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March 14, 2014



He had that autodidact quality of having just got hold of a big simple idea which made everything perfectly clear, and suspecting that anyone who didn't agree with it must be very silly or dishonest. Marxism is (among other things) a big simple idea which makes everything perfectly clear, and lots of people who disagree with it are dishonest, so there was a lot of mileage in thinking like that. But it did grate from time to time. I'm reminded of Jenny Diski's comment on Harold Pinter:

"[his] political declarations ... were always of the astonished variety, as if, having read or thought nothing on the subject previously, he woke up one morning and discovered that there was torture or tyranny occurring in the world beyond. Then he’d pronounce it a bad thing in a poem, a one-act play or a speech to the rest of us who were assumed to be entirely ignorant of such events. ... His rage at corruption and the misuse of power was wholly admirable, but his sense of it as a brand new, unpleasant discovery was odd, I always thought."


"His great-uncle, the Rev Julius Benn, was murdered with a chamber pot by his son, who on release from Broadmoor fathered the actress Margaret Rutherford."

Telegraph obituaries. It's what they do well.

Igor Belanov

@ Phil

I don't think it's at all correct to describe Tony Benn as a Marxist. He never sought to denigrate Marxism, but his political ideology was as eccentric as his life. His convictions and causes seem to be rooted in a far older tradition of radicalism. As an example, his anti-EU stance is very much based on a conception of popular national sovereignty rather than any analysis of capital or classes at a European level. I think in many ways that's where he was lacking. The eclecticism of his position was quite incoherent, involving aspects of the technocratic stance that Jamie describes, with Levelling tendencies and also a commitment to nationalising the 100 leading monopolies.
He did often appear like a teacher, but never a strict one, and I presume that all the abuse he got from the media in the 1970s and 1980s shows that he was at least considered something of a danger in that quarter.


A lot of the anti-EU stuff was actually state of the art economics at the time; he was thinking of the Mundell-Fleming impossible trinity, i.e fixed exchange rate, open capital account, monetary policy control - pick two. He certainly wanted number 3, because full employment, 2 is a basic requirement of being in the European project, and 1 has been to varying degrees and was the common sense of everyone in the UK up to '76 and all that.

If you agree with Robert Gordon about economics having made no progress since 1978, well...


I don't think Benn was a Marxist; I think he had a strong & basically rather un-worked-out sense of what was right & wrong, and seized on Marxism (among other things) as intellectual backup for his intuitions. Which isn't all that different from the rest of us, except that one of the intuitions he was backing up was a kind of meta-intuition, the intuition that he could follow his intuitions to the edge of the map and beyond. That sense of having it all worked out - or, at least, being able to answer any question you might throw at him as if he had it all worked out - made him enormously attractive as an alternative to question-dodgers and art-of-the-possible merchants, but for a politician it was ultimately a weakness rather than a strength. But he was good at what he did, and we do need preachers as well as operators.


Does Tony Benn serve as a counterexample to the rule that military aircrew should never be allowed anywhere near political power?
George W Bush, Jerry Rawlings, Hafez al Asad, Hosni Mubarak, Hermann Goering, Italo Balbo, B-1 Bob Dornan, John McCain, Randy Cunningham...

Richard J

Does Tony Benn serve as a counterexample to the rule that military aircrew should never be allowed anywhere near political power?

And, really, he wasn't for very long. There's also George McGovern, of course.

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