy is what we do, it’s not what they do to us. The more I think about it, the more I think it is really an attack on democracy, because democracy empowers the working class .

AH: Do you think that a truly classless world is possible?

TB: Well, Marx talked about a classless society, and then Major talks about a classless society, doesn’t he? I mean it’s absolutely absurd. But the fact that they still have to regard it as a desirable objective to get re-elected is an indication of the vitality of it. Major’s idea of the classless society is that the honours list is modified. But actually it’s still there. While politicians still have to use the idea of a classless society to show how democratic they are, they must sense that there is a desire for it.

AH: How do you see yourself in terms of class?

TB: Oh, my class origin? My grandfather went to work at the age of 11 as an office boy and ended up as a member of the London County Council. My dad was born in the East End of London and was made a peer at the end of his life, after being in the House of Commons for years, and I came up with a middle-class background.

It isn’t so much your origins, it’s who you work for. I think that’s true about socialism. Socialism isn’t a test of ideological purity. Socialism is tested very simply when there’s a miners’ strike, a printers’ strike – whose side are you on? And so in a sense origins don’t matter. It’s who you work for, who you support. That’s what it’s all about. I think that idea of personal class shift is quite irrelevant. It’s a question of when the miners are on strike – do you support the miners?

Language is a very important part of this. Globalization is being described as if it were the same as internationalism. Globalization and internationalism are quite different. Globalization is simply the overthrow of the world by capitalism, but internationalism is the working class getting together to improve their conditions.

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This feature was published in the July 1996 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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