Yanis Varoufakis: Tony Benn – In Memoriam

By Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens. Cross posted from his blog

Tony Benn’s passing saddened and concentrated my mind. His was the voice that resonated with (a much younger version of) me most powerfully immediately after I moved to England in 1978. I was attracted instantly to the combination of: his commitment to the progressive history and potential of British Parliamentarianism, his passionate anti-imperialist pacifism, his relentless socialist critique of capitalism, and his stupendous eloquence. But there was something beyond that: He stood opposite Mrs Margaret Thatcher as one of the few members of the opposition interested in, and capable of, conviction politics. In an age of increasing spin, Tony Benn was solid in his support of political causes independently of political expediency. He was a rock rather than a weathercock.

Tony Benn’s was a disturbing voice on Europe. Unlike his colleague on the Labour Left (and my good friend) Stuart Holland, Benn was deeply sceptical of Brussels and of the whole European Union enterprise. He opposed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community and maintained what might be called a Euro-sceptic stance throughout his political life. But, and this is crucial, his Euro-scepticism was based on radical solidarity with the people of Europe, as opposed to UKIP’s xenophobia or the Tories’ thinly disguised superiority complex. He believed that Brussels was a fundamentally anti-democratic set of institutions whose increasing power would be detrimental to the interests of Europe’s peoples. Recent developments, I fear, suggest that Tony Benn’s left-wing assessment was on history’s right side.

My only meeting with him took place during the miners’ strike of 1984. It was brief. But it allowed me a glimpse of the man’s warmth, passion and intellect. Those were sad times, as we were witnessing the wholesale destruction of communities around Britain that never recovered since, the result being the rise and rise of the spivs whose rule remains, more or less, uncontested to this day.

Tony Benn ended up a defeated political giant. But his defeat I feel as mine too. It is the defeat that has allowed neoliberalism to drag our societies into a deep and terrible mire. Now, without Tony Benn, it is also a hollower mire.

Benn’s parting shot from Parliament, when he decided not to contest the 2001 election, was a classic: “Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so”, he said. I often plagiarise him when asked whether I shall stand for Parliament in Greece, declaring that I shall not be doing so because I need to dedicate as much of my time to politics as possible.

I finish off with two other typical Bennite quotes:

“I opposed the Suez war, I opposed the Falklands war. I opposed the Libyan bombing and I opposed the Gulf war and I never believed that any of those principled arguments lost a single vote – indeed, I think they gained support though that was not why you did it. What has been lacking in Labour politics over a long period is a principled stand.” (1992)

“We are paying a heavy political price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-peddled our advocacy of socialism.” – Speech to the 1976 Labour Party Conference

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  1. Clive

    The best tribute I can pay is that Benn’s inherent belief in human rights (that’s become such a tired cliched catch-all term these days, but it is a legitimate use for it here) and basic, immutable human decency shone through in everything he said, everything he did and every cause he championed. Through Benn — and a tiny handful of others like him — I gradually came to see that, child of Thatcherism that I was (and, I’m ashamed to say it, whose political philosophy I for far too long believed in), I’d lost sight of a basic truth that people and their welfare are more important than money.

    I think Benn disliked sentimentality so I’ll spare it here; suffice to say, Rest in Peace Tony.

  2. PaulArt

    For those who think, what can a few leaders do? The nexus of Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin along with their bankster bandits that brought about the neoliberal revolution should be a lesson to heed. It was a noxious plague which has traveled far and wide afflicting all in its wake starting first with Tony Blair. One hopes that in this same way a new cadre of leaders will emerge who will lay to waste the current 0.1% the world over.

  3. DakotabornKansan

    Former Labour MP Tony Benn clearly elucidated how Americans have forgotten what it means to have a truly representative government:

    “Because people in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote…. If the poor in Britain or the United States turned out and voted for people who represented their interests it would be a democratic revolution. So they don’t want it to happen. So keeping people hopeless and pessimistic…. See I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all, frighten people. And secondly, demoralize them. An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern, and I think there’s an element in the thinking of some people – ‘we don’t want people to be educated, healthy and confident because they would get out of control.’ The top 1 percent of the world’s population owns 80 percent of the world’s wealth. It’s incredible that people put up with it, but they’re poor, they’re demoralized, they’re frightened and they think perhaps the safest thing to do is take orders and hope for the best.”

    “Poor people never, or hardly ever, ask for an explanation of all they have to put up with. They hate one another, and content themselves with that.” – Louis-Ferdinand Céline

    “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” – Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

    “Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

    “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.” – Franz Kafka

    Benn’s frankness and integrity – so absent in the today’s world’s leaders – will be sorely missed.

  4. diptherio

    At the opening ceremony for Nepal’s first public university (Tribhuvan U), the reigning monarch is said to have quipped that as he cut the ribbon to open the new institution, he was also cutting off one of his own legs. Meaning, of course, that educated people are unlikely to accept a monarchy for long. It took a few generations, but the kings fear proved to be well founded. His nephew was deposed in 2008 (iirc).

  5. allcoppedout

    Benn was a lovely guy who got a lot right. He was often vilified as a ‘dangerous nutter’, even in the Labour Party. He often commented that the EU was even less democratic than the Soviet Politburo. Even now the press are telling us that the UK 1983 election was lost because of Labour’s ‘left’ manifesto with no mention we were duped en masse by Thatcher’s war drum.

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